Mother Earth and Christian Environmentalism

Mother Earth and Christian Environmentalism August 1, 2019
Michael Michelitsch: Fractal Image of the World / Wikimedia Commons

In what often seems like a robotic response, whenever someone like Pope Francis speaks about the need to take care of the earth, critics, especially on social media, respond by suggesting the Pope (or whoever makes the plea) is incorporating unholy paganism into their exhortations. Such critics want to suggest that the notion of Mother Earth, Gaia, of the World Soul, lies behind environmental concerns, and that notion runs contrary to orthodox Christian thought.

What utter nonsense encourages so-called Christians to disregard their role as stewards of the earth? How does taking care of God’s creation, the earth, indicate anything about how we view it in relationship to God? That is, how does treating it with respect indicate we worship it in place of God? Likewise, why do such critics assume Christianity cannot accept the idea of Mother Earth, or the World Soul? Why would accepting the earth is alive and has its own life-force mean Christians think the earth is more important than God? Does doing good for our neighbor, loving them, because they are living beings, make us somehow worship them in the place of God? Obviously not, because Jesus would not have told us to love our neighbor as ourselves if that were the case. Now, it is possible for someone to worship their neighbor as a god, indeed, history shows us many humans who have become deified and treated as gods, but that does not mean respecting our neighbor, indeed, showing them love, should therefore be rejected. Why, then, should loving the earth, in and of itself, be rejected? Moreover, what is wrong if some people believe the earth is living, having its own soul? Historically, many (if not most) Christians accepted some notion of Mother Earth and the World Soul. It was only after the Enlightenment, in the modern age, when the livelihood of other animals was also question, did pure materialistic notions of the earth become normalized, leading people to assume afterward such a reductionistic narrative in regards the earth is normative for Christianity.

Saint Francis of Assisi could easily sing, “Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,” that is, “Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora nostra matre Terra,” because he understood our connection with the earth he said that it sustains and governs us: “ la quale ne sustenta et gouerna, et produce diuersi fructi con coloriti fior et herba.”  His praise of God, seen in the joy he found in considering the good of Mother Earth did not interfere with his relationship with God: rather, he saw Mother Earth, and its guidance and direction, and benevolence, was established by God, so that by recognizing and honoring Mother Earth, he was honoring and promoting the greater glory of God. That has always been the key for Christians: if one viewed Mother Earth as a living entity, they have to recognize it as a created being and not the Creator himself. This did not mean Christians needed to accept the earth as a living entity with a soul of its own, but it was certainly permissible. Thus, when we read St. Augustine, in his early works we see he had no problem following the Platonic tradition and accepting the notion of a World Soul:

Hence the body subsists through the soul and exists by the very fact that it is animated, whether universally, as is the world, or individually, as is each and everything that has life within the world.[1]

Later in life, when he reconsidered what he wrote, he suggested his words were rash,  not because the World Soul needs to be denied, but because he thought he needed to explore the issue more to make a proper affirmation:

But that this world is an animate being, as Plato and numerous other philosophers thought, I have not been able to investigate by solid reasoning, nor have I found that I accept this idea on the authority of the Sacred Scriptures. Hence, something said by me, too, in the book, On the Immorality of the Soul, which can be interpreted in this way, I have noted was said rashly – not because I maintain that this is false, but because I do not understand that it is true that the world is an animate being. For, assuredly, I do not doubt that it must be firmly maintained that this world is not God for us, whether it has any soul or no soul, because if it has a soul, He who created it is “our God”; but if it is not animated, it cannot be that God of anyone – much less ours. [2]

What is clear, from Augustine, is not that the World Soul should be denied, but rather, if it is affirmed, there needs to be a sound basis for it, and if it exists, this must not be used to make it greater than God.

Following Augustine, then, we can say that accepting the World Soul, accepting some notion that the earth is living, does not mean we turn it into a god, just as by having animal companions in our lives, we do not turn them into gods. It is a dishonest and disingenuous argument to suggest those who look to the earth as alive are acting contrary to the Christian teaching and tradition when that tradition has long accepted such a view of the world is permissible and many great Christian theologians and philosophers reflected upon the earth in such a fashion.  While their number is numerous, we can look at a few examples, starting with Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy:

O you who in perpetual order govern the universe,
Creator of heaven and earth, who hid time ever move,
And resting still, grant motion to all else;
Whom no external cause drove to make
Your work of flowing matter, but the form
Within yourself of the highest good, ungrudging;  from a heavenly pattern
You draw out all things, and being yourself most fair,
A fair world in your mind you bear, and forming it
In the same likeness, bid it being perfect to complete itself.
In perfect parts.   You bind its elements with law, so that the cold
Come together with flames, the dry with liquids, let the fire too pure
Fly off, or lest its weight pull down the overwhelmed earth.
You, binding soul together in its threefold nature’s midst,
Soul that moves all things, then divides it into harmonious parts;
Soul thus divided has its motion gathered
Into two circles, moves to return into itself, and the Mind deep within,
Encircles and makes the heavens turn, in likeness to itself.
You thing bring forth, with the same bases, lesser living souls,
And giving them light chariots fitting their heavenly nature,
Broadcast them in heavens and on earth and by your bounteous law
Make them, turned toward you, with returning fire come back. [3]

Allan of Lille, likewise, established the world soul in his theology, as a higher sphere of existence: “The World Soul, which is made to revolve by the tireless circling of reason, and is understood through the inquiry of that same faculty, is rightly named the rational sphere”.[4]

Hugh of St Victor, engaging Plato, saw the World Aoul as organizing and keeping things together, so that there is an underlying order found behind the apparent diversity on the earth:

And Plato’s Timaeus formed the entelechy out of substance which is “dividual” and “individual” and mixed of these two; and likewise out of nature which is “same” and “diverse” and a mixture of this pair, by which the universe is defined. For the entelechy grasps” not only the elements but all things that are made by them,” since, through its understanding, it comprehends the invisible causes of things and, through sense perceptions, picks up the visible forms of actual objects. “divided, it gathers movement into twin spheres” because, whether it goes out to sensible things through its senses or ascends to invisible things through its understanding, it circles about, drawing to itself the likeness of things; and thus it is that one and the same mind, having the capacity for all things, is fitted together out of every substance and nature by the fact that it represents within itself their imaged likeness. [5]

Ficino’s presentation of the world soul follows this same vein:

Yet above individual souls is the one soul of the world. For there has to be one living work of one living craftsman. It is not one and alive except through one life. It does not have one life unless is has one soul. Since, as the majority argue, one prime matter in itself unformed lies concealed in all the spheres, it is proper that its soul be one. What it is that is responsible for making the limbs of the world, though they are in opposition to each other, nonetheless work together and variously share their powers, unless it is that one soul tempers the humors, however diverse, of this huge living being, and takes the spatially separated limbs and the quality of life and of motion and joins them in concord? How else could the lower parts follow the bidding of the higher, and all the limbs of the world be in symphony, so to speak, with each other, except by sharing one common nature? One nature comes from one soul. This divine animal should not be any less united than any other animal, seeing that it is the most mighty of all. [6]

The world can be described a “divine animal,” not because it is confused with God, but because it is an animal, made by God, with a great soul. It is this tradition, then, we see within the Christian faith, that we can find agreement with various modern day scientific hypotheses which suggest that the earth is indeed a living creature. Christians do not have to denounce this as somehow making  a new religion, turning the earth into a god to replace God. Rather, they can easily acknowledge their own tradition has already recognized this way of looking at the earth as being acceptable.

We are called to respect the earth just as we are called to respect our neighbor. We are called to do good to it just as we are called to do good for those in need, because in doing so, we then honor God. Instead of seeing some sort of ungodly heresy behind any exhortation for us to treat the earth well, Christians should recognize the heresy and immorality being promoted by those who disdain ecological concerns. Even if, like Augustine, they are not convinced that the earth is alive, they should still realize that God calls them to take care of his earth, to be concerned as to what happens to it, because God made the earth good, and God desired humanity not only to preserve the good given to it, but to elevate it, making it greater (following the implication of the parable of the talents).


[1] St. Augustine, “The Immortality of the Soul” in Writings of Saint Augustine. Volume 2. Trans. Ludwig Schopp (New York: CIMA Publishing Company, 1947), 43-4.

[2] St. Augustine, The Retractions. Trans. Mary Inez Bogan, RSM (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1968), 47-8.

[3] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy in Boethius: The Theological Tractates; The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. S.J. Tester (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 271-3.

[4] Allan of Lille, “Sermon On the Intelligible Sphere” in Literary Works. Trans. Winthrop Wetherbee (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 5.

[5] Hugh of Saint Victor, The Didascalicion of Hugh of Saint Victor. Trans. Jerome Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961; repr. 1991), 46.

[6] Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology. Books I-IV. trans. Michael J.B. Allen with John Warden (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 287.

 

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