Just a few weeks ago, I spoke at the annual convention of the G. K. Chesterton Society. The theme of the conference was St. Francis, since this year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Chesterton’s classic book on the medieval saint. In the course of his presentation, Dale Ahlquist, the president of the society, drew our attention to Chesterton’s remark that, according to St. Francis, we should not see nature as our mother, but rather as our sister, since we have the same Father.
Understandably enough, we feel protective toward our lovely sister, and this is the basis of a healthy biblical and Catholic sense of ecology. In his most famous piece of writing, the Canticle of the Sun, St. Francis voiced his deep affection for “Brother Sun and Sister Moon,” for “Sister Water,” and for “our Sister, Mother Earth.” Though she might be our mother in an analogical sense, the earth, for Francis, remains our sister first and foremost. Chesterton agreed. When we construe nature as our mother, we revert, Chesterton thought, into a paganism that amounts to the worship of a creature—which always results in mischief.
I thought of this recently when I saw a new short film from the Apple corporation that has been making the rounds on social media. It features a team of Apple tech executives in a pristine, postmodern boardroom. They are led by Tim Cook himself, the head of the company. Everyone is nervously preparing for the arrival of a special visitor whom they want desperately to impress. And no one seems more fidgety than Cook, which only puzzles the viewer more: Who could this person be who can intimidate the top leadership of Apple? The president of the United States? Oprah? The Dalai Lama? No one as lowly as that, it turns out, for into the conference room comes Mother Nature herself, in the guise of a middle-aged and rather grumpy woman.
What strikes one immediately is the combination of awe and fear in the faces of those around the table, a reaction that can only be characterized as “religious.” They want with all their hearts to impress her, but they are also deathly afraid that she might not be sufficiently appeased by their efforts. They then commence to present sacrifices to the goddess, promising her that Apple is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to protect the environment, reduce its carbon footprint, use less energy, etc. After hearing each concession, Mother Nature asks a series of skeptical follow-up questions; after finally receiving the promise of “zero-carbon” from the Apple team, she manages a tepid “okay,” and then leaves the room, promising, with not a little menace, to return next year to check on their progress.
If I might return to Chesterton, the great English writer famously suggested that when men stop believing in God, they don’t start believing in nothing—they start believing in anything. The religious instinct in us is so great that, even if we do not worship the true God, we will always endeavor to worship something: our country, our culture, a political leader, our own will, etc. In the minds of many of the religiously disaffiliated today, the default deity is Nature itself—which brings them back to the classically pagan worldview. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the gods were basically personifications of the natural necessities: earth, sky, fire, the sea, the death and rebirth of vegetation. If we consult the symbolic stories the ancients told about these capricious deities, we see how perceptive they were. The earth is beautiful, and lethal; the sky is lovely, and death can rain down from it; the sea is sometimes placid and alluring, and at other times, it will drown you without pity. The point is that Nature is wonderful, powerful, but finally indifferent to us. Therefore, when we move beyond appreciating and protecting Nature and begin to worship it, we place ourselves in the hands of a terrible and impersonal master.
Notably, the Bible's opening verses effectively knock the gods of nature off their pedestals. Everything mentioned in those lyrical lines of the creation narrative—earth, sky, the sun, the moon, animals, plants—were worshiped at some point in the ancient world. The author of Genesis is saying, again and again, “No, they are not divine; they are created.” To be sure, they come forth from God in a stately and beautiful liturgical procession, and the last of the creatures—man and woman—are intended, by their powers of mind and imagination, to lead all creatures in a chorus of praise to their common Father. But nature is our sister, not our mother—thank God. Precisely because nature is impersonal and indifferent to us, our sacrifices to her will never be enough, and they will diminish us. The good news of the Bible is that the true God is a person who loves us, and any sacrifice made to him redounds finally to our benefit, for “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
If you want to see what religious life looks like when you abandon the true God and turn to the worship of nature, take a good, hard look at Apple's latest film and ask yourself whether this grumpy, intimidating, endlessly demanding, and finally impersonal goddess is for you.
Robert Barron is bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
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