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Creation and Morality



If Fyodor Dostoevsky, one of the greatest Russian novelists, was right when he asserted through his notorious character Ivan Karamazov that riveting aphorism, “If there is no God – then everything is permitted”, one could naturally infer that “if there is no creation, everything is permitted”. Having lived almost half of my life in a communist part of the world, I have encountered many wonderful and morally upright atheists. So, the idea that if a person does not accept the concept of creation will mean that the person will be immoral is not necessarily implied by this notion. Dostoevsky’s provocation is more concerned with the question on what basis does one seek to build a solid and sustainable system of moral life. And in the most fundamental way, the story of creation and its theological implications, give the moral compass to the relationship between the Creator and the human creatures, and provide a solid ethical base that governs the relationship between the human beings as well as the implications for the ethics of creation care. 

Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, rightly argued that the theology of creation undergirds the foundation for a conscious Christian approach to morality. “God makes man in his own image and respects the works and dignity of what he has created” to the point of valuing human persons so much that ‘he himself becomes a human person”. (“Human Rights in Theological Perspective”, Human Rights for the 1990s, (1991), 2-3) And our own Richard Rice meaningfully concluded that “the doctrine of creation .. . circumscribes or defines our lives, setting boundaries on our activities and aspiration”. (The Reign of God, (1985), 100.) Implicitly, theology of creation warns us against violating any of the basic conditions of our existence – one basic condition being the fact of brotherhood of all humanity, which assumes equality of races, genders, nationalities and economic positions.

That is why, in a very powerful voice, wisdom literature in the Bible cries out on many occasions similar sentiment found in Proverbs 14:31: 14 and verse 31. “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker, but whoever is kind to the needy, honors God.” We must never think about the poor without thinking about God who is the Maker of the poor. Because our attitude to the poor is reflected in our attitude to God and, at the same time, our attitude towards God is reflected in our attitude to the poor. And if we think of the poor in relation to thinking about God, it will revolutionize our understanding and attitude to the poor as well as to the m any marginalized people of the contemporary world.  Proverbs 22:2 repeats this creation perspective and how it is supposed to govern our relationship with the other that is different from us. “Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the Maker of them all.”  Job knew this as he exercised righteousness by looking after the orphans and the widows, the ultimate underdogs of his society in his plea to “show no partiality to princes and do not favor the rich over the poor, for they are all the work  of his hands”.  (Job 34:19)

We have to learn to look beyond the poor, behind the poor, to the God whose offspring we all are. (Acts 17:28)  It does not mean that God created or even intended human misery, or that God is responsible for human poverty. It simply means that the poor, because they were created as human beings by God, have an intrinsic value and an intrinsic dignity that is our responsibility to recognize. They have this dignity because God created them. And implicit rather than explicit, he made them in his image and his likeness. The poor are God-like human beings and because the creation of God in God’s image gives them dignity which we must respect. To oppressed anyone is to despise God the Creator”, or as Proverbs 17:5 reinforces it, “He who mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker.”

And here is another implication from the same text: the same God who made them, made us. That is to say, we share the same Creator. We are equal bearers of the divine image.  There is a significant implication to the moral life among the created human beings. Ellen David put it succinctly: “Through the poor, the creator of heaven and earth becomes vulnerable to our contempt! Likewise, in them God waits to be honored. The Gospel parable of “the sheep and the goats” (Matt 25:31-46) develops this insight: “Just as you did it [or did not do it] to one of the least of these, you did it [or did not do it] to me”, says Jesus. Thus we learn that righteousness is not a matter of conformity to some objective code of behavior. Rather, it is finally a matter of how we treat God, who is directly on the receiving end of our action, both good and evil.” (Ellen F. Davis,Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000, 95.))

By being created in the image of God, the human beings became different from the rest of the creation. Adam and Eve became the bearers of the image of God (Gen 1:26-28). Imago Dei implies both moral ‘uprightness’ (Eccl 7:29) and a function which was described as man’s “creative mastery of existence”. (Pannenberg, What is Man?, (1970), p. 15.). Mankind’s divine image and dominion over the lower creation is mentioned in one breath. However, there is no mention of dominion of one human being over the other. The image of God implanted to a man and a woman implied clearly their equality and compatibility (Gen 2:27-28). Rice said it well:

“God never intended human beings to exercise dominion over other human beings. The idea of the image of God confers a dignity on every individual. Since all bear the image of God, one human being should never be the property of another. Neither race, nor sex, nor age elevates one person or group to a position of sovereignty. The concept of the image of God  rules out all forms of slavery – economic, political sexual.” (The Reign of God, (1985), 112-13.)

Since we are created in the image of God, we share in God’s dignity. Human beings are invested with responsibility as stewards of creation. This implies that if we harm another being or allow another human being to be harmed, we damage the Creator whose image she bears. This also means that our theology of creation should bear a very significant moral witness to how we treat the environment that we were entrusted with, and how we leave the good earth which was intended for the entire human race, therefore for the children that will inhabit it in the next segment of earth’s history. Creation care is our moral responsibility because “God has declared its value to himself [as the Creator], and because we have been instructed to do so as part of our kingly function as the species made in the image of God. Creation care is fundamental dimension of our humanity.” (Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, (2004), 127.)

If God the Creator fashioned human beings on earth in God’s image, it is our responsibility to be our ‘brothers keepers’, because the universal fatherhood of God established through creation implies the universal brotherhood of  women and men in every place and at all times of human history. And it is human dignity in people that leads us to love and respect them and governs our relationships in moral and ‘upright’ way. Furthermore, the earth, which we are a part of as we were ‘designed’ from the “dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7) is for us to cultivate and to take care of for the glory of God. As Seventh-day Adventists we have understood this from the early years and took seriously sustainable living that is morally responsible for the plants and animals. We have also seen its importance in the way we were to bond with our God in nature through our Sabbath afternoon walks and through taking care of health of not only ourselves, but by establishing a hugely successful health care system, of many nations and people around the world. However, we have neglected leading out in the environmental responsibilities and sustainable creation care. Our theology of creation should direct us further to be responsible stewards and to leave this planet created by God in a better shape than we find it as we occupy till our Lord Jesus comes to place us in the unpolluted and unspoiled environment of the perfect new city where the trees will be lining the streets and producing leaves that will be “for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2).

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