Mother/Father Earth: Toward a Reconciliation between Biocentrism and Anthropocentrism

Written by Margaret Burns

     God is always talking to us, as is the Earth. And the Earth is God’s acting agent, constantly waking us up to remember who is in charge. It is not the anthropocentric human, but God who is in charge. No matter what we do to attempt to gain power over each other or the planet, the Earth speaks back. We must only be willing to listen.

     Just as there is a Doctrine of Signatures in all plants, their scientific benefits and function mirroring in some way their form, I think Daniel Migliore would agree that the call for a Theology of Nature is needed to discern a way in which we can think about our planet as a creation both wise and offering itself as God’s medicine to humanity. I believe Migliore’s Theology of Nature could help close the gap between the argument around anthropocentrism and biocentrism, as put forth by Thomas Derr and Larry Rasmussen. There are those who believe biocentrism goes too far in trying to act on par with God, such as Derr in his essay “The Challenges of Biocentrism.” Rasmussen’s essay “An Earth-Honoring Faith” argues that we have looked the other way when confronted with the challenges of caring for our environment, and if we work with the Earth, in balance with it, we can help create a better future.

     If Christian thought has been part of the problem, as Daniel Migliore claims in Faith Seeking Understanding, we as Christians must work to reform this before it is too late. First of all, we must begin by realizing where we are in the ongoing story of God’s creation. Unfortunately, many readings of the Bible have historically placed plants and animals in a “supporting” role: “…They were often treated more like stage props than like important participants in the drama of creation and salvation.” Our creation should be given center-stage, as this would return it to its rightful place of power. 

     Migliore addresses the concern that if we continue to take the view that we as humans are in charge, we will continue to wield power in destructive ways, including continuing to project the idea that our resources are limitless.  If we only take and never give back, we will continue to see the Earth act in ways that inherently limit what we have available to us.  In this way, we cannot afford an anthropocentric point of view. However, Biocentrism is not the only option. A Theology of Nature would bridge the gap between anthropocentrism and biocentrism and place us in more of a conversation with our living Earth, deepening our connection to our God.   

     When we are in conversation with God, it is impossible to act as if we are God, or to try to control Nature, which is one of Derr’s concerns regarding biocentrism. Derr’s concern extends to how we act: that we are placing our energy in ways that do not serve us when we go too far to the extreme. The other perspective is that working with the cycles of Nature, we can still allow our forests to burn to make way for the new, just as we can honor the change of seasons. There is a difference between allowing Nature to be Nature, and in offering respect by bearing witness to what God is saying through Creation. But to do this, we have to allow Earth its personification, and we have to find a language for it.      

     And, yet, we are not left without a roadmap.  As Migliore states, in the Bible “There are laws governing the cultivation of the earth and the use of the animals.” This is the harmony that we are searching for. This is living personification: “Provision is made for the animals and the earth to have regular rest and to enjoy a Jubilee …”  and “Paul speaks of the natural world as groaning like a woman in childbirth, even as humanity also groans for its final liberation from suffering and death (Rom.8:22-23).” 

     We have scripture, then, that clearly states the ways in which our planet speaks to us. It is God asking us to pay attention, engage, and heal so that we may enjoy what has been given to us through Him. The Earth is pointedly asking for our help.  Our question might be, not how we can become better stewards of the earth, but how we can become better listeners of the earth, and therefore, of our God?

     According to Migliore, God continues to create, as He continues to speak to us through His Creation. He did not just stop at Genesis. And as God is our Father/Creator, we and everything He has made are dependent on Him, just as we are dependent on the Earth. Simply by existing, we, and the natural world around us have value. 

     Since our world is fallen and imperfect, we have a responsibility to help to heal it. Derr brings up the question of whether the Earth has value because we as humans have given it value, stating perhaps that “…a natural object may generate value for us not by itself but only in conjunction with our situation.”  This speaks to Migliore’s point that the Earth has inherent value just by virtue of being created by God, but what does that really mean to us as humans, if we are only looking at our planet as a big ball of resources? Derr’s opinion is that it does more than provide for us, it is a gift given to us that surpasses our understanding. It is of God, and therefore good, even in its current imperfection, and we must act to restore it.

     Rasmussen’s faith in the mystery of God’s world works more toward Migliore’s Theology of Nature: “…the integral functioning of the Earth’s great systems are not only more complex than we think; they are probably more complex than we can ever think. They are certainly more complex than any one species can master and control…” This belief honors the complexities present but still calls for us to take the time to learn how to be, how to listen, through taking a role in the story of where the Earth will evolve from here. The writing of “an expression of the human story,” as Rasmussen describes it, could very well be our angle into writing a new Theology of Nature. 

     Everything is interdependent on one another.  Migliore helps us to see that to act upon the Earth without being in conversation with it is to pretend the Earth cannot respond back to us. That would mean that we do not need one another, that we do not need our environment, even. In Migliore’s world, we were intended to be in relationship with it just as we were put on Earth to be in relationship with each other. 

     This makes a Theology of Nature a living conversation, exemplified in Migliore’s discussion of a triune God.  The Spirit of God continues to “renew life,” as evidenced in our change of seasons, but we must be willing to participate with it. This idea of “communion” is an important one.  Beginning with the Process School of Theology, we affirm the need for attention to what needs to be changed about the perception of our environment and creation, acknowledging the Bible intends for us to see God not only as Creator but as in communion with us and with it, as Trinitarian spirit. 

     For Migliore, we must respect Creation and see the perfection even in what is deemed (or doomed) as chaos. While Derr would opt to step back in this situation, Rasmussen would embrace it, opting to become part of the story of where our Earth goes from here by participating in the rewriting of it by helping to heal it: “Historically speaking, until the Industrial Revolution, the human story was an expression of the Earth’s story. Earth set the terms and we had to adapt. Now Earth’s story is an expression of the human story.” This allows for the belief that the Earth’s inherent goodness is reaching out to us, always striving for closer union with us. 

     According to Migliore, here are some ways we can think of our relationship with the Earth: Earth as Mother/Father, providing for us with unconditional love; as Builder of Creation, an admittedly anthropological image, who must begin using tools and materials, as opposed to creating out of the void, assuming possible “subpersonal status,” (though Jesus himself was a carpenter).  Or the idea that Creation is offered simply as “Let there be light.”  There is the idea of the body of God as made in the formation of the Earth, and lastly, God as artist, specifically a playful artist expressing unforced creativity.  In this way, Creation begets a life of its own (as a work of art), and the interpretation can be left up to us.   

     To bridge the gap with a Theology of Nature, it will be most beneficial to come together with a scientific view of the world, and Migliore suggests that to do this, we must find a language for it.  Migliore affirms that Science and religion necessarily influence each other, and so finding a “harmonious congruence” will help expand our role in the world.  After all, science itself begins with a question, not a proof. 

     So then, how can we strive for that which will bring us back into conversation with our Earth and remind us of our right place in the order of creation? Perhaps it is Migliore’s Theology of Nature that we can move toward. In this striving, may we always include the world we see around us as proof that God loves us so that we may honor Him in return. May this be the first language we learn to listen for.

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