How are Christians to understand nature?
That’s a question naturally raised on this, the Justice & Peace Committee’s commemoration of Earth Day, a day that argues for the proper stewardship of our natural world.
I chose Francis of Assisi’s famous Canticle of Creation as our prayer of invocation, mindful that a few weeks back I recommended Francis as the model for how we Christians ought to understand our relationship to nature.
Francis lived at a time which saw a wholesale reclamation of the biblical understanding of the world around us after centuries of paganism during the so-called Dark Ages,
It was G.K. Chesterton who suggested that a walk in a garden during the Dark Ages often meant an encounter with a panoply of willful gods and demons. Because each tree or plant was thought to be inhabited by one or the other, such a walk could be a downright harrowing experience.
But as Christianity reemerged from its centuries-long slumber, precipitated by the fall of Rome, a renewed appreciation of God as Creator became ascendant. The era came to be known as the High Middle Ages. No longer was a garden a place of capricious, threatening gods and demons, but a wondrous and lovely place that again revealed God’s glory and beauty.
It was as if all of life had been repristinated, restored to its original purity, with nature once again understood as God’s creation – and God’s alone. In the garden one could again perceive God’s divine purposes. Everything therein pointed to God’s master plan.
Creation thus had its integrity restored. All aspects of it bequeathed clues of the One who had created it. And each aspect of creation possessed its own unique identity, singular value, and specific role within God’s divine order.
In some ways, this accords with the widespread pre-scientific understanding of nature found in the pagan world as well. Here the things of nature possessed their own essence, one humans were required to revere.
In the pagan understanding the various gods and demons exuded power which had to be respected. Same, too, for the pre-scientific biblical understanding. The difference, of course, is that in the biblical view of a given tree or flower reflected the transcendent God, who is both beneficent and loving.
With the advent of the scientific age, however, this began to change. No longer was nature thought to possess its own intrinsic value as assigned to it by God. Instead nature was seen as entirely arbitrary and malleable, to be arranged and reordered according to the logic or whims of human beings.
Lost was respect for the inherent value and worth of the natural order. Nature became a canvas upon which we could paint our own picture, or a tool be used for our own purposes.
Today nature is treated essentially as an intellectual construct to be changed and manipulated as we see fit. If we don’t like what we see, we can alter it. If what we see inhibits or constrains us, we can bust out of its arbitrary limitations.
This, of course, is Original Sin writ large. For Original Sin is the act whereby humans act as gods accountable to no one other than their own unbound desires and perceptions.
In this our relationship to nature becomes utilitarian. Which is to say that nature must yield to our wishes and desires rather than having its own intrinsic value and God-given purpose. Equally lost is the foundational, biblical understanding of stewardship.
A proper reading of the Book of Genesis is instructive. There we learn that God created all that is, and that God deemed it “good.” The role of the human being, within this scenario, was to honor that which God had made.
This means we humans do not own and thus cannot control creation. We are stewards instead, required to use the natural order in accord with God’s divine will.
A basic biblical truth, often overlooked, is that while absolutely everything God has made is good, its misuse is what defines sin, which disrupts and distorts our God-given world.
This is another way of saying that there is no aspect of our lives that is inherently evil, not one of our powers or instincts or gifts that’s bad. They are, biblically speaking, neutral entities. The issue centers on how they’re used, whether for sacred or profane purposes.
Judgment, even anger, for instance, can be used for sacred purposes, which is why God gave us the capacity for both. The problem is that we too often misuse such things for selfish or profane purposes, which is sin, which invariably causes great harm both to ourselves and our world.
An important caveat, however, is that while biblical faith asks us to respect, honor, and enjoy nature, it never asks us to worship it. None of our natural powers, instincts, or gifts, in other words, are to be treated as if they themselves were God. Rather, the Bible properly understands the natural world and all human powers as part of God’s creation, to be understood and used in prescribed ways that honor God’s will and purposes.
In another twist, stewardship also requires that we use the natural order as an offering, as we seek to return them to God as an enhanced blessing. It is for this reason God gifts us, not to bury them, as in the parable of the talents, but use them so that God’s glory might be revealed. Thus we return them to God with “interest.”
So how then, finally, are Christians to understand nature?
Well, for one, we are not to worship it, as in pantheism (nature as God) or in the New Age idea of Gaia.
Nature, rather, is to be valued and respected because its glory points directly to the God who created it. As Christians, we are to perceive nature as the blessing it is, and as something to be used in ways that honor its Creator’s design.
The Church’s understanding of the natural order therefore ought to reflect the way the world really is, the way God made it, and not as some airy hypothetical we can change at will.
In the end, our understanding of nature is informed solely by God’s purposes. Toward this end, the Holy Spirit enables us to see the world as God sees it, thus restoring to us its incipient luster and sheen. Amen.