Thursday, July 19, 2012

#3: We Have Kinship with Creation

'What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?  You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.  You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet.' (Psalm 8:4-6).

'So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.'  (Genesis 1:27)

You've got to admit, we humans are pretty awesome.  We are creative.  We have an incredible sense of humour unrivalled in the natural world.  We have the most complex and flexible language capabilities of any species on the planet.  We experience transcendence and immanence.  We worship, have rituals, show a depth of love that is likely unparalleled.  We have science and technology and complicated politics.  We have the most complex form of culture on the planet.  And according to the Bible, we are made in the image of God, beings just a bit lower on the hierarchy than angels, but higher than, and rulers of, the animals.

Such a sense of superiority can certainly wreak havoc on an environmental ethic, as humans feel that they, as the specially chosen ones of God, need not worry about those creatures beneath them.  God doesn't love them as much; if he did, they would have been made in his image too.

Such an argument is, of course, riddled with difficulties.  God, who according to Christian theology participates in, and is, Trinitarian love, is certainly vastly superior to us.  He could have continued in that love, ignoring those beneath him, but instead 'humbled himself', choosing death on a cross in order to raise us up to become 'co-heirs with Christ.'  He did not ignore us, or abuse us, or rule tyrannically over us; our spiritual superiority is therefore no excuse for environmental abuse.

But there is another argument to be made, which is that we are not merely spiritual beings.  We cannot ignore our spiritual nature, of course, but we cannot overemphasize it either.  God has made us to be biological beings as well.  We are, biologically speaking, animals.

It is shocking how such a simple fact could be for so long ignored by Christians, to the point that some fellow Christians argue with me when I say that humans are animals.  We are not merely animals, but we are animals nonetheless.  I could outline the many ways, biologically, in which we are clearly animals, from mammary glands (making us mammals) to backbones (making us chordates) to nucleus-enclosed DNA (making us eukaryotes).  But such a list would be far too long.  (But here's a brief video about our biological differences from chimpanzees).

Instead, let us look at how our biological nature is metaphorically represented in the Genesis account.

1. We are day six beings
Humans do not warrant their own day in the Genesis one account.  Have you ever considered that?  We, beings made in the image of God, beings superior to the animals, are made on the same day as rats, spiders, snakes and the like.  We are made with the land animals.  Why?  Because we are land animals!  The structure of Genesis 1 is such that on day three land is formed, and on day six land is filled, with humans and with their land-dwelling kin.  The lesson here is that, despite our spiritual supremacy, we are still biological organisms with biological needs, and we share these needs with other organisms.  We can, in a very real way, understand what it is like to be a rat or a spider or a snake, because we encounter driving needs to regulate our body temperature, to seek water and food, to breathe, and to mate.  We may have higher needs than these, but they are still our needs, and these needs unite us with the rest of the animal world.  As day six beings, we are part of a natural ecosystem, eeking out an existence like all other creatures on this planet.  And we, like the animals, are provided food from God.  'There is no human flourishing apart from nature's flourishing' my friend Ryan Scruggs is fond of saying, and he is exactly right: we may wish we were spiritual beings, but try living without food.  You won't live for very long.  It may be true that man does not live on bread alone, but he does live on bread.

2. We are creatures of the dust
'For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return,' said God in Genesis 3:19.  Adam was created from the dust (we could talk about the importance of such an allegorical statement from an evolutionary perspective, but will not) - his name Adam reflects adama, Hebrew for 'ground'.  Our constitution is earthy.  We were not shaped from spirit, but from matter.  Similarly, in Genesis 2:19 God formed 'out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air,' an echoing of Genesis 1's decree to 'let the land produce vegetation...Let the land produce living creatures...' (Genesis 1:11, 24).  According to the Genesis account, then, we are linked to the plants and animals in that we consist of the same stuff as them.  They are not just our ecological kin, they are also our material kin.

3. We are creatures of breath
After Adam was formed from the dust, God 'breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being' (Genesis 2:7).  This breath is assumed by many Christians to represent the giving of the immortal soul, the image of God.  It is this breath that separates us from the animal realm.  But wait!  Genesis 1:30 reads 'And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground - everything that has the breath of life in it - I give every green plant for food.'  The same Hebrew phrase, chay nephesh, is used in both verses.  Interestingly, in the KJV, chay nephesh in relation to humans is translated as 'living soul', and the same phrase in relation to animals is translated as 'wherein there is life', a subtle bias that has led to numerous errors since.  Humans and animals are both chay nephesh, we both have the breath of life.  We are once again united in substance.

It is interesting to me that Adam is not filled with ruwach in Genesis 2:7.  That word is used in Genesis 1:2, translated as Spirit of God, and it is used throughout the Old Testament to indicate Spirit, breath or wind.  It would have been an excellent word to use if the human soul was the focus of the passage.  But it is not; our similarity to, rather than our distinction from, the animal world seems to be its interest.

So, then, as Ryan also likes to say, humans are 'special, not separate.'  As day six beings, we depend on the natural world for our survival; as beings of dust and breath, we are kin with all of God's creation, from the soil to the kangaroo.  So far from being spiritual, we are biological beings chosen by God to be made in his image.

And what is that image?  It is hard to say.  Creativity seems to be a part of it.  The capacity to love would be another part.  But I would argue, given the context of 'image' in the account, our image is exercised only insofar as we exercise loving rule over our fellow biological kin.  We are special, not separate, and this specialness is expressed in our unique ability to care for the environment.

1 comment:

Keith Shields said...

Nice blog. I also really liked the video. I have something on population genetics at my blog-site today.