Reimagining the Wilderness
Today’s lectionary reading serves as a musical prompt—I hear the voice of a tenor singing “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people” from Handel’s Messiah. The reading from Mark echoes Isaiah and relays other images of the season: John the Baptist, born of aging parents, then appearing in the wilderness, clothed in camel’s hair and preaching repentence. His cousin’s own peculiar conception and arrival, announced by the angel, heralded by a heavenly host, witnessed by shepherds and their flocks, visited by the three kings. Isaiah 40 sets Advent in motion with its consoling poetry.
But rather than replaying this familiar Christmas soundtrack, I want to focus on one particular image the prophet presents to us, that of ‘wilderness.’ The uninhabited parts of Nature. The tracts of land set apart from civilization. The places on the earth where one can see the stars, get truly lost, fall off the grid. Many twenty-first century suburbanites, believers and agnostics alike, seek out wilderness to experience the majesty of the natural world. Wilderness is, almost by definition, remote, and therein lies part of its attraction. Many feel a sense of worshipful awe away from humanity, with its polluting, greedy, rapacious habits. As John Muir reflected on his visit to the North Dome in Yosemite Valley:
No pain here, no dull empty hours, no fear of the past, no fear of the future. These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God’s beauty, no petty personal hope or experience has room to be. … [T]he body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure glow not explainable.
This rapturous understanding of the mountain as cathedral has been cultivated by modern writers and artists who portray the sublimein nature. As environmental historian William Cronon comments on this tradition, “sublime landscapes were those rare places on earth where one had more chance than elsewhere to glimpse the face of God.” Yet Cronon goes on to caution us about the cultural assumptions built into this image of Nature. In the U.S., the movement to set aside parks and wilderness areas followed the last of the Indian Wars, in which the prior human inhabitants of these regions were “rounded up and moved onto reservations.” Thus the ideal of “uninhabited wilderness” was constructed through coercion. By representing the human as entirely outside the natural world, such a vision (in Cronon’s words) leaves “little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.” This valorization of wilderness can lead, in other words, to a kind of misanthropy. If wilderness can only exist untouched by humanity, remote from our contaminating civilization, then the only way to save wilderness—and by implication, to preserve the dwelling place of God—is to get rid of the humans.
So let us listen for the voice calling out in the wilderness without our modern mythology separating nature and culture. But this is not to deny the serious environmental harm that the massive human population has caused our earthly home. In this sense, Isaiah’s poem of consolation is a welcome refrain for us, people of faith who live in a calamitous age. The first part of Isaiah foretells the judgment coming to God’s unfaithful people, prophecy fulfilled when Jerusalem was destroyed and its inhabitants were exiled to Babylon. A long hiatus stands between the end of Isaiah 39 and the beginning of Isaiah 40—which literally opens a new page on the story of God’s people, beginning an era of forgiveness and repair. This is post-catastrophe literature, a poem to offer hope to a people culpable for their own disasters. In our age of economic collapse and global warming, we understand too well the catastrophic consequences of human greed and short-sightedness, and our need for pardon and comfort.
Counter to our cultural expectations, the text does not offer an Eden-like, undeveloped wilderness as an antidote to our failures. Rather, here we see the interpenetration of natural and human worlds. The preparation for God’s arrival involves the construction of a highway, as well as some rather impressive geoengineering—lifting up the valleys and leveling every mountain and hill. And people are not simply agents who stand outside the natural order, shaping it to their own ends. As organisms ourselves, we humans participate in the cycles of nature, birth and decay.
As a historian of biology, thinking about our physical connection to the natural world brings to mind our animal heritage, our evolution. We are flesh, the text observes. More specifically, we are advanced primates, products of our natural world and its deep history. It is meaningful - but also challenging - to bring Darwinian evolution into conversation with Christian faith. Take the role of suffering and death in the evolution of life. Darwin ends On the Origin of Species with this near-hymn:
From the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
There may be grandeur in Darwin’s view of life, but, as Charles Foster has observed, it is an icy grandeur. “Natural selection is powered by selfishness, appetite, waste, pain, and death.” This biological necessity of suffering and the role of chance are hard to reconcile with the intentionality and caring of a Creator. Yet I am unwilling to accede to the one point on which both creationists and scientific atheists seem to agree, namely: “that the theory of evolution by natural selection excludes the existence of God.”
In Alone in the World?, Wentzel van Huyssteen compares perspectives on human uniqueness from science and theology. For example, what does it mean to be created in the image of God? Theologians have conventionally pointed to the human capacity for rationality and self-transcendance, but one might instead consider the notion in terms of the embodied self. Humans are distinguished among God’s creatures in that God speaks not only about us, but to us. As van Huyssteen observes, “On this theological view humans are unique in that we are addressees of the conversation that is God.” Or, to put it another way, “humans are the praying animals.”
Isaiah draws attention to the limits imposed by our embodiment: “the people are like grass” in their ephemerality - even their “constancy” is like the flower of the field. Here today, gone tomorrow. As biblical scholar Francis Landy has noted, the word used here for “constancy” in Hebrew is hesed, referring to “the affective ties that bind human beings, and hence to the capacity for generosity and loyalty.” It is, in other words, our human virtues, such our ability to love, than are as evanescent as the grass. This is not despair over human evil, but over our goodness, which embodied, is not durable. Yet we are promised that “all flesh shall see the glory of the Lord.” Even when facing our transience, the poem suggests that it is our embodied selves that perceive and experience God.
Resituating the passage in its familiar Advent context, another level of meaning emerges: It is in the fleshly body that we see God, for God became flesh in Jesus Christ. It is precisely not in the wilderness, evacuated of residues of the human, that God appears. Instead, God is manifested in and through humanity, born of woman, in a primate body. Christ entered human history as a hominid, God incarnate. The prophet assures us that God is coming and will care for us, his mortal, praying animals, with maternal tenderness, like a Shepherd cares for his lambs and ewes.
We do not need to escape to the wilderness to find God. It is Advent, and we wait for the arrival of the divine one here, among us, in the flesh. The birth of Christ sacralizes humanity and redeems Nature, bringing us longed-for comfort.
William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, ed. William Cronon(New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), pp. 69–90, on p. 75.
 Ibid., p. 79.
 Charles Foster, The Selfless Gene: Living with God and Darwin (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009), p. 12.
 Foster, Selfless Gene, p. 18.
 J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Alone in the World? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), pp. 145–46.
 Francis Landy, “The Ghostly Prelude to Deutero-Isaiah,” Biblical Interpretation 14:4 (2006): 332–63, on p. 345