Does Natural Mean Good? A Christian Perspective on All Things Natural and Organic
Over the last twenty years, there has been a resurgence in interest in all things “natural.” There are natural foods and natural supplements. There are natural forms of medicine, like chiropractic and naturopathy. Clothing and furniture are advertised as containing “natural fibers.” There are natural methods of childbirth and both breastfeeding and organic baby foods are all the rage among mothers these days. The growth of the whole organic food industry in recent years has been quite remarkable.
Why this remarkable shift? Part of it is due to the refreshing realization that science – be it in the areas of agriculture or medicine – does not have all the answers. In years past, the dominance of modernistic thinking meant that anything scientific and artificial was celebrated and advocated purely because it was the product of a scientific process. One of the greatest examples of that kind of thinking was the recommendation by doctors, for many years, that infant formula was as good as or better than breast milk for a baby. Of course it’s better, it was assumed – we made it in a lab and even added things to it that aren’t in regular milk! – until it was found that breastfeeding conveyed critical antibodies and other things not easily replicated by science. My point here isn’t about breastfeeding, but about the mindset that drove many to “push” formula for years. It was the modernistic assumption that science knows best and artificial or technological is better, simply because it’s scientific and artificial and technological.
But that worldview is losing steam. Two world wars and a nuclear arms race went a long way toward changing these attitudes, as people began to realize that science does not have all the answers and, indeed, may be wrong about many things. And the shocking aftermath of the Holocaust and the growth of revolutionary ideology caused a deep mistrust for authorities to set in, first for political and industrial authorities, and spreading to academia, medicine, and many other places. And so while part of this recent shift to “natural” things is because of a healthy realization of the limits of science and technology, part of it is also the result of a growing and deep-seated distrust of authority and those perceived to be exercising authority – like researchers and doctors and agricultural supply companies and pharmaceutical corporations.
Is this shift a good thing? Most of us could give examples from our own experience about how this natural product helped us or this natural approach to childbirth or recovery from injury made things so much easier. But that won’t answer the question. A Christian is not supposed to make their experience the measuring stick for truth and error. We are to test all things, and test them by Scripture. What is a believer to make of this natural movement? I’m going to give two cautions, and then some applications for how to retain the good.
My two cautions correspond to two assumptions or presuppositions that I see lying under the surface of this movement. Not everyone shares these assumptions, and few hold them consistently, but they are there and they are a danger. Remember the example I gave about those pushing baby formula for years? The fundamental assumption there was, “If it’s scientific and artificial, we can assume it’s better.” Well, as usually happens when worldviews shift, the pendulum has a way of swinging to the opposite extreme. Hearing news stories recently about scams regarding the marketing of organic foods (some manufacturers were simply slapping the label on regular foods to raise prices) made me realize that these manufacturers were playing on and counting on a fundamental assumption that many consumers make: if it’s labeled organic, it must be good. After all, most consumers aren’t going to go to lengths to track down the production history of what they are buying! The “organic” label had become a shortcut, counting on the assumption that can be summarized as “if it’s natural, it’s good.” The manufacturers wouldn’t use that label if it didn’t work. And second, there is the related assumption that “if it’s artificial, it’s probably bad/not as good.” To the extent that a person buys something or chooses a particular process purely and exclusively because it is natural, that assumption is present on some level.
Now, before anyone gets their hackles up, I’m not talking about those who have done their homework on a product, or who simply like the taste of the organic stuff better, or who have tried and tasted and found themselves healthier at the end of the day. Such consumers aren’t assuming, thinking “natural = better everywhere and always”; they’re discerning, thinking “this is better because of x and y and z.” Rather, I’m talking about those who assume it’s better because of a deep-seated idea or pristine concept of “natural” in itself. And I’m talking about those people because part of my job is to teach and critique worldviews – and worldviews are built out of assumptions.
Certainly there are a lot of human processes, practices and products that are not good for you. Some of the additives popular years ago in food or consumer goods have been found to be very bad for you, and some of the medical advice given when I was a baby would never be given today. But the fact that some artificial products or processes are unhealthy in no way implies that natural products or processes are therefore healthy – or, conversely, that all artificial products or processes are unhealthy. That’s bad logic, as the conclusions do not follow the premises. Just because a) pesticides can be bad for you, doesn’t mean that b) therefore, the mushrooms growing in your front yard are good (though maybe they are!), or that c) therefore, polio vaccine is bad (though in some cases, who knows, it might be)! But that’s the same logic operating behind the assumptions we’re discussing.
