Permaculture and Imago Dei: An Ecological Divinity

Permaculture and Imago Dei: An Ecological Divinity
David R. Weiss – June 18, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #30 – Subscribe at

We’re coming back to “dominion,” I promise. But in Genesis 1:26, the conferral of dominion happens like this: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind* in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion …” So it makes sense to consider first imago Dei, the Latin phrase that captures this declaration that we are somehow “in the image of God,” as a prerequisite to exploring what it might mean to “have dominion.”

*As in the Yahwist account (Gen. 2:4-25), the Hebrew word behind “humankind” here is also adam—a play on the word for dirt: adamah—so God is effectively saying, “Let us make dirtlings, earthlings, humus beings in our image …”

I want to suggest that imago Dei—to carry an image … reflection … echo … of divinity—evokes an intrinsically ecological notion of divinity. Most of us grew up steeped in a sense of God’s transcendence, although we likely didn’t have the words to say it. We knew God as infinitely distant, infinitely other; certainly in heaven and certainly not on earth. It’s true that both Christian theology and the Hebraic spirituality that came before it, have held distinct strands of both transcendence and immanence (God’s infinite nearness), but Christians in particular have tended for generations to downplay immanence. Seems like it’s easier to ruthlessly exploit the planet if God is elsewhere.

But what if our ancient cosmologies carried a wisdom predating scientific fact that saw animate energy interwoven with cosmic matter from the very start? Recognizing that the deep cosmology of the Bible is a distant but clear cousin to permaculture just might inspire us to get better acquainted with this legacy that might be our lifeline toward Transition.

Even before we take up imago Dei, this verse raises another interesting question. God says, “Let us …” Just who is that creative us? Some scholars view it as a vestige of an ancient sense of multiplicity in the godhead: that even as the ancient Hebrews embraced the radical notion of monotheism (with frequent slips into worshipping other gods), there was still an overwhelming intuition that God’s oneness was somehow also a manyness. Others regard it as an instance of the “royal we” or the “majestic plural,” where the writer shows God speaking like a monarch on behalf of the royal house, perhaps a collective reference to the whole host of heaven: God and all the angels. I’ve even seen arguments that this is a hint at the Trinity—as if we overhear God conversing with godself.

I’ll offer a more evocative reading. Genesis tells us, “God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation …’” creatures …’” and “God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures …’” and “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures …’” (1:11, 20, 24) These aren’t scientific or historical claims, but it seems significant that this account portrays a God who works with creation in creative partnership. Given what we know today of life’s unfolding course, why not read the “us” as God turning to the entire animal kingdom (all brought forth in the immediately preceding verses), and saying to them with a grand evolutionary invitation, “Now, let us—all of you creatures—let us together make human beings in our image … so that they carry within themselves both the seeds of creaturely roots and the aspirations of God.”

Alongside the theological awe in response to God’s absolute otherness, there is an equal awe appropriate to God’s absolute nearness. God’s wisdom is writ upon the natural world. Those who dare, might say God’s wisdom is wholly at home there. And what are we humans, if not earth, able at last—after eons of cosmic patience—to sense the wisdom and beauty that has been waiting to be known all along?[1]

Now, imago Dei. Few biblical notions are so dear to our heart—and so dysunderstood as this one. (Okay, that’s not a real word, but it’s accurate: we don’t merely misunderstand this word, we twist it to suit our desires; we intentionally dysunderstand it.)

The burden of self-consciousness is existential anxiety. We actually know we are … and can anticipate that we might one day not be. Our drive to fashion meaning—through religion, culture, art, work, etc.—is the basic alchemy of humanizing our lives. Done sufficiently well it “treats” our existential anxiety and makes life bearable. Done exceptionally well it renders life meaningful.

This is the inescapable predicament of humanity: this is what it means to carry within ourselves both the seeds of creaturely roots (finitude) and the aspirations of God (imagination). And, too often, we prefer to evade the entire ordeal by pretending as though “we’re not really from around here.” We read imago Dei as lifting us above creation. We take our lesser angels, lust for absolute power and absolute knowledge; we project them upward onto God; and then congratulate ourselves on bearing that image.

In the biblical story, while God certainly exercises power as one might expect, God also and remarkably chooses vulnerability again and again. Look at the company God keeps: second-born sons, enslaved people, slow-tongued leaders, women, Gentiles, and awkwardly outcast prophets. God opens godself to a depth of emotion that we rarely connect with divinity: feeling anguish at the suffering of the Hebrews in Egypt; betrayal by their infidelity; sorrow at their exile in Babylon; even compassion for the Ninevites in the Book of Jonah. It would overstate it to call God an emotional wreck, but the God of the Hebrew Bible chooses to be whole not by avoiding vulnerability but by embracing it.

But what if God is in fact unimaginably from around here—far more intimately immanent than we expected? Mechtild of Magdeburg (1210-1280 CE), a Beguine mystic, said, “You ask me where God dwells. I will tell you. There is no lord in the whole world who lives in all their dwellings at once except God alone.” About fifty years later, Meister Eckhart (1260-1329 CE), the famous Rhineland mystic, offered an even more visceral image: “God was pregnant with every creature from all eternity.”[2] In other words, what if being imago Dei means to be intimately interwoven with the natural world? What if being imago Dei means exactly to call the tension between finitude and longing HOME and to do so with grace?

We find ourselves as a society—no, as a species—in the most excruciatingly vulnerable moment of our existence. We have pretended for so long—and with such a vengeance—that we are not from around here, that Here is on the verge of becoming no longer hospitable to our being. If there is a way forward in this moment, permaculture and Transition will be essential companions. Recognizing their essential kinship with our being in the image of an ecological divinity may help us embrace them as the family we need right now.


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:

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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)

[1] Already 35 years ago, Brian Swimme’s dialogical parable The Universe is a Green Dragon (Bear & Company, 1984) blended contemporary physics with sacred reverence to suggest that human beings are (at least one instance of) the universe coming to conscious awareness of itself.

[2] Mechtild was a German Beguine (a lay religious order that was dedicated to serving the poor, but did not take did formal vows). Eckhart was a Dominican theologian and friar (preacher). Both quotes appears in Meditation with Mechtild of Magdeburg (ed. Sue Woodruff, Bear & Company, 1982, pp. 15, 29).

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