In one of the first episodes of the latest Star Trek series, Enterprise, the crew, a few weeks out from Earth on the ship’s maiden voyage, has become homesick. Suddenly, an inhabitable planet appears off of the port side. There are no signs of humanoid life, but the captain sends a small team down to gather information and to grab a little shore leave. What they find is astonishing: The planet is a veritable paradise, full of lush forests, stunning waterfalls, vast savannahs, and a remarkable array of Earth-like wildlife.
But everything is not what it seems. By the team’s first evening on the planet, a series of strong electrical storms forces the crew to take refuge in a cave, where an hallucinogenic substance begins to affect their sanity. Ultimately, the team must flee the planet to avoid killing one another. By forcing them to flee, the planet has rid itself of the alien invaders and restored its natural balance. Paradise, it seems, is no place for man.
Welcome to the brave new world of modem environmentalism, in which man is no more than a bacterium against which Nature—namely, everything other than man—must generate antibodies in order to protect itself. To be fair to the writers and producers of Enterprise, their story is told from the perspective of the crew members, not from that of the planet. But the vision of Nature as a closed, idyllic system that man enters only as an alien has become a mainstay of modern environmentalist thought.
In this vision, what room is there for God? As long as He is not the Christian God, perhaps more than we might think. After all, the idea of a closed system that can protect itself against invasive aliens goes well beyond strictly materialist evolutionary theories, which explain change in a species as a means of adapting to changes taking place in external conditions, not of preventing or reversing such changes. While adaptation can be explained through the simple application of physical laws, preventing or reversing external changes obviously requires an active intelligence to keep the closed system in balance. This logically leads to something like the Gaia hypothesis, in which the Earth is viewed as a quasi-organism, able to respond to threats to its existence in the way a sentient being would. The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, plagues, even droughts and hurricanes are viewed, by the same people who would condemn Pat Robertson for suggesting that AIDS might be the Christian God’s retribution against homosexuals, as Earth’s attempts to protect herself from overpopulation and environmental destruction. This environmentalist vision, obviously, has no room for the Christian understanding of God. After all, if man is an invader who disrupts the system, then what is the God Who became man? Despite claims to the contrary, any environmentalist ethic that views man as wholly other than Nature cannot be Christian.
Conservative Christians have responded to anti-Christian environmentalism by advancing a “Judeo-Christian” understanding of the relationship between man and Nature based almost entirely upon the Creation story in Genesis. While the Creation story makes it clear that man is not only an integral part of Nature but the very pinnacle of Creation, the emphasis on man’s dominion over Nature leaves a very important question unanswered: How is man to exercise that dominion? The answer to that question goes to the heart of the Christian vision of nature, distinguishing it from those of Judaism and Islam.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14). In a few short sentences. Saint John provides a gloss on the Creation story that radically alters the way Christians view Nature. The God Who created the world and everything in it has become a part of Creation; indeed, He has become the centerpiece of Creation, the Savior of mankind. In taking on our nature, He has not only redeemed us but drawn us closer to Him. As C.S. Lewis explained in his reflection on Christmas in The Business of Heaven,
In creation God makes—invents—a person and “utters”—injects—him into the realm of Nature. In the Incarnation, God the Son takes the body and human soul of Jesus, and, through that, the whole environment of Nature, all the creaturely predicament, into His own being. So that “He came down from Heaven” can almost be transposed into “Heaven drew earth up into it,” and locality, limitation, sleep, sweat, footsore weariness, frustration, pain, doubt, and death, are, from before all worlds, known by God from within.
God’s drawing of all nature into Him, becoming “all in all,” as Lewis puts it, is something far different from the pantheist vision in which God is simply all. “[W]hat is everywhere and always, imageless and ineffable, only to be glimpsed in dream and symbol and the acted poetry of ritual becomes small, solid—no bigger than a man who can lie asleep in a rowing boat on the Lake of Galilee.” Conversely, that Man is “everywhere and always, imageless and ineffable,” and by taking up His Cross and following Him, we too can share—more remotely, but share nonetheless—in the inner life of God.
The Incarnation thus confirms man’s role as co-creator with God, as Saint Augustine argued in De Musica. “Let us make man to our image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26) takes on a fuller meaning when Christ, in turn, assumes man’s image and likeness. While some conservative Christians tend to stress man’s “dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth” whenever they wish to justify the clearcutting of a forest or the building of a 40-acre Wal-Mart on fertile soil, the recognition that man’s dominion must be exercised within the context of his participation in Christ’s creative activity places limits on what man is allowed to do to Nature. As co-creators with Christ (within our limited human sphere), can we justify laying waste to that which Christ has created? Why would we want to?
Christianity is not an ideology, and, therefore, it does not offer an abstract blueprint for the moral life. Rather, the Incarnation confirms the essential historicity of man, which means that the morality of any particular act is inseparable from the circumstances in which it occurs. Man comes to know right and wrong not through mere reasoning, but through concrete participation in the life of Christ. While it is wrong to view Christ as simply an extraordinarily moral figure whose actions we should mimic, we can learn from His life on Earth, and we should never dismiss any detail of that life as insignificant. From His training as a carpenter at the side of Saint Joseph, to His first miracle at the wedding at Cana, to His raising of Lazarus from the dead, Christ’s human life is one of creation and renewal, affirming the goodness of nature and of man’s participation therein. As Creek Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware writes in The Orthodox Way, Christians are the true materialists, because Christ Himself has shown us the incalculable value of the material world. We know that the Lord rejoices in His works (Psalm 103); we should do the same. Even in desolation, we realize that this vale of tears will one day be renewed and glorified, as will our material bodies. Our duty is to begin that renewal here and now, in our own limited way. hi the resurrection, the fullness of Lewis’s statement that “Heaven drew earth up into it” at the Incarnation will be revealed.
Keeping this in mind, how should we live our lives today, in history, before the resurrection? What is the proper Christian attitude toward Nature? The Incarnation makes it clear that the Creation story of Genesis does not end when Cod rests on the seventh day. Creation is an ongoing process, and man, as Saint Augustine argues, plays the central role in bringing the lower spheres of Creation into harmony with the upper. As Christ explained in the parable of the talents, it is not enough for us simply to preserve that which we have been given. Our actions should increase the beauty of the world, so that we may join Nature in proclaiming the Lord’s praise:
Praise the Lord from the earth, ye
and all ye deeps: Fire, hail, snow, ice, stormy winds, which fulfil his word:
Mountains and all hills, fruitful trees and all cedars:
Beasts and all cattle: serpents and feathered fowls:
Kings of the earth and all people: princes and all judges
of the earth;
Young men and maidens: let the old with the younger,
praise the name of the Lord:
For his name alone is exalted [Psalm 148: 7-13].
The Incarnation also teaches us that our actions should not be abstract: Christ performed the greatest “global” feat in history—the salvation of all mankind—by “acting locally.” Because we are bound by time and space, our moral sphere is limited; by focusing our efforts on “the preservation of the environment,” we risk the destruction of our very backyard. If we flatter ourselves by believing that our Sally Struthers-like concern about global warming and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest will help keep “Earth in the balance,” then we, like Al Gore, are likely to see little wrong with dumping tires and other waste in the little plot of land that God has actually entrusted to us.
When God created man, He placed him in a garden; but when Adam’s sin resulted in our expulsion from Eden, our toil in the earth had just begun. As Wes Jackson writes in Becoming Native to This Place, “creating the world is involved in our every act. It is impossible for us to operate in our daily lives and not create the world that everyone must live in.” The question can never be whether we will create, but whether we will create in His image, or in ours.