What does it mean to believe something? There are many things that I say I believe that have very little influence on how I live. I am horrified when I realize that the beliefs that do govern how I live are often totally contrary to what I would vocalize about what I believe. How were the beliefs that do govern how I live so ingrained in my life? Some I remember being taught, those that were verbally explained to me and then shown in practice. Then there are those that I don’t ever remember being told, or explained, but still in some way, at some time were impressed on me. I feel that one such belief is the way in which I relate to the rest of creation.
Growing up in a conservative evangelical church, I remember my ministers being weary of anything that reeked of environmentalism, because it may lead to pantheism. Beyond that, I never remember being taught my role in the created order. That being said, reflecting on how I lived, and sadly how in many ways I continue to live, I definitely had a set belief in regards to this relationship.
I believed that God’s ultimate goal was to create people, and that in order for that to happen, God had to create some place to put them. The earth then is just an accessory created for people to use as they see fit. You could compare it to Barbie dolls. Barbie’s are what you collect, the homes and cars and other such things are just accessories created for Barbie. This isn’t to say that I was totally oblivious to “the environment”. Mine was one of the first generations to be taught extensively about the three R’s in school. This being said, the rest of the world was definitely secondary to the needs of humans.
Where this came from I am not sure of, but I thinking it was rooted in my understanding of Genesis 1:26-28, where God refers to people as being created in the image of God. Does this not mean that we were the point of creation? Were we not the final goal of God’s art project? Growing up in the church this was reinforced over and over again. My first glimpse that it was possible to understand the doctrine of the image of God differently was when I was reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Creation and the Fall”. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember being fascinated by his explanation of what it means to be created in the image of God.
Later on, while studying sociology, I remember hearing about Charles Cooley and his “Looking Glass Theory”. The theory states that we discover our identity by observing how others react to us. For example, I know that I am funny if others laugh at me, I know that I am either smart or stupid by how other people treat me, I know that I am worthy or worthless by how others interact with me.
This fascinated me and I began to look at the image of God through this lens. What if we were to think of bearing the image of God as each of us being a mirror? We are reflectors of God to the rest of the world. If we are the image of God then when others look at us they should see God. This obviously does not mean that we are God, but rather when others look to us to discover their identity, they will see themselves as God sees them; worthy of love and grace. They will see themselves as the good creations they were created to be. This was a huge change in how I understood my call to be created in the image of God, but it still did not challenge my assumptions around the created order.
Eventually I had to do a paper for a course on the book of Romans, and chose Romans 8:18-25 as my text. While studying for that paper I began to realize that when we regain our status as reflectors of God it does not just benefit other people, but that creation will be freed as well. This meant that our being made in the image of God was intricately linked to our call to “subdue and have dominion” over creation. It also meant that the understanding of the word “dominion” was not the type of “domination” we had been enacting on the earth. Jesus had dominion over the powers and principalities, and over all of creation, and he revealed that by dying on the cross to redeem them. If this is the case then our call to have dominion over creation is vastly different then what we have been living out. It would seem that the rest of creation wasn’t created for us, but rather that we were created for the rest of creation.
This was an important step for me to make. To begin to see myself as being created to serve creation, but I still needed to go further. I needed to challenge my deeply held belief that being created in the image of God somehow made me something other then a creature, that I am in someway disconnected from creation. This is something that both Ellen Davis’ (Scripture, Culture and Agriculture) and Norman Wirzba’s (The Paradise of God ) books have argued against. This is also a point that is shown as false when the creation story is read in more detail. God creates people from the dust of the ground. The same dust of the ground that God makes every tree and plant grow out of (Gen. 2:7-9). We were not created separately and then placed on the earth, but rather we are a part of creation, created from the same dirt. Not only that, we are totally and utterly dependent on the rest of creation for survival. Though we hold a special place in creation, we are still a creature, and are therefore linked to the rest of creation in a very intimate way. St. Francis’ referral to “brother sun, sister moon” shows that he understood that rather then being totally other then creation, we are rather intimately related to the rest of creation and therefore it’s struggles, pains and strife are ours as well. We were created as a part of the whole, rather then the whole being created for us.
This sounds like a simple correction but the evidence that we believe the exact opposite is all around. I remember talking with another youth leader to a youth about why Christian’s can eat meat, and the other leader, who is a very thoughtful woman, said to the youth that God created animals for our use. I remember this sitting badly with me, but realizing that this is probably, if people were to voice their beliefs, the belief of many, if not most Christians.
Where does this belief come from? Is it possible that this is the same issue that Adam and Eve struggled with at the beginning of scripture? Is it that we are not content with our place as creature and instead want to claim a higher place for ourselves? Adam and Eve ate the fruit because they wanted to be like God rather then to reflect God. We are uncomfortable accepting our place in the created order as interdependent beings intricately linked with the rest of creation, because to do so would be to admit that we are not God, we are not creator, that we do no have absolute autonomy and control, that we are not rulers of our own lives. This goes against everything that our culture is built upon.
Freeing ourselves from the bonds of this self idolatry will not be easy. To use Christ’s way of living out dominion as a model for how we live out dominion over creation means a total revamping of our lives. For me personally it means taking a long look at my everyday practices, those that I think are benign, and looking at them through a mindset of servanthood. Is this action an act of a servant of creation or a tyrant over creation? Am I reflecting a God who has created this planet as something good, or am I acting as one who sees this planet as something to be used and pushed aside? And then I need to ask myself, am I willing to think of myself as being a part of creation? Will I admit my reliance on the land? Will I realize that the only reason I am alive is because of the grace shown to me by both God and the land? Am I willing to acknowledge creation as a gift, and treasure it as such, realizing that therefore my very life is just such a gift?
My answer to these questions will reveal what I truly believe. I can write out a description of what I believe intellectually about how I am to relate to the rest of creation, and about what it means to bear the image of God, but unless it is reflected in the way in which I live, it is meaningless. I pray that I would begin to take the steps in my life to transform my intellectual musings into deep seeded beliefs.