No, Julia Roberts, Nature Does Need People
Over images of austere but awesome landscapes, the stern Gaia-like voice of Julia Roberts intones, “I don’t really need people, but people need me.” With a strong assist from CNN, the “Nature is Speaking” campaign from Conservation International reached millions globally in the weeks leading up to Earth Day. (Because it is the only English language channel on my South Korean television, I am watching far more CNN than ever before.) “I have fed species greater than you, and I have starved species greater than you,” warns Roberts’ version of Mother Nature, a pretty woman turned mommy dearest. The other star-studded voices in the series range from Reese Witherspoon to Harrison Ford and Robert Redford, but their message is the same — in the long run, Nature will get along just fine without us puny humans.
Scripture speaks of a different story, though. “The creation waits,” not with a detachment sliding into disdain, but “in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.” (Romans 8:19, NIV) N.T. Wright, perhaps the world’s greatest living scholar on Paul, translates the verse with creation standing “on tiptoe.” J.B. Phillips used the same vivid phrase a couple generations back.
Of course, one watching orthodox American Christianity from the sidelines for the past century or so might be left scratching her head as to why all of nature would be excited to see these folks coming. Partially in response to a social gospel movement that averted its eyes from the miraculous and set its sights solely on a particular brand of justice in the here and now, conservative, Bible believing Christianity has tended to lift its gaze to the heavens. The earth and its problems were largely things to be left behind.
Now, to be sure, that’s painting with a broad brush. The twentieth century’s history of the faithful vigorously engaging on topics ranging from alcohol to abortion demonstrates that escapism has never completely ruled the day. Yet, the Gnostic impulse towards a dualism that downplays the natural in order to all the more emphasize the supernatural has regularly made its presence felt. Especially when it comes to caring for the non-human aspects of God’s good creation, well-meaning believers have often succumbed to this temptation.
Francis Schaeffer regretted the prevalence of this “Platonic view of Christianity” and the distorted attitude toward nature that it fostered. Schaeffer was no theological or social liberal. Indeed, he had as big a hand as any in forging the political coalition that elected Ronald Reagan and moved the GOP from being the party of Planned Parenthood towards life. In his book Pollution and the Death of Man, though, Schaeffer argued that the regular practice of an anti-green “sub-Christianity” was one key reason why “the church seems irrelevant and helpless in our generation.” While the church should have been a “pilot plant” demonstrating the “substantial healing” of the earth that is available in the present age, the world instead looked and saw that “most Christians simply do not care about nature as such.”
It has not always been this way. As Wright notes,
It is striking how the earliest Christians … clung to the twin doctrines of creation and judgment: God made the world and made it good, and one day he will come and sort it all out. Take away the goodness of creation, and you have a judgment where the world is thrown away as so much garbage, leaving us sitting on a disembodied cloud playing disembodied harps. Take away judgment, and you have this world rumbling on with no hope except the pantheist one of endless cycles of being and history. Put creation and judgment together, and you get new heavens and new earth, created not ex nihilo but ex vetere, not out of nothing but out of the old one, the existing one.
Easter morning was the first grand note in this crescendo of re-creation. Jesus rose physically, not just in spirit, and the result was a body that was superior but still connected to that which he had before. All creation, says Paul, will be redeemed in a similar way: “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Mistaken for a gardener, the risen Christ, the second Adam, ushered in a renewed creation narrative. As Wright emphasizes, it is no coincidence that the Resurrection happens on the first day of the week, and “we who believe in Jesus are to become, in the power of his spirit, not only beneficiaries of that new creation but also agents.”
Julia Roberts has it wrong. We are not just another species. We are the vice-regents of the King of Kings. Nature does, indeed, need us. And, it needs us at our best. C.S. Lewis put it this way in his classic Mere Christianity:
We men can be drawn into Christ … And there are strange, exciting hints in the Bible that when we are drawn in, a great many other things in Nature will begin to come right. The bad dream will be over: it will be morning.
For a groaning creation, that really is something to get up on your toes about.
John Murdock is a professor of environmental law at the Handong International Law School, a Christian institution in South Korea. His writings for The Stream and other outlets including First Things and Front Porch Republic can be found at johnmurdock.org.