God’s command to subdue the earth means for us to have mastery over it, all of it. But true mastery of anything cannot be accomplished without a thorough understanding of the thing to be mastered. With the authority to rule comes responsibility, the responsibility to rule well.
“He who dies first with the most toys wins!” Maybe you’ve heard this once-popular saying, maybe not. Maybe you laughed when you first heard it. If you’re old enough, maybe you saw it on a bumper sticker back in the 80s and laughed. If you did laugh, maybe you thought, “Well, hell, what else is there really?”
This saying is a quote originally attributed to the flamboyant millionaire, Malcolm Forbes. Forbes was an American entrep- reneur who was prominently known as the publisher of Forbes magazine, a business that he inherited from his wealthy father. He was also known as an avid promoter of free market, laissez faire capitalism. He was known too for an extravagant lifestyle, for throwing large, expensive parties for his wealthy friends, for travel and for his collections of homes, yachts, aircraft, art, motorcycles, and Fabergé eggs.
Forbes’ quote serves to sum up the attitude of people like him, people who tend to be more hedonistic. They see life in terms of opportunities for self-indulgence, for pleasure. Me first, they think, my family and friends next – all who serve me, care for me, comfort me, and those who pleasure me. To these types of people, everybody else is just a potential friend/ally or a potential adversary /competition. True hedonists like Forbes believe that this is the highest good and proper aim of human life. I whole- heartedly disagree. I’m a Christian. I am also a Democrat.
I taught a lesson to second graders today. The subject was biodiversity – a compound word, I taught my students – the first part, bio, meaning life, the second part, diversity, meaning many different kinds. The lesson wasn’t really about life; it was about learning to learn. It was about having an open mind, learning to think critically, learning how to compare and contrast. The lesson included an exercise: comparing and contrasting two different life forms, animals and plants. Yes, second graders are smart enough for this kind of learning, and they’re able to grasp these ideas if the information is presented to them in ways to which they can relate.
I shared with my students how, when I was in school, it was believed that all solid matter was either animal, vegetable or mineral – it was believed that there were only two kingdoms of life: animal and vegetable. Today, I told them, scientists recognize six different kingdoms of life. Life on earth is truly diverse.
A hand went up. “Yes,” I said, recognizing the student.
“What is life, Opa?” I like it that the students in the class I visit on a regular basis call me Opa. It’s what my grandchildren call me.
I might have been thrown off by this question, a deeper question, one that most would not expect a second grader to ask. But I came prepared. I knew how smart, how inquisitive these students are. So I had thought about it ahead of time, I did some research.
“What do you think life is?” I asked the student.
“A gift,” he said, using a rising voice inflection suggesting a question rather than an answer. I surmise that this is something he had been told by a parent, a pastor or another teacher.
“Yes,” I said, “I believe that life is a gift too, one to be treasured, one to be used to good purpose. But that doesn’t truly answer the question scientifically, does it? Are there any other ideas?” I asked. None were offered, so I endeavored to explain.
“It turns out,” I began, “science now believes that solid matter is either organic or inorganic. Organic matter is that which contains compounds including the carbon element. Compound, remember, is a word that means something made up of more than one part, like the compound word, biodiversity. Solid matter that does not contain carbon compounds, like rocks, cannot be alive. But not all organic matter is alive either. All of it either is or once was alive though. Live organic matter has purpose, its primary purpose, is to survive long enough to reproduce, to create new organic material. Organic matter which is not now alive has a purpose too; it feeds organic matter, either directly or indirectly, which is now living. Think of compost, decaying organic matter which we use to feed our garden plants. Think of worms, insect larva, and scavenger birds feeding on the carcasses of dead squirrels and other small animals.
So,” I told my students, “the scientific definition of life is this: It is a transitory state of organic matter, a state in progress of change during which new organic matter is created. This,” I told my students, “is the cycle of life.”
While my students were thinking about this, processing it, I moved on to the exercise, the compare-and-contrast part of my lesson. We focused the rest of our time talking about the similarities and differences between plants and animals. And this, their answers, assured me that they understood how to think critically. I hope they will continue to think critically for their entire lives.
After returning home, I got to thinking about part of my lesson, that part having to do with life, specifically the part about the purpose of life. Is that all there is, I thought, surviving long enough to reproduce? For some forms of life, sure, but, no… surely not for higher forms of life, surely not for humans. I turned to the Study Bible online and found this explaining the famous passage in chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes: 19For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. 20 All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. 21Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?
Hold on, didn’t God set man apart from the other animals, gave us dominion over all the earth? That makes us special, does it not? Yes.
The word dominion means to rule or power over. God has sovereign power over His creation and has delegated the authority to mankind to have dominion over the plants and other animals (Genesis 1:26). King David reinforces this in Psalm 8:6: “You made [mankind] rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet.” So humanity was meant to “subdue” the earth (Genesis 1:28 to hold a position of command over it; we were placed in a superior role and we are to exercise control over the earth, its flora and fauna.
God’s command to subdue the earth means for us to have mastery over it, all of it. But true mastery of anything cannot be accomplished without a thorough understanding of the thing to be mastered. With the authority to rule comes responsibility, the responsibility to rule well. There is an inherent accountability in God’s command to subdue the earth. Therefore, we have a collective responsibility to learn all there is to know about the earth, its occupants, and our place in the cosmos. We have a collective responsibility to protect and defend the environment.
The word, subdue, doesn’t necessarily imply violence or mistreatment. It can also mean “to bring under cultivation.” It can mean “to love and take care of” and that is the meaning I believe is conveyed in God’s Word. Therefore, understanding its true meaning, we are to be stewards, good stewards, of God’s creation. We are to love ourselves, love our neighbors and all of creation. That is our purpose. That is our greater purpose. But, yes, in due course, we will perform our basic purposes as living organisms too: We will survive to reproduce. But we will also do these things: we will protect and nurture our young as all other higher animals do; we will toil to produce so that we might share with our issue and with our neighbors, especially those who struggle, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually; we will contribute to the common good; we will leave a legacy, and; in due course, we will return to the dust from whence we came, thus completing the life cycle.
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