Reading the 2019 Swarthmore Lecture – Ch 3: Beginning, end, and new beginning

In May 2019, the annual Swarthmore Lecture was given by Eden Grace, a member of New England Yearly Meeting and Director of Global Ministries for Friends United Meeting (FUM). Eden’s lecture was entitled ‘On earth as it is in heaven: The Kingdom of God and the yearning of creation.’ I’m blogging my reflections on the lecture, chapter by chapter. You can read my reflections on chapter two here.

Summary of Chapter 3

In this chapter, Eden focuses on two Biblical passages that speak about humanity’s relationship with the non-human creation, exploring the translation of key words and how these can effect our interpretation of the texts.

The first passage is from Genesis 1, focussing on the Hebrew words kavash and radah, traditionally translated as ‘subdue’ and ‘dominion’. Eden describes how we need to find a way of understanding these words that moves away from a sense of violent enslavement, without underplaying the power and responsibility that humanity has been entrusted with. I found the following insight particularly helpful: ‘For most of human history, and still in many places today, human survival was dependent on subsistence-scale rain-fed agriculture… This text granting them power was given to a people who felt excruciating powerlessness in the face of the mighty forces of nature’(p.43).

The second passage is Romans 8, focussing on the Greek word ktisis. This word describes the whole created universe, placing humanity on a par with other animals, trees, stones, planets and stars. The human and the non-human creation are inextricably linked, and there is even the powerful idea that ‘the whole created universe will find its transformation/salvation through the restoration of the image of God in humankind’ (p.49).

So Eden offers a biblical understanding of our relationship to the rest of creation that balances power and humility. Our power is such that we can do great harm to other created things, and so we have an awesome responsibility, but we should not think ourselves as independent from the rest of creation. We are part of a community of creation.

What is the Creation for?

Eden has chosen passages that describe the beginning of creation (Genesis) and the destiny of creation (Romans). Both of these passages have to do with teleology. Eden deals with teleology in chapter 5 (the most substantial chapter in the book), but I wanted to have a closer look at it in relation to the themes of this chapter. The telos of something means its goal or purpose. To ask about the teleology of creation is to ask – ‘Why did God create? What is the creation for?’ What we think the purpose or goal of something is effects how we relate to it, so these are important questions to ask. I’d like to supplement Eden’s exploration of a Biblical understanding of creation with the insights of one of my favourite (and most Quaker-friendly) theologians, Jürgen Moltmann.

So, what does the Christian tradition have to say about the purpose or goal of creation? Moltmann suggests that the ultimate purpose of creation is the glorification of God. But what does that mean? ‘To “glorify” God means to rejoice in God’s existence and one’s own, and to express this joy in thanksgiving and praise, in the joy of living and in celebration.’[1] An image frequently used in the New Testament to express this ‘feast of eternal joy’ is the wedding banquet.[2] The purpose of creation is to be God’s home, and every experience we have of God’s presence, of joy and thanksgiving, points towards the time when ‘God will dwell entirely and wholly and for ever in his creation, and will allow all the beings he has created to participate in the fullness of his eternal life.’[3]

So what is the creation (both human and non-human) for? Joy!

Don’t forget the seventh day

When looking at the creation stories in Genesis, many Christians have read the account of the seven days of creation and thought that the pinnacle, the summit of God’s work occurs on day six. This is when human beings are created. This has led Christians to say that the purpose of creation is the human being, an androcentric view, placing humanity at the centre of God’s work.

Moltmann says that this is a mistake. By stopping at day six, we overlook day seven, the sabbath when God rests and blesses God’s creation. The sabbath ‘completes and crowns creation’.[4] The sabbath shows that the goal of creation is God resting in and enjoying what God has created. When the sabbath is celebrated, or (in Quaker terms) when we experience the sabbath rest, quiet and enjoyment inwardly, we allow the world to be God’s creation. We stop trying to control it. There is no ‘utility’ to the sabbath. We don’t rest in order to do more work during the rest of the week. Stillness, rest and enjoyment are good for their own sakes.[5] To experience the sabbath is to experience God’s presence, and to be at home: ‘In the resting presence of God all creatures find their sustaining foundation.’[6]

This means moving from an androcentric (human centred) view, to a theocentric (God centred) view: ‘Interpreting the world as God’s creation means precisely not viewing it as the world of human beings, and taking possession of it accordingly.’[7] Human beings are not the crown of creation, the sabbath is!

Even without human beings, the heavens declare the glory of God. This theocentric biblical world picture gives the human being, with his special position in the cosmos, the chance to understand himself as a member of the community of creation.[8]

Being priests in God’s cosmic temple

So if the purpose of creation is the glory of God, and the crown of creation is the sabbath, what is the difference (theologically) between humanity and the non-human creation? According to the Christian story, the difference is that humanity is made in the ‘image of God’. What does this mean? Moltmann suggests that we exhibit God’s image in as much as we demonstrate who God is:

Peoples, races and nations which set themselves up to be masters of the world by no means become God’s image in the process, or his representative, or “God present on earth”… It is only as God’s image that human beings exercise divinely legitimated rule; and in the context of creation that means: only as whole human beings, only as equal human beings, and only in the community of human beings.’[9]

We are called to be God’s image through personal wholeness, through peaceful and equitable cooperation with others. Only then can we exercise the role of a “justice of the peace” in relation to the non-human creation, demonstrating God’s love, justice, grace and peace.[10]

Another way of thinking of humanity’s role, is that we are called to be priests in the temple of creation. If creation was made for God to dwell in it, then the whole cosmos can be thought of as God’s temple. Moltmann writes that human beings ‘are priestly by nature, and stand before God on behalf of the earth, and before the earth on behalf of God.’[11] In Genesis 2:15, Adam and Eve are placed in the garden of Eden ‘to work it and keep (preserve) it’. The same Hebrew words appear in Numbers 3:6-8 and Leviticus 8:35, and both times refer to the work of the priesthood.[12] Adam and Eve were priests! How might that change our attitude to the non-human world if we saw ourselves as priests, praising God in the cosmic temple of trees, mountains, oceans and nebulas, and embodying God in our treatment of the whole community of creation?


[1] Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1996), 323.

[2] Moltmann, 336.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1985), 5.

[4] Moltmann, 6.

[5] Moltmann, 277.

[6] Moltmann, 282.

[7] Moltmann, 30.

[8] Moltmann, 31.

[9] Moltmann, 224–25.

[10] Moltmann, 30.

[11] Moltmann, 228.

[12] ‘Adam and Eve as Priests’, Emendatio (blog), 4 February 2018, https://www.emendatio.nl/adam-and-eve-as-priests/.

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