I post this article here as I think it is a good and vigorous apologia for a Catholic ecology, and deserves reading:
‘Love that Moves the Sun’: Catholicism’s Deeper Ecology – A Response to Clive Hamilton
by Mary Taylor
Few people over the centuries have had the confidence, or perhaps the chutzpah, to publicly prognosticate on what a papal encyclical would say.
But the ascension of Pope Francis has been accompanied by the rise of an entire industry devoted to ripping his words from their contexts, putting words in his mouth, or applying convoluted hermeneutics to tease out what he “really” means. As a result, speculation about his upcoming ecological encyclical has reached fever pitch.
For my part, I would never presume to speculate on what the pope will say. But I think we can assuredly know something about what he won’t say.
At the conclusion of a recent attempt by Clive Hamilton to peer into and read the papal portents, the author asks:
“If modern humans have driven God from the natural world and then trashed it, will He be inclined to appear as our saviour? Between the lines of Francis’s encyclical, will he be asking us to prepare ourselves for the appearance of the saviour while at the same time bracing ourselves for the end if He declines?”
The answer to the second question is a resounding, “No.” No pope will ever tell us that Christ’s saving act in His death and resurrection was conditional, that His being our saviour lies only in the future, and that our salvation rests on any works – even praiseworthy ecological efforts – humanity as a whole performs.
To be fair, this type of egregious theology is simply the result of the temptation to hyperbole when ending an essay with a stirring “call to action” for something dear to one’s heart. It is not unique to Hamilton; it is a sign of the times.
The fiery Protestant preacher Jonathan Edwards was well known for his vision of sinners in the hands of an angry God dangling over the pit of damnation; its use today merely underscores the fact that environmentalism has become a new religion.
For many, religion is little more than a cluster of stories that are only acceptable if they function as utilitarian aids to the ultimate end, the Summum Bonum of “saving the earth.” This movement is part of a larger picture which eventually culminates in what David C. Schindler called the “tendency to reduce thinking to politics,” and an impoverished conception of reason that ultimately forces us to see every question in terms of an eternal struggle between “liberals” and “conservatives” (political terms left over from the French Revolution that should have no place in discussions of Catholic faith and teaching).
But reductionism is double-edged: like holding up a stencil or template to the world, great swatches of our vision are blocked out entirely, and whatever else remains to be seen is forced into a certain shape. “The alternative to seeing what is there,” says Frank Sheed, “is either not seeing what is there, and this is darkness; or seeing what is not there, and this is error, derangement, a kind of double darkness.”
The (in)significance of Leonardo Boff
Leonardo Boff is both a lightning rod and a particularly polarizing figure for those whose spirituality is heavily political, and Hamilton too turns to him. It may or may not be the case that the pope will be drawing on Boff’s eco-theology – as is claimed by Paul Vallely, to whom Hamilton links. Where this claim comes from is unknown; those who are consulted for encyclicals are not named and have the grace to remain silent, so the motivation behind this kind of leaked (alleged) information is suspect.
Furthermore, there is no space to explicate the very complex issues with Liberation Theology, to which Hamilton alludes. Suffice it to say that nothing faithful to Catholic teaching was condemned; rather, the problem was the mistaken notion that means do not matter, that violent means could be used to reach a good end. That the Logos is one of Love and not originary violence, that there can be no violence in God nor in means He commends, is axiomatic for Catholics.
Some people may be looking to Boff for antecedents because the topics Pope Francis addresses otherwise seem to come out of nowhere to those who lack a familiarity with the broad and deep watercourse of Catholic theology and philosophy – especially in the twentieth century. (I have found that the vast majority of secular ecologists identify Catholic thought with a single form of nineteenth-century neo-scholasticism. Moreover, there is no denying that there is an immense, contented – if not complacent or even oblivious – class of Catholics who unthinkingly swallow the mechanism, utilitarianism, dualism and reductionism of modernity).
The topics that Pope Francis addresses seem to come out of nowhere to those who lack a familiarity with the broad and deep watercourse of Catholic theology in the twentieth century.
For decades, Catholic philosophers and theologians have engaged with and been deeply critical of the technological exploitation of the natural world that Hamilton sees addressed in Boff’s writings. Heidegger’s “Essay on Technology” (1954), in particular, elicited a wealth of response. A bibliography would run to many pages, but one cannot imagine discussing Heidegger’s essay without turning to Hans Urs von Balthasar who wrote about him, both negatively and positively, with such profound insight. I also immediately think of David L. Schindler’s Beyond Mechanism, and his voluminous subsequent work. John Paul II linked technology and exploitation of nature as far back as his 1979 encyclical, Redemptor Hominis.
Neither is Boff’s linking of the exploitation of nature to exploitation of the poor, borrowed from other thinkers, unique. And John Paul II embraced the phrase “preferential option for the poor” 35 years ago. Indeed, if the forthcoming encyclical points to the cry of the poor (about which Charles Peguy wrote so eloquently in 1910), it will be because of settled Catholic teaching. (I might add here that Hamilton – not mentioning that Catholic teaching encourages responsible natural family planning – cites the pope’s off-the-cuff “breed like rabbits” comment, but neglected to mentioned that the pope backtracked almost immediately when he made it clear that large families were both a blessed gift and not the cause of poverty.)
