The Numinous and the Natural: Christianity and Environmentalism

A professor at the University of Maryland offered the following extra credit question to his social psychology class:

“You can each earn some extra credit on your term paper. You get to choose whether you want 2 points added to your grade, or 6 points. But there’s a catch: if more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points. All selections are anonymous, and the course grades are not curved.”[i]

Students at UMD wrestled with the question: Was it better to choose two points, thereby increasing the chances that all students would benefit? Or was it better to choose six points and try to get ahead? In this exercise, the psychology professor demonstrated the Tragedy of the Commons.

The Tragedy of the Commons, a concept in game theory and psychology, is the idea that a publicly available resource, if used by each person in moderation, would allow a system to thrive.[ii] The tragedy, however, is that we most often try to take more for ourselves, harming the common good. As a result, the group is left with an unfavorable outcome as the resource disappears.[iii]

The Tragedy of the Commons, aside from being an interesting psychological test, is the paradigm through which the abuse of the natural world occurs. At UMD, the resource was socially constructed grade points. In the real world, we vie for natural resources such as water, food, and land. They are within the domain of the public, but individuals or corporations will try to maximize yield. The result is the depletion of invaluable resources and numerous negative externalities. The Tragedy shows us that the destruction of the environment is an issue regarding not only how people relate to one another, but also how we relate to nature. There is a popular understanding of nature as being nothing but a stock of resources, like points, which can be allocated to individuals. Humans as a whole behave as if we are the masters of nature, allocating resources like chips in political and economic dealings.

The nature of our environmental problem, caused both by our relation to one another and by our relationship to nature, is quite dire. Rampant pollution and extensive waste resulting from technological obsolescence, both planned and unplanned, create massive landfills.[iv] Throwaway culture dominates the world, driven by an insatiable consumerism.[v] Thirty to forty percent of the food supply in the United States goes to waste.[vi] Pollution has resulted in a dearth of safe drinking water, and drought plagues regions of the world.[vii] There is an alarming loss of biodiversity; humans destroy tropical rainforests, which have come into existence over the course of 60 million years, at a rate of 80,000 acres per day. [viii] We lose 135 species of plants and animals daily.[ix] The Great Barrier Reef is dying.[x] And, perhaps most notably, the climate is rapidly changing as the world is seeing an unprecedented rise in CO2. Right now, the atmospheric CO2 is approximately 400 ppm (parts per million) by volume, and it had never exceeded 300 ppm in the Earth’s long history until 1950.xi Because of this rise in CO2, sea levels and global temperatures are rising, the oceans are warming, Arctic ice sheets are melting, extreme weather events are becoming commonplace, and oceans are acidifying.[xii]

As the world faces the consequences of human-caused climate change, the evidence for which is highly conclusive, Christianity has been largely silent. Lynn White Jr., a medieval scholar at Princeton in the 1930s, wrote that “…Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.”[xiii] Lynn argues that Christian thought had allowed human beings to be put on a pedestal. It is indeed pernicious both to nature and to humankind to think that humans are vastly superior to nature and that nature is just a collection of resources. Unfortunately, the idea has been common in Christian intellectual circles since medieval times and has shaped much of the modern era. In early Christianity, however, this was not always the case.

Early Christians respected nature deeply. The liturgical calendar was arranged to reflect the seasons. The Easter season, a period of renewal and rebirth, reflects the blooming perennials and the new beginnings of springtime.[xiv] Christmas takes place days after the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Liturgical celebrations, too, make use of important natural symbols. For example, in baptism, water cleanses and purifies. Theologians throughout early Christianity also recognized the wisdom of nature, seeing nature as a teacher and a source of knowledge of God. Learning from nature has a deeply biblical basis: “But now ask the beasts to teach you, the birds of the air to tell you; Or speak to the earth to instruct you, and the fish of the sea to inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of God has done this? In his hand is the soul of every living thing, and the life breath of all mortal flesh.”[xv] Theologians like Thomas Berry, a Jesuit priest, argue that for early Christians, divine revelation came from both the Bible (revealed theology) and the natural world (natural theology). Thomas Aquinas, a prominent thirteenth-century Scholastic, used nature to ground many arguments about God, perhaps most notably the teleological argument in his quinque viae for the existence of God.[xvi] Aquinas often grounded his analyses in the generalities of the physical world. [xvii] John Ray, the Protestant naturalist who wrote The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Creation in 1691, demonstrated how we can learn about God through the form and function of the natural world. John Duns Scotus, a medieval philosopher, argued that our knowledge of the world begins with our interaction with God’s creation.[xviii] In his book Spiritual Meadow, seventh-century Byzantine monk and ascetic John Moschus describes the vernal beauty of a meadow and compares its botanical diversity to the virtues needed in a godly soul.[xix] To early Christians, nature was a path to God.

