Those who want to know what makes the difference between a common home and an environment will benefit from experiencing major changes in their lives. Thrice this happened to me, which makes me think that I am competent to write about this topic. While growing up in Germany, I always wanted to become a scientist, and this is what I became. Later, after graduating with a doctorate in biochemistry, I went to the United States. After ten years as a postdoc and assistant professor, I became a manager in a Canadian biotech company and moved from basic science to commercially applied science. But after a few more years came the most important change in my environment: I joined the Order of Friars Minor. So, these are the three big changes in my life: From Germany to North America, from basic science to commercial applications, and from secular life to life as a Franciscan. In light of these experiences, it is not hard to say what makes a common home out of what is at first just a new environment. It is when you stop acting like a stranger and fully take part in it and understand it as a home shared with others, a common home.
This essay is meant to convey how nature is not just the environment. It is meant to be a common home. Does this mean back to nature? Many have tried, but it is a long way from here if more than a walk in a parc is meant by this. As a Franciscan, my understanding of nature is inspired by the life of St. Francis of Assisi and the community he formed in the 13th century, but much has changed since then. In the year 1620, or at the start of the Age of Enlightenment, Francis Bacon1 demanded a new understanding of nature. “Just let the human race get back the right over nature that God gave to it, and give it scope; how it is put into practice will be governed by sound reason and true religion.”2
This articulates what lies at the foundation of our modern understanding of nature and our modern science of nature. Humanity’s right is to seek power over nature, and the traditional idea of being in nature and at home in nature and taking direction from nature is to be abandoned. But what will now give direction to our acting in nature and the exercise of our powers? For Bacon, all that it needs is sound reason and (for him, Anglican) religion. But today, religion and the power of the state are deemed to be best kept apart.
Instead of religion, maybe human dignity and democratic values could replace religion as the context in which the different interests of human beings are negotiated. But this is hardly easy. Not everyone trusts in the democratic process and the compromises it requires. Furthermore, how could the voters of one country legitimize decisions also involving countries far away and human generations yet to be born? But these open questions are no cause for despair. If you grew up like I did in a house next to the Rhine in Düsseldorf, then you would know how much progress common sense and democratic structures can make in matters of environmental protection. What was in my childhood an industrial sewer is now once again a living river. Environmental protection is possible, and everyone can come out ahead by making it a priority.
But science and technology are not enough to solve all the problems caused by environmental pollution. Science and technology need to be given direction and awareness of purposes and ends in nature. Alas, the modern view of nature is shaped by another quote from Bacon: “For the inquisition of final causes is barren, and like a virgin consecrated to God produces nothing.”3 Modernity has banned ends, purposes, and the final causes of Aristotelian philosophy from scientific inquiry. What something is for when it is how it is may no longer be asked. Instead, we are to ask how to control it and how to make it useful for us. This is how the world is seen by the scientifically educated technocrat, and not without reason, as much has been accomplished in this way. We mustn’t become luddites, if we want to reconcile modern science with the Christian understanding of life. What human reason has discovered in nature and applies in useful assistance to better our lives and ease our burdens is always a gift of God, and it must be appreciated. Eco-conservative naturalism that seeks to turn back the clock is not at all what I want to talk about.
To understand nature as a common home, the first thing to understand is that we are not doing this for nature’s sake. The terrestrial biosphere had done quite well without us for billions of years. No matter how dramatic the end of the human species might be, the biosphere would make a quick recovery and begin anew with a multitude of diverse living creatures. Our concern is human beings. For the sake of human life do we seek to make the environment a common home. “There is no ecology without an adequate anthropology”, teaches the pope.4 Therefore, we need a third way between, on the one hand, eco-conservative naturalism that sees no human good in progress and, on the other hand, technocratic dominance that considers the concrete human life as a mere means towards making further progress.
