The World-Soul, Natura and Mother Earth

The World-Soul, Natura and Mother Earth November 19, 2019
Viv Lynch: Mother Earth: The Legend of Aataentsic / flickr

When not dealing with dogmatic issues, the Christian faith allows for a great diversity of thought. This is why there are a variety of theological schools of thought, each which promote the basics of the faith, but otherwise differ radically from each other in various different ways.[1]

Christians can differ with each other on many of the characteristics which they predicate to creation as a whole, as well as to each particular object within creation. What might seem to be absolutely absurd to one Christian can seem to be perfectly true to another. Thus, for example, Christians can believe in the existence of alien life, but they are also free to deny it[2]. Each person will have their reasons for their beliefs, and each can be a perfectly orthodox Christian thinker despite the differences of their beliefs. Indeed, they can be wrong about such secondary things and still be perfectly sound in their Christian faith.

We find some medieval Christians believed that God has given intellectual life not only to humanity, but to the planets and stars in the heavens. Likewise, no one less than St. Augustine himself considered it possible that the Earth itself was alive, that is, that it had a soul of its own, allowing it to be treated as another sentient being of God.  To be sure, Augustine was not certain, and left the question open, as to whether or not the Earth should be seen as having such life, but in his early works, there are indications that he accepted the notion of the world-soul, granting the Earth life.  Thus, in his Immortality of the Soul, he said “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.”[3] When he reflected upon the matter further, he did not deny the possibility, but only came out agnostic about it:

But if this same beauty be understood as applying to all bodies, this opinion compels one to believe that this world itself is an animate being so that what in it imitates constancy is also transmitted to it through the soul by the supreme God. 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 Immortality 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’; if it is not animated, it cannot be the God of anyone – much less ours. [4]

What Augustine makes clear is that if someone were to believe the world is alive, that it has a soul, and so designed by a title like Mother Earth, this did not mean the Christian saw in it a replacement for God. They understood it to be a creature of God, though one worthy of respect because of the greatness God gave to it in its creation. Indeed, like Origen, they said we could consider the Earth itself to be an animal with some level of self-government:

Although the whole world is arranged into offices of different kinds, its condition, nevertheless, is not to be supposed as one of internal discrepancies and discordances; but as our one body is provided with many members, and is held together by one soul, so I am of opinion that the whole world also ought to be regarded as some huge and immense animal, which is kept together by the power and reason of God as by one soul.[5]

Later generations would take up similar ideas with the notion of a personified form of Nature, “Natura,” which could be (but does not have to be) seen as something separate from “Mother Earth.”  Indeed, it is often through the notion of some world-soul, or Natura, that many Christians used to explain away any and all sense of rational activity from animals, for it would be said that such rational behavior came from the world-soul directing the actions of animals in the world.[6]

Looking beyond the Earth, St. Thomas Aquinas, looking upon the stars, suggested some intelligence existed behind the stars and their movement in the sky

Nor does it make any difference, as far as our present purpose is concerned, whether a heavenly body is moved by a conjoined intellectual substance which is its soul, or by a separate substance; nor whether each celestial body is moved immediately by God, or whether none is so moved, because all are moved through intermediary, created, intellectual substances; nor whether the first body alone is immediately moved by God, and the others through the mediation of created substances—provided it is granted that celestial motion comes from intellectual substance. [7]

We might think it strange to consider the stars (and planets) to be living things, with wills and intellects of their own, but to the medieval mind, as well as to the ancient Christian mind, as well as to many of the philosophers, it seemed to be the most natural explanation for their movement. They were more connected with their natural good, being in the heavens, so their actions were more stable, more predictable. They loved God, and circled around in the heavens just as a holy soul will circle around God in eternity. Christians, then, could accept a cosmology which allowed for a great diversity of beings, indeed, of a great variety of intellectual beings, in the universe, some of which were far more stable in their relationship with God than humanity. But, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, this did not turn such creatures into gods to be worshiped in place of God. Indeed, they rarely were looked upon and invoked by the ordinary Christian, while the saints were:

We might expect that a universe so filled with shining superhuman creatures would be a danger to monotheism. Yet the danger to monotheism in the Middle Ages clearly came not from a cult of angels but from the cult of the Saints. Men when they prayed were not usually thinking of the Hierarchies and Intelligences. There was, not (I think) an opposition, but a dissociation between their religious life and all that. [8]

As the cult of the saints, itself, is not idolatrous, even when through it the saints are invoked by pleas for help, so the belief in greater super-beings in the universe, such as intelligences existing behind the stars, or perhaps Mother Earth (in one form or another), would not be a challenge to the Christian faith but rather would be seen as a part of what Christians consider in regards to those things which exist in the universe. Knowing what exists, delineating them, recognizing great super-human creatures as being a part of God’s creation, would only demonstrate the greatness of God’s creation. There is nothing idolatrous in and of itself in such a belief.

