Gardeners, the Natural Conservatives?
Modernity and urbanization have brought us far away from the agricultural way of living, where humans and animals worked together in the field, side by side. Animals were certainly used as instruments in the hard labour of primitive agriculture, but they were also part of the divinely created world, sacred in their own way. If a farmer abused nature, his family would suffer. In the West, a modern urban context, the consequences of abusing nature are not instantly visible in the same way. The issue of climate change, for instance, makes us question the way we relate to nature in our current context. How has the West altered its view on nature in the wake of secularization (which has come along with modernity and urbanization)?
The Norwegian author Knut Hamsun depicts humankind as taming nature, yet at the same time being formed by it, in his novel Growth of the Soil (1917). Isak, the protagonist, is a sober man preferring the solitary forest rather than more urban environments. He cares for his animals, and shows a deep reverence for nature. Isak and his wife both experience the supernatural in their daily labour on their farm in the wilderness. Their natural surroundings provide sacral moments in their pragmatic world. Here, in nature, the supernatural and the worldly intertwine. In other works, such as Pan (1894), Hamsun seems to show tendencies of pantheism. In Growth of the Soil, nature is contrasted with civilization. Modernity and urbanity loom threateningly on the horizon of Isak’s secluded farm. As Hamsun wrote his novel, industrialization accelerated, exemplified by the hydroelectric power plants of Norwegian rivers—and the First World War displayed horrifying industrial methods of killing.
Hamsun’s vivid description of the human living in harmony with nature should inspire the modern reader. Not in the pantheistic sense that nature is divinity, and neither in the sense that modernization is inherently negative, but in the sense that the Divine, as Creator, created nature as something more than a merely crops to be harvested. The biblical narrative, for instance, which I focus on in this text, describes creation as something the Creator himself cares deeply for, and frequently as a means of divine inspiration to humankind.
In the brilliant work A Secular Age (2007), the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes secularization as a lengthy philosophical process. Taylor views the demystification of the natural world as a key development. He uses the term “disenchantment,” which other thinkers such as Friedrich Schiller and Max Weber also used when describing the same development. As a mechanical worldview developed, there was no room left for witches or other superstitions. Natural phenomena were no longer explained as the Divine's providence, but as a mechanical processes within creation. This is not incompatible with the belief in the Divine, but the deistic view (i.e. when the divine does not interfere directly with the world) slowly paved the way for imagining a universe without the Divine. Following this, the way in which humans relate to the world has been fundamentally altered.
James K. A. Smith emphasizes the complex cross-pressures of living in a modern reality with a variety of worldviews, and where the other worldviews are always contesting the believers’ worldview. In How (Not) To Be Secular (2014), which is an interpretation of Taylor’s A Secular Age, Smith argues that even modern Christians are strongly influenced by this secularity. All are secularized in the manner that many of us conduct most of our daily activities without considering how the Divine is present in our world. All are deeply influenced by our disenchanted modernity. Even though the Christian worldview involves the Divine as ever present and intimate, the intellectual undertakings are often placed within a secular framework. And as such, it might miss out richer and deeper perspectives. In urban environments, nature is easily perceived as distant.
The theologian Norman Wirzba claims that humans of modernity and urbanization no longer think about the Divine as actively involved in caring for creation. We tend to focus on how the Divine cares for humans, and forget to some extent that the Divine also cares for the rest of creation. The ancient Israelites believed that the Divine provided for every part of creation. As Psalm 145 puts it: “you satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
The biblical narrative asks the humans to reign over every living creature that moves on the ground. Some might ask: why, then, can we not do as we please with the earth and its animals? A discussion of the human’s freedom in relation to the Divine is too complex to deal with here, but it is uncontroversial to claim that the mandate or reigning over every living creature was meant to be carried out in accordance with the Divine's will for creation. Indeed, the Divine can be compared to a gardener caring for creation. Jesus from Nazareth likens the Father to a keeper of a vineyard in John 15. The gardener does not leave the garden to grow wildly, but fertilizes it in due time, and trims the branches of his trees so that they become even more fruitful.
Thus, according to this view, humans should strive to be conservatives in the sense that we should be conservers, also of nature. Wirzba argues that we should understand the world as creation rather than nature, because that might help us develop practices of responsibility and gratitude. Perhaps that simple adjustment could enable us to act as gardeners of creation. Indeed, recovering the deep reverence for creation lost in the process of disenchantment provides a much-needed balancing perspective to the modern mechanistic understanding of the human. As the soft touch of a gardener striving to release the potential of a growing flower, radical conservatives should seek to benefit creation with their actions.