Let Them Have Dominion

In Genesis, the divine making of humankind in God’s image is followed by God’s giving humankind dominion over creation. Sometimes Christians have mistakenly assumed that the natural world has been handed over to humanity to use for its own purposes. John Passmore offers a trenchant critique of this point of view. He is particularly hard on those approaches that draw upon the biblical tradition to justify a despotic attitude by humans toward nature (Passmore, 1974, pp. 3-27). It is true that influential traditions of Christian belief still flourish that expect the imminent end of the world and therefore see no reason to care for the environment, let alone to safeguard it for future generations. The notion of stewardship is foreign to their thinking.

Such a view is a gross misunderstanding of God and his relation to creation. He cannot “hand over” to humankind the care of his creation. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the orthodox

Christian attitude toward God’s creation is that God saw that it was good and committed himself to its well-being. In view of what we know about the natural world, the potential devastating impact of human activity, and the fact that humankind is itself a part of nature, we need to think carefully about what it means for God to have dominion and therefore the nature of the dominion that he urges humankind to exercise in his name, with his authority. Humankind has no independent authority.

How does God exercise authority? What would it mean for humankind (made in the image of God) to act with the same character. What qualities inform God’s exercise of authority, and how will humankind act in conformity with the authority God has given it? It is easy to conceive of God’s authority on the analogy of human power as if, in contrast with the limitations we experience, there is nothing that God in his omnipotence is prevented from doing. This is not only false as an understanding of God but totally misleading as far as human behavior is concerned.

God does not model himself on human behavior. On the contrary, God acts in accord with his own unique character. When he acts, he reveals himself. Were he to behave in an authoritarian manner, he would be false to his nature of love, since he would deny his creation any possibility of self-awareness: it would only exist insofar as it was possessed by God. But we know that the Creator and the creation are not to be confused. In order to be himself, he will therefore need to exercise his authority courteously by affirming the real being of creation. God’s authority is not demonstrated by the exercise of power over others, though logically it may be the case that God has such absolute power. But that is the point: God chooses to exercise power not over others but over himself. God is therefore omnipotent in the sense that he uses his power to rein in any temptation (if one may use that term of God) that he may have to lose control of himself, be other than who he is, and serve his own interests rather than those of the world he is graciously creating. In other words, God’s exercise of his authority in creating depends on the fact that he liberates creation to act freely of itself in the persons of humankind. God’s authority is authoritative, not authoritarian.

To claim that humankind is created in God’s image is to acknowledge that the fullness of human life will be expressed not in an authoritarian manner but in an authoritative one. Moreover, God has, in his grace, granted to humankind the freedom to control the temptation it naturally has to act in its own interests, ignorant of the nature of the world and without regard to its relationship with God. In fact, humans may choose to neglect this opportunity and so fall into what Christians call “sin.” Even so, as Aquinas affirms, the graced nature of humanity is not wholly erased: freedom to be oneself remains a possibility. When humankind treats the world of creation as a resource to be possessed and spent wantonly on human prosperity, it mistakenly denies the world of creation any independent value of its own. In so doing, humankind not only mistakes the nature of God’s creation but chooses to act contrary to its own nature. As Paul might say, such behavior reduces a human being to flesh, whereas in reality, he or she is a soul, a self with self-knowledge, capable of exercising selfdiscipline because of the reality of the relationship that he or she can enjoy with God.

The human acceptance of the authority of God must be freely and responsibly undertaken. It is more than following orders—“Do as I say because I say so.” If humankind is to grow in the awareness of what it means to be made in the image of God and what that means for the life of humankind, the response to that relationship must be voluntary. After all, there are precious few, if any, “commands” of God whose meanings are transparent; they all need to be interpreted and lived out in responsible experimentation. Nevertheless, it is clear that the biblical tradition affirms that humankind is called to be obedient to the will of God; indeed Jesus asks his disciples to join him in his prayer to the Father: “Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven” (Deut. 11:26-28; Jer. 7:23-26; Matt. 6:10).

Willing obedience implies understanding the situation in which one finds oneself, and to that end, humankind is endowed by God with the gift of curiosity about the world and about humankind’s role in it. The account of Isaiah’s vision refers to God’s calling of the Israelites and their rebellion against him. He rejects the various japes that they have adopted in order to try to ignore him and the authority they thought it possible to exercise but affirms their continuing relationship by inviting them to “argue it out.” If they do, then they will find God and themselves and enjoy “the good of the land” (Is. 1:17-20). An analogous point of view is found in Jesus’s parable of the talents. Humankind has the capital—namely, its natural curiosity and the freedom to invest it profitably. The servant who buried his talent failed because of laziness or a mistaken assumption that he could take advantage of the initiative of others (Matt. 25:14-30). Parables are often wrongly interpreted as threats of punishment; they are better considered stories of failure to accept responsibility.

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