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Creation in Community – Faith and the Environment

Author: Terence Freithem – from “The Creation on the Cross” issue

“Community” and “relationship” are “in words” in current environmental and creational discussions.[1]  All creatures of God constitute a community in relationship. More particularly, human beings are understood as part of an increasingly interconnected global community. Our lives touch the ‘life’ of all other creatures, whether for good or for ill.  Everyone and everything is in relationship.  Indeed, such interrelatedness is also characteristic of God.  The implications of this understanding for creation and the environment are considerable.

The Old Testament has significant resources for this conversation, especially the creation accounts of Genesis.  I will work with the two creation accounts as a single witness to creation. Whatever the history of tradition may have been, Genesis 1 and 2 together constitute ‘s primary witness to the Creator God.  My plan is to think closely about the kind of God who is depicted in these texts, what sorts of creational moves God makes and, given the divine decision to work in community rather than alone, the implications of that divine move for creaturely life.

It is almost a hallelujah chorus among commentators that God created the world alone and with absolute control, working independently and unilaterally.  But, if this understanding of God in creation is correct, then those created in God’s image could properly understand their role regarding the rest of creation in comparable terms—in terms of power over, absolute control, and independence. By definition, the natural world thus becomes available for human manipulation and exploitation.  That is, if all the creatures of Genesis 1 are understood to be but passive putty in the hands of God, then does that not invite a comparable treatment of them by those created in the image of such a God?  In other words, how one understands the God of the creation accounts will have a significant impact on our environmental sensitivities and the urgency of our practices.

Now, what if the God of the creation accounts is imaged more as one who, in creating, chooses to share power in relationship?  Then the way in which the human as image of God exercises dominion is to be shaped by that model.  Even more, if the God of the creation accounts is imaged as one who also involves both human and nonhuman creatures in creation, then that should inform our understanding of the value they have been given by God, then and now.

I want to claim that, while creatures are deeply dependent upon God for their creation and life, God has chosen to establish an interdependent relationship with them with respect to both originating and continuing creation. God’s approach to creation is communal, relational, and, in the wake of God’s initiating activity, God works from within the world rather than on the world from without. The importance of God’s word in creation is often a communicating with rather than an independent word.

I claim that the Old Testament witnesses to a God who works in and through that which is not God in both originating and continuing creation (this does not stand over against a creatio ex nihilo view). What human beings and other creatures do counts with respect to the future of the creation.  Even more, what human beings do count with God, make a difference to God with respect to the future of creation.  I see four ways of thinking through this angle of vision in Genesis 1-2.

  1. God’s use of already existing matter in creating

I begin by noting the role of the spirit/wind/breath of God in Gen. 1:2. This creational image suggests that which has an ever-changing velocity and direction while working with already existing matter.  The images of Gen 1:2 bring God, raw material, and movement together and signal a dynamic rather than a static sense to creation, an open process rather than one tightly controlled. This theme continues in Genesis 2, where God assumes human form and shapes the ground into a human being, getting dirt under the divine fingernails. Human beings are created out of an already existent creature.

In addition, the testimony of Genesis 1 to the goodness of all forms of material reality is undergirded in Genesis 2 with respect to God’s tangible and tactile engagement with creatures.   Not only are finite, material realities capable of being “handled” by God  (Ps 8:3; 99:5) without compromising God’s Godness, they are capable of actually bearing God bodily in the life of the world, as God takes on human form and wears this very creation (see Gen 3:8). Already in Genesis 2-3, God is prone to incarnation.

What are the environmental implications of God’s creating in this earthy way?  Obviously, God deeply values the material of earthy life for the creational process.  If this earthy stuff is of creative value to God, certainly it should be of value to human beings.  And, if the God of the creation is one who takes on human form in the creating process, then that is at least an implicit invitation to those creatures that are comparably formed to engage in creative activity in similar ways.

