Who We Are

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Genesis 1:26-28

By understanding both who we are and what we were made for, Christians have an important clue for knowing how to relate to the world.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Genesis 1:26-28, nrsv

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,

and crowned them with glory and honor.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;

you have put all things under their feet,

all sheep and oxen,

and also the beasts of the field,

the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,

whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Psalm 8:3-8, nrsv

At the heart of the biblical view of human beings is an expression of wonder. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,” cried the psalmist in Psalm 8, “the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” As he gazed upwards at a star-filled night sky, the psalmist’s mind was filled with thoughts of awe at the vastness of the universe and the contrasting littleness of human beings. What is the life of a person, or even the whole human race, when compared with the life of a galaxy? But this isn’t what caused the deepest sense of wonder in the psalmist’s mind. Responding with awe to a glimpse of the Milky Way is not unusual. And looking up into the heavens on a cold, clear night, we all tend to feel minuscule and insignificant. No need to write a Psalm about that. So when the psalmist asks, “What, in comparison with the universe, are human beings?” the only possible answer would seem to be, “Nothing!”

But that is not the answer the psalmist gives. His real sense of wonder isn’t triggered just by the size of the universe but by the significance of human beings, of each and every human person. We are not insignificant nothings. God notices us! The God who created the heavens and the earth crowned his work by making humankind. People are both the climax and the goal of creation. As such, God has given them an identity to enjoy and a role to fulfill: “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet . . .” (vv. 5-6).

This defines our place in God’s scheme of things. In the biblical scheme, humans fit in the middle. We are lower than God and the angels, yet higher than the rest of the world and its creatures. Christianity is sometimes criticized for being the product of an ancient world view that naively thought the earth was the center of the universe, and therefore that humanity was the center of God’s attention. Now we know better, these critics contend. We can no longer accept such an antiquated picture of things. But the biblical view has always been that people are in the middle, not of the universe, but of the spectrum of the created order. We are half-way up the ladder of God’s hierarchy, inferior to deity yet superior to the animals, endowed by our Creator with a significant place and role. That means every human being is a creature of dignity, value and importance, representing God as God’s image on earth.

MADE IN THE IMAGE OF GOD

Who are we? How is our creation in the divine image important for understanding our identity and significance? And what is our original assigned role in the world God made?

Let’s think first about the question of identity and significance. One of the troubling side-effects of contemporary life is the way it belittles and diminishes individuals. Institutions have become so large and impersonal in a modern technological society; what does any single person matter any more? And the view of the universe informed by physics and astronomy only increases this sense of personal insignificance. I referred in an earlier message to astronomer Carl Sagan’s book, Pale Blue Dot, in which he urges us to see the earth as just a tiny blip in the cosmos. Not only are we humans nonentities; our whole world is nothing much, really, when viewed against the backdrop of space. You have probably heard some version of the popular analogy that tries to give a sense of the time-scale of the universe. If the age of the entire universe were compressed into a single day with the Big Bang happening just after midnight, then the earth wasn’t formed until around 6 o’clock in the evening, the dinosaurs lived at 11 p.m., and humanity appeared just a second or two ago. How can something that is only a couple of seconds old possibly mean anything in the context of the whole day?

But this reasoning is flawed. It is arguing that value and importance are based on size and age. By that logic, a boulder would be worth more than a diamond, and a rusted out old junker would be preferable to a brand new car. The world view of modern science tends to diminish human importance by its description of the scale of proportions of time and space relative to human existence. The biblical world view does just the opposite. In the Bible, the creation of the universe is covered in little more than a chapter. The rest of the book is about people. The Bible depicts the whole course of the history of the universe – even if that is billions of years long – as merely the curtain-raiser for the drama of the human story. It’s people that really matter.

The first chapters of Genesis offer a corrective to a number of different philosophical or theological errors. They offer a rebuttal to ideas like polytheism, materialistic naturalism (the belief that nature is all that exists), even astrology. Now we find one more error corrected by the biblical record, one of the most fashionable errors of our time – the idea of the fundamental insignificance of human beings and the meaninglessness of human life. According to the Bible, human beings are the crown and goal of the whole physical universe. The creation of the heavens and the earth is like an overture – a very long overture to be sure! But the opera does not really begin until the hero and heroine – Adam and Eve – appear on stage.

