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    PloughCast 78: Worshiping Nature

    By Ross Douthat, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    March 6, 2024
    • Todd Celmar

      The constant tension in nature is between its incredible beauty (the colors, textures, proportions, shapes, patterns, energies, diversity-in-unity and unity-in-diversity, cycles, geographic differences, etc.) and its incredible dangerousness (diseases, storms, volcanoes, fires, hunger, cold, heat, thorns, etc.). It's gorgeous and brutal. Living and managing and enjoying nature on a daily basis (like Mr. Berry or the late Donald Hall) collapses many of the distinctions made in the episode (harmony, management, stewardship, natural law, etc.) into one unified whole. It's all those things (i.e. we live in harmony as stewards abiding under - while also leveraging for our benefit - nature's laws, which include both love and danger). I am often struck by these elements of nature on a regular basis: beauty, love, play, struggle, and danger, each continually fluctuating and overlapping and merging with each other: different dimensions interacting within a unified whole, which is life.

    About This Episode

    Ross Douthat discusses why what is natural is not a guide to what is good.

    The idea that the natural world is to be worshiped can take many forms. Douthat and Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts discuss these forms, ranging from Wordsworthian spiritual experiences in a national park, to worshiping ancestral or local gods, to civic religions of left and right, to tarot card reading, to affirming the Darwinian struggle for existence as a source of moral guidance.

    They discuss varying understandings of natural law, talk about euthanasia, and revisit Fight Club. Then they discuss whether Darwinism is compatible with the traditional idea of the Fall, and whether we should accept the teaching that human beings are made to not just live in harmony with the natural world but to transcend it.

     [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to The PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough, and this is the first podcast in our Nature series! I’m pleased to welcome repeat PloughCast offender Ross Douthat. Ross is a columnist at the New York Times and the author of many books, including, most recently, The Deep Places. I am also joined once again today by my cohost, Pete Mommsen, who, yes, is still my cohost even though you haven’t heard his voice on here as much recently.

    Welcome, Ross! So you have been kind of writing about the problem of post-Christian religion, obviously, for a good long while now.

    Ross Douthat: And it has not ceased being relevant.

    Susannah Black Roberts: No, it has not. And one of the things that you’ve been noticing is this extreme, basically, return to something like real paganism, which Steven Smith, I believe, was the author who you referred to in a column. What is his thesis and where do you see this going?

    Ross Douthat: Sure. I mean, so I wrote about that a few years ago and he is, I believe, a law professor, right?

    Peter Mommsen: I believe at San Diego. Philosophy of law.

    Ross Douthat: Philosophy of law. OK, so I can call him a law professor. Right. So, yeah, Steven … Steven Smith is a law professor who wrote a book called Pagans and Christians in the City, I think, I think it was called, that came out several years ago. And he was sort of taking really a political philosopher’s view of the interrelationship, sort of the dynamic relationship between Christianity and paganism over the course of the last two thousand years. And his basic argument was that paganism as a form of religion that is imminent, rather focused on the imminent rather than the transcendent, often focused on sort of the political life of the city that, literally in Augustinian terms, takes the City of Man as the sort of core aspect of religious duty or the core source of religious duty.

    [He argues] that that form of religion has never actually gone away and that it’s sort of been in certain ways suppressed at various times or, you know, adapted and channeled at various times by Christian societies. But it’s always been there and it’s had sort of various comebacks with, you know, certain elements of the Renaissance being an obvious example. And his argument was that you can see, as Christianity weakens in our own day, various versions of this coming back. I think what I would say, you know, myself is that that book was sort of focused on, especially sort of the political philosophical dimensions of pagan practice and arguing that you can see in things that we don’t think of as sort of pagan per se, American civic religion, you know, these kinds of things, certain elements of what we think of as conventional progressive or liberal politics, right, that you can see this kind of pagan dimension.

    I would say since that book came out, I think we’re seeing more evidence of a kind of more literal form of paganism taking shape, that you just sort of in popular spiritual and religious culture, that you don’t have to sort of do a close reading of, you know, the sort of progressive vision of America as a kind of unfolding godly work to see imminent religion in American life. You can just like look at all the people who are, you know, dabbling in witchcraft and the occult. Right. You don’t have to say, ah, when progressives imagine, you know …

    Susannah Black Roberts: That it’s less chin-strokey and it’s more just like, Oh, thanks.

