The way things appear to us often becomes apparent by the labels we give them. Take, for example, the dandelion. What do you see? A flower? A weed? A vegetable? Beyond communicating what is there, the words we use to describe it will tell us how it appears—as something beautiful, or annoying, or delicious.
This tells us something about ourselves—the who—doing the naming; what our interests, goals, and values are; what and why we think something is important.1 To the child, picking a bouquet for her mother, dandelions are flowers. To someone trying to grow and manicure a green lawn, they appear as weeds. To the gardener and chef, the same plant is a nutritious food source.2
The words we use for things are learned from others—our families, our friends, our communities. We live in a vast, complicated network of relationships. In a globalized society, we are presented with a dizzying array of choices—what to eat, what to watch, what to wear, where to live, and whom to love. All this influences the way we talk about and think about our relationship to nature.3
Nature as Matter
One dominant way of talking about nature today is the scientific way, looking at a thing or collection of things to be studied and understood. If we encountered someone who referred to the dandelion as a Taraxacum officinale, we could assume she’s a botanist who finds it interesting. We use such words as “specimen,” “sample,” or “system” to refer to plants, animals, and the land.
The scientific gaze looks for objects to be observed. We poke and ponder, dissect and discover. Nature becomes a means to an end—facts about nature, with knowledge being the ultimate goal. Emphasis is placed on the empirical and the quantifiable. During the Enlightenment era in history, the emergence of modern science resulted in a certain way of conceiving of nature—as inert matter and systems governed by mechanical laws.4
An outcome of this approach was a kind of distancing. Philosopher Charles Taylor contrasts the way modern humans experience reality with the way of humans who lived in earlier eras. Unlike the “porous” selves of the past who understood themselves to be directly affected by (at times) unexplainable external forces, our contemporary “buffered” selves stand apart from the rest of nature, observing reality from an inner mental citadel, before taking action in the world.5 As buffered beings, we tend to forget the essential interconnectedness between us and our environments. We stand over and apart from what we are examining.
Nature as Resource
A related way humans today talk about and relate to nature is through the lens of economics, as an array of commodities to be collected, developed, and sold. The scientific gaze is often connected to the commercial gaze, as new understandings of and discoveries in nature lead to profitable applications. The matter of science becomes raw material to be developed for the marketplace. The “price of lithium has gone to insane levels,” Elon Musk recently tweeted.6 The tech entrepreneur went on to suggest that his car company might need to get directly into mining and refining in order to extract and refine this element for batteries at a lower price.
In this way of talking and thinking, aspects of nature are valuable mainly because of their monetary value. An influential philosophical articulation of this view is given by John Locke. According to Locke, most things in a “state of nature” are not really useful to anyone. What gives natural things value is the investment of human time and energy that transforms them into something functional and desirable.7 Returning to our dandelion example, while it’s growing in a field, the flower is free. Harvested and garnishing a gourmet salad, the same plant becomes a culinary commodity.
The distance between observer and observed introduced by the scientific gaze collapses through the act of consumption. The distanced and buffered self of the laboratory becomes the insatiably hungering self of the marketplace, involved all too often in a one-sided relationship with nature: after being processed, purchased, and used up, the objects of desire are digested, destroyed, or discarded.
Nature as Retreat
A third prevailing way we talk about nature today is as a source of recreation—a break or get-away from the rigors of normal life (or confines of a societal shutdown). Nature becomes a destination to enjoy with friends and family or the backdrop to a photo or video we will post on social media to share with the viewing world. We visit national parks on vacation, driving or flying cross country (or beyond) to take in the views.
An appreciation for nature as something more than a giant and complex machine (or a source for the next meal) is expressed by Romantic philosophers reacting to the reductionist perspective of their Enlightenment predecessors. A striking critique is articulated by the German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who observes:
When scholars study a thing, they strive
To kill it first, if it’s alive;
Then they have the parts and they’ve lost the whole,
For the link that’s missing was the living soul.8
Nature for the Romantics was something more than the sum of its parts. In encountering nature as a whole, they encountered a transcendent mystery that rises above the confines of narrowly construed rationality. An encounter with reality in this way evokes a passionate emotional response. One stands in awe before the beautiful and sublime.
Such sentiments have influenced conservation movements to preserve and protect wilderness areas. “Nature” becomes synonymous with those areas in the world where human presence and activity are limited. One of the unintended outcomes of this, as environmental historian William Cronon points out, is a new kind of dualism that removes humans from nature but also nature from the day-to-day lives of most people. We become “contemplative sojourners,” occasionally and leisurely enjoying selective aspects of what we deem as natural, when some of us get the chance.9
Expanding Our Vocabulary
Talking about and thinking about nature in these ways is perhaps inevitable while we are living in contemporary society. When any of these domains of discourse becomes the primary or exclusive vocabulary we utilize, however, whether scientific, economic, or recreational, nature’s value is reduced to an instrumental one, centered on human benefit. The ecological crisis that confronts society makes the limitations of these discourses evident.
