Plundering Eden is disturbing in all the right ways. True to the book’s subtitle, Wagenfuhr is “subversive” in his critique of human progress and institutions. Looking to technological and political policies to solve our ecological destruction of life and habitats on Earth is delusional, because our technology and policies are themselves problematic, extensions of our corrupt imaginations. Even being made “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27) is no empowerment to manage things as stewards of the planet, Wagenfuhr claims. He resists labels like stewards, rulers, or priests for the human vocation and argues that we can be, at best, reconciled ambassadors of God’s kingdom that Jesus proclaimed (pp. 98, 154, 163).
I want to address the priestly dimension of the human calling that Wagenfuhr denies, since he dismisses it without sufficient reasons and offers a political metaphor that cannot serve as the sole summary of humanity in the image of God. We need more than one metaphor.Reducing our role to that of ambassadors risks oversimplifying reality (pp. 22–23), categorically “saming” humans in order to portray a unified identity (pp. 30–31). My point is that we need a greater diversity of God-given categories for human identity than are found in his book. In addition to ambassadors, every human is called to be like a priest or priestess of the triune God, representing God’s holiness and blessing to the world, and offering the world to God in turn. Only when reconciled to God through Jesus as our high priest can we carry out this dimension of our role in ways that are truly beneficial to our ecosystems and societies.
Selective Silence and Neglect of the Cosmic Temple
Why does Wagenfuhr write that the image of God is emphatically “not a priestly role” (p. 98)? First of all, priests, ceremonies, temples, and most offerings to God are absent from the early chapters of Genesis, as is any command directing humans toward religious activity.Concerning Gen 4, Wagenfuhr implies that religious offerings lead to violence against other humans (p. 98), but Gen 4:4 and Heb 11:4 evaluate the offering by Abel positively, and Noah’s offerings receive a positive evaluation as well (Gen 8:20–21). His explanation of Cain and Abel elsewhere is unsatisfying: G. P. Wagenfuhr, Plundering Egypt: A Subversive Christian Ethic of Economy (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017), 127–29. In some biblical texts, God does not want offerings or festivals, so these rituals and the Israelite temple and priesthood are divine accommodations to human needs (pp. 98, 162). As an Old Testament scholar, I would note that this argument from silence downplays vast portions of the Old Testament that do command religious institutions for Israel.However, I agree that they are accommodations and could cease or be radically reconfigured after the death and resurrection of Jesus, events that inaugurated a new covenant. More importantly, though, Wagenfuhr neglects indications in the creation accounts of Genesis that the universe and Earth’s first orchard (i.e., the Garden of Eden) are portrayed like a royal temple of one scale or another. In Genesis 1, there are priestly terms for how God “separated” things (Gen 1:4, 7, 14), the “kinds” of creatures (Gen 1:11–12, 21, 24–25),The verb “to separate” mostly refers to the priestly duty to “distinguish”—It is the same word—between the holy and ordinary (Lev 10:10; Ezek 22:26; 42:20), the impure and pure (Lev 11:47; 20:25), or between certain priests or musicians and the commoners (e.g., Num 8:14; 16:9; Deut 10:8; Ezra 8:24; 1 Chr 23:13; 25:1). Likewise, “kinds” of animals is a term found almost exclusively in priestly lists of animals (Lev 11:14–16, 19, 22, 29; Deut 14:13–15, 18). the lights above acting as sanctuary “lamps” for appointed festivals (Gen 1:14–16),My translations throughout. The term elsewhere in the Pentateuch only refers to lamps in the Israelite sanctuary. See Robin A. Parry, The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 114, 149. Compare Exod 25:6; 27:20; 35:8, 14, 28; 39:37; Lev 24:2; Num 4:9, 16. the divine “blessing” of creatures and the consecrating of the seventh day (Gen 1:22, 28; 2:3), which brings to mind the overall seven-day structure and its connection to temple dedication ceremonies and the Sabbath. Then there is the account in Genesis 2 with the animation of humanity and the duty to “serve and guard” the Garden (Gen 2:15), much like divine images are ceremonially animated or priests are commanded to “serve and guard” the words of God or temple precincts. These and other texts provide a cumulative case that the human vocation is a priestly one, among other connotations such as royal and family nuances. This does not mean that every person should become a religious minister. It means that the universe is a temple-like arena for the celebration of life and relationship with God, with humans as some of the many mediators or revelations of God’s sacred presence when rightly related to God. It means that our lives ideally should be oriented toward worshipful allegiance (Rom 12:1), praise and sharing (1 Pet 2:9; Heb 13:15–16), praying, blessing others, consecrating what we receive (Rom 12:14; 1 Tim 4:3–5), and mourning with other creatures (Joel 1:8–18; 2:12–17; Rom 8:18–25; 12:15), no matter our line of work.
