looking to write a book? :: orthodox eco-theology

Whenever theology and ecology come to the same table for a chat, inevitably, Eastern Orthodoxy comes up as a church that has “gotten it right.” Someone will say that they’ve never divorced flesh and spirit the way we have in the West; laud the Eastern understanding of the sacramentality of all creation; talk about the Theophany and the blessing of all waters; or connect the dots between the Incarnation, icons and the sanctity of all matter. His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is known as the “green” Patriarch for his work advocating for ecological responsibility from a deeply Christian standpoint. 

So where is the book on ecological theology from an Eastern perspective? 

No one has written it. 

There are bits and pieces here and there—articles, chapters, and allusions—but when you go looking for something more, there is, well, not much more. I’m calling the bluff: Given the deep resources within the Orthodox tradition for ecological thinking, I’d like to see someone synthesize all this iconography and liturgy into something more explicit, more direct. Heck, in my library, there are already eight shelves full of eco-conscious Protestants and Catholics selling books on the subject!  

And if you’re willing to take me up on it, would you mind writing this before my term paper is due?

your mouth and creation’s praise :: Leontius of Cyprus

Some wisdom from the 7th century: 

Through heaven and earth and sea, through wood and stone, through relics and Church buildings and the Cross, through angels and people, through all creation visible and invisible, I offer veneration and honor to the Creator and Master and Maker of all things, and to him alone. For the creation does not venerate the Maker directly and by itself, but it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God, through me the moon worships God, through me the stars glorify him, through me the water and showers of rain, the dew and all creation, venerate God and give him glory. 

Doctrine, Ecology, and Justice (part 3 of 3)

[Back to part 2]

In this vein, we can now move from Christology toward ecclesiology in order to think about the sort of community that inculcates the vision of dominion-as-service. The church, marked by the anointing of the Holy Spirit through its baptism, is the point of continuity between the old creation and the creation of a new heavens and a new earth.[5] The “body of Christ” is the hint of the new in the midst of the old, the kernel of wheat, which having fallen to the ground, may soon sprout with a manifold harvest. As such, the ecclesial community is where the dominion of God breaks in on the corrupted exercise of an idolatrous and demonic dominion. The church’s calling to follow the Lord entails a radical reorientation of the old creation toward the new through repentance and obedience. The community gathered in Jesus Christ interprets the present world in a new light, the light of the coming dominion of God; in that light, the church community discerns the virtues that mark the harmonious life of that dominion and inculcates them in its members in the present. The individual people of the church find their own particular role within the mission of the whole body while that common mission joins disparate lives together by instilling the virtues that are necessary for a common enterprise.

When an ecological understanding of the dominion of God and the life of the church community are brought together, two things happen: First, the anthropologically unrealistic and ecologically destructive erosion of communities under the auspices of market capitalism is arrested and countered. In order to sustain perpetual growth (the ideological bottom line of market capitalism), the units of ownership and identity must be continually broken down to smaller and more homogenous levels. The limit of this trajectory is the society in which common ownership, or sharing, is reduced to a minimum. A few examples: Every American family seems to have its own lawnmower, but how often are all of them in use at once? Cell phones undoubtedly bring a gain in personal convenience, but the phone companies are the greater beneficiaries when a family no longer shares a single phone, but every member carries his or her own (not to mention old multi-family “party-lines”). In the past, music was primarily shared in public performance (whether in an opera hall or in a tavern), but has become increasingly commodified in formats where individuals purchase songs that are subsequently “illegal” to share. In terms of identity, the free market desires that society in which every individual (and persons are emphatically conceptualized as individuals) actively constructs and expresses his or her own identity by means of purchases and fashionably-up-to-date status markers. Identity is less and less expressed in stable social terms (family, religion, heritage) and is increasingly expressed by material possessions and interchangeable voluntary associations. To express identity in terms of ecological relationships would be incomprehensible—despite the undeniable fact that our lives are inseparable from the ecosystems we inhabit (even if only remotely). Still, “I live in a wetland with fox and ducks and reeds,” is not a culturally viable answer to the question “Who are you?”