  1. God calls uponalready existing creatures to bring about new creationsAlready in Genesis 1, God calls upon nonhuman creatures to bring about further acts of creating. On days 3, 5, 6, God invites the creatures to be involved in further creative acts (the jussive carries the sense of “invite” rather than command).  For example, in Genesis 1:11-13, God invites, “Let the earth bring forth,” and, we are told, “the earth brought forth.”  The earth is the subject of the creating verb.  In these texts God speaks with already existing  The nonhuman creatures have a genuine vocational role in enabling the creation to be and become. That story of the creation has been repeated over the millennia as ever new creatures come into being, mediated by the activity of existing creatures, from glaciers to volcanoes to tsunamis. For the earth/waters to participate in creation inevitably means that the process is going to be disorderly, even messy.  Earth and waters are not machines that work in predictable and orderly ways.God here shares creative powers with that which is not human. Moreover, in Gen 1:22 God gives power to the nonhuman to propagate their own kind, and implicitly God thereby chooses to exercise an ongoing restraint and constraint in relationship to their future. God will entrust these responsibilities to the creatures, a risk-taking move. These texts witness to divine self-limitation in letting the world create itself; God stands back (the Sabbath day), enabling the creatures to be and to become what they were created to be. God limits the divine freedom because God is committed to the structures of creation.What are the environmental implications of the fact that God calls upon existing creatures to bring about still other creatures?  If certain creatures become extinct/rare, they would be unavailable to God as agents for further creative acts; the creation would not develop according to its fullest potential.  Once again, the text demonstrates the immense value of nonhuman creatures for God.  Without the help of these creatures God’s creation would not live up to its potential of becoming.
  2. God invites the divine council to participate in the creation of the human
    The range of God’s involvement in creative activity with those who are not God is extended in Gen. 1:26.  Basic to this portrayal of God is the use of the plural, “ourimage, our likeness” (see 3:22; 11:7).  A majority of scholars understand this plural in terms of the divine council, the heavenly assembly that engages the deity and does the divine bidding.  This language (cf. also Isaiah 6; Jeremiah 23) witnesses to two interrelated understandings regarding God.
  3. The identity of God.understands that God is by nature a social being, functioning within a divine community that is rich and complex. God is engaged in a relationship of mutuality within that realm. In other words, relationship is integral to the identity of God, prior to and independent of God’s relationship to the world. Only the human being as social and relational to others is truly correspondent to the sociality of God and is at the heart of what it means to be created in the image of God.2. The creative activity of God.  In addressing the divine assembly with a “let us make,” God specifically chooses to share the creative process with those who are not God. God, as it were, gets help. Might one even say that God needs help, not in some narrow understanding of “need,” but because it is important for God and for the very nature of the human that God create communally?  The creation of the human community is thereby shown to be the result of a dialogical act or an inner-divine consultation rather than a monological move. God certainly extends the invitation to the divine council, but their participation is not understood to be perfunctory.  These creatures have a genuine role to play in creation, and in such a way that human beings are created in the image of both God and the divine council – “our image, our” Genuine interaction and mutual interdependence are herein characteristic of God’s creative activity.  This imaging of God in the creation of the human is best understood in terms of creativity and relationality. If this is so, then creativity and relationality become the most fundamental descriptors of those created in the image of God and the tasks to which they have been called relative to the earth. What might it mean for the environment that human beings are fundamentally creative and relational beings?This divine way of creating, in choosing not to act alone, is also revealing of a divine vulnerability, for in involving those who are not God, room is given for the activity of finite creatures, with all of the attendant risks.4.  God involves the human in still further acts of creation
    The word “God” in Genesis 1 primarily has reference to God as one who creates.  It would follow that those created in the image of God are most fundamentally creative beings.  This is illuminated by three specific texts:1. Genesis 2:5.  Human activity is herein deemed to be essential if the creation is to become what God intended it to be.  That human beings are given such a crucial role in the initial creation is important not only for the creation but for God.
  4. Genesis 2:18-20.  God here returns to the consultative mode, not unlike God’s move in 1:26. Aloneness is not characteristic of God and hence the isolated human is not truly created in the divine image.  It is not good for the human being to be alone because that is also true of God.

How God responds to the evaluation of “not good” is impressive. Twice, God “brings” other creatures—first the animals, then the woman—before the human being. Twice, God lets the human being determine what is adequate to move the evaluation of the creation from “not good” to “good.” The human being, not God, deems what is “fit for him.”  Indeed, how the human being decides will determine whether there will be a next human generation. The human judgment will shape the nature of the next divine decision; indeed it will shape the future of the world.

That the human being does not simply acquiesce to what the Creator God presents is remarkable. God, in turn, accepts the human decision, and goes back to the drawing boards. Without any qualification in the text, whatever the human being called each animal, that was its name (2:19). Divine decisions interact with human decisions in the creation of the world. Creation is process as well as punctiliar act; it is creaturely as well as divine.  The act of naming is not a perfunctory utilitarian move, a labeling of the cages of the world zoo. As with God in 1:5-10, naming is a part of the creative process itself, discerning the very nature of intra-creaturely relationships. Human beings are not able to stymie God’s movement into the future in any final way, but God establishes a relationship with them such that their decisions about the creation truly count. God takes the ongoing creational process into account in shaping new directions for the creation.

Remarkably, God’s first move to take care of human aloneness is to create animals. Even if it proves not to be a final decision, God’s move must at least mean that the animals are understood to participate in the community that is needed to meet the issue of human aloneness, which assumes their high value. The ‘adam finally recognizes that the woman will address the stated need. God recognizes the creational import of the human decision, for no additional divine word/act is forthcoming. God lets the man’s exultation over the woman fill the scene; the human word counts for the evaluation that the creation is now “good.” It is left to the narrator to note the rightness of this creative move by drawing the reader into the closeness of the male-female bond.

