One of the problems addressed by the Greek philosophers—even before the time of Socrates—was the relationship of man and nature. Was man simply part of nature? or did he have a position that was somehow “outside of” or “apart from” nature? It took ancient man a while, of course, but eventually he learned that he could improve upon nature with his intellect and his labor. He could organize the growing plants, and water them in dry times, and perhaps fertilize them, and thus obtain a much greater yield and diversity of crop when compared with what grew wild. Like the Apostles in today’s Gospel, he figured out that he could weave nets and use them to gather an abundance of fish from the sea. His discovery of fire enabled him to preserve foods, to live in otherwise inhospitable climates, and even to work at night when there was little light. Yet man was a biological creature like all of the others around him, and was subject to the same limitations of age and sickness and injury and, ultimately, death. He returned to the earth like any other creature. So the Greeks speculated about the roles of man and nature.
We have the advantage of divine revelation, so we know a little bit more than the ancients did. We can read about our relationship with nature in the opening verses of Genesis:
Man is placed, as we see, as a steward over the things of creation—to make use of it in accordance with God’s plan—to support himself upon the earth while he prepares for the life of heaven.
Like many good things, the proper use of nature is found along “the middle way,” what we call in Latin the “via media,” a way between extremes on both sides, which are not as good, and which may be positively bad.
Off on one side, away from the “middle way” intended by God for the use of nature, is the practice of using nature as though it were something disposable—to be pillaged irresponsibly for what man wants, or to be used as his dumping ground. Presumably we all know that there are mining and farming techniques that leave the land a veritable desert. As one who grew up in New York City, I can tell you that the sky was brown, and the rivers contained almost as much solid material as they did water. A friend of mine who grew up in Ohio, used to recount how his river would actually catch fire![ii] Hopefully, even the most crass industrialist can recognize that things are not supposed to be that way—that God didn’t intend fire to come down the river—and that we do owe Him more responsible stewardship than that.
Most of the pillagers and the polluters don’t have a philosophical agenda at odds with God’s plan. They don’t pillage and pollute because they feel that they are supposed to. Generally they act out of ignorance or selfishness, and such things can be corrected. The other extreme may, in fact, be more dangerous.
The other extreme tends to have an ideological agenda. They have answered the question asked by the Greeks by contradicting the divine revelation in Genesis, and saying that man is just another part of nature, with no more rights or privileges than any other creature on the planet. For some, this becomes a religion of sorts—a Pantheism in which there is no God, no Creator—but rather in which all things are divine, somewhat like Hinduism. With alarming frequency it has become more and more possible to read about such people in the daily newspapers—people who worship the Mother Earth Goddess, or who practice witchcraft, or adopt the gods of the “New Age Movement.”
At first glance that might just sound like foolishness; just another false religion among the others that are out there; something that will only attract crackpots and which can be safely ignored by normal people. But ideas have consequences. The global pantheists can be very anti-Christian, precisely because they are anti-human. They are very much at odds with the Christian conception of God creating man with dominion over nature, and actively seek to insure that man will have no more than his “fair share.” That is to say that they seek to put man on equal footing with owls and the snail darters, and even the bugs and the trees and the grass. They call this “biodiversity”—diversity in the sense that man will become only one creature among the diverse universe of creatures in nature.
The “biodiversity” people tend to be anti-life – at least, anti-human life. They go on about how the human population must be controlled, in spite of the fact that Western Civilization is already “controlling” itself out of existence, and even Communist China with its “one-child” policy has recognized the enormous social problem she is creating for herself. If we think of this Pantheism as a religion—as we should—it is a religion whose sacraments include abortion, contraception, and suicide, and, perhaps, even war and disease. In its zeal to make sure that humans get no more than their “fair share,” this Pantheism seeks to declare vast tracts of land off-limits to humans, and to limit human activity anywhere else that it might endanger any other species. They talk of huge “biospheres” and corridors between “biospheres” where non-human species will exist to the exclusion of mankind.[iii]
If this still sounds like foolishness, you should know that its principles are embodied in a United Nations treaty that has already been signed by a past President of the United States.[iv] Thank God the US Senate refused to ratify it. But it is still sitting out there. Just one of the many reasons why citizens must be careful watchdogs over the affairs of their own government. You might think about that whenever someone asks for your vote—particularly for a seat in the US Senate.
But beyond this political dimension of the problem, as Catholics we ought to be thinking of Ecological Pantheism as another assault on our Faith. It is another one of those things about which we must be knowledgeable, and oppose through persuasion and good example. It is one more reason why all Christians must be opposed to anti-life practices.
Above all it is something about which we must pray. Man can toil throughout the night and catch nothing, but with God’s direction he can lower the net and enclose his catch. Very much like the Apostles, it is for us to “fishers of men,” through God’s power bringing even the Pantheists to the true Faith. For God has given us dominion over the creatures of the earth, the sea, and the air. It is through us, as Saint Paul says, that “creation ... will be delivered into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God.”