My original post was going to be my final reflection on the Genesis homilies of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. However, in light of his passing to eternal life last week, I felt it more fitting to offer the main themes of the post I was working on in a broader In Memoriam to Benedict.
What is a legacy? For some, a legacy becomes a litany of what a person has accomplished in life. From this perspective, we can explore Benedict XVI’s legacy as a dry listing of significant dates in his life, positions held in the Church, professional feuds, his numerous publications, and so forth. All of these details would fit nicely in the theme of, “This is what Pope Benedict did.”
However, we can also explore a legacy from the standpoint of who a person is at their core. This approach can be a bit more challenging because it presumes an inner understanding of a person that is, in many ways, deeper than the person’s awareness of themselves. If the goal of understanding a legacy is to know the depths of another’s inner being, only God, to steal from St. Augustine, possesses the depths of someone’s legacy.
In many ways, this distinction is fitting when trying to understand the inner heart of Benedict XVI. He was deeply Augustinian is his thinking and emphasized a deep, personal encounter with God as the starting point of his theology. This starting point is strongly emphasized is his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.
This sentiment of having intense closeness with God who is, in turn, intensely close to creation informed his closing thoughts in his collection of homilies, In The Beginning… A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall. In closing, he offered a strong critique of modernism’s attempts to remove the Church’s Doctrine of Creation from the cultural discussion of the natural world.
Ironically, his first critique of the modernist move was to point out the error of Giordano Bruno’s “divine cosmos.” No, it wasn’t Bruno’s understanding of heliocentrism that Benedict found problematic, but his desire to recapitulate Greek polytheism, seeing the whole of creation as an already harmonious nexus of divinized relations at peace with themselves. This thought of Bruno was in contrast to the Christian understanding of a Creator whose creation has fallen. This fallen world is a nexus of natural limitations and contingent relationships in a world that isn’t a pluralism of gods, but consists of form and substance brought into existence by the Creator. This world of limits stands as an obstacle, for Bruno, to true freedom.
The dependence implied by faith in creation in unacceptable. It is seen as the real barrier to human freedom, the basis of all other restrictions, the first thing needed to be eliminated if humankind is to be effectively liberated.
In the Beginning… Ratzinger, p 84
The way this connects to modernist moves is that if the “divine cosmos” is already at peace with itself, achieving a common ethical and moral vision for a society begins to erode into moral relativism and reduces morality to one’s subjective choices.
I thought of this recently while listening to Wisconsin Public Radio and a piece titled, Is Guilt A Wasted Emotion? On a platform that is often critical of faith, I was pleasantly surprised to hear an embrace of something I see quite readily in my ministry. As the modern world sought to reduce the influence of religion, the presumption was we would achieve true freedom having been liberated from the limitations of religious based guilt. Instead, the more our modern world is distancing itself from God, we are seeing guilt and anxiety rising to epidemic levels. Ironic, isn’t it. The world is starting to see that religion offers a language of forgiveness and mercy that can free people, not limit them. And perhaps there is more than just “language” at play.
Benedict sees the second move away from the Doctrine of Creation in the modern world as a byproduct of Galileo. Again, not questioning Galileo’s heliocentrism, Benedict argues that as Galileo rose in influence, The Book of Nature started to be reduced to a mathematical exploration of creation. This shift, Benedict asserts, turned creation into an object of study divorced from the broader sense of the concept of creation. (ibid. 84) This turn eventually bled into theology, slowly changing our view of God from a dynamic relationship to an abstract and distant “it.”
He (God) dwindles away to be little more than the formal mathematical structures perceived by science in nature. Of course, for a time, while the method had still not reach its complete form and the extent of knowledge was limited, the idea of creation continued to exist in the form of a postulated first cause. One may be tempted to say that it was the very idea of creation that had the most stable position in the faith in the sense that the postulate of the first cause showed that a concept of God, an idea of God “made rational,” was still valid. However, at this point the fundamental interconnectedness of the elements of the Christian faith makes its appearance. A mere “first cause,” which is effective only in nature and never reveals itself to humans, which abandons humans – has to abandon them – to a realm completely beyond its own sphere of influence, such a first cause is no longer God but a scientific hypothesis. On the other hand, a God who has nothing to do with the rationality of creation, but is effective only in the inner world of piety, is also no longer God; he becomes devoid of reality and ultimately meaningless. Only when creation and covenant come together can either creation or covenant be realistically discussed – the one presupposes the other.
