Theological and political carts and horses

On the Huffington Post, Jonathan Dudley says the faith claims we say we’ve gotten from the Bible are often staked to the sort of thinking to which we’re already predisposed.

For example, the command found in Genesis to “have dominion” has had several hermeneutical approaches in the history of readership.

As a result of our current environmental woes, today’s progressive evangelicals often read this as a command to exercise “stewardship” over the natural world, to refrain from excessive manipulation of nature and shield it from exploitation.

But early Christians thinkers such as Saint Augustine saw it very differently. Guided by his culture’s preference for allegorical readings and stress on self-denial, Augustine understood “the beasts” to be sinful impulses that “could serve reason when they are restrained.” “Having dominion,” in his culture, meant exercising self-control.

Medieval theologians, by contrast, were interested in creating encyclopedic bodies of knowledge. The command to “have dominion,” in this context, became a command to accumulate facts about the natural world. As Oxford historian Peter Harrison notes, “knowledge of the creatures was thus another way of restoring … the original dominion that the human race had once enjoyed.”

And early modern thinkers interpreted the command to “have dominion” differently yet again. In a cultural context where burgeoning technologies were increasingly used to manipulate the natural world, “having dominion” came to mean intervening in nature to make it more useful for humans. As John Locke put it, “God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life.”

So be careful.

Category : The Lead

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One Comment
  1. I just finished reading Dudley’s “Broken Words:…” Good book. I commend it.

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