The screen on your phone and the screen on your computer are populated with icons. You can probably picture them: there’s the one for your web browser, maybe it’s a fox or whatever the Google thing is, somewhere there is probably a music note representing your collection of recordings, you probably have something that looks a bit like a camera too. I want to suggest that these icons surrounding us can serve as a reminder of several things Christians believe about our calling as human creatures.
An icon, of course, is a simple symbol that represents something bigger or more complex. Let’s think about this as we reflect on Gen. 1:26-28 and 2:15 as well as Col. 1:15-20. After all, it isn’t just the computer world that uses icons. In Romans 8:29 Paul says that we are intended to be eikons of the Son. In II Cor. 4:4 and Col. 1:15 he refers to Jesus as the eikon of God.
The Christian worship tradition has a place for icons as well, especially in Orthodox circles. I remember meeting the curator of a museum exhibit of very old Russian icons. She took a group of us to a room where some of these artifacts were stored. We put on gloves and picked some of them up and looked at them closely. Most of the images were made on wood. The curator explained that Christian icons are not said to be “painted” but “written”—they are so packed full of ideas. These icons were not idols to be prayed too, but visual representations of a theological truth that should move us to prayer. If contemporary art is intended to raise our awareness or get us thinking, Christian icons are intended to get us praying. The passages we read today tell us that icons aren’t just symbols that we make. They tell us that we are to be icons.
We are broaching another installment in our summer-long exploration of God’s call. Today we want to reflect on this in general terms, in terms that apply to us not because we’ve heard a voice or seen a vision or because we have a special talent, but simply because we as human creatures. And so we turn our attention, not to the story of a specific individual, but to the Bible’s account of God’s intent for human beings. We want to look today at a few verses from the beginning of the book of Genesis.
I know someone who has made quite a bit of money on Bay Street. He’s fond of pointing out that Christians have little use for people in business—until they need money. The flip side of this is the assumption that it is those full-time ministers or voluntary service workers who are really doing God’s work.
We Anabaptists are particularly vulnerable to this because we so strongly privilege the New Testament over the Older Testament. In the New we encounter a growing Christian community flush with the excitement of new things—new ways of being God’s people and new ways of understanding the Hebrew Scriptures. And so there is a focus on “spiritual things” or “churchy things” in the New Testament. It is the Older Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures) that gives us a more expansive vision for how we might live well. There is more there about how we should engage in business, for example, or how we treat animals and fields, pots and pans. It’s in the Older Testament that we find some crucial insight into this vocation we all have—to be a human creature. This is particularly true of the passage we read from Genesis. In these verses we get a sense of the value of working with the stuff of earth.
You might not have noticed it but in the verses that were read we—human creatures—were positioned in three relationships—in relation to God, in relation to the rest of the wild, natural world and in relation to each other. It’s here that we find our most basic calling, to relate to God, the rest of creation and each other. The importance of relations here isn’t quite like the person who feels depressed if they aren’t “in a relationship.” According to Genesis these relations exist before we do as individuals.
A number of ancient theologians would even describe God relationally. I’m thinking of the three known as the Cappadocians and Augustine too. Where we to ask some of them who God is, they would respond: God is the one who sends Jesus into the world, and God is the one who is sent, and God is the power and love of that relationship. We might describe ourselves this way too. Who are you? Daughter or son of someone, spouse, friend of so-and-so, subject of the queen—employee of Nortel, wait probably not that (I’m still getting to know Ottawa).
When we really want to communicate who we are or what we are, we speak of relationships. So in Genesis we see human life described in precisely this relational way: humans bear the image of God, humans have been given dominion over the creatures of the earth and humans exist in relationship to each other. The description of humans as “male and female” suggests that our community is built on similarity and difference.
I want us to focus today, though, on the first two relations and the phrases “in God’s image” and “having dominion.” These phrases will give us a valuable perspective on the work we do and the way we inhabit our part of the world. My guess is that many of us like the idea of being made in God’s image but cringe a bit at the idea of dominion.
What does it mean to be in the image of God (the imago Dei in Latin, if you prefer Latin)? There are few passages in the Bible that have spawned as many different interpretations as this one. Let me cut through the clutter and suggest that to be created in the image of God is less about abilities we have than about something to which we are called.
Let me explain just a bit, if being created in God’s image relates to our ability to reason or to speak or to create then some of us are better humans than others. The other problem that comes if we think of the imago Dei as an ability is that most of our abilities are shared with other animals—dolphins, elephants, chimpanzees and dogs are pretty smart. They can communicate in various ways, reason a bit, grieve and even create. Our difference from them on that score is only one of degree. And yet from a biblical perspective being created in God’s image is deeply important. In Genesis 9:6, for example, this image-bearing status is a reason given for why killing is such a serious offense.
We’ll get a better sense of what bearing God’s image means as we think a bit about the phrase “having dominion.” In Genesis it is the human being that is given dominion over fish, birds, cattle and so on. And we can’t help but think of this as an environmental issue. The fragility of our natural environment has been in the news quite a bit lately. This week we heard about another leak in an oil pipeline. An earlier wave of this awareness washed over North America in the 1960s and 70s. Much of it was indebted to Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Along with that came the charge that Christianity bore particular responsibility. Lynn White made this argument in his famous essay from 1968 “The Historical Roots of the Ecologic Crisis.” The main culprit, he thought, was the Christian perspective that placed human beings at the center of things. And much of that, so the critique goes, is rooted in this passage about dominion. Since then White’s thesis has been (rightly) challenged from a number of angles. At the time though there were few Christian theologians who took the issue more seriously than the Lutheran Joseph Sittler.