Francis’s break with tradition?
Like Hamilton, most oracles divining the future encyclical will give a hat tip to the usual suspects in Church history – they will quote some popes, and without fail will mention St. Francis; but still, as often the case when describing this pope, language about a “Francis Revolution,” a theological rupture from his predecessors, becomes increasingly hyperbolic:
- Hamilton speaks of Francis’s “radical break” from “theologies that view nature in purely secular terms, with God displaced from the earth to another realm” – but if such theologies exist at all, they can only be the result of Gnostic dualism, not incarnational Catholicism.
- Within this “break” Hamilton is even more struck by Francis’s statement: “Thanks to our bodies, God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment.” But the embeddedness of the body in the world in an incarnational faith has been of great interest to theologians for many years (see, for example, the beautiful work of Father Jose Granados, and the connection between human sin and the earth’s disfigurement, in the writings of the late Stratford Caldecott).
- Hamilton thinks another radical break is one “situating humans in nature” and giving nature an “autonomous and even divinely-infused dimension.” But it was Benedict XVI who said that “the book of nature is one and indivisible,” and the scholars of the John Paul II Institutes, among many others, write with such clarity about the non-dualistic, relative autonomy of nature as an answer both to a “two-story” universe with a distant deity and one in which God is dissolved into the world. As for the “divinely infused dimension,” once again see the beautiful work of Stratford Caldecott and the recovery of a sacramental view of the cosmos going back to Maximus the Confessor.
- Yes, Pope Francis “stressed that nature is God’s gift to humankind” and that we need an “attitude of wonder toward nature” – but that makes him one in a long line of Christian thinkers, especially since Hans Urs von Balthasar (one of the favourite theologians of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the pre-eminent theologian of “gift” and “wonder”). John Paul II, who introduced the phrase “ecological conversion,” and spoke of “the wonder awakened … by the contemplation of creation.” (I would also point to Kenneth Schmitz’s The Recovery of Wonder: The New Freedom and the Asceticism of Power.)
- Hamilton says that “Francis called on all people to respect not just the usefulness of every living thing but its ‘beauty’ and ‘finality’,” thereby departing from “the more utilitarian attitudes of his predecessors.” But again, this is not new; see the writings of previous popes and recent theologians and philosophers (among them, Robert Spaemann and David Bentley Hart) on natural teleology, beauty and finality.
- Hamilton points to St. Francis (who was a far more profoundly Catholic saint than the secular vision of him as a kind of Dr Doolittle in a habit; he should be better known for his profound love of Christ and his love of and obedience to the Church), and makes an astonishing leap when he says that what is translated in the Canticle of the Sun as “sustains and rules” us actually means “rules over us” in the sense of a radical break with all Catholic theology, including even “respectful stewardship.” Some Latin texts say alit, “nourishes”; some do say governa, but surely this means that as physical beings we are governed by natural and physical laws, not that “Mother Earth” is some sort of Gaia-like mediator between God and persons. Furthermore, Catholics (like Father Robert Barron, who spoke of natural creatures as our “ontological siblings”) understand the “horizontal theology” Hamilton sees in both the saint and the pope, but know that that theology cannot be reduced to the horizontal. Again we can point to the Incarnation – in Christ, the vertical and horizontal dimensions meet. Pope Francis specifically says that we have lost “the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation … Why does this happen? Why do we think and live horizontally – we have moved away from God, we no longer read His signs.”
- “Theologically,” says Hamilton, “Francis seems to leading the Church towards a contemporary recovery of a pre-modern understanding of the creation” (though the Catholic Church never adopted whatever the “modern view of creation” is thought to be; all the modern versions are variations on the change involved with and in things already in existence; the Church retains the gift of creation ex nihilo, with Aquinas’s essence-existence distinction and hence the ongoing mystery at the heart of every created thing). Hamilton refers to a sacramental view of creation going back to Francis and Bonaventure, but as I said above, others have been working on the recovery of the sacramental view of the Patristic Fathers (the Orthodox Church has an especially rich tradition). Pope Francis would be continuing the work of at least the last 75 years.
Rather than enacting any kind of rupture, Pope Francis is squarely in line with the renewed tradition. But at the same time, because the beauty of Christ is “ever ancient, ever new,” we can always expect things novel and surprising (in the dramatic sense of, “I never expected that, but now that I see it … Of course! How beautiful!) and the pope will doubtless put his own unique stamp and emphasis on each of these issues.
St. Francis was a far more profoundly Catholic saint than the secular vision of him as a kind of Dr Doolittle in a habit. He should be better known for his profound love of Christ and his love of and obedience to the Church.
In what follows, I do not presume to channel Pope Francis and what he might say in the encyclical. (It is worth remembering that what Hamilton calls ” today’s widespread disinclination to view the official pronouncements of the Vicar of Christ as infallible” not only holds “today” but every day, because the only infallible statements a pope makes are those dogmas defined ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. Papal encyclicals may refer to already defined infallible teachings and moral truths, but are not themselves infallible, and certainly any opinions they may express about public policy are never infallible.)
