Conservation International has sponsored a series of videos that have become YouTube sensations, garnering millions of views. They feature famous actors—Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey, Robert Redford, and others—voicing different aspects of the natural world, from the ocean, to the rain forest, to redwood trees. The most striking is the one that presents Mother Nature herself, given voice by Julia Roberts.
They all have more or less the same message, namely, that nature finally doesn’t give a fig for human beings, that it is far greater than we, and will outlast us. Here are some highlights from the Mother’s speech: “I’ve been here for over four and a half billion years, 22,500 times longer than you; I don’t really need people, but people need me.” And “I have fed species greater than you; and I have starved species greater than you.” And “my oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests—they all can take you or leave you.”
I must confess that when I first came across these videos I thought, “just more tree-hugging extremism,” but the more I watched and considered them, the more I became convinced that they are fundamentally right and actually serve to make a point of not inconsiderable theological significance. That nature in all of its beauty and splendor doesn’t finally care about human beings came home to me dramatically many years ago. I was standing in the surf, just off the coast of North Carolina, gazing out to sea and remarking how beautiful the vista was. For just a moment, I turned around to face the shore, and a large wave came up suddenly and knocked me off my feet and, for a few alarming seconds, actually pinned me to the ocean floor. In a moment, it was over and I got back on my feet, but I was shaken. The sea, which just seconds before had beguiled me with its serenity and beauty, had turned on a dime and almost killed me.
The ancients knew this truth, and they expressed it in their mythology. The gods and goddesses of Greece, Rome, and Babylon were basically personifications of the natural necessities: water, the sky, the mountain, the fertile earth, etc. Like the natural elements that they symbolized, these divine figures were fickle in the extreme. One minute, Poseidon smiles on you, and the next minute he sinks your ship; now Zeus is pleased with you, now he sends a thunderbolt to destroy you; Demeter can be a gentle mother, and Demeter can be an avenging enemy. And indeed, so it goes with the ocean, with the weather, and with the soil. But this is precisely why the worship of these natural necessities is always such a dicey business, for the best one can hope for is to mollify these finally indifferent divinities to some degree through worship and sacrifice.
Biblical religion represents something altogether new, a fact signaled in the opening verses of the book of Genesis, where it is emphatically stated that God creates earth, sky, the stars and planets, the animals that move upon the earth and the fishes that inhabit the ocean depths. All of these natural elements were, at one time or another, worshipped as divine. So even as he celebrates them, the author of Genesis is effectively dethroning them, desacralizing them. Nature is wonderful indeed, he is telling us; but it is not God. And the consistent Biblical message is that this Creator God is not like the arbitrary and capricious gods of the ancient world; rather, he is reliable, rock-like in his steadfast love, more dedicated to human beings than a mother is to her child. The entire Scriptural revelation comes to a climax with the claim, in the fourth chapter of John’s first letter, that God simply is love. St. Augustine celebrated this Biblical departure from the ancient worship of nature in a lyrical and visionary passage in his Confessions. He imagines the natural elements coming before him, one by one. Each says to him, “Look higher,” and then, in a great chorus, they gesture toward God and then shout together, “He made us!”
As classical Christianity came to be questioned by some of the intellectual elite in the early modern period, the ancient worship of nature made an unhappy comeback. One thinks of Baruch Spinoza’s blithe equation Deus sive natura (God or nature) and then of the many forms of pantheism that it spawned, from Schleiermacher’s “infinite” to Emerson’s “Oversoul” to George Lucas’s “The Force.” In fact, the return to the classical sense of divinity is on particularly clear display in the “dark” and “light” sides of the Force that play such a vital role in the Star Wars narrative. Though it can be used for good or ill, the Force is finally as indifferent to human beings as is Mother Nature.
And this is why the Julia Roberts video functions as an effective antidote against all forms of nature worship. It vividly reminds us that when we make Mother Nature our ultimate concern, we are turning to an exceptionally cruel and unreliable lady. Though I don’t think this was her intention, Ms. Roberts is urging us to “look higher.”