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Tending Creation, Loving Neighbor, Honoring God

R&L: Why did you choose the title, The Virgin and the Dynamo, for your book on religion and environmentalism?

Royal: I was looking for a vivid image of the apparent conflict in our modern deliberations over religion and the environment; in fact, we see the same conflict in trying to think through how modern science might be harmonized with our spiritual traditions. I found just the right image in the American historian Henry Adams’s Autobiography, where one of his chapters is titled, “The Dynamo and the Virgin.” Adams’s is a curious case. Though not a Roman Catholic, he saw that something irreplaceable had been lost by the West’s loss of the Virgin, by which he meant the whole set of beliefs and practices associated in the Middle Ages with a figure such as Our Lady of Chartres: beauty, emotional uplift, and a religious appreciation of nature. The Dynamo (Adams’s term for the emerging world of science and technology, as well as the largely utilitarian approach to problems they brought with them) was not something Adams deplored. He believed that knowledge of the physical world and the economic systems that made material advances available to a growing part of the population was a definite gain. In fact, he regretted not having studied science sufficiently to understand it better. At the same time, he was torn; he wanted the modern benefits but wished the older values of the Virgin could be somehow preserved. It is a tension we all live with today, and that was what I wanted to suggest in the title.

R&L: In discussions about the environment, the words nature, creation, world, wilderness, and even environment are used interchangeably. Should they be distinguished?

Royal: The fact that we have so many different terms in play indicates that we are simultaneously thinking about several things that need to be distinguished. Let me start with environment, a technical term that suggests the way scientists talk about organisms living in an environment. That approach is fine for plants and animals, but, for human beings, it is inadequate. Physically, we live in an environment; yet human beings do more than respond to environmental stimuli. As the American novelist Walker Percy once pointed out, human beings, properly speaking, live in a world. A human world contains many things that natural science–despite its best efforts–cannot account for. To take just one example, we value things and make judgments of right and wrong. Science, which professes to be value-free, is forbidden to do that. Thus, when we think about creation, we inevitably bring our notions about the Creator into play. Even when we talk about nature, we may mean either something like the environment or the physical world plus those values that Henry Adams talked about.

Wilderness is the oddest concept of all. It suggests the desire of some for an “unspoiled” natural setting, but only because we find in that notion a value that, in some circumstances, we think important. Confusion about religion and environmentalism–the sheer difficulty of the subject aside–usually stems from the way people use one or more of these terms in discussion.

R&L: In your view, what is the essential insight that biblical religion brings to questions of man’s place in the world and his obligations to it?

Royal: For believers in the biblical tradition, the fact that our world is a creation alters everything. If we acknowledge that God created the world and human beings for his own purposes, nature takes on both a higher and a lower status. It becomes higher in that God clearly is communicating something of himself to us through the world. The old theologians believed nature was one of two books of revelation, the other being the Bible.

At the same time, the Bible warns against worshiping nature, not merely because in both ancient and modern times it often becomes a substitute for the true God, but because it also leads to neglect and sometimes mistreatment of our fellow men. Hitler, for instance, believed he was returning to nature (he was a vegetarian), but he thought the law of nature was, as we sometimes see in mere environments, the survival of the fittest and the rule of the stronger over the weaker. Nature is clearly not a model for human societies in that respect.

R&L: In your book, you argue that a way toward greater clarity in environmental thinking is through revitalized reflection on the doctrine of Creation. What should be the contours of such a project?

Royal: I try to make clear that when we begin to study God’s creation in earnest, we find not a static but a dynamic and developing system that we, as stewards, are not obliged to preserve forever as we find it. The great early-modern scientists understood themselves to be discovering the world that God actually created, not the one people imagined he had created. Our task is, therefore, quite complicated. Our dynamism, creativity, and development, at their best, mirror God’s, which is precisely what we would expect if we take seriously the biblical vision that we are created in God’s image. Of course, human beings may err, behave foolishly, or engage in outright malice, but the first and most important insight we should receive from the Bible is that our human powers need to be directed prudently in order to care for ourselves and for our neighbor, as well as to honor God. Caring for creation honors God and human beings, but it is not always easy to say to what extent seeking one good–say, feeding the hungry around the world–should permit us to accept certain environmental shifts.

R&L: Much environmental sentiment places heavy emphasis on the conflict between nature (often described as pristine nature) and artifice. To your way of thinking, is this a true and helpful distinction?

Royal: You raise one of the most difficult questions in this whole field. As human power has grown, we have begun to realize that there is some way in which so-called pristine nature is a value to us. In the nineteenth century, this realization led the United States to set aside land for preservation. The opposition between the pristine and the artificial, however, is not as neat as it appears. To begin with, as I have already mentioned, human artifice is, its misuse aside, a natural dimension of the world God created. The early phases of industrialization had a heavy impact on the earth. Today, however, our artifice has enabled us to do more with less–for example, growing more food for more people on less land. (And as a consequence, America and Europe have more forests today than they did a century ago.) It seems almost providential that, whatever our impact on ecosystems has been in the past, our instinctive love for wilderness and our cleverness in finding ways to meet human needs with a lighter human footprint were meant by God to lead us simultaneously to better stewardship and to more secure lives.

R&L: How should the theological category of providence affect our view of nature?

Royal: Nature and God’s providence are, in strict theological terms, mysteries. We do not entirely understand why God made the world the way he did. We do know from Genesis that God looked upon creation and pronounced it good. We, therefore, must believe it so. But we also see many “natural” processes that do not appear–to us, at any rate–good: floods, earthquakes, killer asteroids, plagues, famines. In evolutionary terms, the challenges these natural phenomena present have led to higher organisms and more sophisticated human responses. Perhaps they were meant to. At the end of the day, however, we are left with Job’s answer to the question of why “natural evils” exist: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

R&L: In your book, you interact with a variety of religious approaches to thinking about the environment. By and large, where do they go right, and where do they go wrong?

