Relational ecology: Thomas Aquinas and the metaphysical connection

What do a cow, a human being and the ozone layer have in common? What sounds like the opening of a joke is actually quite serious. Our ability, or lack thereof, to understand and envision the interconnection of all creation bears directly on the kinds of decisions the global community makes about the environment. Just as environmental issues have increasingly become important topics in the political and cultural arenas of the government and the media, so too are they moving to the center of discussion and reflection in the life of the church. As Pope Francis states in his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” “I urgently appeal...for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” (No. 14). Indeed, the wisdom of our faith tradition has much to offer in the way of reflection on creation.

Something Rather Than Nothing

There is a related, if nevertheless distinctive, kind of thinking, however, that understands the threads of commonality running through the universe in a way that can appeal to those of varying faith and philosophical traditions and, perhaps, to all people of goodwill. I am speaking of metaphysics, understood here as the exploration of existence and the sufficient reasons for why there is something rather than nothing. With its ability to draft a holistic vision—wherein all of the many different kinds of beings we experience in our world can still be considered similar by virtue of having sprung forth from one common source of existence—metaphysics contributes a perspective that incorporates and yet transcends the empirical or scientific bases for environmental care and protection. While science can locate the measurable similarity among differences between various forms of life and matter as well as the natural effects of such relations, metaphysics locates the spiritual or immeasurable similarity among differences in all that exists and as such is able to reflect on the immaterial or spiritual effects of these relations. Metaphysical thought provides the opportunity to ask a host of questions about ecological justice that scientific exploration and thought alone cannot surface, questions to which I will return below. In fact, I fear that without some kind of metaphysical language and perspective we will miss out on the fullness of the spiritual dimension of our relationship with and in the environment.


While metaphysics in its more academic form can be rather complex and is not without its critics, by creatively drawing on some basic concepts from the work of St. Thomas Aquinas it is possible to give a brief sketch that illuminates some of the contributions metaphysics can make to environmental thought and action, while at the same time bracketing its more intricate nuances and philosophically based controversies. The brief sketch that follows is much indebted to the work of both W. Norris Clarke, S.J. (1915–2008), and Bernard Lonergan, S.J. (1904–84). Investigating the writings of either of these figures will satisfy those who might be interested in further exploring the complexity, controversy and exciting possibilities of metaphysics.

What or Who is God?

St. Thomas Aquinas understands the source of all existence as that which is intended by the word God. Reflecting on the data available from the world of our experience, it is evident that nothing in this world is the source of its own existence. An individual human being, for instance, was born from a mother, who in turn was born from her mother, born in turn from her mother and on and on back to some original form of life. Similarly, all other things that we can point to or measure in our world did not make themselves come into existence—that is, they did not create themselves in the technical sense of the term (although there may be new combinations of things made from pre-existing materials, like clothing made from cotton or cars made from metals, for example). Ultimately, from what we know now, everything in our universe can be traced back to the Big Bang, before which existed the raw materials and laws that allowed for the explosive unfolding of time and space.

But if it is true that nothing in our universe created itself, how do we account for the existence of the raw materials and the laws that were necessary for the Big Bang? We can reasonably say that somewhere along the line, and sustaining that line all the way through and into the present moment, is the creator, ground and sustainer of all existence. Without such a unique, single, and originating creator of existence there would be nothing but a chain of causes without a cause, that is, the creator of existence would itself have to have a creator, but then that creator would have to have a creator, and that creator a creator and on and on. If this were the case, there would be no actual existence, just a chain of causes without any effects.

Further, as the cause or creator of all existence, God is not a “part” of the universe. This does not mean that God is not somehow present to and in creation but that logically God’s presence is not as one of God’s own creations. By analogy, we can think of an artist who, as the origin and cause of a piece of artwork (which is produced from pre-existent materials), is not a part of that work but is nevertheless somehow present to and in that work, whether this presence is reflected through the ideas that are manifested in the final piece of art or even through particular brush strokes or other such marks. Likewise, God as creator is not subject to the same kind of existence as that which God creates. Indeed, God is not “subject” to anything. This is to some extent what we mean when we say that God is spirit; because God is the creator of everything, God is not confined or limited in any way, whether by matter, by physical laws, by language, by symbol or by anything else. God is not just like us except bigger, stronger and better. Rather, God is the unlimited, uncaused and uncreated creator, the reason for the existence of anything and everything that we can know, experience, define, measure, imagine, feel, think, dream, produce, destroy and on and on.

Related Reflections of the Source

Yet even though the creator is not the creature, as implied in the example of the artist above, effects always somehow reflect or resemble their cause, because the cause is always somehow present to and in the effects. As another example, consider parents and their child. The parents are somehow present to and in their child, and not just biologically or materially. This is not the kind of cause and effect by which one thing simply reacts to another, like one billiard ball striking another and causing it to move. Rather, it is the kind that produces something, as is the case with artists or parents. Thus, we can say that creatures somehow resemble or reflect the creator. It is this resemblance that unites everything in the world of our experience. This resemblance or image that all creation bears of God accounts for the unity of all things as a universe.