The politics of this third path must neither be about social engineering nor nostalgia for a lost way of life. But nature has become a stranger, and this is a problem. When you read the encyclical Laudato si, then you will see how many topics the pope must address concerning the consequences and new Christian duties arising from this alienation from nature. Only after overcoming this alienation while including the modern understanding of nature and integrating it into politics can we properly understand the signs of nature and read its message and find direction for further human progress.
The alienation from nature is not overcome by walks in uninhabited wilderness, of which there is more than enough in Canada. An African brother in my community in Montreal much prefers shopping malls. Outside in the parcs he is afraid of snakes, he says. Our assurances that he is quite safe from snakes on the Island of Montreal do nothing to reassure him. Having grown up in an African village, he is probably a little amused by the naïve love of nature characteristic of my compatriots in Canada and Germany. I, however, very much like to go to the park and especially to the botanical garden of Montreal, and when I must visit shopping malls, then my patience runs out after 20 minutes. But when I go to the park and he to the shopping mall, then what we see is not so different. There are other people all around us who follow their interests. Some are jogging in the park, others go shopping with their friends, many are sitting with family or friends on a picnic blanket, and others are meeting in a restaurant. We see community. Since Franciscans consider communal life at the heart of their lives, we are trained to recognize it. And we also see the ones who seem lonely, who seem to be always alone in the crowds surrounding them. Feeling the closeness of being together in a common home is hard for some.
But the human being’s essential nature is the vocation to live in conscious awareness of openness to others so that community becomes possible, and this insight shapes Franciscan spirituality and Franciscan life. Francis writes in his Testament how his life began in the 13th century as a disciple of Christ.5 It was an encounter with a suffering man whom he showed mercy which made him recognize how the mercy of God was to be found. And then, the Lord gave him some brothers, and there was a small community that walked together on the path mapped out by the Gospels. In this story, religion is understood quite differently from what Bacon would write 400 years later as a representative of the established Anglican Church. In the religiously motivated small community, religion is the experience, remembrance, and anticipation of healing of all that alienates from God and his people. It is individually experienced faith, but the full challenge of this faith can only be experienced in human community. On this foundation in daily life Franciscans can understand their natural vocation as human beings and children of God.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself. … Do this, and you will live” says the Lord in the Gospel of Luke (10:27-28). In these words, only at first sight naïve, lives the Christian view of nature. It understands human nature as called to love God and human beings, and this is foundational for understanding the whole world. The Gospel calls every one of us personally into live, and when we hear this call, then we also understand nature as creation and respect the life of all creatures in it.
A nice example for Franciscan community life is found in the Sacrum Commercium, an allegory about Franciscan poverty.6 Poverty makes dependent, and in dependency, it is easier to understand both your own needs and the needs of others. If poverty and the resulting dependence is a free choice, then you can use this experience to better understand others, as this form of life makes you less capable of isolating yourself by your own strength. In the narrative of the Sacrum Commercium, we read of the success of this project. Sitting on a meadow and eating their frugal meal, the Franciscan are asked, “Where is your monastery?” In response they point all around themselves and say, “Here is our monastery.” They own nothing, but they own the whole world. They hold on to their lives but not lifeless possessions.
The topic of life requires serious philosophical reflection. We see life when manifest before us, whether it is in another human being or a tree. Even a mere amoeba that swims by chemotaxis towards food is correctly understood by us as the behavior of a living being. But a car that is programmed to find its way to its destination is not alive. It does not act out of itself, but it is a machine that differs from a wind-up toy only by the larger part of its components and their electronic rather than mechanical connection. An artificial plant may fool me for a while in thinking it alive, but once I know that it is not, the foolish thing just annoys me.
We recognize living beings as a special kind of beings. The respect that we have in site of any living being in need is calling us to attention. Hearing this call is a consequence of the respect that we have for our own life. In the life of others, we see what gives us life. We know that as finite living beings, we remain dependent on others and cannot be entirely alone. Our independence remains dependent on other people and their care for us. This is never something that we can do without permanently, but only for a while.
