Many people have asked me either how we came to work on a project about the environment, or how we ended up with the format that we ended up with. My response is always that we began with one question, “why should we care for the environment?” and we tried to be honest and thorough with the answers (I think you can do this with any question of Faith or Morality – if you are honest with the questions and with the answers, you will always arrive at Truth). Each response led us to more questions and that’s basically how Creation developed.
For most of us, it’s no surprise that we should take care of the environment. We are told that we need to take care of the earth; protect endangered species, minimise our waste, use less energy – For some, it’s to ensure a future for the generations to come; for others, it’s because the earth is sacred. Then, there are others who do not seem overly concerned. Still, we are bombarded with messages from both sides. And even those who agree that we should care for our planet do not agree on a more fundamental question: Why?
When you ask a Christian why we should care for the earth or even why we should care about caring for the earth, you may be told that the creation story from Genesis calls us to conquer the earth:
“God said to them, “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”
Just looking at that passage led me to many, many more questions. To begin looking for answers I travelled to Houston, to the Faculty of Sciences at the University of St. Thomas. There I met Sr. Damien Marie Savino, FSE. She is a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist and an Environmental Engineer. She is also the Chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Studies at the University. Since I met her in 2010, we’ve featured her many times on our Salt + Light programs. She became my partner in our quest to find an answer to our question.
Without giving it all away (we want you to watch the series), Sr. Damien did give us a few basic pointers about Catholic environmentalism (she’s been teaching this stuff for years). She also begins by looking at the book of Genesis:
“The fact that God said that it was good, I think reflects that intrinsic good, the beauty.”
In our series, we hoped to understand as much as possible what the Genesis creation story can tell us about creation. For example, according to Genesis, creation happens in a very orderly and hierarchical manner, from the least complex to the more complex. For Sr. Savino, just that knowledge fills her with a sense of wonder.
And so we couldn’t ignore the sense of wonder. That’s really where we felt it all begins. This is a quality that all humans have – we may lose it as we get older, but we all have it. I don’t think other creatures have the capacity to wonder at things. For many scientists, like Sr. Savino, this very quality is what leads them to love the science, and because they love it, they want to know more. Every scientist we spoke with said that this desire for learning always begins with a basic love that is rooted in our sense of wonder at things.
Sr. Savino remembers those feelings as a little girl climbing trees and playing outside. She describes it like this:
“When I went to university, I took a botany class and just fell in love with it again. And it really was… I’d say it’s a love relationship, not how you would love a person, but I just came to love creation. And I wanted to learn how to speak the language of creation.”
Pope Benedict introduced the term, “The Grammar of Creation”. This is what Sr. Savino discovered at a very young age – even before she thought she would ever be a religious sister. She wanted to be a scientist. We knew then that what the Church teaches about why we should care for creation includes learning to read that “grammar of creation”.
Something else we found –this time, by looking at creation itself— is that evolution paints a picture of creation that is full of variation and many different possibilities; it is a process that is excessive.
In episode one, Physics professor, Jim Clarage says:
“Nature doesn’t always find the minimal way or the easiest way to do things. In many ways nature is very extravagant. You could have had all of human salvation history with just one planet earth but now we know that’s no how it is. There are now thousands of planets we know actually exist around other stars, so you have to ask if God is going to create all of this and nature is going to do things the simplest way. Why making 10 billion is stars the simplest way to make a planet?”
The sense of wonder makes us want to learn about things, to study them, but more basically, it is what makes us want to take care of things. And the Genesis narrative reinforces this by telling us that God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:31).
This, of course led us to the question of intrinsic goodness vs. instrumental goodness. Why are things good? If we study Genesis, we can see that they are both there. Perhaps one of the roots of the ecological crisis is that we do not find the balance between the intrinsic and the instrumental good of created things. If things are only good for their usefulness to us, then “subdue” and “dominate” mean something very different than if things are good just because they are.
When we looked at what the Catholic Church had to offer to this ecological debate, we felt that it was a ‘middle road’, so to speak. We don’t have to protect all of nature and never touch it. We can use it. But how do we do this while at the same time respecting the inherent goodness, or dignity of created things.
See how one answer leads to more questions?
And so we knew we had to look at the meaning of the word “respect.”
Come back next week and learn more about how we developed our series, Creation.
CNS photo/Edgardo Ayala
Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching:firstname.lastname@example.org