“Matter Matters” – by Fr. Bud Grant
In 1967 Science Magazine published a seminal article by historian Lynn White Jr. Western civilization, he says, is the source of environmental degradation. The root cause is “Judeo-Christian teleology,” with its “implicit faith in perpetual progress.” Further, environmental problems are “at least partially to be explained as an Occidental, voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature…Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.”
He references Gen. 1:28, but his point is not that HE has cherry-picked that one line, but that Christians have. Christianity, he concludes, is not necessarily so anthropocentric—but it is. Every Christian environmentalist since 1967 has had to take up the challenge with which he concluded that historic article: “since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious.”
Philosopher Alasdair McIntire might agree: he argues that culture is grounded in a founding narrative. Like a vine, it stretches out across time, adjusting to the vagaries and vicissitudes of history, growing and changing but remaining rooted in the defining story. For Catholics, the founding narrative is the Bible, and the vine is Tradition. We, the living tip, if you will, are practitioners of a bible-based religious tradition who have to figure out how to draw wisdom from our ancestors in the faith, in fact–and this is important–we have no choice.
What, then, does our Catholic Tradition teach us about our relationship with the rest of Creation? It is quite common for modern environmentalists to bash paleo-Christian theologians for a harsh dualism that left the earth (and women) to be subjugated by land-owning men. Augustine, whose name inevitably comes up, is said to have infused a semi-Manichean or neo-Platonist ideology into Christian theology. The result, they argue, is a too-tidy differentiation between the forces of Good and Evil, Light and Darkness in which things physical and “sensual” are dangerous lures of the trap of materialism, while Christian asceticism–including celibacy and virginity–is the One sure way to salvation from this world. It isn’t hard to recognize in this caricature faux-Christian misogyny, suspicion of sex, and environmental anthropocentrism. It is easier to reduce a complex reality to bumper sticker brevity than to tease out the nuances. But we should try.
Ancient Christians were not monolithic: they, like us, were trying to figure out how to interpret the Gospel in light of their world experience. Martyrdom, which was the surest route to holiness, was no longer an option since the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, and was, in any case, quite rare. Personal asceticism, including celibacy and vowed virginity, abstention from alcohol, economic simplicity, communal living, routine cycles of prayer, hard physical labor, and a mission to the poor all developed into what some call the “slow-martyrdom.” Among its champions are St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Augustine of Hippo.
Other Christians took things too far, condemning sex, for example, even between married couples. These splinter groups, including Pricillianists and Nestorians, may well have borrowed from pagan Manichaeism its stark division of reality into combating kingdoms of light and darkness—this world corrupted in sin vs. Heaven.
But orthodox theologians avoided such extremism, even while borrowing from pagan intellectual tradition to express their Christian faith. Ambrose, for example, used Roman stoicism in his furious defense against fanatical extremism, even while defending ascetical practices as genuinely holy. Augustine, who wrote against Manichean dualism, relied on a Christian version of Plato for help. Plato, as an intellectual model, posited a world of matter and a world of the “Idea.” The latter was the real world, the former a shadow. At first blush, this resembles dualism, but it is crucially different: “matter” is not condemned, either in Plato’s conception of the worlds of matter and the “Ideal” or Augustine’s neo-Platonist theological expressions of the material and spiritual worlds. Indeed, both insist that matter (the earth, the body, sensuality, and appetites) exists in order to point us toward the spiritual (heaven, the spirit, reason, and virtue). The earth, thus, informs us of its Creator.
This is the crucial point that so many secular environmentalists miss in their too ready criticism of Christianity: God is the Creator. Creation is good. Creation points us toward God and teaches us about God. It gives us resources to be used for the benefit of all, especially the poor and future generations. But it is not God. So even in a neo-Platonic version of Christian theology we can affirm, if you will, that matter matters. If Western civilization has reduced the material earth to resources to be exploited for personal gain and at the expense of the planet and the poor, this is not because it was pursuing “the Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature” but because it has lost track of its own Judeo-Christian tradition.
At the (often overlooked) end of his article, White suggests that Christians return to their tradition to rediscover the “green” theology of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis’ life is worth knowing. I suggest the biographies by Murry Bodo or Kazantzakis, but there is nothing quite like the quixotic fables that make up ‘I Fioretti,’ that is, “the Flowers of St. Francis,” made into a remarkable film by Roberto Rossellini in 1950.
In his own words, Francis spoke of the sun as his “brother” and water as his “chaste little sister.” The earth was his “mother.” He epitomized the “slow martyrdom” of orthodox asceticism by wearing a coarse-fiber shirt and sprinkling ashes into his food but who yet loved God’s creation with a nearly wild abandonment. He is said to have converted a ravaging wolf, he preached to wild animals, he found constant inspiration in nature for God’s goodness and beauty. While, perhaps because, denying himself its pleasures, Francis saw his Brother Christ in creation. This Franciscan tradition has not been neglected by the Church.
John Paul II chose the feast of St. Francis–October 4—to deliver his homily to American farmers about the blessings of the land and the Christian vocation of farming. Benedict XVI chose the same feast day to announce that ‘if you want to cultivate peace, protect creation.’ Both of these “green popes” have used Assisi as their platform for speaking about our need to save God’s Creation. Francis is not a neglected anomaly, but simply our most poetic voice for a Catholic environmental tradition. White seems to have missed something. Catholic Tradition has always maintained a rich environmental theology that insists on the fundamental goodness of creation as the gift from and indicator toward its and our Creator.
Praised be Thou, My Lord, with all Thy creatures,
…For Mother Earth Who sustains and rules us
And brings forth divers fruits and colored flowers and herbs
Father Bud Grant is an Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, where he teaches courses such as Intro to the New Testament, Intro to Environmental Studies, Environmental Ethics and others. He’s the coordinator of the Environmental Studies program and advisor for St. Ambrose’s environmental club. He was also a planner and presenter at the symposium in October 2009 celebrating the 30th anniversary of John Paul II’s visit to Iowa.
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