Sittler suggested that this idea of dominion should be understood as something gentle and caring, not harsh or violent. Why would he say such a thing? One reason is the way the Bible describes God’s dominion. Dominion refers to territory and authority. God’s dominion is characterized in Ps. 145 by terms like ‘faithful,’ ‘gracious,’ ‘satisfying,’ ‘just’ and ‘near’.
Another reason that we might not need to cringe at the idea of dominion is the verse we read from Genesis chapter two. There were heard that God placed the human in the garden to “till and keep it.” This idea of keeping shows up in Numbers 6:24 – “the Lord bless you and keep you.” It is Aaron’s blessing. We use it as a benediction sometimes. In an older time a keep was the heart of a castle. It was where the royal family stayed safe during attacks. Think of how we use the word today: we have bookkeepers, scorekeepers, groundskeepers, peacekeepers, zookeepers and so on. To “keep” something is to watch it carefully, to be attentive to its needs and to protect it.
To have dominion then means something very close to being responsible for the flourishing and productivity of the earth. To be more precise, Christians believe that to be made “in God’s image” means that human creatures have the responsibility of being “vice-regents.” That’s the term the Mennonite theologian Michael Pahl uses. We are creatures too, but we’ve been given the job of caring for creation on behalf of God. One regretful outcome of the rise of environmental jobs is that the rest of us think we are off the hook. No, Christians believe that to be a human creature is to be responsible to care for this world God has given us. It doesn’t matter what line of work, what stage in life, what level of education, what family status or what amount of wealth we have—our calling is to care and to tend.
Now, think again about Gen. 2:15. We notice that there is another word that comes alongside “keep.” It is “till.” To be a human is to be a gardener, to till and to keep. I care deeply about wild places but I appreciate this combination of words: keeping and tilling. I think the ancient wisdom is quite profound here. Keeping and tilling are not two separate things because we can’t avoid affecting our environment. Creating parks, letting ‘nature’ take its course—is an intervention, a form of tilling even if a furrow is never cut. We can’t help but be gardeners. We might not have much of a green thumb but all of our work—whether it’s in agriculture, in construction, in governmental policy, or in stewarding our apartment balcony—all of it participates in this keeping and tilling.
It’s important then that this call to have dominion, to keep and to till is set within two marvelous chapters that speak so eloquently of the goodness of all creation. Actually the end of Genesis 1 quotes the creator as saying it is “very good.” These opening chapters of the Bible present our calling connected to the flourishing of flora and fauna. To have dominion, to keep and to till is to enhance this flourishing. That’s one reason why what we do, beyond “ministry” and beyond “voluntary service,” matters.
To be a person then is to represent, or to be icons, of God’s loving care. The earth is not ours to use for our own ends. It is God’s. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,” says Psalm 24. Why? Because he founded it, he established it, writes the poet.
In the ancient world kings would have their images placed throughout the land they controlled to symbolize their authority. I suppose something similar still happens today, with the use of corporate icons or national symbols. To be an icon of God is to represent God’s claim over the earth. Jesus did that and now it’s our calling too. Far from endorsing a view of the world that places us at the center, Genesis claims quite the opposite. Our very presence symbolizes the centrality of God, not us. We are reminders, even as we are stewards, of the bigger more complex dominion of God.
All that is true, but it is not the end of the story. Scripture tells us that humans have not fulfilled their role. We have acted like the world is ours. We have assumed that we are accountable to nothing beyond our own interests. We can say that the image of God is clouded or cracked. The icons no longer point clearly to the creator. Neither do they fulfill their stewarding role. I’m pointing us to the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae. Here’s verse 15: “He is the image (eikon) of the invisible God.” The “he” or course is Christ. One way to speak of the importance of Jesus is to say that he shows us again what a true icon looks like. The status and calling that come with bearing the image of God was never lost. But it became hard to see and hard to fulfill. The way that sin breaks shalom makes it hard to see God’s loving dominion over the whole of creation.
There is a powerful theology of creation in the New Testament. At its core is the idea from Colossians 1, that in Christ “all things hold together.” I love that line, “all things hold together.” In him we see creation’s inner logic. In Christ science and faith hold together. In Christ the needs of all God’s creatures hold together. In Christ the reality sin and God’s loving justice hold together. And through Christ “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.” Not just people’s souls . . . but all things. In Christ God is at work to make peace with all things. And it is not a cheap peace. There is no naiveté to the gospel. It is a hard earned peace that comes at the cost of “the blood of his cross.”
We are fond of speaking of peace, and rightfully so. It is at the center of the gospel. But we can’t speak of the gospel without speaking of goodness of creation. And in creation too we find peace, not a static peace, the peace of sleep or death, but a peace that involves the work of keeping and tilling God’s very good creation. A digital icon represents something more sophisticated and powerful. As God’s icons we are all called to do the same on this wonderfully wild blue planet.