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Subjunctive Theology

George W. Stroup
Professor of Theology
Columbia Theological Seminary
Decatur, GA
We seem to be approaching a consensus in this country that we are on the precipice of an ecological disaster. The debate is no longer whether catastrophic changes are taking place in the environment, but only how disastrous those changes are going to be and what steps must immediately be taken to lessen the disaster. It also seems clear that for many centuries Christian churches have aided and abetted the destruction of the environment. Classical Christian theology has limited its concern for salvation/healing to human beings, has failed to recognize that, despite Romans 8:19 ff., the natural world is also in need of salvation/healing, and has been content to understand nature as merely the “most glorious theater” for the drama of redemption or as the “external basis of the covenant and the covenant as the internal basis of creation.”[1] Traditional Christian interpretations of Genesis 1:28 (God’s command to humans to subdue the earth and to have dominion over it) have led countless generations to assume that creation is good only insofar as it serves human need.
Because of the crisis upon us a growing number of biblical scholars and theologians now demand that Christian theology be reconstructed in order that creation be acknowledged as the good gift God created it to be. Reconstructing Christian faith in response to the ecological crisis is no small matter. As Terence Fretheim recognizes such a task involves nothing less than rethinking our understanding of the God who is “Maker of Heaven and Earth” and what God’s relationship is to that creation God calls “good.”

In his brief, engaging lecture Fretheim makes several proposals for reinterpreting God and God’s relation to the world on the basis of his reading of Genesis 1 and 2. First, he proposes we “think closely about the kind of God who is depicted in these texts.” Then he asks “what sorts of creational moves God makes.” And finally he wants us to think with him about the implications of this reinterpretation of God’s relation to the world for creaturely life. We are all indebted to him for his invitation to join him in this urgent conversation.

First, what kind of God is depicted in Genesis 1 and 2? Not the God sometimes described as “classical theism”—a “supernatural” God who is utterly transcendent, who works “alone and with absolute control,” and who from time to time intrudes into creation in order to perform miracles and fix things when they go awry. Such a God may not bowl alone but this God creates alone.

There are at least three reasons why the God of classical theism is unacceptable to Fretheim. This is not the God he finds in the biblical text. This is a transcendent God who stands alone over against creation. And, finally, classical theism portrays God as having absolute power over everything that God has created. If  God is understood this way–as transcendent, solitary, absolute power—then, Fretheim argues, certain disastrous consequences follow: “those created in God’s image could properly understand their role regarding the rest of creation in comparable terms—in terms of power, absolute control, and independence” and “the natural world thus becomes available for human manipulation and exploitation.”

In order to deal with the ecological crisis that besets us, Fretheim argues it would be better to understand God differently than does classical theism, in a way that is more congenial to the natural world and more appropriate to Genesis 1 and 2. Such a different understanding of God would emphasize the following:

1. God is communal, social, and relational. “God,” Fretheim insists, “is by nature a social being, functioning within a divine community that is rich and complex” (p. 5). In Genesis 1 and 2, “relationship is integral to the identity of God, prior to and independent of God’s relationship to the world (p. 5; italics mine).” This is a remarkable claim, but it is far from clear what these cryptic words mean. The sentence that follows is no less remarkable. “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.” What does Fretheim mean by God’s “sociality?” Does he merely mean that God seeks covenant communion with that which God brings into being? His claim that God is by nature relational “independent of God’s relation to the world” and that God functions “within a divine community” seems to imply something else.

Fretheim appears to claim not only that God seeks covenant communion with that which God creates and that relationality is integral to the identity of God, but that prior to and independent of God’s relationship to creation God is relational within God’s self. One wonders whether by God’s sociality Fretheim means that God is surrounded by a “divine council,” if that is how we should understand Gen. 1:26 (“Then God said, ‘Let us make .  .  .  .'”), or whether he means that God is not only surrounded by a council of lesser beings but that God is relational within God’s own processive becoming. He does say the divine assembly is not God. God “chooses to share the creative process with those who are not God “(italics mine), but he also describes the creative act as the result of “an inner-divine consultation” (p. 5), which seems to suggest that in some sense God shares divinity with the divine council. If the “divine council” is indeed “divine,” how does its divinity differ from God’s?

What does Fretheim mean when he says that God is “by nature” a social being? To Christian ears such a claim could be taken to suggest that God is triune, that God’s being is constituted by perichoretic, reciprocal relationships. Given the sensitivity of most Old Testament scholars to the history of Christian appropriations of Hebrew scripture, it would be truly amazing if Fretheim were suggesting that the God described in Gen. 1:26 is not only socially related to creation but is “by nature”—that is within God’s self—communal and social.

2. God is incarnational. By “incarnational” Fretheim seems to mean that in Genesis 2:7 God “assumes human form” by breathing into the dust of the ground, thereby creating life out of dirt. In so doing God gets “dirt under the divine fingernails.” Furthermore, this dirt is “an already existent creature” from which human beings are created. Finite, material reality, therefore, is “capable of actually bearing God bodily in the life of the world.” The claim in Genesis 3:8 that God walks in the garden and that the man and the woman attempt to hide from God’s presence leads Fretheim to the strange conclusion that “God takes on human form and wears this very creation” (p. 3). Because the couple “hear” God and sense God’s presence in the garden Fretheim makes a considerable leap of the imagination and concludes that God literally “wears” human form.