What I do intend is to approach the Catholic vision of “ecology” from a different angle, one that attempts to transcend the liberal/conservative template in order to see more than it allows. The apparent zero-sum game between the two hides many other fissures, but the greater truth is that for Catholics, various apparently antagonistic dualities – like logos and ethos, charity and justice, grace and nature, doctrinal truth and praxis – are not opponents, but bear to each other a constitutive (though asymmetrical, as the first in each pair is prior to the other) relationality.
A proper aversion to reductionism does not mean that the Church does not have much to offer regarding properly ordered ecological thought, as I will argue later. While creation cannot be a “sacrament” – there are seven sacraments in the Church, and they are fixed – it can, as he and others say, be seen as sacramental. The original beauty and truth and goodness of creation is a given. As Balthasar wrote, while the earth is not a goddess, not divine, “The reality of creation as a whole has become a monstrance of God’s real presence.”
This is no doubt that we are in the midst of an ecological crisis. The litany of ills is long and readily visible and does not need to be repeated here; a vast field of ecology/environmental theorists and practitioners has risen up in response. One of the central concerns for these movements is sustainability, which seeks the assurance that nature’s resources will be continue to be available to us in the future. Its concomitant sisters are restoration and conservation. While most people of good will agree on some form of these, there are different ways they can be approached.
Sustainability’s core principle – that we must limit or manage growth to maintain some kind of equilibrium in the future – focuses on human impact. The logic of the currently dominant paradigm, its response to the recognition of ecology’s importance, seems to entail something profoundly anti-human. A particularly toxic political atmosphere has enveloped us, pitting people against each other: environmental justice is demanded with no thought for environmental caritas.
Without firm grounding for the protection of the dignity of the human person, a zero-sum game is set up in which care for humanity can only “deflect” care for nature:
“Our humanist solicitude towards the poor living in the impoverished suburbs of the big cities of the Third World, and our almost obscene obsession with death, suffering and pain – as if these were harmful in themselves – all these thoughts deflect our attention from the problem of our harsh and excessive domination of the natural world.”
In some circles this results in a rising contempt for children, who are reduced at best to extra mouths to feed, at worst to rivals to other biological entities, a cancer on the earth. This contempt is linked to population control, especially in its most highly aggressive forms; Heidegger’s critique, usually embraced by ecologists, of how a certain kind of technological mindset turns everything in nature into a “standing reserve,” mere products to be manipulated, is ignored when it comes to reproduction. Self-discipline and moderation are demanded in regard to natural resources but rarely considered as a possible option otherwise.
Hence, in a list of basic environmental principles (“waste ought to be disposed of safely … biodiversity is better than monocropping”), ecologist Lester Embree includes as “common sense” that “the human population needs to be reduced by several billion” – a not uncommon opinion. What often follows are calls for coercive political control, from support for compulsory one-child policies to intrusion by international bodies into countries’ internal values and even their constitutions. Ecologist Neil Evernden, commenting on the defining image of the modern environmental movement, the famous photo of the whole earth, says:
“Ironically, the environmentalists’ vision of a unified planet, symbolized by images of Earth as seen from outer space, only helps legitimate the quest for control in the guise of ‘global management’. If what is at stake is the fate of the planet, then any intervention seems justified. Thus, rather than diminish the appetite for dominance of the natural world, the environmental crisis has served to sanction virtually any activity which embraces the cause of planetary survival.”
James Lovelock, creator of the “Gaia Hypothesis,” said: “We need a more authoritative world. We’ve become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say … It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.” Garrett Hardinsaid that “the freedom to breed is intolerable … If we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” David Wood believes that if preserving the environment is the goal, “the argument that there are circumstances in which democratic societies might suspend democracy is not as totalitarian as it might seem.”
Examples could be multiplied, but in the end, the loss of persons – the “abolition of man,” as in the title of one of C.S. Lewis’s books – seems almost a desideratum, reachable only through the total control of the state.
Without firm grounding for the protection of the dignity of the human person, a zero-sum game is set up in which care for humanity can only deflect care for nature.
Catholics agree that the earth and all living things are beautiful and praiseworthy in their own right, and further, they see creation as a gift from God, especially precious because the Incarnation means that Christ “unites himself in some way with the entire reality of man … and in this reality with all flesh, with the whole of creation.” And so the ecological movements present Catholics with a dilemma: they struggle with finding ways to harmonize their love for God and love for His creation while being faced with the ideological antagonisms directed against human life and dignity and toward excluding faith from the public forum.
Catholics know that our connection with nature goes deeper than the material, for “the experience of awe before the beauty of the created order is a glimpse into our ontological, not merely biological, origins.” The manifestations of brokenness – both environmental degradation and disregard for life – are the result of actions that arise from free human choices; those choices may be economically or politically or even ethically motivated, but they have deeper roots.
While there is not one single cause of those environmental crises (there are many proximate causes, some local, some not), ultimately questions about our relationships with others and with nature do not stand alone, but take their place within greater ontological and meta-anthropological dimensions, and must be faced by turning to those dimensions – what do we take to be real and who do we think that we are.
