“We are not God”: Anthropocentrism vs. Christian Anthropology in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si

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I was up early last Thursday downloading the Pope’s new encyclical, Laudato Si, trying to get it read before my own busyness and the public commentary could sweep it away. Frankly (pun intended) I loved it.

Since its release there has been the expected variety of fuss and all manner of attempts to claim or disclaim aspects of the encyclical for a particular faction or interest. I hesitate to add more to the fray (go read the encyclical for yourself!), but was moved to share a few thoughts this morning by private correspondence with friends and family on this unique letter from our good Pope Francis.

A strain of commentary that has begun to emerge and which resonates with my own reading and those of my close confidants, sees in the encyclical as a whole a profoundly evangelical presentation of Christian anthropology.

In a piece entitled “The pope’s climate change message is really about rethinking what it means to be human”, Stephen P. White yesterday wrote the following :

Reading the encyclical, one quickly realizes that the “pope fights climate change” narrative is far from the whole story. In fact, that line leaves out the most fundamental themes of the encyclical: the limits of technology and the need for what he calls an “integral ecology,” which “transcend[s] the language of mathematics and biology, and take[s] us to the heart of what it is to be human.” (http://www.vox.com/2015/6/24/8834413/pope-climate-change-encyclical)

Yes, it struck me as a profound piece of Christian anthropology to counter the anthropocentrism of our age (though it is certainly a perennial tendency). The Pope invites us to stand back and attend to the basic way that we as humans think of ourselves and our relation to the rest of the cosmos.

In the first creation account in the Book of Genesis, God’s plan includes creating humanity. After the creation of man and woman, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26). This shows us the immense dignity of each person, “who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons”.[37] Saint John Paul II stated that the special love of the Creator for each human being “confers upon him or her an infinite dignity”.[38] Those who are committed to defending human dignity can find in the Christian faith the deepest reasons for this commitment. How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles! The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason “each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”.[39] (Laudato Si, 65)

This is a beautiful expression of our Christian understanding of human nature and dignity. This is who we are. But what has occurred?

66. The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19).

From the beginning man has struggled with the temptation to grasp at “being like God”, pridefully disregarding His commands and engaging in the practical relativism that the Pope references in which we evaluate and respond to other created things, not according to God’s creative design, but according to our own values and uses.  Consider the powerful passages on this “practical relativism”:

122. A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism”.[99] When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay.

123. The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided. (Laudato Si)

So much, even coming to believe in God, comes down to a person’s basic attitude toward the rest of the universe. Does a person, with the materialists, reductionists, utilitarians and atheists, make himself like god and evaluate everything else accordingly? Or does he seek to understand his own nature, something given not self-made, and the natures of other things? Does he humble himself to the honest realism of trying to understand what things are and responding in kind? Does he stand in submission before God, in respect and love of all fellow mankind, and in grateful stewardship toward the rest of creation, declaring that it is good and is to be cherished and enjoyed by all?

As the Pope notes, “We are not God.” (Laudato Si, 67)

All this puts me in mind of today’s Gospel:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’
will enter the Kingdom of heaven,
but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
Many will say to me on that day,
‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?
Did we not drive out demons in your name?
Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’
Then I will declare to them solemnly,
‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them
will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
The rain fell, the floods came,
and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.
And everyone who listens to these words of mine
but does not act on them
will be like a fool who built his house on sand.
The rain fell, the floods came,
and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”

When Jesus finished these words,
the crowds were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority,
and not as their scribes. MT 7:21-29

My fellow Christians and I must ask, what does it really mean for Jesus Christ to be Lord of our lives if not ever greater surrender to His Gospel, to love and serve God with all we are and our neighbors as ourselves?  Must we not strive to give over our merely temporal projects and values to the “Father who creates and who alone owns the world”? (LS, 75) Lest we cry “Lord, Lord!” in vain, we must always expect that there are more nooks and crannies of our lives (our finances, the environment, our technologies, our human parties and projects) which we are not giving over to Christ, and are thereby, for all our industry, building houses on the sand.

Thus, I will listen attentively and prayerfully to the Pope’s reminder of who God is, who man is, and whence and for what purpose came this beautiful home we inhabit together.

(Thanks for reading. Be sure to download and read Laudato Si yourself, whatever your background or beliefs: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html)

Saint Gilbert Keith Chesterton?

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The big news from this year’s Chesterton Conference (which I lament not having been able to attend) is that the cause for sainthood may soon be opened for our good man G.K..

