Nature Amnesia and “Body Building”: How the Church might Help

Must be a boring party… Photo used under Creative Commons License.

I was walking from one dorm building to another to meet up with some friends a few winters ago, fresh snow falling thickly as I crossed the courtyard.  I was texting one of these friends when I abruptly collided with a white van…a parked vehicle. I quickly looked around to make sure no one had seen me walk into the van, when I noticed that someone was sitting in the driver’s seat!  I might have imagined it, but I think he was laughing.  Mortified, I hurried away, vowing to pay better attention in the future.

We (Americans) are more disconnected from the physical world than ever before, with a host of complex ramifications.  Today’s children spend more than two hours every day watching TV and  playing computer games, not including how much time they spend on cell phones.  Increasingly our entertainment comes from a digital source rather than outdoor activities.  Also, fewer of us have access to natural areas.  As of 2014, Over half the world’s population lives in an urban setting, and the percentage of city-dwellers will continue increasing.   So not only do we choose to watch instead of walk and surf the Web instead of surfing the waves, half of us live in an area of limited opportunity to experience God’s creation.  One result of this separation is that we have forgotten, as a society and as individuals, that God’s creation is a gift we all must actively, intentionally steward.

Nature Amnesia
Navy officer keeping in shape: treadmill, headphones, and a TV included. Creative Commons License.

Speaking from a millennial American perspective, we have lost much of what was common knowledge to our grandparents: how to grow a garden; how to identify the birds at the feeder or the trees in the woodlot; how to reuse, fix or otherwise re-purpose just about anything.  Today, most (okay, really more like ALL) of our food is grown and even cooked for us.  Birds and trees are barely noticeable background objects in our commutes to work, our indoor exercise regimens, and our unexplored backyards.  We are accustomed to throwing away anything that is not in pristine condition and buying a replacement.

This type of separation could be classified as a disruption in heritage: technology has so changed our lives that much of the “know-how” our parents or grandparents have to pass down is irrelevant.  However, technological advancements do not change the fact that everything comes from God through his provision in creation: soil feeds agriculture and forests that provide our food and building materials; oceans and lakes and rivers provide fish, seafood, minerals and water…I could go on for hours.  We’re separated from the visceral knowledge of creation’s absolute importance in our lives.  Dr. Peter Kahn Jr., ecopsychologist at the University of Washington, has researched this disconnect extensively, and you can hear him explain why we are losing what it means for an ecosystem to be healthy.  We have “nature amnesia.”

Our amnesia comes at a most inopportune time: creation needs us to pay attention, because God’s world is suffering.  But how can we remember again, in a way that is feasible today and sustainable in the long run (very few of us would ever completely give up using the Internet, a cell phone, or grocery shopping)?  One idea is to leverage our technology to bring nature to people in the city by projecting images of endangered species onto buildings.  The Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS) displayed whales, sea turtles, and more onto the UN building in New York City on September 20, 2014, hoping to emotionally move people who probably don’t think about species going extinct very often.  Nature documentaries like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom fill a similar purpose in displaying the beauty and danger of creation from far away places, and teaching us about ecology and the environment.

Have you ever seen anything so adorable in your life?? This is a Pallas’s cat, native to Asia, and is declining as a result of habitat destruction. Creative Common License.

Ideally, our acute case of nature amnesia would be cured by a good dose of watching cheetah moms take care of their kits, or listening to the songs of a blue whale, and we would do something about the destruction of rainforests, watersheds, and coral reefs.  At a more local scale, we would take greater care of our local flora and fauna, because deep calls to deep.  But that’s not our reality.  Eve Andrews, writing for Grist on the OPS event in New York, laments,

“The fate of the planet rests on the actions of a species that largely does not care about whether other plants or animals live or die, because we are so far removed from them in our day-to-day lives…The best hope that they have for survival is for their images to be virtually dangled in front of our eyes: Hello! Here we are! Please don’t let us die!”¹

It’s depressing, because it might be true.  Our level of care about who flourishes in God’s world is glaringly obvious.  But is it something that can be changed?  Who will help us care more, and how will it be done?

Body Building

This is where, for the Christ followers in the room, we should be like the straight-A student who always has the answer to the teacher’s question, both hands raised in the air, imploring, “pick me, pick me!”

The Church, the body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), commissioned by Jesus Christ to go forth and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), is God’s chosen agent of reconciliation in the world (2 Corinthians 5).  The Church is frequently referred to in Scripture as a single body with many parts (Romans 12 is perhaps most famous); in keeping with the metaphor, perhaps the Church’s creation care discipleship muscle has gone flabby and weak, compromised by the influence of materialism, politics, and other idols.

Consultation Communion
Lausanne Creation Care consultation members taking communion together.

Now you understand the pun of “body building”: the Church exercising fully that creation care muscle through rigorous theological inquiry into humanity’s role as steward of the earth, as well as a practical, day-to-day living out of stewardship principles.  What might result from Christ followers working their creation care muscles?

Sometimes, it’s statements and calls to action: important documents to orient and unify us.

Organizations and nonprofits are formed by those with an increased passion for creation care in order to spur on their brothers and sisters to take seriously our call to be stewards.  We have a list of some such organizations on the right.

All the statements, calls to action and organizations in the world are not enough to change people’s hearts, though; they are human inventions just as technology is, and we know that ultimately we cannot save the world any more than we can save ourselves.  They are tools that we wield for great good, or for not-so-good.

At the root of this entire post is our human disconnect from God and his good creation.  And so, I humbly submit that we start off by repenting of our not-caring for the world we live in and depend on for our entire lives.  Then, may we take steps forward (for many of you, you’ve been walking this journey many years, but there are always more steps to take!) to caring more.  Utilize tools that you have on hand: check out the documents listed above, read Eve’s article on Grist, and open your Bible to Genesis 1.

Here are a couple more exercises to work your creation care muscles:

  • grow to love your place through taking walks in your neighborhood, stopping every so often to listen and be still.
  • Reflect on the importance of farming and cultivating food while fasting for a day;
  • likewise, reflect on opportunities to love God and your neighbors by fasting from individual commuting by car (walk, carpool, ride your bike or take public transit instead)
  • take your devotionals outside.

How would you like to see the Church (that includes you and me!) addressing “nature amnesia?
Comment below!