Monotheism as a Moral Issue

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Source: r the Providence Lithograph Company

Part I. Domination Over Nature
And God said, let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness and they shall dominate the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and the cattle and every moving thing on the Earth. – Genesis 1:26
In this installment, the first of four, I will concentrate on the moral imperative of monotheism; in the next, on the implication of this passage for the principle of equality; in the third, on the moral limitations on equality that inhere in the principle of loyalty; and finally, in the fourth, on the implications of God’s Image for the concept of reason, an innate human characteristic.
Monotheism is taken for granted in the Abrahamic faiths and indeed in many other religions, even though the commitment to a single God is inconsistent with the use of the plural to refer to God, not only in the beginning but in the second clause this passage. We do not receive a singular reference to God until the tetragrammaton (Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh) is introduced in Genesis 2.
True, we are not bound by the text as some American constitutional lawyers think they are committed to the words written down on parchment one hot summer in Philadelphia. It would seem inevitable that not only the language changes over time but the moral grid that we bring to interpretation changes as well. Therefore, it is entirely plausible to read this text through the grid of accepted monotheism.
But why should we? Uneducated by this text, my moral instincts would gravitate toward dualism – the struggle between good and evil, between yin and yang, between our female sides and our male inclinations. The thrust toward monotheism requires us to overcome these tendencies, to reconcile the antinomies within the heart of every person and within our conception of God.
It is not an accident that we learn of men and women for the first time in the next passage, Genesis1:27. Our fundamental conception of the human being should be the androgynous Adam. So far as Adam is the guide to the way we think about God this is an important conceptual commitment. Of course it does not make too much sense for purposes of reproduction. But as we shall see in the mysterious propagation of ten generations Adam to Noah, androgynous reproduction is not biblically inconceivable.
The moral imperative of overcoming our dualistic tendencies might be the most important implication of monotheism. The price we pay is adopting an androgynous conception of Adam – a state of being that, if not ultimately modified, would leave him alone – as God is alone before the beginning of creation. We learn in the end that is not good for him to be alone. He needs someone to talk to, a helpmate against himself.
What it means to be alone is signaled in the second clause of the passage by the imperative to dominate the other created species. Initially, it is not clear what this domination implies. We learn after the flood in Genesis 9 that it permissible to eat meat. Is it an imperative to eat meat to signal our domination?
In our time, a curious secular religion has evolved favoring the protection of life in all of its higher forms. The cult of veganism obviously denies the hierarchy mandated by the second clause. I suppose the principle is to protect life (fish, fowl, creeping things) in all its forms. Yet, there has to be some limit otherwise we end up paralyzed for fear of killing bugs and stepping on ants.
I might go so far as to say that eating meat is the right way to understand the principle of domination, though there are many who for reasons of taste prefer not to. This is less important than understanding the general principle of hierarchy over nature mandated in the second clause.
Hierarchy works well in many human institutions – the military, schools, the Catholic Church. Judaism too recognizes the hierarchy of Cohens, Levis and common people, depending on alleged descent. Of course, no proof is required in synagogue and apart from their last names, which may have been invented a few centuries ago, no knows anything about their blood line. A famous joke has an inexperienced congregant asking his father which he is and the father replies: Ask them which one is best.
The problem I am left with is the connection between these two clauses of the passage – God’s image and the imperative of domination over nature. Is there something about being created in God’s image and likeness that relates to ruling over other species? This is a deep puzzle, largely because, as I argue next time, this passage generates the commitment to human equality, and domination is not easily reconciled with equality.
Perhaps the solution is that the first clause creates a basis of entitlements, the second, an implication of duty. Robert Cover and Mary Ann Glendon have argued that duties are more basic to the religious life than are rights. If so, the argument could go like this: The primary imperative is to dominate nature – whatever that precisely means. The basis for the human right to do this is being created in God’s image and likeness. The human being therefore carries on the Divine work of ordering creation.
We have not given an account of ‘likeness’ and that is critical because in Genesis 5:1 the word Image is dropped and the weight of the moral value of monotheism is carried by the notion of God’s likeness.

George P. Fletcheris the Cardozo Professor of Jurisprudence at Columbia University School of Law.