The trouble with natural theology (the notion that nature itself points us to an understanding of the divine) is that nature herself is a nasty piece of work. When St. Francis of Assisi and his namesake, the reigning Pope, laud nature as “mother” and “sister,” they open a can of theological worms. Nature is no sister of mine. Christians like to view things in terms of teleology–their ultimate goal–and the teleology of the world we know is to be destroyed in a fireball.
Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ opens with this praise of nature:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
Except, of course, that the waters may rise and drown us, or breed mosquito larvae that bring us malaria, or dry up and ruin or harvest and starve us, and so forth. There is a theological dodge to get round this, but it is unconvincing. That is the “fallenness” of Creation. After Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, some Christian theologians assert, nature turned nasty. Hans Fiene, a Lutheran pastor, takes issue with Francis in a recent Federalist essay, arguing that “according to the Bible, the fall into sin fundamentally damaged the harmonious relationship between man and the earth, resulting in a planet that frequently needs to be mastered and subdued if you don’t want the same beautiful mountains to bury you in an avalanche or some lily of the valley berries to make your guts explode.”
That is a common biblical reading, but nonetheless an odd one, because it assumes that the whole of Creation was like the Garden of Eden, the tiny patch of ground where Adam and Eve lived under divine protection. When they were expelled from the Garden, they encountered the world as God had made it; nothing in the biblical account suggests that God changed the character of the world outside the Garden.
On the contrary: the Bible portrays Creation as contingent and imperfect. As Psalm 102 states (in the KJV translation):
5Of old didst thou lay the foundation of the earth; And the heavens are the work of thy hands.26They shall perish, but thou shalt endure; Yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; As a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed:27But thou art the same, And thy years shall have no end.28The children of thy servants shall continue, And their seed shall be established before thee.
And while the flash of our beginning has not yet traveled the light years into distance–has not yet been seen by planets deep within the other galaxies, we will disappear into the blackness of the space from which we came, destroyed as we began in a burst of gas and fire. The heavens are still and cold once more. In all the complexity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the Earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of space, the problems of Man seem trivial and naive indeed. And Man, existing alone, seems to be an episode of little consequences.
James Dean offers, “Hey, it’s over. The world ended.” And Sal Mineo responds: “What does he know about man alone?” The film was a pop-culture presentation of the faddish new Existentialism: man is alone in the universe and our choices are arbitrary. The inevitable encroachment of nothingness turned into one of the great cultural tropes of the 1950s. The same year, Isaac Asimov wrote his favorite short story, “The Last Question,” in which the universe gradually succumbs to entropy. At the end a supercomputer—after the last star has flickered out—declares, “Let there be light.”
The flights of the human soul in the exact sciences which had given the world a kind of material comfort and security that it had never known, but it culminated in a fatal verdict: “Man, existing alone, seems to be an episode of little consequences.” From modern physics emerged a nastier version of the charge that Voltaire had hurled at religious rationalism: what sort of benevolent God could allow the destruction of innocents in natural disasters?
The thought that all human endeavor must someday end in nothingness is uncanny. If, as Freud argued, we are incapable of imagining our own death, all the less so can we imagine absolute nothingness. We can respond to the prospect of nothingness only through a general and undefined unease. In that respect, Ancient Israel first understood history as a journey towards human redemption, rather than the endless cycle of growth and decay envisioned by the pagan world, and this teleology was adopted by Christianity. The moral premise of the West since its founding has been that our teleology defines us, and if our destiny is to become nothing, then we are infected with nothingness today. It takes the form, as Martin Heidegger argued, of boredom and anxiety without a particular object of fear.
That is my objection to Pope Francis’ (and his namesake’s) portrayal of nature, as well to Intelligent Design: ID might prove the existence of some God, but not necessarily of a good God. I wrote in a 2012 essay:
God made an imperfect world and gave the task of improving it to his junior partner in creation, humankind.
As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik observed, the final perfection of nature is a messianic vision: In the prayers for the New Moon, for example, Jews look to the day when God will restore the moon to parity with the sun. But there is a great deal to do in the meantime. Man is not the passive victim of earthquake, flood, famine or disease. We can build defenses against natural disasters, cure disease, and eliminate hunger. Whatever harm befalls us today, we can change our destiny in the future. God does not reveal his infinite mind to us, except through an infinite procession of discoveries, to which we are led by intuition, or, if you will, inspiration.
We are not the passive victims of nature. We strive to establish human dignity by mastering nature. We are neither gods who can grasp the infinite mind of the God of Creation, nor mere animals for whom evolution is destiny. We do not need to worry whether there is an Intelligent Design, nor whether we might grasp such a design if it indeed exists: As creative beings, we are part of the design. We do not know the full scope of the design, because we do not know what we have yet to accomplish. God does not need us to justify his position as creator; our task is nobler, and incomparably more challenging, namely, actually to advance his work of creation.
Man’s creative role is embedded in the Jewish concept of Covenant as a divine-human partnership, into which man enters with free will, accepting demands that God places upon humankind. Human beings, that is, must merit the grace of a demanding and passionate God through their actions. If we act badly, we will be destroyed along with the natural world (and probably will hasten our destruction by mismanaging nature). Otherwise, we have 5 billion of years to correct the design flaw that will turn the sun into a supernova. We have farmed food for less than 10,000 years, and should be optimistic that we will solve this minor problem along with many others.
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