Summer vacations are often great occasions to get away from it all, to take some time with family and friends and travel to the quieter corners of our world, “to lie down in green pastures … to be led to restful waters.” Whether on the precipice of a mountain vista or set amidst placid lakes and pines, the beauty of creation stirs in our souls an invitation to give praise for all that is good.
Last summer I was blessed to get to the Rocky Mountains for some vacation time with my family. Every time I find myself amidst that mountain vista, it prompts me to think about something Josef Pieper once wrote.
A Thomist philosopher, Pieper (†1997) writes of the difference in meaning when we speak of something in a “location,” something in an “environment,” and something in a “world.” What differentiates the usage, Pieper argues, is not a consideration of the object’s ambient circumstances; rather, the difference in usage has to do with the distinct capacities of the object itself.
I’ll explain. We typically speak of the “location” of a rock, the “location” of shale, or the “location” of oil because rocks, shale, and oil are rather simple in their operations. In fact, they are so simple in their activities, their way of being, that it’s difficult to even speak of their “activities.”
When it comes to plants and animals, however, we can speak not only of their location, but also of their “environment.” Plants and animals do not merely occupy a location; rather, they inhabit a place and they interact with the elements around them, drawing the immediate resources into their more complex operations.
But there is only one kind of creature, Pieper insists, who occupies a “world,” a cosmos; that creature is you–the human person. The human person, with his or her capacity for comprehension and understanding, not only occupies a location, not only interacts with an environment, but is capable of unifying in a single insight, the ambit of the world, the cosmos in which he or she is situated. And it is this unique spiritual capacity which can sometimes make conversations about “humans and their environment” so inadequate.
To be sure, our common use of language doesn’t always follow the neat and tidy rules of English grammar–or philosophers, for that matter. We often use these terms interchangeably in our popular language. Still, Pieper’s insight has helped me appreciate how repeated talk about “humans and their environment” has never sounded quite right to my old fashioned Catholic ears.
The spiritual capacity of the human person differentiates us from the rest of the created order; it establishes the basis of our claim to be the imago dei; and it grounds our position in a cosmos, a world – as more than creatures inhabiting an environment. To be a human being, Pieper writes, “is to know things beyond the ‘roof’ of the stars, to go beyond the trusted enclosures of the normal, to go beyond the ‘environment’ to the ‘world’ in which that environment is enclosed.” Attending to the beauty of nature is to attend an inaugural lecture on Wisdom.
I am not the only animal in the park, but I am the only animal in Rocky Mountain who stands at the precipice in wonder. I am the only creature who ventures above the tree-line in the evening, not in search of green pastures, but in search of that vista, that vision which fills the soul with awe. The park is filled with a variety of animals – myself among them; but I do not merely occupy its location, or inhabit its environment, I dwell within a cosmos – creation itself! Of all of the creatures I spotted that evening, only one was there in that otherwise hostile environment, beholding the azure blue folds of sky and land.
Catholics should not be indifferent to this preambula fidei writ-large that is the created order. We ought to be concerned to preserve the experience of the wilderness as a privileged occasion of self knowledge—at the very least, and understand the obligation we have to protect such spaces as precisely rooted in this larger vision of our lives as more than species inhabiting an environment, but as members of the body of Christ— Christ, the Logos of the Creator; Christ, the Logos of creation.
So we must certainly continue to speak of our concerns and give serious thought to our actions and its impact on the environment. But occasionally, it would be wise to remember Pieper’s remark that it is not enough to say we inhabit an environment. No, citizens of an eternal kingdom, we inhabit a cosmos, a world of infinite destiny. Awe before the majesty of creation, is less an experience of the environment, and more of an invitation to ponder the personal dimension of our vocation in Christ.
I can hardly wait to accept next summer’s invitation.