The Critical Theory of Pope Francis II: The Gospel of Creation (Laudato Si)

The ancient idea of “God” signified, for Jurgen Habermas, the “idea of the unified, invisible God the Creator and Redeemer” (“A conversation about God and the world,” in E. Mendieta (Ed.) Religion and rationality: essays on reason, God, and modernity (2002). This perspectival breakthrough enabled humans to gain a “standpoint that utterly transcends the this-worldly.” The world, perceived as a created order, was both apart from the divine other and its life-sustainer. But Habermas argues that the modernization process gradually eroded the radical separation of God and world. Indeed, the finite spirit appropriated the divine standpoint: objectifying “creation” and transforming it into a law-governed “nature.”  The grand affirmation of “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” in Genesis was unceremoniously replaced with the “big-bang theory” – 13.8 billion years ago.

In Laudato Si: Our care for our common home (2015), Pope Francis most assuredly rejects the idea that God as Creator has vanished from human consciousness throughout the world. One might say, to over-simplify, that two forms of human consciousness co-exist in tension in our world: secular and religious. This article focuses on chapter two, “The gospel of creation.” Francis begins by raising the question of why a document addressed to “all people of good will” should include a “chapter dealing with the convictions of believers?” (p. 50). He observes that there are those who “firmly reject” the idea of a Creator as irrelevant in areas of politics and philosophy or dismiss as irrational the “rich contribution which religions can make toward an integral ecology and the full development of humanity.” However, Pope Francis insists that “science” and “religion” can “enter into an intense dialogue fruitful for both” (ibid.).

One possible entry-point for a secular person might be to choose to enter into the “religious imaginary;” then consider the created world “as if” a creator had fashioned it. This is a kind of “spiritual thought-experiment” that acknowledges that we, as human beings, have an interior and spiritual life. This interior subjectivity is awakened, if you will, by the “cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry …” (ibid.). These riches include the sacred scriptures of numerous faith-communities. Pope Francis reminds us, rightly, that the resolution of the ecological crisis requires various branches of the sciences and other forms of wisdom, including religious and poetic languages. But Francis’ fundamental purpose in Laudato Si is to “show how faith convictions can offer Christians, and some other believers as well, ample motivation to care for nature and for the most vulnerable of their brothers and sisters” (p. 51). He is not taking us through the intricate maze of “theologies of creation.”

What do Biblical accounts say about creation?

Francis states that the Genesis account of creation includes humanity. Once man and woman were created, Genesi 1:31 says, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.” We were created in the “image of God,” a tricky notion, but it expresses the deep truth that humans have “immense dignity.” Habermas states that the affirmation of the “human rights” of all persons is a secular translation of the religious figure of the “image of God.” We are not just “somethings” – as Benedict XVI once said. We are capable of self-knowledge, self-possession and entering into communion with others. “How wonderful,” says Francis, “is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world of pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles!” (p. 52).

 Francis says that the “symbolic and narrative language” (ibid.) of the book of Genesis opens the perceptual imagination to consider that human life is “grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself” (p. 53). Each of these relationships, Pope Francis avers, “have been broken, both outwardly and within us” (ibid.). Secular persons can, I think, place secular understandings of the damaged natural world and bewildered sense that “something is awry” against the Pope’s affirmation that the “harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations” (ibid.). If we think and act “as if” the creational order was good and harmonious and became conflictual (cf. Gen. 3: 17-19), we can turn away from what has been called “arrogant humanism.”

Tilling and keeping the earth

We can accept our limitations and, perhaps, and take our place on earth as if we have been commissioned to “till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). It may be, too, that secular persons can draw on the natural and biological sciences that impellingly reveal how profoundly linked our human species is to all other creatures. We are not apart from nature; but we have cognitive, ethical and spiritual capacities to fulfil our caretaker role that separate us from all other creatures. Here, Pope Francis’s call for dialogue between science and religion is pertinent: the secrets of the workings of creation are revealed to us and are integral to our care for the earth and all of its creatures. The Genesis text – humans are to “have dominion” over the earth (Gen. 1: 26) has often been distorted to mean that humankind is the Lord of Nature and can treat it as a “thing” and not a “living presence.”

