Essential to developing an ecologically sensitive theology is the necessity of devising a theology of nature. Richard Bauckham sheds some clarity on the concept of nature and how the word is commonly used. He lays out four common usages of the term ‘nature’: (1) essence, such as employed in Chalcedonian Christology, (2) the entirety of the created or observable world as separate from and distinctly different than God, (3) the world (including humanity) in a pre-fall state, and (4) the observable non-human world with a priority towards the natural environment and its relation to human life.
Inherent within the last usage, Bauckham claims, is a presupposed “distinction between ‘nature’ and humanity, or rather, between nature and culture/human history. Bauckham, as well as Rosemary Ruether, Joseph Sittler, Jurgen Moltmann, Stephen Bouma-Prediger, and Ian Barbour cite the nature/history dualism as ecologically unjust and unfaithful to the biblical witness. Bauckham claims that distinctions made between human culture and nature are false. Bouma-Prediger states simply that the dualism assumes that “history is defined as and limited to human history and thereby set over against nature.” Because of that distinction, Bouma-Prediger asserts that traditional theology has allowed “redemption and grace” to “extend only as far as history, i.e., humanity.” The cosmic scope of the work of Christ is diminished within the the history/nature dualism. Rather, Bouma-Prediger affirms with with Joseph Sittler that such an assumption represents a deep misunderstanding, and that “history must be redefined as inclusive of all being and nature must be reconceived as inclusive of human being.” He continues,
These revisions are fully compatible with the claim that Christianity is a historical religion. Indeed they more accurately capture the comprehensive biblical vision of the redemption of bodies, of grace for a groaning creation, and of shalom for all of God’s creatures.
An ecological perspective (for more on this, see my earlier post St. Basil, Ecology, and Fellowship: Part 3) implores us to reconsider the categories of history and nature that are typically mutually exclusive and posit humanity as both different from and over and above the natural world. Humanity must be conceived as a part of nature, thus drawing nature into the realm of history. From this point we can go proceed in either of two directions: the image of God or human dominion in Genesis 1:28. For our purposes here, I’d like to focus upon the imago Dei.
Bauckham states that the writer of Genesis 1 sees humanity as “one of the land animals, created on the sixth day,” yet makes a distinction between them in 1:28, while the writer of Genesis 2 envisions both Adam and the animals as “created out of the ground,” invoking images of God designing clay figures. He claims that in the second creation account nothing distinguishes Adam from the animals. Bauckham alludes to a lack of clarity regarding the intention of Genesis 2:7 to imply that Adam directly received the breath of life from God.
Even if this detail does indicate Adam’s special status in God’s sight, it indicates nothing about human nature which distinguishes it from the animals. However received, the same divine breath animates all things . . .the Old Testament seems to draw no hard line of distinction between human nature and the animals.
Anna Case-Winters would agree with Bauckham, and states, “there is an unbroken continuity with the rest of nature; separation is a false report on reality . . .we are nature.” Traditionally, human dominion is connected to being created in the image of God, based on a hierarchical pattern of creation. On the connection between dominion and creation in the image of God, Bauckham claims that it does not refer “to the dominion itself, but to whatever characteristics of human nature make human beings capable of this dominion.” So instead of Genesis 1:26-28 being read as building dominion into the fabric of creation, with humans ontologically superior to the natural world, Bauckham insists that the writer of Genesis 1 is
starting from the empirical observation that human beings are the dominant species on earth, and providing a theological interpretation of this; that God in creation intended human beings to be the dominant species on earth and intended them to exercise their dominion as [God’s] viceregents, responsible to [God].
Anna Case-Winters offers a critique on the common conceptualizing of the imago dei in regards to theological approaches that seek to firmly establish the imago dei as “what distinguishes the human being from nature,” and what sets humanity over and above nature. When theology is performed in such a manner, she claims,
one suspects an agenda designed to establish human rights to rule and exploit the rest of nature. I think the whole approach to the imago dei needs to be reconsidered. Our present habits of thought have led to separatism and anthropocentrism, which have proven both untenable and dangerous.
For Case-Winters, the preferred approach is rather to draw distinctions around the contributions which “human beings may make to the rest of creation.”
Whether we think of the image of God in terms of intrinsic capacities such as reason/ rationality or the quality of our living in relationship, these admit of more and less and could be seen as placing the human being on a continuum rather than in absolute distinction.
Employing distinctions between human history and nature and excluding nature from history and history from nature has practical/ethical implications as well as influences upon our theology. These two categories must be reimagined in order to create an ecological theology that contains an ethos of love, care, and equality among life. Stephen Bouma-Prediger has summarized five arguments from Rosemary Ruether that highlight the problems of the history/nature dualism and why it ought to be rejected:
1) this dualism is false because the natural world is historical in its own right; 2) this dualism is false because the natural world is indelibly affected by human agency and thus a part of human history; 3) this dualism is false because, as corporeal, humans are embedded in the natural order; 4) this dualism has led to disastrous consequences since it has sanctioned various forms of exploitation; 5) this dualism conflicts with the biblical emphasis on a single all-embracing covenant.
How do the two different accounts of creation influence your understanding of humanity, non-human life, and ethic towards creation? How do you understand the imago dei in relation to the rest of creation?
1.Bauckham, Richard. (1986). “First Steps to a Theology of Nature.” The Evangelical Quarterly, 58 no.3, 229.
3.Bouma-Prediger, Stephen. The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Sittler, and Jurgen Moltmann (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1995), 272.
10.Case-Winters, Anna. “Rethinking the Image of God.” Zygon 39 no. 4 (December 2004), 815.