Earth Day and the Image of God
by Steven Siciliano | 22 April 2020 |
When Earth Day was first celebrated fifty years ago I was barely a teenager—a budding environmentalist with an affinity for the outdoors and a dawning grasp of the principle that all creation is one interdependent system. That insight emerged from the relatively new discipline called “ecology” and comprised a lasting, holistic vision that has informed my lifestyle choices, political leanings, and theology as a Christian pastor.
Wait a minute. Did I say theology as a pastor?
I expect that last statement may have surprised some, since caring for the planet doesn’t seem to mesh with the perception of Christianity in contemporary American culture. But the connection is there. In fact, the origin stories in the first two chapters of Genesis, at the very opening of the Bible, establish that connection and relate it to “Imago Dei,” the notion that humans are made in the “image of God.”
The first chapter of Genesis describes how God confronted the primordial chaos that would become our earth and introduced light and order, progressively arranging things on the planet so as to sustain life. Then, on the sixth day, God made human beings and said they were made in His image and likeness. Chapter two presents a parallel story, explaining that Adam and Eve were taken from the ground, placed in Eden, and commissioned to dress and keep the garden or, perhaps closer to the Hebrew, to “serve and protect” it.
All that is the backstory. But what does it mean to say we’re made in the image of God?
I’ve heard exquisite proposals through the years, including the idea that we bear God’s image because we have the capacity to reason and make moral choices, or because we have the power to think and act as free individuals.
A third option, and an outstanding one, is that God’s image resides in our gift of creativity, which involves logic, inventiveness, and the ability to envision a yet unrealized future. Plus, the creative enterprise reflects what God had just done in the story!
These three proposals, and others like them, describe noble, aspirational characteristics of human nature, but they are all extrapolations in the sense that none of them are spelled out in the passage. Close attention to the narrative itself suggests that the image of God may have more to do with actions than abstract qualities.
For instance, the immediate context does not mention or refer to any trait, but assigns a task. It says, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth (Genesis 1:26).” Verse 28 repeats the idea, with God again saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
In other words, the image of God may more accurately describe our assigned role in the world, which is to subdue chaos and preserve order, so that life can flourish. Not many decades ago the term used to describe that commission would have been “steward.” Nowadays, we might say we are God’s managers. Either way, when the story says we share in God’s image and likeness it seems to refer to an action. And if those words do indeed refer to our role and task then we could justifiably say we are God’s face to the world. That is, when nature’s flora and fauna look up towards God, they see us and feel God’s care through us. And I would say that is a very “Earth Day-ish” concept.
Of course, the biblical story doesn’t end there. Things go off the rails pretty quickly—in the next chapter, in fact! But these first two stories depict a world that was ordered by God and ordained to be dependent on human environmental management. I’d even assert that the human race was designed for planet earth; that our very identity resides in the task of caring for creation.
In other words, serving as managers of God’s creation is not just what we do. It’s what we are.
As for the rest of the story, theologians more learned and sophisticated than I have read the story of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures as a saga of God’s intention to put all things right. For Christians, the idea called the kingdom of God, or God’s righteous rule, carries the same import. Believers look to Jesus as the second Adam, the restart of the human race, the anointed ruler who would restore the image and rightful role of humanity in the world, so that the rest of us might take up our original assignment and once again manage creation in the spirit of unselfish love.
Not just one day of the year, but once and for always.
Steven Siciliano is pastor of the Jackson Heights and Hartsdale churches in the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University, and an M.A. in Community Health Education from Adelphi University.