I’ve finally gotten around to reading the new issue of The New Atlantis. For those not familiar with it, The New Atlantis is published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and has legitimate claim to being America’s premiere “Journal of Technology and Society.” In this new issue, S. M Hutchens, senior editor of Touchstone, reviews E. O. Wilson’s The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. Wilson’s book is written as an extended letter to an Evangelical Baptist pastor, so having Hutchens (a theologian in the Evangelical Lutheran tradition) respond makes considerable sense. (Readers of First Things may remember the review of The Creation that Stephen Barr wrote for us here.)
The main thrust of Hutchens’ review is the contrast between humanist views (like Wilson’s) of creation and Biblical accounts. As Hutchens sees it:
One of the more exasperating characteristics of the biblical God is that He, inferior to greater souls in this regard, seems to evince very little reverence for life. By this I mean His attitude toward the biological life we prize so highly in ourselves and by natural extension in other living things seems to be entirely, and jealously, proprietary, and that what we would bestow more generously, had we the power, He, in accordance with His own lights, keeps short and difficult. We humans in particular, who would be gods, He quickly recycles: “Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away.”
The scriptures show him removing life from the whole earth when men displease Him, contemplating this event not only once, but twice, “the fire next time.” The attitude that seems to please Him most toward this gift which seems so precious to us that we are constantly tempted to define our being by it is “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away—Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”
He goes on to explain the difference this makes:
The principal difference in the horizons against which orthodox Christianity and earth-piety work is that the earth as it presently exists is the eschatological telos of the latter’s vision, while for the former it is subsumed under the more general category of Creation. The concept of Creation carries with it belief in the biblical God as its Creator, and thus acquires subordination to a purpose in which it exists not as the end of a vision, as it must be to non-theists who believe in no other home, but a means to the accomplishment of a divine purpose that transcends and shall eventually subsume it.
Here, then, is the first inescapable offense Christianity gives to earth-piety: the earth as we know it empirically is not a final thing but a first creation. The second offense is that Christianity’s principal reason for the earth’s existence is to serve the cause of human redemption, to be defined and carried out not by what seems reasonable to man, but the purpose and method of God. The earth is presented to the faith as sacramental, and as sacrament its end is to be consumed so that a second and higher Creation may come. Its end is as the end of man who has been made from and returns to its dust, who must pass away so the Second and Eternal Man can arise to take his place in a new heaven and earth, the old having passed away. It is difficult to exaggerate the breadth and depth of the chasm that exists between biblical religion and earth-piety.
I don’t know what I think about this. For whatever reason my initial reaction was that Hutchens has overstated his case. But I’m no expert on the theological status of creation. Still, this seems just a little too other-worldly, and a little too “Man is the ‘only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake.’” (That, of course, is a quote from the Second Vatican Council; in the broad contours, Hutchens has obviously gotten it exactly right.) So maybe it’s just the emphasis. The impression one gets is that nature has become only a vehicle for supernature. The nature-supernature debates are well-known in Christian anthropology and moral theology circles; do they undergird the debates over environmental stewardship as well?
Anyway, give Hutchens’ entire review a read. And you might want to check out the symposium on Hannah Arendt’s “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” also in the new issue of The New Atlantis. And if you like what you read, you might want to subscribe to The New Atlantis.