"Give me an Axe, Saint Boniface!"
The Natural History Museum
by Dr. Catherine Collins
The oak tree of Saint Boniface is less famous than the shamrock of Saint Patrick, but we might do well to give it some thought. The shamrock, as everyone knows, was plucked to illustrate the triune nature of God; the oak was felled to clear the ground of opposing views.
Saint Boniface (A.D. 680-754), a Devon man originally, laid the foundations of the Church in Germany. He made a number of missionary trips to that country, founding new congregations and revisiting old ones. The episode with the oak tree occurred during one of the return visits, at Geismar. It emerged that, during his absence, his flock had returned to the druids and were worshipping a tree held to be sacred to Thor. Saint Boniface chopped it down.
One can imagine the scene: Boniface, grim and determined, with his axe; the Germans standing around part curious, part terrified, waiting to see what will happen; the tree itself, unmoved at first by the blows directed to its trunk, now quivering slightly under the repeated impact of the axe. A tree does not fall by degrees. It stands upright, balanced through the remaining diameter of the trunk until near the end. Then comes the final push, and gravity does the rest. A ray of sunlight strikes the ground. Beyond that, nothing. Silence.
The Germans were impressed. I don't suppose they ever enjoyed being pagans much. It was a religion of fear and death, and it took little to persuade them to leave it. Christians today know what it is to be rescued from their own personal illusions and addictions, but it would almost be worth belonging to a pagan society in order to experience the conversion of an entire communnity from such dehumanizing beliefs. It must have come like the morning after a feverish night, to see in the powers of nature not the vengeance of demons but God's gift to man.
The oak of Geismar was the first of many, as the new Christians used their freedom to build a civilization in the wilderness of Europe. Wherever the Gospel has been preached, there has been the sound of construction in the background - and even when the Gospel is forgotten, that freedom from the powers of nature won in baptism continues on its course. Indeed, it often seems that the only Christian teaching still active in public life today is the lesson of Saint Boniface and his oak tree.
A fine example of this can be found in the Natural History Museum in London, which is a temple to Darwinism and a hymn of praise to man the technocrat. Some time ago I wrote an essay describing the museum and the world view that it represents (CCR, October, 1993). I recently had the opportunity to make a return visit and thought I would check a few details. To my amazement, I found that an entire new wing had been added. It opened off the main hail, the one containing the dinosaur bones and the displays of the ascent of man to world dominance.
I crossed the threshold into the new exhibit, and saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had passed away. The old earth, the earth of the Victorian display cases, was the earth of Darwinism and the survival of the fittest through the long marches of time. None of this remained. Gone were the battling individuals, the struggling species, and the laborious ascent. Gone too the medieval vaulting with its carved monkeys and deep shadows. This was a new world of light and air and rushing water.
And yet this wing, the new ecology wing, like the Darwinian portion of the museum, is a temple. Science is secondary; this exhibit yourself in an aisle between white wails. There are quotations written up on the walls about the earth and the nature of things. From Walt Whitman, for instance, we have:
Another is taken from Chief Seattle:
Marcus Aurelius is also quoted, along with other people not normally associated with the biological sciences.
The quotations were written along translucent walls interspersed with portholes, through which one can see dioramas of creatures living in haimony. I suppose the Garden of Eden must have been something like this, but the exhibit gives only glimpses of Paradise, the size of a porthole; the focus is elsewhere. The aisle, the dioramas, and the quotations are only by way of preparation, to put you in a receptive mood for what lies ahead.
What lies ahead is the high altar of the exhibit. The Darwinian side also contains a high altar. On the second floor, overlooking the dinosaur hail, there is the mammoth cross-section of a giant sequoia tree, felled around the turn of the century for the world's fair. The tree was fifteen centuries old at the time. A small photograph of the lumberjacks who felled it is displayed beside this monument to nature's power. The moral here is clear: man's technical ability has brought him triumph over nature, and over history.
Trees also figure in the central display of the ecology wing, but in this case the trees are alive. The display consists of sixteen panels of shifting photos. "Water and its movement are essential for life," we are told, and the photos show scenes of water in motion and time-lapse images of growing plants. No animals and no men are to be seen. The display has been fitted out with mirrors to convey the illusion of a globe, while in the background one hears some of that new-age music, the kind that seems to be everywhere at once and that simulates the monotony of running water and rustling leaves.
On each side of the display of mirrors, there is a stairway leading to a mezzanine of exhibits that elaborate the connection between natural diversity and the survival of species. It is the variety of species and the connections between living things that make "communities rich enough to cope with change." Co-operation, not competition, is the key to survival. One species, however, has forgotten this truth. "Man is altering the ecosystems, cutting through the connections," and all life is threatened. Nothing would be further from the natural bent of the human soul than to terminate the diagnosis at this point, without blaming metaphysical error for the catastrophe that is to come. The blame is not long in coming.
Further quotations enlarge upon this theme. The root of the problem is perceptual, and spiritual. Man in his arrogance has "thought himself" away from the rest of nature. And having mentally severed his relationship to the source of life, he has no qualms about exploiting the environment, endangering other species as well as his own. The lumber industry is cited as an example.
