Finding God in the Death of Nature
ON SALVATION & "SAVING THE WHALE"
Even the stork in the heavens knows her times; and the turtle dove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming; but my people know not the ordinance of the Lord. — Jeremiah 8:7
While most people now dismiss Lynn White’s thesis that Christian spirituality is directly to blame for the growing ecological crisis, vast numbers of people (Christians included) still judge the biblical perspective to be drastically inadequate when it comes to (1) fostering respect for the natural world, (2) challenging us to turn from our current course of wholesale environmental destruction, and (3) guiding us toward more sustainable habits of being. “We need a new story,” states Thomas Berry, a Dominican priest and self-described “geologian” who has written searchingly about environmental concerns from a theological standpoint. If the problems confronting us were confined to suicide or homicide or even genocide, he argues, then the Christian vision would still prove adequate. But biocide? Here, contends Berry, the traditional Christian story just flat out breaks down. According to Berry, by emphasizing “redemption out of this world through a personal Savior relationship,” orthodox Christianity has effectively disqualified itself as a vision to steer by in an “ecological age.” A rather startling claim, this — but no less startling, certainly, than William McKibben’s claim, advanced in his widely discussed book The End of Nature, that the Christian creed actually obstructs the kind of vision one needs in order to appreciate the enormity of what’s at stake. Though he goes out of his way to identify himself as a “reasonably orthodox Methodist,” McKibben nevertheless believes that in an ecological context categories like sin and redemption and incarnation are for the most part “numbing.”
Numbing? I confess that when I come across statements like that I fall prey to a mood of complete bafflement. I begin to wonder if the Christian and environmental camps aren’t in fact doomed somehow, through no particular fault of their own, to be forever divided and at odds.
To be sure, neither McKibben nor Berry makes the mistake of citing Genesis 1:28 as proof that Christianity has in some sense actually sanctioned the exploitation of the natural world. They know as well as anybody that “dominion,” in the Bible, does not under any circumstances mean “defilement,” and that when God tells Adam to go forth and “subdue” the earth he is conferring upon Adam authority, not licentiousness. But you would think that Berry, at the very least, would have exercised similar caution when it came to repeating cliches like the one about how Christianity has principally to do with “transcending” a fallen, sublunary world of bodies and bogs. Has he not read God’s speech to Job out of the whirlwind, or Psalm 104, or Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures”? And what about Augustine? Augustine was so loath to portray nature as anything but a field of grace that, perhaps because he could not prophesy so well as Paul the extent of man’s ability to wreak ecological havoc, he went to considerable, if futile pains to interpret Paul’s verse in Romans 8 about the creation groaning in travail as a statement solely about man groaning in travail. In any event, I do not see how anyone could deny that the Book of Job or Psalm 104 or the “Canticle of the Creatures” has a distinctly biocentric or “green” orientation. Far from identifying evil with corruptibility, texts like these invite their hearer to think of supernature as just that — nature, deepened. Their authors, it is clear, tended to look on the journey to heaven less as a matter of transcendence than as a migration to a rich land.
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