From the somewhat damp log where I was perched I watched the stream move through the heliconia and around mossy pebbles until it dropped down the steep incline beneath the little suspension bridge ahead. The canopy above was thick, surrounding me with a cool dimness as I lay down to gaze up at the sunlight and mist peaking through the leaved ceiling. I heard only the breeze through the trees and the trickling of the stream, and so I was taken quite by surprise when the lull of the forest was suddenly interrupted by a series of sharp chirps and a low humming. Snapping my head around to the side I caught sight of a hummingbird dangling in the air just next to me. In the forest shadows it was a deep greenish black, and its delicate splendor was striking. I savored the few moments I had to watch as it paused, and then lay back again as it flitted away. As I returned to the forest lull, my mind began to wander.
There is a theme of power and awe that is uniquely ascribed to nature, and I can’t help but wonder how this sense of awe relates to God. The human race is beginning to recognize its impacts on the environment; this article is written to demonstrate that these rising concerns are just as relevant to Christians as they are to people from other backgrounds.
To begin the search for God in nature, it seems appropriate to start with Genesis, which describes God-intended relationship between humans and nature. It is written, “fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth,” followed by, “...I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food...” (Gen 1:29). Two things become very apparent: humans dominate the earth, and the creatures of the earth are given to people. This verse in Genesis frames humans as being in a place of power, and has been used to justify humans’ ceaseless destruction of the earth. Although I agree that humans have powerful impacts on the earth, I argue here that this does not justify destructive acts. This promotion of destruction has overlooked the biblical notion that nature is a gift from God, implying that it should be regarded with gratitude rather than gluttony.
That humans dominate earth’s ecosystems is by now an observable fact rather than an anthropocentric claim or doctrine. I do not mean that humans “control” natural forces, but that because of the interconnectedness of ecosystems humans now influence every part of it. Things like carbon emissions and fishing affect ecosystems the world over, so that coral reefs and rainforests, among other systems, are now impacted even when humans are not in direct contact with them. By 1997 humans had already transformed between one third and one half of land surface, made use of half of the earth’s fresh water, and had already driven a quarter of the world’s bird species to extinction; how much more must we have done by now? The Genesis description of human influence on nature appears to be a very accurate description of what is currently going on. Given our dominant position, how might we learn to treat nature as a gift from God?
It is helpful to consider our response to other gifts we receive in our life. If someone cooks us a meal, or gives us a birthday gift, or does us a favor of any sort, we feel joy and we immediately say or write a “thank you.” This simple expression of gratitude is the least we can do for the givers of these gifts. In some cases, our expression of gratitude goes beyond words and becomes action. If someone buys you a car, gratitude can take the form of caring for that car. It would be ungrateful to run it into the ground without ever attempting to maintain its oil, tires, engine, and so on. In this case respecting and using the gift wisely becomes a way to thank the giver while simultaneously prolonging the life of the gift! In the same way, the beginning of treating nature as a gift may be a prayer thanking God, but it doesn’t end there—our gratitude must become action.
To determine how to respond to the gift of nature with gratitude it is helpful to understand the actions we are currently taking that do just the opposite. Ecosystems, species, and the natural resources that support us and delight our hearts are truly a gift, but our news and scientific journals are filled with an endless number of articles describing the destruction and pollution of habitats, the extinction of species, and the altering of global biogeochemical cycles as a whole. My explorations of Costa Rica astounded me with phenomenal natural forest and reef systems, but also assaulted me with unimaginable stretches of oil palm and pineapple plantations—the origin of the equally endless rows of Del Monte pineapple, Oreos, and Ritz crackers on American supermarket shelves. Our lust for little cubes of pineapple and crunchy snacks is essentially a lust for thousands of acres of forests and for Costa Rican’s personal farms to be transformed into environmentally detrimental, industrial corporations.
This grates against my conscience; we clearly are not treating nature the way we might treat that gifted car, and we owe more than this to the Giver.
Some Christians may find the subject of how to treat nature to be difficult because there is no explicit commandment in the New Testament that speaks directly to what our relationship with nature should look like. This, however, does not give us an excuse to ignore the issue, or to claim that God doesn’t care about nature. There are many aspects of our lives that are not spoken of in the New Testament. For example, there is no mention of dating, drug use (outside of alcohol), or media use, but that does not lead us as Christians to conclude that God must not care about these things—instead it leads us to seek earnestly to find the ways to honor God in our approach to them. I therefore challenge Christians to do the same with nature.
There are some Christians who have already begun to take this on. Movements like “Care for Creation” have begun to express the value of creation. A quick Google search will come up with a variety of organizations with mission statements that speak of God-centered environmental work as a method of obeying God’s command to rule the earth (Gen 1:26-31). In addition to this idea of treating nature responsibly as a part of obeying God, I believe this approach implies a sense of gratitude towards God for creating this gift. The lust for Oreo cookies mentioned above, our desire for the meat of animals mistreated by industry, and the diversion of our eyes from the fracking of hilltops are all suddenly called into question. If nature is God’s gift, it is not enough for us to appreciate it at face value and then look the other way when challenging truths about our treatment of it arise.
As a lover of Christ and of nature, as a child of God and a student of ecology, I feel compelled to ask all people, and followers of Christ in particular, to meditate on their individual treatment of nature. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are constantly using resources. Stop to think when you wash your hands, go to the dining hall, turn on the light, drive your car, or interact with nature in other ways. If we are to act with gratitude when we do these things, we must stop to consider our actions. Do we respect our resources as a gift or use them as a right? This article is not meant as a guilt-trip, but rather as a call for us to open our eyes to the things it may be painful to see—to acknowledge the ways we have abused this gift. This is also not a call for all Christians to start recycling, or to start riding bikes instead of driving, although those may be some of the end results. Like the rest of our walk with Christ, this is not about following rules for rules’ sake, or doing what seems right simply to make ourselves feel better. This is about sitting with God and meditating on what we can do in our own lives to thank God for the nature given to us. My own meditation began with an observation that I cannot in good conscience ignore the sight of a destroyed forest, or forget the guilt I feel for killing even a spider without hardening my heart at least a little. This meditation eventually led me down a path towards a career in conservation. I suspect that the response each person receives from God will be individualized—for some it may be a simple lifestyle change, for others it might be a call to join those who are working for large-scale changes in environmental policy and management. To know God’s answer, we must take the time to ask.