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.
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.