Ecology, Ontology, Anthropology
Dante’s great trilogy, the Commedia, is full of images of sailing, ships, navigation and the guiding stars. The Inferno had the reckless attempt of Ulysses to sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules to where the stars of the southern hemisphere shone in the night sky; the Purgatorio begins, “To course over better waters the little boat of my genius now raises her sails”; and the Paradiso reminds the reader that not everyone can commit himself to putting out into the deep – those of us who are following only in “little barks” would do well to turn back to the shore, as the muses direct Dante to the Bears, the constellations that point to the and contain the Pole Star. Dante tells us how the earth appeared to him on his voyage, from the sphere of the Fixed Stars:
My eyes went back through the seven spheres below
And I saw this globe, so small, so lost in space,
I had to smile at such a sorry show.
Dante’s voyage culminates with one of the most famous passages in literature: “the Love that moves the Sun and other stars.” Encountering the Trinity as a tri-form rainbow, he asks a question for which only a neologism will do: the reflexive verb s’indova, from the adverb “where.” How is it that the person – and by extension all of nature, of creation, finite, limited, bound by time – “in-where’s-itself,” finds its dwelling, in the profound revelation of infinite, unlimited, timeless Love? What the poet Dante then saw in the fulgore, the flash that cleaved his mind, was what the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s own trilogy sought to illuminate: how created nature – including beauty, freedom, finitude, goodness and truth – s’indova in the greater Mystery of eternity.
Most people think of “environmentalism” as having to do with such things as recycling or the rights of animals. What might be surprising to those not familiar with current eco-philosophical thought is that ecological scholars struggle with the very things Dante and Balthasar wrote about: the relation between being and Being, finitude and infinity, history and ontology, the concrete, unique particular and the “whole” of “holism.”
Unable to find a balance point between these polar tensions, many simply deny the tension. Suppressing one side, they resort to identity, either material or pantheistic: persons are materially or spiritually identical to nature. In dealing with transcendence and immanence, “emergent ecology,” with so many insightful things to say about how novelty arises, can only deal with the former by defining it as another form of the latter, a “horizontal” one, while “panentheist ecology” sometimes collapses into incoherency. Still others embrace a permanent state of agonistic, if not antagonistic, opposition between all the pairs, embracing not Dante’s translucent, ever-deepening mystery of light, but what David C. Schindler calls “the murky night of ambiguity.”
But ontological problems always lead to anthropological problems; as John Paul II said: “At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error.” When Dante referred to “squaring the circle” in Paradiso, he was not merely seeking to balance the two sides of abstract, incommensurable dualisms. He saw a “third thing,” which alone resolves unity and diversity, time and the eternal: in the words of Benedict XVI, he “perceives something completely new and inconceivable for the Greek philosopher … the perception of a human face, the face of Jesus Christ.”
Catholics can bring more to the ecological table than merely following behind environmental movements by putting solar panels on churches, or even by explaining the concept of stewardship. The tensions of existence, relationality, the meaning of the person and (a recent interest of the ecologists) the iconic nature of the earth, are among the very same topics that have engaged Catholics from the beginning and especially in the past century. But perhaps it is the “covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God,” that best manifests Catholics’ opportunity for contribution.
One set of responses to environmental problems is primarily mechanical and contractual, restricted to the technical and economic spheres. A second set turns to an interconnected relationality, to the sphere of ethics and to various schools of philosophy (someone once said that environmentalists are so wedded to recycling that they extend it to recycling philosophies: hence we have ecological hermeneutics, environmental pragmatism, critical ecology and so on).
But what is needed is the widest possible paradigm, one which includes all the spheres below it, “a dynamic philosophy which views reality in its ontological, causal and communicative structures … which allows a full and comprehensive openness to reality as a whole.”
Catholics can bring more to the ecological table than merely following behind environmental movements by putting solar panels on churches, or even by explaining the concept of stewardship.
Covenantal relations, both with other persons and with creation, take into account all these structures; requiring the gift of self, they are deeper than contracts but contain them, as eros can only be fully itself inside of agape. At the heart of these relations is solidarity: the recognition of a common desire for beauty and meaning, the realization that we share a common destiny with other beings, the apprehension that the participation of others is necessary for a common good that is deeper than the co-incidence of our private goods or our ideology.
That ecological issues are profoundly tied up with the ontological and anthropological tensions of existence – between self and world, nature and freedom, persons and community – is not unknown to ecological thinkers. That the lynchpin between the pairs should be not an idea, concept, ideology, or theory, but the concrete encounter of “environmental solidarity” may not be self-evident, but it is true. This third way will be seen to be a reversal of our normal vision, a transposition to another register.
A recent ecological text claims that there are over 200 environment schools of thought, which I want to consider under the rubric of “trajectories” – a word borrowed from Benedict XVI. I’ve specifically chosen this word because these schools of thought encompass not – or not only – theories, but ways of thinking, of being, of acting, of living. It is always perilous to generalize, but the term is not meant to be a rigid taxonomy, a way to “control and colonize” ecological thinking, or a way to deny the complexity, variety and distinctions within each trajectory, but simply to point to, as Wittgenstein would put it, family resemblances.
The First Trajectory: Resource Managerialism
A chemical company remediates a polluted site by digging up the contaminated earth and carting it away. A paper-and-pulp company plants a tree for every tree cut down. A nonprofit gets a scenic area set aside as a wilderness preserve. Any environmental project which seeks to conserve, restore, recycle, or otherwise manage natural resources when those resources are seen only in terms of their utility, and where sustainability is understood as nothing more than “utility extended into the future,” falls under the First Trajectory – what Timothy Luke calls the “instrumental rationalism of resource managerialism.”