Thomas Berry attributes a more radical change in humans’ attitudes toward nature to the outbreak of the bubonic plague, when nature became a more distant, antagonistic character.[xx] When a third of Europe died in the plague, people thought God was punishing them. The result was repentance and withdrawal from the world as Christian spirituality became more inwardly focused.[xxi] Christians began to neglect the glorification of God through nature and saw nature as a tool for sustenance. In the Industrial Revolution that followed, “…technology took over and exploited the planet because religious persons had abandoned it.”[xxii] The results have been deeply detrimental to the environment.

The answer to human-caused climate change lies in radical change. It must be a change in the hearts and minds of individuals. Pope Benedict XVI said, “The external deserts are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast.”[xxiii] We have become numb to the destruction of the world and seek out quick policy solutions. Policy and action initiatives, including increasing funding for research into renewable energies, are very important, but they can only delay an inevitable process. Christianity, however, offers a holistic understanding of the natural world that can change how we approach the natural world in our daily lives. A Christian understanding of nature, grounded in the spiritual and enriched by the scientific, can allow us to see God more clearly in nature and can compel us to save our natural world.

A spiritual understanding, or a numinous consciousness, is necessary to understand the transcendent nature of the natural world. “Spiritual,” here, refers to an understanding of nature that is grounded in an abstract sense of connection to the transcendent. It is not fully emotional or fully intellectual, but it reflects our deep human desire to be connected to something larger than ourselves. Numerous historical figures have commented on the human desire to interact with nature in this manner. In his Philosophical Enquiry in 1757, Edmund Burke defined interactions with nature associated with strong emotion or awe as the sublime. Kant, in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, held that the sublime was either terrifying, noble, or splendid.[xxiv] It is through this epic, larger-than-life emotional understanding of nature that we are able to see the greatness of God’s creation. Icelandic philosopher Páll Skúlason understood that contact with the numinous was necessary to understand one’s place in the world. After experiencing the numinous in front of the volcano Askja in Iceland, he wrote, “Coming to Askja was for me like coming to earth for the first time and discovering myself as an earthling: a being whose very existence depends on the earth, a being who can only be itself by relating to this strange, overwhelming and fascinating totality, which is already there and forms an independent, objective, natural world…”[xxv] The “sublime” was central in the works of Romantic painters like Caspar David Friedrich, whose Wanderer above the Sea of Fog shows the interface between humans and nature. The American Transcendentalist movement, spearheaded by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, also recognized the role of nature in spirituality. There seems to be a transcendent quality in nature that humans yearn to experience.

The transcendent quality of nature is properly contextualized within the Christian framework. Christianity offers a spiritual understanding of the sublime that is rooted in Christ. When experiencing the numinous, we can feel God as an entity transcending phenomenal existence. If we are made in God’s image, then the world is God’s reflection. Every chirping bird, gushing brook, mighty tree, and growing plant sings God’s praises. Saint Francis of Assisi knew it well as he sung the Canticle of the Sun:

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful. Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure…[xxvi]

All the creatures of the earth and the earth itself were created to glorify God. Every single ant to the mightiest whale is immensely beautiful and purposive, driven toward survival. The universe itself is a “secular cathedral.”[xxvii] The immense beauty of the earth evokes such a deep response that it requires “the respect and submission of man’s intellect and will.”[xxviii] Every time we experience the sublime, we are able to experience God more fully.

