If you’ve ever hiked an alpine ridge to gaze out over a clear vista, or basked in the sun and breathed in clean air on a blue-sky day, or sat on the beach contemplating the crashing waves and the vastness of the sea, then you know what it’s like to marvel at the beauty of nature.
Animal lovers can describe the joy that comes from observing or caring for innocent furry or feathered beasts, whether wild or domesticated.
Most of us have also felt the instant pang of guilt and anger that comes from seeing nature corrupted by human interference. It pricks our conscience – how couldn’t it? But one question we forget to ask is, what does that indignation do to our hearts?
The animated film “Man” tells a bleak story of mankind’s relationship with the natural world since the dawn of time. We walk through a history of human degradation and corruption of the planet, its resources and its creatures, until finally every pristine inch and every living thing has been utterly wasted, and Earth is a heap of industrial sludge.
It’s true that industry has wrecked havoc on natural resources and delicate ecosystems – and in many places this imbalance continues to this day. The video is compelling precisely because it tells certain truths about human greed, selfishness and exploitation, and it rightly warns us of where that can lead us. Especially telling is how the representative man only becomes more miserable, lonelier and more maniacal as he sows and reaps destruction.
But despite what might be good intentions behind the message, it is important to think like an apostle as we take in mediated narratives like “Man,” which are steeped in cynicism:
1. Despair over rampaging humanity’s greed and pollution threatens our ability to love God and to love our neighbor.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” ~ Matthew 22:36-40
Certainly the love of nature, concern for the sustainability of our food, air & water supplies, taking seriously our role as stewards and protectors of the animal kingdom… all these are good inclinations, full of sympathetic intent and common sense. But we must not permit these concerns to coerce our hearts into a hatred of man, for that can only distort any possible solutions we arrive at.
It’s all too easy to cultivate resentment and even hatred (especially of disembodied ideas like industry and historical mankind) when we absorb cynical messages like the ones in “Man.” Such cynicism abounds in our media and the messages we receive from every angle – our entertainment, our education, our politics (and usually these messages creep in with a far greater subtlety than “Man”).
Dirty factories, industrially processed food, disappearing forests, murdered animals and desecrated landscapes are indeed shameful. We have most certainly gotten it wrong, this balance between nature and humanity. At times, in places, to this day, we make grave mistakes in our use and treatment of natural resources, though thankfully we are seeing improvements in environmental awareness and standards to keep us all more honest.
Speaking of easy, it’s also sometimes easier to love a polar bear, a pet dog, even a plot of organic vegetables or a “green” lifestyle than it is to love our neighbor, isn’t it?
Loving God and loving our neighbor sounds nice, but oh how difficult it is to put into practice. When sadness, misfortune, loneliness, or tragedy strikes, how are we supposed to love God? When strangers annoy us, when our spouse or parent or best friend disappoints us, when our persecutors hate us, when captains of industry ravage the planet, how are we supposed to love our fellow man?
2. If we orient ourselves first to love of God, next to our love of neighbor, then an honest, integrated faith by extension leads us to careful, grateful stewardship of the environment.
But how often does the Christian worldview remind us of the unexpected Both/And, especially in contrast to the false choices that the world proposes? Thriving man is not the enemy of nature. Living our faith means integrating the gospel into every aspect of life, all the way down to how we eat, what we purchase, how we produce and use goods, and how we care for the Earth. Exploitation is antithetical to the Christian notion of stewardship.
Loving God and man does not mean choosing to disregard or pollute the environment. On the contrary, following the two precepts upon which “all the Law and the Prophets hang” is to operate within a framework of man’s harmony with nature, wherein both can flourish.
3. How do we live, in love, without exploiting nature?
The first commandment comes first for a reason. The commandments and the beatitudes teach us with great insight about the nature of man & creation, about how we ought to live well, and what leads ultimately to our greatest happiness:
Let your starting point be one of Love
Start small – it’s beautiful. Start local. Start with God and the people you encounter in your daily life. Start by being more mindful of what you buy, use, and consume, and resist cynicism. Remember that we are called to order our loves: God, our fellow men, the abundant gifts in nature’s hospitable and magnificent diversity. This love ought to be the springboard of all our actions, what we give and what we receive in our sojourn on the planet Earth. Commodification and exploitation are not the only way, even as we imbibe endless mediated messages to the contrary. As we cultivate gratitude for the beauty and abundance of nature, including the beautiful complexity of human life, we must act accordingly – which means living in full consciousness of our responsibilities to moderation, justice, sustainability and stewardship.