Sustainability indicators – complex quantitative tools combining various indices and metrics – have been developed to highly sophisticated levels. Rightly ordered, they may be useful tools within the other trajectories, but here their defining feature is a reductive mode of thinking based on an antecedent calculative utilitarianism in which all factors are stripped down to the measurable for a single goal: “environmental policies are designed to maximize human satisfaction or minimize human harms.”
Profits are maximized, but so are problems: the first company benefits from the quickest technological fix while externalizing many economic costs, but merely displaces the problem elsewhere, and often finds itself in conflict with those who live in the “away”; the second ends up with a monocrop forest that destroys diversity and animal habitats; the third sets up a dichotomy between natural and “artificial” lands legitimized by the value of the scenery, often pitting the livelihood of the locals against those they see as “elite environmentalists.”
What is at the root of these problems? The First Trajectory’s antecedents are found in modernity’s dualism between the person and the world; the human is the subject and nature is the object, to be known by a form of science seen as the final arbiter in all human endeavours. As res extensa – organized assemblages of extrinsically related parts – nature is the object to be mastered by technology.
This mechanistic and positivistic ontology at the heart of modernity makes technology the measure of all things. It truncates reason to instrumentality; reduces the complex depth of causality to a debased form of efficient causality alone; in its demand for total explanation, it cannot account for freedom over against determinism; and it gives rise to irrational, defensive responses such as fideism. In ethics, it claims neutrality, but is relentlessly, even blindly, utilitarian.
The criticism of the First Trajectory is not a criticism of technology, which has been a boon to humanity; its benefits in so many fields, from agriculture and architecture to medicine and telecommunications, have dramatically improved the human condition. It has had some success in solving problems at the technical level (some of which, like oil spills, it is responsible for). The practice of science that is born of wonder is a good both in its discoveries themselves and in the good that it brings to people. If correctly understood, as Benedict XVI has said, “Technology … is a profoundly human reality … produced through human creativity as a tool of human freedom.” In it, Benedict says, “man recognizes himself and forges his own humanity.”
The mechanistic ontology at the heart of modernity makes technology the measure of all things. It truncates reason to instrumentality, and cannot account for freedom over against determinism.
But it becomes too easy for the trajectory’s assumptions to develop into an ideology, something that closes itself off to further questioning and to true human community, becoming an end in itself. This happens when, in its ruthless division of fact from value, it does not merely deny that it can answer ultimate questions of value and meaning, but says that the questions themselves are either meaningless or unanswerable. As Hans Urs von Balthasar writes:
“We have to feel our way back; we have to overcome certain blindness to the primal value of being. This sick blindness is called Positivism, and it arises from regarding reality as raising no questions, being ‘just there’ … When men are blind to the further question, it signifies the death of philosophy … For philosophy begins with the astonished realization that I am this particular individual in being and goes on to see all other existent entities together with me in being; that is, it begins with the sense of wonder that, astonishingly, I am ‘gifted’, the recipient of gifts.”
Earlier times saw things after the model of living organisms, with their own interiority, unity and relationality; because modernity descends from a nominalism that allows no interior intelligibility, form or nature, other than what the mind ascribes to things, it sees no unifying order but only a plurality of particulars without intrinsic connection, and hence cannot get a purchase on “life” but only on a mechanistic form of biology. The denial of the interiority of natural things turns animals, plants and landscapes into commodities, accelerating the possibility of environmental degradation and cutting off all hope for solidarity with nature.
Solidarity with persons fares no better. Anthropocentrism finds its natural home in this trajectory, which reduces considerations of nature to a cost-benefit analysis of its worth to humans, yet even its anthropocentrism “loses” the very persons it seeks to privilege. Some scientists now make claims to “Theories of Everything” that reduce both nature and the person to sociobiological gene carriers, laws of physics, or little more than variables in equations.
Heidegger’s most chilling insight into modernity’s objectification of nature was that not only was the non-human world of animals, plants and minerals turned into a “standing reserve,” but the possibility arose that humanity – divided into absolutized consciousnesses and bodies related to as machines – would itself become commodified, like the human bodies in The Matrix, which were appropriated by a ruling class of sentient machines as nothing more than sources of energy.
The assumptions of the First Trajectory provide an inadequate grounding for a solidarity of persons because the person cannot be reduced to, or fully determined by, the physical and biological, and is not satisfied with functional, mechanical, or technical answers to the deepest questions. Relationships with persons are described in the language of contracts in which people are reduced to their extrinsic interests and the intersections of their private goods – a simulacrum of a true common good. The many self-giving acts performed by those who operate under First Trajectory assumptions are done by people whose humanity escapes the constraining chains of ideology, for of course no one lives within this worldview at all times, or life would not have been worth living.
Many of the assumptions of modernity have been repudiated by physicists, postmodern philosophers, ecologists and theologians, but its pervasive influence, the extension of its positivism to every human endeavour, has become for most people the very air they breathe.
The Second Trajectory: Ecocentric Holism and Postmodern Ambiguity
The Second Trajectory is the home of all projects which focus on nature as a holistic system that needs to be sustained for its own sake and not simply for human utility and efficiency. The idea is not to save nature for humans, but to save it by “letting be.” The same issues of sustainability and restoration may be considered, but they must be extended to living creatures and to the land.
