Wisdom from the wilderness

By Father Cameron Faller

A few months ago, my older brother recommended that I watch the TV series, “Alone,” on the History Channel. The premise of the first season of the series is rather simple. Ten men are sent out into the wilderness in British Columbia with a limited amount of supplies, and the audience gets to watch who can survive the longest. On the surface, watching the show might not seem like the best use of time, nor does there appear to be much religious, or spiritual, significance to the series, and yet I was often surprised and moved by the deep spiritual insights of the men in the series. In one episode, the eventual winner of season one, Alan Kay, had this to say in describing how to survive in the wilderness, “You can’t run against nature. You have to work with it or it will run you over. Nature just is….You better understand what it is and get with the program or you will suffer.”

Surprisingly, a connection can actually be drawn here between Kay’s words and God’s command to our first parents in the Garden of Eden not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (cf. Gn 2:17). Upon first reading the creation story and this command, one might think that God is holding something back from humanity and authoritatively giving us some arbitrary commandment to follow. However, what this commandment of God is actually doing is protecting humanity from the harm we can and will cause ourselves. Since we are limited creatures, we don’t have the “authority to determine what is good and evil.” This belongs to God the Creator alone. To be sure, “by using (our) reason and following (our) conscience we are able to discern what is good and what is evil, but (we) cannot make something good or evil. So, God’s command to our first parents implies that they have a duty to recognize they are creatures and have a duty to reverence and respect goodness as reflected in the laws of creation” (Navarre Bible Commentary). Or put in a similar way by Alan Kay, “You can’t run against nature. You have to work with it….(and) you better understand what it is.”

“Working against nature,” i.e., living against God’s design for creation and deciding for ourselves what is good and evil, is ultimately the essence of the first sin, and all future sin for that matter. As the late Pope Benedict XVI put it, “the heart of sin lies (in) human beings’ denial of their creatureliness, inasmuch as they refuse to accept the standard and the limitations that are implicit in it. They do not want to be creatures; do not want to be subject to a standard; do not want to be dependent.…Thus, human beings themselves want to be God.” This sinful tendency of humanity is as present and prominent now as it was at the dawn of human existence. We can see it clearly expressed in the words of the former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, when he declared in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Unfortunately, this viewpoint, while popular and seemingly attractive, is not only the root of sin, but it is also the root of much of the pain and suffering we face in society today. Or, once again, as put by Alan Kay, “you better understand what [nature] is and get with the program or you will suffer.” When we go against God’s design of human nature in our individual actions or in the lifestyle we choose to live, we will bring suffering and pain upon ourselves and others. Now, this will not always occur immediately. At first, doing things our way and according to our design may bring an instant sense of pleasure or gratification, but in the long run, nature will always “bite back.”

This is precisely why the Church feels the need and must speak out boldly, albeit charitably and rudently, on contemporary hotbutton issues such as gender, human sexuality and marriage. People in our modern society are experiencing a great deal of suffering caused by a lack of desire to conform to natural law and God’s design for us. The Church consistently declares that certain culturally acceptable actions and lifestyles are in fact wrong, not simply because God or the Church arbitrarily says they are wrong, but because their very actions and lifestyles are contrary to the Creator’s design for humanity and creation.

While the world condemns the Church as “out of touch,” “hateful” or “bigoted,” she speaks with a tender and motherly love on these controversial issues because of the consequences for the individual and society when we refuse to conform to God’s plan. This responsibility of the Church is also a task for each individual Christian. At times we must all be willing, with prudence and charity, to stand up for and share God’s teachings on these pertinent topics. To be sure, this will lead at times to criticism and rejection, but it is the essence of true love.

To love is not to tell people what they want to hear, or to always support the opinions of others, or to go silent because of the fear of possibly offending others. To truly love is to desire the good of the other, as St. Thomas Aquinas would say. Therefore, if we are going to follow Christ’s great commandment of love, it will require speaking on these difficult issues and helping people understand the truth, goodness and beauty of God’s plan for creation and their lives. The goal, as always, is not to impose our beliefs on others; it is to propose the truth and invite others to live this truth so that they can find the freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and life (cf. Jn 10:10) desired for them by Christ.

Father Cameron Faller is the director of vocations for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.