Seeing Creation With God’s Eyes: Catholic Environmental Principles, 1 of 3

This is the first part of a three-part series. Part 2 is “Recognizing the Objective Order of Things.”

The heart of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, derives from the Christian perspective of creation — that the world stems from the hand of an all-powerful Creator and is endowed with his wisdom, and is wrought forth by his infinite love. In this blog post, we will unpack the implications of this vision for how we understand the nature and purpose of knowledge, how we relate to the objective order of things, and Pope Francis’ steadfast call to conversion.

While the so-called new atheists love to tout the achievements of science as banishing the need for God, the Christian tradition — especially most recently, Emeritus Pope Benedict (see the Regensburg Address) — have strongly suggested otherwise. The reason is simple: science, for example, physics and chemistry, is always an unpacking of an order already latent within creation; that is, the scientist does not invent, but discovers the order he or she is studying (see physicist Stephen Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, 76-92).

Indeed, the scientific revolution got off the ground by operating on this very premise: given the belief in an all-wise Creator, searching for rational laws of nature makes a great deal of sense (see especially here physicist and theologian Stanley Jaki, Savior of Science and James Hannam, God’s Philosophers). In fact, it was this very perspective that converted Anthony Flew, who was arguably the most renowned atheist of the second half of the twentieth century. Flew writes:

“If you accept the fact that there are laws, then some thing must impose that regularity on the universe … Those scientists who point to the Mind of God do not merely advance a series of arguments or a process of syllogistic reasoning. Rather, they propound a vision of reality that emerges from the conceptual heart of modern science and imposes itself on the rational mind. It is a vision I personally find compelling and irrefutable.” (Flew, There is a God, 110, 112)

God is the cause of the very existence and most fundamental order of the universe; the conclusions of science, therefore, do not compete with belief in a Creator but rather manifest his very wisdom embodied in creation.

This perspective further indicates that creation reveals an objective order of things — manifesting the wisdom of God — an order which is not put there by us; an order of truth, therefore, to which we must conform, not pretend to reshape and refashion in accordance with our passing desires. And the current ecological crisis, according to Pope Francis, stems from the loss of this very perspective:

“Both [the damage done to the natural and social environment] are due to the same evil: the notion that there are no indisputable truths to guide our lives … [that] human freedom is limitless.” Laudato Si, 6

The view that man is absolutely autonomous — that his freedom is “limitless” — gains traction only on the assumption that all truth is relative, that there is no objective order of things. But as St. John Paul II often pointed out: freedom must be subordinated to the truth. True freedom is the ability to pursue the good, and it stems from and flows out of the truth of human nature and the objective fulfillment and perfection therein (for more on this and the above points, see my book, John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again).

Power-Knowledge and Contemplative Knowledge

Cardinal Schönborn and others have pointed to a shifting conception regarding the purpose of knowledge with Rene Descartes (1596-1650); for Descartes, the goal was quite simply “mastery over nature” (see Discourse on Method, Part Six) — the value of knowledge lay in its utility, making expediency the only norm (see Cardinal Schönborn’s Chance or Purpose: Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith, 155).

Of course, we are all thankful for modern medicine, transportation, and the like; but there is something lost if the only goal of knowledge is not first just to know, but technology. The classical tradition of liberal arts going back to Aristotle and Plato saw the goal of knowledge as contemplation, as beholding the true and the real and the beauty therein; this knowledge answered to the human vocation as such and was therefore of intrinsic worth. Paradoxically, on the other hand, knowledge that is only ordered to utility is in a sense of a lesser value, since it is sought not as an end itself but only as a means to some other end.

Contemplative knowledge, it is true, won’t necessarily build sturdier bridges; but it will prevent the current neglect and indifference toward the deeper meaning of life and the true calling of the human person; it will orient man to the transcendent and not just the earthly; and it will value those disciplines that have a distinctly human flavor (e.g., philosophy, theology, literature, poetry, history, music, art, theoretical physics) — in other words, has anyone ever read the history of canine philosophy or seen rabbits discuss the difference between simile and metaphor?

Thus, the liberal arts tradition makes us “bigger” on the inside, as Peter Kreeft once said. We certainly need both, technological know-how and contemplation; but if we forego the latter, we run the risk of losing the fullness of our humanity by subordinating knowledge to the satisfaction of our desires — often, desires of comfort and entertainment, to the neglect of those most important matters and relationships right in front of us.

This is the first part of a three-part series. Part 2 is “Recognizing the Objective Order of Things.”

This appeared at Ascension.
Image: Benedictine College is located on the majestic bluffs of the Missouri River.

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.