On the glorious, communal nature of nature

Hurricane Arthur may have drenched much of New England today, but a fantastic essay on nature and wonder has taken the place of fireworks on my rainy July Fourth holiday.

"’If Philosophy Begins in Wonder’: Aquinas, Creation, and Wonder” is in the Spring 2014 edition of Communio. Its author, Dr. Randall B. Smith, is the Scanlon Foundation chair of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. (Another essay in that edition, by Mary Taylor, is also worth the read.)

I read Smith’s essay today as the rains raged around my porch. It nicely connects dots that don’t often get connected—especially by those who champion human reason as the sole source of social, political, and ecological salvation. The path Smith draws begins at the very origin of creation and revelation. It wends through antiquity, the medieval world, the Enlightenment, and comes to rest at the modern dilemma of the lost sense of a wonder of nature.

It is a lovely read even when it calls attention to an ugliness within Western thought. Without giving too much away of Smith’s work (you really, really should read it yourself) it will be helpful to share a few of his insights.

First, Smith is troubled by a troubling poem written in the seventeenth century by Abraham Cowley. The poem is an ode Cowley’s contemporary William Harvey, who was first to describe the human circulatory system. Cowley compares Dr. Harvey’s conquest of the secrets of nature to Apollo’s attempt to conquer and rape Daphne.

The point is that as early as the seventeenth century, poets were lauding the scientific community for its plunder of the world—of taking the secrets of nature by force rather than entering into a loving bond with them.

“This, to put not too fine a point on it,” Smith writes, “is the story of a rape.”

Smith also calls attention to a point made often by Joseph Ratzinger, especially in his writings on the Book of Genesis. The opening words of scripture reveal that the act of creation is a free act of love—of divine gift. Thus Genesis stands in stark contrast to the bloody creation myths of the more powerful cultures of the ancient Near East. Where the Babylonian account of Enuma Elish, for instance, presupposes a cosmos drenched in evil, Genesis reveals a world where the natural order is “very good”—where Creator and creature embrace one another.

Smith’s rich essay reminds us that the Christian worldview beholds creation with wonder—with love and respect. This stands in contrast to modern thought, which, as the evidence shows us, seeks to take from nature whatever pleases, whatever might satiate appetites that we will not control with virtue and grace.

Making the same point in another forum, Archbishop Charles Balvo spoke representing the Holy See last month at a meeting of the United Nations Environmental Assembly.

As reported by Catholic World News,

Archbishop Balvo, the apostolic nuncio to Kenya and South Sudan, told the UNEA that …it was necessary to abandon the model of “an uncontrolled consumerism, an immeasurable enjoyment.” […] The prelate added that there was a need to pay greater attention to the “spiritual dimension” of sustainable development.

For disciples of the Triune God, this spiritual dimension is relational. It fosters a way of living in the world that does not resort to rape. The Christian way of life seeks to encounter the magnificence of the created order as a lover stares at his beloved. And in doing so, he is elevated, transformed, and saved.

This talk of wonder and love also has practical consequences. And thus social and ecological ones.

A people who love God’s created order will do more than encounter it with awe and wonder. They will find a meaning in life not from what they use, but from what they are in relationship with. They will find in the created order ways to express the beauty of that order. Their use of it will be a different kind than that which we see today in industry and “uncontrolled consumerism,” as Archbishop Balvo noted. People who stand in awe of creation will not fashion and wield the power of fully loaded intercontinental ballistic missiles. Rather, they will fashion and enjoy the glowing streams of fireworks.

Dr. Smith concludes with St. Thomas Aquinas to connect the dots of wonder and practicality—of faith and reason. This makes for a helpful reminder that, for Christians, our use of the created world need not and should not result in the crises we are causing today. We can live as we were intended to in Eden—in loving communion with nature, each other, and with God.

Ah, the rains of Arthur have departed and my neighbors are lighting off fireworks. Before I go watch, let me say that I rarely read Communio without thinking that that particular edition or the particular essay I am reading is the best essay ever and it must be read by everyone. But in this case, I really must suggest that we take Dr. Smith’s essay to heart and bring it with us wherever we go. Because within it is a vital synthesis of Christian wisdom that offers us independence from the worldly by revealing creation’s glorious, satisfying nature of communion.

July 5 Update: First, the Holy Father has had something important to say about ecology in a pastoral visit within Italy. This has the mainstream media taking notice. Stay tuned for more on this.

Also, this video just came to my attention. It continues the theme of this post: using technology that is often used for evil—in this case, drones and explosives—for artistic ends—in this case stunning, never-before-seen views of fireworks from the inside looking down.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.