Synods almost always move within established boundaries and the subjects they take on, the very language they use, are largely predictable. But a new term popped up at the Amazon Synod in the last few days that may be significant. Various sources say that the synod participants have been talking about changing our mentality from thinking of ourselves as the lords and masters of nature to our (allegedly) true position – as “guests” in the world.
As with much else that happens in discussions of ecology, this has its positive and negative sides. The positive side, a very positive side, is that it repudiates a centuries-old view that corrupted the Scientific Revolution at the very start. Rene Descartes spoke of making ourselves “masters and possessors of nature.” Francis Bacon went even further advising we “put nature on the rack for the relief of man’s estate.”
Now, needless to say, these assertions are naked brutality, not a Christian view. The false belief that the Bible – and not the early stages of the Enlightenment – sanctioned such callous supremacy has for more than a half-century now led a significant segment of environmentalists to think Christianity is responsible for environmental degradation, and should therefore be repudiated.
A Biblical view of nature begins at the beginning, with Genesis, where we are told “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (1:28)
The Hebrew word for “dominion,” the Bible scholars say, is pretty strong, the kind of rule a king – a good king – has over his realm. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that, prior to the advent and spread of modern technologies, nature was not always a loving mother to our race, but a stern foe. To this day, some people seem to think it’s unnatural when there are floods, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, bizarre weather patterns. The truth is those things have been part of conditions on the earth since long before we ever came on the scene.
So the dominion of which the Bible speaks maybe be strong, but it is the strength of the steward who will make the desert bloom, cultivate the land, care for the animals, as he or she must do if we are to live on earth at all.
I have no idea where this notion of “guest” – the Italians have been saying ospite – came from. It seems to aim at humility and deference towards nature, which would be fine in and of itself. But the fact is that we are not guests here; we’re not like someone staying in a hotel or private home at the forbearance of the owners. We are meant to be here – we Christians and Jews believe, on the basis of divine revelation – and therefore we have an essential role to play.
I have said here before: the Amazon synod is not wrong to raise questions about the human treatment of nature because nature is not the purely materialistic thing (matter and energy interchanges) that the technological/scientific worldview presents to us. It’s useful at times to look at nature that way in order to achieve various goods. But that kind of science, which is not all of science by any means, cannot say anything about what’s central to human life: free will, intelligence, purpose – and finally, love.
So when synod participants talk about shifting from a technocratic paradigm to an ecological one, they’re actually harking back to a true Biblical perspective.
That’s if – and it’s a large if – we do not think of ourselves as some sort of encrustation on the land, as the more radical environmentalists seem to believe. Unfortunately the Vatican has largely drawn on the most radical environmental figures – not exclusively, but a lot – in developing ideas about our relationship with the Creation. It’s often turned to population controllers who advocate contraception and abortion, and – so far as anyone knows – has not much sought to help develop currents of thought and practice that do not regard us as a guest in the world – if not a pest.
It pains me to say this but some of our best intentioned Catholics seem to be so weighed down by abstract kinds of guilt (not the guilt that once existed over personal sins) that they only see Christian culture and the Western civilization to which it helped give rise as toxic, toxic all the way down. Poisoned by “dominion” in the Bible, poisoned by colonialism, racism, sexism, slavery, genocide – all terrible things to be sure. But it is because of our Christian roots that we know that many things that have happened in Western culture, as in other cultures, are not exactly sterling examples of virtue and benevolence.
It would only compound those errors if we were now to regard ourselves as a mere “guest” on this planet. God has not told us that such is our lot in the world. Rather, it’s our responsibility to be his stewards, as I argued here the other day, until the true king comes again.
It will be worth watching if this talk of being guests continues to rise in prominence over the next week because, under the guise of humility, it tends toward yet another ideological distortion of human life on this planet.
We are not guests, we are creatures, God’s creatures, as much meant to be here as the rivers, the rainforests, the mountains, and the seas. More than they are, in fact. It’s a challenging prospect, but we should not shrink from, but embrace it.
*Image: The Equatorial Jungle by Henri Rousseau, 1909 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC]