Subdue the Earth: A Genesis Understanding of Discernment

The garden of Eden with the fall of man *oil on panel *74.3 × 114.7 cm *signed b.l.: PETRI PAVLI RVBENS FIGR. *signed b.r.: IBRUEGHEL FEC *circa 1615

God’s gift to us of free will breaks open for humanity the world of discernment. Discernment existed from the very beginning when Adam and Eve had the free choice to eat from the Tree of Knowledge or not to eat from it. The gift of free will is so precious a gift, that God continues giving it to humanity even after Adam and Eve suffer the consequences of their actions. A lack of free will for humans may put more power in the hands of God to “perfect” the world, but we would essentially be robots; we wouldn’t be participants in God’s creation. This is essentially what discernment is: participation in what Ignatius might call, “God’s project for the world.”

What’s even more amazing about God’s invitation for us to participate in this project is that by virtue of our baptism we become kings or rulers, in a sense. We share in God’s—and Christ’s—ruling. What this means more specifically is important. The Bible Project’s Tim Mackie and Jonathan Collins take us back to the beginning, when humanity was first created. “God created humankind in his image,” Genesis says (v. 28). What this means is not that we necessarily share all of God’s qualities or characteristics, but that we are images of God’s kingship, just like the ancients created images or statues to represent their kings’ presence and authority. This means we represent God’s presence and authority.

God tells humanity to be fruitful and multiply, to subdue the earth, and to have dominion over the animals. The word “subdue” has been twisted to justify pillaging the earth’s resources with abandon. Mackie says the intent is “to impose our will” on the earth, just like a king or ruler imposes his or her will. But it’s not meant to sound authoritarian, rather it’s authoritative, based on discernment and contribution to God’s creative project. The creation narrative uses the metaphor of gardening, or agriculture. As one would “subdue” a plot of land, planting seeds, watering, cultivating it, caring for it, and harvesting its fruit, one is called to subdue the world—planting seeds through our witness, using and cultivating our gifts, working for the common good, and sharing its fruit with others. And as God has desires for the cultivation and harvesting of the earth, metaphorically, we do as well.

It’s extraordinary empowerment which God gives us to share in this “ruling”. As Ignatius says, our deepest desires are also the desires God shares. We participate in the creative “subduing” of the world by discerning those desires and executing those desires in the form of action. It’s what the whole process of contemplating and acting is about.

This has been our call from the very beginning. But the story of Adam and Eve, and many of those who follow in salvation history, make it clear that we humans are not good at taking the call to subdue the earth well. The imposition of will manifests more as power than carefully discerned action working for the building of God’s kingdom. Even structures within our own church can become more about power than moving God’s project forward. It is our responsibility as God’s rulers—as “images of God”—to discover our role in executing this project. cradling wheatWe discover that by discovering our gifts and desires, and by making prayerful choices in accord with those gifts and desires, building relationships, choosing how we are to be educated, deciding on what kind of job to do, discerning whom to marry, which religious order to join, how we spend our money… The countless decisions we’re faced with are ways we can participate in our role of subduing the earth, ways we cultivate and build.

A beautiful meditation on this Thomas Hart Benton painting “Cradling Wheat” reminds us that “In our work we are fulfilled.” Work, cultivating, and harvesting are part of the rhythm of daily life. In truth, we’re not called to do anything extraordinary. It’s in the ordinary that God works. Our ordinary lives, moment by moment, decision by decision, are the way we fulfil the call to subdue the earth, to impose our will—our desires, our hopes, our dreams—on a little patch of the soil of God’s grand and magnificent project of Creation.

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4 replies

  1. Trying to figure out how to subdue my patch of earth as a retired person. It has been a year now and I still not sure of my direction. After 50 + years of work I have just sat in awe as time spread out before me. I’ve explored a ministry I thought I would be involved in only to have my inner voice tell me no. It (I) was right. So I still sit with so much time. Not yet ready to give up the luxury of that. So I am waiting for the devine flick in the head. This was good to read because I know I can stick with the little things right now until inspiration and discernment light my fire. Thanks as always.

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