I’ve been hiking West of Oxford this past week – a late vacation after a busy summer – passing through some of the villages where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis walked together. Tolkien had this landscape partly in mind in creating the Shire. I even had a pint and a bacon-and-cranberry sandwich Saturday at Moreton-in-Marsh’s The Bell Inn, Tolkien’s model for “The Prancing Pony” in Lord of the Rings – where the hobbits first meet Aragorn, later the true King of Gondor.
All quite beautiful and uplifting in ways it would be difficult to express unless you had the imagination of Tolkien himself. The region is both the same and – no doubt – quite different than when he and Lewis walked here. There are tourists and television now. (We accidentally stumbled into the church in Blockley, the village where the Fr. Brown TV detective series – a theologically neutered version of Chesterton’s Fr. Brown – was filmed.) Still, the hills and fields, scattered farms and stone towns, take you out into a different world.
The exact nature of that world often gets lost in our current environmental debates. We have great power over nature now. The large strides in pure science and the near-miraculous developments in technology – especially medicine – are great blessings, to be sure, but also great challenges.
To put this in a Biblical perspective, which is to say the true context, there’s an ongoing struggle here between the proper use of human intelligence to co-operate with the Creation for furthering the good, and the Promethean impulse – the desire to be masters of nature and our very selves, quite independent of any order or truth that we are given, other than what we create.
The result is often confusion, and a desire to resolve that confusion by resorting to simplifications. In one of the best-known passages in English poetry, Wordsworth was already working along that line two centuries ago:
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: –
We murder to dissect.
True as to how we now sometimes commit technological murder in our search for mastery. But false if we think “nature” can (or “may”) instruct us in morality, or that the human intellect is “meddling.” I say this even though I believe Wordsworth was one of a very small number of human beings who manifest an authentic spiritual sense of nature.
The upcoming Amazon Synod has waded into this mess and brought additional confusion to an already troubled subject. Like Wordsworth and other Romantics, the Instrumentum laboris (“Working Document”) shuns the hard work of thought, not only about what we normally think of as “moral” evil and good, but about our relationship to nature itself.
Because the rainforests are not going to teach us how to relate to them, or to the rest of the world. We have to work at that ourselves – unless we’re going to give up the advances in food production, transportation, housing, and medicine that our minds have been able to achieve. No sane person really intends to do that.
If you want to start thinking about this subject in a different way, try Joseph Ratzinger’s book In the Beginning or Romano Guardini’s Letters from Lake Como. (I tried to develop some of their insights further to address current questions in my own book The Virgin and the Dynamo.)
As you might expect, Ratzinger connects environmental concerns to the deep theological insights in Genesis about the Creation and the proper “dominion” we human beings are given over nature. In the theological tradition, nature is often presented as a kind of second “book” of revelation, something that tells us about our place in the universe, but only if properly read through the lens of the other “book,” Biblical revelation.
It’s telling that the Amazon Synod seems to get this precisely backwards – as if the Amazon jungles were a kind of mystical voice that may “correct” the errors of human civilization and even Christianity itself. It takes one true insight – that the Creation is not merely indifferent matter and energy that we are free to shape any way we want – and embraces the opposite, as if we human beings are mere passive recipients of a divine “impulse from a vernal wood.”
Romano Guardini is of great practical help here. As his name indicates, his family was of Italian origin. They emigrated to Germany while he was young. He wrote in German, but took regular summer trips back to Italy.
That personal history led him to a valuable insight. He was struck by how, in more industrialized Germany, factories and warehouses were roughly erected, largely ignoring surrounding nature. In Italy, by contrast, buildings and even whole towns were developed not against, but in a kind of extension of the landscape – a pleasant harmony between the natural and the human.
There may have been a bit of Romanticism even in Guardini – the old country seeming more humane than the new one. There are necessary modern industries – mining, manufacturing, electricity generation, and others – that are going to be rough and ugly, maybe forever.
But the basic principle Guardini identified remains. So far as we can, we should be neither Prometheans – riding roughshod over nature to get what we want – nor Romantics, falsely believing that nature as we find it is divine. Instead, we should take up the perpetual human task of wrestling with how to be truly ourselves – morally, intellectually, emotionally – within Creation.
You can see signs of what that might mean not only in the Italian countryside, but in the rolling hills of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. I’ve been to the Brazilian rainforests and have seen some possibilities even there. The Shire is an ideal home, a dream in many ways, but one that we are not wrong to strive to make into a reality.
*Image: Blockley [photo by the author]