IN THE 1980s, the literary critic Eric Zencey pointed to close parallels between ecology and apocalypse. The way in which we speak about them can be surprisingly similar. By the ’80s, environmentalism had already become the ersatz religion it is today, and part of its success lies in the way in which it employs ideas borrowed from Christian eschatology.
“Deep ecology”, the most theologically inclined school of environmentalism, rests on a consciously spiritual narrative of fall and redemption. Humanity, having abused the gifts of nature, aspires to return to “a state of ecological grace . . . a rich and participatory culture” in which there might be, not harmony with the Creator, but “harmony with nature”.
The precedents behind this story of a return to the bosom of mother nature, or Gaia, are biblical. Nature is Eden, the lost garden; its contemporary advocates are latter-day prophets preaching the reconciliation of lion and lamb (Isaiah 11.6), and offering an apocalyptic vision of new things, even of planetary revolution: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea” (Revelation 21.1).
The rhetoric might look similar to that of Christian eschatology, but there are significant theological differences between deep ecology and scripture, differences often overlooked by critics such as Zencey. There may be echoes of redemptive grace guiding deep ecology’s nostalgia for Eden, but they rest on a certain blindness to that event central in a Christological narrative of fall and apocalyptic redemption — the resurrection.
THE 17th-century metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell will serve as a good guide in this debate. At first blush, Marvell appears to be the prototypical deep ecologist himself. His pastoral evocation of Eden, a poem entitled “The Garden”, portrays nature as a “green thought in a green shade”.
But, although Marvell is often invoked as the quintessential nature poet, like St Paul he believed that the pivot of redemption involved more than a spiritual reunification with nature, and more even than the pagan mysteries that celebrated nature’s cyclical renewal. Easter certainly draws on these, and, happily, “The Garden” repeats them.
For Marvell, redemption is, first of all, historical, begun with the cross and resurrection. It is an event in which nature becomes all-too-human, collaborating in the crucifixion of Christ. As Marvell writes in “The Resolved Soul”: “Do you, O Brambles, chain me too, And courteous Briars nail me through”.
For Marvell, the cross is the loss of nature’s innocence, as Wendell Berry, the influential American environmentalist, points out in a thought-provoking presentation of Marvell’s eco-theological consciousness (A Continuous Harmony, 1970).
Developing Berry’s insights, we might say that, instead of heralding a deep ecology of the “green wave” era, Marvell seems to anticipate the more recent, secular environmentalism that focuses, not on the cheery vision of Gaia, but on the “anthropocene”. More sobering and scientific than deep ecology’s “harmony with nature”, the anthropocene describes the present age of the planet as one shaped decisively by humans, following a “death” of nature that calls to mind Marvell’s guilty briars.
But although the anthropocene is rightly sceptical of religious overtones in earlier environmentalism, it none the less succumbs to its own, quasi-religious attitude, which is as foreign to the universe of Marvell as is deep ecology’s visions of ecological grace.
Where spiritual environmentalism might be described as a Romantic nostalgia for Eden, advocates of the anthropocene easily come across as pessimistic Calvinists. Abandoning hope, we shoulder the burden of anthropocene guilt, attempting to minimise collateral damage, but with no illusions regarding a future revolution, as described by John of Patmos, or dreamed of by Marvell.
Marvell’s briars acknowledge a fall from grace, infecting all of nature, but — unlike anthropocene pessimism — they do not proclaim this fall to be absolute, or irrevocable. Rather, their twisted beauty speaks of a place transformed: “Bind me ye Woodbines in your ‘twines, Curle me about ye gadding Vines, And Oh so close your Circles lace, That I may never leave this Place.”
With the stern anthropocene critics of deep ecology, we might forswear an easy hope for the environment; but if we reject the husk of a cheap ecological grace we need not also discard the kernel of Christological truth.
Marvell charts a precarious middle way for us here. So does scripture. Its properly apocalyptic theology points us to the resurrection as the event which restores us to the work, rather than the place, of Eden.
ST JOHN writes of how, after Christ had risen, he disguises himself appropriately to Mary Magdalene as a gardener (John 20.11-18). The Church, as the body of Christ, is the inheritor of this work. It is the work given by God to the first human beings, restored by Christ to humanity in the imperative to establish the Kingdom of Heaven.
For Paul, Christ is even described as the “last Adam” to humanity’s first, the one who recapitulates and renews all things —“things. . . in heaven, and. . . on earth” (1 Corinthians 15.45; Ephesians 1.10).
For Paul, as for Marvell, the apocalyptic return to Eden is not a literal retracing of paths, but neither is it merely a metaphorical image. Rather, it is historical, even shockingly material — Marvell’s brambles and briars piercing the flesh of Christ, or the disciples healing the sick. Beyond deep ecology, we see that there is valuable work to be done.
Unlike the anthropocene, the mood is not irreversibly gloomy: the God of Marvell and Paul gives grace continuously, entering into history to inaugurate the work, and realise faith in the flesh. The newness of the earth proclaimed by the last Adam of the resurrection and apocalypse describes a transformation of the world through this labour.
With the resurrection, then, begins a time of participation, not in solitary dreams of ecological grace but in the present grace offered continuously by the Christ-like disciples who surround us, sweaty gardeners planting the lattice-work that will grow into the heavenly Kingdom.
In this sense, ecology can be said to be apocalyptic, but a truly apocalyptic ecology recognises the visionary also in the affairs of the ordinary, in the life of the spade, in the effects of the planting, gathering, and waiting, which exposes the roots of things, and prepares for the Kingdom.
Dr Simone Kotva lectures in systematic theology at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.