Life is a temporal being that remains always dependent on its sustenance. The atoms remain behind, but the living being is in them and can cease to be and leave them behind. The living being has its own unity and sustains its unity by metabolism and development. It can pass on its life to its offspring. In a manner of speaking, life floats on non-living matter like a story on the letters of a book. Therefore, we cannot see life when we look for it by the methods of the physical sciences. We only see how life forms the material substrate that is prior to life and remains after death. We see homeostatic states far from thermodynamic equilibrium, but these are signs of life, not life itself. Entirely independent of physical science we understand by our own life how to recognize living beings that we then study by the means of the physical sciences.
The already mentioned purposes and ends, all those reasons that refer to a goal to be reached, have no place in the answers given by physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. But the questions that we ask of molecular biology are questions that we have already recognized as purposes and ends of a living being. These purposes and ends are no longer found in the answers provided by these sciences, but these answers give us new powers over nature. This power may even seem boundless, as nature understood without its own purposes does not set the boundaries of our dominion. But living beings nevertheless have their own purposes and ends for which they do what they do in their life, and aware of our human awareness of the value of life, we must value living beings with their own purposes and ends.
When you let living beings live as they live and live with them, then this does not mean that you consider nature like a zoological-botanical garden that must be kept nice and clean for a Sunday walk. Life of living beings is a development through life with death as the completion of their story. This is true not only for individuals but for every species in its interdependence with other species. We are one of them. All change in nature, including the dying of species caused by human actions, are part of nature. The extinction of the woolly mammoth is not to be reckoned as humanity’s guilt. But this does not mean that nature is a mere resource for us. Life in its temporality must always be understood as being creative. Living in the environment as a common home means remaining attentive to the creativity of life and taking responsibility for one’s own creativity in this common home.
The religious term of creation, in which religiously motivated wonder finds its expression, is not a static term like a blueprint, but a living story unfolding in time. We are not threatened by change in the environment, which we could handle by adapting, but we are threatened by technology that removes us so far from nature that we no longer understand either life in general or our specifically human life. The conscious goals of human life are good goals when we understand them together with the mere ends of living beings. When brought together, then the characteristically human life mediates between the life of the spirit and animal life.
Philosophical thoughts can lead to useful advice in political decision making. They can help to pinpoint the problem and the values at stake. When we consider today open pit mining of brown coal in Germany or oilsands in Canada, then speaking of a common home seems entirely unrealistic. There, the earth is treated as a lifeless thing. It is as if we had turned part of our world into a lifeless planet that is now a mere resource for us. The exploitation of these resources can be critiqued or supported. Both in Germany and in Canada, democratically constituted governments have done much to reconcile diverse and often contradictory interests. But this does not mean that the resulting compromises are unproblematic. Political compromise is not comparable with sustainable resource use as in a forest that has already for a long time been part of human culture and human way of life. Sustainability is impossible to consider when resources are mined by simply pushing life aside. Renaturation will only be a partial recompense. In ethically responsible decision making, important is not only the end state but also the value that we see in the beginning. Those who want to consider the environment as a common home must seek to see in nature its inviolable dignity that cannot simply be replaced with something else.
Saint Francis did certainly not think of our modern problems when he composed the Canticle of Creatures, but when we read it today, we find in it the dignity of creation.7 Francis sings how sun, moon, and the stars, and earth, water, air, and fire all together proclaim the praise of God. This is kind of abstract, as he says little about plants and nothing about animals. You need to know that Francis wrote this canticle in awareness of the closeness of his death and in the hope for eternal life. He already sees creation at the end of time in its perfection in the creator. He no longer sings of our world with its short and simple life stories, but he already anticipates the world in its fulfillment at the end of time.
