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My father-in-law died last summer from COVID-19. Minimizers and deniers might ask “Did he die of COVID? Or with COVID?” He never had the virus. He withered and waned from months of confinement to his small room with minimal human contact.

Like the stories we’ve heard too many times, his death was made more difficult by isolation, by travel restrictions, by the inability to gather for some sort of funeral.

But the Holy Spirit likes Pearl Jam. Who knew?

Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam

As my wife grieved across an ocean, somehow the song “Man of the Hour” was brought to her mind. Written by Eddie Vedder for the 2003 film Big Fish, the film and the song revolve around a child’s ambivalent relationship with a father of oversized passions and larger-than-life stories — a tidal wave of a man. But the song’s chorus eases toward sorrow and love, “The man of hour is taking his final bow. Good-bye for now.” Reconciliation wrestles with resentment. Gratitude and anger stand side-by-side.

But it was the second verse of “Man of the Hour” that caught me, taking me in quite a different direction.

Nature has its own religion, gospel from the land.”

These lyrics flashed all sorts of synapses in my head.

I wonder if the song is suggesting that the “Big Fish father” is a practitioner of “nature’s religion”? A religion where second place is the first loser; of eat or be eaten; an eye for an eye. For me, this puts into sharper relief the contrast between nature’s gospel and Jesus’ — where the last are first. Freedom is surrender. Life comes through death. Power is weakness.

Nature is dominance — grace is sacrifice. Nature is struggling — grace is mercy. Nature is fear — grace is love. Nature is butterflies and flower bulbs — grace is resurrection. Overdrawn? No doubt. Hinting at something? Probably.

I’m often awed by the beauty, complexity, balance, and interconnectedness of creation. But I’m equally astonished by the brutality, harshness, and competitiveness of creation. Tennyson described nature as “red in tooth and claw,” while Hobbes opined that life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short.” I recall reading that violent death is how almost every creature’s life on earth ends.

Charles Darwin

A seminary memory from days of yore: studying the religious reactions when the theory of evolution appeared. Many Christians were dismayed — but not because of any apparent contradiction with scriptures’ creation stories. Rather it was because they could not comprehend the idea that nature was a bloody, ruthless struggle. Their sentimental and innocent illusions of nature were shattered by Darwin et al. Meanwhile, hard-nosed Calvinists had no such qualms. They could easily accept that creation was filled with fear, striving, and conflict.

Maybe Pearl Jam is agreeing with Karl Barth? The Belgic Confession is wrong. There are not two ways to God — creation and Jesus Christ. A natural religion might bring you to a big, amazing and powerful god, an awesome, yet awful god. But can it bring you to a gracious and loving God?

What I am not doing here is trotting out the hackneyed accusations that Christians often toss at environmentalists — pantheism or paganism. But I do wonder if by uncritically blending nature’s religion with Jesus’ — believing that we are adding wonder, beauty, harmony — we aren’t inadvertently making it easier for a cruel social Darwinism to leech on to the Gospel. In other words, thinking we are making a fuller, more balanced gospel, do we open the door to sanctioning the cruelty and competition of nature? Violence becomes acceptable, necessary, and inevitable.

Another thing I’m not trying to do: here on “The Twelve” we often read beautiful and compelling voices calling us to attend to and care for creation. I don’t have the expertise of Debra Rienstra, Tim Van Deelen or Tom Boogaart. I come away from their writing more informed and concerned about the ecological crisis we are in. I am onboard. If I sound like I’m trying to differentiate myself from them, or that I’m critical of or uneasy with those who are more dedicated to caring for creation, then I’ve missed my target. I’m not suggesting that environmentalists are naive, soft, or corrupting Christ’s message. Instead, I’m wondering — genuinely asking — does being a hard-nosed Calvinist who sees the struggle and brutality of nature make you a different sort of environmentalist?

All this all feels similar to a juncture I work more often — the wisdom tradition versus eschatological ethics. The wisdom tradition rises out of the earth. It gives shape to the practical, the daily, the ordinary, the sustainable, and balanced. Yet it can seem tame and prosaic, even an excuse for selfishness and feathering one’s nest. In contrast, eschatological ethics come from beyond, are bold, disruptive, and urgent, sometimes appearing foolhardy and short-lived. While I have always leaned toward eschatological ethics, over time I’ve learned much from the subtle goodness of wisdom. A line that was blurry to begin with, has only become more so.

