A while ago, I wrote a post called “The Bird and the Worm” where I muse ambiguously on ethics and the state of nature.
I think back on that post often, primarily because I found my writing uncompelling, but also because of the questions I was dealing with: the question of whether intuition and emotion can justify our action and the question of whether nature—the created order—is intrinsically good or evil.
The latter issue, the issue of the morality of nature, is interesting because it is something we seldom discuss yet our answers are reflective of our deepest sentiments. What we think about wolves devouring a deer or even a tree falling in a forest is representative of our politics, how we treat people, and our contentedness in this world.
Annie Dillard shows her own cards in her meditative work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In her tenth chapter, she recounts a nightmare she had about watching luna moths mate and lay eggs all over her bed—when the eggs hatch fish slither out and she wakes up screaming. Dillard reflects on this dream and her time at Tinker Creek and concludes that not every element of nature contains beauty nor are the cosmos inherently virtuous. According to her, life and the process by which it expands on the earth is inefficient and filled with death and suffering. She insists, “Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me.”
I think Dillard is right. The more I reflect on the natural world, the less enchanted I become. The rainforest untouched by humans is just as chaotic and amoral as the concrete jungles of the cities. In the wilderness—or even just a few meters off the trail—there is unintentional cruelty. There is death, and there is pain. And despite the suggestions of movies like mother!, nature is no saint and certainly not worth imitating.
The Bible itself has little to say on this issue, yet theologians throughout the centuries have extrapolated enough to suggest that a “fallen” creation lies at the center of natural evil. Their canonical footing may be unstable but their conclusions are undeniable: the universe and its natural order are broken. The same amoral forces that give us a creek to meditate by are the same that flood and destroy homes; the same forces that adapt and evolve cells are the same that cause cancer and death.
This same indifference to the good can be seen in human nature. While philosophers have debated on the merits of humans returning to the “state of nature,” our experience should make it clear that the human will is as—if not more—corrupt than the material world. Sunday night in Las Vegas should be more than enough to demonstrate this.
Nature is unnatural. And we would be fools to ethically defend the travesties that occur without human agency or even the inherent goodness of man. Yet the Christian claim is that both of these are valuable, worth protecting, and in the end, worth dying for. The Christian task, then, is to guide our souls and minds into accepting that claim.