In contrast, in a robust church community identity is held in common, the gift of Christ’s name and the transformative work of the Spirit. The fellowship of the church is an ideal venue for shared ownership and mutual assistance. Furthermore, in a church community which has not reconciled itself to the cultural influence of capitalism, (as a non-binding voluntary association of individuals looking for some product—“religion”—to consume), a counter-vision of human society and humanity’s place in the planetary ecosystem can take root. A community that expects to see the old creation transformed into the new creation in the dominion of God becomes conscious of the foolishness of a sense of material entitlement, of self-centered human exceptionalism, and of individualist constructions of identity. All we living creatures, after all, come from the same dirt!

Second, as a geographically and temporally extended community with some integrity the church is a venue for the inculcation of virtue. The work of Alasdair MacIntyre has demonstrated that virtues can only be generated within communities where action, purpose, and identity are mutually intelligible on the basis of shared interpretations of experience.[6] The church is just such a community where virtues may arise and find mutual reinforcement in the shared lives of the members. In terms of ecological ethics, many people have recognized that a virtue-based approach is crucial.[7] Rights and obligations are helpful, but only insofar as they delineate boundaries that should not be crossed; they are legislative rather than formative. Thus, while Nash’s preference for rights language leads him toward helpful suggestions for legal action (a necessary step to be sure), the fundamental problems are more deeply rooted than a re-conception of ecological “rights and responsibilities” can address.[8] The scope of the ecological crisis requires more than rearranging the boundaries and limits, a little tightening of our belts. The frequency with which the word “conversion” appears—even in adamantly secular venues—testifies that a deeper re-orientation is needed. Not only to we need to back off from the line marking just how much degradation our planet can sustain before it collapses, but we need to begin living in such a way that we contribute to the health of the planet as a whole. Limits and boundaries have pragmatic value, but must be seen as secondary to the virtues that sustain a moral orientation and guide thought and action at a deeper level. Ethics is a matter of identity, and only subsequently a matter of actions.[9]

For that reason, the scope of the church’s vision—stretching from the gift of creation to the hope of new heavens and a new earth—is precisely the sort of ecologically-grounded identity which can sustain the human community’s effort to address the ecological crisis it has perpetrated, and inculcate the virtues necessary to address it with some measure of success. The church community is already familiar with the language and practice of conversion; it must now understand in greater detail the ecological dimension of salvation. In the dominion of God, human beings are set free to be creative agents of healing and restoration; they are released from the compulsion to consume the world that sustains our fellow creatures—the very beings we are here to serve.

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[5] James Nash, Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1991), 135-36.

[6] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

[7] Nash, Loving Nature, 64-67. See also Steven Bouma-Prediger. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 138-160.

[8] The argument for a rights-based ecological ethic can be found in Nash, 169-70, 173-76.

[9] The lurking question in my mind with regard to a virtue-based ethic is whether the community that coherently sustains virtue in its members can do so without recourse to a system of honor and shame. 

 

Doctrine, Ecology, and Justice (Part 2 of 3)

[Back to part 1]

The remainder of this essay seeks connections between Christian doctrine and ecological sensitivity as an ethical imperative relative to our fellow creatures (in addition to the more obvious, but anthropocentric connection to social justice within human relations). That doctrine provides spiritual orientation, rational augmentation, and virtue-based motivation for the ethical imperative to care for creation. James Nash’s Loving Nature and the chapter by Christine F. Hinze may provide sounding boards for the discussion as it progresses. From an ecological perspective, one may advance the strong thesis that Christian doctrine provides a more realistic picture of ecosystemic relationships than the theories of either the secular nation state or economic market capitalism.

