Ducks, trees and biophilia

August 19, 2002

Millions of Europeans have just returned to the office after summer vacations spent somewhere close to ‘nature’. If that ‘somewhere’ was in Central Europe, that ‘nature’ got a wee bit out of hand last week. This in shrill contrast to the idyllic setting of the thatched-roof cottage where Romkje and I are spending a few days right now in northern Holland. Cloudless tropical weather, a secluded mirror-calm lagoon decorated with waterlilies, light breezes ruffling the shady willows and birches – and ducks to add a touch of lazy movement. A scene for Monet to paint.

Oh, and those children we hear playing somewhere in the distance are not our responsibility. About as good as it gets, right? And soul-refreshing!

But why? Why do our spirits resonate to the beauty and rest of nature? What is it about ‘nature’ that recharges our batteries? These may sound dumb questions in the face of the obvious. But it’s more obvious THAT exposure to nature refreshes us than WHY.

Why is ‘nature’ so ‘naturally’ refreshing? The term ‘nature’ is largely a Greek concept that has come to signify something distinct from humans. Humans are seen as intruders into nature. Yet the Hebrews emphasised ‘creation’, of which humans were a vital and significant part. We are part of the physical creation. Our bodies are composed of the same chemical elements as those ducks and trees. New Agers conclude from this that we are so refreshed by communing with Nature because we get in touch with the Essence of Being, of which we are all part. The Gaia hypothesis proposes that the biophysical world is one interacting ecosystem, of which humans are simply one element, and in no way the most important.

Biblical thinking offers a different perspective. While we humans are fellow creatures to ducks and trees, we are also the only creatures made in God’s image. Can trees and ducks, or other plants and animals, appreciate beauty?

I suspect the reason ‘nature’ or ‘creation’ resonates in the human spirit is our innate yearning for God’s peaceable Kingdom, for his Shalom, for when his rule is perfectly established, for when relationships, human and otherwise, are as he originally intended.

Granted, creation has been affected by the Fall, as Paul explains in Romans chapter 8. Yet even this fallen creation, the psalmist says, gives daily witness to the glory of God (Psalm 19). Despite last week’s floods, God’s common grace is still mediated through this fallen creation. We are refreshed as we leave behind the city, just as prophets and desert fathers have through the ages retreated into the wilderness to meet with God.

Scientists have identified an innate human attraction for things which live and move. Humans like cuddly house pets or plants, and are emotionally and intellectually developed in part through their contact with living, moving things. That attraction is called biophilia. But is ‘loving nature’ the same thing as worshipping nature?

We are going to have to sharpen our thinking on this subject in the near future. For generations, Christians have faced the challenge of atheistic evolution and the idea that nature is simply a fortuitous accident of time, space and chance. Now however the pendulum is swinging to the opposite extreme. The new challenge is from a post-Christian spirituality claiming the immanence of Mother Goddess in all of nature. This is claimed to be more than Pantheism, something called Panentheism, a combination of theism and pantheism, in which the Divine Being is claimed to be in all of nature and beyond into transcendence. New Agers will encourage us to worship the Divine through worshipping nature.

So how is this different from Biblical thinking where God is seen as omnipresent, transcendent and immanent? New we’re getting beyond the scope of a w e e k l y w o r d, but briefly, the Bible God is ‘other’ than his creation. A pantheistic or panentheistic view is saddled with the problem of evil – that must also be part of the Divine if all is God.

Our Christian reaction may be to withdraw from creation and concentrate on the ‘spiritual’ and ‘otherworldly’, so that, as in the old chorus, “the things of earth will grow strangely dim…”. But is this really a ‘Christian’ reaction? There seems a thin line between loving and worshipping nature.

Francis Schaeffer put it this way: “If I love the Lover, I will love what the Lover has made.” Here the object of the worship is the Lover. The subject is what the Lover has made. We can love a painting and respond by praising the artist. We can separate object and subject.

Not only should we love and respect creation, says John Stott, we have a duty to do so.

Now, there’s a biophile!! I visited Dr Stott once in his London study, one wall of which was stacked with books. Two thirds of the books were theological. The remaining left hand section was the largest collection of books about birds I’ve ever seen. Stott’s face lit up as I perused these books, and excitedly shared his summer holiday plans to go to northern Canada where a nest with five eggs of a rare species of owl had been found.

I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear I’ve started with ducks this summer.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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