Permaculture and Dominion: A Creation Account from a Cliff
David R. Weiss – June 10, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #29 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
Dominion. It’s the elephant in the room, I suppose. No matter what I say about Eden and those first “humus beings,” someone is whispering the whole time, “Sure, sure, but dominion.”
Or maybe not even whispering. Almost thirty years ago I spent about thirty inauspicious days as a Greenpeace door-to-door canvasser. The cause was already dear to my heart, but it was hardly work that matched my psychic energy. Read: introvert’s nightmare. I still recall one man who met me at his door, his demeanor dismissive before I even finished my short introduction. He smiled, patronizingly (he was old enough then—maybe early 50’s—to be my father), and said, “I have four words for you: ‘Let. Them. Have. Dominion.’ End of conversation.” And he closed the door in my face, smiling the whole time.
Today’s post is NOT for that man. Would it be great to swing the minds of those most opposite me in their views? Sure. But there are already a host of other people who find themselves increasingly uneasy with their inherited understanding of humanity’s place in creation. You don’t have to be a Greenpeace supporter to worry that we are “dominioning” ourselves and some of our favorite creatures to death. I write for that “moveable middle,” hoping to invite those of you there to re-considerre a cosmology that is in at least as much crisis as our climate is.
Permaculture sets the “cosmology,” as it were, for the Transition Movement. It paints the picture of a world in which mutually beneficial ecological relationships are possible, desirable, and rewarding. I offer my reflections on the Genesis creation narratives to suggest that they (both!) carry a cosmology that resonates far more with permaculture than we’ve been taught. Because our best wisdom—both its Hebraic roots and early Christian expression—has been largely submerged by another story so pervasive that we presume it’s “our story.” But it’s not. That other story glistens with shiny things, but upon a closer examination the pattern in the weave reflects domination, alienation, dualism, and exploitation. Look closer still and you’ll see that the threads are woven strands of insecurity, arrogance, and fear.
“Dominion” first enters our tradition in the Priestly creation account found in Genesis 1:1-2:3. Like the Yahwist account (see GIT #27 & #28), the Priestly account is entirely disinterested in telling us science. But it’s not quite myth either (myth tends to have a richer narrative plot). This “story” is really liturgy. It holds the rhythm, the soothing cadence, of worshipful words: these verses invite a community to rehearse the truth of its world.
When I taught Bible in college I told into my students, “Scripture has nothing to do with nowhere.” By which I meant that every text has context. Yes, some passages speak well across time and place, but the most potent clues to their meaning and message are bound up with their birth. So it matters profoundly that this creation liturgy was born into a shattered world.
This creation account is ascribed to the Priestly Source, one of the major author-editor voices present in the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible. Concerned with ritual and its role in securing the Hebrew people’s identity, most scholars date it to the Exile. That is, this voice (likely a collection of voices with a shared worldview) appeared in Israel’s life after the kingdom united by David (1000 BCE) and expanded by Solomon had been fractured by civil war (930 BCE). It surfaced after the Assyrian empire swept across the Northern Kingdom and forever scattered those ten tribes to the wind (722 BCE). And it arose after the Babylon Empire not only overshadowed Assyria but claimed the tiny Southern Kingdom, comprised of the remnant tribes of Judah and Benjamin as well (597-586 BCE).
In this last national catastrophe, not only did the people see their countryside overrun and the capital city laid waste, they even saw their Temple burned to the ground. They found themselves landless people—exiles. What does it even mean to be a people without a land? To borrow the image from the older Eden tale, what does it mean to be humus beings torn from the humus that you know … and that knows you? It means that among the many forces shaping Israel’s shared identity, the very precariousness of their even being a people at all threatens to be the loudest “rhythm” in their daily life.
But even more than this—with the Temple reduced to dust and ashes—what does it mean to have a “homeless” God? Isn’t that an ontological oxymoron? Perhaps a lesser spirit, perhaps a demon, might be homeless. But to be incapable of protecting one’s temple lay on the wrong side of any ancient litmus test for a god. If to be a landless people stretched the notions of “peoplehood,” to be a God-less landless people snapped those notions of “peoplehood” altogether.
THIS is the context—the precipice on which the Priestly writers crafted their words. These were cliff-dwelling theologians not because of the physical terrain in which they lived but because of the social and theological reality into which they wrote—audaciously. So while there is more to say about this creation account, the first thing to notice—BECAUSE WE READ IT FROM A SUCH A DIFFERENT PLACE—is that the Priestly account is speaking to people whose power political has been brutally broken, whose national identity has been almost entirely erased, and whose personal-communal-religious self-esteem has been completely shattered.
In THIS context, to announce—through liturgy—that people are imago Dei (in the image of God – Gen. 1:26) is no invitation to arrogance; it is the incredible assertion that, contrary to all outward appearances, you carry within yourselves the very echo of the energy that animates the universe. This image is salve for the soul of a people otherwise undone by their history.
Likewise, in THIS context, “dominion” (also in Gen. 1:26) is hardly a summons to dominate. It is more the suggestion of the possibility of life in which one’s place in the natural world does not merely punctuate the chaos of the last military campaign. This sense of dominion, too, stands in stark counterpoint to an experience mostly unknown to us: the cataclysmic erasure of both personal and national power. It comes as a word of comfort, not conquest.
It’s possible that yet in our lifetimes (or our grandchildren’s) we will ourselves be people undone by our own history, experiencing the cataclysmic erasure of both personal and national power. In that case, we might learn first hand the original power of this creation account. Though perhaps we can still turn away (one might say “repent”) from that future.
In my couple of posts I’ll explore these notions—imago Dei and dominion—further. They’re actually rich with promise for a cosmology that would’ve served us much better than the one that’s given us a changeD climate. And, if we reclaim them quickly enough, they might indeed serve us well as we move toward communities of faith that can embrace Transition and be resilient in the midst of uncertainty.
PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com
 Cosmology can be either scientific or religious-cultural. A scientific cosmology is the best picture science can offer of how the universe came to be and how/why it unfolds as it does. A religious-cultural cosmology is the picture offered by religion (often through origin myths) or, more often today, submerged in a whole set of explicit and implicit cultural assumptions that speak to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the universe and our place in it. In many ways our current climate crisis is a symptom of a crisis in our religious-cultural cosmology.
 Some date it to the post-Exilic period; for my purposes the exact dating isn’t significant. It’s likely the Priestly material took its final form over several generations, and even post-Exile, Israel’s life and theology was indelibly shaped by the impact of the Exile itself.