To See Unto Praise

In her Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Elizabeth Johnson describes Darwin as "a beholder," citing the first three words of the first chapter of his On the Origin of Species: "When we look...". In this looking, Johnson claims that Darwin was not simply the disinterested observer that some, who still hold to the myth of scientific objectivity, would have us believe. Rather, Johnson claims that Darwin was a seer who beholds what is in order to penetrate more deeply into its fundamental structures, and, in so doing, is able to do justice not only to its presence but also to its future. This is to say that Darwin's theory of evolution is not simply an account of what is and how it came to be, but it also has something to say about what is to come, namely that it is likely to be at the same time completely continuous with and unpredictable in terms of our present reality.

It is this latter unpredictability that philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour argues is lost on contemporary neo-Darwinians, like Richard Dawkins, and it holds the key to understanding what makes Darwin's reverential beholding distinct from the mere observations of his most fervent would-be disciples. In his article "Will Non-Humans Be Saved?" Latour claims that the revolutionary discovery of "Saint Darwin," which makes him a later-day "Father of the Church," was that organisms are "creativity all the way down." What this means is that in emerging from a process that begins in the radical contingency of random mutation, each new species is a creation ex nihilo that in coming from nowhere, goes nowhere. Rather than being determined by evolution as if by a mechanical process that leaves no room for artistry, what Darwin saw when he looked at nature was a living composition that unfurled across time like a piece of music in which each new movement was completely unprecedented and yet instantly recognizable.

In his new encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis can be found singing much the same tune, even if the lyrics are those of the slightly more orthodox saint - Francis of Assisi.

From the beginning, the Pope recognizes that nature is not "a problem to be solved," as a geometer might move from given definitions to determinate solutions. Rather, it is "a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise." It is in moving from seeing the mystery to praising it that Pope Francis goes a step beyond Darwin. It is one thing to recognize the mysterious and unpredictable nature of the evolutionary process, but it is quite another to find in it a source of unmitigated joy. As Johnson notes, the suffering and death that leads to weaker species being replaced by stronger and more complex ones, not to mention the everyday indignities that afflict species that have survived for eons, might cause Darwin's awe before the mysteries of nature to stop somewhere short of praise.

What is it, then, that moves one from seeing to praising? Francis gives a clue early in the encyclical when he describes his namesake's bursting into song at the sight of the smallest of animals as similar to "what happens when we fall in love with someone." This is the part of Laudato Si that is likely to get the least attention as readers and commentators engage in the usual political hand-wringing over the practical proposals that Francis offers for a more sustainable relationship with the environment, and debate the relative appeal of these "solutions" to conservatives and liberals both within and outside of the Church. But, as Latour has recognized, "ecological consciousness" alone has been unable to motivate people to embrace the kind of radical transformation that it will take to "renew the face of the earth." What is needed, he argues, is not more distance from nature, not a transcendent point of view that would give us a clearer view of the damage we have done and the steps to be taken to reverse it, but Latour says, we need the kind of intimacy with the "otherness" of nature that only the religious mode of being seems able to make possible. "It is religion," Latour writes, "that attempts to access the this-worldly in its most radical presence, that is you, now, here transformed into the person who cares about the transformation of the indifferent other into a close neighbor, into the nearby, into le prochain." In short, we need to fall in love with nature.

For Francis, this means recognizing the sacramental character of nature as a reality that "unfolds in God, who fills it completely." If we are going to fall in love with nature, Francis suggests, we must see in nature One who is lovable. Thus, buried in the sixth part of the sixth chapter of the encyclical, I think, is the key to moving from a posture of merely seeing to one of praising nature that is necessary for the kind of radical change in lifestyle that the ecological crisis requires. This is the posture of Saint John of the Cross, whom Francis quotes as finding the realities of nature "present in God eminently and infinitely" such that "in each of these realities is God." And, because of this, John is able to look at the mountains and the valleys and say, "These ... are what my beloved is to me." What Francis gives us, then, is not just "ecological consciousness" sung in a theological key, but an eco-mysticism that is the most appropriate response to the mysteries first discovered by Saint Darwin.

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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