What science is this?

How has Enlightenment thought shaped and harmed the way we see nature?

“Through the course of history, the light that shatters the darkness reveals to us that God is Father and that his patient fidelity is stronger than darkness and corruption. This is the message of Christmas night.” Pope Francis. Christmas Eve Mass, 2014.

For the past four hundred years or so, a type of human reason has ignored the light and wonder of Christmas. It has distanced itself entirely from Christianity as its adherents seek their own enlightenment, the kind that comes only from one’s own reasoning.

As a result, much of Western thought has shaped a people that now bemoans what they have wrought: the devastation of both life and the planet that supports it.

At a conference last month on the connections between food, faith, and the environment, I met Dr. Deborah Savage, a professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. She mentioned almost as an afterthought the connection between ecological destruction and modern “enlightened” philosophy, which has its roots in seventeenth-century writers like René Descartes, John Locke, and Francis Bacon.

I spoke with Dr. Savage again a few weeks ago. She is rather convincing that in terms of ecological protection, we Westerners have much to examine about how we think, why we take certain ideas for granted, and what we deny ourselves by following the worldviews that have been handed to us.

“John Locke’s theory of property really is instrumental to the claim that we own the good of the earth absolutely,” Dr. Savage said. “When it comes to property rights, Locke claims that if you work it you own it.”

Francis Bacon also sowed unhelpful views that are still with us.

“Bacon is first to say ‘knowledge is power.’” He and others were soon attempting to do for their own discipline what astronomers and physicists were doing for the natural sciences. That is, making it useful by tossing aside ways of looking at things that had been part of human thought since Greek antiquity.

“Bacon’s premise is that the purpose of knowledge is to gain control over nature so that we can do what we want with it. We can make it do what we want.”

Linking many of these thinkers was the highly influential French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. “He had already declared that theology belongs in the corner,” Dr. Savage said. “He thought ‘we can’t prove [Christian revelation], so it has nothing to do with real life.’”

Eventually all this lead to “a strange kind of rationalism that says that truth is discovered prior to any kind of contact with reality. … what you really know are only the contents of your own mind.”

Another way to put that is that what the natural world is in and of itself becomes secondary to what we think it is. And that makes the natural world a usable collection of resources that we humans can use to meet our insatiable needs and wants.

And so Dr. Savage argues that what must be examined today is the connection between Western philosophical thought and the disconnection between most people today and the things of the earth.

And there are ways to learn from all this.

She poses questions that are foundational to understanding reality: “You see an object or an organism. What is it? What’s its nature? And what is it for? When you start to look at something, you realize that things have natures and they have purposes … Every living thing has a nature that naturally leads it to fulfill its mission. That includes human beings, and frogs, and snail darters.”

And so to say that living organisms are merely what we think them to be—that they are only what we can observe with our senses or that they serve whatever purpose we would like them to serve—is a remnant of disconnecting philosophical truths from theological ones, which claim that all created things and life forms are good not because we wish them to be, but because a God that is love made them that way.

Dr. Savage points to media coverage of the BP oil spill. As volunteers are cleaning oil off ducks, people are calling them creatures. “Listen to videos of broadcasts. People are saying ‘We have responsibility for these creatures.’ Well you can’t have a creature without a creator. Otherwise it’s just a thing.”

Her colleague at the University of Saint Thomas, Dr. Christopher Thompson, offered her another way to think of all this.

“We used to learn about nature by bringing a frog in and dissecting it to see what it’s made of,” she said. “And that way you just end up with a dead frog. All you really learn about is the material causality of the frog. But if you study the frog in nature, you see the formal causality at work. The is, the kind of thing that it is. And then you also see what it’s for. The basic question is: If you want to know what something is, ask what it’s for. Because that's what will give you a clue as to what it is.”

Dr. Savage said that more and more, environmental studies programs are taking student "to where creatures live and breathe. This is a recognition of the kind of causality that informs you about what those things are—what their formal and final causality is. Efficient causality is how they came to be—and that is the question of God.”

Or, she notes (again from Dr. Thompson), “we don’t live in an environment. We live in a created order.”

“We are all surrounded by things that are not just for our use,” she added. “They are things with their own meaning. And we’re messing with it all in a big way.”

What’s needed for the mission of ecologists, then, is a return to other sources of knowledge, such as what has been revealed to us by God. Because that information is a type of enlightenment that we humans either cannot come to through our own unaided reason or it is comprised of truths that we might choose to ignore.

And all this is really the reason we celebrate Christmas—the coming in humble, human form of the true light of the world, the wisdom of God, the Word made flesh. Because only with God entering into what we humans are is it possible for us to become what we are truly meant to be. Only in studying the science of Christmas can we hope to understand everything else.

It's no wonder, then, that Pope Francis could answer the Enlightenment in his own way as he concluded this evening his Christmas Eve homily in St. Peter’s:

Dear brothers and sisters, on this holy night we contemplate the Nativity scene: there “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1). People who were unassuming, open to receiving the gift of God, were the ones who saw this light. This light was not seen, however, by the arrogant, the proud, by those who made laws according to their own personal measures, who were closed off to others. Let us look to the crib and pray, asking the Blessed Mother: “O Mary, show us Jesus!”

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About the Blog

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.