Second Trajectory ecological thought arose positively with the awareness of the delight to be taken in the natural world that was missing from positivism. It invokes, often in expressions of great beauty, the wonder at the heart of our relation with the earth. Philosophically, the Second Trajectory is part of postmodernity’s attack on the presuppositions of the Enlightenment, including its assessment of the subject/object distinction in epistemology and mind/body, self/nature dualism (eco-phenomenology has been very influential here), and the overemphasis on reduction, mechanization and quantification, derived from physics and extended to other fields.
The fact/value distinction is also repudiated. The First Trajectory field of “environmental management” is criticized as simply continuing and legitimizing the worst values of modernity: its “spectacle of contradicting experts” concentrates on “material pollution” while not seeing that the problem is one of “moral pollution” and that the various debates are actually about much wider ethical issues: “what constitutes a good life.” It was understood that a move had to be made from the technical/economic to the ethical sphere; so, for example, ecologist Holmes Rolston channels Aristotle, noting that reasoning in environmental ethics:
“frequently proceeds from the observation that natural entities have certain physical or biological characteristics to the conclusion that they have certain sorts of value or goods and then to the further conclusion that we have certain obligations toward them. This two-step pattern, which [Rolston] characterizes as a ‘transition from is to good and thence to ought‘ aims to provide environmental ethics with a solution to Hume’s is-ought problem.”
It was Heidegger who first turned ecologists to the step beyond ethics, to questions of metaphysics and ontology. Even for those ecologists who seem to champion only finitude and contingency, there arose questions about the relationship between the limited and the unlimited, the particular and the universal, time and eternity, the immanent and the transcendent, however the second term in each pair is defined.
While sharing the above concerns, the ecologists of the Second Trajectory are nevertheless very diverse. The Trajectory divides, on the one hand, into those looking for the One – wholeness and identity – and on the other, those choosing the Many – difference. At one end of the spectrum is a holistic ecophilosophy that it finds its fullest expression in Arne Naess’s “Deep Ecology.” Holism has been especially characterized by biocentrism and ecocentrism, which arose in direct opposition to the perceived anthropocentrism of the First Trajectory, and by the demand to consider the whole, whether ecosystems or the entire planet.
In ecological mysticism, there can be an irrational response to science that is truly fideistic. Despite its emphasis on interconnectedness and relationality, it evinces an inability to fully account for the unique place of persons in the order of nature.
At the other end of the spectrum, many postmodern ecologists think holism evinces a longing to return to a golden age of innocence, of harmony with nature, which is neither physically nor logically possible. In the end, they say, positivism and holism are mirror images, each believing that it has a privileged access to “pure” nature itself, and that language is nothing more than a transparent vehicle for expressing truths about it.
For these postmodern ecologists, nature, while exceeding our speech, is not prediscursive – talk about nature constructs “nature.” Hence they agree with Nietzsche that there are only perspectives or narratives, none of which can rise above the others in a totalizing metanarrative. Neither positivism nor holism can account for this plurality of perspectives. They seek clarity and certainty; but for postmoderns, the courageous choice is ambiguity.
Second Trajectory ecological thinking ultimately stumbles into some of the same pitfalls as the First. In ecological mysticism (“Gaia” holism) there can be an irrational response to science that is truly fideistic; despite claiming to eschew reduction, there is reduction to biology throughout; despite, or perhaps because of, its emphasis on interconnectedness and relationality, it evinces an inability to fully account for the unique place of persons (a “someone,” or as Martin Buber says, a “Thou”) in the order of nature.
There thus arises the spectacle of competing claims between, for example, persons and endangered species, and the difficulties adjudicating those claims. The interminable permutations of theories about how to value individuals in relation to the whole – how do we balance substantive entities with an interconnected web? – are displacements of larger questions that culminate in the metaphysical questions of identity and analogy. The Second Trajectory’s core ecological insight into the interdependencies of all things animate and inanimate, while true, still can result in a conflation and confusion of the physical, the natural and the human.
The Second Trajectory’s holism is a philosophy of identity, in which, Benedict XVI has said, “the person is not an ultimate reality … [since] the person, the contrast between the I and the Thou, belongs to the sphere of distinctions”; instead, the boundaries between persons, and between persons and the natural world, “are absorbed, are revealed as provisional.” True solidarity based on respect is impossible not only with humans but with nonhuman entities if each living thing is nothing but what Harold Morowitz described as “a dissipative structure, that … does not endure in and of itself but only as a result of the continual flow in the system.”
At the other end of the spectrum, many postmoderns, under the guise of privileging difference, deconstruct persons into a congeries of hidden forces: social, psychological, biological and economic. They are not moral agents but raw material in various struggles for supremacy. Relationships are “unmasked” as being driven by these struggles, and all perspectives are equivalent. But if truth, beauty and goodness are trampled on and lose their authority, power is the final arbiter, and the door opens to coercion. Solidarity can no more be rooted in power relations alone than it can be rooted in contracts alone.
