From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World
With publication of Laudato Si’ in 2015, Pope Francis drew new attention to the role of Christian faith in the environmental debate: “The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole,” the encyclical reads, “was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations” (48). In other words, environmental degradation stems from a problem of human vision, and what the church needs now is a renewed understanding of humanity’s place in God’s creation.
Norman Wirzba responds to this need in From Nature to Creation, outlining a Christian vision that can lead the church’s response to environmental degradation around the globe. Working out of narrative theology and virtue ethics, Wirzba argues that the way we live is determined foundationally by how we understand ourselves and the world around us: “To know how to live presupposes that we know who we are and where we are” (10). Caring for God’s creation requires more than changes in particular behaviors; it requires a reassessment of Christian vision and imagination. “I stress the development of an imaginative capacity,” he writes, “because it has become evident that more knowledge or information about the earth is not, by itself, going to be of sufficient help” (3). A Christian vision and imagination for the world, he goes on to explain, is one through which we see creation “as a miracle that is itself an expression of divine love” (3) and through which we ourselves learn to experience and model that love.
In chapter one, Wirzba argues that Christians are faced with two competing narratives about the world: nature and creation. The Enlightenment narrative of modernity, he explains, misrepresents the world in fundamental ways. Within this narrative, human beings are the sole source of value, and the nonhuman world, or nature, is merely a collection of “amoral, material elements that can be manipulated to suit a variety of purposes chosen by us” (13). To the extent that Christians have accepted this narrative, Wirzba argues, we have lost a sense of our true identity. The Bible offers a different narrative of the world as God’s good creation. Seeing the world this way is to see it as a gift of divine love, cultivating in Christians what Wirzba calls “the art of creatureliness” (30).
In chapter two, Wirzba provides a sweeping epistemological history, from the Greek view in which living the good life meant aligning oneself with nature’s normative order, to the Enlightenment view of nature as a realm of material causation devoid of moral norms. Human beings, in this Enlightenment view, do not discover meaning in the world; they create or bestow meaning. This leads invariably to the creation of idols, whether the objects of worship are knowledge and power or a romantic understanding of nature.
In chapter three, Wirzba develops an alternate view of the world as God’s creation. Navigating between the Enlightenment’s emphasis on God’s utter transcendence and the Romantic insistence on God’s immanence, he suggests an iconic view in which “others are not reduced to the scope of utilitarian and instrumental aims … [and] people are called to open themselves to the integrity and sanctity of the world” (71). Said another way, humans are called to see creation as an expression of God’s love and wisdom, always recognizing “the Word that informs and directs it” (83). Cultivating this view requires patience, because it requires us to develop a deeper attentiveness to the divine love that created and now sustains the world.
Cultivating an iconic view of the world, Wirzba explains in chapter four, leads to a renewed imagination of human identity. Humans are properly understood as creatures embedded in God’s good creation. This means that human identity is marked fundamentally by need and dependence and that “creaturely life is marked by the humble, grateful reception of life as a gracious gift from God and is witnessed in the responsible care of fellow creatures” (109). In other words, this view of human identity requires one to discover the value that God sees in creation rather than seeing oneself as the autonomous source of value.
Wirzba concludes in chapter five with a description of “creaturely” living, which is marked by a profound sense of gratitude and thankfulness for God’s good gifts in creation. Such gratitude leads to a fulfilling life because in gratitude, thanksgiving, and trust, one experiences God’s Sabbath rest. What is more, living in gratitude is far more than an expression of piety; it is “a political and economic act of revolutionary significance. Why? Because a life of gratitude opens the possibility of a new relationship with the world” (152). At the very least, gratitude for the miraculous gift of creation would make it difficult to participate in some of the more ecologically and socially destructive elements of contemporary culture.
From Nature to Creation is a welcome contribution to the rapidly growing corpus on Christianity and the environment. In many ways, it recapitulates ideas that Wirzba has worked out in a variety of other places, such as The Paradise of God, Living the Sabbath, and Food & Faith, gathering these insights into a single, short volume. Written as part of Baker Academic’s series, “The Church and Postmodern Culture,” it provides thoughtful Christian engagement with the broader intellectual currents of modernity and postmodernity. With this in mind, From Nature to Creation deserves a broader readership and can work well as an introductory text in the classroom, whether academic or ecclesial.
One of the strengths of From Nature to Creation is that Wirzba situates environmental questions within their broader epistemological and cultural context. He circles around environmental problems, but the vision of creation that he describes is not “environmental” in any narrow sense. Indeed, he outlines a worldview that is as relevant to family life or work as it is to environmental protection. In this way, From Nature to Creation is similar to the broad vision Wirzba outlined in Living the Sabbath. In both books, he works to articulate nothing less than a Christian vision of the good life.
While From Nature to Creation has considerable strengths and deserves a wide readership, it is not entirely clear what audience the author and the series editor have in view. Wirzba’s argument—Enlightenment epistemology, Christian iconography, Sabbath living, and so on—at times seems too broad for the book’s 157 pages. For academic and other critical readers, Wirzba does not provide enough support for sweeping judgments about the character of modern life and the deep value of an agrarian alternative. At the same time, From Nature to Creation often seems too academic for a popular audience. Wirzba weaves a rich intellectual history into the book, but in such limited space, he must skim across figures who are not part of a popular lexicon: Frederick Nietzsche, Steven Weinberg, Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Athanasius, Martin Heidegger, Giordano Bruno, Bruno Latour, Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and many others. Likewise, Wirzba must skim across the surface of complex issues, risking misrepresentation. For example, he explains in just a page and a half that African-American slaves benefited from their close, working relationship with the land, citing the noted author bell hooks. Though Wirzba is quick to assert that slavery was itself destructive and morally abhorrent, claims about the benefits of field labor for African-American slaves require far more qualification than he provides.
In the end, From Nature to Creation serves as a valuable resource for initiating conversation about modernity, postmodernity, and Christian environmental theology, particularly if read with other resources at hand. For example, many Christians may wish to read Wirzba’s early book, Living the Sabbath, at the same time, since it contains a similar argument rooted in biblical texts and theology with which most Christians are already familiar. And From Nature to Creation provides a model for how to position contemporary environmental questions within broader epistemic discourse and culture. As Wirzba argues effectively, environmental problems are not simply technical problems; they reflect distortions in the way that we see the world. Learning to look through creation to the divine love and wisdom it reflects is to build a set of corrective lenses that will reshape our lives and contribute to God’s work of healing and redemption.