Hope and the Aesthetics of Ecology
One of the themes for this summer’s Lambeth Conference is ecology. We have invited authors to reflect on what they hope the bishops will take to heart and keep in mind regarding this theme as they meet.
By Mark Clavier
Little is more fanciful than a medieval bestiary. The imaginations that drew delightful theological and moral lessons from the natural world were only matched by bright illuminations that depicted its creatures. For example, in the Aberdeen bestiary, one finds the following:
The lion is the mightiest of the beasts; he will quail at the approach of none … If it happens that the lion is pursued by hunters, it picks up their scent and obliterates the traces behind it with its tail … Thus our Saviour, a spiritual lion, of the tribe of Judah, the root of Jesse, the son of David, concealed the traces of his love in heaven until, sent by his father, he descended into the womb of the Virgin Mary and redeemed mankind, which was lost … [W]hen a lioness gives birth to her cubs, she produces them dead and watches over them for three days, until their father comes on the third day and breathes into their faces and restores them to life … Thus, the Almighty Father awakened our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day; as Jacob says: “He will fall asleep as a lion, and as a lion’s whelp he will be revived.”
Here, the author demonstrates both scientific and theological interests — he seeks to understand lions in and of themselves but also to relate that knowledge to his Savior. Although we may now think his conclusion fatuous (if charming), we shouldn’t be blind to what it reveals. There’s nothing here of the division between science and religion that we’re so familiar with today. Creatures exist in their world as much as they do in ours, but because they are part of a divinely ordered creation, each of them also relates to its Creator morally, even sacramentally, in its own right. Thus, the lion isn’t just an animal, it’s also a bearer of divine truths. To see what I mean, we first need to note that in the Aberdeen bestiary the lion is associated with the Incarnation and Resurrection as much as any human being. While the nature of the lion’s connection may be different from ours — there’s no sense here of leonine redemption — its meaning as a lion has been sanctified by Christ’s coming: its symbolic power has been transformed into a direct and explicit icon of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection.
Similarly, in the ancient Ascension Day hymn, “Salve Festa Dies,” nature itself shares in Christ’s triumph over the “devil’s dominion” and it proclaims that victory through its own beauty:
Christ in his triumph ascends,
who had vanquished the devil’s dominion;
bright is the woodland with leaves,
brilliant the meadows with flowers.
Daily the loveliness grows,
adorned with glory of blossom;
heaven its gates now unbars,
flinging its increase of light.
Here, beauty isn’t simply an aesthetic value; it’s also a theological truth that responds in its natural glory to Christ’s cosmic crowning. Anyone who has seen nature reclaim an old industrial site or replenish a once foul river knows what a deep truth is being sung here. As with the bestiary’s lion, the beauty of the world has been sanctified and now has the capacity to raise faithful hearts and minds to ascend with Christ to heaven.
Even something as horrific as the cross wasn’t beyond redemption. In another hymn by the prolific hymn-writer Venantius Fortunatus:
Faithful cross, above all other:
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
sweetest weight is hung on thee.
Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
for a while the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
and the King of heavenly beauty
gently on thine arms extend.
This remarkable image isn’t the dead, cruel cross of modern-day sermons but an active personality imbued with nobility, beauty, and even motherly tenderness. One is put in mind here of the Old English poem “The Dream of the Rood” in which the tree retains its arboreal nobility even after being turned into gallows. It may have been “hewn down” and “dragged off by strong enemies” to be violently turned into a “hoist for wrongdoers,” yet it refuses to be anything less than the unshakable throne of “mankind’s brave king.”
Images such as these abound in medieval literature. Certainly, many of them are guilty of anthropomorphizing, but that seems to be a requirement for human respect. A better perspective is to recognize them as the product of rich imaginations taught to see the world as creation: the theatre of God’s glory and an integral part of Christ’s commonwealth. Every creature plays its part within that sacramental world, relating to each other (as in our own “cycle of life”) but also to the Trinity; in turn, this allows each creature through its very own nature to be a revelation of divine purpose and activity. Implicitly, these creatures through their beauty and dignity even sit in judgment on humanity’s failure to be symbols of God. Indeed, their dignity is so powerful that it overcomes even the cruel exploitation of human wickedness, as seen in the wood of the cross. In each case, we are pushed to open our eyes to creaturely dignity, contemplate God at work in them, and so learn wisdom.
With the Copernican revolution and the rise of modern science, we have lost much of our capacity to imagine our world in this way. Creation has become Nature, a morally-neutral world subject to human exploitation and tinkering. In this new world, we’ve gained tremendous new insights into the observable nature of things, but we’ve also robbed creatures of their own dignity apart from us. No longer able to relate to their Creator, each creature has simply become an object, even a commodity, to be admired, studied, experimented on, exploited, eradicated, or conserved. Creatures have been robbed of their capacity to relate through their own nature to God (never mind Christ) or to contain within that nature fundamental lessons about God from which we might draw wisdom. They have become objects of examination rather than contemplation; their meaning reduced to use and function instead of reverence. Increasingly, God has been separated from his creation, relegated to a sphere of existence only accessible by the human mind, for that is essentially what the God of revealed religion, mysticism, and self-expression is. The creatures themselves have been left to the often cruel mercy of science whose authority in that realm now reigns supreme. Instead of a temple of God’s grandeur, the world has become a factory, a laboratory, or simply the stage for human self-aggrandizement.
We Christians may still think of the world in some nominal way as creation, but we currently live within that creation less as servants, students, contemplatives, and creatures than as consumers and would-be tyrants. The transformation that separates us from the Aberdeen bestiary exemplifies Wendell Berry’s oft-quoted line, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Inasmuch as our world has been disenchanted, it has also been profaned. Insofar as we continue to think of this world as our own, we continue to desecrate it. To the extent that we profane and desecrate creation, we fail to be Christians.
This year’s Lambeth Conference offers an opportunity for Anglican bishops from around the world to call for repentance and to articulate how we might begin to save an over-exploited Nature by reclaiming it as sacred Creation. They can do this not simply by jumping on the ecological bandwagon but more profoundly by calling all people to recognize the dignity and sacredness of all creatures each of whom bears the capacity to be an icon. In many ways we’re late to this renewed mission and, therefore, can only follow the lead set by Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ and the global movement it has inspired.
But our own Anglican tradition preserves a wealth of often poetic theology that can inspire people to grasp for a more Christlike vision for human and ecological flourishing. We have Herbert, Vaughan, Traherne, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Rosetti, Lewis, and many others to help open our eyes to hallowed commonwealth inhabited by all God’s creatures. Lambeth can encourage Anglican theologians from around the world to engage with our own Anglican tradition, in dialogue with our ecumenical brothers and sisters, to evoke a creation rooted in the enduring love of God. At this late hour, Lambeth must promote a mission to the world based on the relationship all creatures have with their Creator that trumps any use or benefit they may offer us and imbues them with their own dignity and worth.
If we can undertake this task in love and with firm resolve, then we can demonstrate to the world what a truly holy life looks like. Share that task with our fellow Christians around the world and we can also demonstrate how the Church can exemplify that life to the benefit of all within our care and service. Fail in this task, what is now the primary vocation of the Church, and we may discover what a merciless executor of divine judgment God allows creation to be.
God and his creation yearn for us to rejoin their company in love, reverence, and service. By articulating a vision of human flourishing based on delighting in the dignity of our Creator and his creation, Lambeth can offer the world that most precious of gifts: hope.