What I think I’m trying to do is preserve the “otherness” of grace. Grace may come to us in nature, but even more, it stands beyond nature, and everything else. And grace is always linked, sometimes obviously, other times subtly, to Jesus.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

10 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Not overdrawn at all, especially your last line. Plus your closing paragraphs remind me of the tension between wisdom and prophecy that Von Rad points to in his great final book Wisdom in Israel. And you offer one more reason to move away from the Kuyperian supposed “ground-motive” of scripture, i.e,. Creation-Fall-Redemption. And neither are you denying the poetry of Mary Oliver, who is honest about the death-dealing owl. Thanks for this very deep meditation.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      In the Bible, nature and creation are to be distinguished. There’s a marvelous little intro to the Bible (a CRC production) called “They Shall Be My People,” by the late John Timmer, in which his important theme of the chaos and danger of nature that God’s creation pushes against to make safety, room, and space for life. And this push is not just in Genesis but through all subsequent salvation. In a similar way the late Dutch theologian Oepke Noordmans understood creation as God’s work of dividing and setting boundaries and limits (and judging) in nature. One related question is whether the text of Genesis itself understands God’s creation as “ex nihilo.” In the Bible, creatio tends to be positive where natura is negative. Creation is always God’s active, gracious, Spirit-filling work within nature and often against nature in order, eschatologically, to heal nature. Creation itself should be understood eschatologically, not sufficient in itself.

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Steve, condolences on the death of your father in law. This is the type of essay that makes me want to drop everything and get my thoughts down on (virtual) paper. I am not a theologian but I probably have what folks in this space would recognize as a blue-blooded CRC background so I am not sure I am the “hard-nosed Calvinist” you are wondering about. But, I am struck by the dichotomy in your framing, Christianity verses Nature. I think that is an important problem. My Calvinist background pushes me to think about living and working in Creation from the point of view of a creature who is embedded in it and dependent on it and seeking a redemption of the entirety of it. More to say, but that’s where I’m heading. Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Tim and Dan, thanks for your thoughtful replies, especially to an admittedly convoluted post. Even as I was writing I kept wondering if I was falling into the binary trap. A or B, A versus B, when it probably isn’t that clear and simple. I also welcome the notion that as Reformed people we see ourselves as dependent, embedded, relational, a creature. Yes. I think this may be why I’ve always been a little wary of the concept of the “imago dei” — as setting us too far apart and above and distinctive from all the other creatures.

    • Tom Ackerman says:

      Tim, I am late to the comments, but wanted to applaud your comment. I agree with your concern about the framing the issue as Christianity vs. Nature or, similarly, Humans vs. Nature. Perhaps it is our vocation of environmental sciences that stresses the view of being part of, not other than, nature writ large. I look forward to the more that you have to say.

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    Steve,

    I have been pondering your questions: Does being a hard-nosed Calvinist who sees the struggle and brutality of nature make you a different sort of environmentalist? [In thinking that ] we are making a fuller, more balanced gospel, do we open the door to sanctioning the cruelty and competition of nature?

    One way to begin to respond to such important questions is to bring as many texts we can to bear on them. I find that a number of important texts have not been given their due; I am thinking of what might be termed the “glory” texts. The notion of glory is central to both testaments, and the early confession, the world is full of the glory of God, was Israel’s definitive statement about the spiritual significance of the created order–as well as the related confession, the world is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

    Glory was their word for fecundity, fullness, abundance. The created order is fecund, a magnificent proliferation of life forms. The various systems are at one and the same time symbiotic and parasitic, both in their own ways contributing to the proliferation of life. There was no clear line drawn between life and death in Israel’s view of nature, only a movement towards abundance, if the people joined with God to preserve the integrity of the created order. The abundance was contingent, dependent on the regard of God and of human beings.

    These are just some early reflections on your two important questions.

    Tom

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Love this conversation! Is nature cruel/competitive or cooperative is a current debate outside theological circles, too. Here’s a beautiful essay on the “wood wide web” that considers that question: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/02/magazine/tree-communication-mycorrhiza.html
    Turns out that scientific inquiry is (surprise) historically embedded into larger philosophical assumptions. It does seem from Job especially that God enjoys the wildness and fecundity of the more-than-human creation, not just the pretty flowers and happy fields. I’m not sure what to do with the fact that death/decay IS life in nature. Is that a cyclical fact that our eschatological destination will move beyond? Is that an imprint of redemption?

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