August 21, 2011
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 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.”
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.
Reading from Swedenborg
Each and every thing in nature and its three kingdoms has something active within it from the spiritual world. If there were not this kind of [force] within it, absolutely nothing in the natural world would actuate cause and effect, so nothing whatever would result. What is present in natural things from the spiritual world is called the force inherent from first creation, but it is an energy: when it ceases, action or motion ceases. This is why the whole visible world is a theater that portrays the spiritual world.
(Secrets of Heaven 5173.2)
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.” - Genesis 1:28
From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required. - Luke 12:48
Environmentalists wince at the first of these texts. This is surely understandable, given the negative connotations of the words “dominion” and “subdue,” but wincing does not make facts go away. The fact is that we are far and away the dominant species on Earth. We do “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.” In fact, environmentalists recognize this just as much as strip miners do. They do not blame spotted owls for their decline in numbers or organize polar bears to fight global warming. They hold human beings responsible, and the main theological justification for doing so is to be found in that controversial verse from Genesis. Like it or not, we have been given dominion.
The actual extent to which we do “have dominion” is currently under debate, though, particularly in the matter of climate change. For most of human history, we really made only slight impressions on our environment, but that started to change with the Industrial Revolution. William Blake’s passionate poem “Jerusalem” contrasts England’s “mountains green” and “pleasant pastures” with the “dark satanic mills” of his own time, the eighteenth century, and we seem to be not only continuing in the same direction but picking up speed.
Some of the effects of this are fairly short-term and obvious. Air pollution has immediate effects on our respiratory systems, for example, and when the trash collectors go on strike, citizens sit up and take notice within hours or even minutes. It does seem, though, that we are constantly playing catch up; and this too is understandable. The eminent Swedenborgian John Bigelow wrote a little book entitled Resist Beginnings: The Blinding Influences of Sin, to call attention to the insidious ways in which little concessions to our principles can grow into major ones—the “slippery slope” of ethicists. We can be marvelously inventive when it comes to ignoring problems in their early stages. The first house Lois and I owned had a linen closet on the second floor. When we went to pull out the bottom drawer we discovered that it was only a drawer front, and we found out where the previous owners had been sweeping all the dirt. Multiply that by a whole city and you have a major problem.
Sooner or later, that is, the consequences of evading responsibility have to be faced. The bills have to be paid, so to speak; and for some problems the bills do come due quite emphatically. For example, in 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. That was a wake-up call not only to Cleveland but to every community that had a polluted river flowing through it. You can’t keep on in this direction. You have to stop. More than that, you’ve gone too far already. You have to turn around and move in the other direction.
Granted, it is hard to determine exactly what our own part is in a process as long-term as fundamental climate change, but if anything, that very uncertainty calls us to come to grips with the second of our texts. Yes, we have been given dominion, a dominion that seems to be increasing at an accelerating pace. It is an immense gift and—not “but,” AND—”From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” When it says in the second chapter that the primal couple was put in the garden “to till it and keep it,” the connotations of the Hebrew words are striking. The verb translated “till” also means “work,” “work for,” and “serve,” and a closely related noun is the standard word for a servant. The verb translated “keep” might better be translated “watch over,” “preserve,” or “protect.” It is the word used six times to describe the Lord in Psalm 121: “The one who keeps you will not slumber; the one who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper, the Lord is your shade on your right hand . . . The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your soul. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 121:4-8).
If the omnipotent Lord is indeed our “keeper,” then there is no inconsistency whatever between “taking care of” and “having dominion,” no more than there is in the honored phrase “public servant.” We cannot take care of a garden unless we have the means to do so. The sequence in Genesis seems to be telling us that the Lord does not first tell us what to do and then give us the means but first gives us the means and then tells us how to use them.
