Review: "Walking God's Earth"

by Michael Sean Winters

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In 1966, historian Lynn White delivered a paper, subsequently published under the title “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” which may still be the most important essay on the environment by a Christian. White argued that the command in Genesis to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over it, combined with Christianity’s otherworldly interest in individual soul salvation were the twin Western cultural fonts from which grew a legacy of environmental degradation. Certainly, as the 60s and the decades that followed, Americans celebrated their church attendance rates, at least in comparison to the more rapid secularization of European societies, but our religiosity did little to help shift American thought, politics and culture away from its determinedly Whiggish belief in the inevitability of progress as the degradation of the planet continued apace. Our political class knows that asking the middle class to change its lifestyle is a sure ticket to early retirement. A few old lefties still place their hopes in population control. Environmentalism is more mainstream than it was, to be sure, but there is little urgency about the shifting climate, even though some of the shifts will be hideous and many of them may be irreversible. And, while some Catholics and Christians are increasingly looking for ways to focus on the environment from the standpoint of their faith, many conservative Christians, for political reasons, continue to provide regrettable evidence that White was on to something back in 1967.

2015 may see decisive change, as Pope Francis plans on issuing the first ever papal encyclical focused especially on the environment. The popularity of the pope, and the pope’s rich appreciation for popular piety, may yield a hearing for a different theological lens from the one White described. Pope Benedict XVI never got the credit he deserved for his seminal teaching on the environment, even though he took up the concern often and Our Sunday Visitor even published a useful collection of his environmental writings. Francis will be building on Benedict’s theological foundation, to be sure, and it will be curious to see if conservative Catholics will stick to their political biases or, instead, leap at the chance to demonstrate a clear point of continuity between Francis and Benedict. And, when Francis’ encyclical comes out, we can expect many, on both left and right, to praise or damn him for doing something entirely new.

In his engaging, highly accessible new book Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith David Cloutier takes Benedict’s teaching as a kind of starting point, beginning each chapter with a quote from him. But Cloutier goes back further, into the rich traditions of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and looks ahead to what we 21st century Americans can do to better confront the environmental crisis our habits invite. For clergy looking for a primer in advance of Francis’ anticipated encyclical, or for lay Catholics who simply want to better understand what resources our faith tradition brings to the issue, Cloutier has provided a perfect introduction to Green Catholicism.

Cloutier unfolds four narrative frames to examine and nurture a sound Catholic theology on the environment: our experience of beauty, a critique of the contemporary situation, the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures.

Many people experience something of the sacred in nature in all its beauty. Cloutier notes that this is not unique to Christians but it is different: “We should not imagine our ancestors actually believed that trees were gods. What they sensed was that nature made the spiritual appear, connecting us to its larger force and power.” Sometimes, this led to superstition, but that is not the only theological pathology available. “But today’s religions can be used in this false way too – as a manipulation of the divine, rather than a recognition of a transcendent power beyond us. Authentic religious experience is not of control, but of reception and connection, of tapping into something larger and wiser.”

Nature has a “form” which is part of its beauty, and Cloutier updates this old-sounding notion (he notes the derogatory sense in which we deploy the word “formal” or refer to “form letters”) and demonstrates its relevance for environmental thinking. “The created world has an intricate, complex form – Pope Benedict calls it a ‘grammar,’ which ‘sets forth criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation’(Caritas in Veritate 48).” Discerning the form of nature is, for Cloutier, akin to the way humans meet one another and look into each other’s faces. The beauty of nature “overwhelms us in reaching out and almost demanding our admiration….As Balthasar writes of beauty, it ‘brings with it a self-evidence that en-lightens without mediation’ – that is, its ‘form is so constituted as to be able to mediate from within itself the light that illuminates its beauty.’” Cloutier points to the attitudinal consequences of this experience: “This feeling of being grasped by beauty should lead us to certain spiritual responses: humility, gratitude, and thanksgiving.”

Cloutier acknowledges that we all love the “wow” moments nature affords, looking over the Grand Canyon or up at the mighty, snow-capped Rockies. But, as he will detail in the next chapter, contemporary, Western men and women are often far removed from the forms and rhythms of nature. And, even if we head off to a National Park in the summertime with the kids, it is important to localize our experiences of nature at home. “In order to enter into nature’s beauty, let us not simply take pilgrimages to national parks, the ‘cathedrals’ of the natural world,” Cloutier writes. “Let us also see the form in our home ‘parishes’ and local regions. There’s still a ‘pow’ here, but it’s a little more intellectual, more like what we experience when we learn the intricacies of a musical score or football play strategies.” Cloutier’s analogies and examples all have this easily accessibility to them that make this the kind of book that can be used in a parish adult faith formation group, or even with high schoolers.

Tomorrow: Part II.  



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