The Latin word for “Lord” is “dominus.” One of the first honorific titles ascribed to Jesus is “Lord.” Jesus’ disciple Thomas, for instance, exclaims “my Lord and my God” when he recognizes the resurrected Christ.[3] The same Latin root, however, is often employed in the English translation of the Hebrew word kabash from Genesis 1:26-28 and rendered as “dominion.” The notion of human dominion within creation has been used as justification for exploitative overuse of creation’s resources and the abuse of its creatures; it is a notorious concept in environmentalist circles, and has been dealt with at length by a number of ecologically sensitive biblical scholars and theologians. Clearly, for good or for ill, here is a connection between doctrine and ecology! My present concern with the concept is not a systematic doctrinal treatment, exposition of its historical impact, or an exegetical study that might open up earth-friendly dimensions of the text in Genesis. Rather in line with the etymology above, I want to suggest a Christological re-reading of the notion of dominion that ecologically re-orients its practice through fresh moral and spiritual concerns.

The difference between human beings and other creatures on the planet is clear, if not in terms of rational and emotional faculties, then at least in the scope and perversity of destruction wrought. Dominion is an empirical reality even if (as many argue) it should not be a theological imperative. Within the planetary community, most everyone is subject to the will and whims of human beings for better or worse. Of course, hairless bipeds cannot conquer everything, and death, disease, and depravity are still universal—though most humans labor to circumvent at least two out of the three. The most pressing question then, is not, “Should human beings exercise dominion?” but rather, “How should human beings exercise the dominion they have already seized?”

The heart of Jesus’ ministry, most biblical scholars agree, was the announcement of the “kingdom of God.” The semantic range of the Hebrew kabash (“dominion”) and the Greek basileia (“kingdom”) do not entirely correspond, but there is sufficient overlap that we could arguably speak of Jesus’ inauguration of the “dominion of God.” The Lord (dominus) brings anticipatory signs of God’s dominion. This connection presents a very fruitful twist! For Christians, Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection become the functional model for human dominion. In the pattern of Jesus’ dominion, human dominion must become a kenotic enterprise of service to other creatures. If Jesus gave his life in the course of announcing the favorable day of the Lord in which sight is restored to the blind, freedom given to the captives, good news delivered to the poor (later to be vindicated in his resurrection), then on that pattern human dominion must entail a concern for the well-being of all creatures and the integrity of their natural homes—especially where they are damaged or threatened. The violent connotations of the word kabash (“stomping, subduing”) can be seen in Jesus’ forceful response to demons and diseases; in his direct confrontation of self-righteousness, idolatry, and abuse of power; and in his driving out of the temple merchants. Yet, all of his stomping around and subduing of death and sin was quite clearly in service to the human beings involved and for the sake of their liberation. Jesus’ violence (if it can be so-called) is not exploitative or self-serving. So too human dominion, if it is to participate in the dominion of God must eschew self-serving exploitation to bring life and wholeness wherever it is exercised.[4] God’s place in the human community through Jesus Christ becomes the foundational model for the place of human beings in the planetary community with regard to the function of authority and difference.

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[3] John 20:28.

[4] I find this way of thinking to be tremendously helpful and appropriately subversive of the typical misuse of the dominion concept. Nevertheless, several important questions remain (and unfortunately remain beyond the scope of this paper to resolve. How can humans think about taking the life of a creature for food in this mode of dominion? Does this ordering require a (problematic) notion of analogical hierarchy (as God is to humanity, humanity is to creation)? Does this pattern reinforce the essentialized false distinction between “humanity” and “nature” that already pervades our thought? 

[On to part 3]

Doctrine, Ecology, and Justice (part 1 of 3)

Over the next few days I will post a reflection paper written for a course in ecological theology. The assignment was to draw connections between Christian doctrine, ecological integrity, and social justice.

To study the history of the human race is to encounter a startling variety of brutalities and barbarisms. When we learn about the Roman Empire and the pax romana, we inevitably hear rumors of the ardor surrounding the ritual blood and gore of the Empire’s arenas. The high-mannered civilization of Victorian England appears resplendent with strong moral fiber, but cast a long dark shadow over lands where putatively ignorant natives were either enlightened (by assimilation) or pressed into service. In the seemingly endless iterations of this dual theme, we marvel that people capable of such beauty and sensitivity can simultaneously be so crude, myopic, and morally deranged. In the unprecedented technological development and material standards living in North Atlantic culture (now making inroads as global culture through the machinations of the free market), what is the latent barbarism to which we are, presumably, anaesthetized?

