Monthly Archives: October 2011

Smackdown: Man v. Nature

This is football season (insert frowny-face icon here).  I live near Philadelphia where fans have a reputation – especially football fans.  Because of all the disorderly and illegal behavior at football games, the Philadelphia Eagles and the City of Philadelphia had to create a mini-court at the stadium to be able to process the hoards of law-breakers.  (Take a look at what a Google search on the “Philadelphia Eagles and fan violence” generates.)  I remember when the Eagles lost a playoff game there was a television news clip of a woman with tears streaming down her face who said, “this was the worst day of my life.”  Really?  Lucky her – if that’s as bad as it has ever been.

There are two sports that are worse than football: professional wrestling and demolition derbies.  Yes, trophies are given for smashing up other cars.  I’m at a loss to propose which of those ‘sports’ is more absurd.  At least the pretend violence and staged melodrama of WWF doesn’t burn fossil fuel.  But the WWF stage does remind me of how some religious people view nature: God using nature to smackdown bad people, and people trying to smackdown nature for personal gain.

Every time there is a natural disaster, some religious simpleton claims that it was God’s will or Divine punishment for sin as God uses the force of nature to toy with silly humans gone astray – perhaps reflecting on a literal view of the Noah’s Ark story.  My friend Kathleen is a talented environmental science teacher and reported that one of her students said (I’m paraphrasing here) that they know how humans came into existence, “God created them.”  Kathleen responded, “You can believe anything you want in your church, but this is a science class and we are learning about science here.”  Good thing Kathleen isn’t in Texas, she could probably get fired for saying that.

When combining the view of a punishing god with the supremacy of human beings over nature the result is a world view that provides resources only for the godly and allows for the reckless exploitation of everyone and everything else.  Joseph Campbell told a story about how Zen philosopher Daisetsu Teitaro (D.T.) Suzuki described the Western world view (The Power of the Myth, Program Two: “The Message of the Myth”):  “God against man.  Man against God.  Man against nature.  Nature against man.  Nature against God.  God against nature.  Very funny religion.”

One source of this view, I would suggest, is the creation story from historic Judaism and Christianity.  The first chapter (Genesis 1:26) describes “dominion” over creation by human beings.  According to Strong (The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, James Strong, LL.D., S.T.D., 1995) the word dominion in the St. James Version of the Bible is based on the Hebrew word râdâh, which is translated as “rule” or “subjugate”.  More recent translations of the Bible use the word “power” (Good News) or “rule” (NIV), which I do not find any more enlightened than “dominion”.  I had hoped a little research would reflect the St. Jame’s version’s use of “dominion” to be a poor translation, but that was not the case.

I have not gone to rabbinical school nor am I a Christian Biblical scholar.  I’m a regular person with an interest in religion and a drive to consider context, which is my explanation for “dominion”.  That creation story was passed on in the context of a patriarchal culture, which by definition subjugates everyone to the (male) patriarch.  In doing (secondary) research for this column I have been reading Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: A Biography, and reviewing her earlier work A History of God.  What I continue to learn as I study religion, especially Christianity, is about the human influence on theology and sacred text.  In talking about New Testament parables, an Episcopal priest (from whom I always learn something) said that Jesus’ stories often teach us more about people than God (Rev. C. Reed Brinkman, 9/25/2011).

Power over nature, to most thinking people, is an arrogant illusion.  Go ahead, try and stop a tornado.  And if the only way you can exercise your god-given dominion on the earth is by exploiting the environment and abusing animals, then you are not even a very smart patriarch.  In the long run you are hurting yourself and your descendants.

The selfish exploitation of animals and natural resources may nicely complement Western capitalism but does not reflect the underlying spirit of either Judaism or Christianity, and is certainly not part of most Eastern religions and practices.  The Dominion World View is the unfortunate result of isolating an antiquated minor Biblical reference to justify selfish behavior.  Drowning puppies that didn’t sell, over-fertilizing fields which corrupts the water table, irrigating crops that aren’t intended to grow in arid regions and thereby lessening water resources for everyone else – all justified because God gave you dominion.  That should be an offensive view to both the godly and godless.

Because you have the resources to smash cars into each other doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  It just makes you a stupid, wasteful bully.  Unfortunately, power and resources don’t go only to the deserving.  In fact humanity has a sad history of resources being ravaged by the greedy at the expense of the powerless.  The wise and compassionate stewardship of shared resources not only sustains our survival but make us human beings.  And if you’re religion doesn’t guide you to be a better human being, then trade-up for a better religion, or get to know your own religion a little better.  -J.B.

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