One suspects Fretheim has chosen the term “incarnation” in order to be intentionally provocative. He is well aware of how the term will be heard in Christian ears. Fretheim’s use of “already” in the following sentence suggests he is indeed writing primarily to provoke Christians: “Already in Genesis 2-3, God is prone to incarnation.” Should we conclude from that “already” that God is no more incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth than God is in every human creature, in all creatures, and in the earth itself? Fretheim would not be the first contemporary theologian to suggest that the earth is “God’s body.” Perhaps he believes that if the case can be made that creation is to God as human flesh is to the Christ then we will understand the earth to be no less sacramental and holy than the Word made flesh and worship it accordingly. That is not a claim I find in Genesis 1 and 2. In the Old Testament God also dwells in a cloud and a pillar of fire and God dwells in God’s house, the Temple, but it does not follow that the cloud, the pillar of fire, and the Temple are God.

3. God’s power is not so much coercive as it is shared and reciprocal. Fretheim reads Genesis 1 and 2 to mean that God chooses “to share creative powers with that which is not human” (p. 4). God chooses to limit God’s self in order to share power with that which God has spoken into being. It is the vocation of the non-human to enable “the creation to be and become.” Apparently Genesis 1 and 2 are continually repeated “as ever new creatures come into being, mediated by the activity of existing creatures, from glaciers to volcanoes to tsunamis.” God chooses to let “the world create itself.” (p. 4). According to Genesis 1 and 2, however, is there no difference between the way in which God creates and the way in which humans create? God allows and human to name the creatures, but does not God “name” in a fundamentally different way than the creature does. When God declares that what God creates is “good,”  it is good because God declares it to be such. Humans do not give being—do not call into existence—the creatures they name.

Apparently God “needs” help in order to create, not “needs’ in the sense of some deficiency in God but because, according to Fretheim, it is the very nature of God to act/create communally. In order to be who God is God must limit, restrict God’s self and share power and creativity with that which God has created. Human activity is so important, even “essential,” in the ongoing creative process that human decisions will determine what becomes of creation.  And it is not just human creatures who are “essential” for creation to fulfill its potential, but the nonhuman as well. “Without the help of these [nonhuman] creatures, God’s creation would not live up to its potential of becoming” (p. 4). One wonders whether it is only creation that is dependent on these human and nonhuman creatures. Fretheim never quite says so but his argument seems to imply that God, who is not static being but processive becoming, is also dependent on human and nonhuman creatures in order to “live up to [God’s] potential of becoming.”

We will never escape Ludwig Feuerbach’s (1804-1872) taunt that Christian faith in particular and religion in general is simply the projection of human needs, desires, and fears on to a cosmic face.[2]It is one thing, however, to struggle with Feuerbach and to be chastened by him; it is something else to surrender to him. In the last third of the twentieth century several contemporary theologians have argued we should embrace Feuerbach and simply get on with the business of constructing an understanding of God that will best serve our most pressing moral, social, and political needs. If that need is the threat of nuclear annihilation, then we should construct an understanding of God that will enable the human community to turn away from nuclear disaster.

Fretheim seems to be arguing a version of this subjunctive theology throughout his essay. If the God of classical theism is not helpful in responding to the ecological crisis in which we find ourselves, then let’s construct an understanding of God that will best serve our cause. It is this “if/then,” subjunctive argument that seems to run through Fretheim’s essay. To be sure, Fretheim appeals to Genesis 1 and 2 as the basis for his reinterpretation of the reality of God and God’s relation to the world, but although he never mentions them, his understanding of God seems to be derived not so much from Genesis 1 and 2 as from the philosophical positions developed by Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.[3] Their panentheistic interpretations of God are remarkably similar to Fretheim’s and they have no need of Genesis 1 and 2.[4]

Questions for Discussion

1. Fretheim bases his reconstruction of God on Genesis 1 and 2. Read through these two  chapters. Do you find God described in these texts what Fretheim describes?

2. To what extent is the traditional Christian understanding of God (“classical theism”) responsible for the ecological crisis?

3. Do you think we should reconstruct our understanding of God in order to respond to the ecological crisis? If you do, what should be the basis for how we understand God?

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill, Trans. Ford Lewis Battles. “The Library of Christian Classics,” 2 Vols. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960, Vol. 1, p. 72 (I. 6, 2); Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. Eds. G. W Bromiley and T.F. Torrance. Edinburgh, 1958, III/1, pp. 42-329.
[2] See Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity. Trans. George Eliot. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957, first published in 1841, and Lectures on the Essence of Religion. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New  York: Harper & Row, 1967, first published in 1951.
[3] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality. New York: Macmillan, 1929 and Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948.
[4] While pantheism teaches that everything is divine, thus identifying God with the world, panentheism  teaches that everything is in God and that God cannot be God apart from the world because God is in the process of becoming and God cannot become apart from God’s relation to the world.