Skip Navigation
Bending the Arc (logo)
"the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." - MLK 

Click here to sign-up to receive the twice monthly newsletter.

Click here to read the most recent edition of the emailed newsletter.

Note: The ideas and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the authors' and should not be ascribed to the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes or its members. On August 5, 2021, we archived old blog posts. You can find the archive by clicking here.



God So Loved the Cosmos – But Do We? Toward an Ecosensitive Spirituality

May 18, 2023
By By Dianne Bergant, CSA

What is it about the universe that so fascinates the human spirit? We turn to the sun during the day looking for warmth and reassurance, and to the night sky in wonder and awe. We have always been challenged by its immensity, captivated by its power, thrilled by its grandeur. Down through the centuries, many have believed that the mystery of their future is somehow hidden in the position of the stars. It is no wonder that celestial bodies have frequently been thought to be somehow divine. The way we understand the cosmos has always influenced many of our religious perceptions. 

Evidence of this celestial influence can be traced throughout the history of scientific discovery. Pythagoras’ insistence that Earth is a sphere and not flat challenged literal belief that God is enthroned in the heavens above us. Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe further threatened well established concepts of divinely determined human dominance in the universe. Darwin’s insight into evolutionary processes disputes the notion of the direct creation of humankind. These revolutionary scientific discoveries or theories have challenged time-honored religious understandings of how God works and of the place of human beings in creation. Over time many of these theological understandings have been corrected or reinterpreted. However, correction or reinterpretation has not come easily. 

We face such a scientific revolutionary situation today. Contemporary cosmologists speak of an evolving universe, one that was not completed in six days of creation, regardless of how one might perceive the meaning of the six days spoken of in the Bible’s creation narrative. They insist that there are actually multiverses containing billions of galaxies, some of which, no doubt, contain planets that are able to support life. If this is the case, how are we to understand the Bible’s claims of human superiority? How are we to reconcile the findings of contemporary science that is cosmocentric (centered on the cosmos) with the religious message of the Bible which is so obviously based on an ancient understanding of the universe that is fundamentally anthropocentric (centered on humans)? This is the challenge placed before us today.

Perhaps we have not realized the gravity of ecological issues, because we were not attentive to the limits of the natural wealth of the world, a world that has been prodigal in surrendering its treasures to us. Even when we have been conscious of nature's limits, we may have disregarded them because we believed that the wealth of creation was ours for the taking. After all, does not our biblical tradition assure us that we were commissioned by God to "subdue the earth and have dominion over the fish and the birds and every living thing" (cf., Gen 1:26; 28)? This understanding of our relationship with the rest of the created world was even illustrated formerly in some catechisms, and even in some elementary science books, by means of a pyramid. In this depiction, the vast variety of mineral creation formed the base of the figure; vegetation in its myriad forms was situated just above the mineral world; all forms of animate creation were located higher still; and human beings enjoyed the pride of place at the top. 

This symbolic representation led us to believe that God had created the less complex forms of nature to serve the needs and ends of the more complex forms. This point of view, which is an example of anthropocentricism in the extreme, has made a lasting impression on our scientific imagination and on the theological understanding that supports it. We learned this perspective so well that we find it difficult to appreciate how inaccurate and ecologically dangerous it is. Such an anthropocentric worldview, whether androcentric (male-centered) or a gynocentric (female-centered), is certainly not the worldview found in the Bible. There we read that "the earth is the LORD"s (Ps 24:1), not ours. Furthermore, the world’s fundamental value does not lie in its usefulness to us. Rather, it lies in the fact of its having come from the creative hand of God who, as we read on the first creation narrative, exclaimed that all things were good, even before humans appeared on the scene (cf. Gen 1:4,10,12,18,21,25). We may have been told "to subdue and have dominion," as we read in Genesis 1 (vv. 26, 28), "to serve it (the garden) and to guard it," as stated in Genesis 2 (v.15), but we were not directed to be tyrannical in our governance of the treasures of creation. Rather, we were meant to be stewards, responsible for creation and accountable to God to whom all creation belongs. 

