1 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!Psalm 8 (NRSV)
Early this year, I began tending full time to an organic market garden in rural North Carolina, where I grow an array of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. A substantial part of my time each week is spent working the earth: building beds, studying the soil, and experimenting with ways to increase yield and deter pests without herbicides, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers.
In another experiment that has unfolded alongside my agricultural work, I have begun praying the Benedictine daily office, a practice that involves reciting dozens of psalms each week. Like the first, this experiment has involved a steady stream of joys and frustrations, occasioning various discomforts, one of which is a forced and uneasy intimacy with some uncomfortable psalms.
Several of the psalms bring obvious difficulties (Psalms 109 and 137 come immediately to mind). But one that has surprised me in the discomfort it provokes is Psalm 8. Amidst its lyrical beauty and expression of wonder is an exultant tone about humanity that sometimes rings with a harsh dissonance against the backdrop of the current climate crisis.
The psalm’s tenor – underscored by the repeated exclamation with which it both begins and ends – is one of delight, astonishment, and gratitude. The psalmist expresses delight at the wonders of creation, astonishment at humanity’s unique status within it, and finally gratitude towards the Lord who arranged this marvelous state and who is to be praised for it.
Framing this celebration of humanity’s place in the cosmos is a particular vision of the created order. This vision dictates the psalm’s remarkable spatial structure, which is evident even in English translation. It depicts a hierarchical vision of the cosmos, stretching down from the heavens to the earth. Here, the heavens occupy creation’s apex, while the Lord’s glory stands above them (8:1).
Next in this hierarchical taxonomy come the heavens and their inhabitants, the moon and stars, upon which the psalmist gazes in wonder. Further down this chain of creation, stretching from the heavenly to the earthly, stands the human being. Upon beholding the glory of the night sky, the psalmist reflects on this amphibious creature that straddles the celestial and the mundane: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” As Marilynne Robinson keenly notes, “A question is more spacious than a statement, far better suited to expressing wonder” (240). Yet the psalmist follows this question with a positive declaration: “You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (8:5–6).
Here, in this meditation on the human’s peculiar station, lies the crux of the psalm. Though mortal, our species is placed only “a little lower” than the elohim and “crowned” with a “glory and honor” that lies in the human placement above the sheep, oxen, beasts of the field, birds of the air, fish of the sea, and sea creatures, all of which the Lord has given humans dominion over. This causes the psalmist to exclaim, once more, “how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
Despite its rhetorical beauty and reverent attention to the created order, something unsettling lurks within Psalm 8’s hierarchical vision of creation, with the human bearing divine mandate to rule the earth, dominating non-human animals and their habitats, “under our feet.”
It is easy to see this vision as yet another effect of the same prideful anthropocentrism that has brought about the climate catastrophe now underway. We are tempted to dismiss the psalm’s language as ideology in service of a disastrous Anthropocene: God has put all things under our feet, therefore let us brutally subject “all sheep and oxen” in CAFOs and industrial slaughterhouses, let us destroy the habitats of “the beasts of the field” in our endless pursuit of constant economic growth, and let us entangle “the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas” in our microplastics.
In a 1967 essay that became important to the nascent field of environmental ethics, historian Lynn White lamented that, in the dominant theological tradition of the Christian west, God ordained the created order “explicitly for [human] benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve [human] purposes,” making Christianity “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen” (1205).
Indeed, whenever I read verse 6, I recall a peculiar practice of a family in the fundamentalist church I attended as a child. The mother of my seven-year-old friend had trained him, after they’d finished their meal from McDonalds, to toss all their packaging and plastic utensils out the window of their van while triumphantly shouting, “Genesis 1:28!” His cry evoked, they proudly explained, the passage that Psalm 8 echoes, where the Lord commands the first humans to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
This attitude that White describes, and which my friends demonstrated so flamboyantly, makes it difficult for me to share the psalmist’s enthusiasm about our species’ place in the world. Especially at this point in human history, at which we have gained enough historical and scientific knowledge to recognize the effect that human projects have had on the entire planet and its inhabitants, this optimism is difficult to maintain. Indeed, this recognition lends a deeper sense of irony to this psalm than do our many other failings, of which the psalmist, and later, premodern readers, would have been aware. Economic inequality, endemic violence, the defense of a brutal status quo by political and religious authorities, continual war, cruelty to animals – all of this has marked human history from its beginning, long before the psalmist took up his stylus. But to speak in this context of humanity’s being “given dominion over the works of God’s hands,” of God having “put all things under our feet,” including the innumerable nonhuman creatures we are driving to extinction, inspires a kind of awe quite different from what the psalmist expresses, one accompanied by shame and disgust at the extent of our influence over the current course of life on earth.