Despite these criticisms, there is insightful, beautiful and promising work in the Second Trajectory. There is common ground with Catholic concerns: some eco-phenomenologists especially look to personalism to resolve the issue of substantive beings; others point us to almost a kind of “theology of the body” in their analysis of the embeddeness of the human body in the sensuous world, the place where the personal and the natural come together; still others intuit that “truth is symphonic,” that we need the perspectives of others.
“My own eyes are not enough for me; I will see through those of others,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough … Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a bee or a mouse.” Herein lays the ground for dialogue, not forgetting the ever-greater differences.
The Third Trajectory: Covenantal Relationalism
A few years ago, a young consecrated layman, Ricardo Simmonds, was given the project of creating a small park out of a garbage dump in a South American shantytown. If it had been a First Trajectory project, the initial step might have been an economic feasibility study, followed by hiring a planning/redevelopment consultant, then seeking out landscape designers, waste management engineers, and other technical help. A Second Trajectory project might have begun with an environmental impact assessment and a stakeholder charrette.
Instead, Simmonds put a large statue of the Virgin Mary in the middle of the dump. First the mothers came to pray and plant flowers, carving out natural walkways; the children came to play; the fathers came and began hauling the garbage away; then others from both the shantytown and the city saw something beautiful happening that they wanted to be a part of, and volunteered their services, time and money.
This might seem like an isolated, irrelevant, or marginal event, and clearly a religious statue reflects a very specific milieu, but large-scale environmental projects have been carried out in a similar way: by reversal of the standard order of starting with technical fixes and economic costs, which often lead to various social or political conflicts, and instead beginning with the common call to meet our deepest shared needs for meaning, beauty, mystery and friendship. The other steps are not eliminated but are rightly ordered under what is most important.
We can see the above as an illustration of what Benedict XVI called a “new trajectory” in action:
“A new trajectory of thinking is needed in order to arrive at a better understanding of the implications of our being one family; interaction among the peoples of the world calls us to embark upon this new trajectory, so that integration can signify solidarity rather than marginalization.”
The name “Third Trajectory” gives the impression that it is another possible path to be set alongside the other two. But it is not simply another, ultimately indifferent choice, or a response to the others; it remembers and integrates what is good in them, while at the same transcending them. Ecological postmodernity vehemently rejects modernity – its “metanarratives,” its dualisms, its desire for certainty rather than ambiguity – but postmodernity, precisely because it is a reaction to modernity, is not radical enough: it does not return to the roots of the issues at hand.
This trajectory really is new because its very grammar begins from a qualitatively different launching point, so that the ensuing alternative arc of its flight traces a solidarity that can embrace, heal and bring to fruition all that is good in the earlier trajectories. This trajectory, to borrow from David L. Schindler, is able “to integrate the achievements of modernity, while at the same time moving us truly beyond modernity.”
Benedict XVI sees both the extrinsic, functional relationality of the First Trajectory and the interrelatedness of the Second Trajectory, whether due to biology or choice, as inadequate: “Thinking of this kind requires a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation.” This task, he continues, “cannot be undertaken by the social sciences alone, insofar as the contribution of disciplines such as metaphysics and theology is needed if man’s transcendent dignity is to be properly understood.” So we begin by turning from projects to principles.
First, the new trajectory is analogical. The analogia entis responds to the question of the s’indova, expressing the participation of all of nature and creation in the divine or transcendent, while at the same time preserving the difference: “The analogy of being is an emancipation from the tragedy of identity, which is the inmost truth of every metaphysics or theology [or ecological philosophy], whether dialectical and dualist or idealist and monist, that fails to think analogically.” It is also the emancipation from ambiguity, as it allows for multiplicity in unity, a “symphony” that reveals “the unity of men with God, which … brings about the unity of men with one another, unity with the whole of creation, and thus unity between the Creator and creature.”
Second, it draws upon both metaphysics and phenomenology. These are not juxtaposed side by side, nor are they merged, nor are they compromised by taking bits and pieces of each. Their relationship needs to be understood in a different way, with metaphysics unfolding structurally within the experience of acting persons and the wider dramatic setting of encounters with other persons and the natural world, sounded out to their ontological depths. The relationship is asymmetrical – with metaphysics prior to phenomenology – but each maintains its own integrity, and each requires the other.
Third, the ontological dimension provides the wellspring for the transcendent dignity of persons (“beyond the social sciences alone”) upon which solidarity depends; its personalist anthropology, as Tracey Rowland writes, is:
“sufficiently multidimensional to include within it both substantiality (the notion of a universal human nature), and relationality (an appreciation of the uniqueness of each and every human life, its individuality determined by its relations with similarly unique others). It requires, in other words, an account of the human being as a being in time, but in such a way that the two dimensions are held together rather than eclipsing either the historical or the ontological edge of the pole.”
Nature, too, comprises substantial beings, not merely resources for consumption or momentary unities in energy, matter, or information fields: “The earth has a dignity of its own,” said Benedict XVI. Our relationality extends to those beings: “The book of nature is one and indivisible,” and our duties to both persons and the environment are linked. Benedict’s claim that “every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society” is not mere rhetoric. Whenever nature is pitted against persons, whenever one set of rights is seen as trumping the other set, both suffer.
The reason for this interrelatedness brings us to the fourth feature of this trajectory: that it sees reality as a gift. God is the Giver, and since he is Creator of all, we are ontologically, not just biologically, related to all creation, children of one Father. Balthasar said that “to be a child is to owe one’s existence to another” – that is, to be dependent. The contempt for children reviewed earlier is partly contempt for this dependency, a dependency that mirrors the ontological status of every created being.