By the mid-19th century, the Baconian creed that scientific knowledge grants humankind technical power over nature had pushed aside Christian affirmations that God commands us to understand and care for all creatures. The world had been disenchanted and secularized. Today, Pope Francis observes, “universal reconciliation with every creature” (Saint Bonaventure’s lucid phrase) is far from occurring: “sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable and attacks on nature” (ibid.). We do seem to be at war with nature – and the guiding presence of the radically other has vanished from our consciousness like a wisp of morning mist. As God recedes, so does our ability to set restraints on how we work and live with the natural world and all of its creatures. Our spirits, so it seems, have been de-regulated. Nothing either blocks or prevents our malignant use of nature, be it shooting wolves or depleting the cod fish of Newfoundland.

We are not God

The Judeo-Christian imaginary animates Pope Francis’ declarations that: “We are not God. The earth was here before us to respond to the charge that Judeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of Genesis account which grants man ‘dominion’ over the earth (cf. Gen.1: 28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature” (p. 54). Francis rejects this interpretation outright: “’Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations ‘The earth is the Lord’s” (ibid.). “Clearly,” says Pope Francis, “the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures. Indeed, Francis draws our attention to a text in Deuteronomy 22: 4, 6 that counsels us to protect the birds sitting on nests – “you shall not take the mother with the young” (p. 55).

“Tyrannical anthropocentrism” rules our day. One manifestation of this disease of the soul Francis points to is granting priority to “being useful” and not simply “being.” Our perception of the usefulness of creatures obscures a fundamental teaching of the Catechism of the Church, namely, that: “Each of the various creatures, willed into its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things” (p. 56). That’s a lovely insight: but this perception of how we ought to see all creatures, minute to mammoth, as manifestations of God’s wisdom, rubs against the secular consciousness. Yet today, traces of the religious consciousness are present in the rapt attention and wonderment of naturalists as they reveal and revel in the amazing designs in ant hills or the humble honey-bee.

For Pope Francis, Christians are urged to “praise God the Creator, ‘who spread out the earth on the waters, for his steadfast love endures for ever’” (Ps. 136: 6) (p. 58). Even the sun and moon and all shining stars are invited to join in the choir of praise. As Astro-physicists and astronomers marvel at the unimaginable vastness of space, their spiffy high-tech telescopes challenge their theories almost daily. Who could conceive of dark matter or dark energy? It is as if the cosmos is a wondrously intricate puzzle that can never be mastered, fully understood. Here, again, we might detect traces of the religious consciousness that acknowledges a mighty creative force, or mind, that presented humankind with a labyrinthine gift to explore forever.

Distinguishing creation and nature

Pope Francis zeros in on the way the word “creation” has a broader meaning than “nature.” By this he means that God has a “loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance. Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion” (p. 60). “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps. 33: 6). This simple verse cuts to the heart of the secular belief that the universe emerged as the result of “arbitrary omnipotence” (ibid.). Rather, the “world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance” (ibid.). And this decision, Pope Francis teaches us, is of the “order of love. God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things” (p. 61). If this be so, then every creature is the “object of the Father’s tenderness” (p. 61). And if that is so, then humankind must be treat all creatures affectionately.

 Lots has been written about how “Judeo-Christian thought demythologized nature” (ibid.). Nature was, in itself, not divine (or spirit-infused). “In doing so, it emphasizes all the more our human responsibility for nature. This rediscovery of nature can never be at the cost of the freedom and responsibility of human beings who, as part of the world, have the duty to cultivate their abilities in order to protect it and develop its potential. If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to develop intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power” (p. 62). This lucid statement provides the core idea for ecological education of young and old.

Humans possess a uniqueness

Pope Francis presents us with the faith-affirmation that, “even if we postulate a process of evolution,” humans “also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems. Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself. Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology. The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship on the part of a ‘Thou’ who addresses himself to another ‘thou.’ The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of object” (p 64). Adorno and Horkheimer would be comfortable, I surmise, with these thoughts of Francis. So would Habermas and Taylor.

For a final thought, which excludes other important critical insights not yet mentioned, Pope Francis accentuates the important truth that it is “mistaken to view other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of ‘might is right’ has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all” (ibid.). But the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus who said of the powers of his age that the “rulers of the Gentiles lord it over” the poor and vulnerable are at radical odds with perceiving the horns of the rhino or the fin of a shark as commodities to make big bucks.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.