By Greg Forster: part five of a series.
This wasn’t intentional, but in this series on imagining God as a worker one of the things that’s emerged for me is how the different kinds of workers used in the Bible to depict God are differentiated by the levels of life in the creatures they work on. We’ve seen so far:
- God as a doctor: Human body (living material bodies of intelligent creatures)
- God as a shepherd: Animals (living and moving but non-intelligent creatures)
- God as a farmer: Plants (living but non-moving creatures)
This really brings out how work involves care/stewardship/cultivation of creation – and the diversity of God’s activity corresponding to the diversity of natures in the things he made. Care of animals is not like care of plants, which is not like care of people.
In this installment I’m looking at God as a potter – as a steward of inanimate creation. God sends Jeremiah to the potter’s house to see how the potter could take the clay from one creation, melt it down and reshape it into something totally different. This is a warning, God says, to disobedient Israel; God raises up and casts down nations like the potter with the clay.
Isaiah invokes a similar image but with, I think, a different emphasis. Contemplating God’s traumatic judgment on his disobedient creation, invoking scenes that go beyond natural catastrophe to something worse – catastrophic destruction of nature itself – Isaiah cries out to God:
But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Be not so terribly angry, O Lord,
and remember not iniquity forever.
Behold, please look, we are all your people.
The image still invokes God’s sovereignty over his creation, but now with an emphasis on God’s workmanship having given him an interest in what he has created. Jeremiah’s message was that God made Israel, therefore he can destroy it; Isaiah’s is that God made Israel, therefore he cares about it.
How can these pictures of God inform our work?
1) Dominion: Today we don’t like the word “dominion.” We say “stewardship” or “responsibility,” or we talk about the “cultural mandate.” Those formulas are not wrong, nor is it wrong to be concerned about giving the impression that our power over the earth is arbitrary and capricious. But sooner or later we have to get over our squeamishness. Humanity has been given dominion over the world. Making a pot involves the exercise of a royal and even terrible kind of power.
If nothing else, this is an essential safeguard against idolatry of our work. As Mike Thigpen points out, idols are repeatedly described as “the work of our hands.” One of the standard strategies in the Old Testament to shake people out of their idolatry seems to be reminding us that our idols were constructed by our own work – reminding us that we are the ones who have dominion, over our work and over the materials we work with, not vice versa. Isaiah particularly emphasizes that it is the very fact that you made the idol that makes worshiping it folly.
2) Artistry: No doubt there is an “art” to farming and shepherding and even to medicine. But that is something different from what we normally mean by “artistry.” The “art” of caring for living creatures is to cultivate and protect their organic life and nature, which grows of its own. To transform them into something other than what they are in themselves would be an offence against the life and nature within them.
There are exceptions on the margins. We groom and decorate our bodies, and within limits, that’s fine. With animals there is more room for such artistry on the margin – check out a dog show. With plants there is even more, as a garden will show.
But the “artistry” of work with inanimate nature is not on the margins of an otherwise fixed nature. Inanimate nature is completely open to reshaping by our work because it has no life of its own. And we are made to be artists in our work with inanimate nature.
God is an artist in this sense even with us, with our human nature and in our historical development, because God is God and he can shape or reshape our nature without offending against the intrinsic goodness of that nature (since he made it and is its only ultimate ground). We are not artists with humans and animals to this extent. But we do have such a great degree of dominion over inanimate nature (see point 1) that we can exercise artistry with it, and are called to be.
Such artistry is not just for “artists,” of course. Or, put another way, we’re all “artists” in this sense.
3) Ownership: Workmanship creates property. Isaiah appeals to God that Israel belongs to him because he made it; it is his workmanship. Theologians have rightly identified God’s ownership of the whole natural cosmos on the same principle. The cattle on a thousand hills are his, not (strictly speaking) simply because he has power over them, but because he made them. They are rightfully his.
Our work, too, gives us a property interest in that which we reshape. This is of course a famously difficult problem in political philosophy, and one aspect of it is emerging as a key stress point in modern culture.
Older cultures were satisfied with large inequalities of ownership and (as a consequence) with having the large majority of the population not acquire much substantial property interest through work. The landowner kept the work product produced by the tenant farmers, which was his because he owned the land; the tenant farmers were paid for their work by keeping some small share of it to live on.
We’re not satisfied with that now. We want wider opportunity for people to keep the fruits of their labor. Which is good! Moreover, business owners increasingly realize that work quality goes up when workers have control over their work and a sense of investment in it.
However, we cannot simply abolish the existing distribution of property rights and redistribute. And if we could, overnight there would be some new unsatisfactory distribution of property (a.k.a. “the Wilt Chamberlain example, dude?”). Additionally, factory floors simply cannot operate by majority vote. We are doing better now than we were 200 years ago, and we could do better still, but the amount of ownership we are going to be able to give most workers will always be limited. But at least we can be awake to this concern and lean against Frederick Taylorism, toward humane work systems that make room for artistry and workmanship.