When the students of 2200 or 2500 or 2700 AD recount the life of the 20th and 21st centuries, will they find that our short-sighted obsession with ever-expanding economic growth in the face of obvious ecological and social harm simply beggars belief? Will they ask how people could be so foolish as to undercut their own health and happiness while coercing billions of others with the whims and wastes of their greed in enforced and anonymous silence? Our seeming ignorance of the insoluble link between ecological integrity and social justice (or our willingness to disregard both) may be the most shameful aspect of our society’s legacy.

The public speaking advice to “imagine your audience naked” can be performed as a global antidote to pretense. The beggar from Delhi’s slums and the corporate officer in the Leer-jet overhead are, despite the “different worlds” they inhabit members of the same species—complete with moles, holes, wrinkles, and hair in bodily nooks. A little ecological imagination is a tremendous way to relativize the power relations that attend differences in class, wealth, or education! Despite modern (and pretentious) attempts to think about human history apart from creation—casting nature in the role of passive backdrop, raw material for development, or muse for aesthetic inspiration—human beings are organisms that arise from the dirt in order to breath air, take nutrients from plant and animal flesh, excrete their wastes, reproduce, socialize, and die back to the dust.[1]  Human history is natural history; there is no realistic trajectory of “progress” that leaves the integrity of the whole planet out of the picture.

Concurrent with the forgoing thoughts, [the assigned reading from] Professor Christine Hinze and James Nash establishes the inseparability of social justice and ecological integrity. The degradation of the natural world cannot but affect the people whose lives are inseparable from nature. From the perspective of the whole human species, ecological degradation is nothing less than suicidal self-endangerment. Injustice becomes apparent insofar as the wealthy and powerful are better able to insulate their lives from the effects of their folly, temporarily passing their impact off onto others. Christine Firer-Hinze argues, “If my ecological location includes my body, and my survival as an embodied, spiritual being depends on certain positive relations to my physical environment, then it is not possible to speak morally about human dignity apart from ecological concern.”[2]  The degree to which we actually honor the human dignity of others, then, is revealed by the way in which we protect the ecosystems and land in which others live, or by our failure to do so. Thus, the impulse to look after the health of the planet is not an aesthetic preference for those fortunate enough to enjoy “wilderness.” It is first of all a moral imperative relative to our fellow humans. Furthermore, it is a task with deep moral and spiritual consequence relative to creatures co-inhabiting the planet and the land on which they live. We cannot be whole and healthy human beings in abstraction from our place in the ecological order; thus, human flourishing (including salvation!) must be described in terms of re-integration with the natural world—or, more biblically, peace in the land.

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[1] Jürgen Moltmann (rather unusually) describes postmodern thought, not as the deconstruction of gender, identity, culture, or political discourse, nor as the final abandonment of metaphysics but rather as an attempt to think ecologically. Breaking the illusion that human history can be thought over-against nature as a line tracing human progress re-introduces the ecological interplay of every species of life with every other. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), xvi, 194-95. Or, as Joseph Sittler is reputed to have said often, “All the createds are relateds.”

[2] Christine Firer Hinze, “Catholic Social Teaching and Ecological Ethics” in And God Saw that it was Good, ed. Christiansen and Grazer. (Washington DC: US Catholic Conference, 1996), 176.

ecological thinking :: the basileia of God

The Greek word basileia underlies the “kingdom” of “kingdom of God” in English translations of the New Testament. The word can, and has, be translated by a range of terms, from “reign” to “empire” to “regime” and more.

I’m wondering what would shift in our thinking about the human relationship with creation (or conversely, what might shift in our thinking of the human relationship with God) if we began to use another term, already theologically freighted, namely “Dominion.”

“Dominion” is, of course, the English word most frequently used to translate the Hebrew word kabash from Genesis 1:28, and is a familiar term in Christian circles. It is also a pejoratively loaded term in ecological circles because it is (mis)taken to imply that humanity has a God-given right to do whatever the hell they want with God’s green earth, because it’s all here to serve us human-beans anyway. Some of us are convinced that human beings belong in both ecologically-minded circles and Christian circles, and are trying to wrestle out the best way to think about these things.

