“Who warned you, you serpent’s brood, to escape from the wrath to come? See that you do something to show that your hearts are really changed! Don’t start thinking that you can say yourselves, ‘We are Abraham’s children,’ for I tell you that God could produce children of Abraham out of these stones!” – John the Baptist, St. Luke 3:7-8 (J.B. Phillips)
I was listening to an Assembly of God pastor give a sermon on the radio Sunday, and he said something that struck me. During his closing prayer, he told God that “some sociologists seem to think that we’re animals.” He followed by assuring the Divine that his congregation knew better.
I’ve heard this said before in not so many words, but this time it came on the heels of my completing Amir D. Aczel’s The Jesuit and the Skull (review coming soon!), a wonderful read about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest/archaeologist. Teilhard was a part of the expedition that discovered a Homo erectus skull in China in 1929, but most of his writings about evolution and how it can be reconciled to Christianity were suppressed by the Jesuit order and the Vatican until his death in 1955.
Part of what has made – and continues to make – the theory of evolution so hard to swallow for biblical literalists is that it demonstrates that humans are a species of the animal kingdom, which puts us in the same category as chimpanzees, polar bears, anacondas and sponges. Genesis 1:26-27 tells us three times that God created Man to be in his own image, and literalists have a problem with the image of God looking like Peking Man. But it is the notion of Man’s “dominion” over the creatures of the earth that gives rise to the belief that we cannot be labeled as animals.
The term for our role is literally translated from the Hebrew as “rule,” according to Jeff A. Benner, or dominamini in the Latin Vulgate. Most modern translations—including the New American Bible—use “dominion,” a word that traces back to the Latin dominus, or “lord,” which is of course one of the words that we use to refer to God. It follows that much of Christendom sees humanity as taking on the role of God over Creation.
There is a certain arrogance in this. Instead of humbling ourselves before God as a part of Creation, we do a two-step. We promote human exceptionalism as a means to glorify God from one side of our mouths, then we revel in our own perceived greatness in that role. The idea of “dominion” gives many humans the erroneous belief that the earth is ours to do with as we please, giving Christians the notion that factory farming, genetic modification, animal cruelty and pollution are simply acts of asserting the roles that God gave us.
(One rule that I live by: Be wary of any theology that provides people’s earthly wants, justifies their prejudices or otherwise makes life easier. Why on earth—no pun intended—would God just hand us a planet and tell us to have a go?)
If you look at the International Standard Version, it starts to make sense. Instead of having “dominion” or “rule,” we are made “masters” over the fish and beasts and the like. The noun “master” comes from the Latin magister, which can be translated into “director” or “teacher.” The Catholic Church, for example, has the role of magisterium, or authority to teach us in matters of faith, but it is not the dominus. The Church does not control our lives, though it sometimes tries.
In A Catholic Guide to the Bible (p.40), Fr. Oscar Lukefahr, C.M., explains humankind’s role in this way: “‘In our image’ probably refers to the fact that people have dominion over the earth as representatives of God and are called to care for the world that God has given us.” God did not create the sky so his representatives could foul it up with noxious gases. God did not create the beasts of the earth so that his representatives could shoot them for fun and then mount their heads on our walls. God did not create people so that his representatives could massacre each other.
To say that we are animals should not diminish us or diminish God. Rather, to say that we are animals should elevate the animals. We are not above Creation, but a part of it.
It’s God’s world. We’re just supposed to look after the place.