Mediation: Arrogant Hierarchy or Sacred Service?
Wagenfuhr ultimately rejects any role for humans as mediators, considering such a role to be hierarchical (p. 162), prone to corruption (pp. 17, 163), and ineffective at transforming imaginations (pp. 163–65). By hierarchical, he wants to guard against by any mediation for humans Godward, as if that would replace the work of Jesus as the ultimate mediator between God and humanity (p. 162; 1 Tim 2:5). I sympathize, but I do not view all religious mediation as reparative, as if priests in the Bible were always concerned with fixing divine-human relationships instead of maintaining, celebrating, and expressing them. What place do prayer and singing have in human life? Unfortunately, since he views all religion as a set of humanly-made and empty solutions to our disconnection from God,Compare how he puts it briefly (if mistakenly) in another book: “You only need mediation between people who are not generally at peace with one another, and that’s what religion is for. Religion exists to solve a problem [of staying or getting on the good side of the superhuman beings out there]. . . . That’s what priests are for, and that’s what religion is for.” G. P. Wagenfuhr, Unfortunate Words of the Bible: A Biblical Theology of Misunderstandings (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2019), 37. His pastoral concern to contrast religion with relationship is evident in this treatment of the institutional church (pp. 110–18), but it leads him to caricature religion such that there is no positive role for it. there is no room for grateful prayer or singing that can continue today without any hierarchy—or he fails to highlight these activities, at least. Similarly, although there are general references to the agrarian writings of Norman Wirzba or Wendell Berry (p. 167), there is no engagement with their work regarding the priestly ways people can receive and offer the world to God. I think here of Berry’s famous quote about eating as a potentially sacred activity: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration.”Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays, Cultural and Agricultural (San Francisco: North Point, 1981), 281. Compare Norman Wirzba, “A Priestly Approach to Environmental Theology: Learning to Receive and Give Again the Gifts of Creation,” Dialog 50, no. 4 (2011): 354–62.
By hierarchical, Wagenfuhr also assumes that a priest-like role would treat creatures as dependent on humans rather than on God: “the image of God [i.e., humanity] does not mediate the creation to God. It does not gather the praises of creation and deliver them to God” (p. 98). Yet if we focus on the other direction of mediation, from God to the rest of creation, Wagenfuhr almost arrives at my view: “The image of God symbolizes God’s presence, and in that way, is a blessing to the whole creation. This is an ambassadorial or political rather than a religious or priestly role” (p. 98). This is a false dichotomy, since blessing the world by symbolizing God’s presence is enacting a typically priestly activity—blessing others—thus mediating God to the world. And in terms of the other direction, from creation to God, Wagenfuhr’s case is likewise inadequate. True, each creature has a direct relationship with God (p. 161) and in one sense needs no human to channel its “praise” Godward, yet Psalm 148 shows that people—as symphony directors or fellow vocalists—can invite other creatures to praise God and so enhance the celebration of life. Picture it this way: Every creature can say its “Yes” to God by thriving, but humans are creatures that can translate the “Yes” of others and even say “Amen” (“May it be so!”)Here I am expanding on the idea of each creature’s “Yes” and “No” to God found in Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 63–73. to the thriving of other creatures! That is a priestly capacity in us. Are we necessary to these other life forms? A character in a novel by C. S. Lewis would say yes, we do “have need beyond measure of all that He [God] has made. Love me, my brothers [i.e., fellow creatures of different species], for I am infinitely necessary to you and for your delight I was made.” Again, are we necessary? No: “We also have no need of anything that is made. Love me, my brothers, for I am infinitely superfluous, and your love shall be like His, born neither of your need nor of my deserving, but a plain bounty. Blessed be He!”C. S. Lewis, Perelandra: A Novel (1944. Reprint, New York: Collier, 1965), 217. This is a paradox that Wagenfuhr cannot account for, and so he seems to view all hierarchy within creation as a threat to equality.
