Mother Nature, in all her majesty, is greater than us and we need her more than she will ever need us. Photo by Mickey Conlon

It would do us well to ‘look higher’

  • September 3, 2015

Conservation International has sponsored a series of videos that have become YouTube sensations. They feature famous actors — Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey, Robert Redford and others — voicing different aspects of the natural world, from the ocean, to the rain forest, to redwood trees. The most striking is the one that presents Mother Nature herself, given voice by Julia Roberts.

They all have more or less the same message, that nature doesn’t give a fig for human beings, that it is far greater than we and it will outlast us.

Here are some highlights from the Mother’s speech: “I’ve been here for over four and a half billion years, 22,500 times longer than you; I don’t really need people, but people need me.” And, “I have fed species greater than you; and I have starved species greater than you.” And, “my oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests — they all can take you or leave you.”

At first I thought, “just more tree-hugging extremism,” but the more I considered the videos, the more convinced I became that they are fundamentally right and actually serve to make a point of theological significance. That nature in all its splendour doesn’t care about human beings came home to me dramatically many years ago. I was standing in the surf off the coast of North Carolina, gazing out to sea and remarking how beautiful the vista was. I turned around to face the shore and a large wave knocked me off my feet. For a few alarming seconds I was pinned to the ocean floor. In a moment, it was over and I got back on my feet, but I was shaken. The sea, which had beguiled me with its beauty, turned on a dime and almost killed me.

The ancients knew this truth and they expressed it in their mythology. The gods and goddesses of Greece, Rome and Babylon were basically personifications of the natural necessities: water, the sky, the mountain, the fertile earth, etc. Like the natural elements that they symbolized, these divine figures were fickle in the extreme. One minute, Poseidon smiles on you, the next minute he sinks your ship; Zeus is pleased with you, then he sends a thunderbolt to destroy you; Demeter can be a gentle mother, and Demeter can be an avenging enemy.

So it goes with the ocean, the weather, the soil. This is precisely why the worship of these natural necessities is such a dicey business.

Biblical religion represents something altogether new, a fact signalled in the opening verses of the book of Genesis, where it is emphatically stated that God creates Earth, sky, stars and planets, the animals that move upon Earth and the fishes that inhabit the ocean depths. All of these natural elements, at one time or another, have been worshipped as divine. So even as he celebrates them, the author of Genesis is effectively dethroning them, desacralizing them.

Nature is wonderful indeed, but it is not God. And the consistent biblical message is that this Creator God is not like the arbitrary and capricious gods of the ancient world. He is reliable, rock-like in His steadfast love, more dedicated to human beings than a mother is to her child.

The entire scriptural revelation comes to a climax with the claim, in the fourth chapter of John’s first letter, that God simply is love. St. Augustine celebrated this biblical departure from the ancient worship of nature in a lyrical and visionary passage in his Confessions. He imagines the natural elements coming before him, one by one. Each says to him, “Look higher,” and then, in a great chorus, they gesture toward God and then shout together, “He made us!”

As classical Christianity came to be questioned by some intellectual elites in the early modern period, the ancient worship of nature made an unhappy comeback. The return to the ancient sense of divinity is on particularly clear display in the “dark” and “light” sides of the Force that play such a vital role in George Lucas’s Star Wars films. Though it can be used for good or ill, the Force is finally as indifferent to human beings as is Mother Nature.

And this is why the Julia Roberts video functions as an effective antidote against all forms of nature worship. It vividly reminds us that when we make Mother Nature our ultimate concern, we are turning to an exceptionally cruel and unreliable lady. Though I don’t think this was her intention, Roberts is urging us to “look higher.”

(Barron is an auxiliary bishop-elect of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.)

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