But in this song about the heavenly bodies and earthly elements—lifeless to us—Francis sees brothers and sisters singing the praises of God. This is an important difference to other religious compositions of this kind. In the song of the three young men in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:51-90) are many more creatures by which God is praised. But contrary to Francis’s canticle, the creatures are not brothers and sisters of the men. Even if Francis’s canticle does not mention the living creatures of our experience, it is nevertheless full of the life of the transformed creation in which all creatures are together as brothers and sisters. When little children will complete their drawings of the sun or the moon by giving them faces, then they are closer to the wisdom of God than astrophysicists. And when Francis, close to death and in great suffering, once again gives faces to sun, moon, and stars, then he is not returning into childishness. He recognizes the importance of life in the fragility of his own life. He understands that his own personal life and the life of created beings and all creation are eternally carried by the life of God. Therefore, the song concludes with the reminder that bodily death is not to be feared. Even bodily death belongs to the eternal family of that enters the fullness of life. Francis reminds us that those who live in accordance with God’s will have escaped death as the annihilation of their being. For them, the embrace of Sister Death is their entry into the fullness of life.
But in between these lines carried by the philosophically understood life comes something very important, and it refers to the concrete situation of Francis at the end of his life. He is suffering from severe illness, and his city is divided by political strive. He calls himself and all others to find peace for the love of God and live with one another in peaceful relationships. Crowned by God will be those who can transform their suffering into acts of peace making.
When you take Francis’s poetry into our modern context, then you are not far from his thought when you seek peaceful rather than destructive interaction with nature and its resources. We must understand how the special dignity of human beings is inseparable from the dignity of all other living creatures. Only those who know this and can live like this can truly live. Only they can understand the life of others, no matter whether they are a mere microbe or an irreplaceable biotope or the people of a whole city. In the sense of a creative participation in nature as our common home, instead of domineering control of the environment, humanity can truly be the crown of creation. Let’s call it a democratically constituted crown, akin to the Canadian monarchy.
The call “back to nature” that is meant to teach us how to live begins in human relationships with each other. Our first care, according to our nature, must be for those who are truly dependent on others by their situation in life. In the end, to work slowly but steadily on human relationships is the true way of acting out our nature. It changes our attitude towards the environment in such a way that it becomes our common home where we, too, belong.
Therefore, it is the Franciscan community life and our desire to live with others who have been brought together by nothing more than the Franciscan way of life that will be the Franciscan contribution to turning from the environment towards a common home. Compared to the workings of large NGOs and political movements, our contribution seems rather small. But the inheritance passed on to us from St. Francis and his brothers is a powerful inheritance.
When you read the rule of St. Francis and compare it with the rule of religious life among the Benedictines or Augustinians, then you notice right away the importance of the topic of Fraternity.8 Francis does not speak of superiors and highly disciplined father-figures, but of brothers that care for one another with maternal attentiveness. Most likely, this is not exactly new and just interprets forms of life already found by other religious renewal movements. It is obvious that such a way of life is closer to the life of Jesus and his disciples of which we read in the Gospels and in the Act of the Apostles. “You have one teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters” (Mt. 23:8). But in this way, in all the inefficiency of such a principle of leadership that does not necessarily pick the most effective for leadership, Franciscans learn what it means to form and guide community by creative and constructive mutual dependency.
Such knowledge can not only change your personal life but also the lives of people around you. It is a concrete personal decision that is at the heart of Franciscan spirituality and way of life. This leads us back to nature in a way fitting to our human nature so that we can be at home in nature in a truly human way.
This article was originally published in English and German in the “Grüne Reihe” der “Missionszentrale der Franziskaner” and can be found here: https://franziskaner-helfen.de/medien/
- https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/francis-bacon/. ↩︎
- Francis Bacon, The New Organon, Aph. 129. ↩︎
- De Augmentis Scientiarum , III, 5. ↩︎
- Laudato Si, 118. ↩︎
- Francis of Assisi, Early Documents, The Saint (New York, NY: New City Press, 1999), 124-127. ↩︎
- Ibid, 529-554. ↩︎
- Ibid, 113-114. ↩︎
- Ostermann, Joachim, “Fraternity as Natural Being, Religions 13: 812 (2022). https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13090812https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13090812 ↩︎