The Ecology of Salvation


In the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, Christ initiates the ministry of the apostles by way of a miracle:

And it came to pass, that when the multitudes pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Genesareth, and saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. And going into one of the ships that was Simon’s, he desired him to draw back a little from the land. And sitting he taught the multitudes out of the ship. Now when he had ceased to speak, he said to Simon: Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said to him: Master, we have labored all the night, and have taken nothing: but at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had done this, they enclosed a very great multitude of fishes, and their net broke. And they beckoned to their partners that were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they were almost sinking. Which when Simon Peter saw, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying: Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was wholly astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken. And so were also James and John the sons of Zebedee, who were Simon’s partners. And Jesus saith to Simon: Fear not: from henceforth thou shalt catch men. And having brought their ships to land, leaving all things, they followed him.  (Luke 5:1-11)

Jesus knew that to fishermen such as these, there was no more certain or profound way to move their hearts than to show them what the Son of Man — the very author of nature Himself — could do. A night’s mortal labors spent in vain could be eclipsed in an instant by a divine word. But the apostles did not choose this moment to murmur gratitude to the mysterious newcomer and hurriedly haul their impossible catch to the market for sale; they instead left “all things” — including their unexpected bounty — and “followed him.”

In the 21st century, the only catch-related news from the lake of Genesareth (known also as the Sea of Galilee) is that it has been over-fished. In 2010, the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development issued a two-year ban on fishing the waters once worked so diligently by Simon Peter, James, and John. And this is to the good, for proper care of the world we live in and the resources at our disposal are an appropriate manifestation of our gratitude to God for what has been given to us. From God’s placement of Adam in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it (Gen. 2:15) to the Parable of the Talents (Mt. 25:14-30), we are reminded throughout public revelation that stewardship of Creation is one of man’s great responsibilities.

But in our modern world, it has become a common practice — particularly among those who have replaced the real transcendence of God with an imagined transcendence of nature — to transform stewardship from a cultivated virtue into an esoteric idol. It is a dogma of this perverse ideology that Creation — a gift given to man for his use — should now be elevated above Man, even at the cost of human lives or their immortal souls. What is forgotten — or perhaps more honestly, rejected — is the reality set forth by the Divine Hand: Man was meant not just to tend and keep the Garden, but to “increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth” (Gen 1:28). The newly-minted apostles at Galilee understood then what we seem to have lost sight of now: the fish in their nets were important, but only insofar as they were useful to men. The soul of one man, however, was of far greater worth than boatfuls of nets filled to bursting.

Christ was full of earthy metaphors and parables, directed at a people who lived outdoors, who tended animals and plants and used their hands to work the soil. Because of their connection to the land, they understood what it meant when He told them that “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” that grew from something tiny into the “greatest of shrubs” (Mt. 13:31-32). It made sense to them when He taught them to trust in Divine Providence for their basic needs of food and clothing by way of reference to the unearned bounty enjoyed by birds and the unrivaled beauty of wild flowers (Mt. 6:26-33).

Their familiarity with nature also helped them to unpack the meaning of His words about good and evil. Sin entered the world by the illicit taking of fruit from the tree at the center of the Garden of Eden, and Man himself is to be judged, according to Our Lord, by the same criteria we would apply to fruit-bearing flora under our own care (Mt. 7:16-20).

In another instance, Our Incarnate God likens Himself and the faithful to grape-laden vines, reminding us that the branches which offer no bounty will be pruned and thrown into the fire. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself,” He tells us, “unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” (Jn. 15:1-6)

The Bible offers so many parables drawn from observations of the environment that I could not hope to adequately summarize them here. These images of plants and gardens, flowers and fowl, fruit and trees and wheat and weeds create a tapestry of theological thought that could rightly be described as the “ecology of salvation.” Far from encouraging an understanding of nature as sacred, however, Christ uses these illustrations of His followers’ close acquaintance with the natural world to elevate their understanding and illuminate sublime and supernatural realities. It is His purpose to convey by ecological allegory the importance of Man at the center of all Creation – and his ultimate purpose, which is eternal beatitude. The “grass of the field,” Christ says, “is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven.” This is offered not as a lamentation of combustion-based emissions, but as a point of contrast to the soul of Man, which will never die, and is far more precious than these things of the Earth.

Indeed, as He breaks from parable and makes clear to us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Mt. 24:35)

It is undeniable that Mankind and Creation are inextricably intertwined. We were not merely placed in this world, but were in fact formed from its substance (Gen. 2). And yet, we are told time and again that it is Satan who is the ruler and “god” of this world, (Jn. 12:31, Jn. 14:30, 2 Cor. 4:4, Eph. 2:2, Rev. 13:2) and that Christ’s “Kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36). We should enjoy the rich, majestic beauty of our temporal abode, but we should at the same time cultivate a healthy instinct of caution about communing too closely with nature, inasmuch as ours is fallen and the world’s is under the dominion of our mortal enemy.

We are caretakers of a world that is transient, that is both a heavenly creation and a “vale of tears.” It is not our final destination, but a temporary exile from the lesser paradise of Eden as we traverse the via dolorosa and ascend to the greater, golden shores of eternal felicity. Despite the transitory nature of our earthly existence, we are not at liberty to squander what we have been given. We must show gratitude as pious caretakers of our material environs, much like the Benedictines, whose rule of life dictates that they “regard all the utensils of the monastery and its whole property as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.” But we must also be on guard that in so doing we do not become materialists, concerning ourselves more with stewardship than with salvation; with provision than with Parousia. We must avoid the danger of so busying ourselves with the needs of the moment and the care of our surroundings that we become immanentists, for it was Mary, not Martha, who chose the better part. (Lk. 10:38-42)

We must also avoid arrogating to ourselves a false impression of our own power over Creation. This is the path to hubris. We will not succeed in dismantling our world where nature has failed to do so. The Earth has weathered millennia of forces far greater than mankind has yet mustered; the Earth has been rocked by tens of thousands of volcanic explosions, bears the scars of landscape-altering ice ages and floods, has survived the impact of asteroids the size of human cities, and has endured earthquakes and tsunamis and tectonic shifts. What we have thrown at it through our consumption and creation has been relatively little, and this for but a scant period of time.

We should also remember a certainty that works against an undue preoccupation with conservation: the world will be destroyed, but not by our hands. This is a truth divinely revealed, and we may be certain that it shall not come to pass until the time willed by nature’s God. And it is not His desire that we concern ourselves too deeply with preserving the Earth from ruin, but rather that we apply our utmost care to the sanctification of our immortal souls:

They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:5-13)

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