Gunton on the Image of God and the Environment

Phil Jackson left a great comment on my Environmentalism post earlier this month:

 I want Christianity to be sustainable without need for extra biblical imperatives, to contain within itself such self-limiting principles as would moderate population, carbon, water, energy by it own understanding of ecology, economy and ecclesiology…

I was reminded of that when reading Colin Gunton’s essay on “The Human Creation” in his The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991). In dealing with the “image of God” in humanity he takes a ‘personal’ reading, building on the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, and argues that the image of God in humanity is not to be thought of as rationality or anything belonging only to the interior mental world, and touches upon the implication of this for human relation to the nonpersonal creation. It’s fairly involved, but worth it:

The merit of the approach to anthropology by means of the concept of person is that it relativizes so many inherited dualisms. Relations are of the whole person, not of minds or bodies alone, so that from all those created in the image of God there is something to be received, and to them something to be given. When the image is located in reason, or for that matter in any internal qualification like consciousness, problems like those of ‘other minds’ are unavoidable. The person as a being in relation is one whose materiality is in no way ontologically problematic, whatever problems derive from the way in which we relate in actual fact to others.
The contention that our realising of the image of God embraces our embodiedness as much as our intellect and our ‘spirituality’ leads into the further point that we are not human apart from our relation with the non-personal world. Much current misuse of the creation, with its attendant ecological disasters, derives from a lack of realisation of human community with the world. It is not the same kind of community, that of equals, as that with which we were concerned when speaking of the community of persons. But it is a fact that we receive much of what we are from the world in which we are set and from whose dust we come. It is the context within which we become persons, and it too, is in a kind of community with us, being promised a share in the final reconciliation of all things. Although it is not itself personal, the non-human creation is bound up with that of the human, and depends upon us for its destiny. It is not something which we stand over against in the sense that it is at our arbitrary disposal, as ‘technocracy’ assumes. It is rather, to use Polanyi’s metaphor, the reality which we indwell bodily, intellectually and spiritually. Here, being in the image of God has something to do with the human responsibility to offer the creation, perfected, back to its creator as a perfect sacrifice of praise. It is here that are to be found the elements of truth in the claims that the image of God is to be found in the human stewardship of the creation.
(pp.117-118)

I think that a lot of this is helpful in looking for the grounds of a Christian involvement in and attitude to the rest of creation. The planet, the plants, animals, seas, rivers, clouds, mountains and valleys matter and are in a kind of relationship with us. This isn’t to personalise creation in a Gaia-theory kind of way, but rather to recognise our relatedness to the rest of creation and our responsibility to care for it. We indwell creation and depend upon it, just as it depends upon us and is bound up with humanity and our personal relating to the personal, trinitarian God. There is an asymmetry to this relationship as the environment is not personal, but there is not such a sharp dividing line between humanity and the non-personal creation as we sometimes imagine.

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One Response to “Gunton on the Image of God and the Environment”

  1. Chris Oldfield Says:

    terrific. Thanks for pointing this out.

    I enjoyed Gunton’s essay in Vanhoozer’s collection helpful, The Trinity, Natural Theology & a Theology of Ntaure

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