Thursday, February 01, 2007

Full yet?

Adam and Eve (and later Noah) are commanded to "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth" (Genesis 1.28; 9.1).

At what point can we say that, at least in terms of population, this commandment has been fulfilled? When is the earth full of us? I realise that we must never fail to consider children to be a precious gift, however, we live on a finite planet and cannot believe in the myth of infinite growth (including infinite population growth) so beloved of free market capitalism. So many of our environmental problems can be linked fairly directly (though not exclusively) to population growth. I know others may have cried 'wolf' too early in centuries past, but is there a limit? How are we to think about this?

UPDATE: In response to the huge and fasctination response to this question in comments, I am starting a new series on this topic. See here for the summary and links.

34 comments:

cyberpastor said...

It is interesting to consider whether God had exactly the same thing in mind in both cases. On the one hand when the man and the woman were blessed there could conceivably be a numerical limit since no one died. On the other hand when God spoke to Noah it was from the context of the death of all living things (save the passengers on the ark).

The thing that interests me in this discussion is the fact that it is always wealthy and healthy Westerners whose gradually diminishing populations use up far more of the world's resources than their developing world cousins.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I have long believed that this is ONE command that humanity has more than fulfilled. However, I know very many who think this is a command to each individual couple. They call any couple who choose childlessness "selfish." Weird, no?

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

BTW, Byron, lately your blog keeps giving me pop-up advertisements. I hate that and consider it spam, so it has been leading me to avoid your blog, which I don't like to do.

cyberpastor said...

Byron, I noticed that the link to my blog was not working. The problem has now ben rectified.

The Miner said...

To be frank this is a command written in the context of an agricultural people as many other stories in the torah and prophets where children represented God's blessing. We know longer think this way - indeed we know quite differently, that our population and expenditure of resources are critical stewardship issues. For us this must be viewed as a command to spread God's blessings in other ways.

Furthermore, there is an attitude, prominent in the Roman Catholic Church, but present elsewhere, that a fundamental (if not THE fundamental) obligation of every person is to procreate in order to participate in the creative act which is the key to the imago dei. To me this is an unhealthy distortion. A form of idolatry in which we worship the Imago Dei in place of God. our primary obligation is to glorify god, we do that by living into the Imago Dei as shown in Christ. In a basic sense we are fruitful and multiply when we multiply christlike love in the world far more than when we multiply human beings.

This comes from a father of one, soon to be two.

meredith said...

This is a really interesting question. You might be interested to know that the whole idea of filling the earth and making it productive was at the core of many 18th and 19th century ideas about colonisation and population distrubition. I have read several writers from that period who basically aregued that, since are too many people here in Britain, we should shift the 'redundant population' [ie under-employed rural workers] to another part of the empire which is not yet full or productive [ie to a place like australia which was populated 'only' by Aborigines]. Then the formerly redundant population of Britain could invest their labour into a new land, make the soil productive, and keep right on filling up the earth, like god says.

It scares me that this idea of filling the earth has been used to justify the imperial take over of other peoples land - as well as the grose exploitation of the environment.

byron said...

Michael - my apologies about the pop-ups. Has anyone else been experiencing this? I do not think it is anything I have done, but does this mean that my site has been hacked? Anyone know of anything I can do about it? I have not been getting pop-ups.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

I haven't noticed any pop-up ads.

At AFES NTE last year, my strand group leader (from Adelaide EU) used O'Donovan's "Resurrection and Moral Order" to argue that since the command to be fruitful and multiply was based in creation it was still applicable for today.

We had a debate, and I think that argument won...

The Miner said...

I get the popups as well. To be honest I thought you were allowing people to use your blog for advertising, but I have no idea what might be causing it if you're not the one who set it up.

michael jensen said...

Yep I get the popups.

I think the thought that this command is already fulfilled is really dangerous and possibly pagan - but then, it could be my latent Catholicism speaking! (and my vested interest - I have 4 children!) Africa actually has a shortage of people...

I have heard secular people moan that having children is selfish, too, so that accusation cuts both ways.

However: isn't the mission of the church to preach the gospel and call people into God's family now where the command to fill continues? Perhaps? Of course, the people of the kingdom having children helps this somewhat... ie it's about church growth.

Rev Sam said...

First, about pop-ups (which I haven't experienced at all) - are the victims using Internet Explorer? It could be that Firefox has an advantage in that regard. It's clearly not because Byron has sold out ;-)

But to the point at hand, this is something I've spent rather a long time pondering, and the more time goes on, the more I am sympathetic to the RC position; or, perhaps more accurately, the more I think a couple choosing not to have any children is a mistake. (Which was a factor in our decision to have #3 recently!)