Rejection of the current distorted anthropocentrism

In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis denounces what he calls tyrannical, distorted, or misguided anthropocentrism. By this he is referring to a prevailing point of view that sees humankind as the center of all created reality and the measure according to which all else is to be evaluated. Such a perspective has little concern for other creatures except to the extent that they are useful in advancing human goals. This way of thinking has often been legitimated and reinforced by a literal reading of the creation narrative in Genesis 1, where human beings appear to have been created godlike and commissioned by God to "subdue the earth and have dominion over the fish and the birds and every living thing" (cf., Gen 1:26; 28). A closer look at this narrative will offer us a very different view of humankind’s place in natural creation. 

1) Image of God 

In the first creation account (Gen 1:1-2:4a), the fundamental character of the human couple and of their subsequent commissioning is found in the expression “image of God” and in the twofold commission “subdue’ and ‘have dominion” (vv. 27-28). In the ancient world, people fashioned images of their gods. The images were not considered the gods themselves but were simply representations of the power and authority of the gods, power and authority that was really jurisdictional. Thus, when in Egypt, one was under the jurisdiction of Egyptian gods; when in Mesopotamia, under Mesopotamian gods; etc. This explains the religious trauma experienced by people when they were exiled from their land, which was really the land of their god. Their religious identity was challenged by such an upheaval. Aspects of this practice of setting up images were not unlike the way we revere national flags, which are symbols of the jurisdiction of the power and authority of the nation. While it is true that in the ancient world, the images as symbols of power and authority often came to be valued as idols that actually possessed some form of divine power, this does not seem always to have been the original intent. 

Since this is how images of gods functioned in ancient times, then to say that the human couple was made in the ‘image of God’ is to say that they were meant to represent where and how God exercised power and authority. (To think of ‘image of God’ as the soul is a much latter Greek concept.) Though they were not themselves divine, there was always the great temptation, as was the case with material images of gods, to begin to think of themselves as somehow divine. In fact, Genesis 3 tells us that this was precisely the sin of the first couple. They were not satisfied being ‘image of God,’ following God’s directives and representing where and how God is sovereign. In the narrative, the serpent argued: “God knows well that the moment you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad” (v.5). In other words, being ‘image of God’ was not enough for the human couple when they might have the opportunity of being like gods. The serpent suggested something very attractive, and the couple chose to follow that attraction. This sin was certainly one of disobedience. However, the underlying reason for the disobedience was hubris, which is understood to be excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods. 

A passage from the book of the prophet Ezekiel condemns the same kind of hubris. There we read that the prophet reinterpreted elements of Genesis’ story of sin in his condemnation of the prince of the ancient Phoenician city Tyre. The prince’s successes in trading led him to think too highly of himself. This excessive pride resulted in violence and exploitation: 

Because you are haughty of heart, 

you say, "I am a god! 

I sit on a god's throne in the heart of the sea!" 

But you are a man, not a god; 

yet you pretend you are a god at heart! 

Ezek 28:2

His hubris led to his downfall:

Then, face to face with your killers, 

will you still say, "I am a god"? 

No, you are a man, not a god, 

handed over to those who slay you. 

Ezek 28:9 

When we read this first creation account in this way, we discover that human beings are not autonomous sovereigns of the natural world who were granted a license to exploit the earth or tyrannize other creatures, as a literal reading has sometimes claimed. Instead, they were issued a mandate which included serious responsibility for the world of which they were a part, and accountability to the creator for the governance of that world. This way of reading the creation narrative challenges any kind of tyrannical, distorted, or misguided anthropocentrism. Ignorance of or unwillingness to acknowledge the limitations of human governance over the natural world may be at the heart of much of the arrogance many people exhibit today in their attitudes toward the rest of creation. Many still want to "be like God," boasting unconditional authority and unlimited control over other people and over the rest of nature. Temptation to hubris is ever present.


Invitation Only