Thursday, 12 March 2009

Should we care about the mollusc? Environmentalism out of proportion

Mary Colwell has a piece in this week's issue of the Tablet entitled "Call of the Wild" and an article in the Jesuit on-line journal Thinking Faith called "Merging Worlds - Slime Moulds, the Environment and Human Dignity". Though both of these articles address the topic of Christian engagement with the environmental movement, they each propose within their contexts of global meetings on the issue, a distinct thesis.

The thesis that I suggest lies at the centre of the first of these articles is expressed in the answer "Yes" that Mary Colwell wished to give to the following question:
To put it baldly, does nature have a value in and of itself outside its contribution to human well-being?

This question touches on the purpose of the creation of the physical world, and on the purpose of the place of women and men in that world. From the point of view of Christian doctrine, the purpose of creation is, in the first instant, the glory of God; and, in a second but not contrary instant, that God, in Christ, might be "all in all" - for his glory and for our happiness. [cf. Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church qn.53] This vision is not just doctrinal, but profoundly Biblical, too. The instruction of Genesis to our first parents that they should "subdue the earth" is less a mandate for a wasteful destruction of our environment than it is a permission to use the environment for their own good. The Pauline and Johannine writings of the New Testament paint for us the vision of Christ as the centre and turning point of the whole history of the world. There is, too, a cosmic understanding of the celebration by women and men of the Liturgy. Not only do we offer our praise and worship to God representing the human race; we give voice indeed to the praise and worship of the whole of creation, being the only creatures able to give it "voice" in word and song.
Human beings are the only creatures on earth that God has willed for their own sake... God has created everything for them; but he has created them to know, serve and love God, and to offer all of creation in this world in thanksgiving back to him... [Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church Qns.66-67]

So, whilst there is a limited sense in which we can speak of the physical world having a value in its own right independent of its value for women and men (ie its value as a percievable expression of the glory of God), at the same time we should insist that, if an unqualified answer is to be given to Mary Colwell's question, it should be "No". That doesn't, of course, give a licence to abuse the physical world, which would be to abuse the glory of God; but it does recognise that the Amazon rain forest is at the service of the human race, and not the other way round.

The thesis of Mary Colwell's second article is that the protaganists on behalf of the environment and those on behalf of religious faith (special reference, I think, to Catholics) are being drawn closer and closer together. Returning for a moment to the theme of the first article, Mary Colwell cites the Professor of Archaeology at Sheffield University in the context of the loss of contact with nature that arises in a technological society:
" ... one of the greatest problems has been the rise of mono-theistic religions that puts humans, or imaginary human like beings, at the centre of the world. Who cares about a mollusc when there is the Kingdom of Heaven to look forward to?"

But what Mary Colwell describes as the coming together in the socio-political sphere of the environmentalist and the person of religious belief was addressed many years ago in different terms by Romano Guardini. I think of his book Letters from Lake Como, in which he addresses the implications for human culture of growing industrialisation and mechanisation. Romano Guardini recognises the distancing of the human person from the natural world that is a consequence of this, and he decries it. At one point, he compares a sailing boat on Lake Como to a steamer powered by a diesel engine that crosses the oceans. In the former, he sees that there is still an encounter with nature in the mastery of the water in that the boat will float and in the mastery of the wind by which it is moved forward. Of this he writes:
We have here real culture - elevation above nature, yet decisive nearness to it. We are still in a vital way body, but we are shot through with mind and spirit. We master nature by the power of mind and spirit, but we ourselves remain natural.

In the steamer, Romano Guardini notes that something has been lost. The naturalness of existence has been replaced by an artificiality. The steamer progresses on its way regardless of the water it crosses or the winds it encounters; and those on board live in a way that is no different than if they were on land in a luxury hotel.
.... nature has been decisively eliminated.

Whilst both Romano Guardini and Mary Colwell would want to shout out loud a call for a simpler existence, and a more natural existence, there is a difference between the two. Romano Guardini would recognise that nature, in its encounter with the human person, is at the service of a human culture, and the call for a simpler life is a call to make our culture more human rather than less human. The implication of Mary Colwell's suggestion that the physical world should be valued independently of its relation to women and men is that her call for a simpler life is a call to form a culture that is, in principle, less human.

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