025 Creation Concerns

In 1962, while still in college, I received, as a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company, c. 1962). It opened my eyes to something I’d never considered: environmental destruction. It made me, rather abruptly, an environmentalist!

This semester I’m helping one of my colleagues teach Environmental Biology, so I decided to re-read Silent Spring, an endeavor I often encourage students to do–though warning them it’s 30 years old now. Coincidentally, one evening, while I was reading the book, I noticed a remark in a magazine saying no one actually reads Carson’s book these days. Yet that very evening there was a major news item indicting DDT as probably the major cause for increased rates of breast cancer in American women (which folks reading Silent Spring would have anticipated)! So perhaps the book needs more re-readings!

Carson launches her work with a quotation from Albert Schweitzer: “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.” That’s her fear. She herself was losing a battle with the cancer which killed her when she wrote the book, and she feared the earth, as well as she, might die, poisoned by pesticides. She feared the chemical flood we’ve unleashed since WWII might overwhelm the delicate biological networks which sustain life on earth. “The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible” (p. 6).

We’ve done this primarily to eliminate a few alleged “pests”–insects and weeds which annoy us. In fact, few of these “pests” pose significant threat to human survival or welfare, and in our effort to eliminate them we failed to understand three important facts: 1) the insects and weeds we try to destroy rapidly adapt to the poisons and thenceforth prove even graver threats; 2) the broadside spraying of chemicals kills good as well as bad creatures–thus the natural predators which kept populations balanced were often wiped out along with pollinating insects like bees which are necessary for plant life; 3) poisonous substances, such as DDT and DDD, though initially applied in small amounts, concentrate as they move up the food chain and remain permanently imbedded in certain tissues (fatty tissues in mammals, for example).

Carson describes the kinds of chemicals (she calls them biocides) which are most widely used in pesticides and herbicides, enabling non-scientists like myself to comprehend their composition and lethal power. Then she illustrates how these chemicals, mainly used in agriculture, flow into surface waters and leech into groundwaters. We’re increasingly aware of water shortages, legal water wars between states such as Arizona and California, and poor water quality.

I suspect Carson’s still accurate in saying: “In the entire water-pollution problem, there is probably nothing more disturbing than the threat of widespread contamination of groundwater” (p. 42). She illustrates the crisis with the case of Clear Lake, California, 90 miles north of San Francisco. A good lake for fishing, it was also plagued by a gnat, annoying but not harmful to humans. In the late 1940’s, DDD was applied at a ratio of one part per 70 million parts of water.

The gnats quickly recovered, however, so in 1954 another spraying was done, this time at the ratio of one part per 50 million, followed by a third application in three years. Some noticed that many of the western (or swan) grebe began dying, and fatty tissues in the birds were found to contain 1600 parts per million of the poison. By 1960, of the original 1000 pairs of nesting grebe, only 30 remained. The gnats endured, as much a nuisance as ever; the birds, however, perished.

“Silent spring,” of course warns of the disappearance of birds like the grebe. Massive amounts of herbicides and pesticides have been applied, unsuccessfully trying to deal with problems such as Dutch Elm Disease, only to end up killing songbirds such as robins. Dumped into streams and rivers, such “biocides” kill fish. And, ultimately, they also kill men and women who eat the fish.

Carson explains, with consummate literary skill, the life of cells and the oxidizing wonders of tiny mitochondria within them, showing how they sustain life. Toxic chemicals, however, interrupt normal cell life and provoke abnormal reactions and growth. Though she wrote when DNA research was still in its infancy, she grasped the significance of chromosomes and genes and warned of mutations which might follow if they were exposed to carcinogens. Growing incidence of cancer, she rightly predicted, would follow the introduction of poisons into the environment.

Yet, she lamented, all this was unnecessary. For the few genuine threats to food supplies, known biological controls are available. Natural predators, sterilizing male insects, developing organic alternatives, would free us from the use of chemical poisons and allow us to sustain necessary productivity and food safety. They may cost more money and require more time, but they can control pests.

Much has changed since Carson published her treatise. Savagely attacked at first, her research has stood the test of time. Some substances, such as DDT, have been banned in the United States (though they are manufactured here and shipped abroad, returning to us imbedded in fruits and vegetables). Yet her concerns have encouraged others to continue her work, and toxics are no longer used as recklessly as they were in her time. And yet much remains the same. Pesticides and herbicides still trickle through the ecosystem. Cancer still cuts down its victims. Soil and water still carry toxic chemicals. Birds, frogs, fish, and other wild creatures still struggle to survive. Our springs are not utterly silent, but they’re less song-filled than they were a generation ago. This book endures as a classic, a work which will be read in coming generations, for it alerted us to a momentous problem and illustrated how science can be written so as to engage the popular mind.

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James A. Nash is the Executive Director of the Churches’ Center for Theology and Public Policy, an ecumenical, study center in Washington D.C. He’s published Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility (Nashville: Abingdon Press, c. 1991, a study which (despite its theological liberalism) is one of the best Christian responses to the environmental crisis, which he sums up as “the decline and loss of ecological integrity as a result of human actions” (p. 18).

