Sermon: Nature and Spirit

4.27.2014     Preaching Text: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:26)

Back in the 60’s there was a lot of talk about “getting back to nature,” of being “one with nature.”  The ideal, in short, was to be “natural.”

Then again, have you ever seen any of those nature shows on PBS? I remember, for some reason, one in particular. It was filmed somewhere in Africa and featured the jackal. What stands out in my mind was the fierce battle between a jackal and a hyena. Actually, it wasn’t so much a battle as a slaughter. It was difficult to watch.

The point is that nature is in reality quite violent and not at all commensurate with the highest human aspirations. Not for nothing do we derogatorily use the phrase, “law of the jungle!”  And “survival of the fittest” is not an especially warm and fuzzy concept either!

Of course, we’ve also been told that the world’s most dangerous animal is the human being. As the argument goes, animals only take what they need to survive, while the human animal is capable of altogether senseless destruction. Jackals, in other words, are not prone to the depravity required for, say, an Auschwitz.

It was the mid-twentieth century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his landmark book, The Nature and Destiny of Man (itself based on a lecture series given in Edinburgh), who defined human beings as a “unity of nature and spirit.” This is a profound insight.

Niebuhr’s point is that we humans aren’t one or the other, but both. Nature, with its laws, limitations, and contingencies binds us to the earth. But it is the spirit which transcends and frees us from these narrow necessities, rendering us, in effect, sovereign over nature.

The problem, he argued, is that human beings tend to latch on to one or the other, rather than holding both in creative tension. When we accede to our animal nature, for instance, we are no better than animals – or worse, as I suggested earlier.

Yet if we focus entirely on the spiritual part of who we are, we are prone to what he called “pride.” Forgetting our connection to nature, we ignore its obligatory laws and requirements, and at considerable risk. Niebuhr would argue that Auschwitz was, in fact, a sin of spiritual pride, rather than one of pure nature.

In this morning’s reading from Genesis, we encounter the first of two consecutive creation stories. It presumes human beings as created last, after everything else in all creation. (Curiously, the story that follows announces precisely the opposite!).

What is of particular interest to our discussion is where God says to the humans he has created, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion” over all of creation.

For many, these are “fightin’ words!” If the 60’s taught us anything it’s that we are one with nature, and certainly not above it or in charge of it! Words such as “subdue” and “have dominion over” are thus dangerously misleading.

Yet this is clearly a misconstrual of the text. If Niebuhr is right, we are not simply one with nature (though we are part of it). We are also set apart from nature by virtue of having being made in God’s image! Thus, the spiritual part of our being frees us from the strict demands of the natural order, allowing and even requiring that we have influence over it.

Earth Day, for Christians, underscores our proper role within the natural order:  to use godly insight and perspective in order to steward the world our Creator has entrusted to us.

From the Genesis reading, it is clear that we are called to be stewards of everything that is, in accordance with God’s vast designs for life. As such, wanton disregard for the intricacies, dependencies, and immutable laws of nature is as unchristian as are the false claim that nature is all there is.

The proper human stewardship of nature, then, involves the fullness of who we are, a unity of nature and spirit. The temptation, as I say, is to consider only one or the other, either nature or spirit, to the detriment to both.

My personal worry is that, in our zeal to steward the earth effectively, we turn it into a religion, as if the world in which we live is God rather than something made by God.  And extremism, in the service of religion, has a long history.

The opposite error, of course, is in thinking that the world is here strictly for our own pleasure or utility, as if our well-being is separate from the world around us, as if we’re not a part of nature.

In his most recent book, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, George Marsden argues for a new kind of pluralism within American society. The old pluralism, the one that notably included religion (though only the Protestant/Catholic/Jewish traditions), was effectively lost in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

What replaced it was a new mainstream consensus that largely removed religion altogether, except as a personal, private matter. In response to this religious void, the evangelical and fundamentalist traditions sought to fill the vacuum, and in so doing effectively divided American society into two camps, the secular humanists (the new mainstream consensus) and the true Americans.

For the evangelicals, the American project had always been a Christian one, up until, that is, the federal government and the courts started excising religion from the public square, beginning with the removal of prayer in schools in the early 60’s. We were a “Christian nation.” This approach produced a new toxic environment referred to as “the culture wars.” Everything now was either black or white; you were on one side of the fence or the other. There was no middle, or common ground.

Marsden’s call for a new pluralism proposes a new tolerance, one where all voices are heard, including those of every religious tradition. After all, as he says, the United States was never as Christian as conservatives assumed, nor was religion as pernicious an influence within the public square as it is so often assumed by liberals.

In the realm of the modern-day wars over conservation, climate change, and stewardship of our world, I would wish for this new pluralism, this new tolerance, where things are presented not so much as so cut-and-dried, and where respectful, meaningful dialogue can take place. Only then, or it seems to me, can a healthy consensus develop about which people might agree and support. Amen.