Today I finish my July project of reading, summarizing, and reacting to Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts.
She points to three paradigms for understanding the human place in creation.
First, there is the dominion paradigm. This derives from the Bible’s mandate for humans to have dominion over the earth and its creatures (Genesis 1:28, Psalm 8:6). The church has let this paradigm overshadow others. People have used it to justify making human need paramount and discounting the importance of the rest of creation. But there are other ways to understand this idea.
The second paradigm is stewardship. This has been developed especially by evangelical scholars. It modifies the notion of dominion by stating that the human race has been given a caretaking responsibility for the environment. This means that people must act for the well-being of other species as well as our own. Johnson criticize this emphasis as not lifting up the interdependent nature of our relation with all life on earth. It keeps the top-down relationship between humans and other life.
So she proposes the community paradigm. Rather than being top-down or human centered, this view is God centered. When God speaks to Job from the whirlwind, it is to show that humans like Job share in a theocentric world where Job is not supreme. Also the passage (Job 38 ff.) implies a profound divine joy and pleasure in creation.
From Job, she moves on to Psalm 104 where man is just one of the many creatures to whom God gives life and breath. God cares intimately for many species. There is no trace of the dominion idea.
The Prophets bring another dimension to this. The animals suffer and face threat along with humans
Therefore the land will mourn,
and all its inhabitants will perish.
The wild animals, the birds of the sky,
and even the fish in the sea will perish (Hosea 4:3 NET Bible).
Also, the creation shares in visions of restoration.
Let the desert and dry region be happy;
let the wilderness rejoice and bloom like a lily! (Isaiah 35:1 NET Bible)
This all feeds into what became St. Paul’s vision of creation groaning together with humans in anticipation of the renewal of the resurrected world Romans 8).
My only criticism here is that Johnson seems to want to hold the community interpretation up as correct and see the dominion interpretation as incorrect. They are both in the Bible. The dominion interpretation has been misused. But it is part of what Israel Knohl would call the “divine symphony.” So we have point and counterpoint, not exclusive alternatives. But Johnson does a good job of showing that there are alternative ways to imagine the relation of people and the species.
The best part of this book for me has been the theological. The adoption of a green environmental perspective contains much that I have heard before and do not entirely agree with. But her interpretation of death and suffering in an evolving world of life as cruciform, her interpretation of the incarnation as deep and embracing plant and animals flesh as well as human flesh, and her interpretation of resurrection and the last things as including all creation–these insights were very helpful.
In my career I have had to deal with people who want to know if I believe that God created the world “just the way the Bible says he did.” I have always used that question as a way to start a conversation about what the Bible actually says. On the other hand, from seminaries and theologians in my tradition has come process theology as a way to integrate evolution into theology. I have not found this necessary or helpful, because it seems to me that process theologians tend to lose core Christian doctrines.
Elizabeth Johnson has been helpful because it is apparent that she really believes in the incarnation and the resurrection, precisely the core doctrines that worry me in process thought. Yet she also believes in evolution and , further, believes that evolution is beautiful and comes from the hand of God.
So she affirms that the contradiction so many assume exists between evolution and Christian faith is not real.
So I have enjoyed this book. I will long ponder many of its insights.