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“Ooh” she said, “That one’s my favorite!” She came over and I snapped a cell phone picture of her next to it. One needs to see a Van Gogh painting in person for full effect. More so, one should move in close.

Van Gogh painted in three dimensions, literally and metaphorically. He used vivid colors and fearless brush strokes rendered in layers of thick paint. As you move closer, the intended image disappears and the surface quickens and moves, shimmering a “pulsing animacy” – (a delicious phrase lifted from Robin Wall Kimmerer).

In one of life’s happy accidents, I am collaborating with a professor at Boston University and pre-COVID, business trips to Boston enabled me to hang with my daughter who is completing her degree at another school there. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts deeply discounts admission for students from her school and she takes full advantage. She was my guide.
We were absorbing Van Gogh’s “The Ravine, 1889.”

“Do you see them?”

I didn’t, so she pointed them out. There among the pulsing artistic animacy are two human figures. There, in the center of the frame, seamlessly rendered out of the same colors and same thick paint, the same bold technique but for a few deliberate brush strokes.

I love the painting and I love the memory, and both tumble around in my mind spinning off metaphor and pondering, when the academic taskmaster is asleep at the wheel. I show it to my students to flaunt my liberal arts bone fides and to prompt discussion that squarely is relevant to the science of wildlife conservation: how should we view the position of humans in nature?

I found myself pondering again in the wake of Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell’s recent post (Nature Has its own Religion). In it he contrasts Christianity’s rooting in grace and resurrection with nature’s “brutality, harshness, and competitiveness.” Steve wrote a thoughtful essay, indeed it is a gift to read something that forces one to search for insight or to get the pondering to tumble less and gel more.

I’m no theologian and given the theological sophistication in the The Twelve’s blog posts and commentary, it’s a little intimidating to weigh in. But, nature’s “brutality, harshness, and competitiveness” is pretty much my academic specialty. My first impulse was to make the argument that Steve’s “hard-nosed Calvinist” is no less isolated from or culpable for the brutality, harshness, and competitiveness in nature than are the wild wolves I study.

Probably more.

But what struck me was the otherness of the framing, Christianity (and by implication, humanity) on one side versus nature on the other with the two in opposition. And Steve doesn’t own that worldview. From my vantage, that’s the dominant view in the wider North American culture – including among most Christians I’ve encountered.

And truthfully, it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve interrogated my own environmentalist thoughts and found it still lurking. I was taught a faith that marinated for centuries in strict enlightenment dualism. Elements of it crossed over on the Mayflower and likely motivated my Frisian ancestors to seek to make a life in Sioux County just after the Sioux people were forced out. It’s our foundational myth, righteous pioneers conquering the hostile and empty wilderness with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other.

It’s as if we’ve taken Van Gogh’s painting and nailed a GI Joe and a Barbie doll (the white versions) right in the middle of the canvas. Nature, properly dominated, is a pleasant background but it is only the backdrop to the heroic (and distorted) view we have of ourselves.

That’s a practical problem as well as a theological problem. We wealthy North American types are driving a climate crisis and an extinction spasm that is sinful in the injustices it forces on the poor of this world and our non-human kin to say nothing of the way it aggressively insults our Creator.

Do we not see it or do we not care?

I’ve grown frustrated that western Christianity has only an anemic and simplistic theology of creation that largely shields us from our responsibility for it. If forced to confront our responsibility we fall back on our distorted privileged position. If called to account, we play the “God is sovereign, He’ll fix it if he wants to” card so we can get back to the party.

To be sure, there are Christian scholars and theologians pushing for a robust theology of creation, and I’ve met and interacted with some of them during a decade plus of teaching at the Au Sable Institute and there are hopeful signs like scholarship behind 2019’s Beyond Stewardship… which takes on the problem of humanity’s view of itself.

Despite a few wise people working very hard, as near as I can tell, providing Christian leadership and creativity (or a prophetic voice) on the most pressing problem on the planet remains only a boutique concern.

