Playing God?
Andy Black

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ 
–Genesis 1:28

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
–Job 38:4

What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals* that you care for them? 
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,*and crowned them with glory and honor. 
–Psalm 8

Last Friday, Chris asked us to reflect on the question “what does it mean to be human?” Yesterday, Hulitt reminded us that part of what it means to be human is to “live the questions.” Both of their contributions have continued to stay with me.

We’re at the height of springtime and everything outside has livened up. In so many ways this is absolutely glorious. Our rose bushes are showing off eye-popping pinks and reds. We could fill one of those large boxes of crayons just from the different colors of birds visible from our house. Every so often, the air smells like Honeysuckle. Each night, the bullfrogs down at the lake sing so loudly you can hear them from inside an insulated house with a sound machine on. At times, the fish are basically jumping on our hooks. 

Early this morning Jonathan and I watched out a kitchen window as a turtle made its way across the backyard. Making a point to sit and watch a turtle crawl along is a great way to slow yourself down–which we did . . . for a bit. But there are dishes to unload and coffee to make. It always amazes me, the way turtles can seem to go nowhere fast but also disappear as soon as you turn your back.

These sights, sounds, and smells—not to mention the feel of getting your hands in springtime dirt—are the kinds of things that come first to mind when we talk or think about “the outdoors” and spending time in God’s good creation. 

But there are other springtime sounds that don’t make me feel quite so warm and cozy, like the loud rattle I heard not far from my feet when walking through some thick underbrush on top of a ridge the other day. I also ask a persistent question as the days get hotter: Why, exactly, did God think that mosquitos and ticks were good to have around? 

These are really just relatively minor annoyances. They’re reminders that we live in God’s great big world, and even all of the pretty and pleasant parts don’t exist just for our benefit or enjoyment. 

Because this is true, and because humanity has shown and is showing a capacity to deal mercilessly, selfishly, and wastefully with the rest of creation, now at a scale and scope we could hardly have imagined, many Bible readers have become uncomfortable with the verse at the top of this reflection. What does it mean to be human? Can we really endorse the idea that to be human is to have a responsibility to exercise “dominion” over other creatures?

We are part of God’s creation and not God. But we are not just any part of the creation. One way of dealing with that tricky verb “dominion” is to translate it a bit differently (since we tend to equate dominion with “domination” in the sense of exploitation). One alternative is “exercise skilled mastery over,” though that’s a mouthful. 

In everyday language, we hear people criticized for attempting to “play God,” when they attempt to use the world in reckless, inappropriate, or even evil ways. Certain forms of genetic manipulation, for example. That’s the dangerous misuse of human abilities or the human ability to exercise “dominion.”

But warnings against “playing God” aren’t always helpful. Think for a second about medical ethics. It doesn’t help to say, “well, whatever we do, we shouldn’t ‘play God’”—because that implies that we should remain passive and never take action to alleviate suffering. It’s much better to think in terms of asking how we can “play” or act “with God” — in ways that are in harmony with God’s intentions.

I have probably gotten too ambitious for a daily reflection, so here’s the point:  

As I was reminded recently in a Facebook post by the Christian ethicist David Gushee, our current global situation may lead us to a renewed appreciation for that tricky word “dominion” as part of what it means to be human. 

There are few harder questions to live with than: why does a good God place us in a world in which viruses like the one that causes COVID-19 exist? 

I simply don’t know. But I’m grateful to be a fellow creature joining the springtime chorus and part of the human family endowed with abilities for investigation and reflection that enable us to care for one another by coming to understand better some of the workings of the world. 

Today, I pray for and give thanks for all those who are studying ways to reduce the effects of COVID-19 and for the eventual discovery of a vaccine. Lord, hear our prayer. 

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