Soon after we moved to Australia, my family hiked in a temperate rainforest in the Yarra Ranges, an hour-and-a-half from our house. Southern Victoria is home to several of these rainforests. They challenge my prior knowledge of rainforests as places where the hot air drips with humidity, and where creatures such as toucans, monkeys, and boa constrictors live. In contrast to the bright colors and raucous noises of my imagination, the rainforests of my experience are subdued, quiet. In comparison, unimpressive.
An observation platform marked the beginning of this rainforest walking path. Sitting fifty feet above the ground, the platform extended into the canopy. Even though we were close to the summit, no panoramic views met us: We were surrounded by dense, damp forest. Mountain ash and myrtle birch trees formed the pillars of the leafy canopy. One tree, to the left of the platform, had shed most of its bark for the season, revealing a smooth, paneled trunk with ochre, bronze, and taupe patches streaked through the tan-colored wood. It dwarfed its neighbors in width. Its presence shouted in an otherwise quiet space; the other trees stood demurely, bark intact, covered with moss and ferns.
I was, I confess, disappointed. We had sought the location because Google Maps had marked it as a place of interest, and the posted reviews were positive. I know that I expected more from it than it gave. I had desired a particular emotional thrill, which I thought was promised by an observation platform at the top of a mountain. And having narrowly defined beauty to the spectacular and exotic, I was unable to recognize it in that rainforest.
That day in the rainforest, I saw the world as Eve did: I desired and I took, grasping for myself rather than receiving what was given by God. Although my response stands in contrast to the more obvious and egregious forms of abuse of the creation — dumping toxic waste in waterways, replacing productive land with strip mines, destroying forests — it nonetheless positioned me over and against creation, rather than with and for it. I had come to see something new, purely for my own pleasure.
Norman Wirzba identifies this perception, which sees only what is, or isn’t, pleasurable to us, as idolatry. “All too often,” he argues in From Nature to Creation, “we deny the radical otherness or alterity of others,” a move which “reduces the integrity of others to the level of what we want or expect.” This move is idolatrous because it fails to receive God’s creation as a gift, something determined not by our own desires or needs but by their creator. The idolatrous gaze looks at the world as “an extension or fulfilment of our want and need.” Rather than being opened to the world outside of ourselves, idolatry closes us in on ourselves.
Our idolatrous gaze flattens our perception of creation. Instead of posturing ourselves as recipients of a divine gift, we instead take the role of critic and consumer. Our travels, hikes, and explorations become photo opportunities and quests to find the perfect spot. We seek the thrill and excitement of the exotic and spectacular. We want to be able to claim firsthand experience of the places that count — the places that have been deemed beautiful by national parks programs or viral social media posts. Creation can become a means to build our own status or brand. When we encounter creation like this, although it offers itself to us as a sign of divine presence, our eyes are not open.
A similar posture towards the land marks the history of European colonization, both in my native country of the United States and my current home of Australia. Speaking of American colonization, Wirzba follows Willie James Jennings in writing of the European invaders’ perception of the Americas as potentialities, land that was ripe for change and development. Rather than perceive the land as God’s gift to be received and cared for, many early settlers saw the land as “virgin territory and raw material waiting to be turned into a possession that could then be modified to enrich its holders.” The land mattered only as much as it could be useful.
The Australian story is similar, although given the significant difference in climate from Europe to Australia, the effects on the land have been arguably worse. The British convicts and military personnel arriving in 1788 considered themselves to be settlers, not invaders, based on their judgment that the land they arrived in was unoccupied and uncultivated (“terra nullius”). Their first task, after erecting basic shelters, was to clear and cultivate the land — despite their unfamiliarity with the landscape and climate. Their ignorance brought them to near starvation. Second and third waves of settlers included skilled farmers, men and women who were experienced in cold-climate agriculture and landscapes. However, instead of receiving the land as a gift, they sought to shape it in the image of Europe, clearing the land and introducing foreign animals and plants, and forgoing the fire management practices of the Aboriginal people. Their changes have had devastating effects on the Australian landscape, as biodiversity loss, dryland salinity, disastrous bushfires and other land issues threaten Australia’s ecology. Whether through greed or ignorance, or both, the colonists’ view of Australia reduced it to their own desires and needs, rather than perceiving the land in its integrity as a creation and gift of God.
What might we see if we would rightly perceive creation? Taking his cue from the Christ hymn of Colossians, Wirzba argues that “the character and significance of the world become intelligible through the life of Jesus of Nazareth.” By Christ the eternal Logos, the whole world is held together in loving harmony, “leading [each thing] into the goodness and beauty of its own life but also of its life with others.” For Wirzba, “God is love” is not a trite expression. Instead, God’s love fundamentally grounds his relationship to the creation: “Whatever is, is only because it already participates in the divine love that brings it into being, daily sustains it, and ultimately leads it to fulfillment in union with God. Creation is the good and beautiful place in which God’s love is forever at work.”
