Subduing and Having Dominion Over the Earth

Historically, Christians have believed that human beings were created as the pinnacle of creation, that everything prior to us was made for our benefit, that we have “dominion” or rule over all of nature (and therefore can pretty much do what we want with it), and that we can enforce this dominant position by subduing or taming nature. We get all of this from Genesis 1:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (emphasis added in bold)

John Calvin’s interpretation of these passages was that humanity is the pinnacle of creation, that everything else was made for our benefit, and that this is inherently linked to our being created in the image of God. In the 1960’s an incendiary article was printed that pointed to the Protestant work ethic (usually identified with Calvinism) and the theology behind it as a primary factor in the rape and destruction of our planet (I can’t think of the title or author offhand), and I can certainly see the connection. If nature exists for human flourishing (to the glory of God), then virtually any exploitation of nature can be justified by human beings gaining from it.

In the past few decades there have been many attempts to re-read this passage and re-write this theology to make it more eco-friendly, and much of it is very helpful. The degree to which this theology needs to be revised, however, is still an issue. For example, it’s very helpful to critique Calvin’s uncritical anthropocentrism, which he assumes with no effort at explanation or justification; yet eco-centrism is also inappropriate, and it’s difficult to dismiss the human perspective and emphasis altogether in a text communicated to humans, written by humans for humans, which culminates in God becoming a human. Yes, be critical and suspicious of anthropocentric readings and theologies, but consider carefully the Christological implications, or the implications for the doctrine of revelation. Along those lines I have a few thoughts on how this passage should be read.

1. The Meaning of Dominion

Calvin’s understanding of “ruling” is quite different from mine. He lived in a time when most countries were still ruled by monarchs who, ideally, had total control of their nations and ruled by force rather than by acclamation, not needing the approval of the lower classes who had far less dignity than them. Further, his understanding of God’s rule over creation was one of intense micromanagement: every single event in the universe happens at God’s good pleasure, ordained by his perfect will in full foreknowledge of the future, working out a perfect plan for all creation to glorify him, which is befitting to his infinite glory and dignity beside which all else is merely instrumental. In this kind of thought, “rule over” connotes power and privilege: human beings, as rulers over creation, have superior dignity and are free to enjoy and exploit those they rule over for their own benefit.

Most attempts to reassess this theology have revolved around the term “stewardship,” using it to replace the harsher terms “dominion” or “rule”. Note that “stewardship” isn’t found in the text above, but it’s implied: a steward is merely one who is appointed to rule in the place of the rightful ruler, so God telling humans to rule over the earth he created is bestowing stewardship. Note also that there’s nothing in this term that necessarily changes the theology: we still rule, it’s just emphasized that this is in God’s place. Because of God’s true dominion, it is suggested that we should treat his kingdom as he would – and our notion of how God treats his kingdom has changed since Calvin’s time. Most interpreters emphasize that God is loving and kind, and that God values everything that he has created, but most of them (that I’ve seen) still fall short of the radical reversal of rule that Jesus showed us (from Luke 22):

And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

Most eco-friendly readings of Genesis still emphasize human authority over creation, but just try to make it nicer, which is terribly insufficient given the radical reversal of authority that Jesus modeled. He was authoritative because he was the one who served. His emphasis was not on power, but on responsibility and service. Christians read Scripture in light of the character and teachings of Jesus Christ, and in that light I find it impossible to see “dominion” or “rule over” creation as anything less than the responsibility for its wellbeing – the total opposite of Calvin’s view, which encouraged us to exploit it for our own wellbeing. Jesus went on to characterize his authority or rule as friendship with his disciples (John 15:15), and told them that there was no greater love than to give oneself up for one’s friends (John 15:13). This is the way that God rules the universe, and as his steward, “ruling over” creation, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that I should be willing to at least inconvenience myself for the wellbeing of the rest of the ecosystem.

Many would argue that Jesus’ example of rule only applies to human beings, and that I’m distorting his example by applying it to nature. I think that this is still tied up in human exceptionalism, or the idea that humanity is the pinnacle of creation rather than (or in addition to) being the caretaker of it. Calvin (and virtually everyone else) saw humanity’s creation last as implying that we were the pinnacle, the climax of God’s creative work, and to a certain extent that’s very true (God said that creation as a whole was “very good” only after humans were created), but we must not forget that the implication of our very creation is that we were created for a purpose, which was to have dominion, which we’ve now characterized as self-sacrificial love and friendship for our subjects. There is a sense in which humans are exceptional, in that we alone are created in God’s image, we alone represent him on the earth, we alone are adopted as siblings and co-heirs with Christ who took on human form (and not the form of an animal or plant); but again, given the inversion of dignity and authority that Christ models, this need not imply that humanity is greater or has more dignity or worth than nature in the traditional/hierarchical sense. Rather, we are exceptional because of the purpose God has given us (to rule as God rules), whereas the old view is that we were given rule because we are exceptional. That kind of anthropocentrism is little more than egocentrism, and has no place in the Kingdom of God.

2. The Meaning of Subdue

Most of the time we only hear the word “subdue” in police reports: police subdued an attacker, easily pictured as a person in authority physically dominating someone under their authority until that person submits to their authority and desists their antagonistic behaviour. The image is obviously negative, forceful, and assumes conflict. Sometimes we also hear the word “subdued”, often describing a boring party or even a funeral, implying that the thing that is subdued is listless, joyless, lifeless. It’s understanding, then, that some eco-conscious interpreters have a serious problem with the idea of human beings “subduing” the rest of creation, much less that this would be a good thing.

For a lot of human history there has been conflict between humanity and nature. Wolves, for example, were hunted to near extinction in many places because they constituted a threat to human settlements, cattle, and even human lives. Even a hundred years ago, a major trope in literature was man vs. nature, with the “wild” being an exotic place of danger and mystery, contrasted with the dignity and order of human civilization. Over the past century, though, in light of the barbarism of human nature revealed in the Holocaust and always-intensifying ecological crises, culture has taken a different view: “the wild” is “God’s country,” a pristine place untainted by contact with the always-destructive humans, a hidden remnant of Eden.

None of these characterizations of nature are fully true, and they reflect much more what we humans think of ourselves than any realities of the natural world, but the point still remains: is it appropriate for humans to interfere with ecosystems? We do have a history of destroying them inadvertently, even when we’re actually trying to help. Perhaps the best thing we can do to care for “the wild” is to do nothing to it at all. This is the philosophy behind nature reserves, huge tracts of land set aside to simply exist with a minimal amount of human interaction. Then again, sometimes it seems that we can help: national parks are often treated as nature reserves, but we also often interfere by reintroducing species decimated by previous human interference, culling invasive species, or performing controlled burns in fire-prone areas. Sometimes our efforts include some level of harm to the ecosystem, and we don’t discover it until decades later; other times we’re actually able to correct our past mistakes, and having learned from nature are able to encourage it to flourish.

Is that really “subduing” the earth? This sounds a lot like the sanitization of “dominion,” doesn’t it? Ultimately, “subdue” means “control” or “bring under control.” The Bible says that God controls a lot of things in nature – usually the things that we’re completely unable to influence, like the wind, the rain, the tides, the snow, the boundaries of the oceans, the quality of the harvest…except that, to an increasing extent, we are now able to influence and even control most of these things. And for the most part, we’re doing it inadvertently as part of our exploitation of the earth, just as we inadvertently harmed ecosystems and eradicated species in the past. Our climate is increasingly out of control because of our actions and habits, and must be subdued.

In this case, subduing the climate means subduing ourselves: if we stop over-consuming, burning oil and burning forests, and even reverse our habits by planting new forests, the climate will calm down. Climate scientists paint an apocalyptic image of what the climate will be like if we pass the point of no return on carbon emissions, and it’s an image of a completely out-of-control climate that makes all life precarious. That is a type of nature that will certainly need to be subdued and brought under control. But if we can subdue ourselves before we hit that tipping point (if we haven’t already – experts are torn on that), then all we need do is leave it be, like the nature reserves. That’s certainly one application of this text, but it doesn’t capture the full meaning of what is meant by “subdue” in the text; it’s really much better to use the image of a garden, as the text itself does.

Genesis 2 says that Adam was put in the garden to take care of it. Those who are critical of the notion of subduing “the wild” are also critical of seeing humans as gardeners. When we think of gardens, we tend to think of the “great” gardens of the world: carefully manicured grass and sculpted shrubs, flowers planted in blocks or patterns of colour, everything uniform and neat. This kind of garden requires the gardener to “subdue” nature in a forceful sense, and while what it produces is beautiful, it is not without violence on the ecosystem. Most species of plants and animals are viewed as “weeds” and “pests” because they break the uniformity of the gardener’s vision, and are eradicated or hunted without mercy. In this model of gardening, most of nature is devalued.