In the Beginning…, Ratzinger. p85
In short, we begin to see a creeping philosophy of distancing God from our understanding of the created world. This distancing transforms God from a dynamic relationship to more of a deistic vision of a god akin to the thought of Spinoza – God may have started it all, but now stands in the back and is distant from all of us.
This cultural move reminds me of Anglican Biblical Scholar NT Wright’s reflection on evolution.
In short, the more modernity sought to redefine freedom in individualistic terms and relegate God to a distant “it,” the less we emphasize not only a dynamic relationship with God, but also a dynamic relationship with God’s creation and how we are to care for this gift.
There is much more that should be said of Benedict XVI’s thought on care for creation, which is why Benedict will be read for generations to come. I will leave you with Benedict’s own words on care for creation offered at a General Audience in August of 2009. My prayer is that a young, budding scholar take hold of these words and plumb the depths of their meaning.
Eternal rest grant to Benedict, O, Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.
Safeguarding of Creation
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We have almost reached the end of August, which for many means the end of the summer holidays. As we pick up our usual routine, how could we not thank God for the precious gift of creation which we so enjoy, and not only during our holidays! The various phenomena of environmental degradation and natural disasters which, unfortunately, are often reported in the news remind us of the urgent need to respect nature as we should, recovering and appreciating a correct relationship with the environment in every day life. A new sensitivity to these topics that justly give rise to concern on the part of the Authorities and of public opinion is developing and is expressed in the increasing number of meetings, also at the international level.
The Earth is indeed a precious gift of the Creator who, in designing its intrinsic order, has given us bearings that guide us as stewards of his creation. Precisely from within this framework, the Church considers matters concerning the environment and its protection intimately linked to the theme of integral human development. In my recent Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, I referred more than once to such questions, recalling the “pressing moral need for renewed solidarity” (n. 49) not only between countries but also between individuals, since the natural environment is given by God to everyone, and our use of it entails a personal responsibility towards humanity as a whole, and in particular towards the poor and towards future generations (cf. n. 48). Bearing in mind our common responsibility for creation (cf. n. 51), the Church is not only committed to promoting the protection of land, water and air as gifts of the Creator destined to everyone but above all she invites others and works herself to protect mankind from self-destruction. In fact, “when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits” (ibid.). Is it not true that an irresponsible use of creation begins precisely where God is marginalized or even denied? If the relationship between human creatures and the Creator is forgotten, matter is reduced to a selfish possession, man becomes the “last word”, and the purpose of human existence is reduced to a scramble for the maximum number of possessions possible.
The created world, structured in an intelligent way by God, is entrusted to our responsibility and though we are able to analyze it and transform it we cannot consider ourselves creation’s absolute master. We are called, rather, to exercise responsible stewardship of creation, in order to protect it, to enjoy its fruits, and to cultivate it, finding the resources necessary for every one to live with dignity. Through the help of nature itself and through hard work and creativity, humanity is indeed capable of carrying out its grave duty to hand on the earth to future generations so that they too, in turn, will be able to inhabit it worthily and continue to cultivate it (cf. n. 50). For this to happen, it is essential to develop “that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God” (Message for the 2008 World Day of Peace, n. 7), recognizing that we all come from God and that we are all journeying towards him. How important it is then, that the international community and individual governments send the right signals to their citizens to succeed in countering harmful ways of treating the environment! The economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources must be recognized with transparency and borne by those who incur them, and not by other peoples or future generations. The protection of the environment, and the safeguarding of resources and of the climate, oblige all international leaders to act jointly respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the world (cf. Caritas in Veritate, n. 50). Together we can build an integral human development beneficial for all peoples, present and future, a development inspired by the values of charity in truth. For this to happen it is essential that the current model of global development be transformed through a greater, and shared, acceptance of responsibility for creation: this is demanded not only by environmental factors, but also by the scandal of hunger and human misery.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us now give thanks to the Lord and make our own the words of St Francis found in “The Canticle of All Creatures”:
Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord,
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honour and all blessings.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong,…
So says St Francis. We, too, wish to pray and live in the spirit of these words.