Four majestic oak trees frame the front yard of my Ohio home. The largest – nearly five feet across – is subject to endless speculation. Locals have dropped by to admire and give their best reckoning of its age. They all agree that the massive tree predates my house, and the log cabin before it.
It is easy to see why trees held a special place in the mythological stories of antiquity. Trees are larger than us. Like the mountains and hills, they endure the passing of time. Yet for all their grandeur, we have power over them, to cut them down and shape them to our purposes. (In antiquity, this was mostly only true of trees. In our modern technological age, it is also true of hills and mountains as well.) Left unchecked, our ability to shape our natural world can give way to the singular perception that the natural world exists solely as a utility of our convenience and consumption.
In Greek Mythology, the god Zeus withholds the knowledge of fire from humans in order to keep them weak and subservient to nature. His plans are thwarted when the hero Prometheus steals fire from Mount Olympus and teaches humans the secret of civilization. Thus armed, humans become masters over the natural world and their destiny. The natural world becomes the raw building blocks from which to forge their growing self-reliance.
With the rise of our modern age, self-reliance over nature has become the dominant worldview. C.S Lewis, in his Abolition of Man, notes that this shift towards technology has reshaped the way we perceive the natural world:
“There is something which unites magic and applied science (technology) while separating them from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.” C.S. Lewis
The major difference, according to Lewis, between ancient and modern society is who is conforming to whom. In ancient times, roads and trade routes followed the natural terrain and curvature of the landscape. With the advance of technology, we now see nature as an obstacle to be overcome and shaped to our liking. We build tunnels, bridges, and canals to bypass geographical inconveniences. We harness the power of the wind, water and waves. We engineer molecules to work for us in the form of biological weapons, genetically modified food and nuclear energy. This shift is more than just how we interact with the natural world. It has reshaped our entire perception of the natural world into an object to be manipulated, dominated and reduced to the utilitarian sum of its parts.
Is this what God intends? Has God designed the natural world to be molded to humans’ will and whim, or is it the other way around? The author of Genesis writes: The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Ge 2:15.) “He brought (animals) to the man to see what he would name them. (v. 19). Unlike Zeus, who withheld fire from humans, here God places humans in the role as care-taker and name-giver of all creation. With this elevated role comes its own particular set of rules.
“Out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” Genesis 2:9
Notice the order. First, trees were pleasant to the eyes -beautiful. Second, they were good for food. God also creates a tree of knowledge -that also has fruit- but which God commands the humans not to eat of it (v. 17). The plan has been set. Then temptation arrives.
“The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise.” Genesis 3:6
Notice the subtle reversing of the order. Eve prioritizes food first, beauty second. God had given them every tree in the garden for food, save one. They were instructed not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That tree, apparently, was to be appreciated only for its beauty, not for its utilitarian use. When Eve reverses God’s perfect order, and eats from the tree reserved solely for beauty, sin and chaos enter the world. The same is true for us when we prioritize consumption over adoration.
Human beings consume. That is what we do. Turning back the technological clock to some prehistoric state of existence does not change the biological fact that we are omnivores who get our energy primarily from the eating of plants and animals. Plants and animals are also consumers. What sets humans apart from plants and animals is our ability to adore.
The point is: God did create fruit-bearing trees -and by extension natural world- for our consumptive enjoyment. But this consumption must always take a back seat to our adoration of the Creator and an appreciation of His gift of creation. To reverse the order is to wildly miss God’s original design. Adoration must always precede consumption. Any beast can devour food, but only we humans can appreciate beauty. Never-ending consumption without adoration leads to greed, overconsumption and the eventual destruction of our planet. When God’s order is restored, the results are much different. Adoration first, with consumption second, leads to gratitude, sustainable consumption, and concern for the thriving of all of life.