Caring for the earth in a secular world  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , ,

            From the start the environmental movement has included voices that wanted to bear witness to a spiritual dimension in the stewardship of the planet. Sometimes that dimension seems to amount to little more than the awe human beings sense when faced with the grandeur, beauty and order of the world. At other times various eastern monistic or naturalistic pagan notions are introduced, wanting to account for the fact that more than technical, scientific, economic, and political issues are at stake. I sympathize with these efforts because I am convinced that not only does creation, in the words of the ancient Hebrew poet, “declare the glory of God,” but that, even more starkly, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” We are stewards of God’s good world, and the foundational command to work and tenderly care for the earth remains in effect.
            In recent years the mainstream movement to care for the earth has tended, at least in my hearing in the media, to become increasingly secularized and politicized. Although there are important and lovely exceptions, even many of the voices in the church have been cast in this mold.
            One voice that has resisted this unfortunate tendency is Wendell Berry. He speaks quietly but powerfully from a distinctly Christian perspective, and does so in a way that even those who reject the faith often pause to listen. Thus I was glad when the February 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine—a periodical not known for its sympathy to historic Christianity—arrived with a lengthy excerpt from Berry’s new book, Our Only World.
            A brief excerpt from that excerpt:

            We need to acknowledge the formlessness inherent in the analytic science that divides creatures into organs, cells, and ever smaller parts or particles according to its technological capacities.
            I recognize the possibility and existence of this knowledge, even its usefulness, but I also recognize the narrowness of its usefulness and the damage it does. I can see that in a sense it is true, but also that its truth is small and far from complete.
            In and by all my thoughts and acts, I am opposed to any claim that such knowledge is adequate to the sustenance of human life or the health of the ecosphere.
            Do even the professionals and experts believe in it, in the sense of acting on it in their daily lives? I doubt that they do.
            To this science, the body is an assembly of parts provisionally joined, a “basket case” sure enough. A mountain is a heap of “resources” unfortunately mixed with substances that are not marketable.
            There is an always-significant difference between knowing and believing. We may know that the earth turns, but we believe, as we say, that the sun rises. We know by evidence, or by trust in people who have examined the evidence in a way that we trust is trustworthy. We may sometimes be persuaded to believe by reason, but within the welter of our experience reason is limited and weak. We believe always by coming, in some sense, to see. We believe in what is apparent, in what we can imagine or “picture” in our minds, in what we feel to be true, in what our hearts tell us, in experience, in stories — above all, perhaps, in stories.
            We can, to be sure, see parts and so believe in them. But there has always been a higher seeing that informs us that parts, in themselves, are of no worth. Genesis is right: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The phrase “be alone” is a contradiction in terms. A brain alone is a dead brain. A man alone is a dead man.
            We are thus as likely to be wrong in what we know as in what we believe.
            We may know, or think we know, and often say, that humans are “only” animals, but we teach our children specifically human virtues — evidently because we believe that they are not “only” animals.
            Another question of knowledge and belief that keeps returning to my mind is this: Are there not some things that cannot be known apart from belief? This question refers not just to matters of religion — as in Job 19:25: “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth” — but also to ordinary motives of family and community life, such as love, compassion, and forgiveness. Do people who believe that such motives are genetically determined have the same knowledge as people who believe that they are the results of choice, culture, cultivation, and discipline? Or: Do people who believe in the sanctity or intrinsic worth of the world and its creatures have the same knowledge as people who recognize only market value? If there is no way to measure or prove such differences of knowledge, that does at least prove one of my points: There is more to us than some of us suppose.
            We may know the anatomy of the body down to the anatomy of atoms, and yet we love and instruct our children as whole persons. And we accept an obligation to help them to preserve their wholeness, which is to say their health. This is not an obligation that we can safely transfer to the subdivided and anatomizing medical industry, not even for the sake of cures. Cures, to industrial medicine, are marketable products extractable from bodies. To cure in this sense is not to heal. To heal is to make whole, and is not so ideologically definable or so technologically possible or so handily billable.
            This applies as well to the industries of landscapes: agriculture, forestry, and mining. Once they have been industrialized, these enterprises no longer recognize landscapes as wholes, let alone as the homes of people and other creatures. They regard landscapes as sources of extractable products. They become forms of surface mining. They have “efficiently” shed any other interest or concern.
            We have come to this by way of the disembodiment of thought — a mentalization, almost a puritanization, of thought — that deprives us of the physical basis for a sympathy that might join us kindly to landscapes and their creatures, including their human creatures. This purity or sublimity of thought is hard to understand, for it has come about under the sponsorship of materialism. Perhaps it happened because materialists, instead of assigning ultimate value to materiality as would have been reasonable, have abstracted “material” to “mechanical,” and thus have removed from it all bodily or creaturely attributes. Or perhaps the abstracting impulse branched in either of two directions: one toward the mechanical, the other toward the financial, which is to say toward the so-called economy of money as opposed to the actual economy (oikonomia, or “house-keeping”) of goods. Either way the result is the same: the scientific-industrial culture, founded nominally upon materialism, arrives at a sort of fundamentalist disdain for material reality. The living world is then treated as dead matter, the worth of which is determined exclusively by the market.

            This highly credentialed, highly politicized disdain, now allied with the similar disdain of highly spiritualized religions, is limitlessly destructive. We cannot say that its destructiveness has been unnoticed as it has been happening, or that the dissolutions, and the dissoluteness, of mechanical thought have not been, by some, well understood. The poet William Butler Yeats prayed: “God guard me from the thoughts men think / In the mind alone” (“A Prayer for Old Age”).

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