Whenever nature is pitted against persons, whenever one set of rights is seen as trumping the other set, both suffer.
The same contempt, with its relentless demands for contraception and abortion, also evinces a lack of a generative hope for the future; the future looms up as a competition over scarce resources. Attempts to mitigate this view fall short. Ecologist Hans Jonasbases man’s responsibility toward future generations on an “ontology of biology,” which appears to value the child – he says that “the archetype of responsibility is the care of the parent for child,” but in reality does not: “The ultimate ground for our duty to our children, however, is not our ontic relationship to them in particular, but our duty to humankind as such: to the idea of Humanity which is part of the idea of purposive nature.”
The Third Trajectory instead sees the child not as the bearer of an abstract “idea of humanity” but as a gift, a concrete, loved, particular reality. Abstract ideas do not have individual faces; what Dante saw in his final vision was a face, and there may be no better image for the Third Trajectory. For it is through face-to-face encounter – which Balthasar says begins with “the Smile of the Mother” – that the child first awakens to the mystery of reality which is not identical with ourselves, and to an initial vision of what is true, beautiful and good.
Beyond that original awakening, encounters with the world continue to open us to what some Second Trajectory ecologists, drawing on Emmanuel Levinas, see as a “face” in nature. But despite speaking of the face’s “unique openness,” Levinas’s “face” is as abstract as Jonas’s: “precisely as abstract human, disengaged from all culture” – even more deeply abstract, he says, than the abstraction of particular to the general.
Here, instead, the face points to something different. The “giftedness” of creation means that nature is not a social construct, even if language about it is, but a shared reality that exists prior to our thoughts about it. Third Trajectory thinkers agree with postmoderns that language cannot “capture” the whole of reality, and that neither utility nor biological holism exhausts its meaning. They differ, however, on what that means. For postmoderns, there is no truth to the matter – ambiguity goes all the way down. For the Third Trajectory, the face is unique and precious, and at the same time a window whose “inexhaustible depth … appears on its very surface.” We cannot know exhaustively, but what we can know, we can know truly; or, as John Paul II said:
“The irreducible signifies that which is essentially incapable of reduction, that which cannot be reduced but can only be disclosed or revealed. Lived experience essentially defies reduction. This does not mean, however, that it eludes our knowledge.”
This brings us back to Benedict XVI’s “category of relation.” The First Trajectory had extrinsic contractual relationships, and the Second, besides its physical/biological/evolutionary relationality, explains other kinds of relationships as choices willed by the individual. These will remain essentially extrinsic and, finally, arbitrary, if they are bound not by truth or goodness, but only by a “freedom” free to do the opposite for any reason or no reason, disintegrating into caprice.
Benedict XVI suggested instead that covenantal relationships could be formed with both others and creation. It is the whole self that enters into a covenant, not merely a part. Like its prime example, marriage, the form of the covenant “extends through all the levels of life, from its biological roots up to the very heights of grace,” and so it can integrate and order contracts and choices. At the same time, it makes promises for a future it faces not in fear of scarcity, but in hope.
In ecological thinking, the Third Trajectory is only now coming into being, awakened by the growing awareness that the first two trajectories are not sufficient. Operating through dualism, monism, or a dialectic of ambiguity, is too limiting. The suggestion is not to reject instrumental reason, interconnection, or dialectic; nor is it to turn one’s back on sustainability, restoration, or conservation.
Sustainability, for example, involves more than insuring that we can continue consuming into the future. Though our natural resources are limited and finite, we have a need for meaning that transcends the material; only the infinite will suffice. Solidarity, which requires the participation of everyone involved, concerns more than merely overlapping interests and diverse perspectives; it involves a reversal, a Copernican revolution – or better, a Dantean Turn. After Dante’s “flash,” he did not simply collapse back into what he was before; he looked outward from a “God’s-eye view,” still limited by his creaturely nature, but recognizing that the multiplicity of perspectives find a real unity in “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.”
The Third Trajectory does not necessarily promote any specific ecological practices. It draws on every other level and every other ecological method and strategy, not as something extra or added on, but as that which radiates the light by which the others are seen.
Something Benedict XVI said about the Church finds an analogous echo in the Third Trajectory: “The Church does not have technical solutions to offer,” but rather points to the truth of human persons and their dignity and vocation, for “without truth, it is easy to fall into an empiricist and sceptical view of life, incapable of rising to the level of praxis because of a lack of interest in grasping the values – sometimes even the meanings – with which to judge and direct it.”
Seeing the whole of creation as an analogical, participatory, personalist gift within which we are in communion with all other beings illuminates the experience of wonder and gratitude for the natural world; provides genuine hope for the future; and opens the door to a solidarity that is relational in the deepest sense – one which transcends the anthropocentric/biocentric divide and whose end, to borrow from Martin Luther King, Jr., “is reconciliation … redemption … [and] the creation of the beloved community.”
Mary Taylor is a consulting editor of Communio: International Catholic Review. She received a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School and a doctorate in philosophy from the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Spain. An earlier version of portions of this article appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Communio: International Catholic Review.
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