Plundering Eden is not a boring book, either in its rhetoric or its substance. Wagenfuhr addresses his audience with forthright statements and forceful assertions, which serve to undergird his powerful ethical challenge. The problem the book addresses is both empirical and ideological.
Problems, Empirical and Ideological
Wagenfuhr marshals important evidence to show that human interaction with the earth and its creatures has been immensely destructive for a very long time, although this destruction has accelerated immensely in recent history. He points to species extinction, climate change, deforestation, soil denaturing, etc., typically linked to our development of cities, with their “settled agrarianism” (p. 80) and their economic and social control of outlying regions.
Our impact on the earth has been so profoundly negative that Wagenfuhr does not hesitate to describe humans as parasites on creation (that is, we take, without giving back). I find it difficult to contest this point; Christian readers might do well to begin by lamenting the terrible state the planet is in and our complicity in contributing to this state.
Wagenfuhr presents his diagnosis of the problem as being neither incidental (a few mistakes we have made in the way we related to the earth) nor essential to the human species (as if humans have always been this way and there is no hope for remedy). Rather he traces our destructive tendencies to our ideology of civilization, the “social imaginary” (a term made popular by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor) that has dominated our species for millennia. In this “Myth of Civilization” (the title of chap. 3), humans believe they have the right and destiny to impose their image upon the natural world, with no regard for consequences for other animals, the productivity of the soil, or even long term negative effects on people (the question of sustainability).
Interpreting the Genesis Creation Texts
Although the ideology of civilization is older than the Bible, Wagenfuhr links this ideology to a particular reading of the Genesis creation accounts—to which he proposes an alternative reading. Wagenfuhr charges that we have typically misread the idea of humanity as imago Dei. He also claims that we have misread what it means for us to rule the animals and subdue the earth (Gen 1:26, 28) and to work and protect the ground (Gen 2:5, 15).
I imagine that I was invited to respond to Plundering Eden because my expertise as a biblical scholar is in the Genesis creation accounts. In particular, I have done most of my work on the imago Dei and its connection to what has been called the “cultural mandate” as a way of thinking of the human-earth connection. Although I have a somewhat different reading of these themes as they are grounded in early Genesis, I do not intend to dismiss outright Wagenfuhr’s alternative reading. On the contrary, I am willing to listen (though not uncritically) to his proposals, to see if I can gain new insights.
On the meaning of the imago Dei, Wagenfuhr makes the forceful point that the image is not priestly (p. 98), nor does it involve imitation or likeness to God, since this would be idolatry. Instead, the image is the calling of humanity to represent God and to witness to God’s character (pp. 98–99). Wagenfuhr is at pains to affirm that there is no ontological continuity between God and creatures, or between God and humanity (pp. 152–154). “God is wholly other” (p. 152). In particular, he denies the idea of any continuity or similarity Although I have a somewhat different reading of these themes as they are grounded in early Genesis, I do not intend to dismiss outright Wagenfuhr’s alternative reading. (“nothing in common”) between God’s creative activity and human creation, since the former is ex nihilo, while the latter consists in the imposition of cosmos on chaos, and is always violent (p. 88).
Wagenfuhr is certainly right that Genesis avoids the idea of Chaoskampf (creation as the result of a battle with chaos), but he seems to assume that any use of power to shape the world is intrinsically violent (which simply does not follow). Even if God’s initial bringing the world into being is ex nihilo (something not explicit in Genesis 1), the rest of the chapter describes the process by which God uses formative power to shape and develop the world from its initial state (Gen 1:2) into a complex cosmos. It seems to me that our imaging the God of Genesis 1 would involve unfolding new possibilities of earthly life, on the model of God’s generous use of creative power.
The Human Calling and the Development of Culture
When it comes to the human calling in Genesis 1 and 2, Wagenfuhr is opposed to the cultural mandate. He is adamant that not only does creation not need developing by humans (pp. 89, 99), but that there is nothing in either creation account about humans legitimately developing the possibilities of creation (p. 94). “This is nothing but a Christianization of the myth of civilization, and it has no biblical support” (p. 89).According to Wagenfuhr, the task given to humanity in Genesis is the conservation of the fruitfulness of the earth. This means that Wagenfuhr does not view the cultural development mentioned in Genesis 4 (including the origin of cities, music, metallurgy; Gen 4:17, 21–22) as positive; such creativity or “crafty” development is intrinsically violent and occurs in the (disobedient) line of Cain (pp. 112–13).
