Dear Donagh, I read a lot and I notice that I keep meeting the word ‘interconnectedness’. I know it’s a clumsy word, but it sums up the ecological awareness that is becoming very popular now. I wonder if the Church has kept itself up to date on this one? Would you care to say something about it?
Yes, the word ‘interconnectedness’ is a clumsy one; it gives the impression of someone fumbling to make connections that don’t really care to be made. There’s a braver little word that goes much farther than it: the word ‘one’.
“That they may all be one,” Jesus prayed, according to John's gospel. But what if they tell us now that we should also feel one with the earth? I must admit I never heard a sermon on it. And theologians in my young days were much more apt to pride themselves on the vast number of distinctions they could make; it was the authentic sign of intelligence! The natural and the supernatural were not only distinguished from each other, but separated in practice - always to the dishonour of nature. This distinction is not found as such in the Scriptures, but it was made to appear almost like the separation of light from darkness in the Book of Genesis. Whatever about that, the rallying call now is for oneness with nature, not separation from it.
Nature. But what does it mean? Mountains and animals and flowers are natural, of course, but isn't a cancerous tumour also natural in some sense? It’s not supernatural, anyway! Nature seems very gentle and innocent when you look at selected bits of it, but in fact people have taken terrible headlines from nature. “Nature red in tooth and claw.” Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is rather bare of poetry, and the downside of his theory of evolution - degeneration - is even barer. From nature too came dialectical materialism, laissez-faire economics, and a host of other disagreeable doctrines. A poet may be expected to do better than that, but Francis Thompson could write, “I do not believe that Nature has a heart; and I suspect that, like many another beauty, she has been credited with a heart because of her face.” The word ‘nature’, I suppose, is like the word ‘love’ in this respect: it means whatever you want it to mean. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, “We find in nature the lessons we ourselves have hidden there.” Can nature itself teach us how to treat nature? A cult of Nature is too ambiguous to be a religion: nature is like a compass that shows every direction as north. It needs a magnetism from beyond to show us a way that doesn’t end in confusion.
But just as we continue to talk about love we continue to talk about nature. Really we need to, urgently. Nature, like love, is not something ‘out there’ from us. We are part of it; it is not only about flowers and lakes; it is about us too.
Christians have had a way of talking about this world that made us just tourists in it. Our true home, we said, was in heaven. This would be all right if it wasn't joined to a primitive cosmology that thought of heaven as another location. “This world is but a passing show / Deceitful joy, deceitful woe; / There’s nothing true but heaven.” Victorians used to write such things in one another’s autograph books. This alienation of affection from this world wasn’t so bad; it was largely insincere; and so long as we didn’t have the power to pollute and destroy our world it was not dangerous thinking. But now it is highly dangerous. This is the reason, no doubt, why ecological thinking is now so urgent. It even has echoes of the language of Christian apocalyptic: great misery will descend on the land, there will be famines and earthquakes in various places, everything will be destroyed….
We have to stop polluting and destroying the earth. It is a self-renewing source, but our greed has caught up with it and can now exceed its capacity. One wonders if there is any hope. Many individuals and groups are deeply concerned, but governments are criminally slow to move on pollution and destruction of the earth. “History has remained criminal,” wrote Mauriac (see Gospel Commentary for Dec. 16).
If not from love, then from necessity we will have to care for the earth. But why not do it out of love? Well, that idea hasn’t surfaced for centuries! The catechism I learned in my childhood told me that “God made the world to show his power and wisdom, and for man’s use and benefit.” Break it down: God doesn’t love the world, but he created it to show how strong and clever he is (this is not so surprising, since there is no mention of love in the section on God); and secondly this world isn't going to be loved by us either, but only used. And that is just what we have been doing. How well we learned our catechism!
We will have to banish polluted teaching, and go back to cleaner sources. For Meister Eckhart, creation is a kind of original Scripture in which God is revealed. “Every creature is full of God and is a book,” he wrote. Listen to a few other things he said: “Every creature is immediately related to God.” “Everything that exists loves and seeks God's likeness, and likeness is a kind of unity.” “Every creature below the human has been made to God's likeness and is an idea of something in God.” “Christ is ‘the first born of all creation,’ that is, he is set before every creature as the exemplar to whom they are to be patterned, just as a painter sets a picture before an apprentice for him to copy.” Tauler even says we should be “docile, humble, and subject to God and to every creature.” Thomas Aquinas said, “It is quite clearly false to say that it is a matter of indifference what one thinks about creatures, provided one has the right opinion about God; an error about creatures leads to false knowledge of God.” I found these astonishing statements by making just a quick random check. The Christian tradition is very rich: I dug up these passages in an hour; what would you not find in a week?
I think, therefore, that it’s not only a question of the Church keeping (or failing to keep) up to date; it’s also a question of failing to keep up to the past! No age, and certainly no individual, can carry the full tradition; we lose bits of it along the way, and another age has to recover them, while losing other bits. Mauriac mentioned that there is always a Francis of Assisi, but society goes on ignoring him. Most people feel they know a little this man, Francis, who wrote
The Canticle of the Sun:
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,
Who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces
Various fruits and coloured flowers and herbs.
But the next lines pull us up sharply, if we have been romanticising nature.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death,
From whose embrace no mortal can escape.
There, perhaps, is an example of how the tradition can correct us and balance us.
Ecology has its icon: that photograph of the earth taken from space. No previous age ever saw the earth like this. It almost makes us think of it as a living organism. The astronaut Schweickart wrote: “From the moon, Earth is so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in that universe. Then you realise that on that spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you - all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it, right there on that little spot that you can cover with your thumb.”
Take care of yourself, Brendan - and of everything!