    Ross Douthat: Right. It’s well, it’s less, to use the term conservatives like to use going back decades, it’s less about immanentizing the eschaton and more about asking the gods to, you know, do you a solid in a more literal kind of way. Right. It’s less about, like, “the Great Society or the New Deal is the fulfillment of divine purposes in the imminent sphere” and more about, yeah, what is the you know, what are the tarot cards telling me about my everyday life? But both can be elements of this.

    Peter Mommsen: Ross, for our listeners, could you kind of tease out either what Steven Smith or what you kind of feel is the connection between this new pagan impulse and nature or bad nature? You’ve used the word imminent. Right. How is this different than the view of the supernatural that you find in the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam?

    Ross Douthat: Well, one, I would say it’s not completely different. Right. The traditional Abrahamic religions sort of assume that there are imminent forms of what we would colloquially call supernaturalism. Right. That there are sort of powers, supernatural powers at work in the world that did not themselves make the world. Right. It’s just that in the Abrahamic religions, these powers are assumed to either be subordinate to God, angelic powers, basically, or in some form of rebellion against God.

    Whereas the pagan impulse is to treat those powers as, you know, either all there is or all there is that, you know, humans need to be concerned about. To say that, like, you know, the spirit of the valley that you live in, you know, the local gods, the household gods, the spirits of your ancestors and so on, that this is actually the stuff of of religious practice, that it’s you know, that there’s sort of an imminent supernatural that’s woven into the natural world that can be accessed through communion to some extent with the natural world. Right. That you, you know, go out into a national park and have some kind of religious experience. And that that’s the core of what religious and spiritual experience are and that if there are religious or spiritual duties, they’re going to be connected to some sort of imminent form of divinity like the gods of your city, to take sort of the example of the ancient world.

    Whereas again, the Christians, the Jews, the Muslims would generally say, no, all those powers may exist, but we should be oriented towards the transcendent power that is outside the world, made the world, governs the world and makes, you know, certain demands of us enters into covenantal relationships with us and so on. And then this is bundled, I think, with a kind of a moral critique of especially the subordinate powers that are in rebellion against God. And this critique would say basically that to the extent that, you know, you see some kind of relationship between you know, sort of spiritual realities and natural realities. If that relationship leaves out the original source, it’s going to lead human beings astray. Right. And so to leap, we’ll just leap straight to, you know, to the Nazis because why not? Right. But like what you see with the Nazis and this is, you know, I think in your essay for the Plough issue on this, Peter, you made you made the leap. So, right. It’s OK.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, I totally, I totally broke Godwin’s law. You know, you are. You are. And I did after I woke up.

    Ross Douthat: So I’ll go there. I’ll go there, too. Right. What you see with the Nazis is, I think, sort of what Christians would say is the predictable pattern here, where on the one hand, the Nazis were really interested in the occult. Not all of them. But there was a really strong dimension of kind of, you know, an interest in the kind of magical supernatural, an interest in reviving, you know, sort of Norse, you know, or Germanic paganism. Right.

    Peter Mommsen: Indigenous religious practice. Indigenous for Northern Europeans.

    Ross Douthat: Exactly. The indigenous religious practices in Northern Europe joined to a kind of fascination with Darwinian science and evolution as a moral guide for life. Right. The idea being that life is a struggle for existence and survival and any moral dimension is basically just should map onto that reality. Right. Where we should what is praiseworthy is that which is strong and triumphant and conquers. Right. And that which is blameworthy is that which does none of those things with the worst thing of all being, you know, the sort of forms of weakness that bring down the strong. Right. The sort of undercut strength. We should be celebrating strength. We should be celebrating vitality and so on.

    And the Christians would say, look, it’s no coincidence, even though those things sort of seem like their intention … right. Like Charles Darwin is not worshiping Odin. They actually go together naturally, that if your spiritual horizon is imminent spirituality, then that’s going to fit together neatly with a kind of nature, red and tooth and claw morality. And that you, you know, it’s only when you look beyond the imminent that you start getting something more like the moral picture of the New Testament or even just the Ten Commandments.