This unity remains, even though everything is an image of God in its own distinct way. Everything that “is” is actively in existence, is in the act of existing, of being present, of standing out from nothingness. Existence is a verb, a dynamic activity in which we and all things that “are” participate. We participate in existence precisely because nothing in the world of our experience is the source of its own or anything else’s existence. Instead, it is reasonable to say that the existence of the many kinds of created beings we experience is “donated” or “given” to them. Existence is something received and participated in, not self-initiated or chosen. 
But from where or from whom does creation receive its existence? Creation receives its existence, rather obviously, from the very source, cause or origin we have been talking about all along, that is, God. God, in this sense, is the unlimited source and fullness of existence who generously gives, donates or creates our limited, different ways of existing. The existence of creation is limited because we creatures always exist as something, as some kind of thing: a cow, or a human being or the ozone layer, for instance. We are not pure, unlimited existence itself. This is what we mean when we say that nothing in the world of our experience is or can be the source of its own or anything else’s existence. Rather, we creatures are graciously given a limited kind of existence as a participation in the unlimited act of existence itself, and as St. Thomas Aquinas famously says of the latter in the Summa Theologiae, “and this we call God.” By the very act of existing, everything in creation similarly bears the image of God, who can also be called the act of existence itself, and it is this similarity that forms the ground of our unity.

The Consequences

Even though limited creatures exist in a variety of ways, all of us—from the humble cow, to the amazing human being, to the ozone layer—are connected in a relationship grounded by our having sprung forth from the very life of God, in and through whom we receive and share in our existence as creatures. Everything that “is” calls out or signals this relationship by its very presence and tells us something of itself and of God by its way of existing. The uniqueness of the human way of existing—that is, human being—is that we can consciously and intelligently pick up these signals (and here I understand the human body, emotions, reason and spirit as interdependently caught up in our particular kind of intelligence). We can interpret these signals as meaningful, as telling us something of the purpose and value of creation, including ourselves, as God intended it.

Of course this ability is not infallible. We can, as we do so often, misinterpret or warp the meaning of things, reading our own biases and prejudices into existence. Our interpretations are always historically bound and conditioned by our unique perspectives based on our experience of things like gender, race, nationality, social status, wealth or poverty and so on. This does not mean we can never attain at least some kind of grasp on reality, what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “best available account.”

Indeed, the starting point for reflecting on the environment in the light of metaphysics begins with acknowledging both the limitations and the possibilities of arriving at the truth of our relationship with and in the environment. This tension between limit and transcendence can propel us to reflect further with questions like: Have we grasped the purpose and value of creation as a web of relationships that share in an utter poverty, an utter dependence on the transcendent for their very existence? Have we reduced the purpose and value of existence to entirely human terms, to calculating the meaningfulness of creation according to how it might profit us? If everything is united, even in the midst of a wonderful diversity, what does this say about our treatment of the environment? What might such unity mean for an overriding anthropocentrism that sees human beings as the center of all existence? Is there a certain moral responsibility we can reasonably claim for our treatment of the environment and of nonhuman animals? Do not the environment and nonhuman animals image God and therefore bear a dignity analogous to such claims for human dignity?

I hope such questions begin to reveal the kind of judgments and decisions that are necessitated by a metaphysical exploration of the environment as well as possible structural and practical implications that might emerge. Moving from our experience of the world to an attempt to understand that experience always leads to some kind of judgment, to “Yes, this is true; everything is connected in a web of relationships,” or perhaps to “No, this isn’t reasonable; some other explanation is needed.” Either insight leads to some kind of decision, and acting on our decisions leads to progress or decline. When the potential consequences of such decisions involve the global community, however, we need to be especially careful about what we affirm or deny.

While Catholics also can and should look to sources of Christian revelation to support ecological justice, metaphysics is able to engage people across a range of faith and philosophical traditions. It offers an inspiring snapshot of the universe, providing a holistic image for understanding the universe’s interconnectedness. Such understanding can give rise to the desire to care compassionately for all things, imitating and reflecting the generous source of creation from which everything proceeds and on whom everything depends.

