The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973



A theology of creation

Sir: Let me congratulate you on the splendid articles you have published by Father Sean McDonagh on “A new story of creation” (The Tablet – 8 and 15 November). Let me say, first, how much I rejoice in his rejection of the false but not uncommon imputation to Christianity of the (Baconian?) axiom that “nature has no reason for existence but to serve man”. Such an imputation seems to be in line with the modern tendency to put the blame on Christianity for most of the evils that have befallen the West, and our world, since the rise of secularism in the 17th century. The true Christian ideal is, of course, that nature serves man in so far as man serves God through Jesus Christ.

Let me say how much I rejoice in Father McDonagh’s recommendation of “an ecologically sensitive theology” based on a recognition of the “wealth of insight which is present in our own Judeo-Christian tradition”, beginning with the story of creation in the Book of Genesis.

Regretfully, however, let me now turn to express a measure of disagreement with Father McDonagh, in so far as he expects “an adequate theology of creation” from “the idiom and processes of the natural sciences”, as well as from those “methods of historical research and philosophical discourse” with which theologians are familiar. Not that I propose to turn away from the sciences any more than from history or philosophy: but I wish to insist no less on the important place of the much neglected humanities, particularly of poetry.

Among the poets, let me draw special attention to Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose words seemed to resound in my ears as I read those articles of Father McDonagh.

(Fr) Peter Milward S J
The Tablet

Sir: I have only just seen Fr Peter Milward’s response (Letters, 20/27 December, 1986) to my two articles in The Tablet. Naturally, I was happy with his appreciative comments and am hoping that they are indicative of a groundswell which is beginning to emerge in the Church on behalf of planet earth.

He did, however, express “a measure of disagreement” with the prominence I seem to give to the scientific tradition at the expense of what might be called our humanist tradition.

Father Milward will, I am sure, understand that it is not possible in two short articles to do justice to this complex issue. In a recent book called To care for the Earth, I do call attention to the early Celtic poetic tradition. The bards and the early Celtic monks felt very much at home in the company of other creatures and did not feel a compulsion constantly to fence off the human from the rest of creation.

Nevertheless, I do feel that poets, religious people and everyone who is concerned about the continuance of life on this planet should equip themselves with the processes of modern science, for two reasons.

First, much of the really serious damage to our planet has happened in recent times. It is a direct result – though not, of course, willed as such – of modern chemical, engineering and nuclear technology. In less than 100 years, technology has, in an extensive way, changed and degraded the biosphere. This exploitative technology is, in large measure, a product of modern science. We would do well to understand its processes, unforeseen results and limits before we burn the earth to a cinder, either through chemical pollution or a thermo-nuclear holocaust.

But there is another side to the story. The scientific tradition, in its various disciplines, has given us a new understanding of the emergence of our world and the delicate web which links all the life-systems of our earth. We have a more comprehensive – though as yet, very incomplete – understanding of the richness of the tropical rain forest and its importance for our air, soil, seas and marine life. Scientists have also raised the red flag to warn us that much of the destruction which is taking place before our eyes is irreversible.

This sobering fact has not yet entered into the collective human consciousness. Father Milward directs my attention to Gerard Manley Hopkins. Anyone who reads Hopkins’s poetry is touched by his appreciation for the beauty, fruitfulness and colour of “dappled things” and for his sensitivity to the numerous ways in which God's creation is stained and mired by human thoughtlessness and greed. Yet, probably because he lived in a temperate climate with its resilient life-systems, and was not exposed to the full virulence of the chemical, electrical and nuclear revolutions, Hopkins could assert in 'God's Grandeur' that “for all this nature is never spent”.

The sad, bleak fact of my daily experience here in this tropical environment is that nature is spent, and at an accelerated pace. The tropical rainforest is almost gone; never to be renewed. We are sterilising the fruitfulness of the earth by causing the extinction of thousands of species and endangering hundreds of thousands more. The coral reefs are choking, the mangrove forests are being filled in, the topsoil is washed down into the sea and a once fruitful and fertile land is gradually being turned into a desert, while the human population is doubling every 25 years.

True, our poets and artists must respond to the challenge. Like Hopkins, they must help us to appreciate the exuberance and beauty of creation. They must also speak of the pain of the despoliation in a way that will seize hold of our imagination and motivate us to do something about it before it is too late. But their vision must be grounded on the reality of things.

Fr Sean McDonagh

Sir: I hope I may be allowed again to take up Fr Sean McDonagh on the subject of “a theology of creation”, considering the great importance both of what he says and, even more, of what he does not say. In a previous letter I have expressed my whole-hearted agreement with what he says, in that it seems to me high time we turned our theological attention to the humble creatures of this earth, to the whole of that delicate and divinely arranged “ecology” which we are in process of destroying by means of the technology put in our hands by science. But in his reply of 21 March, Father McDonagh seeks to justify his omission of the humanist tradition in developing “a theology of creation” on the grounds partly that “it is not possible in two short articles to do justice to this complex issue”, partly that it is first necessary for us all, including poets and artists, to acquaint ourselves with "the processes of modern science”, so that our vision may be “grounded on the reality of things”.

