The Resurrection transformed all our relationships

  • April 20, 2011
As I think back over the long winter now ending in Easter’s joy and promise, one spiritual event I took part in comes to mind with special urgency. The discussion, entitled “The Senses of Creation: Ecology and Symbolism,” happened one snowy weekend at the St. Mary of Egypt retreat centre, near Belleville, Ont. (This outstanding ministry is co-ordinated by Catholic Register columnist Mary Marrocco.)

The leader of the retreat was Gavin Miller, a biologist, ecologist and Catholic layman. Miller’s theme was humankind’s relationship with the realm of nature, as that ratio has been deformed, especially over the last two or three centuries, by motives of greed and exploitation long endemic in Western culture. This lethal link, however, is neither necessary nor inevitable. We can choose life instead of death, co-existence with nature instead of manipulation — if we are willing to view nature in the holistic perspectives opened in history by the Resurrection of the Lord.

The contemporary environmental crisis, Miller told us, is deeply rooted in an instrumental and utilitarian attitude toward nature that is typical of mainstream Western thought and practice. This impulse has a venerable history. Magic, for example, was the ancient bid to desacralize and conquer nature, to reduce everything to operational quantities.

But though modern science and technology displaced old ritual magic in Western imagination during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the anti-holistic, power-bewitched agenda of magic remained intact in the new dispensation. We see the results of this survival of magic everywhere around us — in landscapes poisoned and deformed by industrial operations, in polluted waterways and air, in the destruction of life sanctioned by the culture of abortion and in the unnatural extinction of species.

Over the last 50 years, new secular philosophical critiques, including so-called “deep ecology,” have been launched to combat this durable attitude. There is some merit, Miller said, in such radical criticisms of the Western approach to nature, and they should not be dismissed out of hand. They rightly emphasize creation as a treasury to be protected and something with intrinsic beauty worth saving for its own sake; and they remind us of the interdependence of species, and indeed all biological reality.

But in their push to discredit the instrumental logic that got us into the current impasse, critics sometimes make the proposal, inimical to the Christian understanding of life and existence, that the problem with the world is humankind itself, which would best be eradicated.

Christians reject the extreme conclusions of anti-human ecological thought, while seeking a way forward to faithful custody of the created order. Miller suggested that we are motivated to conserve and spare creation, not by the measurable utility of this or that species, but by the awareness that the immense variety of species is a gift, and (as St. Thomas Aquinas taught) an expression on the terrestrial plane of the boundless goodness of God.

Humanity, Miller said, “stands on the verge of a primordial impiety.” Christians are called by the environmental emergency to step back from that edge, repent of the anti-ecological turn in Western culture, declare solidarity with the injured and threatened Earth and practise compassion for all creation. This is one form of obedience to the risen Christ, and an affirmation of our belief that all our relationships, with each other and even with the material world, have been transformed by Jesus’ rising from the dead.

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