Bonaventure for Environmentalists

Bonaventure for Environmentalists June 15, 2012

In a previous post, reference was made to the necessity for the Christian to be concerned for the environment, whilst at the same time being cautious of not buying into the anthropophobic premises of the most predominant strands of environmentalism. That post suggested that the key lay in finding a new form of anthropocentrism, a picture of the environment with humanity at its centre, which at the same time resists pitting a voraciously consumerist humanity against an innocent and vulnerable planet. To get past this tension, the notion of the stewardship of man is very often put forward by Christian greens as the solution to keeping that anthropocentrist vision of the environment. Yet, the question remains: what is the content of stewardship? Without any positive content, stewardship becomes a slippery term that can run the risk of affirming that very consumerist notion of anthropocentrism.

A possible way forward can be gleaned with a read of Illa Delio’s book Simply Bonaventure, a chapter of which looks into the Trinitarian theology of the 12th century Doctor of the Church. For Bonaventure, Delio suggests, the outpouring of the Trinity within creation leaves a mark of the Godhead within each and every creature, both animate and inanimate. There is thus a mark of the holy in every creature, but this sacralisation is done so in a way that resists the pantheism that is characteristic of much of today’s environmentalism. This is so for two reasons. First, their sacralisation comes not of themselves, but by their relationship with the Triune God. Secondly, rather than remain as they are, all creatures have within them a pull towards the Godhead that made them, to return to the source from whence they sprung forth. In so doing, each creature undergoes a process of perfection.
The twist to this comes as a result of Bonaventure’s platonic premises (which will have to be the subject of another post). Bonaventure writes that each creature undergoes this process of perfection not of their own volition, but by a process of following “models”, higher forms of creatureliness that are more advanced in the path towards the return to God. Bonaventure sees this in the accounts of creation where more and more complex lifeforms are created with each passing day. In addition, Bonaventure sees in each creature a world of potential for transformation to other lifeforms (a principle he calls hylomorphism). This notion of following models of perfection suggests a profound harmony within creation, and thus a set order and telos – namely the Triune God.

However, creation’s return to God can only be properly modeled by a creature that is a composite of material and spiritual nature, and which returns to God by its own free will rather than by instinct. For Bonaventure, only humanity can lead this return to God, and this is the reason why Bonaventure considers humanity as the center of creation. Humanity is given the charge of all of creation to lead that creation’s return into the Trinitarian economy.

Thus, in the writings of Bonaventure, humanity retains his privileged position in the order of creation. At the same time, however, that privileged position is qualified by his awareness of all creature’s destination towards the Triune God and the need for that universe’s perfection. This is an anthropocentrism thus that is rooted in the worship of God rather than the worship of man (a state of sin where humans becomes like gods, as the book of Genesis states). It is an environmentalism that is Eucharistic, for as Catherine Pickstock reminds us, the Eucharist dedicates to God not just bread and wine, but all the materials that are used in their making – wood, stone, wax, plants and flesh. This Eucharistic element is what prevents the confusion between the perfection of Creation in its Godward pilgrimage, and the subjugation of creation to satisfy humanity’s appetites.
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