Chesterton.org has the press release:

WORCESTER, Massachusetts (August 1, 2013) – In his opening address at the 32nd Annual Chesterton Conference held at Assumption College, Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society, announced that Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, England, has given permission to state that he “is sympathetic to our wishes and is seeking a suitable cleric to begin an investigation into the potential for opening a cause for [G.K.] Chesterton.” The announcement was met with loud cheers and great emotion as members of the American Chesterton Society have long awaited an official step toward G.K. Chesterton’s Cause for Canonization.

Click here to read the full statement.

That the apostle of common sense may soon be declared the patron saint of common sense is wonderful news!

My first post about Distributism

Self-portrait of G. K. Chesterton based on the distributist slogan "Three acres and a cow". Via Wikipedia
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Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.

G. K. Chesterton

There is less difference than many suppose between the ideal Socialist system, in which the big businesses are run by the State, and the present Capitalist system, in which the State is run by the big businesses.

G. K. Chesterton

The only difference between a Socialist state and a Capitalist state is whether power is concentrated in a few private or a few bureaucratic hands.

The Distributist Review

Self-portrait of G. K. Chesterton based on the distributist slogan “Three acres and a cow”. Via Wikipedia

You are probably, like me, frustrated at the ways in which our political, social, and economic discourse has been forced into a series of false dichotomies: socialism or capitalism, ultra-liberality or ultra-conservatism, ever growing government bureaucracy or ever growing big businesses, social justice or orthodox religion/traditional morality, and so forth. We do our best to navigate the polarizing dialogue of modern society, but the limited options we are presented with always force us to choose a mixed bag, considered to be the lesser of two evils. But even if in practice we must sometimes settle for such tough choices among limited options in the short term, we shouldn’t let these circumstances limit the ideal we work towards.

Many who lean liberal/socialist/big-government/etc simply do so out of a sincere concern for social justice and in reaction to the very real ills (whether inherent or circumstantial) of a laissez-faire capitalism as we know it. On the other hand many, like myself, have leaned conservative/capitalist/libertarian/etc out of a concern for freedom and in reaction to the very real ills of socialism/communism. Both are afraid of the other side, yet neither I suspect, were they truly honest and made to face the facts, is perhaps perfectly comfortable with their own.

If you want to breathe some fresh air outside today’s stale political conversation, consider taking a look at Distributism, particularly the wise writings of the great generalist G.K. Chesterton.

Distributism is a rich and yet practical economic philosophy based firmly on Catholic social teaching and the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. Most famously popularized by G.K. Chesterton in the late 19th and early 20th century, Distributist thought emphasizes the importance of widespread ownership – “three acres and a cow”, as the slogan goes -, strong local economies, small family and worker-owned businesses, and the Catholic social principles of Subsidiarity – things should be handled on the lowest level possible (individual, family, village, state, etc) – and Solidarity – concern for the common good (Click here for a longer explanation).

Stratford Caldecott offers this great summary in an article over at The Distributist Review:

“I take Distributism to be the view that private property should be widely distributed in society, rather than concentrated in a few hands, in order to enable more or even most people to be able to take responsibility for their own families by means of productive and dignified work. This can be seen as a practical expression or implication of the Catholic social doctrines of subsidiarity in solidarity, of the common good, and of the family as the best foundation of a healthy civil society.

Distributism is not socialism. It does not suppose that property should be stolen from the rich and given to the poor, or appropriated by the state or by a party representing the people, but rather that legislation should make it easier for the small property-owner, landowner, tradesman, and shopkeeper to survive, and harder for the tycoon to accumulate so much wealth and power that the former is forced to become a mere employee of the latter, or effectively a wage-slave.” – A Distributist Education

As I have begun to poke around amongst Distributist thinking and thinkers, I am finding  many natural connections with other topics I am already excited about – sustainable agriculture, homesteading, small business, real/traditional food and production, a rightly ordered concern for the environment, the important of addressing poverty on the local level, and the attempt to more authentically live out the Gospel calls to poverty, simplicity, and detachment.

As I continue to learn, I hope to write much more about Distributism and the ways in which my house and I are doing our best to serve God and neighbor. For now though, a few quotes, a bit of my own musing, one long citation, a couple appeals to authority, and finally a list of further reading (below) will have to do.

Thanks for reading and I hope the resources below inspire and challenge you further.

Here are the two books I am currently reading on the subject:

Here is a nice FAQ: http://distributistreview.com/mag/test-2/

Here are 102 great action steps: http://www.justpeace.org/encourdistributism.htm

Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor

Here is a neat flyer on Distributism: