The problem with Pope Francis’ encyclical is that nature is nasty: Spengler

The trouble with natural theology (the notion that nature itself points us to an understanding of the divine) is that nature herself is a nasty piece of work. When St. Francis of Assisi and his namesake, the reigning Pope, laud nature as “mother” and “sister,” they open a can of theological worms. Nature is no sister of mine. Christians like to view things in terms of teleology–their ultimate goal–and the teleology of the world we know is to be destroyed in a fireball.

Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ opens with this praise of nature:

“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Except, of course, that the waters may rise and drown us, or breed mosquito larvae that bring us malaria, or dry up and ruin or harvest and starve us, and so forth. There is a theological dodge to get round this, but it is unconvincing. That is the “fallenness” of Creation. After Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, some Christian theologians assert, nature turned nasty. Hans Fiene, a Lutheran pastor, takes issue with Francis in a recent Federalist essay, arguing that “according to the Bible, the fall into sin fundamentally damaged the harmonious relationship between man and the earth, resulting in a planet that frequently needs to be mastered and subdued if you don’t want the same beautiful mountains to bury you in an avalanche or some lily of the valley berries to make your guts explode.”

That is a common biblical reading, but nonetheless an odd one, because it assumes that the whole of Creation was like the Garden of Eden, the tiny patch of ground where Adam and Eve lived under divine protection. When they were expelled from the Garden, they encountered the world as God had made it; nothing in the biblical account suggests that God changed the character of the world outside the Garden.

On the contrary: the Bible portrays Creation as contingent and imperfect. As Psalm 102 states (in the KJV translation):

5Of old didst thou lay the foundation of the earth; And the heavens are the work of thy hands.
26They shall perish, but thou shalt endure; Yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; As a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed:
27But thou art the same, And thy years shall have no end.
28The children of thy servants shall continue, And their seed shall be established before thee.
The created universe will wear out like a suit of clothing, the psalmist states, and God will change it the way a man changes his clothing. Remarkably, “The children of thy servants shall continue, And their seed shall be established before thee.” Three thousand years before scientists specified Mother Earth’s best-used-by-date, the psalmist said that the earth was perishable.
Absent the vision set forth in Psalm 102, religion runs into absurdity. Just when did the tide of popular culture turn against faith? The popular “new Atheism” of the 1940s and 1950s, namely French Existentialism, asserted that man was alone in the universe, and for the first time, science seemed to agree. Take the awful but iconic Hollywood portrait of alienated youth, the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause.” It begins at a planetarium where the teenagers portrayed by James Dean (“Jim”) and Sal Mineo (“Plato) listen to a lecturer proclaim:

And while the flash of our beginning has not yet traveled the light years into distance–has not yet been seen by planets deep within the other galaxies, we will disappear into the blackness of the space from which we came, destroyed as we began in a burst of gas and fire. The heavens are still and cold once more. In all the complexity of our universe and the galaxies beyond, the Earth will not be missed. Through the infinite reaches of           space, the problems of Man seem trivial and naive indeed. And Man, existing alone, seems to be an episode of little consequences.

James Dean offers, “Hey, it’s over. The world ended.” And Sal Mineo responds: “What does he know about man alone?” The film was a pop-culture presentation of the faddish new Existentialism: man is alone in the universe and our choices are arbitrary. The inevitable encroachment of nothingness turned into one of the great cultural tropes of the 1950s. The same year, Isaac Asimov wrote his favorite short story, “The Last Question,” in which the universe gradually succumbs to entropy. At the end a supercomputer—after the last star has flickered out—declares, “Let there be light.”

The flights of the human soul in the exact sciences which had given the world a kind of material comfort and security that it had never known, but it culminated in a fatal verdict: “Man, existing alone, seems to be an episode of little consequences.” From modern physics emerged a nastier version of the charge that Voltaire had hurled at religious rationalism: what sort of benevolent God could allow the destruction of innocents in natural disasters?

The thought that all human endeavor must someday end in nothingness is uncanny. If, as Freud argued, we are incapable of imagining our own death, all the less so can we imagine absolute nothingness. We can respond to the prospect of nothingness only through a general and undefined unease. In that respect, Ancient Israel first understood history as a journey towards human redemption, rather than the endless cycle of growth and decay envisioned by the pagan world, and this teleology was adopted by Christianity. The moral premise of the West since its founding has been that our teleology defines us, and if our destiny is to become nothing, then we are infected with nothingness today. It takes the form, as Martin Heidegger argued, of boredom and anxiety without a particular object of fear.