The late Viktor Frankl, whose book Man’s Search for Meaning tells of profound meaning found in three years spent in Nazi death camps, was fond of saying that there should be a “Statue of Responsibility” on the West Coast to balance the Statue of Liberty on the East. It is surely a point well taken. Liberty and irresponsibility are a deadly duo. In a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” adding also, “Great men are almost always bad men.”
If this were all there were to it, the solution would be simple—get rid of all “great men.” However, I believe our theology tells us that what power does is not so much corrupt those who attain it as remove obstacles to the expression of corruption that is already there; and that by the same token, the attainment of power can remove obstacles to the expression of unrealized good. After all, the fact that God is infinitely powerful does not mean that God is infinitely corrupt.
We in our own times can see at least as clearly as Lord Acton saw in his how seductive is the tendency to think of power in terms of rights and not in terms of responsibilities. At all economic and social levels, we seem much quicker to insist on our rights than to stand up for our responsibilities. If we do indeed believe in the folly of a combination of power and irresponsibility, then this imbalance is obviously foolhardy. The two, rights and responsibilities, belong together.
When we apply this principle to the biblical injunction to watch over and care for the garden in which the Lord has placed us, it calls for a major shift in our thinking. Rather than trying to prevent the worst we should be trying to nurture the best. Granted, we may have a lot of catching up to do, but simply reacting to things that are going wrong will steer us now in one direction, now in another, depending on the problem. What we gain on the roundabouts we may lose on the swings. Only a positive goal can give our lives a stable and consistent direction; and such a goal is at least outlined for us in the second chapter of Genesis with the statement that we are placed in this garden to serve it and to watch over it. Granted, this is only an outline, but an outline at least gives us a frame to fill in. It’s a start, and if we take it with full seriousness, it is a very good start. The clearer the goals of an enterprise are, the more possible it is to develop strategies and to evaluate their effectiveness. This is as true of the individual and the church as it is of the nation, incidentally.
Our third reading takes this principle to a whole different level. When it says that “Each and every thing in nature and its three kingdoms has something active within it from the spiritual world,” it is saying that for everything “out there” in the world of nature there is something spiritual, something within us, that answers to it. That relationship of responsiveness is the essence of what our theology has called “correspondence”; and if we “look that term up in our own experience,” so to speak, it is not just an intellectual abstraction. Something within us does “answer to” the flight of birds, the beauty of flowers, the grace of a thoroughbred, the fury of a storm, the pulse of ocean waves, the stillness of a forest. When we think of the possible extinction of polar bears, something inside us hurts. If we do not let ourselves care about them, something inside us dies a little, no matter what happens to the bears themselves. We become a little more insensitive, a little more callous.
This does not dictate any specific strategy, but it does clarify the frame within which a strategy should be sought. We begin to see that frame, that affirmative goal, as a way of life that does not violate our own sensibilities because it brings our outer and inner worlds into accord. Nature is no longer a problem that we must solve or an obstacle that we must overcome. It is a garden designed for us, and part of its being “designed for us” is that we ourselves flourish to the extent that we let it into our hearts and care both about and for it.
One thing does seem highly probable, if not certain—if we try to overcome nature, we will lose, and we will lose on two fronts. No matter how sophisticated our technology becomes, the laws of physics and biology will not change to suit our plans. Perhaps we might look a little more intently at pictures of Earth taken from space just to see how very small we are. On the material front, then, we are very, very seriously outweighed.
On the spiritual level, we come to a matter of fundamental attitude. Will we insist on being in control? Will we accept the rules the Lord has designed for us, or will we write our own? The closer we get to this heart of the problem, the more we move beyond the material realm with its many shades of gray to that realm where things are truly black and white, where there is a great gulf, where there is a holy city into which nothing can enter that defiles. In the last analysis, who’s in charge here?
The words of a Woody Guthrie song come to mind:
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
It was indeed “made for you and me”—but we didn’t make it. It was made to suit us, so perhaps we should be careful about remaking it to suit ourselves. After all, our “selves” have a rather checkered résumé. Amen.
Rev. Dr. George F. Dole