Michael Dominic Taylor
The global crisis and collective confinement that we are living through gives us much to consider. Perhaps one of the most encouraging phenomena that we’ve seen during this time has been the appearance of animals in times and places they don’t usually show themselves, and the sights of unpolluted and vibrant bays, rivers and skies. To see jellyfish passing through Venice’s sparkling canals and deer roaming through Japan’s urban streets, just to name two verified examples, is a ray of hope in the midst of the tragic situation we face around the world. Perhaps it gives us a sense of relief to think that maybe we haven’t spoiled the earth as badly as we had thought.
I think we should meditate deeply on this subject. What might nature want to tell us?
Some seem to already know the answer—or rather, it seems that they’ve known it for a while, as they have been saying from the outset that “humans are the virus, and COVID-19 is nature’s cure.” This message has echoed across social media and is at the heart of too many eco-philosophies. In this pessimistic worldview, each piece of bad news is good news for this often politically charged cause, and if we follow its logic, each human death is a victory, and certainly not in the sense given by the Christian tradition. In their fatalism, they have given up long ago. As Stratford Caldecott once pointed out so poignantly, environmentalists of this kind “will try to get their hands on the relevant levers of power and will be increasingly, and everlastingly frustrated, to discover that all their attempts come to nothing or even make things worse.”
Along with this vision of the world, we hear voices that say: these changes in nature don’t mean anything; they’re merely circumstantial. But putting these two extreme views to the side, let’s return to the question: what message might nature be conveying to us? I believe that the first answer is a tender exclamation: “Look at me!” It is a call to contemplation almost playful in its simplicity.
Nature and its beauty can surprise us for at least two reasons: we are either not accustomed to considering ourselves in relation to it, since we have distanced ourselves so much from nature in our artificial, digital worlds; or, perhaps we’ve maintained and cultivated in ourselves the childlike wonder that marvels at the reality that manifests itself to us. Sadly, many times it is the former that surprises us, although we very much appreciate the latter.
To be in awe before nature, before the whole of reality, is the experience of a child, free and without worries—and it is also the birthplace of philosophic, scientific and religious knowledge. Wonder implies astonishment as well as questioning. Since Socrates and Plato, true philosophers have affirmed that wonder is the sign and seal of a true love of wisdom. But how are we to understand wonder? In a nutshell, it is the personal experience of being open to the superabundance of reality that presents itself to us. The realities we encounter can be more or less interesting, but it is the openness to them, our receptiveness, that determines our experience of them. We tend to call things “mysterious” when we see them as irrational, as unintelligible, but the mystery of reality is that it is infinitely more intelligible than we can comprehend, and it is this superabundance that gives us—if we are open to it—a sense of awe, which then gives way to attraction and love. One has to be receptive to reality in order to receive its message, and, thank God, nature continually comes to meet us, as it has done more especially in these last few weeks, in order to open our eyes. Beauty, in its sensible order and harmony, is like the key that opens our senses and our intellect, which are so often closed because we have become accustomed to the mystery, thinking that it doesn’t have anything more to tell us. To believe that being able to explain something is equivalent to having an in-depth understanding of it, to believe that reality has nothing else to tell us is—in the words of Wendell Berry—to give up on life. This giving up is not unlike the fatalism described above. It is cognitive suicide.
Modern Western philosophy has spent centuries trying to introduce this “sick blindness,” in the words of Balthasar, into our worldview, and with a good deal of success. From late-medieval nominalism to Cartesian dualism up to Kantian skepticism and modern nihilism, we have had a succession of philosophical confusions that have thrown us toward a materialism and a scientism that force us into a highly reduced vision of nature. We must return to the intuition that each dawn brings a newness that is infinitely greater than the latest Netflix series or the most recent iPhone.
The problem is not so much with technological advances, for whose fruits we should be grateful (especially in these moments where they permit us to save many lives), as it is with our underlying technocratic paradigm. The universe cannot be defined in materialist terms (to start, materialism itself is immaterial) and the mechanistic vision of nature provides an impoverished worldview. Its conceptual power resides, for the most part, in the simplicity of its principal metaphor: nature is a big machine. Humankind, animals, plants—everything is determined by the laws of physics through their genes and their circumstances. If we have said that nature presents us with an overabundance of intelligibility that always exceeds us, this means that we cannot fully understand or control it. But this worldview distorts us, and in permitting it, we distort the world. It limits our perception to what can be measured and reduces the mystery of creation to a machine we think we can manipulate.
It’s been said many times that this process of reduction had to take place in order to have all the technological benefits we have today, but that’s not necessarily true. Science and technology are completely compatible with this broader worldview that recognizes all of the dimensions of the human and of all of reality. What we wouldn’t have are the abuses against a nature that, we must point out, we no longer consider to be Creation but rather raw facticity for our utilitarian uses. This also implies that we wouldn’t have, or at least that we wouldn’t justify, abuses against our own human nature: genocide, abortion and euthanasia are a few examples.
These false metaphors—nature is a machine and humans are a virus—although seemingly opposed to each other, come from the same reductionist blindness that does not listen to nature and does not know how to contemplate it. They take form in worldviews that have powerful consequences. If we believe that the universe is essentially chaotic, arbitrary and violent, our thoughts and actions will inevitably be as well. However, if we believe that love is the heart of reality, our thoughts and actions will be very different. We have said that nature calls us simply to look at it, to contemplate it. We cannot skip these steps and go straight to what we think it means to defend or protect nature. We must be humble. In this way, we open our minds and our hearts; we see that nature has its own autonomy and dignity, that it is marked by beauty and mystery, but that it is not God. We wonder about its Creator and about our own place in the cosmos.
In addition to possessing its own autonomy, since the beginning the created world has always served as a messenger. We might think of the time of Noah, when a dove with an olive branch marked the end of the flood and a rainbow pointed to the creation of a new alliance. This alliance is also ontological and ecological. We have the responsibility to care for creation, not by some extrinsic obligation but because it is part of us, part of our family, as Saint Francis sang. We are relational beings and without relationships our lives lose all meaning. A thing with no relationships is literally no-thing at all. The stronger we build our relationships, through knowledge and love, the more we are ourselves and the richer we become. As John Paul II often repeated, these take on four dimensions: relation with ourselves, with others, with nature and with God. “Everything is connected,” as Pope Francis echoes. The good of one is good for all, and the suffering of one implicates us and involves us. Perhaps we understand this now more than ever.
In response to his complaints and demands for an explanation for his suffering, God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. He made Job consider His creation, implying that he would find the response he was looking for through the contemplation of His works: lions, crows, ibexes, donkeys, ostriches, storks, locusts, falcons, eagles and more. All of these are presented to Job until he is overwhelmed and repentant. “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know,” says Job (42:3). Before the suffering and storms of life, pandemics included, nature comes out to meet us in order to instruct us, to invite us to understand it and care for it, to invite us to assume our task and our place in the cosmos.
Michael Dominic Taylor, Ph.D. is Executive Secretary of the Laudato Si Institute in Granada, Spain. He teaches courses in Integral Ecology and Theology of the Body for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.