Apologist Nathan Rittenhouse shares his thoughts on Psalm 8 and its ramifications
This article uses Psalm 8 to make the case that the proper way of envisioning humanity’s environmental fit is theocentric, rather than anthropocentric. Understanding our place in creation is the prerequisite to caring for it well.
Last Autumn, as we were working in the garden, one of my young sons asked: “Dad, what is a heavenly bean?” I had to confess that I didn’t know what a heavenly bean was and asked where he had heard it for some context clues. He said: “You know, in the Psalms where it says, ‘You made them a little lower than the heavenly beans and crowned them with glory and honour.’” Ah, heavenly being, not heavenly bean. It turns out that clear pronunciation is critical for good theology. We both got a good laugh out of it!
It also turns out that all of us, at times, ponder how we are situated in this world. It isn’t just for little boys who wonder what it means to be made a little lower than a heavenly bean. The Psalm that he was quoting from outlines a theologically and ecologically based anthropological hierarchy. It starts with considering the heavens, the work of God’s fingers—the moon and the stars—and feeling very small in light of it all.
You may have had that same feeling at some point staring into the vast night sky. In one way, this prefigures Carl Sagan’s description of our planet as a “pale blue dot,” but on the other hand it contrasts Sagan’s feelings about human insignificance. In spite of the vastness of the cosmos, the Psalmist is struck by the fact that humans are significant in it, particularly that God is mindful of them.
A little lower than the angels
There are many passages in scripture that illustrate that God is mindful of all his creation, even down to the sparrows. But Psalm 8 interestingly looks both up and down from the human point of view. It goes on: “You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swims the paths of the seas.”
The main argument of the Psalm is beautifully laid out in the way that it starts in the heavens and works its way down to the depths of the seas. The temptation is to say that by placing humanity in the middle, it establishes an inherently anthropocentric concept of humanity and that the associated arrogance and superiority has led to a wide range of environmental catastrophes.
However, that temptation is only that, just a temptation, because the true first and last lines of Psalm 8 are the same: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name is all the earth.” The biblical conception of the world as it relates to everything from heavenly beings to beans is not anthropocentric, nor biocentric, but exclusively theocentric. The focus is not humanity, or the animals, it is on the creator God behind, beyond and later incarnated into this world.
Imagine one day you wake up to find that you’ve been deputised to be in charge of a highly complex system. You live in a world where, “a single teaspoon (1 gram) of rich garden soil can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes.”  One gram! Multiply that by the size of the Earth and start contemplating your task to tend God’s garden.
How does that make you feel? There will be those that out of the sinfulness of their hearts will focus on themselves and the privileges that are granted to them and who will begin to feel that this is really all about them. Or you may feel this situation to be a bit overwhelming, like starting a new job and wonder what am I to do? What is expected of me?
It is a good use of your time to rise each morning and ask the Lord: “How do I live here well today?” First, it is a necessary reminder that the world isn’t about us, and secondly, unless you’re unlike me, you’ll need some help navigating the complexity of the world around you, focusing on the proper things, and actually accomplishing something with your life.
This posture of humility rather than arrogance sets us up to be much better vice regents of the planet. The primary mandate for humans in Genesis is to care for God’s garden and the biblical concept of power is always for the purpose of service. Whatever privilege we may have is not to be focused on ourselves.
By the way, if you have questions about servant leadership I recommend you study the teachings of Jesus. In any complex system involving humans, even ones declared to be good by God, conflict will arise. My brother laughs about once visiting my grandfather’s farm to find him laughing in his frustration and declaring: “Theologically God has given me dominion over the animals, but at this moment my bull is having trouble with the concept.” Those of you who have chased a loose animal can identify.
The Lord can humble us, but so too can animals. When it comes to running, jumping, swimming, seeing, hearing, smelling, lifting, tolerating extreme temperatures, and certainly flying, there are long lists of animals that easily out-class humans.
So what gives? Why are humans the ones divinely granted authority and responsibility? The answer lies in the fact that we are uniquely capable of communicating with God. This isn’t to say that we are the only creatures who glorify God, just that we, as humans, were created with the capacity to sit as intermediaries between the physical and the spiritual world because we were uniquely created as both.
This spiritual/physical integration flies in the face of a Greek dualism, which separates the spiritual out as good and the physical as bad. God, the supreme spiritual being, who creates a physical world, declares it to be very good, reaffirms its goodness by becoming part of it, and promises to physically restore it to perfection, sets the perfect example of how to affirm both.
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A holistic perspective on human value
Note that a naturalistic framework for human situatedness is predicated on the fact that humans only differ from the animals in degree, but not kind. This ontological continuum of being makes it very difficult to ground a prescriptive moral ethic for how we ought to treat other creatures if we ourselves are also wholly creature, but just extra clever.
I’m aware of the attempts that have been made and find them lacking. It is much clearer to state, as Christians do, that we differ both in degree and kind. A sense of oughtness is to be expected if physical reality has a creator and a purpose.
Scripture situates us not as wholly creature, but as holy creatures—a privileged position that allows us a front-row seat to what God is doing in the world, as well as the ability to look in both directions, “Psalm 8 style.”
We can learn about and worship that which transcends us (theology), and, given that framework, study, organise and enjoy that which we transcend (science).
Worship as the antidote to environmental abuse
The human capacity to look “both ways” can easily be corrupted. The biggest temptation in a modern consumeristic society is to simply “look down”, imagine ourselves at the top, assume that the world is really all about us and do what we want for our pleasure, glory, and fame.
Ecological destruction and the misuse of the creatures within it is the natural result of what happens when humans become their own gods. The other temptation is to only “look up” and fail to see that we were created to live well on a good Earth and to deny that we have real roles and responsibilities here.
Worship is the opposite of consumption. One orientation says, “It’s all about God,” and the other, “It’s all about me.”
The solution to living well is found at the beginning and the end of Psalm 8. Whether we look to the heavens or the depths of the sea, if we can conclude “O Lord our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the Earth,” then we will find our proper bearing on how to live wholesome lives in our God-given positions among the creatures.
Nathan Rittenhouse is a speaker, preacher and podcaster. He is the co-founder of Thinking Out Loud Together, a ministry focused on discipleship and apologetics. He is the co-host of the Thinking Out Loud Together podcast, which bi-weeky explores questions around current events and Christian hope. For more information visit toltogether.com.
 Mt 10:29
 The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis, Lynn White Jr.