Perceived in this way, the flora, fauna, and landscapes that we perceive are transfigured. Wirzba proposes an iconic mode of perception, one which opens a person to the depths of what she perceives. The foundation of this perception is love: a love that “does not pretend to comprehend, nor does it mean to take the other as a possession or object of control.” This love responds to God’s own love for the world, demonstrated by his delighted assessment that “it was very good.” Love recognizes the integrity of creation, not as an object for our consumption but as an objective reality that is loved and constituted apart from our use of it. This approach perceives each created thing as an invitation to look deeper, to have our gaze drawn beyond its surface features to the “excess of meaning and significance that is inspired and nourished by an infinite God who calls it into being.” As Ramandu admonishes Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, gas may be what a star is made of, but it is not what a star is.
Our scientific naming and mapping, while capable of recognizing the order of the world, cannot be the only means by which we receive what God has made. Foundationally, we receive as God has given: in love. Love, Wirzba argues, “is the crucial and most authentic movement of seeing” because “love is the welcoming and hospitable gesture that makes oneself available to others, sets them free to be themselves, and nourishes them in the ways of life.” Love is an other-oriented posture that unseats us. It moves us out of a position of critique and consumption and instead allows us to give ourselves to the other in a “commitment to engage the other as other, rather than as the object of our own desires.” When we perceive the creation in this way, we open our hands to receive its inexhaustible depth as a sign of the presence and beauty of God.
How might we learn to perceive the creation rightly? Wirzba argues that we need to reorient our relationship to the world, and explores thanksgiving as a means to this. Giving thanks is the appropriate response upon receiving a gift, and giving thanks for creation shows that we have understood it to be a divine gift. What Wirzba has in mind is not the trite, obligatory response that we are trained to give as children, but an action that leads us “into a transformed understanding of the world as the place of encounter with God’s love” and “restores to people their role as eucharistic beings and as priests of creation.” This kind of thanksgiving cannot keep the world at arm’s length, but declares our bonds, both to God and to the creation. To receive creation as a gift and express our gratitude for it precludes any sense that we can exert our desires and will over it, because we recognize its integrity: its existence before God as good, apart from our own need for it.
Benedict XVI stresses the world as a divine gift in his 2010 World Day of Peace address. He insists that “The environment must be seen as God’s gift to all people,” and that “nature is a gift of the Creator.” God gives the world as a gift, and yet because the world continues to be upheld and sustained by him, the world continues to be his. To receive the world, a world in which we are also creatures, we must know and love the giver. He has revealed himself to be good, gracious, and beautiful — a God who gives out of his overflowing triune love. His character defines and shapes our own relationship with the creation. When we receive the world and turn towards God in thanksgiving, we express the truth that the source of the world is not human, but divine.
Giving thanks in this way will also include confession and petition. Wirzba argues, “Insofar as we lack the appropriate attention and humility, and thereby do injury to the integrity of others, confession and asking for forgiveness will be abiding elements in any expression of gratitude we offer…there is no giving of thanks that is not at the same time a request for forgiveness and a petition to be instructed in the ways of love.” Offering thanks in this way puts us in a place of humility, as we recognize our obligations, and the ways in which we have not received the gift of creation well. When we confess our idolatrous gaze, we clear the ground for transformation to take place.
On that hike through the Yarra Ranges, the rainforest we explored offered me an opportunity — one which I neglected. Confronted with a landscape outside of my experience and expectations, I had the opportunity to expand my comprehension of the word ‘rainforest.’ I had the opportunity to pay attention, to have my imagination opened to the breadth and depth of what a rainforest can be, and the diverse forms of the beauty with which God has adorned his creation. I had the opportunity to receive, and to turn to the Creator to give thanks. Instead, I went there with only my desires in view. Thus, my disappointment was inevitable because I did not have eyes to see.
My failure is not only mine, but shared by a culture obsessed with the self. Even among those who assert that creation is the good gift of God, our desires, shaped by sin and culture, are difficult to change. Our attention is difficult to retrain. Our natural habits of selfishness and inattention, combined with the modern tendency towards control and consumption, require a committed effort to retrain our perception. But when we do succeed, however haltingly, we open ourselves to God’s love, abundantly poured out into the world.
Published in Mere Orthodoxy‘s second print edition. To support our work and receive future editions, subscribe today.