For me it's all about hope, and making a commitment to the future; whereas choosing not to reproduce is - to summarise brutally - a form of suicide. I think we have to be committed to this world, and also, to an extent, committed to our cultural form (ie not to assume that because Western culture has its awful aspects, that we should simply destroy ourselves). Redemption and Incarnation, in other words; not wrath and docetism.

However, in the back of my mind is a statistic from the American West in the 1800's, which said that in order to ensure that two children reach adulthood, couples had to have at least six.

As Byron knows, I'm pretty pessimistic about the next twenty years or so. I think we are going to observe a significant drop in human population, billions will die (yes, that's a B, it's not a typo), and there is nothing that can be done about that. The choice about having children has to take that into account too.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Christianly speaking marriage is always about more than just the happiness of the couple. Because marriage is a symbol of Christ and the church, it partakes of God's overflowing love. That may, indeed, ordinarily DOES, express itself in children.

But because Christianity is perpetuated primarily by evangelism, the biological necessity never the same since Jesus. A Christian couple may choose childlessness and express the hope for the future by adopting (even as we all are adopted by God) or becoming foster parents--or in numerous other ways.

Yes, the combination of the AIDS epidemic and catastrophic global climate change (plus wars, the rapidly plummeting birthrate in Europe, etc.) may lead to such an exteme population drop that this command takes on new priority soon. But it is worth noting that if current trends continue and the forecast for billions dying off doesn't happen, we will reach the absolute carrying capacity for the earth within 50 years. Several animal species near the brink of extinction are severely threatened by expanding human populations taking the last of their habitats, too.
So, this command is always contextual. For right now, I think it very unwise for people to have more than 2 children (each one replace one) and if they want more to adopt. But, if Rev. Sam is right in his predictions, then large reproduction rates may soon be needed again--but I would be cautious.
As it is, I think our chances of ending global hunger and of saving endangered species (other creatures of our Creator and worthy in their own right) may well hinge on our ability to control our own population. If we don't, then nature's traditional population controls--famine, disease, natural catastrophes, and wars over dwindling resources--may soon control our population for us.

This is written by a father of two who is applying (with my wife) to become a foster parent.

michael jensen said...

Well much to agree with here mww.

The US is a much easier (and cheaper) country to adopt in I have to say. It is very very difficult in Australia to adopt a child, even from overseas. And here in England, the politically-correct crowd have taken over the social work thing, so that Christian folks have difficulty being allowed to adopt because of their religious views ... whereas a couple of chaps walk in, and it seems to be fine...

I wish I was joking.

Adoption/fostering is the best anti-abortion stance we can take...

The Miner said...

Rev. Sam, I agree with you about acting in hope (and about the grim predictions for our near future), but ironically I come to the exact opposite conclusion about children on that basis.

You see, to me, it is God who sustains creation. Our obligation is to take the best care of it that we can while we're here, but not ultimately to attempt and secure the future of our species. Faith in God demands that we believe we will be sustained if it be God's will.

On the other hand, acting in hope right now, in the context of severe overpopulation does not mean blindly ignoring the consequences of our reproductive choices. Rather it means that we have hope that we can find a balance through careful stewardship which avoids the catastrophe you are predicting. At this point that means being cautious about the population.

One Salient Oversight said...

I think it's an exegetical error to believe that this is a command that God gives us.

God uses the same word to tell the animals do the same thing (Gen 1.22). So when Kangaroos in Northern Australia put off having babies because of ongoing drought conditions, or when those Pandas in China don't procreate, are they sinning against God by doing this?

joey said...

This is a command that is being obeyed in a predominantly Catholic country like mine. It is common for a couple to have 8-12 children. It is common among the poor... when they strongly believe that children are blessings from God. But of course, they live in poverty but one thing I sure know they are happy. Anyways, I think one of the problem is that people tend to be overcrowd in the cities and nearby towns that there are provinces left virtually uninhabited.

Christopher said...

I haven't experienced any pop-ups.

I don't really have much to add to the topic, except...

when those Pandas in China don't procreate, are they sinning against God by doing this?

The pandas aren't but the people who have destroyed or encroached on their natural environment making it difficult to defecate let alone procreate are/could be sinning. But maybe they are encroaching on the panadas environment because China is over-populated and already too full.

One of Freedom said...

No pop-ups and I'm using Internet Exploder.

What a fascinating discussion. I think the challenge of our day is to start with the reality of our situation and then turn to the scriptures. If we start with the scriptures then we have a command that will destroy us, at least the way we are interpreting it. If we start from a perspective of live and a trust in God we can see that the heart of that command is to restore the viability of the human race. We then can ask what does God say to us in our day, in regards to the viability of our race. We also have to realize that this command came from the God of justice and that has to be part of our wrestling with this Word.

Spoken as a father of two.

charlie said...

