The Amazon Synod has displayed a bewildering array of images representative of various values and aspects of indigenous cultures. Some images, such as a woman suckling her own baby as well a fawn, evoke a sense of eco-religion that has many Christians confused about the kind of dialogue the Church is seeking with the world right now.
Yet it’s worth stepping back from the particulars of these controversies to consider that the Catholic Church has a stronger view of creation than either the native spiritualism of eco-religion or the skeptical materialism which our contemporaries toggle between today.
I want to suggest that the rising secular fascination with eco-religion is, in fact, an unexpected byproduct of a scientific materialism that mistakenly excludes belief in God. The scientific method is brilliant at arriving at an understanding of material things under set conditions, but it is often reductive. The method itself cannot exclude God, but many scientists, or those who claim to be scientific, are quite insistent, with Pierre-Simon LaPlace, that they have no need of that hypothesis called God. And perhaps, in a very limited sense, this is true. They come to a certain understanding of the material world without ever considering metaphysical causation, or God. But as they look for larger explanations for how all the material parts fit together, the way they see how all the parts fit together will eventually sound religious.
Thus it is not uncommon for a person today to sit with two contradictory views: on the one hand they will regard the natural world to be of infinite value. For some, the fawn will be even more valuable than a human child suckling at her mother’s breast; and yet at the same time they will also believe the created world is the result of haphazard chance without any intelligent directive agent which we could call God. This contradiction is almost unbearable for the animal who is religious by nature. And so the philosophical materialist and the religious naturalist will, in a certain respect, eventually, call out to each other in a secular world.
The ancient pre-socratic materialists theorized that all the different kinds of things that make up the world were reducible to one elemental thing — such as the element of fire, water, or air. This turns out to be something similar to thinking the world is reducible to atomic particles and chemical elements. The trouble is that this just doesn’t explain what things are — and it doesn’t really tell us why the world exists at all. Some late pre-socratics thus considered that Divine Intelligence resided in the particles of the material universe, a view well on its way towards pantheism. Give materialism a long enough run and it will become bad religion.
Yet it was a happy accident of history that the pre-socratic materialists finally gave way to the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These thinkers made a cosmic metaphysical leap in thinking about causality. They no longer searched for some elemental cause in the material universe, but desired to know the transcendent uncaused cause of all things, which they sometimes called Supreme Being, or the Summum Bonum or the Final End. Their philosophical innovation was to see that the material world had a cause outside of itself which must be intelligent. They arrived at a better answer to the the pre-socratic question. The pre-socratics had asked how the things of the world could be reducible to one thing. But it’s impossible to look at cabbage, squirrel monkeys, gray whales, sand, orchids — and claim that all of these are reducible to the same thing. The better answer is that all of these things have unique natures which are not really reducible at all except in one way — they all exist as the things that they are. The great advance was to see that the common thing wasn’t something material or elemental, but that what all of these things shared was existence. It’s from this insight that they reasoned that since all things share existence in common, then their supreme cause must be existence itself. In this way these great philosophers arrived at the classical metaphysical distinction that while the nature of all things have a share in existence, God’s nature is existence itself. It’s with that more metaphysically serious foundation that the Church was able to dialogue much more fruitfully because reason was not pressing at full tilt towards bad religion but was, in fact, walking toward the one true God.
Today we find ourselves in the midst of a great focus of energy on nature which lacks a coherent account of what the created world is, and lacks any real understanding of the transcendent provident uncaused cause of all that exists. Environmentalism is thus driven by alternating poles of hope and fear of man and nature’s fierce powers. On the materialist side, everything that exists has arisen out of chance, error, conflict, force, and energy, and is susceptible not to God’s commands, but only to ours. Nature here is something which we must command lest nature command us. The flipside is that nature is more like a demi-god which threatens destruction, and must be pacified with idols and sacrifices just as the ancient Bablyonian creation myths imagined.
To the gnostic hiding beneath the materialist, there is the world that we see which is chaotic and the cause of all evil and suffering, and a world which we do not see which is pure and good, free from all decay and suffering, pristine. The gnostic seeks to take back the world of light and leave behind the dark matter polluting it, and this can be seen in much that goes by the name of eco-religion.
So the Catholic Church has the challenge of engaging not just indigenous cultures, but a secular view of creation which is contrary to her own. A dialogue with eco-religion under the cover of indigenous culture taps deeply into the way the materialist yearns for religious naturalism. Yet I fear that some Synod Fathers do not know how to make this dialogue fruitful without falling into the very confusions about creation that dominate our secular world. The Church has always won whole nations and cultures not by correlating values, but by reason and faith united, proclaiming the unknown God as the Logos revealed in Jesus Christ upon which the whole body of the world depends. This must be the heart of the missionary impulse which rightly takes up a dialogue with culture for the salvation of souls.