The question to consider is this: Are there other options that might enrich and deepen our appreciation of and care for the world in which we live? This question presents an opportunity for Christians to revisit and reclaim Scripture’s teachings about nature—as creation—and their own identity as one of God’s creatures, tasked with caring for co-creatures and aspects of creation.
The Bible’s understanding of creation provides much more than an account of how things began. More fully understood, it challenges and corrects some of the shortcomings we have identified. Unfortunately, Scripture has often been read through the limited domains of these cultural discourses, rather than disrupting them. For example, rather than the Bible drawing attention to humans’ status as sharing the natural world with other living creatures, too much emphasis has been placed on human distinctiveness. In the words of Richard Baukham: “Humanity’s place within creation is abolished in favor of humanity’s exaltation above creation.”10 This has caused key texts to be misinterpreted. “Rule” or “dominion” has been interpreted to mean “indiscriminately use” or “dominate,” and cited to justify human actions that are wasteful of the earth’s riches and hurtful to its creatures. Humans may have a unique identity and role within God’s creation, yet at the same time, humans—made from the earth itself—are called to join other creatures as co-worshipers of the Creator: “In the praise in which we gratefully confess ourselves creatures of God, there is no place for hierarchy. Creatureliness levels us before the otherness of the Creator.”11 The Bible, rather than depicting humans as standing apart from or over and against other creatures—“buffered,” if you will—shows them as being connected in a fundamental way to the rest of creation and its creatures.
Seeing as God Sees
Another way Scripture challenges modern assumptions is in providing a deeper sense of nature’s value. It is based on God’s declaration rather than human calculation. In the beginning God creates and repeatedly affirms the creation as being “good.” This affirmation happens seven times—after the creation of light (Gen. 1:4), the land and sea (verse 10), vegetation (verse 12), the sun, moon, and stars (verse 18), sea creatures and birds (verse 21), land animals (verse 25); and finally, after creating humans and surveying all that has been made, God declares the whole of the created order “very good” (verse 31), delighting in the goodness of what has been created and taking time to enjoy it. The goodness of creation reflects the goodness of the Creator, who is also “good” (Ps. 100:5).
Early Christian theologians understood these affirmations as giving ontological value to the created order. In opposition to the Gnostics, the early Church Fathers used the doctrine of creation to affirm the intrinsic goodness of materiality. Creation was not to be confused with the fall of humanity, as Gnostic sages taught, and salvation was not to be understood as an escape from the body and the physical order. What God had created was not to be disdained but celebrated and responsibly enjoyed. Irenaeus, a student of Polycarp, who himself was a student of the apostle John, in his engagement with the Gnostics, focused on the goodness of creation to combat the idea that matter is evil and to be escaped.12 Augustine argued, similarly, albeit in more philosophical terms, that anything that exists—i.e., has “being”—possesses a degree of goodness because existence itself, derived from God, is good.13
Ultimately, the basis for nature’s value is God’s love for what God has created. “[A] tree … is never simply a vertical log with varying kinds of foliage or some amount of lumber. A tree is also, and more fundamentally, an incarnation of God's love,” Norman Wirzba argues.14 Creation expresses God’s “hospitable love,” which makes room for “what is not God to be and to flourish.”15 The depth and width of this love is further revealed in Jesus.
The essential goodness of creation (and nature as a part of that creation) is reaffirmed by the biblical depiction of salvation. Creation is valuable enough to sustain and save even after creaturely rebellion. God does not abandon that which God has created, but joins Himself to it more intimately in Jesus. And this permanent union is on behalf of the created order in its entirety, not just humans—“God so loved the world,” the Scriptures testify (John 3:16). The biblical view of salvation is an expansive one that includes, but also extends beyond, humans. The goal, ultimately, is the restoration of “all things . . . .in heaven and . . . on earth” (Eph. 1:10).
And what is important to God must be important to us. This means we are invited to grow in love, in addition to passive enjoyment (“I love visiting this place”) and active responsibility (“I care for this land”). In recent years Adventists have joined other Christians is talking about ecological concern as an aspect of stewardship.16 Less emphasized is the connection to another important Adventist affirmation—sanctification. Adventists believe that through the work of the Holy Spirit we can become more and more Christlike, learning to see more clearly and love more deeply and widely. This love extends to wider and wider circles of people, and caring about the ways our individual or collective actions or inactions can impact the lives of others, even those who live far away. It is inconsistent to declare my love for you if, at the same time, I am poisoning the river you and your family drink from or I’m unconcerned about others doing the same.