If the proportions of the biblical narrative emphasize the significance of human beings, the position assigned to them by God underscores their uniqueness. As we noted earlier, we are lower than God but higher than the animals. We share a physical nature with the other creatures of our world, but we uniquely possess a spiritual nature as well. The Bible says that God breathed into Adam the breath of life (Genesis 2:7.) That makes us special. In making people God used a directness, even an intimacy unlike his creation of any other animal. The biblical account of the creation of humankind is an answer to the devaluation of human life in the contemporary secular world view. For many modern thinkers, people are really nothing special. Human life may be worth no more than the life of a cat or a dog or even an insect. There are some radical animal rights advocates who argue that a baboon has just as much value as a baby, and the survival of the one should not be preferred over the survival of the other. At their most extreme, these anti-humanists claim that people are the biggest problem in the world, and the solution is simply to get rid of everybody. You get the feeling that such views derive not so much from the love of animals as from the hatred of humans. Christians and other people of faith resist any devaluing of human beings because of our conviction that God the Creator made people in his own image and endowed them with a unique nature and status. This belief stands like a bulwark against the abuse of human rights in any shape or form.

GOD’S REPRESENTATIVE ON EARTH

As well as being God’s image, the human race is also God’s representative. God put us on earth, according to the Bible, to represent him and rule in his place. Ancient kings often made statues of themselves and sent them to distant provinces to represent their presence and authority. In a similar way, one of God’s purposes in making humans in his own image was so that we could represent God’s invisible presence on earth and rule as his regents or deputies. Our original purpose was to manage the earth and its resources on God’s behalf. This is exactly what God commissioned Adam and Eve to do in Genesis 1. God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over . . . every living thing” (Gen. 1:28). All things are given to humanity – to use for our own benefit, but also to nurture and protect. The whole earth, perhaps even the whole universe, is ours to fill and govern. That is God’s commission to us as his representatives. We have dominion, rulership, over the rest of creation, not because we are the strongest or cleverest of the animals or because we have gradually achieved superiority over all our competitors in the realm of nature, but because God made us to be like himself and gave us authority to rule in his name.

What are the implications of the dominion God has given us? The biblical teaching about the rule of humanity over the creation should lead Christians to adopt a theology of stewardship of the earth and its resources. Christianity has sometimes been taken to task by environmentalists who say that the biblical command to have dominion over the earth and to fill and subdue it has led to the abuse of nature and the destruction of natural resources through the technologies of consumption. In fairness, we should acknowledge the justness of some of this criticism. Too often dominion over the earth has meant not care for the earth but exploitation of it – the poisoning of air and water, the ruthless extraction of natural resources, the wasting of the earth’s good things, the despoiling of nature’s beauty, even the extermination of our fellow creatures – and all in the name of profit and progress. Biblical Christians must be committed to stopping all this environmental abuse, not because we are radical environmentalists or New Age pantheists but because we recognize our God-given place over the creation and our duty to rule responsibly. Rule, as the Bible understands it, means stewardship.

For people with a biblical world view, the earth is not just a jungle to be tamed or a market to be exploited. It is a garden to be tended, and a temple in which God is to be worshiped. Last winter I visited California’s Sequoia National Park. The giant trees were impossibly huge, the largest (and oldest) living things on earth. Some of the trees around me were already growing there in that spot at the time of Christ. Standing in the pure, silent light of a mountain dawn, I felt as if I were in some gigantic open-air cathedral whose living columns held up the sky itself, and I was moved to worship the majestic God of creation there in that wilderness temple. But not everyone has that same reaction to nature. When settlers discovered the groves of California sequoia in the late 19th century, their first impulse was to cut them all down and sell them for lumber to make money.

As Christians we must insist that the only motive that matters is not the profit motive. Christians should be motivated by something else – a sense of responsibility as God’s stewards of the creation. We don’t look on the world simply as a resource to be used or abused, or as a storehouse to be plundered and emptied.

As creatures made in God’s image and commissioned to be God’s representatives ruling on earth, we must act on behalf of the creation. We need to acknowledge that we have often misused our position of authority and betrayed the trust God put in us when he placed us over the creation. We have polluted our world, wasted its life, squandered its resources. As Christian believers, as those who have been saved in order to grow into the likeness of Jesus Christ, we must begin again to act as responsible governors over the creation. Issues of consumption, conservation and ecology are not merely social or political; they are theological. Some day God is going to hold an accounting. He will judge how responsibly we carried out our commission and how faithfully we executed our trust. “I gave you a perfect world,” he will say; “what have you done with it?” Will we be embarrassed and ashamed, like a person who borrows a brand-new car and returns it smashed and dented and leaking oil? It will be especially shameful if, as Christians, we knew better but went on abusing creation anyway.

So let’s remember who we are, and live responsibly.