That is my objection to Pope Francis’ (and his namesake’s) portrayal of nature, as well to Intelligent Design: ID might prove the existence of some God, but not necessarily of a good God. I wrote in a 2012 essay:

God made an imperfect world and gave the task of improving it to his junior partner in creation, humankind.

As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik observed, the final perfection of nature is a messianic vision: In the prayers for the New Moon, for example, Jews look to the day when God will restore the moon to parity with the sun. But there is a great deal to do in the meantime. Man is not the passive victim of earthquake, flood, famine or disease. We can build defenses against natural disasters, cure disease, and eliminate hunger. Whatever harm befalls us today, we can change our destiny in the future. God does not reveal his infinite mind to us, except through an infinite procession of discoveries, to which we are led by intuition, or, if you will, inspiration.

We are not the passive victims of nature. We strive to establish human dignity by mastering nature. We are neither gods who can grasp the infinite mind of the God of Creation, nor mere animals for whom evolution is destiny. We do not need to worry whether there is an Intelligent Design, nor whether we might grasp such a design if it indeed exists: As creative beings, we are part of the design. We do not know the full scope of the design, because we do not know what we have yet to accomplish. God does not need us to justify his position as creator; our task is nobler, and incomparably more challenging, namely, actually to advance his work of creation.

Man’s creative role is embedded in the Jewish concept of Covenant as a divine-human partnership, into which man enters with free will, accepting demands that God places upon humankind. Human beings, that is, must merit the grace of a demanding and passionate God through their actions. If we act badly, we will be destroyed along with the natural world (and probably will hasten our destruction by mismanaging nature). Otherwise, we have 5 billion of years to correct the design flaw that will turn the sun into a supernova. We have farmed food for less than 10,000 years, and should be optimistic that we will solve this minor problem along with many others.

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Categories: AT Top Writers, David P. Goldman, Spengler

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  • Frank J. Gianattasio

    David, you completely missed the point. It is only your personal opinion that the entity one finds in nature deeply flawed. Our relationship with nature is just like any other relationship. We gently chide the bad and celebrate that which is good. Pope Francis is following the simplicity of his namesake and trying to focus us on a better relationship with the little blue planet we call home. Grow up little rebel boy.

  • deliaruhe

    Yes, nature can be nasty. Why do you think the history of patriarchies always features nature as female? But the worse we treat her, the nastier she’ll get. What Francis wants us to focus on is that, like it or not, we are all embedded in her, and she provides us with everything we need and want — and if we want her to continue provisioning us, we’d better quit pissing her off.

  • slippery slope

    One of the great problems is despite his so-called intelligence man overestimates his individual importance in the scheme of things. We need the other species on the planet. They do not need us!

  • It sounds like you want to disagree with the pope, but you end up in a place that sounds very similar. There is not much difference between saying humanity’s fate is staked on his behavior relative to God and neighbor as opposed to God, neighbor and nature.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Ecological collapse a ‘minor problem’? Spengler does better when he is admiring his ego-projection ‘God’. We have, indeed, ‘subdued’ the Earth, as we ‘subdued’ the indigenous in the New Worlds, the vast forests, the buffalo, passenger pigeons, pelagic fish, rhinos, tigers and lions-into extinction, or up to its brink. 90% of what is left of the living creatures of the planet will soon follow. Big Brother Yahweh will be pleased to see how diligently we have managed to ‘…advance his work of Creation’.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Francis treated the Palestinians like human beings, hence the hatred.

  • Dale R Evans

    I take exception to your thesis at several points. The “turn point” in humanities’s understanding of reality did not occur in the 20th century. The shift began when Averroës, a 11th century Muslim scholar in Spain, introduced Aristotle to the Christian West. In philosophy circles he was labeled “the father of Western secularism.”
    The understanding of Old Testament developed in the 20th century (mostly by European Biblical scholars) gave us the tools for a deeper understanding of the Old Testament though conservative Jews and Christians rejected that possibility without thoughtful consideration. Nevertheless, it lays the foundation for a deeper, stronger understanding of ancient biblical history. The crossing of the Red Sea is an excellent example. The Priestly Tradition portrayed the crossing as occurring when Moses lifted his staff and parted the Red Sea. The earlier tradition stated the east wind blew all night and dried the ground exposed by a low tide sufficiently to allow the Hebrews to cross on foot. Pharaoh’s army had chased the Hebrews with chariots, but the ground was not dried enough to support horses and chariots. Then the tide changed and cause extensive damage to Pharaoh’s army. Jews and Christian alike trumpet the Moses version wherein God intervenes in a separate, objective reality. The older version portrays a reality infused with the presence God and all creation had prepared for the Hebrew crossing. What about the bad things that happen? How can storm, earthquakes, and wars serve God’s purposes? Humans need an absolute upon which individual and collective identity, and a definition of reality can be constructed that is accepted by the population absolute truth. Sadly all absolutes so constructed self destruct. Think Egypt during the Pharaohs, Rome, Persia, Fascist Germany, Communist Russia. That tells the absolute that is sustainable is God. Plato understood that. The need for an absolute is the need for God. God does destroy either humans or reality. Humans that embrace a false god are the destroyers. So how the apparent threat of God to visit harm on creation fit into this scheme? A person who realizes their need for God but does not know there a God will disintegrate into eternal chaos. So creation must contain two parallel dynamics. The steady, unrelenting revelation of God’s love for all humans, and parallel events and hardships that expose the human need for God. The tempo of both dynamics increase with population growth until the entire world understands the human need for God. We are entering that phase now.

  • Darryl Harb

    A muddled response to this muddled encyclical.

  • mijikai

    “our task is nobler, and incomparably more challenging, namely, actually to advance his work of creation.”

    Yeah, yeah… talks big, starts stuff, never finishes. Sure are a lot of people created in this god’s image.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    A theology where Nature reveals the Divine is, of course, opposed, violently, by a theology based on human and group egomania, where God is simply a projection of that ego and its underlying psychology onto the Universe. Hence Goldman’s Judaic God approves of and demands genocides even down to suckling babes and animals, hideous punishments for tiny infractions and a situation of eternal separation and antipathy between the Chosen People and the human ‘other ranks’. A God that embraces all humans and all Life equally is, naturally, anathematous to the selective, privatised, God of Judaism.

  • davidpgoldman

    In the Jewish prayer upon the New Moon, we beseech God to repair the deficiency in the cosmos that makes the moon much too small (we would like more light at night). From the Jewish vantage point creation is imperfect (intentionally so) and man is called upon to be co-creator in partnership with God. Our relationship with nature, actually, is not like any other relationship. The alternatives to this view are 1) God has a greater plan that we cannot understand when natural disasters occur and 2) the world itself is fallen from an earlier state of perfection due to Adam’s sin (but why should that bring tsunamis on our heads?). Take your choice of these three: there really isn’t a third.

  • davidpgoldman

    Jew-hating ignoramus: Isaiah said “my house shall be a house of prayer for all nations.” Israel is an exemplar to uplift other nations, not a different species. The fact that God did some nasty things to assert his authority, e.g., kill the first-born of Egypt, is beside the point. Nations become extinct because they want to, not because the Judaic God goes about killing them. Read my book.

  • davidpgoldman

    Ask Israeli Arabs if they want to live in Israel or in a Palestinian state: 77% chose Israel.
    Israel treats Palestinian Arabs like human beings, not so Fatah and Hamas.

  • davidpgoldman

    Dan, I think you are missing a key distinction:How do we respond to natural disaster? See my comment above.

  • davidpgoldman

    How do matriarchies portray nature? I’m trying to think of one with a written literature and none comes to mind offhand.

  • Brabantian

    In general, poor people prefer to be a 2nd class, humiliated citizen in a richer country … than equals in a poor country.

    Plus Abbas, Palestinian authority, Palestinian oligarchs etc are widely regarded as Israeli stooges … so for Arabs, living in a so-called ‘Palestinian state’ dominated by Israel, has similar humiliation to living in Israel … richer place is preferred given you are going to be humiliated anyway.

  • Brabantian

    Nature has cruelty but also a transcendence, which is slighted and ignored by Abrahamic religions … the ability of animals to love puts many humans to shame. It is South- and East- Asian faiths such as Hinduism, Buddhism & Daoism, along with various native traditions, that have true spiritual recognition of nature … respect for animal consciousness & suffering, the call to live in harmony with the natural world.

    Tho some backward Hindus also sacrifice animals, the animal sacrifice theme; along with the child-mutilation circumcision theme, the ‘God-ordered’ Bible tortures, genocides & killings of women & children, the terrorism of ‘eternal hell’, the ‘one way only’ fanaticism, all mark Abrahamic religions as false. Note that the 3 cultures that circumcise – Jews, Muslims & Yank Americans (swayed by Jewish doctors) – are 3 cultures very destructive in domineering aggression – the trauma of men mutilated-for-life.

  • Val Cocora

    you must be talking about god’s little servant, allah.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Oh, yes, Allah is a variant of Yahweh. All exclusivist, fundamentalist, monotheisms are very dangerous not just for their victims, but for their adherents, too. Judaism is the oldest existing expression of this monotheistic, patriarchal, belligerent, ego-projection onto the universe.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Goy-hating bigot. To state that the Judaic God’s hideous slaughter of total innocents (including animals!!)occurred because the victims ‘wanted’ to become extinct, is, in my opinion, the utterance of a psychopath. Thank-you for, yet again, making that utterly plain. PS.When Rabbi Kook the Elder stated that the soul of a Jew is as different from the soul of a non-Jew as the soul of a non-Jew is different from that of an animal, what precisely did he mean but that Jews and non-Jews are different species.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Israel demolishes more houses of Israeli Arabs inside Israel than it does of Palestinians inside the illegally Occupied Territories. Your assertion regarding Israel’s treatment of the illegally occupied Palestinians takes the Big Lie to new dimensions.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    One can see how misogyny is such a feature of orthodox and ultra-orthodox Judaism.

  • Paul Bogdanich

    Why do we need a religious minority like Spengler critiquing a papal encyclical? Do we post long articles discussing your Shoha industry? Perhaps we should?

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Gibberish uttered as the sixth mass extinction unfolds. The ‘work of creation’ becomes extinction, because, I suppose the other living creatures are choosing self-extinction, or in Goldman’s charming usage, self-inflicted genocide.

  • Michael C

    Spengler’s article doesn’t consider the providence of God. If the earliest humans had chosen to live in loving obedience to God, then God could have provided an “Eden” for them without changing the nature of the physical world. Because of their relationship with God, Adam, Eve and their descendants would have lived safe and secure lives. Imagine for example that they are living where a volcano is about to erupt. God could simply say to them “move over there – and watch the show”. And His providence would apply to dangerous bacteria, tsunamis and anything else that they encountered. It is because the relationship with God is broken that human beings have become subject to all the vagaries of nature, just like non spiritual animals.

    Also, the command in Genesis to multiply and subdue the earth is addressed to humans who had not fallen into sin. I think that there is an enormous difference between those first humans prior to sin, and everyone living afterwards. Two things play a big role in our lives: (1) fear of the evil someone else might do to us, and (2) temptation to do wrong ourselves plus our knowledge of wrongs we actually have already committed. These two seem so prominent that I imagine a human who has never suffered evil nor committed it would have a psychology completely different to ours. One impossible to imagine.

    So the point is, nature is sometimes nasty to us but it didn’t need to be – sinless humans living in loving gratitude with their Maker would have multiplied and subdued the earth, and wherever they spread would have been Eden for them.


    What an idiot; “the waters will rise and engulf us” all that he mentions is manmade, unless he wants to count man as nature, but that is not useful to the point. Of course there are diseases and death- there is no sun without shadows-that is precisely what is so wonderful about nature, its dialectic. . What Spengler doesn’t seem to realize is that we are talking about man made pollution of the earth, which is preventable and unnecessary and only serves to make a few people filthy rich. . Its not nature doing it, idiot.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Choice Three-there is no ‘God’.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    But under Free Market capitalism the tiny elite profiting from destroying the world are vastly disproportionately made up of Jews, hence Goldman’s unabashed admiration for the process. The Jews, thanks to their cult’s differential moral commandments regarding the Jews and the goyim, and religious sanctification of greed and usury, do indeed do very well out of Free Market capitalism, as Milton Friedman observed.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Norman Finkelstein did that quite well.