Could an expression of this maturing love be a growing concern for other creatures, too, as well as the water, land, and air they swim in, live on, or breathe? Ellen White, as many know, eventually became an advocate of a plant-based diet, touting its health benefits. What is less known and appreciated are the ethical concerns that motivated her.17 Initially she appreciated vegetarianism as an ideal, practicing it intermittently. She eventually cut meat from her diet entirely, and the turning point was her increased awareness of the cruelty toward animals involved. “I felt ashamed and distressed,” White recounts, when she was prompted by a Catholic woman at an Australian camp meeting to consider the facts. “I saw it in a new light, and I said, I will no longer patronize the butcher; I will not have the flesh of corpses on my table.”18 She would go on to include ethical arguments on the treatment of animals in her writings on diet. For example, she writes in The Ministry of Healing, “Think of the cruelty to animals that meat eating involves, and its effect on those who inflict and those who behold it. How it destroys the tenderness with which we should regard these creatures of God!”19
Ellen White’s growth as a Christian, in other words, in addition to human health, included a concern for other creatures. She grew in love.
The Power of Naming
In the creation account, humans are given the power to name other creatures (Gen. 2:19). This power involves not just saying but also seeing things in a certain way. By naming rightly, we are given the power to see things for what they are, and to see ourselves the way we are intended to be—created in God’s image to care for creation the way God does. The Scriptures invite us to expand our vocabulary and, in doing so, to care more deeply—to see, speak, and act differently toward our world today.
Zane Yi is an associate dean and associate professor in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University, where he teaches courses in philosophy and theology. He is a founding member of the Society of Adventist Philosophers.
1As Norman Wirzba points out: “The way we name and narrate the world determines how we are going to live within it” (From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015], p. 18).
2Likewise, the frequency we find a term being used might tell us about the kind of society we live in or, historically, when we are alive. During the Middle Ages in Europe, for example, dandelions were called “priests’ crowns.”
3Peter L. Berger points out that a distinguishing characteristic of modern consciousness is “a movement from fate to choice” (The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation [New York: Anchor Press, 1979], p. 10). Modern humans, unlike their premodern predecessors, have “choices of occupation, of place of residence, of marriage, of the number of one’s children, in the manner of passing one’s leisure time, in the acquisition of material goods” (Berger, p. 2).
4René Descartes, for example, likened nature to a giant machine ultimately made up of smaller, imperceptible machines. A clock telling time, he claims, is “just as natural” as the growth of a tree. See his Principles of Philosophy, no. 203.
5Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2007).
6Elon Musk, Twitter post, April 2022, https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1512505545416224783.
7See John Locke, “Second Treatise, Chapter 5,” Two Treatises of Government. Locke claims, “For 'tis Labor indeed that puts the difference of value on everything; and let anyone consider, what the difference is between an Acre of Land planted with Tobacco, or Sugar, sown with Wheat or Barley; and an Acre of the same Land lying in common, without any Husbandry upon it, and he will find, that the improvement of labor makes the far greater part of the value” (no. 40). Locke estimates that 99 percent of the usefulness of earth’s “products” are the result of human labor.
8Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust (I, lines 1935-1938).
9William Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: Norton, 1995), pp. 69-90.
10Richard Bauckham, “Modern Domination of Nature: Historical Origins and Biblical Critique,” in Environmental Stewardship: Critical Perspectives—Past and Present, ed. R. J. Berry (New York: T & T Clark International, 2006), p. 34. Bauckham points out: “To a large extent the problem has been that Genesis 1:28 and a few other texts have been interpreted without the aid of their larger biblical context, but influenced by ideas drawn from other sources and traditions” (p. 45).
11Ibid., p. 49.
12Irenaeus argues that the various aspects of the created order must be viewed as a whole, and that as a whole, one sees a harmony that reflects the skill and wisdom of the Creator: “Those, too, who listen to the melody, ought to praise and extol the artist, to admire the tension of some notes, to attend to the softness of others, to catch the sound of others between both these extremes, and to consider the special character of others” (Against Heresies 2. 25. 2)
13Augustine, Confessions, Book VII.
14Wirzba, p. 75.
15Ibid. Wirzba invites Christians to exercise “Sabbath seeing,” to see the world the way God does: “To observe Sabbath is, there to try and see and love the world the way God does. It is to make ourselves available to and responsible for the grandeur of God’s work” (p. 77).
16See, for example, William K. Hayes, “Christians and Environmental Stewardship,” Adventist Review, Jan. 5, 2016, https://adventistreview.org/magazine-article/christians-and-environmental-stewardship/.
17See Ted Levterov, “Ellen White and Vegetarianism,” Understanding Ellen White, ed. Merlin D. Burt (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2015), pp. 222-224.
18Ellen G. White, Testimony Studies on Diet and Foods (Loma Linda, Calif.: College of Medical Evangelists, 1926), p. 67.
19Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 315.