As for acquainting ourselves with “the processes of modern science”, I am afraid these are now far too complex for the ordinary layman, especially if his interests are more literary than scientific. It is surely enough that we should be aware of the end-product of these processes, which are all too obvious (even to those of us who might prefer to close our eyes) in the world around us.

What I wanted to emphasise, however, was not merely (as Father McDonagh seems to think) that “our poets and artists must respond to the challenge” of the modern world, but rather that those who undertake such a “theology of creation” as Father McDonagh proposes should pay attention no less to the riches of our human and literary tradition. After all, one of the reasons why the technology of modern science is today threatening the continued existence of our “planet earth” is that from its outset in the age of Bacon and Galileo it was proposed as a fresh approach to “nature” to the exclusion of human tradition; and now we are reaping the bitter fruit of that unfortunate exclusion in the paradoxical ruin of nature.

Another reason for the threat to our existence is that the vision of modern scientists and technocrats is no longer “grounded on the reality of things” in their fullness, but only on a narrow aspect of them that increasingly narrows with the departmentalisation of science. This makes it all the more necessary to return to a more human and humanistic view of nature, enlightened by the grace of God.

Fr Peter Milward SJ

Sir: Fr Peter Milward (The Tablet, 23 May) once again raises some questions about my articles on a theology of creation (The Tablet, 8 and 15 November 1986).

First let me attempt to clear the decks. I am not suggesting that those concerned about the future of the earth, especially those who are trying to fashion the contours of a new theology of creation, should neglect the Western or any other humanist tradition, in favour of a narrow mechanistic scientific understanding of the earth. The ecological destruction taking place around us is so serious that we need to look to the riches of all our traditions, religious, humanist and scientific – East and West, I might add – in order to turn back the tide of death before it is too late.

The bedrock on which the presentation should rest is the relatively new understanding of how the earth has emerged over the aeons, and how it nurtures and supports life in extraordinary diversity and profusion. Today this fruitfulness is under attack from men and women who use modern technology with little concern for its effects on other human beings or on the air, water, soil and other creatures inhabiting the delicate womb of life.

In my previous response (The Tablet, 21March) to Fr Milward’s original letter, I took up his suggestion to look at Gerard Manley Hopkins. In “God's Grandeur”, Hopkins shows a finely cultivated sensitivity to the pain of the earth in 19th-century industrial England. Understandably he is unaware of the emergent nature of the earth and therefore he can write “for all this nature is never spent”. The painful fact is that nature is spent. The unprecedented slaughter of species in recent decades threatens the integrity and fruitfulness of creation for all future generations. I am sure that if Hopkins were writing today he would be telling us that nature is spent and warning us of the dire consequences of our human folly.

Fr Milward deftly sidesteps this discussion in his recent letter and instead castigates the Western scientific tradition for introducing the disastrous split between human beings and the rest of nature which is now laying waste to nature itself. For him the scientific tradition is the real villain of the piece. The other traditions are more or less exonerated from carrying any blame for our present impasse. But is this historically accurate?

I suggest that it is not. One of the reasons why nature is often mindlessly destroyed is that it is seen to have no inherent rights apart from its usefulness to human beings. This anthropocentric, hierarchical view of nature is not the invention of Galileo, Bacon, Descartes or Newton. It has deep roots in the Western religious and humanist traditions. Aristotle, for example, subscribes to it in The Politics: “For we must believe, first that plants exist for the sake of animals, second that all other animals exist for the sake of man. Nature makes nothing without some end in view. . . . It must be that nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man”.

This Imperial, domineering stance is also widespread in the Western religious tradition. The historian Keith Thomas surveys the relationship between humans and nature in England during recent centuries in his book, Man and the Natural World. He concludes that at the beginning of the modern period in the 15th and 16th centuries the natural world was seen to have no meaning or rights apart from its role of serving the human. Theologians in Tudor and Stuart England substantiated this claim by referring to Genesis 1:28. Modern exegetes will point out that this is not the correct meaning of the text, but it is the one that was accepted during recent centuries. Some would argue that the Newtonian scientific paradigm rode on the coat-tails of this tradition. I am well aware that Francis, Benedict, Hildegarde of Bingen and the Amish represent other strands in the Christian tradition but, to date, they have been very much in the minority.

I'm not trying either to exonerate modern Western technology from blame or to dismiss the Western humanist or religious traditions as irrelevant. As I see it, each tradition has both a bright and a dark side. In recent years scientists like Rachel Carson have been in the forefront of those pleading the cause of mother earth while the response from religious people has, until very recently, been less evident. (We still await an authoritative document from the Vatican on ecological destruction.)

But my purpose here is not to point accusing finger. We need to cultivate the bright side of each tradition and challenge and correct the dark side. Only in this way can a renewed scientific, religious and humanist tradition adequately respond to the peril which the earth faces today.

Fr Sean McDonagh

See: Our wounded planet 
A new story of creation

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