So many of our environmental problems can be linked fairly directly (though not exclusively) to population growth.

Byron this seems to me a key part of the question/argument about having fewer kids.

But you have stated it weakly: "so many" (I assume not all) / "can" / "fairly directly" / "not exclusively".

Could you make a case as to how population growth can be linked to so many of our environmental problems? Or perhaps point me to further reading that makes such a case?

Your peak oil series relates to this of course. But I wasn't particularly convinced by the argument: I have a perhaps misplaced trust in the ability of people to adapt to running out of oil, and don't see exhausted oil reserves as coming from too many people, just bad use of resources.

I hope this doesn't sound nitpicky. I am interested in seeing an argument against further population growth, as it's often assumed/hypothesised rather than argued.

Joanna said...

Speaking as a child of two and a parent of none, I'm wondering if the phrase "fill the earth and subdue it" is to be taken as a whole.

Is it fill the earth in order to subdue it?

Or fill the earth and subdue it?

How do we subdue the earth by filling it? What would this subjugation look like?

Over-expanded population? Is that subjugation? Where we bend every natural resource to our usage until we have exhausted it? Surely God's command would not pertain to the destruction of the earth, especially pre-Fall...

Is the subjugation related to numbers at all?

Christian A said...

Just a thought: Could "fill the earth" be extrapolated "fill the universe"? If it became possible to colonise another planet, would it be good or immoral for humans to do it?

Also here's a quote I agree with: "We have children as a witness that the future is not left up to us, and that life, even in a threatening world, is worth living - and not because "Children are the hope of the future," but because God is the hope of the future." - Resident Aliens , Hauerwas and Willimon

Christopher said...

Christian I know you come from a large family, but filling the universe is a little ambitious don't you think?

Christian A said...

yeah Chris is right - I'm the oldest of seven kids, so I'm probably too biased to make an authoritative comment on this issue...

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Well, I'm the oldest of 6 kids (the neighbors kept asking if we were Catholic), but that didn't keep my mouth closed. Turned out mom was allergic to the Pill and every time she went off of it--poof! Papa eventually got himself fixed before our house looked like a certain shoe in a nursery rhyme!

Rev Sam said...

charlie - you might like to check out my talk 'accumulating crises' which can be found here (full link to sequence of talks is on the sidebar of my blog).

charlie said...

Great, will listen, thanks Sam.

BTW, your website is broken on Linux. It required trickery on my part to download the talk. Technical details: The MP3 is referenced through an ActiveX control, which is only accessible in Windows (perhaps even only in IE, I'm not sure if it works in Firefox on Windows). I saw no link to the talk when I browsed to the address you sent - only on viewing the HTML of the page and searching for .mp3 did I find the address of the file to download.

nicole said...

man, byron, you ask some good'uns! i can just picture your childhood - other three-year olds in the playground picking their nose and fighting over toys and little byron is wandering around trying to get a straight answer from the playgroup leader about whether it's more ethical to eat green or red playdough...

more seriously, i can't help but feel that this one is not up to us. i'm uncomfortable with the idea of choosing not to have children for the sake of the planet, both theologically and as a woman of childbearing age (and desire). i am, however, all for responsible procreation; i am very taken with michael westmoreland-white's '2 to replace and adopt/foster another' suggestion.

to get on my favourite hobby horse, i think this problem is one which can be tackled quite simply - a double-pronged focus on women's sexual and reproductive health and rights, and on the education of women and girls (particularly in developing countries) could head this off nicely. we know that women who are educated have significantly lower parity (birth rates) than non-educated women, are less likely to be poor, and that their female children are more likely to be better educated, have better standards of living, and in turn have lower birth rates. combine this with access to the pill or other contraceptives, and improved gender rights which enable women to have more control over when, where and with whom they have sex, and you have the recipe for a smaller population of educated people who look after each other and their environment better.

wouldn't it be nice...

Christopher said...

I agree that greater recognition of womens rights and education in developed countries would be great, but I don't think it will change population growth all that much, because the "production" of children in such countries is often more to do with economics than education or an abuse of rights.

Richard Rorty (an American pragmatist philosopher) in an essay called Love and Money talks of a fellow philosopher who after teaching in the US went back to his homeland of India to take up a government position as the Minster of Health, he hoped to bring Western thought and education to India to help with the enormous health issues the country faces, inculding birth control. Rorty went to India to visit him and this is what he learnt:

'After 30 years' work on the part of people like himself [Rorty's friend], it was still the case that the only rational thing for parents in an Indian village to do was to try as hard as they could to have eight children. It had to be eight because two would die in childhood, three of the remainder would be girls and thus require dowries, and one of the remaining boys would run off to Bombay and never be heard of again. Two male children working desperately hard, all their lives, with no time off for tenderness, would be required to ensure that their sisters' dowries were paid, and their mother and father kept from starvation in their old age.'

