“We cannot fully know ourselves without first knowing the nature of all living creatures,” wrote Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century. Three centuries earlier, Paul had drawn a line from creation to the Creator: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom 1:20). If we put these two affirmations together, we can surmise that creation mediates both knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of God. This essay argues that environmental degradation, especially the extinction of species, leads to the impoverishment of both the theological and moral imagination.
Personal experience from a village in Malawi
In the 1980s Malawi’s Liwonde National Park was bustling with all manner of flora and fauna. Children often interacted with elephants, baboons and wild pigs that came out of the national park to eat our crops. They not only knew the names and characteristics of various plants, birds and animals, but also learned from the elders how to extract human wisdom from these creatures of God. They listened to folklore overflowing with animal characters that were used to embody admirable or despicable forms of behavior.
Play was replete with biomimicry, that is, imitation of the nature and behavior of created beings. The human and the non-human worlds had many points of intersection. The non-human world not only helped us to meet practical needs such as food and medicine, it was also the source of wisdom that helped our community to clarify the ambiguities of the human condition.
But, 40 years later, things have changed. The national park is a threadbare version of its past glory. Due to unbridled deforestation and poaching, the rich biodiversity those children knew is gone. Frequent droughts have also driven many animals to greener pastures. Today, young people can hardly make sense of proverbs based on the nature and behavior of plants and animals. They would require extensive explanations of the nature and behavior of the various plants and animals featured in proverbs and folklore.