Benedict the Green


bv091_Benedict-02Blogging tends to be a grumpy medium.  The project of “unmasking” the incoherent or self-serving commitments of others allows the unmasker to indulge in one of the few socially acceptable displays of superiority.  Since the human race in its fallen condition is such a target-rich environment for peevish observations, blogging continues to amuse.  A Christian blogger, however, should at least occasionally evoke the beauty of the tradition that he has received, thus rendering an “account of the hope that is within [him]” (1 Pt 3:25).  In that spirit, I thought I would follow up my first thoughts on Caritas in Veritate and Human Ecology with some thoughts on the beauty of the cosmos conceived according to Christian doctrine.

In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict warns that blindness to nature as Creation leads to a false dichotomy in our attitude toward the natural world:

In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God’s creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation. If this vision is lost, we end up either considering nature an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God’s creation.

Thus nature, when she ceases to be the bearer of provident design, becomes either raw material for exploitation or the object of quasi-religious fetishism.  Very often, both attitudes thrive in the same culture, with the result that we cordon off certain areas into wildlife “sanctuaries” or nature “preserves,” while pressing much of the rest into unsustainable productivity.  In either case, man remains “alone,” radically discontinuous with the natural world, and unable to hope for any lasting home in it.  At most, he must be content to pass through as an eco-tourist (leaving as small a “carbon footprint” as possible) or to remain merely a squatter on foreign land (until depletion forces him to move on).

This estrangement so deeply marks our feeling for nature, that one must reach far into the past to find a view untouched by Romantic Schwärmerei.  Probably for this reason, Fr. Jean Leclercq’s summary of the monastic view of nature in The Love of Learning and the Desire for God is particularly illuminating.  He observes:

What we mean by [‘feeling for Nature’] is, largely, lacking in mediaeval men… The cloister is a ‘true paradise,’ and the surrounding countryside shares in its dignity.  Nature ‘in the raw,’ unembellished by work or art, inspires the learned man with a sort of horror: the abysses and peaks which we like to gaze at, are to him an occasion of fear.  A wild spot, not hallowed by prayer and asceticism and which is not the scene of any spiritual life is, as it were, in the state of original sin.  But once it has become fertile and purposeful, it takes on the utmost significance.

We see this same attitude in almost all the old fairy tales, where it is the virgin forest—not the village or farm—that inspires dread.  According to any Christian ecology, “Creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the sons of God” (Rom 8:19).  Nature as the fruit of creation—far from fearing the advent of man—yearns  to be offered back to God through her participation in man’s creative purposes and spiritual life.  In such a cosmos man has a home and a purpose.

Leclercq also touches indirectly on the question of “human ecology.”  The experience that allows the monks to consider the world in this enviable way is not merely doctrinal assent or technological innocence.  Rather, it is the experience of a life “hallowed by prayer and asceticism.”  Ascetical men, those accustomed to take according to need rather than desire, and those habituated to shaping what they take toward noble ends, sense themselves as blessings upon the land.

Appetitive men, on the other hand, whose only restraints on consumption come from external “push-backs,” rightly sense themselves to be dangers to their environment.  When the “push-back” comes, they must assuage their consciences, either by inwardly reducing the environment to indifferent matter, or by “preserving” it in a brine of overwrought sentimentality.  Even good-will efforts to “neutralize” consumption through technical solutions such as recycling and alternative energy sources do not heal our alienation from the natural world.  Such practices are perfectly compatible with belief in a cosmos that is really better off without us.

But is it not more attractive to view nature as a providential Creation hallowed by Christian worship than as a sickly organism allergic to human contact?  Is not the ecology of the ascetical man wiser than the ecology of the appetitive man?  Is this not yet another case where Christianity shows the way out of the impasses of our age while fulfilling its deepest longings?  Benedict answers each of these questions affirmatively in Caritas in Veritate.

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