Following an informative chapter illustrating a variety of problems, Nash focuses on the heart of the matter: in almost all areas we’re “exceeding the limits.” Earth’s resources have, in fact, begun to run out while man, amazingly, runs all the harder, digs all the deeper, trying to extract more and more of them. Consequently, deserts are expanding, rain forests are falling, water supplies are decreasing, and poisons are proliferating.

What we need, could we but choose to repent of such intemperance, is a recovery of virtue–or, more precisely, the cultivation of what our species has generally lacked, some ecological virtues. Nash lists nine: 1) sustainability–making sure something’s left for our offspring; 2) adaptability–devising appropriate responses to new needs; 3) relationality–living with the awareness that everything is connected; 4) frugality–walking gently on the earth; 5) equity–seeking distributive justice; 6) solidarity–aligning ourselves with other species as well as peoples; 7) biodiversity–protecting earth’s various forms of life; 8) sufficiency–devising appropriate political responses; 9) humility–acknowledging human limits.

Such virtues, Nash holds, can flourish if rightly rooted in some central Christian doctrines: creation; sin; covenant; divine image; incarnation; judgment; redemption; and spiritual presence. His treatment of these themes gives the book real substance, showing how ecological concern ought not be relegated to some appendix of a theological text. In an authentically Christian theology, it’s easily woven into the central affirmations of the faith.

Culminating it all, as the book’s title suggests, is “loving nature: Christian love in an ecological context.” The chapter by that title offers a fresh approach, much akin to the Wesleyan theology of love, which seems to me the right response to our environmental predicament. If only we could learn to love our non-human neighbors as well as our human neighbors, if only we can learn to love the creation as a good gift from the Creator, we might treat our world more tenderly.

Nash says: “Perhaps the most urgent and difficult task in the development of a Christian ecological ethic is an adequate interpretation of Christian love in an ecological context. The task is essential, in my view, because love is the integrating center of the whole of Christian faith and ethics. If so, a Christian ecological ethic is seriously deficient–if even conceivable–unless it is grounded in Christian love” (p. 139).

He develops this notion under the topics of “love as beneficence, other-esteem, receptivity, humility, communion, and justice” (p. 152). While I found myself arguing with him on almost every page, disputing his definitions of love, his theological speculations (e.g. urging us to live with the confidence in an etherial eschatological resurrection and reconstitution of creation while discounting the Resurrection of Jesus!), and his prescriptions, I still found the book meritorious. For example, his chapter-long response to the generally ill-informed and wrong-headed critics of Christianity, many of whom still take the Lynn White essay as an accurate indictment of the Faith, is one of the finest I’ve read.

Christians of various persuasions have begun addressing the ecological crisis–a task which I think must be faced and dealt with. Nash’s book is one of the more thoughtful, insightful, stimulating endeavors to that end.

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Like Hans Kung, Matthew Fox has troubled Vatican officials with the unorthodox views he has espoused. I generally to share the Vatican’s critique of his works, but (since I rather enjoy diverse perspectives and off-the-wall characters) I’ve read and appreciated various of Fox’s works, including Original Blessing and The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. In Fox’s defense, he is one of the few Christian thinkers who has dared to fully incorporate what he calls “creation spirituality” into theological endeavors.

This book emerged from an imposed year’s silence, during which Fox undertook a study St Thomas Aquinas, seeking to find streams of “creation spirituality” in the Angelic Doctor. Fox is a Dominican, so his interest in his order’s chief theologian is understandable. He explored untranslated as well as familiar works, especially Thomas’ biblical commentaries, and has published his findings in Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality (San Francisco: HarperCollins, c. 1992).

Following an extensive introduction, Fox engages Thomas in an imaginary dialogue. All the quotations ascribed to Thomas are, Fox insists, Aquinas’ own words. (In his translating, however, one must assume Fox chooses words such as “Godself” rather than “Father” and “humankind” rather than “man” to suit his own ends. Fox openly flaunts his heterodoxy, his contempt for hierarchical authority, but he’d never violate the strictest canons of politically correct language!)

All too frequently Fox forgets his role as interviewer, slipping into the pulpit to espouse his own notions, so I found myself skimming over Fox’s proclamations so as to focus on Aquinas, whose words are what makes this book worthwhile. Thus, in this review, I’ll cite Aquinas’ works as well as indicate appropriate pages in Fox.

The first conversation addresses the “Via Positiva,” suggesting that creation affords us positive, even propositional knowledge of God. To Aquinas, “Sacred writings are bound in two volumes–that of creation and that of the Holy Scriptures” (Summa Contra Gentiles, II,iv,5; Fox, p. 59). Any-one reading Aquinas finds how fully Scripture saturated all his thoughts–he quotes texts more incessantly than most Fundamentalist preachers!