However, along with the growing ecological awareness that leads to re-reading Genesis comes increased (or rediscovered) knowledge of the diversity, resilience, and properties of nature. The great gardens of today are often just as carefully pruned but completely unmanicured, with the gardener’s role being that of providing the indigenous plants with what they need to fully thrive in their natural environment, limiting the influence of invasive species or damagingly overpopulated creatures in order to promote the “natural” equilibrium of an ecosystem. My own yard is planted with indigenous grasses that grow long, and I’m far from meticulous about “weeding” as I know that the plants that grow in the midst of my lawn are part of this habitat; I only pull them when enough of them are growing in a certain spot that they crowd out other plants that would also thrive in that area of the lawn. My lawn was planted with the knowledge that the space it grows in was once “wild” forest, and before that it was orchard (more than forty years ago), and before that it was probably “wild” forest again. Now it’s grass, and that’s a decision that I have made. I have interfered, and what grows there now grows at my good pleasure; I can pull it out, cull its numbers, or subdue it, and I do so with the goal of allowing the whole to flourish in its own beauty rather than bending it to my own view of beauty.

__________________________________________________

I subdue my yard because I love it. I mourned when a construction crew (against my wishes) cleared a large section of my yard as they dug the basement of my house, but we’ve gone out of our way to plant indigenous grasses and wildflowers to attract pollinators, butterflies and bees; we’ve planted local trees that thrive here, of the same varieties that were cut down and cleared out to make room for our house. We’re correcting the mistakes that were made last year, and using our knowledge and power to help our yard find the equilibrium that naturally occurs after many years; with our careful help a small ecosystem can be developed in our backyard within a few years, and we can enjoy the benefits it provides. I consider this ecosystem, somewhat abstract as it might seem, a friend; and I’m willing to work to give it what it needs to thrive. My “dominion” is one of service, and my “garden” is “natural” or “wild” in spite of being “subdued”. Its dignity is not diminished by my own, nor is my dignity diminished by having a “wild” yard; rather, both of our dignities are enhanced when I choose to serve and live in harmony with the natural world that I call my own.

That’s what I see in Genesis, and what I’d like to see in our world.

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7 thoughts on “Subduing and Having Dominion Over the Earth

  1. Interesting reflections, Jeff, thanks. I affirm what you’re saying about creation care, but wonder if Calvin becomes an unfortunate (and unfairly treated) foil to make the point? We have to be careful not to read him in light of modern assumptions. There is a certain anthropocentricism in Calvin, but only within a broader theocentrism. This theocentrism gets lost as modernity unfolds and it’s actually the Deists who enthrone humankind alone as rulers of the earth (God set creation up and left us to run it, without need of God’s direct guidance and ongoing intervention).

    I’ve been reading Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age and he describes this transition in detail. In premodern understandings of the cosmos (including the biblical world), the cosmos was ‘enchanted’ by God’s presence, glory, and providential guidance (along with other celestial and spiritual forces). Within this framework, human beings may well act as stewards and gardeners, but all of this assumes God’s presence and rulership over creation.

    In the transition to ‘providential deism,’ in the modern period, we retain the idea that God is Creator, but redefine God’s action and presence. He is now the great watch-maker, who wound up the mechanistic world, bestowed its laws and forces, and then put humans in charge to rule it. And all it takes to rule it well is autonomous reason, without reference to revelation, faith, or tradition. So, we have the theological anthropocentrism (a kind of critical anthropocentrism in classical Christian thought, subservient to a theocentrism) now reduced to an Enlightenment understanding of rational man at the centre of knowledge and as the pinnacle of creation in a very different sense (increasingly, in the wake of Darwin, in a natural-materialistic-reductionist sense). We have a disenchanted world of progress, reason, and secular humanism.

    Now, we read the Bible’s account of creation and of human beings in that light.

    So, the current “progressive” ecological reading is not really new, but a recapitulation (not quite a return . . . ideas have developed and been clarified in light of modern challenges) of the premodern biblical picture.

    I like what you said about the garden . . . . it’s a helpful balancing image to human beings as stewards. So is the depiction of human beings as priests of creation, which is evident in light of the ANE context of Genesis 1 — and is significant because it implies that failure to care for God’s creation amounts to desecrating God’s cosmic temple. Gen 1-2 mixes images of priest, steward, and gardener in its depiction of human beings.