Wagenfuhr also asserts that the notion of stewardship, which is often thought of as the original human calling, is an anthropocentric, utilitarian, control-oriented idea, which reduces the earth to a repository of resources for our benefit; such an idea is not grounded in the creation accounts (pp. 98–99). Thus he states: “Creation has no use-value” (p. 93).
According to Wagenfuhr, the task given to humanity in Genesis is the conservation of the fruitfulness of the earth (p. 104). And lest we think that the primal couple in Genesis 2 are to engage in agriculture (a typical reading of the mandate to work and protect the garden in Gen 2:15), Wagenfuhr emphatically states: “The human task in Eden was not agriculture, but land care” (p. 94; his italics). Humans in the Garden were not meant to be farmers, but gatherers, allowed to feast on already growing fruit (they are not even hunter-gatherers).
Wagenfuhr has many genuine insights about the normative human relationship to the earthly creation, which I gladly affirm. For example, he notes (pp. 92, 97) that humans multiplying on the earth (in fulfillment of Gen 1:26, 28) should not prevent animals from multiplying (thus the current rate of species extinction is a moral problem). In his critique of the myth of civilization, he makes the valid point that we shouldn’t try to domesticate or inhabit all the earth (p. 93); genuine wilderness is a good thing. He rightly stresses that power without accountability (which underlies our parasitism on creation) is a terrible thing. “This parasitism is the inverse of the image of God” (p. 95).
Some Interpretive Missteps
However, I perceive some interpretive missteps in his reading of the human vocation. Although his point about Adam and Eve being given fruit as their nourishment in the Garden is correct as far as it goes, their task was to work the Garden (‘abad) and not just to guard or protect it (shamar), which suggests more than conservation. Although it is de rigueur in some circles to translate ‘abad as “serve” (thus humans are to serve the Garden),While Wagenfuhr is undoubtedly right that the earth should not be reduced to a resource for human use, the link between Genesis 2 and Revelation 21–22 suggests a more nuanced view of technological development. its usual meaning when paired with words for land or ground is “work,” and it would likely be understood by the original audience of Genesis as a reference to farming (hence it is often translated “till”). It certainly seems to have that meaning in Genesis 3:24, where humans are expelled from the Garden to work the ground outside (which, according to Gen 3:17–19, will be increasingly difficult). And in contrast to Wagenfuhr’s idea that farming was not part of the original purpose, Genesis 2:5 says that one of the reasons God delayed the growth of vegetation was that there was no human to work or till the ground (suggesting that the Garden was not intended to be wilderness).
While Wagenfuhr is undoubtedly right that the earth should not be reduced to a resource for human use (with no regard for the integrity of creatures), the link between Genesis 2 and Revelation 21–22 suggests a more nuanced view of technological development. Genesis 2 describes the Garden as rich in gold (presumably this was in naturally occurring veins). Yet when we come to the New Jerusalem (which contains the tree of life from Eden), we find a reference to gold that has been worked by human manufacture, not to mention precious stones used in the walls, foundation, and gates of the city (Rev 21:18–21).
Indeed, in contrast to the idea that the city is itself the prime example of human parasitism (an intrinsically “totalizing artificial environment”; p. 83), we have the Old Testament expectation of a renewal of Jerusalem (a city that the prophets often describe as full of injustice and bloodshed), such that it would bring joy to God (Isa 65:18). And the New Jerusalem becomes a central symbol of the final state of the redeemed people of God in the New Testament (Rev 21:2), a state that is both communal and urban. Yet Wagenfuhr dismisses the idea that this symbol has anything positive to say about cities (p. 238); indeed, he claims that “cities are irredeemable” from a Christian perspective (p. 81). I, on the other hand, think that the New Jerusalem suggests that cities (like music and metallurgy mentioned in Genesis 4) are not intrinsically problematic—they can be redeemed.
Likewise, the cultural innovations recorded in Genesis 4 in the line of Cain are not unambiguously evil, but represent (like all cultural products) an ambiguous mixture of good and evil—which requires discernment rather than blanket condemnation. Cain himself receives grace and protection from God after his murder of his brother (Gen 4:15). And God’s blessing (including human multiplication, evident in the very line of Cain, as well as the genealogies in early Genesis) continues after the Fall.
