Nature is Unnatural

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 naturethe created orderis 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.

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  1. Does the use of the word good or evil apply to things that are without a soul the same way they do to persons that possess them? Or can we even label death as evil?
    I do not think we can parallel the rest of creation to humans. And I can’t say that I agree with what is said in the last paragraph:
    Nature is unnatural. (Is this not wrong by definition?) And we would be fools to ethically defend the travesties that occur without human agency or even the inherent goodness of man. (Going back to calling creation evil… Did God create evil? No, it is the absence of God. I, personally, take the middle ground and believe that man is created with the choice to do good or evil.) Yet the Christian claim is that both of these are valuable, worth protecting, and in the end, worth dying for. (Christ died for them because they fell away. Doesn’t someone have to be with God or have a choice to leave God before they can fall away. If they are inherently evil would not occur for many people.)

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    • I think it can. We’re never given a systematic understanding of evil from the Bible, including the idea that evil is “the absence of God”–though I think that is helpful. Evil, as I am assuming in my post, is that which is not good in the broadest sense (and if we are saying all good things are of God or are God, then yes, evil is the absence of God).
      But what I’m mostly focused on in my post is evil nature–and particularly, the potential evil nature of the material world. Is there something inherent in the created world (pre/post-fall, whatever) that makes evil things happen?
      I think your critiques are valid (except for “Nature is unnatural”–it’s a hyperbole). There’s a lot more that stands to be said about the morality of the world (something that can’t make decisions) and the God that made that world.

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