One avenue for hearing the psalm in a different key, one that seeks to avoid this sort of anthropocentric naivete verging on malevolence, would be to interpret the psalm Christologically, a move with a long and rich history among Christians since the first century.
Indeed, several New Testament epistles offer precedents for interpreting the psalm this way. In 1 Corinthians 15:26–28, Paul interprets the psalm’s claim that the Lord has “put all things under their feet” as referring specifically to Jesus, whose resurrection established his superiority to all other aspects of creation, even death. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews offers a similarly Christological reading, emphasizing the incongruity of this vision with the reality his readers inhabit: “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:8–9).
And I find myself tempted, in dealing with Psalm 8, simply to assign the troubling lines – following the authors of the New Testament – to Jesus. It is not our species as a whole, then, with its disgraceful history and bleak future, that the psalm celebrates and to which it ascribes divine mandate. Rather, the psalm refers chiefly to Jesus, the one in whom God, in the ultimate act of cosmic humility, assumed flesh, confronted the worst aspects of our nature, was brutally murdered for doing so, and through his death overcame these forces on our behalf.
However, a reductively Christological reading of Psalm 8 does not wholly resolve these difficulties. Even when scriptural claims about humanity are assigned to Jesus, reducing the claims to that interpretation carries two liabilities. First, it disregards the multiple levels of meaning that any text – and especially any text of scripture which, for the very fact of being scripture, has especially rich and multivalent meanings – bears.
Second, this solution risks committing a Christological error. After all, if Jesus truly represents humanity, this must be true of all aspects of humanity. To take Christian claims about Jesus to their full extent means that he accompanies and represents our species across its entire history, bearing all our human baggage: the “glory and honor” of Psalm 8, and also our guilt and ignominy for what we have done to the earth, the “suffering of death” we have inflicted in various ways on the earth and its inhabitants.
Psalm 8 asks its readers to sit patiently with the discomfort it provokes and gaze unflinchingly at our species’ history to ask – even amidst the stark background of an ecological catastrophe that we have occasioned – “what are humans that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Indeed, why does God allow us to trample so brazenly on this planet?
This question exposes the limits that we, as finite creatures, encounter when we attempt to make sense of our species’ place in the cosmos, let alone of the significance of creation as a whole. Although our glimpses of the created order – of both good and evil – remain fragmentary, there is a divine vision whereby God sees the entirety of creation, stretching infinitely in both time and space, of which the part we can observe – let alone truly comprehend – is but a minuscule fraction.
In displaying its cosmic vision, Psalm 8 invites its readers to participate, in some limited way, in the divine perspective that exceeds our own, in which anthropocentric fantasies are judged and redefined. Indeed, the possibility that God stands outside our projects, affirming what is good and judging what is lacking, gives us hope that such redefinition is possible. In the words with which Ben Rawlence concludes The Treeline:
Curiosity and noticing are the humble but radical prerequisites for a new relationship with the earth. Systems change when there is a culture that demands it…. If we want to be part of the assemblage of species that coevolves to survive the coming upheaval then we need to revive that essential entanglement with other living things (266).
As I continue to struggle through and with the psalms while tending to the soil under my feet, I hope to increasingly recognize my own entanglement with other living things. I hope to avoid despair by cultivating curiosity and loving attention to my own small plot within this unimaginably vast expanse of time and space that constitutes God’s gift of creation, in which God remains entangled with us.