But he also insisted that creation itself reveals truth concerning the God who created and sustains it. “God is an artist and the universe is God’s work of art” (Summa Theologica, I, q.45, a.6; Fox, p. 65). Thus God is everywhere, in all things as their universal cause, continually present wherever anything is. God must never be reduced to his handiwork, as in pantheism, but He must be clearly recognized as the source of its being. “God is above all things by the excellence of the divine nature; but God is in all things as the cause of the being of all things” (Summa Theologica, I, q.8, a.1; Fox, p. 71). In short: God’s transcendence must be balanced with His immanence.

Since God is, in fact, present in creation, “One meditates on creation in order to view and marvel at divine wisdom” (Summa Contra Gentiles, II,ii,2; Fox, p. 78). We know God and His ways by the careful contemplation of creation. “All creatures confess that they are made by God. Human beings ask questions of creatures when they consider them diligently” (Commentary on Job, 12, 2; Fox, p. 81). “Just as someone looking at a book knows the wisdom of the writer, so when we see creatures, we know the wisdom of God” (Commentary on the Psalms 44, 31; Fox, p. 81).

Attuned to a living world, we recognize God as the Source of life itself. “When we say ‘God is Spirit’ we say God is a life-giver, because our entire life is from God, as its creative source” (Commentary on John 4.24, n.615; Fox, p. 142). As humans, we receive our spiritual life directly from God, but we are, soul and body, a tightly bonded blend which must be understood holistically. Our souls need bodies, and throughout eternity we will remain embodied souls, attaining our perfection as human beings, not disembodied angelic beings.

God himself, as the living Word, entered fully into our humanness in the Incarnation of Jesus. Prompted by His great love, “The son of God became human in order that human beings might become gods and become the children of God” (A Compendium of Theology, I, 214; Fox, p. 154). Through Christ’s work, grace is imparted to us, and “Grace renders us like God and a partaker of the divine nature” (On Truth, q.27, a.6; Fox, p. 156). “Grace does not destroy nature but completes it” (Summa Theologica, I, q.l, a.8; Fox, p. 156).

Certainly St Thomas celebrated the goodness and revelatory powers of creation, the glorious illumination of the Incarnation, and the graciously communicated co-naturality with God we enjoy as partakers of the divine nature. Thus his confidence in the “via positiva” shines throughout the extensive conversation Fox conducts.

Turning to the second conversation, “On the Via Negativa,” we encounter another side to Thomas. Though we know some things, most divine dimensions transcend our intellectual capacities. Some “secrets of Divinity can be reached only through a spiritual rebirth” (Commentary on John, 3.1, n.431; Fox, p. 194), but others can never be known by man. Indeed, “The mind’s greatest achievement is to realize that God is far beyond anything we think” (Commentary on Dionysius’ De divinus nominibus, n.83, p. 28; Fox, p. 196).

Like Job, Aquinas discovered that God cannot be reduced to tidy human categories. It is, in fact (as he discovered at the end of his life) impossible to describe the incomparable glory and goodness and holiness of God. While he did not focus on the Via Negativa as much as thinkers such as the Pseudo-Dionysius, he certainly make it clear he understood the limits of human reason.

Turning to the third conversation, “On the Via Creativa,” Fox finds Aquinas encouraging our cooperation in the divinely inspired work of creation. Here, perhaps more than anywhere, one must question Fox’s selections and editorial work, for he continually strives to force Thomas to celebrate man’s “creativity” when in fact the quotations seem at least open to other interpretations.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Thomas believed in a kind of synergism, man’s free responses to God’s creativity resulting in human creations. God not only created things in the past. He continues to create through “secondary causes,” granting “the dignity of causality” to His creatures. In view of that divine strategy, we are privileged to join Him in bringing life, goodness, and beauty into His world. We’re called to be artists!

“Art,” to Thomas, “is nothing else but the right reason about certain works to be made” (Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 57, a. 3); Fox, p. 308). Like virtually all good work, teaching can be an art, for “The ability to teach belongs to people who are wise and who know something inasmuch as they can express their inner thought in words, so that they can lead somebody else to an understanding of truth” (Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, I, L. 1, p. 15; Fox, p. 286).

The finest of all arts, however, is the art of living virtuously. To work with God, empowered by His grace and truth, enables one to cultivate and perfect the virtues. Like the health which comes from proper diet and exercise, sanctity comes from good teaching and discipline. Indeed: “It is essential to virtue to be about the difficult and the good” (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 129, a. 2; Fox, p. 350).

In addition to creativity, Fox presents quotations from Thomas “On the Via Transformativa.” Here he shows how God seeks to remold us, both individually and collectively, into compassionate, righteous persons. In this section Thomas’ deep concern for salvation from sin and its scars shines through, despite Fox’s efforts to minimize the importance of the deliverance-from-sin salvation motif. To be transformed, by God’s grace, into Christ-like, holy persons is, in Aquinas’ teaching, the central concern of Christianity.

This book provides a refreshing compilation of quotations, mined from an incredible amount of material, which provides us with new insights into the philosophy of the most magisterial of the Medieval schoolmen. Had Fox limited himself to asking good questions and arranging Thomas’ responses, the book would have been both shorter and better, since he routinely abandons the role of interviewer and assumes a prophet’s mantle. But for all its deficiencies, I found the book most interesting and enlightening.