A longtime listener phoned the other day with a concern that the Holy Father’s encyclical on ecology was being sold as a way to encourage us to love nature. She feared that this might lead to some kind of nature worship or pantheism.
At first glance, her concern seemed wildly misplaced. What can be wrong with loving nature?
But two things occurred to me as I formulated an answer. First, the Scripture doesn’t really talk of nature; it speaks of creation. In other words, it hasn’t a clue of an abstract natural world or nature apart from its relationship to God, its Source and Creator. Biblically speaking, only two things exist: God and things, and all things are God’s. They don’t exist apart from Him. They have no value apart from Him. Biblically speaking, there is no such thing as a separate entity called nature, the way we mean it in Western science and philosophy.
Biblically, to engage “nature” is to engage God’s world. This is why the Scripture doesn’t present a logical argument for the existence of God. Why talk about a God who is a mere inference from an argument when you are living in a world created by Him and which shows forth his speech, knowledge, majesty and power?
Second, Scripture isn’t concerned with us “loving” nature in the sense that the romantic poets meant. Scripture assumes that if you love God, you appreciate His things. There is no need to command us to love the inanimate world because the inanimate world can’t reciprocate. It doesn’t love. Love is relational. It is meant to be shared, to be responded to. We can appreciate the world but we don’t “love” it in the sense that we love persons.
When we say we “love nature” we are using a popular expression, not making a metaphysical statement about God’s relationship to the world. We often use “love” in trivial ways. For instance, we say we love pizza. But nobody expects us to swoon over a 14-inch Little Caesar’s and whisper, “I love you, I love you; let me count the ways” — unless you are talking about toppings.
The Catechism, No. 293, puts it beautifully: “Scripture and Tradition never cease to teach and celebrate this fundamental truth: ‘The world was made for the glory of God.’ St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things ‘not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it,’ for God has no other reason for creating than his love and goodness. Thomas Aquinas sharpens the thought: ‘Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand.’
So what is the point of creation? What is its ultimate purpose? That God “who is the creator of all things may at last become ‘all in all,’ thus simultaneously assuring his own glory and our beatitude” (Ad Gentes, cf., 1 Cor 15:28).
So I wrote back to the listener. I said, as far as loving nature goes, it is probably most important to remember that creation is a gift from God. For that reason, we should love the gifts God gives us. We can, however, veer off the straight road by falling into the ditch on the left or on the right. On the left side, we can fall into the ditch of idolatry by loving the creation more than the Creator, the gift more than the Giver.
We might also become so fearful of falling into the “idolatry of nature” ditch that we veer to the other side of the road and slide into the ditch of mistreating, neglecting or ignoring the creation God placed under our care. When we appreciate God’s gift of the world, we are less likely to mistreat the earth. The mature Christian avoids both idolatry and neglectful ingratitude.
The creation captures our heart because it is formed by God’s wisdom and is not the product of blind fate or chance. It flows from His free, loving choice aimed at sharing His being, wisdom and goodness with His creatures, especially the summit of creation, the human person, whom He titled co-regent over creation to cultivate and develop the earth.
The flow of biblical history shows this. We start with the Garden in Eden in Genesis and close in a city, the heavenly Jerusalem in the book of Revelation. The dominion we were originally given in the garden has been exercised throughout salvation history and finally is fulfilled under our Master, Jesus, the Last Adam who has cultivated the garden into the heavenly city.
If we stay in Scripture, we needn’t worry about falling into pantheism or nature worship. Scripture gets the balance just right. It praises God for His handiwork and describes a cosmos, not a chaos, full of riches, glory, wisdom, majesty, power and divine speech and knowledge. What’s not to love?
We always remember, however, that our love of inanimate objects is different than our love of animate objects. Our love of humans is different than our love of the beasts. And all our loves are subordinated to our love of God, our source of life and the rightful recipient of all our love. By loving what God has created, we are loving Him.
When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars that you set in place—
What is man that you are mindful of him,
and a son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god,
crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him rule over the works of your hands,
put all things at his feet:
All sheep and oxen,
even the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air, the fish of the sea,
and whatever swims the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Lord,
how awesome is your name through all the earth! (Ps 8:4-10)