It has been announced that Pope Francis will sign a new encyclical on human fraternity on October 3rd of this year. I cannot speak for other countries, but, as a United States citizen, I couldn’t think of a more timely theme to reflect upon. The hyper polarized nature of the United States has become rather worrisome. The co-mingling of an international pandemic and political aspirations has placed my beloved home atop a powder keg that feels ready to explode. I hope and pray that our Holy Father will provide insight and guidance during these difficult times. And if there is anything I think would be a good fit for Sacred Space Astronomy, I’ll be happy to comment on it!
As we await the words of our Pontiff, the announcement drew me back to the Pope’s last encyclical, Laudato Si’. It seems like eons ago since Laudato Si’ was a hot topic. Though seldom mentioned now, it’s safe to say that this first papal encyclical on Care for Creation has had a significant legacy on the global front. As I reflected on in the past, Laudato Si’ helped influence the Paris Climate Accord (COP21) to develop a global response to our rising ecological crisis. In regard to its impact on people’s daily lives, the encyclical, sadly, has been widely ignored in my home country. Therefore, before we shift our focus to Pope Francis’ new encyclical, I simply want to share some of what I think are the hidden gems of Laudato Si’. For this post, I wish to share Pope Francis’ Biblical vision of the mystery of the universe.
In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the word “creation” has a broader meaning than “nature”, for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance. Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion. (Laudato Si’, 76)
Reading this paragraph reminds of studying Scripture in seminary and how the Greek word for “mystery” (mysterion) is the foundation for the latin “sacramentum” (sacrament). Therefore, to begin this section on the Mystery of the Universe with a reflection on the universe as a gift from God harkens to the sacramental worldview at the heart of viewing creation with the eyes of Christ. For more on this, feel free to explore my piece “When the Heavens and Earth Were Sacred.”
“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps 33:6). This tells us that the world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance, and this exalts it all the more. The creating word expresses a free choice. The universe did not emerge as the result of arbitrary omnipotence, a show of force or a desire for self-assertion. Creation is of the order of love. God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things: “For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made; for you would not have made anything if you had hated it” (Wis 11:24). Every creature is thus the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it its place in the world. Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection. Saint Basil the Great described the Creator as “goodness without measure”, while Dante Alighieri spoke of “the love which moves the sun and the stars”. Consequently, we can ascend from created things “to the greatness of God and to his loving mercy”.
At the same time, Judaeo-Christian thought demythologized nature. While continuing to admire its grandeur and immensity, it no longer saw nature as divine. In doing so, it emphasizes all the more our human responsibility for nature. This rediscovery of nature can never be at the cost of the freedom and responsibility of human beings who, as part of the world, have the duty to cultivate their abilities in order to protect it and develop its potential. If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power. (Laudato Si’ 77-78)
In short, it comes down to relationship. How do we relate with God? How do we relate with our neighbor? How do we relate with the created world around us? Simple questions with potentially explosive and life changing answers. At the same time, in order to answer these questions properly, we need to understand the essence of each relationship. God is my source and summit. If l reduce God to a mere abstraction, a theoretical “it,” then I cannot grow in proper relationship with God. If I fail to see my neighbor as an essential expression of God’s love and mercy in the world, I cannot develop a healthy relationship with that person. And if I lose the sense of creation as gift and the insight that I am part of that creation, I risk reducing creation to mere material I can use for selfish motivations with no concern of its impact on the world around me and my neighbor. Again, it all comes down to relationship!
In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation. This leads us to think of the whole as open to God’s transcendence, within which it develops. Faith allows us to interpret the meaning and the mysterious beauty of what is unfolding. We are free to apply our intelligence towards things evolving positively, or towards adding new ills, new causes of suffering and real setbacks. This is what makes for the excitement and drama of human history, in which freedom, growth, salvation and love can blossom, or lead towards decadence and mutual destruction. The work of the Church seeks not only to remind everyone of the duty to care for nature, but at the same time “she must above all protect mankind from self-destruction”. (Laudato Si’ 79)
All I can say of this is welcome to our current situation!
Yet God, who wishes to work with us and who counts on our cooperation, can also bring good out of the evil we have done. “The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, including the most complex and inscrutable”. Creating a world in need of development, God in some way sought to limit himself in such a way that many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator. God is intimately present to each being, without impinging on the autonomy of his creature, and this gives rise to the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs. His divine presence, which ensures the subsistence and growth of each being, “continues the work of creation”. The Spirit of God has filled the universe with possibilities and therefore, from the very heart of things, something new can always emerge: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give timbers the wherewithal to move themselves to take the form of a ship”.
Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems. Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself. Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology. The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship on the part of a “Thou” who addresses himself to another “thou”. The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object. (Laudato Si’, 80-81)
These paragraphs speak to me of the theological buzz word these days that is used among theologians who reflect upon St. John Paul II Theology of the Body: Objectification. Often times, the focus of the word objectification in the theological context is to not turn a person into a mere sexual object. However, the broader context of objectification not only speaks to human sexuality, but reminds us that whenever we reduce something or someone to a “thing” and lose the sense of something as being a gift from God, we have objectified the person or thing. Can we objectify our common home? Absolutely! Some of my favorite ecological writings come from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI when he writes about a “forward looking solidarity” in which we need to make environmental decisions that not only benefit the human person now, but to allow creation to support future generations as well. If we objectify creation into a thing to possess and control, we can lose this forward looking solidarity, creating a future crisis for humanity by our lack of action today. For more about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s vision, I invite you to read my post titled, Problems at the Poles.
Yet it would also be mistaken to view other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus. As he said of the powers of his own age: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20:25-26).
The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things.
Here we can add yet another argument for rejecting every tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator. (Laudato Si’ 82-83)
This final section on the mystery of the universe reawakens an old question: Is there a purpose, direction, and end to life? Even if I were not a priest, I would be equally shocked at how many people question whether or not life has a purpose or ultimate end. Does not evolution point to a direction of self-preservation as adaptations help species survive into the future? What about Victor Frankl’s insight in his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning, that while being detained in a Nazi concentration camp he observed a common trait of survivors of the horror of the holocaust was not losing a sense of hope and purpose? Can I empathize with someone who went through these horrors that now questions God’s existence and wonder where God was during the insanity of the concentration camps? Absolutely. I have no idea how such an experience would impact me personally and spiritually. Still, there is so much in our world, both inside of faith and outside of faith, that points to a destination for life’s journey that it is hard for me to wrap my head around seeing life without a direction or teleology. Perhaps your comments below can continue the discussion and help me understand better!
In the weeks to come, I will continue these snippets from Laudato Si’ to explore Pope Francis’ spiritual vision. Until then, stay safe, practice care for creation, and pray for peace in our troubled world.