Corrupted, Ineffective, and Yet a Renewed Priesthood
What about a priestly role being liable to corruption? So what if the temple or church has always been prone to governments or their own members using them for power? That did not stop the biblical authors from picturing the Israelite sanctuary as a dwelling for God’s presence, nor did it stop them from comparing individual human bodies (Ps 139:15; 1 Cor 6:19) or God’s people collectively to temples or parts of temples (1 Cor 3:16–17; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:20–22; 1 Pet 2:5). It did not stop them from describing the people of God as a counter-cultural “kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6) or “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9),In the book of Revelation, the people of God are likewise called “a kingdom and priests” (Rev 1:6; 5:10; cf. Rev 20:6). See also Isa 61:6; 66:21; Zech 14:20. Other priestly language in the New Testament includes Rom 12:1; 15:16; 1 Cor 5:7; Phil 2:17; 4:18; 2 Tim 4:6. And these do not include all New Testament references to holiness or sanctification that draw on priestly thinking. texts which never make an appearance in the pages of Plundering Eden.
Still, are we too corrupt and ineffective to serve as priests of creation, given the human-caused extinction of so many species and the silencing of their praise (pp. 134–35)? Unless we are reconciled with God, then yes, I agree with Wagenfuhr on this tragic point. But the biblical writers knew how to mourn the ecological suffering of other animals and plants, so one priestly task for us is to commemorate and suffer with these creatures in our songs, writings, and conversations.Suffering with is not the same as suffering for another creature redemptively. I am only arguing for the first kind of suffering as a legitimate way to act like a priest in non-institutional settings. This would be a way of taking responsibility for the deaths that we did not directly cause as well as our complicity in the losses. We can also make efforts to eat differently and reduce the rate of species extinction.Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 116–32. After all, the “extinction of a species means the loss of a whole way of being alive on the planet, a whole aspect of the goodness of creation, a whole way of praising God” (p. 125). Furthermore, we can still celebrate the flourishing, beautiful dimensions of creation as the psalmists did (Pss 8; 19; 104; 147–148), contra the book’s pessimistic assessment that the world cannot give much glory to God anymore (p. 134). There is still so much of the earth’s fullness that reflects God’s glory (Isa 6:3)! We are a species that can celebrate the wordless praise of other creatures in human language and offer it up as contemplative priests positioned “a little lower than the angels in the song of cosmic praise.”Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 111. See pp. 105–6, 110-115. Compare Psalm 8.
Finally, are we too ineffective in our church worship services to bring about real transformation and alternative environments that make the kingdom of God plausible (pp. 164–65)? Sometimes, yes. Despite the hasty dismissal in Plundering Eden, though, the power of God’s Spirit to transform the human imagination through liturgies should not be underestimated. It is odd that James K. A. Smith is not cited in this regard.James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Cultural Liturgies 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009); Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, Cultural Liturgies 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013); You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016). Readers come across Romans 12:2 on cognitive transformation a few times (pp. 122, 134, 165) but never encounter Romans 12:1, which contains priestly imagery of Christians offering ourselves to God by the way we live our lives (cf. 1 Pet 2:5; Heb 13:15). Instead of relying only on the prophetic ambassador model of the Christian life, Wagenfuhr’s case could be strengthened if he allowed for priest-like practices (e.g., spiritual disciplines) during daily life and in Christian gatherings as effective ways of shifting the imagination from parasitic tendencies toward the self-giving kingdom of God.
The ambassador metaphor cannot bear the weight of all it means to be made in the image of God. A priestly metaphor, among others, can enrich the picture and be just as subversive. Adding this into the picture will not solve our environmental problems, but just as Wagenfuhr allows that symbolic efforts to clean up polluted oceans are still worthwhile (p. 137), so too are the prayers and songs of reconciled people who celebrate and mourn, eat and suffer, anticipating the coming resurrection by God that will make all things right. We are meant to be priests of creation, not only ambassadors.