Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Creation Matters

'All the trees of the field will clap their hands.' Is 55:12

St. Thomas Aquinas instructs us that religion is our duty in justice towards God. Part of that duty, which is also squarely in line with Scripture, is stewardship of God's creation.

How can it not be offensive to God when you treat His creation with flippancy and disrespect? We are part of His creation, and by the very fact of being His creation, creation implicitly has value and is, as He said, "good." That our value as rational beings endowed with eternal souls is greater does not in any way mean that the rest of creation Has little to no value.

How do we worship God? We worship Him in and with His creation. The bread and wine that we offer are fruits of creation. Our bodies and, yes, even our spiritual nature, are His creation. The church buildings we erect, the altars upon which the Supreme Sacrifice is made present to us, the liturgical vestments and sacred vessels, our icons, statues, and flowers, even the human bodily nature of Christ that we participate in, is all God's creation.

We also offer sacrifices of the things we produce, whether distilled in the form of money or not. These are good things that God has created and given to us that we offer back to Him. Sometimes our sacrifice is to abstain from partaking in what is otherwise a good part of His creation, and what makes it a sacrifice is precisely that we are freely offering that which is good to God, rather than partaking of it for our own good. These are all forms of worship, doing what little we are able to do in our duty towards God.

We can also worship God through acts of charity, and that charity can be towards non-rational nature or towards being endowed with rational nature--or both. Because we are in nature, because we are created beings and part of creation, we are not freely distinct from it. If you firebomb the countryside in which you live, you will not be able to live there long (to provide an extreme but simple example). And so when we care for nature, we are caring both for God's non-rational creation and for other human beings as well.

I have heard folks be dismissive of Church leaders--including our Holy Father--who are vocally concerned with the environment. Most of these, I'll wager, either haven't read Laudato Si, or only read it cursorily with much prejudice--looking for excuses to dismiss, downplay, and ignore it. But a faithful Catholic ought to be receptive to the teaching of the Holy Father. I'll say that again: a faithful Catholic ought to be receptive to the teaching of the Holy Father.

One of the things that Pope Francis illumines greatly is the connection between how our abuse of the environment directly and negatively impacts many human beings, particularly the most poor and vulnerable in the world. Few U.S. Americans are faced the the horrors of abject poverty that come about through how we have not been good stewards of creation. So it's easy for us to dismiss such concerns, but they are real. You can learn about them easily if you look.

This isn't about raising the temperature of the globe a degree or two. This is real, directly observable badness that you can see comes about from abusive consumption and disregard for both nature and human life in and around areas whence we source our raw materials. Only willful ignorance can make one blind to it.

When Christ speaks of separating the sheep from the goats, He doesn't talk of who has this or that theological point perfectly in their minds, or whether or not we use incense or Latin in mass or any such thing. He speaks, rather, of how persons have treated the poor and needy among them. This is hand in hand with His statement that the second-greatest command is like the first--to love your neighbor as yourself.

It is like the first in that our love of neighbor and of creation is an extension and expression of our love for God in Himself. Our willing the good of God's creation is precisely love for God. It is how we pay duty and honor and respect to Him, in justice. That is why St. James can say that your faith is dead if it has not such works. Our charity towards God's created nature and our neighbor are the manifest stuff of our love of God and, ergo, proof of our faith in Him.

A focus on contemporary environmental concern is nothing more than this--a faithful response to Christ's instruction that we care for the poor and needy and a proper and good response to God's entrusting his creation to us, to be good and wise stewards. It cannot be rightly separated from sharing the Gospel in the sense of bringing people to faith in Christ.

As if to prove the importance of created, physical nature, God took that nature upon himself and divinized it. Further, he promises us a resurrection of the body and a New Jerusalem. We are not rarified spiritual beings or consciousnesses just loosely associated with our bodies, trapped by them and waiting to be freed. That is a gnostic error condemned since the earliest days of the Church. We are not beings of pure intellect either. We are, always have been, and always shall be beings intertwined with physical nature.

As Christians, we are not free to ignore or downplay the importance of stewardship and of loving God and our neighbors through it. The Gospel is not purely intellectual content, nor is living it purely a simple response of intellectual faith. We must live that faith out in the real world, and that includes caring for the rest of God's creation and our neighbor. This is by no means a "Modernist heresy," nor is it any less important than other aspects of the faith.

Where folks on both sides of the spectrum go wrong is when they create a false dichotomy between love of truth and love of creation and our neighbor. Language and human intellect are important and part of God's creation. So are our bodies, the things that our bodies need, and all of non-rational creation. We can give disproportional concern to both.

There's an old adage that every heresy is just taking some aspect of the faith to an extreme, and so far as I can tell, it seems to be true. It's an ancient tool of the Devil to trick us into becoming obsessed with one particular good to the exclusion of others and the balance of moderation.

Both areas of concern are areas calling out for attention. They always have been. We have always had spiritual darkness and error and heresy and a need for reformation and better instruction in the truths of the faith. And we have always had an insufficient care of the poor (and for most of us, our own bodies) and poor stewardship of God's creation.

To say that we ought to neglect one in favor of the other is an improper response to the challenges facing us. It may be true that, individually, we can't respond equally well to all areas of need, but as a group, we surely can do much, much better.

God gives different people different gifts, and our faithful response to use these in service of him would no doubt, if we all fulfilled our God-given potential, leave us in a starkly better place than we are in now. St. Paul cautions us against presuming that "our gift" is better or more important than the others. We would do well to keep that caution in mind.

Because God may be calling you or me, personally, to focus more on living the faith through communicating the intellectual content of the faith does not mean that others (even most others) ought not to focus on living the faith through care of God's creation and the corporal needs of other human beings. Nor does it mean we cannot do both to various degrees in our lives. It may be (and seems to be so) that the Holy Spirit is instructing us, as a Church, to do just that through the teaching of the current Vicar of Christ.