    Peter Mommsen: So there is a – just to go back to Smith here – that is the kind of continuity he sees between things that can look outwardly as different as, you know, tarot card reading, spiritual healing through hallucinogenic drugs, going back to, you know, ancestral religious practices, Wiccans at Stonehenge. And, I guess more provocatively, some of the stuff you see on the New Right that is avowedly post-Christian.

    Ross Douthat: Yes. I mean, I don’t think this is Smith’s point. This would just be me. But I think you see. Right now, you see fairly different versions of this manifesting on the post-Christian right and the post-Christian left. That the post-Christian right, as in 1930s Europe, is much more likely to sort of fully say, fully commit to the idea that nature is our moral guide. Right. Nature. Nature shows that strength is good and weakness is bad. Vitality is good. And, you know, sickness and anything like that is disability and so on is bad and that therefore we should embrace a hierarchical, a hierarchical world of, you know, master civilizations dominating the weak.

    The post-Christian left is a little bit more of a muddle, I would say, where you have this this sort of formal commitment to egalitarianism that is, you know, challenged a bit on the margins. But to the extent that it’s really challenged, it’s challenged in the sense of like inverting hierarchies rather than doing away with them. Right. Like making history’s victims into sort of, you know, sacred exemplars to whom we should all defer. Right. So, you know, you’re sort of creating …

    And that’s, you know, obviously not what it’s not what the post-Christian right is doing. Right. The post-Christian left, I think there’s more a sort of and I don’t know, I’m curious what you guys think, honestly, but there’s sort of more a kind of there’s a there’s in certain ways a desire to see human beings as kind of worse than nature. Right. Maybe the post-Christian right is more likely to say human beings should be like the great predators of nature. Right. We should be like the panther and the tiger and sort of dominate post-Christian left is more likely to say you know, we can never be as good as the natural world. We suck, because we’re sort of imprisoned in our self-consciousness, imprisoned by our awareness and imprisoned by our flaws and our sort of mistreatment of nature and so on. And there in that sense, again, to take it to the extreme, they’re more likely to head in a kind of voluntary human extinction direction than in a kind of master ace direction, I guess. I guess I don’t know what – that’s a very provisional take.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I feel like they’re more they’re more stuck. The post-Christian left is more stuck in a Christian heresy mode than the post-Christian right at this point. I think that except for some forms of Christian nationalism that are really shading over into Nietzscheanism where there really is kind of a blend the post-Christian right is less Christian than the post-Christian left in the sense that the post-Christian left is at least a Christian heresy. But I also kind of think that like the there is, you know, the vision of, you know, if you like books like The Camp of the Saints or like Paul Ehrlich, there is this kind of vision of, well, at least some you could you could read Paul Ehrlich as a kind of like esoterically right wing Camp of the Saints kind of guy. And there is this vision of at least on the right of at least some humans as sucking like some humans are the bacteria who are like overrunning the natural system. And so we need to get rid of those humans so that the other humans who are not like those bacteria humans can thrive.

    Peter Mommsen: Susannah, explain the Paul Ehrlich reference.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, sure. Paul Ehrlich was this guy who wrote in I feel like 1980 something or so, a book called The Population Bomb. It started …

    Ross Douthat: He’s really an early ’70s figure. OK. I mean, he kept writing the same book over and over again. It starts in the late ’60s and just runs on.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Nice work, if you can get it. He wrote a book called The Population Bomb, which was very much about the idea that like, especially the Third World, and there’s this sort of characteristic passage from, I think, the first book, where he like went to India and he’s just like seeing all these people. And it’s like this body horror experience for him where he’s just like There are too many people in the world. And it’s a little bit like There’s too many non-white people. But it’s not directly that – there is he is in favor of everyone curbing their fertility, not just non-white people, though non-white people need to do it more just because they’re more fertile or at least they were then. And so there is this kind of like sense of natural balance is good. Humans can be good if they’re in balance with nature and if they’re excellent. But if they’re not, if they’re flawed in some way or if there are too many of them or if they’re the wrong kind, then they become like a disease. And that vision is very much picked up on by many right wing thinkers. Obviously, it sounds like a right-wing vision, although Paul Ehrlich I think thought of himself as a man of the left. Does that …

    Ross Douthat: No, I think that’s I think that’s right. Certainly there are passages in Ehrlich that you could transpose into Bronze Age Mindset or some other work of the post-Christian right without anyone noticing. Right. Yeah. You tweak a sentence here and there. And there is a version. There’s definitely a version of sort of left wing ecological thinking, right, that it has a different view of excellence than the right. But there is there is an overlap. Right.

