What Does It Mean for Nature to be Sacred?

| by Kyle Nicholas

In 1863, the British Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals wanted to open a chapter in Rome. Pope Pius IX declined, according to Norm Phelps, since it would make it seem like human beings have “moral duties to animals.” Herbert Marcuse would tell this story in his book One-Dimensional Man to show how a domineering conception of “Reason” turns nature into “the sub-rational” with a “negative status.”

In 2015, Pope Francis in Laudato Si quoted the Catechism to say the opposite: “Every act of cruelty towards any creature is contrary to human dignity.” Then, quoting Paul Ricoeur, he continued: “I express myself in expressing the world; in my effort to decipher the sacredness of the world, I explore my own.” 

What explains the shift in Christian ethics from nature as backdrop for the divine-human drama to its own dignity? What is the connection between human dignity and the dignity of all creation? We find an answer in how the idea of the sacred has shifted in light of the ecological crisis. We also find it in humanity’s increasing attunement to the suffering of animals.

Today, many scholars and traditions claim that the inherent dignity of nature requires an idea of nature as sacred. There are Reformed and Emersonian bases of the sacredness of nature, where humanity contemplates God’s majesty through a cosmos of signs that reveals its spiritual vitality and givenness; there are Catholic and Orthodox stories of the sacredness of nature, where Western rationalism fell away from an integrated, sacramental view of cosmos, replaced by a mechanistic idea of universe. Further, there are accounts that focus on the connection between an exploitative relationship to nature and human relations of domination. For James H. Cone and Melanie L. Harris, colonialism and racism inflict the same domination upon nature as upon humanity. The response to these requires “one world community where life in all its forms is respected” (Cone) or a richer cosmology where “Spirit, nature, and humanity are connected in an interdependent web of life…” (Harris).

Beyond distinctly Christian ethics, Robin Wall Kimmerer argues for a constructive relationship between modern natural science and indigenous knowledge, using the language of sacredness and harmony to cultivate reverence. Michael York argues for a return to “paganism” as an antidote to domineering views of the supernatural. Graham Harvey advocates a rehabilitation of the term “animism” to question the boundaries of life and non-life. Additionally, there are scientific theories of emergence that promote wonder, interconnection, and reverence.

But there are dangers to making nature sacred. Maybe, as William Cronon has maintained, a sacralized nature is also a dominated and controlled nature. Or maybe awe and reverence are just rose-colored glasses placed over natural processes that are, at root, nothing more than struggle and violence. 

To reverence nature as sacred and recognize its inherent dignity, while avoiding these pitfalls, we can see why many theological ethicists have connected the dignity of creation with the dignity of the person.

In his genealogy of universal human dignity, Hans Joas argues that “the sacralization of the human person” is responsible for the modern turn to dignity and rights. Often, changes in the location of the sacred come from acts of moral decentering and “experiences of powerlessness,” which are then integrated into societal practices and institutions. Homicide replaces blasphemy or criticism of political powers (attacks on the sacredness of God or king) as the worst crime. This is because the individual, as Durkheim claimed, has been imbued with a sense of intrinsic worth that reorients our moral imaginations and religious affections. Following Ernst Troeltsch, Joas sees this as an outworking of the Christian impulse of neighbor love.

This progressive inclusion of all humans into one moral community helps to explain the importance of human dignity in contemporary law and politics as well as our emotional reactions to violations of human dignity.

With the ecological crisis affecting daily life, and the clear failure of Western rationalism’s view of nature as a backdrop in the divine-human drama, we can extend Joas’ analysis to the sacralizing of nature.

So we can regard the emphasis on nature as God’s temple in much Reformed and Transcendentalist environmentalism as more than metaphorical. Acts of desecration of nature should, as Durkheim said of humans, inspire “us with a feeling of horror, in every way analogous to that which the believer experiences when he sees his idol profaned.”

But again, the dignity of nature is found not in its romantic untouchability, but in the relations of care and conservation that constitute everyday life. Humans do not stand outside nature, deciding how to “enter” in; humans are already part of the overlapping, complex ecosystems and patterns of exchange: eating plants and animals, building homes, producing and consuming necessities and (quite often) luxuries from its resources. 

Against the tendency to offer aesthetic or pedagogical readings of suffering in the natural world, we can instead follow Karl Barth, for whom “we can and must, therefore, say of every creature that it has the same concrete divine Counterpart as man….” Yet, because for Barth we cannot know exactly how any discrete aspect of creation has “the same concrete divine Counterpart as man,” we can value nature as a temple of the divine without naming exactly how nature worships God in its own way, and in which ways it is fallen.

Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s declaration of religious freedom, begins with the recognition that the “sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man….” We can see, then, that Pope Francis in Laudato Si is extending this “sense of dignity” to the whole creation, abandoning the idea of nature as a backdrop or “theater” for God’s preserving and redeeming action. This is a productive path forward for Christian ethics, and yet one that will continue to raise new questions as we seek to integrate its consequences into our value systems, institutions, and practices.

Kyle Nicholas is a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia.