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Dr. James B. Miller, Ph.D. (Co-Chair)
Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith
Thoughts on Human Origins
I believe that the meaning of the universe is ultimately grounded in the intention of God. I believe that God calls the universe into being and that it is thus a creation. I believe that God calls the creation to participate in its own creation. I concur with the classical Christian theologian, Augustine of Hippo, when he wrote that “God, the Author and Creator of all natures, does nothing contrary to nature; for whatever is done by Him who appoints all natural order and measure and proportion must be natural in every case.” Thus, I believe that God works exclusively through natural processes to create.
I believe that human beings, Homo sapiens, emerge completely through natural evolutionary processes. By virtue of the Christian belief in the incarnation, the enfleshment of the divine intent in creation, I believe that the affirmation that humans are “made in the image of God” is not an ontologically exclusive claim but that all creatures, as they embody the intention of God, are “made in the image of God.”
Reflections on The Age of Humans (the Anthropocene)
A Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy proposed this past fall (2016) the recognition of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. The current epoch, the Holocene, began at the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. Although geological epochs tend to extend over tens of millions of years, the proposed new epoch is intended to recognize the profound effect that Homo sapiens have had on the structures and processes of planet Earth. While there is little debate that modern humans have had and are having substantial impacts on global climate systems and the quality of air and water, this impact began much earlier than the rise of industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is arguably with the domestication of plants and animals, the rise of agriculture, that Homo sapiens began to reshape the planet. Humans went from being hunters and gatherers to being farmers and city builders.
It is possible that this fundamental change in human presence on planet Earth is memorialized in the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. In the Priestly account of the creation of the world (Gen. 1:1-2:4a) the penultimate act of creation is that bringing forth human beings who are charged by God to
‘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.’ God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’” (Gen. 1:28b-30a)
In the Yahwist account God plants a garden and then creates Adam to “till and keep it.” (Gen. 2:4b-8). Then because “It is not good that the man should be alone” Yahweh creates the beasts of the field and the birds of the air as potential companions and helper for Adam. Though they are rejected for this role, Adam does name them and in so doing exercises authority over them by completing their creation. (Gen. 18-19) Tilling and keeping are technological enterprises that transform wilderness into gardens and farms. “Beasts of the field” are cattle not natural herds of wildlife.
In 1967 historian Lynn Townsend White, Jr., wrote in Science magazine that it was the royal regency imagery of the Gen. 1 that had sanctioned the human exploitation of nature that had resulted in a contemporary ecological crisis. (The historical roots of our ecological crisis. Science. 155. pp. 1203–1207) His conclusion has been challenged by Christian theologians emphasizing the “till and keep” language of Gen. 2, and arguing that this language supports a relation of stewardship to the rest of nature.
However, to me this is a shift from a royal and conquest metaphor to a bureaucratic one both of which unduly elevate Homo sapiens above the rest of nature and fails to acknowledge the actual evolutionary connection of humans to the rest of life on Earth. All life on Earth is bound by relations of kinship. Except for those progenitors that are in our direct line of descent, all other living creatures are our cousins (even if many times removed). Neither royal regent nor steward are adequate metaphors for our relationship to the rest if life on Earth.
But it is also the case that it can be argued that other creatures also have profound impact on the Earth. The very oxygen that we breath is in part a “gift” to us from cyanobacteria (so-called blue-green algae) and other photosynthetic plants. The biomes, communities of bacteria that live within us and on the surface of our skin, are co-evolutionary contributors to our physical well-being, though some can also be pathogenic.
It cannot be doubted that Homo sapiens have had a profound impact on the Earth’s ecological structures and processes. The fact of this impact should encourage a profound sense of responsibility for the consequences of our actions for other life-forms and the inorganic and organic processes that support life on Earth. If identifying our time as the Anthropocene heightens our human sense of that responsibility, then it will serve us well. If it serves to elevate human self-regard then it will not.