One of the cultural markers of our era is a heightened interest in ecology and in the natural world. This manifests itself in a variety of ways, from advocacy for public policy changes such as the Green New Deal, to an obsession with natural foods, and to the ever growing interest in outdoor recreational activities.
Ironically however, the modern world seems to prefer to love the natural world from a distance and only as long as we can control it, choosing to quickly retreat back in to our man-made controlled environments whenever nature becomes less than convenient. What’s more, we have grown so accustomed to our ability to alter what is natural, that we rarely consider anymore how doing so has altered our thinking, our ethics, and even our spirituality. As our modern world has grown more and more removed or insulated from regular contact with raw nature, it has altered our views on personhood, and on the reality of suffering.
Not long ago, most of the people who lived in this country were either farmers, or, if they lived in cities they had probably grown up with direct exposure to the agrarian world. Much of this began to shift with the 1950’s/60’s moves to the suburbs, and the succeeding generation (which would be my own) being raised more and more in a zone of low-exposure to the cycle of life and death that defines so much of the natural world. As time has passed we have steadily built a reliable infrastructure, now including a whole virtual world which is fundamentally un-natural, that shelters most of us from the gritty reality of all that is hard about the created world. In short, we have grown very accustomed to what I would term a “sanitized” existence, where all is well-controlled.
In such a climate, we forget that things change, births are supposed to be un-planned, sickness is ultimately an unstoppable force, and that death is everywhere. We also forget that in the natural world where there is so much sickness, death, and a lack of control, it is compensated for by a tremendous abundance of life and fertility. Life is a truly tenacious force and in its own cycle it masters death, if it is not tampered with, or rendered infertile.
For the Christian, the suffering, dying, and rising of the natural world that used to shape humanity without exception (until our recent un-natural era) finds it’s fullest expression in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. His entry into the natural cycle of dying and rising, and his gift to us of himself in the sacraments, allows us to move up to the next level of the cycle, so that our death leads to a rebirth in the life to come. Christ is what moves us through suffering, through death, and in to new life.
To a world that no longer lives close to nature, except these days through hyper-controlled and well-equipped camping and hunting (read “leisure”) activities that, if they don’t go well bring no harm, it is difficult to grasp the necessity of these points, of Christ’s death and life. It is also very difficult to confront suffering when we are so used to controlling all of it, even thinking we can escape it.
All of the above is part of why I love the changing of the seasons, especially the Fall. All around us now the world is dying back, as it must do at this time every year. It is delightful to see the plants and trees not resisting or arguing with this simple reality, except by doing what they have always done, which is getting ready for the seeds and growth of what will come next.
Persons can only push back the boundaries of nature so far before we usher in a type of Hell for ourselves on this earth. Maybe as we watch the leaves fall now, we would be wise to meditate upon this simple fact, and also on the gift of Christian revelation that shows us the true path of personhood, and opens up for us the only real pathway from death into new life.