For believers, that question should be easy to answer, especially if you mean, “What use is any animal or plant to humans?” with the implication that an animal’s only worth is in its service to us. That idea contradicts the message about the value of God’s creation. Though many Christians may be unaware of, or ignore, it, the traditional Christian view is that all creation is sacred precisely because it is, through the evolutionary process, God’s work.
I must admit I haven’t always seen it this way. Like many Christians who should know better from Scripture and tradition, I was, at best, indifferent about the natural world. I think what got me to think more about it was an experience I had years ago in Ireland.
Gerald Waris, my lifelong friend, and I were staying in the house of an acquaintance in County Kerry. Dan (known locally as “the Derd”) O’Shea, a sixty-something who kept a watch on the place for his absentee cousin, was showing us around. We entered the bathroom and in the sink was a huge, black spider. I found a magazine and was about to dispatch the spider to spider heaven when Dan grabbed my arm. He gently lifted the insect and took it to the door where he released it to the magnificent Kerry countryside.
I was stunned. Dan, a Mass-attending Catholic bachelor who raised cows and occasionally other livestock, understood better than me – a priest at the time with a graduate degree in religion – that something as lowly and seemingly useless as a spider has intrinsic value. It helped me think more about the sanctity of creation, and now I kill roaches and other household insects only when I can’t turn them loose outside. More importantly, I’ve become aware of environmental issues and am eager to protect the natural world.
I’m thinking about this currently because I’ve begun reading “Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love” by Elizabeth Johnson. For those of you unfamiliar with her, Johnson is a Catholic nun and professor of theology at Fordham University in New York City. She has been head of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society, but has been criticized for being a “feminist theologian.” A committee of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops has criticized her for not conforming sufficiently to Catholic teaching in one of her books.
We have the image of the earth as “our home,” Johnson points out, but humans are in the minority by an overwhelming margin. According to the FactMaster web site, there are between two million and 50 million species of plants and animals.
Johnson’s book sets out to answer this principal question: “…What is the theological meaning of the natural world?
“This world evolved in all its splendor without human help,’’ she writes. “It was the context in which the human species itself evolved, and daily provides irreplaceable nourishment for human bodies and spirits. In our day, its future is in jeopardy due to human action and inaction, destructive behavior shot through with a disastrous failure of our vaunted intelligence and virtue.
“…Far from being made only for human use,” she writes, “these living species have an intrinsic value in their own right. Once one understands that the evolving community of life on earth is God’s beloved creation and its ruination an unspeakable sin, then deep affection shown in action on behalf of ecojustice becomes an indivisible part of one’s life.”
Presumably, that applies even to big, black spiders. You’ll be hearing more about Johnson’s book in future blogs.
My fellow believers and I could be partially excused for our blindness in seeing value in the natural world, perhaps, because we have heard precious little about it from our religious leaders. But that’s changing, as evidenced by many recent statements of Pope Francis.
In a message to the Vatican diplomatic corps in May, he said: “Creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is it the property of only a few. Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.”
He condemned “…the greedy exploitation of environmental resources. Even if ‘nature is at our disposition,’ all too often we do not respect it or consider it a gracious gift which we must care for and set at the service of our brothers and sisters, including future generations.”
Concern about the natural world is not on the periphery of faith but is at its core, a rational deduction from belief in God as the author of all life.
“We are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation,” Pope Francis said in an address on World Environment Day last year. “The implications of living in a horizontal manner [is that] we have moved away from God; we no longer read His signs.”
Searchers for God should know that efforts to preserve and protect the natural world are an essential part of faith. When and if they become believers, they should be involved in the public forum on the environment, including those about climate change. You can argue about which group of scientists knows best, but in my view, you can’t argue against preserving and protecting creation.
The “person close to me” mentioned at the beginning of this blog, by the way, is a prime example of someone who consistently lives her faith. Despite her question, her respect and love for God’s creation is a model for anyone searching for God.