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By 
Ryan Sensenig
 on September 29, 2023

An Ecological Perspective of God, Ourselves and Nature

Why did God create us as part of complex biological systems where a “win” for one species often means a “loss” for another? What is God trying to teach us?

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The rhythm in our household includes shepherding the lives of a small herd of Jersey cows, which occasionally includes the thrill of welcoming a new baby calf. The most recent arrival we named “Aster,” after a common flower in our prairie. I also soon realized her name served another role: it helped release the frustration I felt in caring for her. I could remind her that she was our little “pain in the Aster.” 

Aster would often hobble under the electric line and disappear. Thirty minutes of searching would find her bedded down like a little tawny fawn in the grass at the far end of the pasture. This was not acceptable—a calf is to be with her mother. As I lovingly carried her back, I wondered, what was wrong with Aster? One night, Aster completely escaped from the paddock and spent a cold, rainy night somewhere in the tallgrass prairie. A sadness as strong as the joy of her arrival settled on our household, as we presumed she would not survive the night.

To our surprise, a full day later she returned, bellowing for mama’s milk. It became clear that what was “wrong” for us, was “right” for her.

When My “Wrong” is Your “Right”

Why did God create us as part of such complex ecological systems? It seems almost impossible to figure out when things are going wrong for us, let alone for all the other creatures.

There are many texts that can help us explore this—the Job text—“where were you when I laid the foundation?” The Rolling Stones song—”You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes, you may just find you get what you need.” And of course the textural splendor that is our shared and lived stories. This complex organic world—teeming with millions of species—has something to teach us. One event cannot be right or wrong for all entities at the same time.

As a result of living in complex ecological systems, we are on a daily basis challenged with when to exert our control—to demand the universe bend to our will—and when to relinquish control. We live in a system of creation that is both unfolding and strongly mediated by human action. It occurs to me that much wisdom resides in the daily act of simply naming this tension. Similarly, God seems to have relinquished control for us “to move, and change, and have our being.”

This complex organic world…has something to teach us…we are on a daily basis challenged with when to exert our control—to demand the universe bend to our will—and when to relinquish control.

Systems-thinking in Ecology

As a Christian and ecologist, I am fascinated by at least three theological aspects of the created world that seem to be baked into its fabric:

1. Evolution—as a creative force—is dependent on things going wrong for some creatures, in order that others can flourish. Most species arose because of mutations to previous ones. And most species, about 99% in fact, are no longer alive. Their heritage is in their contribution to future generations.

2. Creation spawns species that each have a “me-centric” view of time and space. Without it, they end up in the waste heap of extinction. This breeds both cooperative and competitive behaviors, as both help advance survival. And, of course, this is true for humans too.

3. Nature, at some scales, is a zero-sum game; not all creatures can have a good day at the same time. When the fox has a full belly, our kitchen has fewer chicken eggs. There is always a reaction, ecologically, to any action.

A life system created via relationships and tensions, primes the universe with the opportunity for kenotic morality. By “kenotic morality,” I mean a self-emptying where one  gives up control to care for another. George Ellis uses the term kenotic ethics: the practice of self-emptying to bring wholeness to people, systems and nations.

For a kenotic morality to develop, a creature needs to become aware that they are in a system that has the components mentioned. In fact, I am convinced it may be impossible to introduce kenotic love to the universe without these aspects of nature. Perhaps we are created as moral beings not in spite of our biological nature, but precisely because we are one creature in a vast ecological network of communities.

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And all this feels good, for a time, until what is right for us becomes dangerously wrong for so many others…At one scale, our story is successful—we live in the most safe, long-lived human generation to ever exist on Earth. But it has come at a cost…In achieving what we desire, we sometimes lose what we need.

Ryan Sensenig

The desire to control our world seems elemental to our nature. We work hard to have the days, weeks, and months fall in submission to our plans. With enough effort, the world bends to the will of the human machinery. From disorder we create predictability. Our lives begin to beat to schedules nailed down to the minute. The resources we buy are always on the shelf. Water flows from the taps. The diseases that threaten our populations are tamed. Our children get jobs. Retirement funds return yields. Our calves are born like clockwork, and the farm is a well-oiled machine, humming along.