The different readings that Wagenfuhr and I have of the early chapters of Genesis (and Rev 21–22) cannot be limited to specific exegetical disagreements. This is because it is possible to construe exegetical details differently,The different readings that Wagenfuhr and I have of the early chapters of Genesis (and Rev 21–22) cannot be limited to specific exegetical disagreements. depending on the frame of reference or lens by which one reads the text. A simple example is whether the idea of priesthood is applicable to the human calling. Wagenfuhr’s objection to humans as priests seems to be based on a particular Eastern Orthodox construal of this idea, where humans bring the praise of creatures to God; he is at pains to affirm that non-human creatures have their own relationship to God and do not need humans for this. Granted. But one could just as easily view priesthood in terms of humans representing God to the non-human world, modeling their power on God’s generosity, as they care for and develop the world; while this development would be to human benefit, it would also need to respect and protect the integrity of creatures.
It is the expectation of a proper, restored relationship between humans and the non-human world that leads the psalmist to call on non-human creatures to sing for joy in Psalm 96, since God is coming to judge the peoples of the world in righteousness. Or as Paul puts it, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom 8:19). Lest we think that this restored relationship is reducible to land care, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the mountains of Israel, announcing to them the good news that after the exile God’s people will inhabit them again (Ezek 36:1–15). Beyond the land yielding fruit for God’s people (36:8), which may fit Wagenfuhr’s paradigm, verses 9–10 state that the mountains shall again be tilled and sown (which implies agriculture), and the waste places rebuilt (which implies towns or cities).
The Way Forward—Christology and Ecclesiology
In one sense these exegetical details over which we disagree are only the background to Wagenfuhr’s main point, namely, his proposal for the way forward. Assuming that others will address his positive proposals in more detail, allow me to summarize his claims and give a brief response.
The essence of Wagenfuhr’s proposal is for the church today to disengage from the ideology of civilization and live as an alternative community, following the way of Christ,The essence of Wagenfuhr’s proposal is for the church today to disengage from the ideology of civilization and live as an alternative community. which involves our participation in his self-emptying death and new life he offers. Grounded in his discussion of the imago Dei, the church is to represent and witness to the alternative reality of God’s kingdom. At one level, it is impossible to take issue with this proposal.
However, the paradigm or framework through which Wagenfuhr interprets the Bible means that he construes this proposal as implying that there is nothing in our social world or built environment that is redeemable. There is an absolutism here that results in his rejecting all half-measures (like alleviating poverty, job training, etc.), since this just integrates people into a idolatrous, destructive system. Such attempts to bring redress to injustice are a waste of time and actually signify compromise with the fallen world, which is passing away. As he puts it, “there is no real public ethics that Christianity has to offer to the world” (p. 81). His reasoning is that “a broken system must be allowed to fail in order that it may be replaced” (p. 81).
And yet Wagenguhr makes these radical claims in a book, a cultural, technological product that involves the destruction of trees, which he condemns (pp. 94, 184). And even if he could avoid this by publishing only e-books, this would require computers that use heavy metals in their manufacture and would, further, participate in the system of digital media that is part of the supposedly corrupt world. So there is a fundamental performative contradiction at the heart of Wagenfuhr’s proposal.
Wagenfuhr takes Jesus’ public ministry as a model for our lives today, noting that he was an itinerant preacher, with nowhere to lay his head, who told us to consider the birds, who neither sow nor reap. As he colorfully puts it, Jesus was “an uncivilized man, a savage. He did not lead a settled life. He did not pursue economic flourishing. He did not contribute to the common good of his city or district like a responsible citizen. He did not work” (p. 158).
The trouble with such absolutist statements is that they present only a half-truth. This picture of Jesus ignores the first thirty years of his life, when he was part of a family that made their living in the building trades. He was a tektōn (Mark 6:3), as was his father (Matt 13:55), a term that includes carpentry, stonemasonry, and related skills. This makes me wonder if Jesus’ change from working for his livelihood to an itinerant ministry is the basis for Wagenfuhr’s more nuanced point: “The time is coming when being Christlike means giving up livelihoods we have trained for, giving up homes and homelands for the sake of the kingdom” (p. 157). As I understand Wagenfuhr (and I could be wrong), that time is already here.
Yet despite my problems with Wagenfuhr’s exegesis and his proposals, it is important for us to hear his ethical (Christologically rooted) challenge in its full force. Although, in my opinion, this book overstates its case, both exegetically and theologically, it ought to make us think hard about the negative effects of human dominion. I personally shall be ruminating on Wagenfuhr’s challenge for a long while.