One major conflict between the Judeo-Christian value system and the various secular ones competing with it revolves around the answers to these questions: Is nature created for man or is man merely a part of nature? Or, to put it in other words, does the natural environment have any significance without man to appreciate it and to use it for his good?
The Judeo-Christian responses are clear: Nature has been created for man’s use; and on its own, without man, it has no meaning. Dolphins are adorable because human beings find them adorable. Without people to appreciate them or the role they play in the earth’s ecosystem to enable human life, they are no more adorable or meaningful than a rock on Pluto.
That is the point of the Creation story — everything was made in order to prepare the way for the creation of man (and woman, for those whose college education leads them to confuse the generic “man” with “male”). God declared each day’s creation “good,” but declared the sixth day’s creation of man as “very good.”
Critics find three biblical notions about nature unacceptable: that man shall lord over it; that it was created solely for man and therefore has no intrinsic value; and that it is not sacred.
I discussed the last notion — that God is outside, not within, nature — in Part XVI.
As regards man “subduing and conquering nature,” this was one of the revolutionary ideas of the Old Testament that made Western medical and other scientific progress possible. For all ancient civilizations, nature (or the equally capricious and amoral gods of nature) ruled man. The Book of Genesis came along to teach the opposite — man is to rule nature.
Only by ruling and conquering nature will man develop cures for nature’s diseases. We will conquer cancer; cancer will not conquer us. And only rational beings, not irrational gods of nature, can do so. Judeo-Christian values are the primary reason science and modern medicine developed in the West. A rational God designed nature, and rational human beings can therefore perceive it and, yes, conquer it.
The notion that it is secularism, not Judeo-Christian values, that enabled scientific inquiry constitutes perhaps the greatest propaganda victory in history. Virtually every great scientist from Sir Isaac Newton to the beginning of 20th century saw scientific inquiry as the study of divine design.
As for the modern secular objection to the Judeo-Christian notion of man as the pinnacle and purpose of nature, one can only say woe unto mankind if that objection prevails. When man is reduced to being part of the natural world, his status is reduced to that of a dolphin. It is one of the great ironies of the contemporary world that humanists render human life largely worthless while God-centered Jews and Christians render human life infinitely sacred. Man’s worth is entirely dependent on a God-based view of the world. Without God, man is another part of the ecosystem, and often a lousy one at that.
So let’s say what cannot be said in sophisticated company: Nature was created as the vehicle by which God created the human being, and in order to give emotional, aesthetic and biological sustenance to mankind. Nature in and of itself has no purpose without the existence of human beings to appreciate it. In the words of the Talmud, every person should look at the world and say, “The world was created for me.”
Does this mean that the biblical view of nature gives man the right to pollute the earth or to abuse animals? Absolutely not. Abusing animals is forbidden in the Torah: The ban on eating the limb of a living animal, the ban on placing two animals of different sizes on the same yoke and the ban on working animals seven days a week are just a few examples. To cause gratuitous suffering to an animal is a grave sin. As for polluting the earth, this, too, is religiously prohibited. If the purpose of nature is to ennoble human life and to bear witness to God’s magnificence, by what understanding of this concept can a religious person defend polluting nature?
We are indeed to be responsible stewards of nature, but for our sake, not its.