And all this feels good, for a time, until what is right for us becomes dangerously wrong for so many others. Our waters are no longer potable. We risk losing a third of species to extinction. Our chronic preoccupation with our own thriving depresses us. Excesses and successes leave us aching and hollow. At one scale, our story is successful—we live in the most safe, long-lived human generation to ever exist on Earth. But it has come at a cost. Nature is sometimes a zero-sum game. In achieving what we desire, we sometimes lose what we need.

The Big Picture

One way to practice kenosis is to look at the world at 30,000 feet. At these wispy heights we see scales we cannot envision. We see relationships between our small “center” of the universe and a broader, unexplored reality. This idea has sort of turned into a mantra for me: “How does a 30,000-foot view influence the meaning I assign to life?” Can it help me know when to exert control and when to relinquish control? To know when to see that my “wrong” is actually a part of someone else’s “right”?

There are literal aspects of the 30,000 foot idea. I am often dismayed why the rain always seems to go north or south of our farm. But a quick look at the satellite imagery helps me realize that many of my neighbors are in the same situation. If summertime storms are patchy, we can’t all get the thunder showers we crave to nourish our thirsty soil. As God asks Job, have you “ever given orders to the morning or shown dawn its place?”

Looking at our complex social systems at “30,000 feet” is also helpful. Praying for my team to win is praying for your team to lose! Though more controversial, my wealth might come as a result of the poverty of another. It is impossible to practice kenosis if we cannot see the connections between our “center” and the social landscape around us—between our success and another’s suffering. If we know that our carbon use contributes to drought and disease in East Africa, we are more able to practice necessary restraint.

It is impossible to practice kenosis if we cannot see the connections between our “center” and the social landscape around us—between our success and another’s suffering.

Restraint and Flourishing

The act of ecological restoration can be an example of kenotic morality, a dance of exerting both control and restraint. Three years ago, we converted a corn field into a tallgrass prairie. It takes some control (and cost) to restore this human-grass relationship. We bought seeds, prepared the seedbed, planted, mowed, burned, and weeded. But we also needed to practice the restraint of waiting and watching, discerning when to engage and when to release. The monarchs showed up enmasse in the third year only after the milkweed plants became common. The complex relationships in an ecological community take time to develop. By applying kenotic morality, at some scales, we can create win-win scenarios (non-zero sum games).

But at large scales (think states and nations), restraint will be more costly. Shifting the momentum from exploitation to restoration (ecological and social) at these scales requires a kenotic moral moment of grand proportion. Such changes will come with significant costs to the human machinery and are quite likely zero-sum. Societal restraint will require targeted policies and economic commitments that enable restoration of land and people at massive scales. We need our faith-based communities to prophetically help us see the ecological and theological gifts in this grand “pulling back.” We find ourselves in a generation with a defining human kenotic moral moment. What will we do?

Why did God create us as part of such complex ecological systems—where at times we must exert control, and other times release control and let Aster run? Being “centered” takes on a new meaning, one laced with a helpful tension. On the one hand, like all creaturely beings, our world is centered around us. But to be “centered” also means that our lives are nested in the middle of a larger landscape with millions of other stories. The awareness of this tension—and ability to respond with kenotic resolve—may indeed be what defines us as human.

Societal restraint will require targeted policies and economic commitments that enable restoration of land and people…We need our faith-based communities to prophetically help us see the ecological and theological gifts in this grand “pulling back.”

In these simple ideas ecological truths become synonymous with theological truths. Maybe this is just why we were created, for both the small and grand kenotic moral moments in which we bring restraining love into our universe. In doing so, we may not (always) get what we want, but if we try, we might just get what we need.

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About the author

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Ryan Sensenig

Ryan Sensenig is a Professor of the Practice in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame and an affiliated faculty member at Goshen College, where he taught ecology for 16 years. His research focuses on tallgrass prairie restoration in northern Indiana and savanna conservation in Kenya. In both habitats, he and his students are studying how fire and grazing influence carbon sequestration. With his family, he lives on Little Bluestem Farm in Goshen Indiana, which includes 11 acres of restored tallgrass prairie.