More than a logical error, though, the assumption that “if it’s natural, it’s good” is actually a theological error. And Christians have no business committing it. We live in a fallen world. Sin has corrupted creation, and death has entered nature. Wolves eat lambs, after all – yes, it’s totally “natural,” but it’s something God has promised to rectify and correct in the new heavens and new earth (Isaiah 65:25). God gave every plant yielding seed in all the earth to mankind as food in Genesis 1:29 – before the fall – but there are now many examples of seed-bearing plants that are poisonous to man. Why? Because God cursed the ground (Genesis 3:18). Creation is now against us, and as a result of this curse it now fights its master, man. It fights by bringing up thistles and thorns, by predators attacking human beings, and in many other ways. A consistent theme throughout Scripture is the restoration of paradise, of Eden, in a new heavens and new earth, and this theme is meaningless unless creation itself is broken and needs restoration. So what is “natural” is part of a corrupted and damaged system. Is it all bad? Of course not. But it cannot be assumed to be good.
And similarly, the assumption that “if it’s artificial, it’s probably bad/not as good” is also unbiblical. Even before the fall, in the Garden, which God had pronounced good, God commanded the man to cultivate it and keep it (Genesis 2:15) – bringing artificial order and direction to a perfect natural environment. Mankind was, again before the fall, commanded to “subdue” the earth and rule over every living thing (Genesis 1:28). Even after the fall, this rule remains, as the Psalmist can say man has been given “dominion” over “the works of [God’s] hands” (Psalm 8:6). And we see the Scriptures commending and celebrating craftsmanship (see the examples of Bezalel and Oholiab in Exodus 31:12; Exodus 35&36). Certainly the Bible makes liberal use of technology in its metaphors, such as God’s word being as a lamp (Psalm 119:105), Job’s days passing as a weaver’s shuttle (Job 7:6), Jeremiah being as strong as a city and a metal wall (Jeremiah 1:18). And finally, in the context of any discussion of medicine and science in the Bible it needs to be observed that, despite the imperfect and crude state of medical science in that day, Jesus commended (again, in a metaphorical context) the calling of a physician (Mark 2:17) and that Luke, author of a Gospel and Acts, was himself a physician.
With those cautions in mind, how are we as Christians to approach this shift in society’s perspective?
First, we should welcome the fact that the limits of science and technology are better appreciated now than in the past. Christian arguments against Darwinian evolution and for biblical creation make the case that scientists are drawing conclusions that the evidence cannot warrant and are opining in fields beyond the limits of science. The assumption that science can explain everything is based on the deeper assumption that the physical universe is everything, and both of those assumptions are falling out of favour nowadays. And while this brings its own problems, it is a victory for the Christian worldview.
Second, we need to recognize that, since nature can be either good or bad and human innovation can be similarly good or bad, what will be important for us in considering this matter is discernment. This will be a matter of knowing and applying broader biblical principles to everyday situations, and sometimes what would be right in one situation won’t be in another. In other words, how you approach questions of natural vs. traditional medicine or organic vs. regular foods for your kids is most often a matter of wisdom, not of law. So we all need to resist the temptation to oversimplify these issues and trade in sound bites. Discernment requires trying to understand a problem, not caricaturizing it.
Finally, since this is a matter of discernment and wisdom rather than law, we need to resist the temptation to treat differences on this topic as if they were crimes. That’s the direction some in our society at large are going, but there is no place for that in the church. There is no room for pride on either side here. There is no excuse for a parent to disdain another family for what they feed their children or what items they may choose to spend a bit extra on. There is no place for a private smug superiority that one’s own kids eat or dress (or don’t eat or dress) a particular way – any more than there is any excuse for a person to ridicule a brother or sister in Christ as a “health nut” or as a “bad eater,” whichever side you may be tempted towards. “Let everyone be convinced in his own mind,” Paul said – and that was on a topic with explicit religious connotations! All the more so here.
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