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Charles Erlinger
2 years 5 months ago
Finally! This is, in my opinion, the only way to start what should be a long and vigorous discussion about the challenge that the Pope threw down.
2 years 4 months ago
Dear Mr. Rothrock, This is a very thoughtful and provocative article. Two thoughts. Toward the end of the article you speak about going from experience to judgment, and I wonder whether the two examples you give might miss a third. We may decide, "yes, this understanding is true." Or we may decide, "no, some other explanation is needed." My experience is that these follow one another over time. At one point in time we say, "yes, this understanding is true." Then, some time later, as experience accumulates, we say, with respect to the very same understanding, "no, some other explanation is needed." And then, some time later still, another understanding, perhaps having some relation to the earlier understanding, merits the further decision, "yes, this understanding is true." Human reason -- a concern of Aquinas -- can proceed in this fashion, but it raises a question about the temporal relativity of truth. Science is full of examples of progressive understandings where there is an element of truth at each stage, but where the truth relied upon did not turn out to be true. Aristotle had a vision of the cosmos with the earth at its center, an argument supported by evidence ("On the Heavens", Book II, #14). Copernicus and Galileo saw new evidence as more elegantly supporting a heliocentric view, which famously earned Galileo house arrest for the remainder of his days because, by that time, the people of God had become invested in the truth of an earth centered view of God's attention. Several decades later Isaac Newton put the matter to rest with his laws of motion, holding to religiously congenial notions that space and time were absolute. So powerful was Newton's understanding that a new planet, Neptune, was predicted and then discovered at the place predicted. Several centuries later even Newton's understanding did not prove adequate for the cosmos, and Einstein responded creatively with an understanding that was more truthful in an explanatory sense but rejected the absoluteness of space and time and asserted that the cosmos had neither a center nor edges. On the other hand, Einstein's understanding has one of the most simple and elegant premises in all of science: the laws of physics are the same throughout the cosmos. Religion seems pulled hither and yon by a succession of understandings, each of which can be used in one way or another to affirm the grandeur of God. But truth seems elusive. Faith seeking understanding is forever now and not yet. It is worth noting that from the point of view of physics this progression is coherent, each step in the progression continuing to serve credibly within the observational limitations of its evidence. Newton's understanding, for example, continues to be used in engineering because the accuracy is "good enough" and the mathematics are much simpler than Einstein's. For religion, by contrast, the progression has been disruptive and incoherent. It is no accident that Einstein's moniker of "relativity" was greeted from the perspective of religion by concerns about "relativism". Which leads to a second thought. Has religion no understanding of its own, appropriate to the fullness of reality? Perhaps the best we can do is, to use your quote from Charles Taylor, the "best available account." It would be a different kind of understanding, as we proceed from one "best available account" to another. And if there is integrity in the progression, who is to say that one community's journey is more central to the life of God than another? We are, perhaps, in need of another "best available account" that makes comprehensible and understandable, and ultimately coherent, the observed diversity of religious understandings. Perhaps we are closer than we suppose to such an understanding. The very notion that at any one time there is a "best available account" is itself an understanding as different from a revelatory view of truth as Einstein's cosmos is from Aristotle's. It is a straightforward transformation, suggested by the inadequacy in physics of an absolute time and an absolute space, to suppose the overall coherence of radically different progressions of "best available accounts" among religions over different times and places. Dialogue among religions, and among individuals and communities of this or that religious persuasion or no religious persuasion at all, would certainly be more lively with the benefit of such an understanding. Thank you for being provocative. Clyde Christofferson Reston, VA 703-860-3848
2 years 4 months ago
Dear Mr. Rothrock, I should add one further thought. You speak movingly about the unity of creation, and the challenge that such unity should be to our debilitating anthropocentrism that lays waste to the environment. Pope Francis speaks to this in Laudato Si. But at the same time you accept the essential separateness of God, as Creator, as taught by Aquinas. Yes, all creation bears the dignity of God's image. Is this enough, however, in the face of an essential separateness? My reason for asking is the suspicion that we conceive "separateness" with too much simplicity. It is the simplicity of Aristotle's cosmos, where the visible "heavens" are the playground of the gods, writ large to account for a cosmos much more expansive than Aristotle could have imagined. We imagine a God, in His Heaven, literally outside of creation. It is now clear that we were mistaken on the centrality of the earth and, indeed, on the notion of centrality itself. Is it possible that our distinction between heaven and earth is comparably flawed? Yes, we are on a journey toward union with a loving God, but if reality is one perhaps that journey has greater continuity than is implied by the separateness of God and the distinction between heaven and earth. If God is separate as well as 'other', that means that the dominant relational link is one of separation, with our link to the rest of creation being both different and subordinate. If that is our understanding of God, then the subordination of creation is inevitable. To accord creation its proper dignity we need a different understanding of God. And in the Trinity we have sufficient hints, if only we can overcome our religious prejudice in favor of our ancestors' "best available account," which is so ancient that it has been made sacred beyond inquiry. Christ is God Incarnate; each of us is blessed with the Spirit within us. It is the same Spirit, a source of unity for all reality. Care for the environment resonates with us. Is it not the Spirit within us that grounds that resonance? This resonance has been growing since at least St. Francis. The pope' choice of name is significant. Perhaps the shoe is on the other foot. As often happens, the Spirit is there before us. We are laggards at heart. It is not that we need to overcome the separateness of God in order to care for the environment. Rather, the fact that care for the environment resonates with us already shows us that God is not separate. Voila! Thanks, again, for a very good and provocative article. Clyde Christofferson Reston, VA 703-860-3848


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