One of the most interesting aspects of the study of history in general and of the Middle Ages in particular concerns the different ways past and present people saw the world, that is, the question of world-view. Did they think that man was only a soul, a body and a soul, or both together? Did they think that this material universe was all there was, or a part of a larger world? What did they think about marriage, sexuality, the will– was it free or unfree–, and the gods? And when past peoples looked at the same physical facts that we see, how and why did those facts mean something different to them?
With the publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudati si (which this post is only tangentially about), many have focused on the pope’s view on economics, global-warming, and poverty. Yet, another question, less considered, also raises itself: our world-view of the world. I have said before that two men can look at the same world, but they will not see the same world. They can look at the same bare physical facts, but those facts may not have the same meaning to them. This is one way that man differs from mere animals. An animal sees only the facts, but cannot see meaning. Hyenas may laugh, but they don’t really get jokes. A joke relies on the ability to grasp a double meaning hidden behind the words. Tell a man that writing with a broken pencil is pointless and he will laugh (or groan), but it is because he sees the double meaning conveyed by the words.
The meaning, though, will often be determined by one’s background beliefs. A theist walks into a Gothic Cathedral and sees brick, stone, glass, and light representing heaven. A materialist sees only a beautiful building or perhaps, even worse, a waste of money. The same is true of the world. Part of the question the environmentalist (and everyone else) must deal with, is how he sees the world and what the world, nature and the environment means to him.
Answers have varied. In the Eastern Pantheistic vision, the world and God are one. The world is itself divine, all part of the united One. Every part of the world relates to the others like a drop of water in the ocean. Such a view has problems of its own, including an inability to ground free will, personal identity, or ethics, or to provide a basis for the development of modern science (which grew up in the decidedly non-Pantheistic West rather than the East). If the world is divine, though, then it is hard to see man as anything except a servant of the world (as modern environmentalists often see him), which will itself soon cease to exist anyway (1). If the world is a god, it is not much of a god.
In the common materialist vision, the world can really have no meaning beyond the bare facts, because in the material vision, only the material exists. A tress is a tree, the sun is a sun, a sea is a sea, and none are anything more. The physical facts are only the facts, they can have no meaning beyond them because there is nothing beyond them. In one sense, the materialist is a man who can’t get the joke, who would look at the pencil, observe that indeed it had no point, and that one had better go and find another. Likewise, for him, the world has no point, anymore than the pencil. Maybe this is why Chesterton observed that Nietzsche could not laugh, but could only sneer.
For the Christian not so; for him the world sharpens into a point that he can use to pierce the mere facts of existence and look to the meaning beyond it. For him the world itself is not God or a god, but a created thing, with its meaning built in by its maker. St. Francis of Assisi is often portrayed as a pseudo-pagan nature worshiper by moderns, a wandering hippy who loved the birds and trees with his Christianity only a regrettable and indeed, unnecessary, add-on. But it was not. He could love nature because, for him, nature pointed to its maker. To a materialist, the sun is only the sun, but Francis saw the joke. To him the sun was a sign of God’s splendor and to be loved as a sign of His splendor. The Moon was a sign of God’s beauty, and the wind, His serenity. Thomas Aquinas explained that the reason for so much diversity among God’s creation was that it had to reflect God, yet no single material created thing could do that, so God created a diversity of created things. Like Francis, Aquinas got the point. John Scotus similarly commented that we only rightly see a stone when we see God in it. He also got the joke.
Such are the ways that one might see the universe, which is the best I leave to the reader to decide, though for my money, St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas every time. Which view provides the best basis to care for the earth is another question, one I will explore in a future post.