Scientific considerations can also deepen our spiritual response to the natural world. We are connected to the incredible plants and creatures around us: we are connected to everything by a common ancestor. Understanding that billions of years of developing along with creatures of the earth is truly humbling. Berry states, “We are what we are because everything is what it is.”[xxix] When we harm one thing, we harm everything because all creatures are caught up in a complex web of ecological relationships. We are connected to every single living thing in this world through our membership as entities in the fabric of the universe. As much as we are connected to the other living creatures around us, we are also both dependent on and responsible for them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.[xxx]

A scientific understanding of nature then provides the lens through which we may acknowledge our interconnectedness with each other and with Creation, and therefore reaffirm our responsibilities to both. By acknowledging our interconnectedness in the world, we are able to develop a more coherent spiritual understanding of the world.

In a world in which the movie Wall-E seems prophetic, the demands on Christians and all of humanity are quite serious. Love for the earth is in turn love for God and his handiwork. A lack of this love would have dire consequences for all creatures. The Book of Revelation says the time will come when God will “destroy those who destroy the earth.”[xxxi] Similarly, the Book of Isaiah says, “The earth is polluted because of its inhabitants… Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants pay for their guilt.”[xxxii] Because of our immense output of greenhouse gases, humans may soon face the tragic results of our cumulative actions. [xxxiii] Christianity, however, can change the posture with which we approach the natural world by giving us a deeply spiritual understanding of nature. Nature can become a source of spiritual edification; we can view nature as a teacher of the Divine, a holy cathedral, and a link to all of creation. The environment, when seen through a Christian lens, becomes an insurmountable force in our everyday lives—a force to be respected and cherished.

 

i. Dylan Selterman, “Why I give my students a ‘tragedy of the commons’ extra credit challenge,” The Washington Post (Washington DC), July 20, 2015, 1.
ii. Selterman, 2.
iii. Selterman, 2.
iv. Syed Faraz Ahmed, “The Global Cost of Electronic Waste,” The Atlantic, September 29, 2016, 1-2.
v. Letter by Pope Francis, “Laudato si,’” May 24, 2015, Rome, 17.
vi. “Office of the Chief Economist,” United States Department of Agriculture.
vii. Carl Ganter, “Water crises are a top global risk,” World Economic Forum.
viii. Measuring the Daily Destruction of the World’s Rainforests,” Scientific American, 1.
ix. “Measuring the Daily Destruction…,” 1.
x. Editorial Board, “The Great Barrier Reef is dying,” The Washington Post (Washington DC), March 19, 2017, 1.
xi. NASA, “Climate change: How do we know?,” Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet.
xii. NASA, «Climate change,» Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet.
xiii. Lynn White, Jr, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (March 10, 1967): 1205, digital file.
xiv. Thomas Berry, The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth, ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 13.
xv. Job 12:7-10 (NABRE).
xvi. Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1.2.3.
xvii. Berry, 86.
xviii. Berry, 87.
xix. Doru Costache, “John Moschus on Asceticism and the Environment,” Colloquium 48, no. 1 (May 2016): 26.
xx. Berry, 63.
xxi. Berry, 61.
xxii. Berry, 62.
xxiii. Letter by Pope Francis, “Laudato si.’” 158.
xxiv. Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1965), 48.
xxv. Páll Skúlason, “On the Spiritual Understanding of Nature” (lecture, Ohio Northern University, Ada, OH, April 15, 2008).
xxvi. St. Francis of Assisi, «The Canticle of the Sun,» Webster University.
xxvii. Ross Andersen, “Nature Has Lost Its Meaning,” The Atlantic, November 30, 2015, 12.
xxviii. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 341.
xxix. Berry, The Christian Future, 53.
xxx. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 341.
xxxi. Revelation 11:18 (NABRE).
xxxii. Isaiah 24: 5-6 (NABRE).
xxxiii. Michael Mann, “Earth Will Cross the Climate Danger Threshold by 2036,” Scientific American, April 1, 2014, 1.

 

Jeffrey Poomkudy ’20 is from Old Westbury, New York. He is a prospective double major in Biology and Philosophy.

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