Much of last weekend was spent driving through Midwestern countryside picking my son up from one camp, driving him to another, and then driving home. As often happens, I was struck by the overwhelming amount of green—trees and grass and crops and vines and bushes and weeds—everywhere, green. And while there were plenty of thriving farms and small towns, there were also lots of abandoned farms, homes, barns, rusting cars, and cast-off farm equipment. While the implements of human dominion of creation were decaying from the forces of nature, creation’s power seemed unabated. Through rust and rot, nature seems, in some places, to be taking back lost ground.
Often now when we talk about God’s stated intention and command that humans “have dominion” over creation, we are told or it is implied that that command has been fulfilled. Humans have come to dominate nature in ways that are exploitive and destructive. We now need a different paradigm for our relationship to creation, one of stewardship. While I certainly think that old models and understandings of “dominion” missed the point of Gen. 1 and 2 (stewardship or benevolent care and governing consistent with being in God’s image was always the point!), I also think that the idea that we have attained dominion of creation is amazingly hubristic and also the product of fairly selective recollection and, on some level, a lack of imagination. The idea that we now dominate creation seems based on equal parts insulation and self-delusion.
First: insulation. If there is some germ of truth to the idea that we now dominate creation, it is in the way we in the West (or at least the urban West) have been able to insulate ourselves from experiencing the vicissitudes of natural phenomena. The international macro-economy means now that a crop failure in one part of the country or world causes, at least for us, probably nothing more than higher prices or limited availability rather than starvation.
When I teach undergrads the book Luther on Vocation, one of the difficult tasks for them is to imagine the world into which Luther was writing—a world where one literally did not know from year to year if there would be food to eat or whether another plague would ravage the land or if you would be injured and die from blood loss or infection or, if you lived in the countryside, whether from day to day you would be attacked by wild animals. Life was precarious. Serving your neighbor rather than looking to your own good was a risk. This is hard for students to comprehend. For them and for us, service is often conceived of as coming from our situation of security and abundance. We serve because we have been blessed. But for most of the history of the church, there was little security, and the call to service has been in the face of uncertainty and the ever-looming possibility of death at the hands of the forces nature, not to mention other humans. But as Luther notes, vocation (service to the neighbor) which involves no risk of loss on our part is not really service because it does not force us to trust in God, but gives us the opportunity for pious self-congratulation and thus deepens our sense of security and our trust in our own power. We imagine we are insulated from risk because we now have fertilizer and insecticides and irrigation systems and antibiotics and cars that carry us safely through dark and lonely backroads where animals are more scared of us than we are of them.
Second: self-delusion. Our security is mostly illusory, however. Our unwillingness to recognize that we do not, in fact, have dominion over most of creation becomes apparent in the panic evident when that illusion is shattered—when epidemics break out or tornadoes rip across the plains or floods inundate the river valleys or coasts or earthquakes or volcanoes erupt, almost none of which could be predicted very far in advance much less prevented. It is no surprise that most popular apocalyptic scenarios play on the horror of natural, uncontrollable forces rather than the spiritual conflict. These are a horror to us because they shatter our bubble of security, they remind us that our “dominion” of creation is an illusion, that we are vulnerable, and that in us against the world, we are unlikely to win. Existence remains a battle. The benevolent, ruling stewardship we were intended to have was lost with the other elements of primordial harmony and shalom. What should have been (Gen 1 and 2) is not what now exists. There is now enmity between the humans and animals and even between humans and the very dirt from which they were taken. After Eden, pretensions to dominion over creation are mostly either perverse dreams or intellectual pacifiers to help us cope with the very real uncertainty of life.
Nature plays a long game, and the cards are, honestly, stacked in her favor. If we play dirty, we will lose one way or another. We will never attain dominion in this age because it is not ours to attain. It can only be given, and will only be given again in a restored eschatological context. In light of this, it’s best that we play nice. All the collapsing barns and Pompeiis of the world should remind us of this.