    And like if you took, you know, like Tyler Durden’s monologues from Fight Club, right, from the late 1990s where he is, you know, he’s sort of effectively a kind of anarchist, masculinist envisioning the collapse of civilization and sort of rooting for the return of, you know, masterful, masterful men operating in the bronze in a Bronze Age environment. Right. When that movie came out, you would not have said, oh, this is definitively a right wing vision. Like he’s saying, oh, you know, I picture vines snaking through the canyons of Manhattan and, you know, sort of people, you know, women pounding … I forget what they’re pounding.

    Peter Mommsen: They’re pounding corn. I believe they’re pounding corn. Right. Pounding corn. And of course, there is that sort of lefty vibe because they’re blowing up the credit card companies.

    Ross Douthat: Right. Right. They’re blowing up the credit card companies. They’re sort of an anarchist vibe. There’s obviously a fascist vibe woven in there, too. But yeah, I think there’s a certain kind of instability of this perspective where it can veer rightward or leftward depending on the context.

    One thing, though, that I think has changed on the left is that we’ve gone from overpopulation anxieties to climate change anxieties, which are related, but I think different in an important way. And there’s there does seem to be sort of a way in which the overpopulation anxiety, you know, it was more sort of racist in the end. Right. It was like we, you know, we the WASPs, right. We the you know, the Rockefeller Foundation employees, we know how to control our fertility, right? It’s like that – Is it the Monty Python sketch about the pregnant Irish woman There’s a version of that where it’s like “we figured it out. We know how to have one point six kids. So, yeah, we need to curb our own fertility, but that that won’t be a problem for us. And it’s everyone else who has to curb their fertility. Right. And then the world will be OK.”

    Whereas with climate change, it’s much more like, no, we advanced civilization did this. Right. It doesn’t help to sort of curb your fertility. It’s too late for that. Right. It’s your lifestyle that’s doing it. It’s the whole of sort of the whole late modern paradigm is doing it. And there’s really, you know, you can, you know, maybe we can get out of it by abandoning all of modern civilization. But really, we’re just going to be, you know, we’re just going to be sort of punished inevitably for this, which again, maybe seems more anti humanist, more anti human in certain ways than then the Ehrlich model, which was just kind of racist.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think it’s less anti-human, actually, because I think that, like, you don’t have to be as depressed about a new baby as you explicitly have to be in, you know, the Population Bomb mode. And I feel like if you’re not as depressed about a new baby, like you’re in a better place no matter what.

    Ross Douthat: But see, I think there are more to – I don’t know. They. They’re depressed for the sake of the baby, right? In this way, in in the Ehrlich’s view, it’s like, oh, God, not another African, not another Indian. Right. Why? Because those babies are going to destroy the world. The climate change people are more like, oh, this poor baby. It would have been better for them had they not been born because the world we have created for them is so awful.

    I don’t know. That just seems. At that. Maybe that’s not. Yeah. Why not? Yeah, I’m not sure as much that she is. Both perspectives seem bad. Yeah. But they are sort of interestingly different. And I guess I want to push on this question about the left sort of still being more residually Christian, because sometimes I think that’s right. Right. Because, yes, the left is still sort of committed to certain kinds of egalitarianism that are, you know, clearly the poor shall inherit the earth. Right.

    Peter Mommsen: The poor shall inherit the earth.

    Ross Douthat: The idea that, they’re literally doing what Nietzsche attacked. Right. They’re elevating the victims of history and granting them special moral status based on their own victimhood. Right. It’s a literalization of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity. So in that sense, you’d say, yeah, they do still seem more residually Christian.

    But then, like you get to the point where, you know, you are like practicing, you know, practicing euthanasia. Like, let’s take, you know, take euthanasia as this sort of this very plausible endpoint for certain kinds of certain forms of the post-Christian left. Right. So if you get to the point where you are, you know, killing large numbers of old people to the sounds of sort of like new age music. And, you know, if you go watch the video that accompanied, you know, one of the pro euthanasia advertisements in Canada, right. Right. Like I’m killing myself.

