Nature is soulful again
I figure we human beings have always been hard on nature. I mean, cutting down trees and killing animals appear to be pretty fundamental to the human experience.
What’s striking about us Western Moderns, however, is the intentionality and aggressiveness of our antagonism towards nature. And it’s not just the fact that we’ve increased in number. No, more than that, the dominant Western worldview is deliberately anchored in a narrative that framed nature as dangerous place that we needed to subdue and hold “dominion” over. At the same time, wilderness was stripped of its spiritual potency so it could become exploitable real estate to be mined for the purposes of accumulating wealth.
Consider: ancient people didn’t see themselves as distinct from nature, and they didn’t see nature as inanimate. Everything wild was “inspirited” or “ensouled.” Not just animals, but everything – mountains, rivers, forests. As a result, nature warranted a certain reverence, even a divine status.
As we began to farm and later industrialize, however, we created something new to worship: Progress. The corresponding demands for unfettered economic and technological growth meant that the wilderness needed to be “de-spiritualized” and human interests needed to be set up in opposition to nature’s interests. Simply put, we had to justify our assault on the Earth.
The architects of modernity were extremely bullish on this project – though it’s not really fair to single them out, given that they were merely putting a name to contemporary humanity’s urge to exploit. Regardless, Enlightenment thinkers rallied around the assessment of scientists like Galileo and Newton that nature operated as an interlocking series of pushing and pulling mechanisms, devoid of any mystical qualities. With that as the backdrop, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes famously described the State of Nature as a “war of all against all” where lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Coercive authority was the salve for that. Francis Bacon – throwing in a dose of sexism for good measure – framed nature as a woman who needed to be enslaved. For Bacon, glorious technical advancements “do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s courses, they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.” René Descartes considered animals non-sentient mechanical beings and proclaimed the need to “make ourselves masters and possessors of nature.”
By the same token, Christianity’s victory over paganism instilled a new worldview that nature in and of itself wasn’t sacred, but was rather the creation of a transcendent god – that is, a god apart from the world. Add to that a dualistic distinction between the spirit and the physical, and a divine commission in Genesis to exercise “dominion” over creation and “fill and subdue the Earth,” and, well, you can see how nature didn’t stand a chance.
With the weight of philosophy and religion behind it, the narrative of humanity’s transcendency of and mastery over nature was assured. And oh, how it has thrived. Today, many contemporary Christians have embraced it to the point where they are actively hostile to the idea that we should work to preserve the environment. Like the now-deceased but still influential reverend Jerry Falwell who insisted in a
CNN interview that the “myth” of global warming was “created to destroy America’s free enterprise system and our economic stability.” His response to this supposed snow job? “I urge everyone to
go out and buy an SUV today.”
Other Christians consider environmentalism a form of idolatry, because they fear the rights of an “inanimate” planet and its non-human creatures are held in higher esteem than God. Others still figure the plight of the Earth doesn’t matter because it’s not our permanent home. If, after all, the Rapture is coming, who cares if glaciers are looking spotty? There is, of course, a healthy contingent of Christians who reject this narrative and are building a new one. It’s a narrative that sees nature as full of divine spirit – a place that is just fine as it is and doesn’t need to be “improved” by humans. Sure, we’ve been tasked as caretakers by an immanent god, but that doesn’t mean we are to preside over nature. Rather, we are called to recognize that we are embedded in it.
This new narrative builds on an ancient one. It’s a reclamation of something our supposedly “primitive” forebears understood. It’s a re-reading of oft-cited Genesis verses with a new lens – this time with an emphasis on our divine appointment to tread lightly and humbly in a life-giving biosphere. It’s a re-alignment with the likes of Francis of Assisi, who understood the holiness of communing with God through the physical, material world – the sun, the trees, the birds.And it might just be the key to our survival as a species.
Nicholas Klassen is a principal at Biro Creative, a former senior editor at Adbusters magazine and a contributing editor to Geez.