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Christian responses to environmental concerns

Dominion Theology and Genesis 1:26

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Notes on dominion theology and Genesis 1:26:

Wikipedia describes Dominionism as follows:

"The dominionist interpretation sees adherents as heeding a command from God to all mankind to subject the world to the rule of the Word of God. The terminology of dominionism, and the broad concept of the trend described by critics, has been taken from the King James Version of the Bible, Genesis 1:26

"And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." 1 (Emphasis ours)

Many people blame the dominion theology of Genesis for our environmental problems. (John M. Cuble) 2 Numerous ecologists have argued that the command to humanity in Genesis 1:26 defines the crisis we face. For example, the historian Lynn White Jr. 3 claims that the relationship between humankind and the world, which has resulted in the continuing destruction of nature and rape of the earth, has come about because of 'the orthodox Christian arrogance towards nature, following the imperative of the Genesis command.' 4,5 Lynn blames our Western attitude of exploitation of the earth on that part of the Judeo-Christian tradition that conceives man as superior to all the rest of creation, which exists merely for his use. Similarly, according to Ian L. McHarg, 6 the man/nature relationship as portrayed in Genesis not only fails to correspond to reality as we observe it, but in its insistence upon dominion and subjugation of nature encourages the most exploitative and destructive instincts in man. Indeed, if one seeks license for those who would create canals and harbors with nuclear bombs, employ poisons without constraint, or give consent to bulldozer mentality, there could be no better injunction than this text.

The creation story of Judaism was absorbed unchanged into Christianity, and is reflected in Islam. So far, attempts to put a more favorable light on the respective chapters in Genesis by reinterpreting them have largely failed. A completely new wording is required if religion is to play a role in the world's ecology, which it eventually must do to pre-vent the destruction of our world as we know it. 6

There is certainly tension between Genesis 1:26-30 and 9:1-7, 7,8,9 but there is no doubt about the assumption of man's absolute rule over nature, which is based on Genesis 1:26-28, 9:2-3, and Psalm 8:5-8: All things are created for human use and for no other purpose. This is in spite such arguments as those by Norbert Lohfink that Genesis 1:26 gives no sanction to domination and exploitation 9, and that 'to be subdued or to rule' has to be understood as shepherding. 8 Ecological points raised in connection with Genesis 1-11 were also investigated by such Catholic scholars as Paul Beauchamp 7 and Erich Zenger. 10

The Hebrew word kibbes (used in Genesis 1:28) is properly translated as 'subdue', and is used, for instance, in making someone into a slave. This does not make particularly persuasive attempts to interpret kibbes and/or dominion (in Genesis 1:26,28 as well as in Psalm 8:6) in the sense of shepherding or of humans acting as trustees or stewards responsible to God. It just replaces a good translation by a bad one. Contrary to the claims by some theologians, Genesis 2:15 where Adam 'is put into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it' cannot make much difference to this view.

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Interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures has additional problems:

bulletIf Genesis 1:26-30 does not allow humans to kill animals, how could have Abel offer a sheep as a sacrifice to God, and why did God accept the sacrifice? (Gen-esis 4:4).
 
bulletConcern for animals is shown in Deuteronomy 25:4: 'Thou shall not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn' and the story of Noah emphasizes the preservation of species (Genesis 6:19-20). Yet Christians have always tended to deny value and rights, and even souls, to non-human life.
 
bulletDeuteronomy 22:1-4 shows kindness to the owners, not the animals!

The New Testament appears have only incidental references to animals.

As to other Christian sources:

bulletAugustine maintained that 'Reason has not been given to animals to have in common with us, and so, by the most just ordinances of the Creator, both their life and their death is subject to our use.'
 
bulletSaint Thomas wrote: 'It is not wrong for man to make use of animals either by killing or in any way whatever.'
 
bulletWhen Luther considered the role of animals in his lectures on Genesis, he did so in terms of human dominion over them.

Mainstream Christianity still propagates a range of ideas about animals that are detrimental to their status and welfare. Typically, animals are 'made for us'; animals have no immortal soul, no rationality, no intrinsic worth; humankind has been given dominion over animals. How far these ideas are distinctly or authentically Christian is besides the point; the fact is the Christian tradition has propagated them, and still defends them. Christian Churches are reluctant to accept any responsibility for the whole of creation. The scriptures deny value and rights to non-human life. Such teaching closely resembles Islam. In the relationship between humans and animals, animals seem to be treated with more consideration by religions outside the Abrahamic faiths.

There are other points that should be discussed within the framework of Christian ecology:

bulletWhether salvation is for all creation.
bulletNone of the Ten Commandments gives us any instructions regarding the natural world.
bulletSean McDonagh writes:
"There is no support in the New Testament for the exploitative, throw-away consumer society which in the past four decades has destroyed the natural world in so many parts of the globe and produced mountains of non-biodegradable and toxic waste." 10
bulletCapitalism has played a large part in the destruction of our earth. Christianity has to accept some of the responsibility for its emergence. 5 It should be rather embarrassing for Christians that the 1.5 billion followers of Jesus, 'who had no place to rest his head,' now control two-thirds of the earth resources and, on average, are three times better off than their non-Christian neighbors.
 
bulletIf the Catholic Church really wants to play a part in alleviating world hunger it could promote abstinence from meat on a number of days each week rather than pushing genetically engineered crops. 11
 
bulletAs can be seen from the Job 28:9-12, ours is not the first generation to be concerned about the way humans treat the environment with little regard for the consequences.
 
bulletThere is a powerful movement within U.S. Christian fundamentalism that interprets the 'Book of Revelation' as justifying the destruction of the environment. They believe that by exhausting our natural resources they will hasten the rapture, the second coming of Jesus Christ, and the Apocalypse.
 
bulletMan's successfully working the earth is described by Job 28:12 in the following words: 'But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?"

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Dominionism," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  2. Russell C. Train, "The Environmental Crisis: A Challenge to the Churches," Woodstock Report No. 211, 1990-MAR.
  3. Lynn White Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Science 155 (# 3767), 1967.
  4. Charles Birch, "Purpose in the Universe: A Search for Wholeness," Zygon,6, No.1, Pages 4-27 1971-MAR.
  5. Sean McDonagh, "The Death of Life. A Challenge to Christians," at: http://www.columban.com/
  6. Ian L. McHarg, "Design with Nature," Wiley, (1992).
  7. Paul Beauchamp, "Cr'ation et fondation de la loi." in: F. Blanquart (Ed.), "La Cr'ation dans l'orient ancient," Les 'ditions du Cerf, (1987).
  8. Norbert Lohfink. "Great Themes from the Old Testament," T.&T. Clark, (1982).
  9. John William Rogerson, "Genesis 1-11," JSOT Press, (1991).
  10. Erich Zenger, "Gottes Bogen in den Wolken." Katholisches Bibelwerk, (1983).
  11. Sean McDonagh, "SOURCE," 2004-SEP-15. at: http://www.wervel.be/

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Copyright © 2006 and 2007 by Vladimir Tomek
Original publishing date: 2006-AUG-16
Latest update on: 2009-AUG-23
Author. Vladimir Tomek

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