Mother Nature, scientism, Creation care, COVID19 and the question of how now we shall live

April 22, 2020 was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. There was a 3.8 magnitude earthquake in California. As earthquakes go, that’s relatively minor. But it lead to a flurry of social media posts about “angering Mother Nature,” how Mother Nature was being provoked by human “assaults upon her” and myriad other references to the Earth as not only anthropomorphic but a kind of retributive divine force. That’s basic old fashion pagan deification of the natural world for those who understand the history of Greek and Roman gods. But this is the 21st century and this isn’t Rome, right?

Well, according to a an opinion piece in the New York Times by a former U.N. official, Robert Hughes. He’s advocating for a collective global declaration of responsibility that acknowledges humanity’s estrangement from the earth. The word “mission” appears in the lead paragraph, the word “repent” emerges later in describing the need for a radical change in humanity’s relationship with the planet we inhabit together.

First, he’s not wrong. There has been a gross perversion of the original Edenic mandate given by God to Man in the Garden of Eden.  We were given a royal duty to exercise righteous dominion over Creation, to bring it into submission and to rule over it.  But in successive generations of sin, we have not done so as God’s priests but more as pillagers of the inherent good God literally planted for human flourishing.  God gave us a mandate in Eden to work, serve and guard Creation. And it is impossible to look honestly at pollution, species extinction, desertification, and the resultant human suffering with anything other than a heart that aches for God’s new creation.

He’s also not wrong when he lifts up a quote by a leading climate scientist and engineer who following the adoption of the supposedly world-saving Paris Accord said, ““We need to recognize our failure, bow our heads in shame and take a short time for ref­lecti­on before start­ing anew.” Pause there for a moment. That’s Kevin Anderson, a leading climate scientist, speaking. And it sure sounds like he’s calling us to recognize sin, bow in humility, turn to God, and begin again. What does that sound like to you? That sounds like redemption. That sounds like the Gospel.

The NYTimes opinion writer acknowledges how utterly foreign he finds that idea. But then he says,

I have found a useful guide in the German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928), who, though obscure today, was studied and praised by some of the greatest minds of the last century. To Scheler, the sort of contrition Anderson urges is about the most transformative thing there is.

Did you catch those words? Contrition and transformative? Those are worldview words and Robert Hughes recognizes from whence they come:

Scheler, who moved through both Judaism and Christianity, gave it the word repentance, though he stressed there was nothing specifically Christian in his theme. Repentance, wrote Scheler in his 1921 work, “On the Eternal in Man,” is a mighty power that can break the chain of events: “Not utopianism but Repentance is the most revolutionary force in the moral world.” It faces the past, but rejuvenates the future. Its anguish is keen, even burning, but it removes guilt, and “there arises from the whole process a simultaneous peace and contentment which may rise to the height of bliss.” It opens our horizon and “broadens the once ever narrowing future into a broad, bright plain of possibilities.” And it can be sudden.

Did I mention, we’re reading here from The New York Times? Hughes continues:

To Scheler, and importantly to us here and now, this was not merely a form of personal illumination: “We have seen in history,” he wrote, “how Repentance can grow into a mighty torrent, and how it rushes for a generation through whole peoples and civilizations.” Skeptics will rightly point out that this is easier said than done; this state cannot be willed, much less commanded. But was it ever so justified?

What Hughes is pressing here is the arrival of the ah-ha moment when those operating out of a naturalistic, humanistic, progressive worldview realize they cannot engineer (socially or otherwise) a way out of the ravages of generational sin upon Creation. He could not be more clear in seeking as a kind of prophetic Nathan when he says to those who are counting on scientism and some spontaneous global human evolution toward earthcare:

Is it enough to say that we fell under the spell of ideas that were tragically wrong? Those ideas are now so pervasive they are as much habit as belief. We set out to make a paradise on Earth, and have achieved the opposite.

Places that seemed to European explorers like Eden will now become uninhabitable, and everywhere, the attempt to master nature will leave us more subject to it. We pride ourselves on cleverness and we sought to remake the world with our knowledge. We looked to the future for consolation and to posterity for vindication. But unless we make a great turn, it seems safe to assume we will go down as the greatest fools who ever lived.

I dare say a more honest assessment has rarely been written. Hughes go on to advocate for the development, adoption and enactment of a U.N. declaration of responsibility. He outlines some of the challenges such an effort would face. But he is speaking what is surely an unpopular truth and those of us who share the redemptive worldview ought listen.

In conversation with this, consider three other headlines:

But an inspiration to just “do better” is exactly the false hope Hughes identifies in his NYTimes op ed. We can’t “do better” our way to redemption. That’s a false narrative.  We have to remember the truth of the real story and learn to live into it and share it with others.

In Genesis 1:26-28 God calls mankind, beginning with Adam and Eve, to exercise dominion over the earth, subdue it, and develop its latent potential. We are called to fill the earth with his glory through creating what we commonly call “culture.”

The Hebrew word radah in this passage carries the idea of ruling, subduing, and exercising dominion. This command, often called the “cultural mandate,” has never been nullified. It is still in effect, and was confirmed and expanded to Noah after the Flood (see Gen. 9:6-7).

So why do we shy away from God’s specific call of dominion? Because words have meaning and that meaning adapts as sin weighs heavy over time.  The word “dominion” now implies oppression and violent destruction. And it needs to be redeemed. 

Justin Holcomb over at The Resurgence provides some great insights on a more biblical view of dominion, focusing specifically on how it must mirror the dominion of our Creator.  Holcomb writes:

Dominion does not mean destruction, but responsibility. It is important to avoid flawed convictions about the right and power of humankind in relation to the rest of the natural world. 

Holcomb then quotes Francis Schaeffer on a right view of dominion:

Fallen man has dominion over nature, but he uses it wrongly. The Christian is called upon to exhibit this dominion, but exhibit it rightly: treating the thing as having value itself, exercising dominion without being destructive. 

Holcomb concludes:

It is true that a false view of dominion has played a role in the mistreatment of creation, but a correct understanding of the concept can lead to service, responsibility, and stewardship.

Just a few weeks ago we stood as the sun rose on the empty tomb of the risen Son. We who believe and have received redemption through Him now stand where Adam and Eve once stood, in the presence of the Lord, walking with Him in the world He so loves.  No, it is no longer Eden, but God is still God and we are still His image bearers, entrusted to be stewards of the Creation He has made, the arboreal garden in which He desires to dwell with us.  We, through the Bible and the indwelling of God’s Spirit, we know the will of God. And through Holy Spirit we have been empowered to keep it.

Nancy Pearcey writes in her book Total Truth,

When we obey the Cultural Mandate, we participate in the work of God himself, as agents of his common grace… entering upon a lifelong quest to devote our skills and talents to building things that are beautiful and useful, while fighting the forces of evil and sin that oppress and distort the creation.

Quoting another giant of the faith, Chuck Colson, it is prudent to ask in the midst of the climate conversations of our day where science and engineering has come to see we cannot progress ourselves to restoration but must repent and plead with God to make all things new: How then shall we live?

Will we appeal to Mother Nature when the earth shakes or will we turn to God, repent and live anew as agents of His grace, ambassadors of His Kingdom, cultivators of His Creation, in righteous dominion as a royal priesthood as God always intended us to be?