Royal: For me, every approach to the environment that uncovers truth helps, since truth is one of the names of God. We owe a great deal to the early environmental alarmists, for instance, because even though in hindsight they were often wrong in details, they raised some urgent questions for all of us. But, as in most fields, there is a tendency to substitute romantic longing and wishful thinking for the hard-headedness and soft-heartedness that I believe are the only solutions to environmental problems. Many ecologists, for example, seem ready to reduce human population so we can return to a simpler and allegedly better past. Populations are already shrinking in some parts of the world, after spectacular growth due to real human progress. I do not believe that going back to a simpler past is possible, or even desirable. We need to intelligently move forward, not back.

There is also a host of what I think of as false religious responses to environmental issues. We see this most prominently among ecofeminists, Gaia enthusiasts, Deep Ecologists, and environmental justice advocates. There are, of course, valid insights in all of these movements, but, in general, they are deformed by a false nature mysticism and a failure to recognize the evil prevalent throughout the world to which we must respond responsibly.

It is hard to keep the right path. We need the very best science and the very best ethical and spiritual virtues as we go about the environmental task. We will fail at times, but, by and large, we have been doing surprisingly well now that we have recognized the nature of the problem. We need to be careful not to forego incremental gains for the environment for the sake of spiritual claims that usually do not look very carefully at nature. Many religious environmentalists give the impression that if we regain some mystical oneness with nature, all will be well. I find little evidence for such a oneness; we would do better to seek, in fear and trembling, to do the best that we are practically able.

R&L: Once environmental issues have been thought through according to the theological framework you suggest, how should our economics be affected?

Royal: Some very powerful environmental currents pit ecology against economics. I like to point out that they are both sciences of the household (oikos, in Greek). Some industries surely are irresponsible and exploitative, but, by and large, markets will be the path to better environmental behavior. Markets are far more efficient than the alternatives–a fact that the dirty old Soviet system, which had thousands of environmental regulations, proved beyond doubt. This efficiency will save resources. Furthermore, entrepreneurship will carry into every part of the world the technological innovations that will make the human impact on nature lighter. So the ecologist and the entrepreneur will often be found on the same side of the struggle in the future.

R&L: And how should our politics be affected?

Royal: Governments are helpful in enforcing laws that protect one entity from damaging another’s property through pollution. They can also help in setting aside wilderness, simply because most people find it valuable and wish to preserve it for both aesthetic and environmental reasons. Governments can also foster market situations that encourage innovations good for the environment. Regulation, by contrast, has too many unintended consequences, as we have seen in the Endangered Species Act and the absurdities of the Superfund.

R&L: In the course of your book, you strive to make the case for “intelligent development.” How does it differ from “sustainable development”?

Royal: I put God first, human beings second, then nature. Unfortunately, some of the large foundations and international agencies lately have put a straightjacket on practices they deem unsustainable, while people in the developing world languish for lack of food and economic growth. We can afford some unsustainability in certain parts of the world if we intelligently calculate that it can be offset by the overall benefits that accrue.

Anyone happening upon Japan or Hong Kong for the first time, for example, would think that such countries are teetering on the brink of collapse. They do not grow enough food for their people and seem to be overdeveloped in the industrial and economic sectors. They do not collapse, however, because they are wealthy enough to compensate for what might seem to be imbalances by participating in global markets. We need to seize carefully and intelligently the opportunities that exist for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Simply requiring a given area to practice “sustainability” is to neglect some of the intelligence that God has given us.

R&L: You use the biblical concept of wisdom to describe what should be the hallmark of Christian thinking about the environment. What does this entail?

Royal: Wisdom comes from God. No one possesses it absolutely. But, at the very least, wisdom would counsel us to recognize that we cannot solve all problems in this world and that we must often be content with inescapable tradeoffs. So we should say our prayers, sincerely bring all our gifts to the problems at hand, and recognize that success or failure ultimately lies elsewhere. Biblical believers, however, can at least be hopeful, for God does not abandon his people.

R&L: Further, you seem to intimate that the Christian’s posture toward creation should be one of wonder. What form should this take?

Royal: It is an old pagan as well as a biblical concept that wonder at creation is the beginning of wisdom. I think some people living in the very heart of one of our great modern megalopolises may be invaded by wonder, but many also need direct contact with nature and contemplation of its beauties. Almost everyone, for example, feels a certain peacefulness when contemplating the ocean. It may have something to do with our sense of the sea as the physical origin of life on earth. Who knows? But I think it would not hurt for many more people to make time to come into direct contact with nature, God’s other book of revelation. You do not have to hike Yosemite; you might just tend some flowers in your yard.

R&L: I understand that you recently started a new organization, the Faith and Reason Institute. How do you envision this organization playing a role the religious environmental debate?

Royal: As John Paul II has magnificently shown in his recent Encyclical Letter Faith and Reason, these two human traditions desperately need each other. Faith without reason is blind, and reason without faith becomes heartless. In addition, as the pope has pointed out, reason without faith tends to become narrow. One way to read the history of the environment is as a progressive narrowing of our notions of reason to mere instrumental aims. That is largely over now, but we still need faith and reason to be constantly challenging each other to look further into the richness of reality, to appreciate it more exactly. The Faith and Reason Institute will be doing that in a variety of fields, including science and environmentalism. Obviously, it is a big subject, but the perpetual effort to be faithful to everything that we can be and that we can know is the great drama of human life.