    Peter Mommsen: All natural scenes

    Ross Douthat: All natural scenes. “I’m becoming one with the universe” and so on. And, you know, I mean, hundreds of thousands of old people are being killed this way. I mean, what does it mean to say that, well, it’s still residually Christian because we’re doing it and then again and then we still have this formal commitment to egalitarianism and we’re doing it in this sort of kindly way. Right. Like that’s the big difference. Right. Yeah. It’s nice to say we’re doing it for their own good. And the right wants to say they suck and should just sort of, you know, kill themselves.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. Although Alexander Raikin points out that the original Nazi kind of pro euthanasia laws, which were rejected by the Nazi government or the Nazi jurists in 1933 for being too radical and which are not as radical as Canada’s were kind of framed in terms of mercy killing. Like it was there was a kind of like “nice Nazism” early on before they were like, OK, you guys aren’t being enthusiastic enough about, you know, either killing your patients or choosing to die yourselves.

    Peter Mommsen: Right. I was reading this this book by Johann Chapoutot, this French scholar called The Law of the Blood: Thinking and Acting Like a Nazi, as I was putting that editorial together that Ross referenced. And one of the things he brought out was a Nazi feature film. It was about a young couple where the woman discovered she has multiple sclerosis and chooses to kill herself to remove her genes from the German genetic pool. And, you know, the movie climax is with this very kind of soft MAID-sounding heart wrenching scene, right, where she, you know, tells him, you know, don’t mourn for me. You know, you know, I’m doing the best and offing myself, you know, and go forth and pass on your unsullied genes. Right. And that kind of that kind of apparent softness was actually a big part of their program at least early on.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I wonder whether we might sort of press a little more precisely into the idea of nature by looking at two different definitions of natural law. There’s I mean, there’s the natural law that we understand in Christianity, where it is an expression of a transcendent God’s transcendent reason as embodied in our natures. And then there’s this other version of natural law, which I only started to realize anyone thought about or understood when they heard the phrase “natural law” in like 2015 or something. And it was this idea of Gnon. Do you know about this, Ross? Is this a thing that you’ve come across?

    Ross Douthat: Is this like the Wrath of Gnon?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, well, it is like the Wrath of Gnon …

    Ross Douthat: Elaborate, elaborate.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, it’s basically the idea – So it’s Nature Or Nature’s God, but reversed. And basically there were a whole batch of people on the kind of early post-Christian right. So like Nick Land and like all of these guys who later became kind of the alt right, neo-reactionaries who understood the phrase natural law to just mean Darwinism. And so when they heard Christians talking about natural law, like there would be these weird and kind of slightly amusing misunderstandings where they thought that what we mean by natural law is Darwinism. And it does seem to me that those two different visions of natural law are kind of like at the heart of the difference between the Christian and the post-Christian pagan vision.

    Peter Mommsen: And just to jump into that a little bit more. So going back to Fight Club, which incidentally I watched again last weekend just to reconnect with my 1990 self.

    Ross Douthat: Good days, man.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, they were great. There is a scene where those two different definitions of natural law kind of coincide, right? And that is Tyler Durden and his Ed Norton counterpart are on the subway and they’re looking at Calvin Klein ads of male models, sort of. And they’re saying to themselves, that’s not what real men are meant to be like. Right. So there’s some overlap. What’s the difference?

    Ross Douthat: What’s the difference? So one, I think that you don’t have to actually reach for Nick Land or anyone who’s sort of a formal neo reactionary. I think when most normal people in the, you know, the current Western world hear somebody talk about natural law, they don’t assume necessarily that you mean a sort of purely Darwinian ethics. But they do assume that you mean that which is found in nature. Right. I think this is just a form of cultural common sense that preexists any kind of hard Nietzschean turn.

    And I think there’s actually a deep challenge here for Christian and Christian adjacent moral arguments, right, which is that, you know, there’s the kind of natural law argument depends on the idea of, right. telos, right. The idea that, like, you know, you look at, you know, what the what the ends what the ends are of something. And that tells you what the virtuous use of that thing would be. Right. And what comes in really strongly with Darwinian evolution is that the is just the idea that, you know, the ends of biological life are their own propagation and survival. Right. And it just and any move you make as a Christian after that revolution is going to have to grapple with the extent to which Darwinism makes the ends of biology seem very imminent. Very imminent in every homonym form of the word. Right.