If Jesus’ ministry is to announce and inaugurate the dominion of God, setting prisoners free, restoring sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, what does that imply for our “dominion” on the planet? What do “dominion” and “love” have in common?

Ward :: Love as Economy or Ontology

“The economy of [Christian] desire is not locked into love as not-having [in distinction from some postmodern accounts]. Rather, love is continually extended beyond itself and, in and through that extension, receives itself back from the other as a non-identical repetition. Love construed as having or not-having is a commodified product. It is something one possesses or doesn’t possess. It is part of an exchange between object and subject positions. But love in the Christian economy is an action not an object. It cannot be lost or found., absent or present. It constitutes  the very space within which all operations in heaven and upon earth take place. The positions of persons are both constituted and dissolved. The linearity and syntax of Indo-European languages barely allows access to the mystery of trinitarian persons and processions: where one ends and another begins. As such suffering and sacrifice are not distinct moments, kenoo [emptying] is also and simultaneously pleroo [filling up]. The wounds of love are the openings of grace.”

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Graham Ward, “Suffering and Incarnation,” in The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 205.

on the dramatic catholicity of selves :: von Balthasar

“Within the drama of Christ, every human fate is deprivatized so that its personal range may extend to the whole universe, depending on how far it is prepared to cooperate in being inserted into the normative drama of Christ’s life, death and Resurrection. von balthasarNot only does this gather the unimaginable plurality of human destinies into a concrete, universal point of unity: it actually maintains their plurality within the unity, but as a function of this unity. This is the aim of an organic integration of all individual destinites in Christ (Eph 1:3-10), which is simultaneously the commissioning of the organic fullness of vocations and tasks by the organizing center (Eph 4:7-16).”

To von Balthasar’s succinct brilliance, I append a scrawling of my own, a rumination in a similar direction.

In Mary’s “Yes,” God’s Son inhabits the human condition. God bears human nature, not merely as one man, but as a whole. God takes up human self-hood, and thereafter, both self-hood as such and all the particular selves are secured in him. Identity, the unique expression of each self, rests on the Son’s assumption of self-hood and derives from it as a gift of abundance. Therein, it also finds its goal—the creature bearing its peculiar praise to God. God gives creatures their very lives, and in their fullest expression, the most natural form, those lives strain to echo God’s delight as praise. This is not heard as a monotone and hegemonic convergence upon a unison center, but as a great din of voices held together in the common theme of a great hymn.

God’s advent on a dark night in Bethlehem secures the value, the singularity, the meaningfulness, of every created life. Not because every created life thereby bears a commensurate measure of divinity, but because God himself—utterly incommensurate, unparalleled in significance, singular beyond measure—can cry from a rough crib and feed from a human breast. This scene secures the world as we know it as something other than an emanation of Absolute Being, or the incredibly complex Thought pouring forth from Divine Mind. Encountering God in the baby at Bethlehem and in the Galilean wanderer means that my self-hood and yours, and the very “this-ness” of all that is, is willed its independence by God.

Encountering God as the “other” in Jesus secures “other-ness” itself—and makes it a profound gift to creation. God values created identity and created freedom so much that he bears it himself, he inhabits it fully, and makes it real. Truly then, human beings are most themselves when they find their “selves” in the person of Jesus Christ. In that encounter, their identities are secured. In being baptized into Jesus’ death, I give myself up, offer myself wholesale—only to discover that in Christ my-self is oriented rightly, is made whole, and is made more peculiar than I could ever enact on my own. The dreary gray world that drives people to seek a spiritual escape divulges new dimensions and whole new spectrums of color when Jesus Christ is found within it. The conformity and exclusion brokered and reinforced by human knowledge of good and evil are overwhelmed in the Son’s life, and creatures are discovered anew.

