We are called to be God’s oikonomos or stewards of God’s household, namely creation. We are to be living eikons of God in the world, reflecting God’s character and values in all that we do. However, in our present state, we are broken eikons who are ever inclined to elevate our own image to that of godhood. We are dis-integrated from the God of the universe. Because of our fallen nature we experience what sociologists call “anomie,” a disorienting state of lawlessness. In Genesis 3 were learn that Cain went out from God’s presence to settle in “the land of being unsettled,” or Nod. As communities we seek autonomy from God. Like the people at Babel, we will not be named by God but rather “we will make a name for ourselves.” Yet, we rival one another within our communities for autonomy and godhood as individuals. We will supply or own meaning. We will perpetuate it by domination and destruction of any human or natural forces that threaten our human made “home” here in the land of wandering. Economics and ecology are front and center in this quest to build a home.
Francis Shaeffer, in several of his books, gave a chart that is helpful for thinking about a dichotomy in our human existence. At the top of the chart he placed “The Personal-Infinite God.” Then he created two hierarchical columns that went like this:
Personal Infinite God
Personal Infinite God
Column 1 highlights that we are like God in that we are personal rational beings. We are self-consciousness beings who quest for meaning and eternal transcendence. In this sense, we are similar to God but dissimilar to all else. Column 2 highlights that we are corporeal beings. We are of the dust of the ground and to the dust of the ground we return. We are finite. In this sense, we are not like God but are like all the rest of creation. Because of the fall from grace we are live in an irreconcilable dilemma.
One horn of the dilemma compels to establish ourselves as gods. But we are finite. We die. We are powerless to make our will and our stature prevail over more than a few human lifetimes, at the most, and then we are forgotten. Unflinching honesty about our attempts at godhood shows that is it pure futility.
The other horn of the dilemma is to deny or “transcend” that within us that makes us distinct from nature. We try to conform ourselves to the patterns of nature and lose that within in us which does not conform to the cycles and forces of nature. But we were meant for something beyond nature and it is integral to who we are. We find resist becoming engulfed by nature. “Becoming one with nature” is also futility.
Ancient civilizations tended toward the second horn of this dilemma. Pagan worship routinely involved symbolic reenactments of events in nature, calling worshipers to conform themselves to the patterns of nature. The fertility goddess is the most common religious figure in the ancient world. Ancient cultures were agrarian societies. Crops and agricultural production were the center of their economy. It is only through agricultural surplus that societies were able to engage in other human endeavors. Perpetuation of a society’s existence was directly linked to its agricultural abundance. Immortality was linked to society’s survival. Also linked to a sense of immortality, is the birth of new generations, which is linked to human fertility.
The Judeo-Christian heritage emerged and directly challenged a number of the elements pagans used to build a home for themselves. First the creation stories directly challenge the idea of an eternal unchanging universe. God is beyond and above nature. God created it and nature is not God. Second, God was exclusively referred to as male. This was not a dispersion on women but rather the erection of a barrier to characterizing God as a fertility god. God is neither male nor female. (Scripture uses feminine imagery in reference to God’s acts though God is never referred to as female.) Third, scripture unmistakably places humanity in a position that is above nature as co-regents with God. I referenced the two creation stories in Genesis in the previous post but there are also passages like Psalm 8 (NRSV):
1 O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Fourth, the Judeo-Christian heritage views a progression over time toward some higher state for the created order. “Filling the earth” and “exercising dominion” over the earth in Genesis implies moving from a state of chaotic and unproductive beauty toward another beauty where humanity fills the earth and acts as co-regents with God, creatively evolving nature toward its fruition. The beginning of the story starts in a garden called Eden but it does not end their nor return there. It ends in a city called the New Jerusalem. The city is always considered to be the crowning achievement of humanity. The New Jerusalem seems to be a melding of the natural world God created with the creative work of humanity in making the earth a home.
I wrote in earlier posts that reason and the idea of progress are two major contributions Christianity has brought to the world. It has unleashed unprecedented learning, prosperity and freedom in the world. However, in so doing, humanity has also found new tools they may employ in their “home building” efforts to exclude God. Over the past three hundred years, extending back to the Enlightenment, we have seen the emergence of a type of “progress” that is based in ruthless subjugation of creation and bending it toward human aims that are disconnected from God’s values.
One virulent stream is a Social Darwinist survival of the fittest headlong pursuit of power and control over nature. Nature is nothing more than a repository of raw materials for the every whim and pursuit of human ambition. Nature is the enemy. Urban architecture during the modernist era is highly symbolic of this attitude. Concrete and Steel structures with their box like windows rise up and block out the sun. They consume every square inch of surface space leaving only small paths for people to move in. Plant and animal life have been banished from the presence of these eikons of modernist humanity that dwarf anything on the human scale and reduce the human being and nature to the inconsequential and the invisible.
A second virulent stream is the Christian heresy of Marxism. God was banished from the world but the message of progress and the inevitable realization of a new world order were retained. What is paramount is the realization of the new world order. Consequently, the natural world and individual human beings are of little significance. They are often considered obstacles to the emergence of the new world order. Everything must be laid on the altar of new world order.
The fact is that neither Social Darwinism nor Marxism hold the influence they did 50-100 years ago when they were at their peak. But echos of them still reverberate strongly in our era.
* Francis Schaeffer, “Pollution and the Death of Man,” in Francis Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis Schaefer: A Christian World View, Vol 5, A Christian View of the West, 2nd ed., Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1982. 29.