Creation is, in a certain sense, one gigantic sacramental created by God, at least in part, in order to communicate his love to us. In her beauty, we see something of the beauty of her Creator; in her vastness, something of his immensity; in her complexity, something of his creativity; in her power, something of his power.
Yet, our modern culture is caught between two extremes of oversimplification.
On the one side is the atheist who says, “Yeah, and in nature’s cruelty, wantonness, and death I see the non-existence of her Creator.” On the other side is the New Ager who claims, not only that Creation is sacred but that it is our Mother Goddess.
The atheistic oversimplification has led to the great atheistic enterprises of the 20th Century and the attempt to Write Our Own Destiny. The Atheist says, in essence, “Look! There is Evil! Therefore God is evil or unreal. Everything is just Matter and Energy going through their mindless paces. All meaning is imposed on the idiotic face of Nature by the human mind, which is itself an accident.”
Yet, the atheist’s case is not all that simple. There remains the ongoing sense that-somehow-Nature means something. Not “means” in the sense that it is a rhebus or a puzzle which, properly deciphered, spells out The Meaning of Life, but “means” in the sense that, for all its pointlessness, waste and death, it is difficult to shake the sense that it does not explain itself-that its principle of existence is found Somewhere Else or in Something-or Someone-Else. Nature might better be described as the Shattered Mirror of God.
This sense becomes even sharper when we pass from looking at non-human nature to human nature. We are incorrigible Meaning-Seekers. We make moral judgments as naturally as water flows downhill. And we alone do it. Indeed, even atheists do it. No other creature cries “Foul” when its rights are trampled. No Coalition of British Cattle arose to protest the recent mass slaughter of hoof and mouth victims. It remained for the only creature in the world who cares about Justice-homo sapiens-to speak for animals who can’t care about Justice. Only humans demand rights for other animals.
And so, paradoxically, even those non-believing humans who wouldn’t be caught dead in a field with those of us who say we are made in the image of God and are utterly unique among the animal kingdom nonetheless bear inadvertent witness to this truth by their very attempts to complain about Nature’s (or God’s) “cruelty” or to secure “animal rights” and to fight against the primacy of the human race on this planet. Whether we want to admit it or not, we humans stand out from the background of the rest of nature in our capacity for creativity, in our ability to love, in our ability to hate, in our sense of (and defiance of) moral goodness, and in a million other ways.
In doing that, we give a hint that Nature might, like us, somehow be spoiled or damaged and that the images it gives us are fragmentary and incomplete due to this damage, just as we are fragmentary and incomplete due to the damage we all seem to have suffered. Humanity adds a new dimension to the sense that things are “about” something and are not just stuff that happens. As Nature is a shattered mirror, so we are the broken image of God.
It is right about here that our culture comes up against the second oversimplification. It is broadly summed up by the New Age Movement which understands that Nature is more than just atoms and energy, but has no clear idea of what that “more” is. So, our culture often rushes to deify Nature and to mistake its sacramental nature for a sacred one, as though Nature were a Goddess.
And so we rush between Carl Sagan denying that there is anything sacred and Julia Butterfly Hill insisting that Luna the Redwood is divine and our very existence is an assault on Mother Earth.
As Catholics we need to present the reality: that nature is a good, though damaged, sign from God; that we are also the good, though damaged by sin, image of that God, and that sanity is found neither in denigrating nor in deifying Nature, but in recognizing in her a sister creation, rather than a mother goddess. Nature is our fellow creature, damaged by our sin and spoiled by the malice of the devil (as well as subjected to futility by her Creator, lest we be even more tempted to worship her [Romans 8:19-21]). It awaits, not our annihilation, nor our heedless exploitation, but “the revealing of the sons of God.”