The recent publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth report reminds us again of the challenges facing humanity in regards to human-caused climate change.1 Although the challenge has been part of our discourse since at least the seventies, this report echoes concerns regarding humanity’s relation to nature that go back much further. Moreover, the report’s findings should spur Christians in particular to think deeply about how our theology informs our relation to nature.
Even beyond the more typical Christian approaches to ecology that focus on stewardship (see Steven McMullen’s blog on stewardship), thinkers as diverse as Renaissance writer and monk, François Rabelais (c.1483-1553), as well as American theologian, Joseph Sittler (1904-1987) identify humanity’s misuse and abuse of ecology as a central concern.
L’humanité e(s)t la nature
Although our concern with ecology has become more and more pressing since the nineteenth century, Early Modern thinkers would have easily made the link between human action and its effects on both the microcosm and macrocosm. At the end of Rabelais’s third book of the adventures of Pantagruel, for example, the praise of the enigmatic herb, Pantagruelion, links humanity’s inventive use of nature to the distortion of weather patterns. This text can be instructive as we reflect on our relation to nature.2
Drawing from classical and neo-classical sources, the Pantagruelion chapters seem to portray an optimistic praise of the herb’s many uses and the scientific progress that it facilitated. The narrator shows how through this modest herb, “human beings’ lives are vastly improved.”3 The lengthy list of its uses gives the impression that this herb holds human society together. It is central for deterring crime since it is used to hang criminals; it is also crucial for the Christian faith as it is used to ring the church bells. Without it, millers, lawyers, cooks, artists, printers, armies, and sailors among many others would find their work nearly impossible to accomplish.4
At times, however, it is difficult to tell whether what is being praised is human ingenuity or the herb, Pantagruelion. This highlights the intricate relations that bind human culture with(in) nature. Sittler and others would later acknowledge the folly in the kind of thinking that alienates humanity and culture from nature,5
For the creation is a community of abounding life—from the invisible microbes to the highly visible elephants, the vastness of mountains, the sweep of seas, the expanse of land. These companions of our creaturehood are not only there: they are there as things without which I cannot be at all! They surround, support, nourish, delight, allure, challenge, and talk back to us.6
At the same time, it is worth noting that Rabelais’s assessment of progress seems to be skeptical. After listing a number of uses of the herb, we read that the gods regard this with danger. They object:
Using that mighty herb of his, Pangagruel has given us something new and tedious to deal with […] And we are powerless to stop his fated progress because it has been decreed by the hands and the bobbing spindles of those three fatal sisters Necessity’s daughters. Who knows? His children may discover another herb with equal powers, by means of which humans will be able to visit the home of hail, the sluice gates from which rain pours, and the workshop where lightning and thunder are forged. They’ll be able to invade the moon, travel to lands owned by the stars of the zodiac, and dwell there […]7
Although Rabelais’s concern is not primarily ecological, it is uncanny how, if we mapped fossil-fuels onto the gods’ fear of a new “herb” comparable to Pantagruelion, our modern exploitation of nature has indeed given us unprecedented access to altering the weather, including hail, rain, and heat.
As the IPCC notes in their summary, “Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such—as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones—in particular their attribution to human influence—has strengthened since [the last report].”8 Unfortunately, although we have been able to affect the weather, we are not able to control its destructive power.
And yet, from the Olympian perspective, the problem seems to be neither Pantagruelion nor progress as such, but rather the manner in which they are used. The gods seem to be afraid that humanity will transgress the boundaries separating them from divinity and thus become god-like: “They will sit at table with us, and take our goddesses as their wives—the only way they can become gods.”9 The optimistic tone regarding human progress through the domination of nature in these chapters reads as a comic mockery identifying the main problem as human pride and lust for power. As Sittler suggests, the source of ecological crisis is at the center a spiritual one:
When nature is regarded only as an inexhaustible warehouse of oil, ore, timber and all other materials, then she is ruthlessly plundered. This problem cannot be solved by economics, for the disposition to plunder is not an economic problem at all. It is the creation of a lust grown rapacious; and lust and rapacity are problems of the spirit of man before they ever become events of economic history[.]10
A Place for Eco-Theology
It is perhaps not a coincidence that the disruptive upward movement of humanity trying to reach heaven on its own power (along with its destructive global consequences) is an inverted reflection of the means through which God’s redemptive grace is expressed. As we are reminded in the letter to the Philippians:
[Christ Jesus], being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Phil 2: 5-8)11
To redeem the hubris of man, God chose an extreme form of humility: the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The incarnational aspect of the Messiah is also reminder that the plan of redemption is not limited to human souls, but rather, for the whole creation (Rom 8: 19-21). Christ became man and dwelt among us—in our ecology—to complete that redemptive work because the cosmos and all that is in it is part of the creation that God deemed to be “good” from the very beginning (Gen 1). As the Psalmist sings,
“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,
the world and all who live in it[.]” (Ps 24:1)
Accordingly, as Sittler argues, ecological concern is not merely a tangential concern for Christianity. It is a central concern: “But the Christian is called, commanded, interiorly obligated to care for the earth as a part of being a Christian.“12
But then, the question emerges: How are we to think and act theologically with ecology? Perhaps Rabelais’s end to the Tiers livre can again be instructive. Rabelais wraps up his novel with a poem that lauds Pantagruelion above other resources:
Arabs —Indians—Sabians—no more
Loud praise for myrrh, incense, ebony.
Come see what better things there are
In this herb of ours, and take its seeds,
And if you grow this handsome gift
In your lands, too, give thanks to God
And royal France, whose happy sod
Provided you so handsome a gift.13
Aside from the self-serving, nationalistic rhetoric, the narrator suggests that the correct attitude with which to interact with Pantagruelion, and by extension our ecology, is with grace and gratitude. Pantagruelion astonishingly and mysteriously is represented both as a humble seed and God’s most graceful gift to humanity. But it is only when we receive it and respond to it as such that we can have a right relation with it. As Sittler articulated, “When the world is received as a gift, a grace, an ever astounding wonder, it can be rightly enjoyed and justly used..
- IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.
- François Rabelais. Gargantua and Pantagruel. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990). Rabelais scholars have not reached a consensus about how to interpret this section of the text.
- Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, 372.
- Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, 371.
- Morton, Timothy. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009). Timothy Morton makes a similar argument suggesting that we rethink the split between nature and culture in Ecology Without Nature.
- Sittler, Joseph. “Evangelism and the Care of the Earth.” Evocations of Grace: Writings on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 204.
- Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, 372.
- IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policy Makers, 10.
- Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, 372.
- Joseph Sittler, “God, Man, and Nature,” The Pulpit 24, no. 3 (1953), 16.
- All biblical passages are from The Holy Bible, New International Version. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).
- Sittler, “Evangelism and the Care of the Earth,” 203.
- Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, 375.