Gary Gardner is a writer on issues of faith and sustainability. His latest book is The Earth Cries Out: How Faith Communities Meet the Challenges of Sustainability. He is a member of Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Arlington, VA.
The great Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote that to save our endangered environment, we must forge an emotional bond between ourselves and nature, for “we will not fight to save what we do not love.” We will not fight to save what we do not love.
Much of the vast damage inflicted on our planet has occurred, arguably, because we have fallen out of love with nature. Industrial development of the past two centuries, for all its benefits, has taught us to view the natural world as a warehouse of resources. Forests are so many board-feet of lumber, for example. Expanses of meadowland are potential shopping malls, and rivers are pipelines to farms and thirsty cities. This utilitarian stance does not generate the emotional bond that Stephen Jay Gould advocated, the attitude of reverence that teaches us to live in harmony with our planet.
So how can we learn to love nature if this was not part of our early formation? Perhaps surprisingly, our Judeo-Christian tradition can help. Laudato Si' and its environmental ethos, far from being a new Christian concern, is as old as our faith itself; it sees nature as a sacred expression of God’s love.
We hear that expression in our Scriptures as far back as Genesis, where the very setting for God’s creation is a garden of overflowing abundance. We hear it in Psalm 65 and in the Canticle of Daniel, which calls out the waters, the sun and moon, and the stars of heaven to bless the Lord. In our Scriptures, nature is a sacred gift and a bridge to God.
Beyond Scripture, the Franciscan family offers rich resources that can deepen in us a love of God’s Creation. Consider St. Francis himself, who uses poetry to articulate the beauty of Creation, speaking intimately of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” for example. For Francis the elements of nature are family, so deep is his love for them. Can we imagine approaching nature with the same reverence?
Or consider the teachings of another Franciscan, St. Bonaventure, who builds on Francis’ poetry with theological insights that can deepen our love of Creation. Bonaventure begins with the Trinity, describing the Father, Son, and Spirit as a God of communication and relationship whose idiom is love. But their dialogue of love is not a conversation confined to themselves. No, they share their love generously, speaking out to the universe. In this way, the universe—Creation — can be understood as the speech of God, an outward expression of God’s love.
Take that in. Creation is the speech of God. Chirping songbirds, gurgling streams, wind whistling through trees—God speaks to us! Even the quiet miracles of emerging leaves and germinating seeds speak to us deeply, if we pause and invite them in.
Bonaventure is not finished. If Creation is the speech of God, doesn’t nature become another way of understanding the Word of God? Bonaventure thought so. The Franciscan-authored book Care for Creation explains that for Bonaventure, the natural world is a companion to Scripture in expressing the Word of God. Indeed, every creature can be thought of as a “little Word” of God. Think about that on your next outing: squirrels, finches, wind, water — each a little Word of God.
In short, loving nature becomes organic once we see nature as God’s communication to us. We receive God’s generous outpouring to us, and we respond in kind, through our love of the natural world.
Indeed, if we understand nature as God’s self-communication to us, we might adopt new practices that reinforce our love of nature. Daily walks become not just exercise, but a chance to exult in the natural world, where every moment is an entrypoint and invitation to experience God.
Our consumption habits might change: appreciating nature as gift, consumption becomes not merely the pursuit of pleasure, but a mindful appreciation of the gifts God has given us. We might extend our habit of grace before meals to broader patterns of consumption, similar to the practice of the Tlingit people of Alaska: before harvesting forest resources, they give thanks for them and promise to use only as much as they need. Imagine such resource consciousness in our daily life—expressing gratitude and promising sobriety every time we flip a light switch or reach for the car keys. Wouldn’t this engender in us a greater reverence for Creation?
Whether our effort to love and protect the Earth is expressed as a greened prayer life, a mindfulness of lifestyle, or greater commitment to Earth advocacy, energy for the work can be found in a warm and consoling truth: that God loves us through Creation itself, in a never-ending generosity that sustains us each moment. How could our response be anything but love in return?