  1. Genesis 1:28. God herein gives the human being certain responsibilities and, necessarily, the power with which to do them. From the beginning, God chooses not to be the only one with creative power and the capacity, indeed the obligation, to exercise it.  Given the imaging of God as Creator, these words of commission should be interpreted fundamentally in terms of creative word and deed, which in turn gives decisive shape to what it means to have dominion and subdue the earth.  Human beings are invited to play an important role in the becoming of such a world.

Three basic purposes are given in Gen 1:28:  to be fruitful, to have dominion, and to subdue the earth.  The first is not confined to the human being (cf. 1:22 and 1:28), but such procreative capacity is an essential element of what it means to be in the image of God.  By being what they were created to be and without a need for divine intervention, they can “naturally” be productive of new life and perpetuate their own kind. God is present in the process (see Ps 139:13), but not in such a way that human decisions and actions do not count or random events cannot wreak havoc (e.g., the randomness of the gene pool).  Reproduction is a responsibility that human beings have in order to be the image of God they were created to be (recognized by Eve, Gen 4:1).

Second, human beings are created to “have dominion” over fish, birds, and “every living thing that moves upon the earth.” The language of dominion apparently was drawn from the sphere of ideal conceptions of royal responsibility (see Ezek 34:1-4, where “force” and “harshness” are needed to qualify the verb). The verb should be understood in terms of care-giving, even nurturing, not exploitation. At the same time, to maintain the democratization theme inherent in the image, the focus should be placed on what the king does, not who the king is. Every human being, without distinction of gender, class or societal status, is to relate to nonhuman creatures as God would.  If God is imaged as one who, in creating, chooses to share power in relationship, then the way in which the human as image of God exercises dominion is to be shaped by that model.

Third, human beings as image of God are created to “subdue the earth.” The word “subdue” makes clear that the evaluation “good” does not mean that the creation is “perfect,” in the sense of needing no further development or attention or, for that matter, of being unable to fail.  While the verb may involve coercive activities in interhuman relationships, no enemies are in view in this pre-sin situation. Moreover, this is the only context in which the verb applies to nonhuman creatures and one should not assume the usage for human activity.   More generally, God’s creative activity relative to the earth (e.g., 1:2 with 1:9-10) entails an ordering of the not yet ordered; human continuity with this divine activity suggests a meaning of “subdue” along the lines of “to bring order out of disorder,” drawing the world along to its fullest possible creational potential. Creation is here understood to be, not a static state of affairs, but a dynamic situation in which human activity is crucial for the development of the created order (Gen 2:18-20 is the first such example).  That God has entrusted human beings with such God-like responsibility is witness to their having been “crowned with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5).

In so understanding the human in God’s image, we see again that God intends from the beginning that the created order not remain just as initially created. God’s creation is built to go somewhere; the potential of becoming is built into the very structure of things. And this is so not just because God does not exhaust the divine creativity in the world’s first week, but because of the creative capacities given to the creatures. God creates a paradise, but this is not a static state of affairs. The creation is not presented as “a finished product,” all wrapped up with a big red bow and handed over to the creatures to preserve as it was originally created. God creates a dynamic world in which the future is open to a number of possibilities and in which creaturely activity is crucial for proper creational developments.

In pursuing these tasks, human beings are to reflect the character of God in the life of the world, to be God as God would be to the non-human creatures. Human beings cannot rest back and assume that God will take care of everything or that the future of the creation is solely in God’s hands.  They are called, not to passivity relative to the earth, but to genuine engagement, the nature of which will have significant implications for the future of the environment.

In pursuing these tasks, human beings are to reflect the character of God in the life of the world, to be God as God would be to the non-human creatures. Human beings cannot rest back and assume that God will take care of everything or that the future of the creation is solely in God’s hands.They are called, not to passivity relative to the earth, but to genuine engagement, the nature of which will have significant implications for the future of the environment.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Explore what it means for all creatures to be interrelated and what difference that makes in thinking about matters environmental.2. Examine each of the four ways in which God involves non-divine creatures in the creative task. Does each of these communal dimensions of creative activity have adequate support in the biblical text? Explore the environmental implications of each of the four ways.
  2. How might each of these four ways be related to understandings of the creation that are drawn from other spheres of inquiry (e.g., science)?
  3. What does it mean to be created in the image of a creative and relational God? How does this reality affect the understanding of the tasks divinely specified in Genesis 1:28?
  4. What does it mean to speak of a God who involves others in the creative process and chooses to act in genuinely interdependent ways? Are you comfortable with this kind of God? Why or why not?  What are the implications of this imaging of God for ways in which we think about the care of the environment?

[1] Portions of this article have been shaped by Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of  Creation ( Nashville : Abingdon, 2005). See this volume for detail and bibliography