Sorry for the long quote, but I think it helpful to have a more specific account of the situation "on the ground". Perhaps instead of trying tp adopt third-world children we (Westerns) could adopt a dowry.

nicole said...

hi chris - there's no photo of me so you can't tell, but i'm the nicole who you went on that omf thai study tour with all those years ago!

while it's obviously hard to disagree with the experience of richard rorty's friend, i think you'd be hard-pressed to find an expert on women's health who didn't think there was a strong correlation between women's education, fertility, and maternal/child mortality! education (of course, coupled with adequate and effective access to sexual and reproductive health services) makes a difference both to fertility rates and to the socioeconomic reasons underpinning them - we don't need to look much further than a countries like japan (which might run out of people altogether if they're not careful), or even just the patterns in more 'normative' wealthier countries like our own or the us, to see the evidence pretty clearly.

i wonder if rorty's friend had a chance to ask the woman if she really wanted to have those 8 children - i suspect that, given a choice, she would prefer to have had fewer children, all of whom had better health outcomes, in a society which values men and women equally. it could be a real option - and it all starts with education...

dear me, i'm starting to sound like some bleeding heart lefty ;)

nic

ps an interesting article which makes these points better than me can be found at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/
meguro.htm

Anonymous said...

If you want to read more discussion on this, there is quite a bit here.

fox said...

An interesting discussion indeed. However, I think it is sometimes easy to isolate Genesis 1:26 from our ability to fulfil our other roles as humans.

For example, say I'm have a housewarming party in my apartment and cater comfortably for twenty people. If thirty turn up then there are probably enough cashews to go around. But by the time two or three hundred unexpected guests knock on the door, something has to give! (and it will probably be my floor!) By having such a large group, despite my intent to be servant-hearted to each, it is unlikely I will be able to adequately perform my role as host.

My point is that there is an implicit conflict between a command to "be fruitful and increase in number" and the capacity of humanity to fulfil other God given purposes. With a projected population in 2050 of 9.1 billion (http://esa.un.org/unpp), it will be increasingly difficult for humans to rule in a way which preserves the goodness of creation identified in Genesis 1.

Overpopulation has implications for the church's ability to meet the needs of the poor (less resources, greater need), our capacity to live in harmony with eacy other (conflict created by land insecurity) and our capacity to enjoy God's good creation.

So-called 'anthropomorphic' environmental changes will see grave (and preventable) injustice particularly impact those who are the least able to cope with them. (see Prof Jeff Sachs talk at http://www.earthinstitute.columbia.edu/RealNetworks/sachs_student_lecture.ram).

Perhaps the time for multiplying has passed (for now). As our global population will triple from 3 billion to 9 billion in the period 1950 to 2050, the question is now how we can protect God's creation for future generations as well.

byron said...

Thanks for all the comments - keep them coming. I am not going to even attempt to respond to them all here, that's why my new series is for...

Thanks to all those who included interesting links and some very stimulating comments.

Christopher said...

Hi Nicole,

Nice to bump into in the cyber world.

i think you'd be hard-pressed to find an expert on women's health who didn't think there was a strong correlation between women's education, fertility, and maternal/child mortality!

No doubt there is a correlation, I am not trying to argue otherwise. But I do think that even with increased education there will still be high birthrates in countries where children are needed to bring an income into the family. From an economic point of view the West sees children as an economic liability – clothes, food, school fees, sports fees etc. But in most parts of the world children work (or are slaves); they are an economic asset – provided they aren’t disabled.

i wonder if rorty's friend had a chance to ask the woman if she really wanted to have those 8 children - i suspect that, given a choice, she would prefer to have had fewer children

I think that the question of whether she really wanted to have eight children would occur to her as a bizarre question. When the children are needed to look after her in old age the answer would be plain – she needs to have eight children. But with decreased infant mortality through education she may only need to have six.

Education is helpful but it can’t do the job on its own. Education won’t change the need to pay dowries, or the lack of economic security or the unpayable interest put on small loans that families need to survive. So they take the loan, have the interest, can’t pay it and are faced with the choice of “do I risk violence to me and family” or “do I put one of my children to work to help pay the unpayable loan?”

In the west we view children as a superfluous luxury, while most parts of the world children are an economic necessity.

I think that the command to populate the earth is relative to where you live.

Chris

Martin Kemp said...

When does a comment thread get full?

BTW, saw a right wing TV documentary once called the "population myth" which claimed that Africa was under- populated and the people there were suffereing as a result. Also claimed that Africans want western development, and that environmentalism was in fact a form of imperialism, i.e. white middle class greenies imposing their values on everyone else.

How might we respond to such a claim?