Catholic Sense 16
Nature is Just So Natural
By David Mills
Our old dog eats deer poop. The neighborhood cats stalk, torture, and kill our chipmunks. The spider whose web I see in front of my window stings the butterfly caught in his web, wraps it with silk, and later comes back to eat it alive.
Your knee hurts. Your eyes begin to go. Cancer cells eat up the body of your closest friend. The earth shifts suddenly, and flattens part of a crowded island, and thousands and thousands die.
There’s nature for you. It is sometimes only disgusting, like the dietary habits of our aging mutt. It’s sometimes just annoying, like your aching knee and fuzzy vision. But it is also cold, brutal, merciless. Nature is entirely selfish and utterly amoral, indifferent to pain. It’s soaked in the blood of the innocent.
And yet some people say that we ought to abandon the old religions and worship nature. Writing on the website of a serious English magazine, someone calling himself (or herself) “Pagan Artist” wrote in a cheerful Mary Poppins kind of way: “What is wrong with worshipping God’s creation itself? The sun, the moon, the stars, the air, the trees, the rivers, the sea — we cannot live for a day without them.”
He then explained why this made him want to worship nature and not the god of any established religion: “For me, that makes them divine because they give us the ultimate gift of life. Organized religions on the other hand have given us nothing but death and destruction. Nature gives us life. Organized religions give us death. Which one should we hold divine and worship with reverence?”
Let us set aside the claim that “organized religions” have given the world lots of bad things and no good things. It’s just silly. Walk around any major city and note the number of hospitals with names like “Mercy Hospital” and “Our Lady of . . .” and “Beth Israel.” Where did the modern hospital come from but from the medical care dispensed freely by the monks of the Middle Ages?
Look at the new pagan case at its best. It claims that we ought to reverence nature because it gives us life, as Pagan Artist said. You can easily think of all sorts of wonderful things to be found in Nature. The Christian would say that the wonderful things we find are wonderful gifts given us by a loving God, but let that go for a second.
The first thing to be said about this modern nature worship is that it is most extraordinarily dim. Sure, we find in nature pretty sunsets, and cute little bunnies and kittens, and warm sunny breezy spring days, and the awe-inspiring mechanics of life on earth and the equally awe-inspiring movement of the stars and galaxies.
But we also find physical decay, cancer, earthquakes. Those cute kittens grow up to eat the cute bunnies. The weather that produces the beautiful spring days will also produce killing cold snaps and hurricanes that destroy everything in their path. The mechanics of life on earth produce death as much as life, and indeed depend on death to maintain the balance. What is to you a horrible death from cancer is for Nature simply a way of adjusting the population.
I don’t know why anyone would want to worship this, unless – like the real pagans – they want to try to make it like them and spare them its worst. That’s not worship as we understand it, but bribery, and desperate bribery at that. Some of the ancient pagan religions would do almost anything to bribe the nature gods, including sacrificing their own children.
That is how frightened of nature were the people who knew it best. Not for them the cheery “Nature gives us life” and the chipper question, “What is wrong with worshipping God’s creation itself?”
That’s the speech of someone who lives far removed from nature, in a modern city in a modern house with modern heat and modern plumbing, with modern medicine and everything else that protects us from nature as she really is.
David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in Pittsburgh Catholic on .