“Environment. Hear the technoid ring? If Genesis began, ‘In the beginning, God created the environment’ instead of ‘the heavens and the earth,’ the Bible would be out of print.” This quote, by the writer David James Duncan, sums up the troubles of the modern relationship with nature. We forgot that it is God’s creation, rather than just our environment. Our longing for purpose and meaning in our lives is inseparable from understanding nature, from being at home in nature understood as God’s creation. The goal is not environmentalism, but to make sense of life—our own as well as all of God’s creatures.
Today is the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. It is a good time to write about why I decided to follow in this particular saint’s way-of-life and join his brown-clad fraternity, rather than the scholarly Dominicans in their dazzling white (the Jesuits, of course, were never within my reach). It seemed like a pretty obvious choice, though. I wanted to make sense of faith and science in an integrated way, and this seemed to require the attitude towards creation taken by Francis. “Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures” is the theme of his famous Canticle of Creatures.
Environment is such a strange way to speak of what we should call nature or creation. The environment is a self-centered concept: that which surrounds us, all lumped together and confronted by the observer who stands apart, trying to make sense of it, and failing miserably. We cannot know that from which we stay apart. We end up like strangers in a strange land, surrounded by something that is entirely different from us, like explorers who by some cosmic mishap ended up in a parallel universe and now have to try and survive in it.
It was not a cosmic mishap, though, just bad philosophy. It is what happens when we take the scientific view of nature after forgetting its larger context. If nature were only what is understood by science, then there would truly be no purpose in it, and our longing for purpose would correspond to nothing in nature. There would only be an interconnected web of whose threads we speak in the language of cause and effect: how certain states of affairs always follow on certain other states of affairs, as such is ordained by the laws of nature that hold it all together as one across a vast expanse of space and time. The world as understood by science simply exists, as a brute fact that means absolutely nothing at all, while the sheer size of it ridicules our attempts to understand ourselves within it all. But who is to say that the world understood by science is indeed the world we live in? I can draw a map of the city in which I live, and the map speaks truly and gives me reliable guidance. But the map of my city is not my city. It is just a useful abstraction.
Francis’s intuition was individuality within fraternity: brothers and sisters. We know of being one in two ways: one individual creature, and one community of creatures. We are alone in our uniqueness as individuals, but we are united in a community that forms the whole. This community, however, is not just the human community, but all that God has made. For Francis, this even included the heavenly bodies and the earthly elements. He took for granted what we have lost: the understanding of creation and its creatures by analogy with our own existence. Just as we know purpose and meaning in our own lives, we can find purpose and meaning in the creatures of creation by analogy with our own. If I try to make sense of my brothers, then I try to imagine myself in their situation, after accounting for the differences. Nature, especially its living creatures, needs to be understood similarly. Not in the sense of a childish sentimentality, but by truly recognizing the proper dignity of each creature, its purpose in life, not just for us but within creation as a whole.
This is how we discover the unique dignity of each creature and learn to respect. Such thinking takes nothing away from the special dignity of the human person; it actually emphasizes it as comparing ourselves to non-human creatures shows what is special about being a person. However, by understanding our own dignity in the context of the dignity of all creatures, we can truly be at home among them. And in this way, we can understand creation, and through this understanding, be drawn into the love of God.