The word “Economy” is laden with meaning for Christians. It comes from the Greek word oikonomia meaning “household management.” (oikos = household or home; nomia =management) Related to it is the word oikonomos, which means “household manager or steward.” The household in mind here is the large villa of the Greco-Roman world. These were self-sufficient plantations owned by Roman citizens known as a paterfamilias. The household consisted of the paterfamilias, his family (including adult children and their families), free workers and their families, and slaves. Wealthy Roman citizens were often absent from their villas for months at a time, spending most of their time living in the city. In their absence, they left a highly trusted oikonomos (household manger) to take care of the oikonomia (household management.) Jesus was drawing directly on this social arrangement for his Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30 as I noted in an earlier post.
The etymology of the English word “Steward” is also worthy of note. The most valued possession of an English Lord was his herd of swine. Consequently, the lord would place only his most trusted servant in the role of ward over the sty where the swine were kept. Thus, the word “sty-ward” came to mean a lord’s most trusted servant. Over the years, the word morphed into “steward.” It is a close parallel to the Greek oikonomia.
The Genesis creation stories tell us that God made all that is and “it was good.” (Genesis 1:31) The natural world is good and valuable because God created it and valued it. The creation stories also tell us:
God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." Gen 1:28 (NRSV)
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. Gen 2:15 (NRSV)
Words like “subdue” and “dominion” are not words most of use in our every day vocabulary. Kabash is the Hebrew word translated “subdue.” A better world might be “tame” to our modern ears. The world is wild and needs to be harnessed toward productive ends. Similarly, the word radah is the Hebrew word translated dominion. It is similar in meaning to kabash but carries with it the concept of “prevailing against” and “reigning over.”
For those of us living twenty-first century democracies, the world “dominion” conjures up the ideas of King-doms and rulers. We are predisposed to have negative feelings about such things. However, in past centuries in the West, it was believed that the king held his great power by the will of God and would use that power for the benefit of those in his domain. He would protect them from the threats and chaos that existed beyond the borders of the kingdom. If we look at dominion in this way, we see it less about tyrannical domination and more about being empowered to do good for the domain. In other words, exercise dominion.
The Creation stories tell of God creating the world and then creating eikons (images) of himself that will fill the whole earth as representatives of his authority and loving care for all that exists. In the Ancient Near East, kings would erect images (eikons) of themselves throughout their kingdom to remind everyone that they were in authority over that area. God was doing the same with his eikons except his eikons were living breathing animated eikons who could reason and be in relationship with him. They would be his stewards or household managers over the “household” of creation he had made, acting as he would act and valuing what he would value, and thus reflecting his image.
However, the biblical narrative tells us that Adam and Eve distrusted and minimized God. The eikons rebelled. They sought to be more than they were, but ended up becoming far less than they were intended to be. They were left in an existential predicament. With their eyes open, they realized that rebellion did not elevate them to gods. They could not go back to what they were before but they also realized they could not go back into God’s presence. The fall had it at least four effects.
- First, it separated humanity from God. Without relationship to the eternal God, human existence was reduced to a meaningless existence that ends in negation.
- Second, it dis-integrated the individual human being. We can not live without eternal purpose. We were made for eternity. Separated from God we must at least find illusions of immortality that shields us from the utter futility of our existence. Cain went out from God’s presence and started a city (civilization) and started a family to perpetuate his name. It is delusional but the illusion is more tolerable than the reality.
- Third, human beings are separated one from another. Having only our delusions as an integration point for meaning in life we must prevail over the delusions of our neighbors for our meaning to survive. Instead of being one integrated community in union with God, we have become fractious and anxious beings wrestling with each other to maintain our autonomy.
- Fourth, we have corrupted our dominion over the created order. Sometimes we have done so by choosing to see ourselves as mere products of nature and abandoning ourselves to it, other times by ruthlessly misusing nature to fuel our delusions of autonomy and power.
It is the last of these four that I want to focus on specifically. One of the most controversial topics of our day is how should humanity relate to the environment. Ecology is a word that was introduced about 130 years ago. It has the same root word as “economics.”: Eco- is from the Greek oikos. As we saw above, it means “household” or “home.” Ecology is literally “the study of the home.” Webster’s Dictionary defines it as, “The branch of biology dealing with the relations and interactions between organisms and their environment, including other organisms.” Ecology is essentially a study of the environment, the world we live in as our home.
Human beings are both organisms that are part of the ecology and they are eikons of God that are other than the purely biological world. Human beings live in the ecological world but their (now corrupted) mission in the world is to be the household managers. From a moral and ethical perspective, we can’t talk about ecology (study of the household) without also talking about economics (study of the household managers.) What does it mean to be the household manager in a fallen world?