The words of the Greek philosopher Protagoras can sum up the biblical and Catholic perspectives of human beings. “Man is the measure of all things.” (Although Catholicism would add the word created so that the statement would read that “Man is the measure of all created things [excepting angels]”).
A biblical extension of this sentiment is found in Genesis. “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27).
In this paper, I will explore and question the belief that God created the universe solely for human beings. My argument will be predicated upon two premises, one drawn from the Bible and the other from philosophy.
However, before proceeding, it is necessary to provide a working definition of nature and an explanation of the theological and philosophical position called anthropocentrism.
In this context, as it pertains to the natural world, nature includes everything created by God and subject to the laws of nature. Anthropocentrism comes to English from a combination of two Greek words, anthrop (pertaining to human beings) and kentro (centered on). As indicated above, the concept of humans being “The only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake” finds its theological basis in the Book of Genesis. One could also point to the words of Christ as suggesting man’s preeminence. “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31).
Still, it is the creation narratives in the Book of Genesis that provide the foundation for anthropocentrism. Not only are human beings made in God’s image, but they are to have dominion over the other animals and are instructed to subdue the Earth.
The concept of human superiority is not restricted to Jewish and Christian theology. Strains of anthropocentrism are to be found in Aristotle’s politics and Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy.
If human beings recline above all of nature as God’s second-greatest creation (angels must be placed above man), what purpose does the natural world serve? Or, perhaps, a more compelling question: does nature serve any supernatural purpose? Said differently, does nature “point” to God?
While the natural world serves human beings’ physical needs (food, shelter, etc.), the Bible suggests it is also a sign intended to guide humans to God. The psalmist writes,” The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.” (Psalm 19:2).
In light of all this data suggesting that the universe was created for human beings, are there any arguments against an anthropocentric worldview?
First, let me say that I am arguing against a “strong” anthropocentrism. It is evident that human beings are made in the image of God and, therefore, hold a special place in His creation. I am suggesting, however, that all of creation – and not just human beings – is “very good.” (Genesis 1:31).
It was said above that one view of nature is a sign pointing to the existence of God. While factual after the Fall of Man, nature may have initially served other purposes.
If the Garden of Eden were an extension or reflection of heaven, then one would expect many of the things found in the Garden of Eden to be in heaven. We know from the creation narratives that God created animals and plants before He created humans. We also know that animals and plants existed in the Garden of Eden.
If God created animals and plants before humans, and if He placed animals and plants in the Garden of Eden, and if the Garden of Eden was an extension or reflection of heaven, why should we assume that plants and animals will be excluded from heaven? And, if plants and animals exist in heaven, their existence cannot be solely to act as signs pointing to God. That is to say, these creations of God must possess an intrinsic value independent of human beings. So, while it is true that the universe was created primarily for human beings, it seems that it was not the only purpose.
The second argument against what I have deemed a strong anthropocentrism is philosophical in nature and is based on its consequences.
Owing to mankind’s fallen nature, it seems to me that a strong anthropocentrism will result in a kind of utilitarianism concerning human beings’ interaction with the world around them. The logic is that if the universe exists solely for humans, the natural world becomes nothing more than a resource for humans to plunder and destroy.
Such a utilitarian philosophy is antithetical to the biblical teaching of how human beings are to relate to the world around them. Returning to Genesis, we read, “Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the Earth.”
The use of the word dominion is essential. Within the context of Genesis, dominion implies that human beings are to rule over and have stewardship over nature. One does not rule over and care for something of no value. Moreover, since God has given weight to the natural world by His creative power, the importance of the natural world is objective; it is not subject to the whims of human passions.
I am conscious of this essay being construed as an attempt to advance an environmental or political agenda. That is not my intention. What I have sought to do is suggest that all of God’s creation is “very good” and perhaps echo the words of King Solomon. “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 3:19).