MacIntyre and McCandless :: the end of the wild

“What is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so that it may limit the free and arbitrary choices of individuals. Given this deep cultural agreement, it is unsurprising that the politics of modern societies oscillate between a freedom which is nothing but a lack of regulation of individual behavior and forms of collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. The consequences of a victory by one side or the other are often of the highest immediate importance; but, as Solzhenitzyn has understood so well, both ways of life are in the long run intolerable. Thus the society in which we live is one in which bureaucracy and individualism are partners as well as antagonists. And it is in the cultural climate of this bureaucratic individualism that the emotivist self is naturally at home.” [1]

This quote of MacIntyre could be the launching point for any number of fruitful conversations, but I’d like to set it alongside the film that Carolyn and I went to see on Friday night. Into the Wild is the story of Christopher McCandless, a restless college graduate trying to exercise the demons in his family (or at least their hold on him) by throwing himself into solitude, adventure, and unbridled exploration of creation’s wonders. If ever there were a model for someone seeking truth in “the free and arbitrary choices” of a sovereign self, McCandless (or the cinematic reconstruction of him) is that figure.

[Spoiler Warning—from here on, I discuss the plot a bit]

The story is tragic, there is no doubt. But it is powerful because it draws on an instinct present in many of us, the drive for purity, for truth, McCandless launches himself on a quest for truth, convinced that deep within himself—if only he puts himself deep enough into the wild—there lies a spark of divine truth that will emerge to outshine all the pain and corruption he has discovered in his short life. He follows the instinct for purity to its utter end; he will allow no corrupting attachments or relationships in his quest for natural/divine truth. Yet, in seeking to overcome the pain his parents caused him, McCandless leaves a sea of tears in the eyes of people who come to love a reckless wanderer. But, truth, for McCandless is a force more powerful than love.

In the end, when McCandless comes face to face with “nature,” that naked spark of truth he sought all along, it becomes for him a mirror. The realization that his own face is empty, nameless, sends him back to the relationships he abandoned. It is of course, too late, but his dying act reaches out from beyond his own death, calling out to his family by re-claiming their name.

McCandless is a tragic figure because he sought freedom apart from service to others; because he sought truth apart from love; because he sought knowledge in nature apart from any wisdom; because he sought healing apart from forgiveness; because he sought new life without facing the death that was already at his core. He lived out, to the extreme, character traits that we all value, and he died all at once the death that we subject ourselves to little by little.

MacIntyre notes that both bureaucratic scripts and individual quests for meaning are ultimately intolerable. The truth, it seems to me, lies neither in bureaucracy for its own sake—collectivist order to which individual lives are sacrificed; nor in the escape from every hindrance, beholden only to the voice within. There is a bureaucracy whose structure is upside down, whose Head washes the feet, whose last are first. A bureaucracy in which freedom is measured by service and in which control is first turned inward, to be expressed more fully in love for others. It is likely that McCandless never met that good news, or never recognized it if he did, so rare is its presence. May God grant his church the courage to live in its calling.

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[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd Ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 35. 

a poem for the first snow

The Temperature of Memory

The first snow fell,
and in the morning
hangs its hints on
summer half-dressed.
The concealed
allows what lies visible
to capture us more
completely in her beauty.

Deep in,
the rocks remember
months of sunshine,
alone they shake off snow;
everything else,
having forgotten, wears winter,
permitting his heavy touch.
Rocks are too hard to hear,
but trees and grasses know
that the wind warns; soon all
will be buried,
consummately
alive.

Not in somber state,
but as kids or cats under the press
of too many blankets -bodies waiting
to spring.

moltmann :: imago dei

“The human being’s likeness to God is a theological term before it becomes an anthropological one. It first of all says something about the God who creates his image for himself, and who enters into a particular relationship with that image, before it says anything about the human being who is created in this form. Likeness to God means God’s relationship to human beings first of all, and only then, and as a consequence of that, the human being’s relationship to God.”

Which means, of course, that it is something revealed rather than something possessed. It is not something found by introspection, but likeness discovered in the context of a relationship. This also means that it is foremost a responsibility rather than an entitlement.

“Likeness to God is both gift and charge, indicative and imperative. It is charge and hope, imperative and promise.”

________________________
Moltmann, God in Creation trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 220, 227.