    So the conventional Christian response to Peter’s point about sort of the, the Calvin Klein man not being manly. Right. Is that yeah, there are sort of manly virtues that involve harmony with your own given biological nature. Right. And that virtue is not disembodied. It exists in some kind of some kind of active dynamic relationship with human nature as it’s given to us. But Darwin casts a shadow over that argument because human nature as it’s given to us under Darwinian premises has been has sort of “all is evolved for survival” in a way that Christianity says we have to both fulfill and transcend at the same time, if that makes sense. Yeah, it’s I mean, it’s weird because to a certain degree …

    Susannah Black Roberts: I almost feel like we shouldn’t have been as gob smacked by Darwinism as we were because the original vision of natural law, or the Aristotelian vision, at least was very biological. It wasn’t only biological, but it certainly had as a huge chunk of it, like what is the purpose of a, you know, I don’t know, dragonfly? To grow up and become an excellent dragonfly and then make more dragonflies. And obviously, you know, the Christian, either the sort of Platonist or the Christian vision of “and also to glorify God” is like separate. But I feel like Darwinism was only as much of a shock as it was because we had stopped being Aristotelians for a while in a way. Does that make sense?

    Ross Douthat: It does up to a point. But I think the challenge with Darwinism is that it’s not just saying OK, you know, physical entities exist and have reproductive purposes and, you know, and are engaged in some kind of competition for resources and all of these things. Right. It’s going. It’s saying and this competition, which involves inherently struggle and lots and lots of death is how we got human beings.

    And I think that’s sort of the change from the Aristotelian model. Right. Under Aristotelian premises, under Christian Aristotelian premises, right, you could say God made all of these animals who are engaged in a kind of, you know, who are sort of sub-moral, who are engaged in a kind of amoral fulfillment of their of their natures. And then he made human beings who are there to govern all of them who are who are more or, you know, we’re moral before the Fall and now our reason is clouded sense. And we have a propensity to stray.

    But then Darwin comes in and says, OK, but as far as we can see, the way that those human beings were constructed is through this process of competition and domination. Right. And many of the features of nature that Christians say are sinful and need to be struggled against seem not like something that came in with the Fall, but something that was inherited from our, you know, predatory animal ancestors.

    I think that’s the that’s the heart of the challenge. Right. Like, Christians are saying, you know, in a way, you can reconcile this by saying the Fall was in part a falling back. That, you know, we were sort of forged out of an animal nature and that we were made to transcend it. And once we sinned, we fell partway back into that animal, you know, that sort of animal structure that we had. Right.

    And so certain basic human sins are basically a sort of excess of animal spirits. Right. Lust and violence. Whereas, you know, whereas pride is a sin inherent in our higher nature, lust and violence are falling back into our lower nature. But you still do have this challenge of figuring out, you know, well, what does it mean that the species that’s supposed to rule morally over amoral, violent, competitive creation was itself its very nature was seemingly forged to sort of participate in that violent struggle. I wonder if you know, that’s the strongest pagan argument, I guess.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I feel like I’ll probably delete this part, but I wonder if you could make it kind of like Darwinian, Aristotelian, Christian argument in favor of seeing sexual selection as at the heart of natural selection and therefore like something about bridal theology. But that might be a stretch.

    Ross Douthat: Well, no, I think that there is a way in which you could say, right, right, that like human beings are given were given sexual natures in which, you know, women, women seem to want one thing to maximize their reproductive fitness and men seem to want something else to maximize theirs, right. Like men want some form of polygamy, arguably, right, to maximize their reproductive fitness. But in fact, the development of civilization is sort of the realization that in fact, if men and women both sacrifice some part of what seems like their initial reproductive instinct, you get something higher and better. Right. I think you can make that kind of argument. In fact, I think I sort of believe in that kind of argument.

