An addicted man has little reason to decry drunkenness until his ailing liver, his overdrawn accounts, or his estranged wife lead him to close the barroom door behind him for the final time. Outside in the quiet night, a bolted door behind him and as yet no open doors ahead, he must smash his treasured bottle with its amatory allure upon the gravel of his own brokenness, his own deficiency, his own suffering, all of which will indeed be his salvation if he persists. He must shatter one thing so that he might be whole. He must withdraw himself from one object, in order to restore communion with another. The everyday American, going about his business half-drugged by the endless assaults and seductive posturing of advertisers, media genies, and sham prophets of progress and productivity—his cords of addiction spread far and wide—cannot have anything of value to say of his own culture until he, too, steps away from his treasured amenities that nevertheless may be killing him. Anyone who would offer a robust assessment of his society must volunteer him- or herself to a sideline to watch the strange spectacle of that society with some measure of detachment.
In addition, because the environmentalist (along with the religious person) agrees that, despite the tremendous good that rarely fails to well up when human beings gather in common purpose, human society as it stands is nevertheless somehow broken, somehow prone to corruption, somehow inclined to mutiny against larger contexts that would remind it of its limitations. Therefore, the environmentalist, as with the religious person (if he would be worth his salt), is doubly called to make a break from the social order—a break not only with visible things or with the outward forms of society, but chiefly with the buried value structures and assumptions that undergird it. The whole vision of both the environmentalist and the religious person must be born anew, that they may speak it truly to their people.
Nature cannot be protected, honored, cared for, loved, participated in from within a system of values that scrape against her. Many of the values and standards forming the normative fibers of American liberal thought grow out of an inherent disdain for the routine limitations of nature (perhaps in part the strange fruits of an orchard planted in the restless city and not in quiet fields) and such value structures only work in the end to destroy and disfigure her. Since to love is to offer oneself for the sake of the other, authentic love for nature would express itself in sacrifice. The ease and predictability of an engineered environment, and elitist fantasies of leisure unwed to labor; the immediate gratification of every whim, and being waited on at the press of a button—an encounter with raw nature puts a swift end to these. In boiling life down to the basics, little room remains for the adolescent amplification of personal predilections and the positivistic but (in the end) perennially discontented and insubordinate spirit of progressivism that now appears to be the bedrock of popular liberal thinking. Certainly, an authentic love for nature would require their swift sacrifice. These do not stand much better in the contexts of any authentic relationship, be it a marriage, a family, or a community—especially when such a relationship is lived in conscious acknowledgment of the bonds by which it subsists, intergenerational bonds not only with the living, but with the dead and with those yet to come. Real relationships, real communion, real belonging is limiting to individualistic tendencies, which is why relationships on every level are faltering in our day and age: we simply refuse to surrender to their constraints. But the alternative to these constraints, it seems to me, is not any better. Indeed, it is far worse. The alternative is a world of self-seekers, constantly vying for the kill. It is a world of incessant clamor, disaffection, atomization, faithlessness, exploitation—a spiritual and environmental nightmare. We cannot have communion without limitation and surrender, and we cannot in turn have conservation without communion.
It betrays the very laws of nature to think that we can have it all. Global citizenry is no citizenry. Our best hope is to have one thing fully, our best intention to care for one place well. As it now stands, the environmental movement is undermined not mainly by its opponents, but by itself. It is undermined by a confusion of political language, a confusion that leads us to think that earth-care is somehow congruent with a liberal, progressivist agenda when the task at hand is anything but expansive and progressive, but is rather conservative. Today’s environmental movement is undermined also by its refusal to volunteer itself to the sidelines of contemporary American culture, and from there to offer an incisive critique of that culture. It cannot issue a call to greatness when it is unwilling to embrace for itself a courageous moral vision that is as outwardly honorable as it is internally coherent, a vision received in the place from whence all true prophets come—the bareness, the routine simplicity, of the wilderness.
We may here understand wilderness broadly or even metaphorically, as the place that is least propitious to our egocentric lives; the place that at once reveals the minuteness of our atomized selves and the steadfast solidity of that in which these little selves reside. Settled, domestic life is very much a wilderness in this sense, where we discover our belonging to the larger contexts of family, community, and land only to the degree that we also discover the dead ends of self-absorption. The limitations of self-expression inherent in peaceable domestic life, marriage, communal integrity, and husbandry of the land are in harmony with the prophet’s wilderness, and the prophet’s wilderness, in any case, is not a wilderness cut off from, or in some romanticized opposition to, human culture. The prophet’s wilderness is the wilderness that surrounds human culture and gives it definition, for the prophet’s concern is ultimately the health of his or her own people; a health best assessed by the givenness of creation’s robust but stable fellowship, in which human culture partakes according to the unique characteristics of the human kind. Unless the prophet considers the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, he cannot properly consider his fellow men. All religious accounts, and so all traditional moral and ethical frameworks, begin with the account of creation. Man finds no place except within the broader household of nature.
The Disfiguration of Nature is my small offering to help in these tasks; the tasks, that is, of cultural critique and the reestablishment of human culture within an ordered and given cosmos, and one which imposes real limitations upon our lives and desires. Such is a cosmos that demands our fidelity and is worthy of it, and presents us (in the end) with little choice in the matter. This book is, at the same time, an invitation to disconnection. Particularly, it is an invitation to disconnect from destructive illusions about both nature and ourselves in favor of a humble yet constructive—and eventually powerful—understanding, the kind that can create a desperately-needed common ground in service not only of our shared American landscape, but of the promise of sound and peaceable human culture upon it.
Praise for The Disfiguration of Nature
“Orthodox theology and spirituality have traditionally advanced the concept of transfiguration as the ultimate aspiration of all people and all things. This book demonstrates how ignoring the far-reaching implications of our vocation to conserve God’s creation leads to the disfigurement of nature.”
—John Chryssavgis, author of Earth as Sacrament
About the Author
James G. Krueger is founder of Mons Nubifer Sanctus, a center for training in the Christian spiritual life rooted in contemplative prayer. He lives with his wife Maureen in the Catskill Mountains, where he is Priest in Charge of a small congregation. In the throes of establishing a modest farmstead, Krueger has also contributed essays and poems to numerous periodicals and is an award-winning songwriter.