Sermon at Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, Norway
Sunday 9th October 2005A sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
When God tells Adam in the first chapter of Genesis that he is to subdue and have dominion over the earth, many would say that this is the beginning of a tragic and disgraceful story – the story of how human beings ravaged and exploited the earth for their own purposes, exhausting its resources and ruining it for future generations. Those who are now most deeply concerned about our environment often accuse the Jewish-Christian tradition of being responsible for a history of greed and abuse directed at the natural world. If we are at last to take our proper responsibility for the earth, we must leave behind this particular religious legacy and find another way of understanding our place on the earth, a way that is more sensitive to the sacredness of our environment.
This is understandable in many ways. But there is much more to be said; and some of it is said in Genesis, some in this morning's reading from the Gospel. First of all, let's look at the rest of what our story from Genesis tells us. It says that human beings are made in God's image; and it tells us that God looked on the whole of what he had made and saw that it was good.
Human beings are made in God's image. That is, they have something of the capacity to see as God sees and to act as God acts. So, if God looks on the world as good, so must God's human creatures. And when God sees the world as good, he does not see it as good only because it corresponds to human plans or because it makes human being comfortable. It is good because it is related first to him, to his beauty and generosity; as we learn later in the Bible, the world is made to reflect God's wisdom – and that wisdom is the cause of joy and hope for human beings.
So if humans are to 'subdue' the world, the one thing this cannot mean is that they are licensed to treat the creation with indifference or violence or disrespect. The first thing they must do is surely to look at it as God looks; to delight in the joyful order of God's mind as it is shown in what God makes. Humans must understand that creation is precious to God because it reflects his joy in his own beauty. Before ever human beings are on the scene, creation is looked at by God with this loving joy.
Perhaps we understand the command to 'subdue' creation better when we think of this as a command not to let ourselves as humans be conquered by the world around us. What is special about humans is that they are free – free to relate to God by their actions and thoughts and hopes as no other being on earth is able to. Let yourself be submerged in desires and preoccupations that bring you down to the level of instinct – fear, greed, aggression – and you become less than you really are in God's eyes. So don't let your horizons be limited by material concerns, by the desperate search for survival and safety. You are more than that; you must subdue the temptations to be less than really human.
The human being, as Luther said, is the 'free Lord of all' – not because he or she can control everything and will never be surprised or hurt, but because they know that their worth depends upon nothing they do or achieve but only upon the free love of God. This is what our Gospel insists on. We are not to be anxious; God pours out his grace on all beings he has made. He clothes them with splendour and gives them what they need to live out their span of life, whether it is short or long. Some lives are vulnerable and brief and apparently meaningless; but God sees them and loves them and sustains them. And so too for us. God will not guarantee to keep us safe and successful, but he promises his companionship and his forgiveness through the words and the work of Jesus.
So Jesus tells us to see ourselves as part of a creation whose value is given by the love of God – to see ourselves and all beings as God sees. What this will mean, he says, is that we become fully free, free to give priority to God's justice. We leave behind the struggle to bend the world to our needs, the search to make ourselves materially safe. And when that happens, justice is possible – because injustice arises from the fear of some people, which leads them to pile up possessions and to fight to defend themselves.
And questions about the environment are themselves questions about justice – about behaving in such a way that all may have the same kind of access to the goods that this world produces – including the good of beauty and solitude that is offered by a world that ahs not been ravaged by exploitation. As we consider beauty, we are more and more set free; as we are set free, justice becomes more and more possible. We have 'subdued' the earth by learning to behave as real human beings, beings capable of conscious love and joy. We have allowed ourselves to become fully part of creation by living out what is most essentially distinct about us. Rapacious and violent attitudes whether towards other people or towards the environment, are challenged by this new humanity. And without the freedom that comes from a firm belief in God's loving appreciation of us and all beings, that new humanity will not come into existence.
Pula reminds us in Colossians that the entire world holds together in Christ and because of Christ. He is supremely free, the Lord of creation. He above all is free from the downward spirals of sin, greed, selfish longing, violence; he alone is completely surrendered to God the Father, receiving everything from him with total responsive love for all eternity. It does not mean that he manipulates and controls the world; on the contrary, he exposes himself to the greatest risks and dies in anguish on the cross. But it is he who transforms everything, restoring it to its proper dignity and beauty; it is he who reconstructs real humanity, so long buried in the subhuman world of fear and greed. He makes it possible for us to stand where he stands, to be 'in him', and so to begin to learn his freedom. The words of the gospel become no longer just encouragement or inspiration; they can be made real by living relationship with Christ through his Spirit.
So our Jewish and Christian tradition definitely doesn't speak with only one voice about how we should behave in God's world. So far from giving us unlimited licence to exploit, it sets before us a picture of what our real humanity is like; and central to that picture is the loving appreciation of the dignity of all God has made. It tells us that we are in danger of slipping into subhuman ways of relating to the world and each other. And it shows us the path to freedom – the freedom Jesus speaks of, the freedom to seek God's kingdom and God's justice, careless of the risks we may run, knowing that our value does not depend on how secure we make ourselves, or even how well we succeed in our quest for justice, but on God's loving gaze always turned towards us, seeing us even in our struggles and failures as good and loveable in his merciful eyes. In that strength we renew our commitment to honour the world he has made and to show in our acts and policies how we seek to see as God sees, in joy and in mercy. Amen.
© Rowan Williams 2005