    In Genesis 2, priest and gardener are actually mixed metaphors, as an article by Peter Bakken, Diane Jacobson, George L. Murphy, and Paul Santmire demonstrates (“A Theological Basis for Earthcare,” Lutheran Forum (Pentecost 1995): 25). The authors note
    that the words ’abad and shamar in Genesis 2:15, while frequently translated “till” and “keep,” are also used in the Old Testament to describe the acts of serving and guarding God’s tent of meeting in the wilderness (e.g., Num. 3:7–8, 4:47; 16:9). Hence the vocation of tending the earth, God’s garden, has a priestly dimension.

    All of this is both to affirm your emphasis on creation care, but also to encourage people to read Genesis and the mainstream Christian tradition carefully. In my experience, most who denigrate either of these (with that narrative that traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs include an uncritical anthropocentricism which encourages abuse of the environment, made famous by Lynn White) haven’t actually read the texts very closely and contextually, i.e., in a responsibly informed way. (BTW, I don’t see you doing this, but responding to those who do).

    Blessings!

    • Thanks Patrick, this is helpful!

      My thoughts on Calvin came from reading TF Torrance’s Calvin’s Doctrine of Man, which as you know I found to be very difficult, as it seemed that Calvin paid occasional but repeated lip service to the inherent value of created beings but then mainly emphasized their contingent or instrumental value: God says that creation is good, but it’s really only there to serve humanity; God says humanity is very good, but it’s really only there to serve God. He’s not wrong, in a qualified way, but the way he said it included a lot of assumptions about relative value and purpose that doesn’t square with things having inherent, non-instrumental value.

      That said, I appreciate your historical view of secularism and how it has changed that conversation over time. I’ve been meaning to read A Secular Age for a few years now, but it’s pretty hefty!

      I really appreciate you bringing up priesthood and garden as temple – I’m not fully versed in that tradition, but what I do know of it suggests to me that earth care is a cultic obligation for all humanity, or certainly at least for the people of God. I’d like to explore it further!

      • Thanks Jeff. I don’t love everything that Calvin wrote for sure . . . but just felt it would be good to emphasize the historical distance between us and him.

        On another note – I’m amazed that you’re able to blog and work on such little sleep. Wow! Blessings brother.

  2. Jeff, I enjoyed this, and agree with Patrick, most interesting reflections –
    the one that really caught my attention as being particularly constructive was:

    “Our climate is increasingly out of control because of our actions and habits, and must be subdued.

    In this case, subduing the climate means subduing ourselves: if we stop over-consuming, burning oil and burning forests, and even reverse our habits by planting new forests, the climate will calm down. Climate scientists paint an apocalyptic image of what the climate will be like if we pass the point of no return on carbon emissions, and it’s an image of a completely out-of-control climate that makes all life precarious. That is a type of nature that will certainly need to be subdued and brought under control. …”

    ~ ~ ~
    I stumble on interesting new thoughts too seldom,
    thanks for giving me something to chew on.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    patrick your comment left my head spinning.

    It sounded like something bouncing around within book pages.

    I ask myself: Why doesn’t anyone talk about the real world outside?
    You know the geophysical Earth…
    and how we are products of its evolution!

    Build that foundation first, then look through those ancient tribal writings.

    It’s our biosphere that has instilled everything we are, into us,
    the “Holy Books” came along waayyy later.
    feeble attempts to help people try to grasp what our human pageant was all about.
    ~ ~ ~

    I’m a simpleton, no scholar here, so I’m coming at this from a totally different prospect,
    one informed by focusing on learning about and striving to appreciate Earth itself
    and what science has and continues to learn
    along with what I have experienced and observed myself.

    All the endless words spilled on interpreting reality through that those ancient dusty texts is hopeless, profit less. Though we do need to attempt communicating with the folks who are trapped within that two-dimensional reality of faith-based thinking.

    I’m not trying to be a jerk or a troll – I’m just saying there is an entirely different way of looking at all this. cc

  3. I want to encourage you to revise your opening sentence. Historically, Christians did NOT see themselves as dominant in that sense of ‘doing whatever we want with it’. I recommend this book “Living in God’s Creation” by Elizabeth Theokritoff, because she goes over the ecological tradition of Christianity from writers in the first 1000 years. Ancient, historical Christian teachings are VERY different than how the last couple hundred years of Western Christianity (not Eastern) sees our role in nature.

    • Thank you Veronika, a very necessary correction! I was thinking in terms of my own (Protestant) tradition, but should be far more careful. I’m not aware of any Catholic doctrines that have had an effect anything like the fabled “Protestant work ethic”, and the Orthodox tradition has a much better integration of humanity in creation. Good point!

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