    But again, it’s a little bit it’s a little bit different from the traditional theology of the Fall. Right. To say that, like, OK, God gave us this animal nature that we’re going to sort of struggle against and achieve theosis by transcending a little bit. That’s not quite the orthodox doctrine of the Fall, is it? It’s very victorious. Yeah. Or again, maybe you say that God elevated us. And had we just stayed elevated, we wouldn’t have had this sort of challenge of making male incentives and female incentives fit together. But because we fell back, we do have that challenge and to the extent that we can escape the Fall, it’s by getting closer to what God intended from the beginning. But we’re still stuck with this, the actual raw materials of male and female, which seem, you know, to have Darwinian characteristics.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, unless you sort of think in terms, literally, of a more sort of Victorian style sexual selection, where it’s like the way that evolution happens is a kind of romance. But I don’t know, from there, you would kind of have to like talk about the marriage of heaven and earth. But I don’t know. I feel like we’re getting very Teilhard-y. Or something like that. Well, yeah.

    Ross Douthat: And the thing about the Chardin stuff is, again, it’s just like not, like, Orthodox. It’s not Orthodox. Yeah, it’s this sort of idea of constant ongoing development, but not of rupture. I mean, you know, not that you couldn’t fit rupture in there somewhere, but orthodoxy emphasizes rupture. And I think for good reason, I am not critiquing it. But, you know, there is clearly a way in which human beings manifest rupture, right? Manifests, manifest fallen-ness. That’s objective reality. But I think that there is an unresolved tension between at least the traditional way the doctrine is formulated and the evolutionary narrative as we understand it. And it’s out of that that pagan arguments sort of do their work.

    Peter Mommsen: Susannah, we should probably move on to some of our other points. I did want to just throw in there, though, although I’m not sure that you can, you know, square Darwin with Christian thinking that came before perfectly. It was really fascinating to me to read this essay on Augustine by Ron Williams. In his book on Augustine, where he kind of points out how Augustine himself, you know, pretty strongly realized the imperfection of nature, the tragedy in nature, and did not see that as a block to recognizing the goodness of God through it.

    And so I guess with that, I’d like to lead us into just the wider question of, OK, we’ve talked sort of how the post question left and post question right, in our view, right get nature wrong. How could people learn to get nature right again? How do we get back to the right version of the law of nature, nature’s law? It seems to me like and I’m asking that because as you’ll recall, say ten years ago when for instance same-sex marriage was a big debate, there are a number of attempts by Christian conservatives to make natural law arguments thinking that they would win over a non-Christian public. And I think that was pretty tough work. Yeah, is there a way to make natural law more legible? You know, given that culture is where it is.

    Ross Douthat: I think the phrase just doesn’t work. Honestly, I know. I know. Criticizing centuries, millennia of especially Catholic writers. You’re just throwing your whole church down. There’s nothing wrong.

    Peter Mommsen: Your whole church under the bus.

    Ross Douthat: Like more than the phrase natural law. But I think in terms of public argument and debate, what again, in a post Darwinian landscape, what Christians are defending is a vision of human beings as essentially above, transcending, what normal people think of when they hear the word nature. Not theologians necessarily, not philosophers, but normal people in the twenty-first century. Christians are arguing for human transcendence and that and arguing that this is, you know, that any kind of moral perspective on what human beings are and should be doing and should not be doing has to rest on human beings difference from the natural world around us. Our exceptionalism, if you will, our distinctiveness. And then also that any kind of sort of care that we undertake of creation, any kind of good stewardship also has to reflect that human beings are called to be stewards of creation, not to sort of return to a purely organicist relationship with it. Right. And that any, you know, and this is true even if you are, you know, a kind of, you know, even if you are yourself trying to live in a kind of harmony with nature in a Wendell Berry, Bruderhoffian, you know, kind of style, you’re still going to be doing so as a steward and not simply through harmony.

    It’s not as hard to suggest. You’re not you’re not one note among many notes. You know, if you’re running a farm, right, you’re not just living in harmony with nature. You are managing nature. If you are, if you are running the national park system of the United States and you’re reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone and you’re, you know, doing sixteen thousand other things like that, you are not trying to live in harmony with nature. We’re trying to steward it so that it thrives and develops, but also is there for human beings to experience and participate in. And again, that requires standing above and outside to a degree that I think neither the pagan right nor the sort of organicist environmentalist left quite agrees with. Right. That would be my argument, I think.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. And I would just lean into the Wendell Berry, Bruderhoffian side here and say, I think one reason that, sort of, new paganism taking is taking hold more and more is actually because people are further removed from nature. If you’re actually, you know, being Wendell Berry, raising livestock, you absolutely realize both the commonality, but especially the difference between human beings and the animals. Right. And it struck me, again, going back to this Chapoutot book – the Nazis, they were a movement that took, you know, arose in an industrialized society. A bunch of urbanized intellectuals talking about nature. These weren’t back to the landers. I mean, they talked about it, but …

    Ross Douthat: They liked hiking.

    Peter Mommsen: I mean, they liked hiking. They like. Sure. Yeah. They like the aesthetic experience of nature.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So it kind of sounds to me like what you’re saying is not that we should necessarily throw off all of Thomistic tradition drawing from Aristotle, but that like remembering that there is also this idea of theosis, that there is this idea of humans being caught up in supernatural life and that being in some sense are natural in another in another sense. And that there’s a political element to that. There’s a ruling element to that as well is something that we can’t – it is a part of Christian doctrine that we can’t forget when we are trying to think about what humans are, that a more purely Aristotelian vision that loses that part of the Christian tradition and that part of Saint Thomas as well isn’t sufficient. Is that right?

    Ross Douthat: Yeah, I think I think that makes sense. I think you see. Yeah, there is an element of you are in a sense, you know, if you’re running Yellowstone, right, you are participating more closely in the divine nature, you could say, then if you’re camping out in Yellowstone, right? I mean, I think that’s true. And like all of these things, there’s it’s you know, in a fallen world, right? There’s complicated balances to be struck because the people who built the National Parks system were themselves, they had, you know, they had a sort of Paul Ehrlich/Camp of the Saints view of the world to some degree, too. Right. Like, you know, there was there was a really strong Nietzschean element, not just in the Nazis, but in lots of let’s say WASP conservationists in …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Lothrop Stoddard.

    Ross Douthat: Right. In the early twentieth century, where it was like, you are protecting nature from other human beings.

    Susannah Black Roberts: From the Irish.

    Ross Douthat: From the Irish. The Italians. Right. And that you know, that’s obviously unchristian. But the good, the wise Christian sovereign does have to be engaged in some kind of balance where you are both managing nature for the sake of other human beings and human flourishing, but also managing nature for the sake of nature itself as well. And I’m glad I’m not in charge of that balance. Right.

    Peter Mommsen: So Ross, you’ve you know, you’ve written a book on bad nature. The Deep Places. You know, your mention of camping out in national parks reminded me of that. And I think that’s one piece of it that does get left out of people who romanticize nature in a more pagan way. Is that it’s not all, you know, sunsets and harmonious herds of bison. Right. It’s also ticks and Lyme disease.

    Ross Douthat: Nature wants to kill us or nature wants to use us and inhabit us as parasites within our flesh. I think part of the appeal of the post-Christian right is the assumption that you yourself will be a predator, right? In which case you get all the best aspects of natural living. You get to pad through the beautiful untouched jungle, knowing that all the smaller animals live in fear of you and so on. But in the end, even the predators are going to get killed by, you know, some tiny bacteria in a wound that their prey gave them while they were, you know, dominating them and devouring them. And again, there’s no escape. You don’t have to get a chronic illness to recognize that there’s no escape from that reality.

    And this is where, I mean, you’ve written about this in the context of the ancient Greeks Susannah, but, you know, maybe the core of disagreement between pagans and Christians is to what extent you just have to reconcile yourself to that and say, yes, the tiger gets eaten by worms in the end, but isn’t he masterful along the way? The New York Times columnist, you know, gets invaded by ticks. But, you know, in that brief moment when he purchased the house in the country, wasn’t he a masterful figure? Or, you know, or do you or do you say, well, no, that that just means that nature can provide us with a lot of things, but it can’t provide us with ultimate hope.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And in fact, you need someone who’s going to invade Hades for you.

    Ross Douthat: Right. And redeem nature. Although, again, what a redeemed nature itself looks like is I think an open and interesting question. Like does the tiger in the redeemed nature still predate or not, I think, is a question that Christianity leaves quite open.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks so much for taking time for this, Ross.

    Ross Douthat: Thank you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Contributed By RossDouthat2 Ross Douthat

    Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times and the author of several books, most recently The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (Simon & Schuster, 2020).

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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