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


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)

Capsules and Odd-Looking Sticks


March 6, 2015: Today I discovered an odd-looking capsule with variably sized holes lying in a junk drawer. After noting a correlation between the size of the holes and the size of the odd sticks of which our house seems to be infested, I ventured to place the narrower end of the stick inside of the capsule. After turning it in the hole I removed it and to my astonishment the stick was sharpened to a dark point. I have since discovered that the pointed end of the stick, when used as a writing utensil, leaves a gentle but clear marking and has proven far superior to the faulty, plastic pens of which I am so amply but frustratingly provisioned. More mysterious still, the pinkish membrane which occupies the other end of the sticks appears to rub away the darkish marking with but the gentlest touch. The mysterious capsule and as many of the sticks as I could expediently gather are now kept in a special area on the left side of my writing desk.

Freedom and the Good (and the Now)


With what force do previous lessons return to me today! How enthusiastic I was once about the daily, practical pursuit of holiness. How I reveled at the beauty and importance of the single day – the idea that one faithful day was of priceless value and that is was precisely the loss of this knowledge amidst cares and concerns that so paralyzed the spiritual journey. How loudly I wanted to speak, nay preach, about the immense value of one day holy. I wanted to write blogs, make videos, teach courses, write books.

Today, as I set out on the ocean that is Scheed’s translation of Augustine’s Confessions, all in a flash I realize the presence of a thought, persistant as a drumbeat, that has been in my head these recent days (weeks, months, years?) – what good is the now?

What good is this action without the surety it will be repeated? What good is today without a plan for tomorrow? What good is this thought or inspiration if it is not remembered? Written down? Communicated? Shared? Recognized and appreciated? (Shown off?)

How long have I been in lost in this thought? How many days have passed by far more quickly than they ought? What an immeasurable loss.

I see now, too, that my old habit of comfort-seeking had returned in a new disguise and has taken me long to unmask. In an earlier stage of life, this vice needed no cover, for it was allowed openly and consciously. My time, I thought, was my own, and after perhaps giving the bare minimum to my duties, I would fill and compose every moment with my whims and desires.

As duties increased, leaving less room for whim and desire to play, I see now that even amongst my duties, amongst the normalities and inanities of domestic life, I fell again into the habit of doing the good I want rather than the good I ought, choosing according to my preference rather than according to what is best. I worked, but first and primarily on the things I enjoyed and which returned quick satisfaction and feedback. I prayed and studied, but only when the need arose and only at times and in manners that pleased me. I loved but only when so doing was pleasant and rewarding.

Day after day I felt more powerless to choose rightly, for I deluded myself into thinking my choices were anything other than according to my own whim.

I see now the full, terrifying truth that Wojtyla discussed in Love and Responsibility. Does man have free will? Only, ultimately, in moral choices. All others will contain all or some part of necessity following from biology, society, desire, etc. Only the moral choice offers man the opportunity to step outside the stream of causes and influences, to choose something, perhaps something unutterably difficult, simply because it is right or because it has been commanded by one who it is right to unconditionally obey.

For a time my adherance even to my simple rule of life faltered. After a time it failed. Days passed and I would enter into daily life running, tripping, but not living, certainly not choosing in any very meaningful sense. Did I fight back against my sloth? Against my descent into the bindings of comfort and pleasure? As the bonds pulled tighter, reinforced by daily practice, I certainly told myself and others that I fought them. But what form did my resistance take? I see so clearly now: I simply moved to different comforts, different pleasures. In every area of my life, I neverthless chose the most desirable rather than the most right.

Even those mornings that would arise early in an effort to recall by imitation my earlier fervor, yet in my heart I only chose what I believed would bring comfort, bring release, bring lightening to my melancholy, bring ease to my conscience. Why was I surprised or disappointed to find that displaced or redirected self-will was still self-will? That a change of setting or content could not change my captive will?

Strange to think that one can, ultimately, only lose one’s free will to one’s self. The more my will has become my own, the more it has waned. The more my will has become my own, the more I have felt at the mercy of my whims, my passing and immediate desires. The more my will has become my own, the more all my best plans, hopes, dreams, resolutions, and promises have slipped from my grasp a moment after their conception. How loose the grasp has become on my very self, my very identity, the more I have practiced a continual and near complete self-willing.

And now here I find myself. Three days ago, in the morning, I arose again, early, determined, so I thought, to make a new start of study, of reflection, of growth, of work. If only I could return to my routine, my plans, my devices, if only I could think for a moment…if only I could work things out in my mind…

And all at once, I hear those soft creaks, those soundless murmers that signal the waking of my family. Oh no! Are my efforts to be frustrated yet again?

On this morning, in a flash, it occurred to me that I had a very simple choice to make before the day proceeded.

I saw that I had been looking at everything through the lense of my desires. All my family duties, spousal interactions, professional responsibilities, academic endeavors, and even my spiritual life, had been begun to be looked at, evaluated, measured, and chosen according to me. It was not that I had ceased doing/choosing good things, but rather that always and everywhere I chose the good things I wanted precisely because I wanted them. It mattered little, after a time, that in many or most cases my choices lined up with the actual good or God’s will.

Thus the subtlest, simplest of choices lay in front of me: obedience to God or obedience to self.

And now with all the prodding the memories and clarities begin to fade. I know simply this: at the moment I realized the bondage of my self-will, I made the simplest, subtlest resolution: I will simply expect, accept, do, and embrace the next right thing. Today will be a day for others and for God. Whenever a choice arises, my standard of evaluation will be thus.

And now how things have fallen, gently, peacfully back into place. All at once, how free, how frighteningly free I feel. Suddenly, with its relinquishment, my will is again mine. My self is again my own, to squander or to lay at the feet of my Lord.

The thought of how easily I have squandered my freedom before haunts me. It is the thought by which I have been recalled to that simple reflection: one day holy, one day holy. I needn’t and mustn’t worry for tomorrow or even tonight, but only for NOW.

I have grace, I have freedom, I have now. I choose the good.

“I will be good though my body be broken!
I will be good though my body be broken!
I will be good, may I want for nothing at all.”

– Typhoon

Thus Spoke Science


So many seem to take “science” to mean the automatic and unquestioning acceptance of any opinion or assertion, however vague the evidence and obscure the authority, regarding physical phenomena. I know of no other way to take the sentiment that frequently pops up around the internet “science says” or “according to science” when people are discussing issues on which there is no scientific consensus or certainty (even a great consensus or near certainty only amounts to a probability) and about which the person understands little. What understanding they do have is based merely on what they briefly heard or read somewhere, lacks any nuance or context, and serves only to prompt the continual, smug appeal to an imagined authority “science”. I don’t think most people know what science is, how it works, or why.