Now, it might seem strange to some Christians today to hear that many Christians believed in the existence of a spiritual substance lying behind the stars, or the Earth itself. This is because of the change of perspective which happened as a result of the Enlightenment. Many principles and beliefs which came after the Enlightenment have been so normative that many Christians today assume not only that they are true, but they are normative for the Christian faith. For with the Enlightenment has come the notion that animals do not have souls, a notion which many think is a Christian teaching, despite the fact it has been normative in the Christian tradition to teach they do. If animals do not have souls, then it is not hard to understand how and why the rest of the universe became dead, treated as if it were not alive. Anyone says contrary to this are treated as insane, if they come from the developed world, are as people holding non-Christian pagan beliefs, if they do not.

Nonetheless, as tradition shows, it is not Christianity which says we must reject the notion of Mother Earth. And though the Enlightenment might have at one time led to the ridicule of that notion, scientists are now considering the possibility that the interdependent relationship of all that exists on the Earth itself demonstrates some sort of “life” which can be attributed to it (via the Gaia hypothesis). Obviously what the scientists consider is not exactly the same thing as Christian metaphysicians, as science in general knows nothing of the notion of soul, and so what a scientist looks for to determine whether or not something is alive will differ from the metaphysical standard. But if science can determine something is alive, then, by that fact, it should be said to have a soul, for the most elementary notion of the soul (metaphysically) is that it is the life-force which makes something alive. So, what once was believed, then became ridiculed, now can be believed again, with greater reason than before. The radical metaphysical notion which was normalized by the Enlightenment has been brought into question, and so Christians, taking seriously the new insights of science can take seriously once again the question of Mother Earth and accept that there is some truth to the notion. In doing so, then, they can find themselves bridging the gap between themselves and indigenous societies which never lost sight of Mother Earth. Inculturation allows for Christianity thought to grow beyond the dead-ends of the past because it allows Christians to come in contact with those who did not follow those dead-ends, and so who were not corrupted by the implications they gave. Non-Western societies which did not fall for the worst parts of the Enlightenment, far from being “primitive” and worthy of ridicule, actually can help give back to Christianity a spirituality it lost due to modernity.

The Western tradition has dishonored, indeed, defiled the Earth. Those who have continued to hold the Earth in honor are spiritually more astute than those who have dishonored it. Now, it is time to recognize that we are called to honor the Earth, perhaps even to recognize Mother Earth (either as a symbol, or if we want, as a reality) and do so in a way which does not dishonor the creator, but instead, as a way to honor him as well. Those who would dismiss such a response to the Earth and call it idolatrous are only trying to justify their own sins against creation, and through creation, against God. Would they call it idolatrous if people honored them, showed them respect instead of abused them? Obviously not. Therefore, they know full well honoring something in creation, respecting it, does not go against God. It is clear that their argument is pure sophistry, the kind used to justify the unjustifiable.

The Christian faith allows for diverse opinions. We might not come to it with the same world view. We do not have to. Even if what someone else believes is odd and silly, so long as it does not contradict the faith itself, it is permissible. And if history has shown us anything, what some at one time think is silly and indefensible, ends up being the truth. “Common sense” more often than not is a cultural construct which often impedes the discernment of the truth. We do not have to agree with others, if we think they are wrong, but likewise, we must be careful and not condemn them for their beliefs if there is nothing in them which runs contrary to Christian teaching on faith or morals.  For we must try to ascertain the view of others in the best light possible.


[1] Obvious examples include, but are not limited to, Augustinians, Thomists, Bonaventurians, and Scotists.

[2] So long as such life has not been encountered, obviously. Once it has, then it will be silly to deny its existence, just as it is now silly to accept a flat Earth.

[3] St. Augustine, “The Immortality of the Soul” in Writings of St. Augustine. Volume 2. Trans. Ludwig Schopp (New York: CIMA Publishing Company, 1947), 43-44.

[4] Saint Augustine, The Retractions. Trans, Mary Inez Bogan, RSM (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1968), 47-48.

[5] Origen, De Principii in ANF(4):269.

[6] Nonetheless, belief in Mother Earth, or Natura, or the world-soul does not require this interpretation, that is, it does not necessitate we deny reason to animals, just as we do not deny it for ourselves.

[7] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles. Book Three: Providence. Part I. trans. Vernon J. Bourke (Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1956), 93 [chapter 23].

[8] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964; repr. 1988), 120.

 

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