Lost in the Cosmos

On a visit last week to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., I watched a documentary film on the Nazi’s rise to power. I was struck by the opening montage. The filmmakers had decided to begin their story, not in Germany, but in Paris, using real footage from the 1900 World’s Fair. Accompanying the jerky, black-and-white images of fair-goers was a voice narration extolling the Paris exhibition’s promotion of tolerance and understanding among nations, and the spirit of invention and progress that characterized the new 20th century.

“The 20th century began much like our own,” the narration asserted, “in the hope that education, science, and technology could create a better, more peaceful world. What followed, soon after, were two devastating wars.”

In marking this contrast between the optimistic spirit of 1900 with the wars that would soon engulf the world, the documentary showed no sense of irony about the tolerant, progressive attitude that ushered in the new century. It was as if the filmmakers saw no connection between the hope in the secular trinity of “education, science, and technology,” and the horrors that followed.

In themselves, education, science, and technology may be good things. But when “emancipated” from their proper service to the true flourishing of human beings, they become dangerous instruments, at the extreme, even tools of genocide.

The great virtue of the Holocaust Museum is its power to expose the deadly virus hidden in a desire that has defined the modern world for the past 500-odd years: to be, in Descartes’ phrase, “masters and possessors of nature.” The Museum functions as a vivid reductio ad absurdum. Its films and exhibits tease out the incoherence in progressive presumption, and reduce that presumption to a terrifying absurdity.

What the Holocaust Museum reveals, in other words, are the devastating consequences of a lack of humility toward nature.

And so it goes. Even now as the 21st century unfolds we are still struggling to learn this humility. Consider, in this light, the two big issues that have gripped Catholics, especially American Catholics, in recent days: Pope Francis’s new encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, and the United States Supreme Court’s declaration of a right to same-sex marriage.

As Father Robert Barron has pointed out, in Laudato Si’ Pope Francis seeks to retrieve for humanity a “cosmological vision” rooted in a profound and humble understanding of our place in God’s creative order, that is, within nature. Why does the pope think such a retrieval necessary?

In modernity’s drive to dominate nature through distorted versions of education, science, and technology, human beings have experienced, for the most part unreflectively, a profound dislocation. We have, in the words of Catholic novelist Walker Percy, lost our place in the cosmos.

Dante's Ptolemaic universe [Click to enlarge]
Dante’s Ptolemaic universe
Open up pretty much any translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and you will find a map of the Ptolemaic Universe, the astronomical backdrop to the poem’s vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. On the Ptolemaic model, the earth is at the very center of the cosmos, as if Creation were saying that this relatively tiny orb, and the rational animals given dominion over it, were its whole point and purpose.

Human dominion over Creation, however, is not absolute. It is a gift of God. We have been given the dignity of rule over the earth, but our rule must be exercised with both nature and super-nature as our guides.

We are not meant to be proud masters and possessors, but only humble stewards of nature.

As Romano Guardini describes it in his marvelous little book, The End of the Modern World, however, our recent attempts to master nature come at a high price, one aspect of which is our loss of “place” in the creative order. We no longer see ourselves as members of a community of beings, our “ontological siblings” as Father Barron calls them. We no longer regard with wonder our Brother Sun and Sister Moon. We see nature, including our own human nature, as raw material to manipulate. Yet we fail to see that in this lust for power we exile ourselves from community, from our natural home.

So we drift, tyrannical but ghostlike.

And even though the Ptolemaic picture of the universe has been replaced by a new cosmology in which the earth appears a mere accident and human beings the quintessence of dust, divine order still undergirds the cosmos and human nature still longs for the community from which it is estranged.

This is why Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ so urgently calls us back to a humble recognition of the limits of human dominion over the earth. He knows that without such humility we will destroy God’s Creation and doom ourselves to an anxious wandering in the cosmological desert.

But it is very important not to lose focus on the fact that in talking about nature the Holy Father means human culture as well as the physical environment. He quotes Pope Emeritus Benedict:

[He] observed that the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since “the book of nature is one and indivisible,” and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth. It follows that the “deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human existence.”

There is an intimate connection between a respect for the natural environment and, for example, respect for marriage understood as the union of one man and one woman. The one and indivisible nature is manifested in land, sea, sky, as well as in the family household. And it is the same impulse at work, both Francis and Benedict teach us, that seeks either to destroy the environment for material gain or to redefine marriage.

Climate change or no climate change, this is wisdom that can spare us the gas chambers.


Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.