As I write, my family is vacationing in Costa Rica. We spent the first portion near the base of the Arenal Volcano in the Northwest and then this last third in the Central Highlands, specifically the Los Angeles Cloud Forest. Among other ecotourist activities, we’ve gone mountain biking and white-water rafting, done a hanging bridges and canopy (i.e.,zipline) tour, looked for wildlife during nighttime and early morning hikes, and soaked in the hot springs like the self-respecting Asians we are. 

Costa Rica is well-known for its natural beauty and “pura vida” (“simple life” or “pure life”) tagline. It’s thus been the perfect setting for me to reflect on our planet’s wonder and awesomeness in anticipation of Earth Day.

My kids at the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges / April 2019

As a progressive Asian American Christian, what treks into “nature” spark in me today differ notably from the purpose such jaunts were designed to serve in my evangelical days. 

That is, the church camps or youth group retreats of my childhood were almost always located in a more natural environment—the woods, the mountains, a national park, etc. This retreat from suburban or city life and concomitant break from our ordinary routines were designed to allow us to “draw closer to the Lord.” This much I understood—and occasionally experienced. 

But our leaders almost always also instructed us to do our “quiet times” or daily devotions in the outdoors, so as to cultivate a deeper appreciation of God’s goodness as we marveled at the splendor of creation. Thatpart, however, I never quite got, even at the height of my evangelical fervor. 

For we were supposed to be taking our cues from nature in an “as the deer panteth for the water so my soul longeth after You” kind of way and therein deepening our relationship (or “walk”) with God. But in my childhood, even before I had been taught evolution in school or had heard of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s description of nature as “red in tooth and claw,” I knew that I would not only discover God’s glory and the beauty of creation in nature, but also the sheer terror and horror of life feeding on life.

The Problem of Suffering 

Among the many insects my kids saw in the Costa Rican rainforests, including magnificent blue morpho butterflies and moths nearly the size of their small hands, were parasitic wasps. These are the creatures that inspired the movie franchise Aliens: insects whose females lay eggs in hosts (e.g.,caterpillars, spiders), as larvae grow by eating their hosts alive from the inside out, and eventually break out of their hosts’ bodies, usually by paralyzing and commandeering the hosts’ mind to alter their behavior.

National Geographic, “Body Invaders,” April 27, 2009

So, when the author of Colossians 1:16 speaks of all things being created throughand for Christ, are we to understand that this includes parasitic wasps as well? And when the psalmist declares that God is revealing Godself through creation (Psalm 19: 1-6), what lessons are we to draw about divinity from this monstrous set-up? Charles Darwin famously cited parasitic wasps as counter-evidence to the traditional theological notion that the world bears signs of God’s omnipotent “design and beneficence.” Though he confessed to his botanist friend Asa Gray a desire not to “write atheistically,” Darwin nevertheless “own[ed]” up to seeing “too much misery in the world” instead.

As a professor who works at a progressive seminary, I regularly teach a class entitled “Animal Theology and Ethics.” Among other topics, we consider the place of non-human nature in creation and theologies more generally (e.g.,what exactly are animals and plants for?),  ponder the scope and extent of redemption (e.g.,is nonhuman animal predation a consequence of the fall or as God originally intended? Can non-human animals sin or is sin unique to humans?), consider what “uses” of animals and non-human nature are permissible, and wrestle with the reality of animal pain and suffering—a problem seemingly more intractable than the (already difficult) problem of evil as applied to humans, since some of the “solutions” offered in the latter do not apply to the former. 

As a class, we don’t just consider Darwin’s parasitic wasps, but also the fate of pelican chicks—something that process theologian Jay B. McDaniel (in his aptly titled Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence for Life(1989) and famed Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnsonboth take up in their own ways. Pelicans generally give birth to two chicks at a time. While the first-born receives the lion’s share of its mother’s attention and care, the younger sibling is neglected—sometimes even pushed out of its nest by the first-born and left to die of starvation (in a behavior known as siblicide). In the rare event that the first-born does not have a good prognosis, the mother will turn her attention to the younger. Bracketing those cases, the younger chick’s life tends to be brutal and short-lived—its sole purpose seems to be to serve as the “back-up” and, from an evolutionary perspective, an insurance policy for the survival of pelicans as a species. If we consider the matter theologically, we are then led to ask if this arrangement was as God designed it? Whether this “back-up” chick is loved and valued by the Creator? Does it, too, find redemption and if so, how? Progressive Christians (Asian American or not) who have moved beyond a simplistic understanding of the beginnings of the world and origins of life in Genesis and who are seeking to reconcile the findings of science with their faith will have to find a way to answer these and other questions.

Developing Ecological Consciousness

Progressive Christians may ultimately come to understand the meaning and purpose of parasitic wasps and pelican chicks differently, but they should nonetheless be united in the following conviction: neither the Bible, nor our best theologies, are anthropocentric. Something powerful happens for many of my seminarians when they come to realize that the Bible may position humans as standing at the apex of creation, but this does not mean that the rest of creation has been designed to serve them. 

Rather, what we find in the Bible and our best theologies is a vision of God standing in covenantal relationship with nonhuman nature as well. For instance, we learn in Genesis 9:9-10 that God did not only establish a covenant only with Noah and his descendants—God did so with every living creature as well (e.g.,the birds, domestic animals, and other beasts of the earth—“as many as came out of the ark”). We read that Sabbath traditions of rest were not only intended for humans, but also for the animals and the land. Indeed, one of stated purposes of the sabbatical year of rest wherein the land, vineyards, and olive groves were to lie fallow following six years of sowing and gathering was for the wild animals to eat after the poor had done the same (Exodus 23: 10-12). Even if other biblical passages proclaim that we humans are worth more than many sparrows (Luke 12: 6-7, Matthew 10: 29-31), this is neither to discount the intrinsic worth that nonhuman animals do have, nor to be cited as a proof-text for our exploitation of them.

In thinking of Earth Day, I encourage you, too, to grow in your ecological consciousness as something authentic Christian faith—not just the secular left—demands. While the specific action points that individuals and communities might take for the sake of environmental stewardship may differ, a good first step for progressive Christians is to recognize how heretical and damaging anthropocentrism has been to the planet and even ourselves. Only then might we live in the Costa Rican spirit of pura vida.

  • Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Professor of Ethics and Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion at Claremont School of Theology. She is a second generation Taiwanese American who is parenting two mixed race boys with her spouse. For more information about her research interests and work, see drgracekao.com.