Friday, February 12, 2010

Augustine and Ecology (II): The Will to Power and the Order of Love

How then are Christians to understand the character of the cosmos, including its intended diversity and its problematic imperfection, in the light of faith in the transcendent creator God?

Augustine speaks of the intended order and beauty of the world, only partially known to us in its present state, as an order of love, ordo amoris. The diversity of material and spiritual things is divinely intended, and inherently good. Any sense of hierarchy—and there certainly is one for Augustine—must be interpreted solely in terms of beauty and love; power is not itself the character of cosmic diversity, beauty is. Love is the purpose with which God creates, and the order to which God calls. When power or order serves its own ends and not those of God, it is perverse.

All things are good, in that they exist and thereby have their own way of being, their own appearance and in a sense their own peace (City of God 12.5).

The perverse employment of power is the key to Augustine’s understanding of sin itself. Since God is the creator of all, evil is not part of God’s will, yet has no source external to God (such as the Manichean alternative principle of evil, or some quasi-Christian accounts of the Devil). Evil appears solely as the correlate of freedom; since human beings (and angels) are free, they can choose, and in some cases have chosen, to act according to principles based on their own will to power (libido dominandi).

The will to power, rather than to love, is the desire to act as though we are gods, ends or goods in ourselves rather than solely in relationship to God and God’s will to love. This misunderstanding of our own place and the actions arising from it amount both to our own fall and to the set of ways in which we exploit, rather than steward, what God has given.

All forms of moral evil can be understood, directly or indirectly, in these terms. Oppression and violence among humans reflect our will to power, and our failure to discern, accept and live into our intended place of immense dignity and responsibility relative to one another.

It is also not hard to see how environmental degradation is a result of this ‘will to power’ on the part of humanity. God’s intention is that human beings exercise reasoned and loving power in creation, not on behalf of themselves but as part of this order of love, which is God’s. A sustainable beauty is therefore God’s plan.

Although recent ecotheologies have criticized the way classical theology gives humanity a unique place and destiny within creation, the reading suggested here actually requires a sort of 'anthropocentrism', but of a very specific kind. The historical reality of human existence reflects the distorted attempt that human beings have made to dominate one another and the earth, but Judeo-Christian tradition inescapably bestows on humans a pre-eminence which is intended to reflect and foster the order of love which is God’s will.

The ethical challenge for humankind does include recognition of our affinity with the earth (Gen 2:7), but also a unique calling (Gen 2:15) among its creatures. It is not the intended pre-eminence of humankind as a self-transcendent, creative and intelligent being which is the source of the earth’s woes, but the will to power which involves rejection of the divinely-intended role for another—at once a more vaunted but less responsible one.

Given the objectification and exploitation that characterizes much human behaviour towards the natural world, ecotheology is justified in seeking to re-emphasize the theme of affinity between humans and other creatures that has a genuine and important place in Christian thought and practice; the shared ‘creatureliness’ relative to a transcendent God is, as we have seen, essential to Augustine’s classical Christian position also.

However the rejection even of a relative or modified anthropocentrism such as that suggested above is problematic, if it entails a call for practice based solely on human participation in, or even identity with, the natural order. Not only is this avoidance of the distinctive calling of humankind too far removed from biblical witness to be useful for Christian ethics, it also involves a collapse of subject and object whose implications for any sort of ethics are unhelpful.

Just as the ethics of gender and of race require the negotiation of affinity and difference, rather than romanticized over-identification with the ‘other’, so too environmental ethics requires acceptance of the uniqueness of humanity as well as affirmation of our affinity with other creatures, and the particular relation of grace and power required of human beings living on earth.

Seeking the Fruits of Ecumenism: A Letter from Rome

In Rome last week the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity brought together a group of ecumenical consultants to take stock of the work of dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and its Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran and Methodist partners.

These dialogues began in the late 1960s, stimulated by the decree Unitatis Redintegratio (1964) of the Second Vatican Council. This year also marks the centenary of the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh, often seem as forerunner of the formal ecumenical movement that later became the World Council of Churches.

The Symposium in Rome focussed on the recently-published book Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue (Continuum, 2009), itself a synthesis of those formal bilateral dialogues by Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council.

The Symposium was in part an attempt to remind the participants in these dialogues of their achievements. These include the agreement in 1999 between Roman Catholics and Lutherans on the doctrine of Justification, which was at the heart of the disputes of the Reformation. Anglicans and Roman Catholics have likewise been able to make progress on divisive issues such as the Eucharist and ordained ministry.

Yet it is fair to ask though whether ‘fruition’ or ‘harvest’ are actually convincing or appropriate metaphors for ecumenical achievement in the present.

Indeed many have come to view the current time not as about harvest but as a sort of ‘ecumenical winter’, in which past progress on mutual understanding and convergence in doctrinal and sacramental issues have been overshadowed by the emergence of newer points of difference over issues such as women’s ordination and human sexuality.

Yet the challenge goes beyond those current hot-button issues. The Symposium itself acknowledged that, even leaving aside new difficulties, churchgoers and even church leaders often do not really understand or act on the formal positions that have been adopted on their behalf in ecumenical dialogues. Although issues have been examined, and progress deemed to have taken place, fundamental questions of ‘reception’ remain even on the matters of relative success or convergence.

The ‘Harvest’ language, while an understandable attempt to claim and encourage progress in convergence, implicitly privileges a pattern of conversation, drafting and publication, which tends to give the necessary processes of reception second place.

Further ecumenical conversations could involve deeper reflection on how the inspiring and surprising experiences of dedicated ecumenists in these dialogues actually conspire with failures of ‘reception’.

Dialogue participants may be inclined to think and say that an issue on which they found new understandings in dialogue has been addressed, when to those not present it has, for other intents and purposes, simply turned into an obscure publication. In fact other members of the relevant Churches may hold anything from strong disagreement to complete ignorance of the issues. Protestations that the Churches should receive these processes and documents more seriously are not without moral force, but no more effective for that.

Theologian George Lindbeck made reflection on this ‘disconnect’ between ecumenical dialogue and ongoing Church doctrine the starting point for his influential book The Nature of Doctrine in 1984. Suggesting theology could be viewed in ‘cultural-linguistic’ terms, arising from specific historical experiences and shaped by context, Lindbeck (who was a Lutheran observer at the Second Vatican Council) argued for the possibility of affirming simultaneously doctrines which belong to a particular tradition and experience, which function as ‘rules’ for that community, as well as reconciling them with opposing ones in the context of ecumenical dialogue.

If Lindbeck is right, either ecumenical dialogue is viewed as a separate ‘language game’ which is defensible but remains at a distance from its respective partners and traditions otherwise, or else convergence and reception actually require reshaping context and experience, not merely the construction of agreed statements.

And in fact many Christians find their most powerful and transformative experiences of ecumenism in experience, in shared prayer and mission. Real progress depends on making new connections between specifically theological and intellectual forms of practice such as the formal dialogues, and other more practical and pastoral experiences. These are the conditions of bearing fruit, and the fruit itself.