But we can’t get there if our starting point is a distorted view of ourselves and our separateness from nature, a view that likely is intertwined with the same Eurocentric worldview that Charles and Rah find behind the heresies that devalued black and indigenous people. White Christians resolved the moral tension in their treatment of enslaved black people by turning them into commodities. There’s a parallel there in how we westerners resolve the moral tension in our abuse of nature – and the cascading injustices that follow.

A robust theology of creation would be one of interconnection and interdependence and respect of intrinsic value.

There’s urgent work to do. Last week, I put several of these ideas in front of thoughtful Christian colleagues, including a Calvinist I know (says so right on his University). But for all the fearlessness and rigor of his scholarship, he is anything but hard-nosed. Even so, it was good to be with them pushing in similar directions.

Somehow, we need to take G.I. Joe and Barbie down to find the two humbler figures there all the while, still at the center where the artist put them, though of the same stuff — but for a few deliberate brush strokes.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    This is marvelous, really. Do you know the amazing book, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism, by Mark Stoll? Great historical and interpretive stuff on the Calvinist roots of American environmentalism all through its various phases. How the painters Church and Cole pictured humans in the landscape. Muir as well.
    Might I add a further thought? It’s not just a doctrine of Creation that’s at issue, but also three more doctrines that have to be more robust: First, the Power of the Resurrection, and what that means for the future of the whole created and natural world in general, not just individual humans. Second, the doctrine of the Second Coming, and what that means for the earth and plants and animals (if it’s just the temporary landing of Jesus in order to extract the saints to heaven and send the sinners to hell, well, then, to hell with the earth and the animals. And then third, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and how much the Holy Spirit loves creation, and physical things, and bodies, and bread and wine, and water, and oil (see Eugene Peters’ book After the Spirit), because the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life. Not just spiritual life, but life itself, as the Holy Spirit knitting together those first chains of RNA out of the primordial soup and breathed her breath into them to animate them.

    • Timothy Van Deelen says:

      Thank you Daniel. I intend to add Stoll’s book to my reading list. I appreciate the thoughts about expanding the scope of theological thinking in understanding our place in it. I feel like I am facing a steep learning curve.

  • Beverly VanderMolen says:

    And you say you’re not a theologian?
    Beautiful truth!

  • Pamela E. Adams says:

    Your love of Vincent Van Gogh and your love and respect of the Creation are wonderful to read. Thank you.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Keep “preaching,” Tim – the Church needs your voice badly. Thank you.
    And yours too, Dan!

  • Peter Boogaart says:

    Van Deelen is right of course.
    We are cut off from nature by this well-established Western thought experiment of truth by separation.
    Truth has become the smallest indivisible component of matter.
    That works well as the scientific method and its discipline of intentional, carful observation.
    We lost the battle, of course, when the method itself became the subject of fascination.

    Christians, of all people, should have a better grasp on his dynamic of separation from reality and truth.
    Our confessions are all about the reversal of separation.
    Our personal testimonies are documentation of return to wholeness.

    I object to the transactional appeals of some Creation Care advocates.
    Their embrace of stewardship is essentially a cold substitute for love: God orders us to care for nature. I’m OK either way, I’m just obeying orders.
    Creation Care is to embrace a full relationship with the Creator.
    Creation Care is coming home.

  • Jeffrey Ploegstra says:

    So…. where in our education do we promote this? Science is too frequently associated with a pragmatic and career oriented curriculum, when at its heart, it is curiosity, encounter, awe, and fascination. The aesthetic of science needs some space in our curricula. I highly recommend a little bouma-prediger as mandatory reading in Christian colleges alongside some hiking, drawing, picture-taking, excursions into wilderness.

  • Phillip Boogaart says:

    Really enjoyed your article. So much of the history we were taught in school, and so much of theology we were immersed in seem as quicksand .

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