Reflections on smallpox and God’s creation
An interesting article in the Guardian this morning, on the (on-going) debate on whether to eliminate the remaining stocks of the smallpox virus. The article focuses on the pragmatic issues of health, international security and bio-terrorism, but in reading it I was wondering if there were larger issues involved.
The daily gospel readings are from Genesis, and so I have been rereading the account of creation. One thing I noticed is that the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 put slightly different emphases on the relation between humanity and God’s creation. In the first account God tells Adam and Eve: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.” The sense here is of total control, ownership, “dominion.” On the other hand, in the second account it says that “The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.” Here the sense is of stewardship: caring for something that they do not own.
I do not want to read too much into these short passages, but I think that this tension still affects our current understanding of the world around us. If the world is “ours” in the sense we have complete control over it, then we can do what we want, subject only to our prudential judgment of how to treat our property. On the other hand, if the world is God’s, then our decisions must show deference to God’s own plan. We are stewards, and presumably (like all stewards) have a great deal of autonomy and authority, but in the end we are constrained by the plan of the actual Master of creation.
And what does this tell us about smallpox? I am not sure, but despite the very compelling arguments of those who argue for the destruction of smallpox, some part of me hesitates to willingly destroy any part of God’s creation. Now this is not, I hope, the “Bambi syndrome”: I hope that I am not getting all dewy eyed over a virus whose main function seems to have been to kill 100’s of millions. Nevertheless, it is part of God’s creation, and therefore part of God’s plan, if only in the contingent sense that God created a world in which diseases such as smallpox would evolve.
Note that I am not claiming that smallpox has a “right” to exist, much less a “right” to continue to be an active plague in the world. (This would be the result of pushing Peter Singer’s speciesism to its logical limit.) But I think it is worth asking, in this extremal case, what limits, if any, beyond prudential judgment, should control our “dominion” over the smallpox virus? This should give us clues as to how we should relate to the other parts of creation, the good, the bad and the ugly (with apologies to Sergio Leone).
David Cruz-Uribe, SFO