I was charged by an elephant once. It was an adult bull elephant, though not an enormous one, but still… And I was in the back of an open Land Rover and not on foot, but still…
It was an experience I will never forget: four or five tons of dark gray flesh rushing at me, kicking up dust and flaring its ears. My head and my chest shook with the beast’s perturbed trumpeting. There and then, albeit in an incipient way, my belief in the hierarchical nature of reality was confirmed. This was the most majestic animal I had ever seen, and among the most impressive experiences I could imagine.
The impressiveness of the experience was in proportion to the majesty of the beast. That’s not an empirical claim, but it is undeniable by any who have had an experience like it. Any, that is, but the deliberately obtuse or sophistical. Some of the most important truths, some of the truest truths, are not empirical.
Meditation on the natural world sets us on the path toward truth, and the path toward the source of all truth, the Truth himself, the Majesty of majesties. It’s the same with all kinds of things – one need not meditate on something as majestic as an elephant. It works just as well with sublimities of other sorts, and there are sublimities at all levels of the world’s being: Coleridge’s waterfall, mentioned by CS Lewis in the opening chapter of “The Abolition of Man,” or an unspoiled prairie in spring.
When we are at our best, when we are thinking most clearly and most conscientiously, we like to see relatively undisturbed landscapes, or landscapes that have been carefully and conscientiously cultivated or cared for. It’s no coincidence that the image of paradise from Genesis is a garden, because a garden is sort of a marriage between what is wild and natural, and what is cultivated and cared-for by human agency, and maybe even stewarded with a view towards human utilization. A garden is neither a farm nor a wilderness. It’s something in between. And for a garden to be beautiful and productive, it requires attention and knowledge and prudence and care on the part of the gardener. This is one of the lessons from the creation story in Genesis – that this is how God meant the world to be, and how he meant for humans to engage with it and relate to it:
“And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it,” (Genesis 2:15).
To care for things, respecting their innate dignities, to steward them with a view toward their own flourishing, and with a view toward their utilization in the service of human flourishing, the flourishing of families and communities, this is our duty with respect to the natural world. And this mandate is rather different from exploiting things merely for profit, which is what we in our time seem to prefer. The exploitation of nature for profit degrades the things that are exploited, and it degrades the exploiters too – it is an affront to the dignity of work, to say nothing of the implicit reduction of humanity into classes of producers and consumers.
But things went off track right at the beginning, in the primordial garden itself. After the fall, which means, among other things, something about mankind’s emergent self-awareness, in terms of evolutionary biology, a self-awareness that is apt to flow into self-regard and self- seeking and so to become vicious – after the fall, there is a verse in Genesis that speaks prophetically about what we might call the ecological ramifications of sin. God says to Adam:
…cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken:
for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis 3:17b-19)
So because of man’s sin, we are now at odds with the earth, alienated from the earth. Our relationship with the earth is characterized now by struggle, toil, sweat, and difficulty. It’s almost as though we are at war with the earth, and God says that it is a war we are doomed to lose: You were taken out of the ground; you are dust, and you will return to dust. A catalogue of the ecological catastrophes that are unfolding around us bears witness to this truth of Scripture. The earth will have its revenge, and reclaim us in the end.
It sounds rather dire, and it is. But here is where our witness as Christians comes into play. Here is where the Christian witness is, to use a hackneyed word, particularly relevant. There is a sense, a fundamental and very true sense, in which we Christians are restored to paradise, restored to the Garden, in virtue of our baptism – because in baptism we are buried and raised with Christ, by whose death the effects of primordial sin are undone. That means that Christ makes possible a new way of relating to the earth – a new way that is actually a very ancient way, the most ancient way of all, the way of relating to the earth that God intended from the beginning, and on account of which he set our first parents in Eden. Relating to the earth, namely, as stewards – “to dress it and to keep it” – and understanding that stewardship as a gift, seeing the earth and its care as something that has been entrusted to us by the one to whom it really belongs, and not as an absolute right. And the One to whom we will have to render an account of our stewardship.
There are no other options that I can see, in practice, for contemporary people than these three: a reductive exploitation of nature by cynical profiteers; a flattened, childish sentimentality; or the manful stewardship to which God has ever called us. Let’s choose the latter.