catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 17 :: 2006.09.22 — 2006.10.06


The delusions of a "single-family dwelling"

A suburban meditation

Single-family dwelling, residential zone, commercial zone, industrial zone, retail zone, parks & recreation district, historic preservation site, wildlife reserve
—we’ve all heard such terms in a variety of contexts. The extent to which we humans carve up the world in spatial categories that signify “proper” function or ownership can be almost ludicrous to those of us who try to see life holistically from the broadest Biblical perspective.

This morning I was busily fussing with the overwhelming mass of paperwork and “junk mail” that continually accumulates in my home office, when Squirt, my fuzzy feline pet, began to ‘meow’ at me persistently. At first, I thought she simply wanted her usual morning “lap time,” complete with back scratching and tummy scratching. But I soon realized that, once again, she wanted me to follow her outside to provide her with company and security while she rolled on the warm concrete and sunned herself in the fresh spring air. Perhaps unusually, my cat is a “social” cat, preferring not to be alone when she is outside. So I accommodated her and sat outside at the patio table, sipping a cool drink of juice while she settled herself contentedly under my chair.

As I sat outside trying to dispel the pressures of work from my mind (and wanting to tell my cat that I had more urgent matters to attend to), I began to look at and listen to the creatures and sounds that were happening in my back yard. One hummingbird soon hovered behind my back, buzzing curiously while it tasted the flower of the potted Hibiscus I hadn’t planted yet. Then three more “hummers” darted in play or competition (I’m never quite sure which) around the Bottlebrush tree in the back corner of the yard. From that same tree fluttered a Monarch butterfly, which proceeded to quietly explore the blossoms along the bank behind me, while overhead the jays and robins defiantly chirped their morning songs (as if daring me to decode their messages).

That’s when a certain realization hit me: the notion/supposition that this was “my property” seemed presumptuous and arrogant in the greater scheme of things, amid creatures who had preceded my presence here and whose progeny would probably outlive mine. For, in a non-legal sense, this is not “my” property at all: I share it with the cat I regularly nurture and feed, the dozen lizards who live in my front and back yards (surely more have escaped my notice), the four hummingbirds who visit my garden, the three birds who build nests annually in the crannies of my roof to house and feed their young, the gopher who tunnels beneath the tree in my front yard, the red squirrel who runs along the top of my fences, the coyotes who wander down from the hills in search of prey, the possum who wanders through the yard at night, the occasional hare who decides to munch on my front lawn, and the ants who tirelessly find new ways to invade my house.

Anyone who slows down and takes time to observe the subhuman lives and habitats that proliferate all around them will learn new things from and about nature. Such moments bring awareness, an apprehension of mysteries and marvels like those typically captured in Haiku poetry, wherein nature frequently is the metaphorical vehicle for a deeper truth.

In an apparent hope to learn that “we are not alone,” the late astronomer and atheist Carl Sagan ardently supported the SETI program, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. I do not disparage that search. But on the “microcosmic” level, as it were, we have never been alone. For millennia, our planet has been teeming with life and marvelous creatures whose “intelligence” we are just beginning to fathom. The appeal to “instinct”, for instance, was for decades a ‘name for we know not what’, a vacuous explanation for behaviors we simply didn’t understand. Bats, elephants, and dolphins have systems of sonar and communication that continue to puzzle and amaze scientists and nonscientists alike. Such behaviors may not warrant the unequivocal ascription of “intelligence”, but at least should evoke our humble respect for the wonders of creation and our ignorance of its ways.

For in truth, this world is not ours to carve up: it is God’s world (Psalm 24:1, 89:11, 100:3), and every creature in it has its place and purpose (Psalm 104:10-30). To love nature and to respect every creature is neither to idolize them, nor to denigrate the role of people as stewards and moral agents. Love of the Earth and love of God are not opposed. Fear-driven, anti-green Evangelical rhetoric typically reminds us that “we are to serve the Creator, not the creation” 1. But the “not” in that reminder overlooks the fact that caring for creation is one of the ways by which we should serve its Creator, and it implies a false antithesis between Nature and God—as if to love the former were to betray the latter. ‘Love of nature’ is not enmity with God; it becomes idolatrous only if it displaces or supersedes our love of God, who meant for us to enjoy it as well as Him. The Edenic assignment to “subdue” the earth and “rule over” every creature in it (Genesis 1:28) was not a license to own the earth or to exploit it for man’s purposes. We are but pilgrim tenants who are allowed to occupy and tend it for the Landlord (Deut. 10:14, Lev. 25:23). It is a good gift for which we must be grateful (Deut. 8:10). In exercising such care and responsibility, it is quite possible—even proper—for us to love the land without succumbing to the idolatry of worshipping it. To love nature is to regard it with care and affection; to worship nature is to value it supremely, above all else. The proper response for the Biblical believer is not to desecrate nature (that is, to treat it profanely, as less than sacred), but to love it with gratitude and to worship its Creator. Surely we ought to cherish whatever God cherishes.

To desecrate nature is to degrade its role as a cosmological testimony to the creativity and majesty of God (affirmed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:20), for which there is ample precedent in tradition as well as scripture. That role is well expressed by Thomas Chisolm in his second stanza of “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, one of the most beloved hymns of the Christian church:

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,
sun, moon, and stars in their courses above,
join with all nature in manifold witness
to Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.

And the classic worship hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” declares “All thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea.”

Henceforth, whenever I sit outside and enjoy breakfast at my patio table, I suspect the notion of a “single-family dwelling” shall enter my mind; and I shall simply smile and think, “but we are not alone.”

1 This warning is the precise wording of a reply sent to me from Beverly LaHaye’s organization, Concerned Women of America, whose publication Family Voice ran an article that harshly criticized environmentalism, with virtually no acknowledgment that ‘creation care’ or ‘earth keeping’ could be consistent with a Christian calling.

This article originally appeared in the Creation Voice Newsletter, a publication of Restoring Eden.  To receive the Creation Voice by e-mail, visit Restoring Eden's web site.

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