- Loving God's Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature by Jeffrey Bilbro
In Loving God's Wildness, Jeff rey Bilbro explicates an environmental ethic seemingly at odds with itself across the literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Pointing to the "ambivalence" of early Puritan feeling for the land, especially as it was entangled with enlightenment humanism, he interrogates the longstanding paradox underlying Americans' perception of nature versus our exploitation of it. Bilbro forwards two propositions simultaneously: first, that the American environmental tradition, as usually traced since the colonial era, has been unduly secularized by critics in recent decades; and second, that the Christian tradition inherent to [End Page 221] the literature written by America's key environmental figures is still rich ground for further inquiry. The upshot, Bilbro maintains, is that theology is yet a foundation for contemporary environmental practice. As such, Bilbro's text becomes a vital addition to ecotheology particularly and an important reparative to ecocriticism in its most current forms.
Bilbro offers perceptive readings of the works of four nature-oriented authors central to the American paradigm, two of whom are most often associated with the US West. Separate chapters examine the theological roots nurturing Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Willa Cather, and Wendell Berry. Far from reworking already common ground, in each case Bilbro provides extended readings of one or two works by each author through the lens of his or her different religious affiliations. In this way he establishes the nuance of each author's faith tradition as it informs that author's understanding of the relationship "among God, humans, and the rest of creation" (17). This relationship is central among these four authors, Bilbro explains, because each is like a branch that grows from a common tradition, emphasizing "diff erent aspects of God's wild temple," agreeing that "humans need to love and participate in the redemptive order of God's household" (23). That Bilbro is attentive to the variations in these authors' faiths, for instance, adds a certain resonance to the understood claims that Thoreau and Muir present models of solitary interactions with nature, while Cather and Berry offer communal versions of people in the natural world.
The chapter dealing with Thoreau's faith focuses on his connection to Transcendentalism and his adaptations of Puritan thought, especially as these relate to his sense of vocation and responsibility to the natural world. For example, Thoreau's interest in converting his neighbors, Bilbro contends, marks an effort to rebuild a divine covenant wherein a proper economy and ecology are restored. Thoreau's aim, then, is less simply solitary than it is a matter of each person doing his or her part in fulfilling a pledge to God. This concept extends through Bilbro's reading of Muir, particularly as received through the theology of the Disciples of Christ, in which nature is "an agent of egalitarian, unifying, and primitive redemption" (64). Nature, in effect, represented a pure source for religious [End Page 222] feeling but was also a site of nonsectarian inclusion. Again, however, Bilbro points out that Muir's was not a biocentric vision but a theocentric one in which humans must acknowledge their place in God's plan (73–74).
Bilbro locates Cather's work as part of the Marian tradition, which impels inclusion over individual desire and marks a move from Protestantism to Catholicism. He argues that unlike Thoreau and Muir before her, Cather viewed the western landscape as lapsarian, in need of a human commitment to ensure its restoration, or, in Bilbro's words, "to lovingly cultivate a reconciled divine family" (127). Cather's vision forwarded obedience as the source of an environmental ethic. Berry, Bilbro maintains, presents an ethic of care encompassing the ethics of the other three. In Berry, especially, Bilbro locates an ethos of love that binds us to all things, making us responsible for the health of our places.
This rewarding book may be difficult for some readers, depending...