By Barry Casey
“Our relationship to nature is not merely one of benevolent boss, it is one of love, because we are one body with nature.”1
I live near a pond that is noisily inhabited by a large flock of Canada geese. These are no seasonal visitors: they came, they liked it, and they stayed. Why fly all the way back to Canada when you can stay in Maryland all year round? And there’s no one to tell you your visa has expired, and you’re not welcome here anymore.
So, every morning I hear them and then see them flying overhead in a straggly V shape, honking croakingly to each other on their way to breakfast at a soccer field near our townhome. Their throaty calls make me smile, and when I walk around their pond (our homeowner’s association loftily refers to it as a “lake”) they grudgingly step aside as I pass through the crowd.
When I was growing up in Northern California, I had the run of the woods and an abandoned vineyard just up the road from our house. My friends and I would hop our way down the massive volcanic boulders lining Linda Falls Creek almost every Saturday and camp out in the forests around Howell Mountain or hike along the old stagecoach roads that ringed Mt. St. Helena. Every month or so, we’d head out to one of our favorite Northern California beaches near Jenner-by-the-Sea, and now and then make the trek down to Yosemite. I realize now how privileged and fortunate we were to grow up in such a bountiful region in the hills above the Napa Valley.
I joined Pathfinders in spite of my gut-level dislike of uniforms, drills, and close-formation marching, just so I could go on the campouts. In those forests and glades, building forts and climbing trees, my friends and I experienced an immersion in the natural world that breathed of the mysterious and the spiritual. And by that same token, depredations to our environment felt like blows to the soul, so close was our affinity to the land.
“Within these plantations of God,” mused Emerson,“a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thou- sand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith.”2
Emerson was never one to shortcut his access to transcendence, but he did seem vibrantly aware of the blessings of nature any time of day or night, sunshine or darkening sky. “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts an occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”3
That exultation, bordering on fear, signals the presence of the sublime. More a state of mind than a presence to the eye, this awareness is what Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, and it was for him the doorway to the holy. C. S. Lewis drew on this in creating the geography and the mindscape of Narnia. There is a frisson of fear, a sense of what is awesome, as we feel our own smallness in a majestic landscape.
Emerson takes us to task: “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most people do not see the sun. . . The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child . . . In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.”4 We adults look to our weather apps to gauge how we must dress and what we can accomplish that day, in spite of the weather. For Emerson, taking after the innocence of children, the sun, all light and warmth, was to be first enjoyed for itself and not simply for its utter necessity.
But way back in the 60s, Harvey Cox, in his bestseller, The Secular City, showed us that it was the ancient Hebrews who first drove a wedge between humans and the natural world. All around them were cultures that venerated spirits of mountains, trees, lakes, the sky, and the sea. Humans, in that spiritual landscape, were at the mercy of the elemental powers of nature and could only hope to placate these violent forces. If they wanted to “live long upon the land,” they needed the blessing of gods and goddesses of fertility. Every blight, every scirocco wind, every drought, exposed their dependence on these greater forces.
Under these circumstances, the familiar verse, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help,” could be a nod to Baal, the god of precious rain sweeping down from the mountains. But punctuated differently, it renders a starkly divergent view: “I will look unto the hills. From whence cometh my help? My help comes from the Lord.”5 Baal loses, Yahweh wins.
Cox called this deliberate distancing from the gods the desacralization of nature. It stripped nature of its sacred power, placed humans in the middle strata of a hierarchy between the creator God and the earth, and forced distance between humans and creation. This objectified the world, broke the dependence humans once had on the gods, and opened the way for the development of cities and, in time, the rise of science. Loyalty to Yahweh had the unintended consequence of exploiting the earth. When the nature spirits no longer had to be placated, fear turned to indifference at best and arrogance at worst—the abundant resources of nature were there not only to be used, but to be exploited.
And now we are living in a world that is suffering from climate change at a faster rate than we have seen in a century. The Industrial Revolution sped up the innovations of technology and provided comforts that many had not enjoyed before. But the use of technology is not neutral: for all the good it has done us, there are consequences for these bene- fits. Our stewardship of this world, entrusted by God, has been one of domination rather than care. The gifts of nature have not been received with graciousness but taken with force and ruthlessness. Instead of seeing ourselves as one with our environment, we set ourselves apart, imagining that our skill and power to dominate give us the right to rend and tear—and to take without giving. We are living under an administration that is relentless in its goal to strip away protections for land, water, air, and creatures, in order to maximize profit and claim the right to dispose of our resources without thought for those downstream, both literally and metaphorically.
Our ecology is the study of our home, this earth, our oikos, (Greek for “home”). Do we want this home to endure, to renew itself, to flourish? Some scientists now say we are in the sixth extinction of this earth. We might be tempted to believe that since we came back from the previous five, why worry about this one? Since we won’t be around to witness the final moments of this extinction, why should we concern ourselves? And then there is the shrug of many Christians, that soon Christ will come and wipe away the mess we have made, giving us a fresh, clean, and sparkling Earth in place of this sad, worn-out, rubbish heap we are building.
Here’s a thought-experiment: imagine that Adam and Eve have come to stay with us for a week, to see what we have made of the earth in their absence. They sit at our tables, watch the news with us, ride in our cars and airplanes, listen as the decibel level rises in our cities, and watch as pollutants foam the creeks and fires char the wilderness. They look in bewilderment as oil spills foul the oceans, and they shudder as the tundra turns to a bog and rivers pour off the ice fields of Greenland. They do not speak; they watch in silent disbelief. What could we say to them?
What I am trying to express is the idea that Christians, of all people, should regard this earth—land, seas, sky, plants, and the creatures in it—as family. Aldo Leopold, writer and conservationist, put it well: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”6
Seventh-day Adventists already have a template for this in the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a glade within time and space in which we relish the created world. The Sabbath lodges us in this world, our ancestral home, with responsibilities to care for it and the invitation to love it. It is one way to say, “Blessed be the earth and all that is in it.”
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, “Dante’s Woods.” His first collection of essays, “Wandering, Not Lost,” was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]
1 – Roughgarden, Joan. Evolution and Christian Faith. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006, p. 23;
2 – Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected Essays. New York: Penguin Books, 1982, pp. 38-39;
5-Ps. 121:1,2, NRSV;
6-Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Ballantine Books, 1949, p. 262.