A number of thoughts crossed my mind as I toured the exhibit. Chief among these was astonishment at the contrast between the message of the new ecologism and that of the old evolutionism. One can only wonder how the same nature, studied by the same civilization under the same norms of scientific evidence, could yield two such different visions of the universe and man's place in it. In one, we see the individual battling to survive in endless competition with his fellows and with other species; in the other, it is the balance between species that makes for survival. In one, individuality without connection; in the other, community without persons. In one, process, history, and drama; in the other, interactions in space, balance, ecosystems. In one, man triumphs through technology; in the other, technology destroys. In one, change is progress; in the other, man's activity is feared. . . . But what am I saying? Is this biology or is it politics? Both exhibits, indeed, have more to do with man than they do with nature. They are there for the moral.
Nature - by which I mean the totality of living things -is readily pressed into the service of political causes. We tend to look to physics for an image of God, but we look to nature for the image of man, in particular, for the image of political man. The burden of politics is, after all, to manage the sustenance of human life, which revolves around the same needs that we share with other living things. All life seeks nourishment, seeks to expand and to reproduce itself - human, animal, and vegetable.
But there may be another reason. If the purpose of politics is human life, its central dilemma is to seek a balance between the freedom of the individual and the survival of the group. Politics is the art of the one in the many, and the many for the one. Inert matter makes no distinction between individual and organism. The concepts do not apply. We say "a piece of steel," a "nugget of gold," or simply "steel" and "gold," as if the Earth contained only one allotment of each that is moulded, divided, and recombined at will. Individuality first appears with living things - and with individuality, community. It is almost inevitable that a new perception of nature will suggest a different political outlook and that a change in politics will look to nature for new symbols.
It is not necessary, of course, for an environmental movement to be simply a foil for a political one. It can actually be about the environment. Environmentalism can be both scientific and sensible, and my recollection of the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies is that it was both. It was motivated by a love of nature, by its beauty, and by a measure of enlightened self-interest If we poison the air, our children will choke. We could use the world destructively -and destroy ourselves - or we could use it carefully. It was a timely protest for an important issue. But while viewing the exhibit at the Natural History Museum and reading some of the recent "Green" literature, I have sensed a change of tone, as if the rain forests were now grist to a different mill, one whose upper millstone was political and whose lower was religious. Why for instance was there so little hard science in the exhibit at the Natural History Museum? Why so many quotations from poets and gurus?
The exhibit, as a matter of fact, is mild for the genre. Anyone familiar with "Greenish" publications would at once recognize the symbols and the arguments, but a class of ten-year-old school children, for example, could probably sweep through it and return in all innocence to their Mutant Ninja Thrtles. I decided to go for the full treatment. I bought a stack of books and a high-lighter pen. One need not read very far to cover the main features of the landscape; but rather than talk in broad generalities, I will use only two of these works, one political and one theological. I assure you that the quotations are fully typical.
Green Manifesto (London, 1988) was written by two members of Great Britain's Green Party, Sandy Irvine and Alec Ponton. It is not an official statement of that party, but it offers fairly specific policy statements of what Green politics should be. The authors list four basic principles upon which Green politics must rest.
A Catholic would probably agree with these principles, but on condition that their order be reversed. One might also point out that if points 3 and 4 are observed, points 1 and 2 will follow as a consequence. But what can it possibly mean for a human, political movement to assert as its first principle that life on Earth should continue and only in second place that human life should continue? Everything disquieting about the new environmentalism is contained in this choice of emphasis.
If life as such is to be placed above human life, then humanity must rate as simply one species among the others. The totality of such species would then be more important than any particular species. This is the launching pad of Annc Primavesi's book From Apocalypse to Genesis (Minneapolis, 1991). in which she pursues the consequences of this choice to their logical conclusion and beyond. Primavesi is a theologian, and her book is subtitled Ecology, Feminism and Christianity. She adopts what she calls the ecological and feminist paradigms as a basis for reinterpreting Christian doctrine, the idea being that only a Greener Christianity can save the environment - or at least, not continue to destroy it.
According to her, the ecological paradigm is:
Later, she adds a feminist component:
Nature is a system of relationships, but the relationship of scientist to subject matter, of the observer to the observed, is not one to be encouraged; it leads to domination and exploitation. Although stated in stronger terms, this is the same point that was made by the ecology exhibit. Man is guilty before Nature - always capitalized - because he has, through rational thought, cut through the "system of relationships" and placed himself at an observer's distance from the forest floor. He has run away from home.
Through reason, man divides himself from nature; through faith he puts the divine into one concept called "God" and everything else into a concept called "Nature", which he can then use as he pleases.
Today it is official Christian teaching that Nature is desacralized, "fallen." Yet hardly a day goes by without someone reminding us that unless we recover a sense of reverence for Nature, we are not going to win the battle for its and our survival.
In other words, it is the Christian distinction between God and creation - not, by the way, the same thing as saying that nature is fallen - that is the source of all evil. There follows a truly heroic attempt to pursue the "ecological paradigm" to the finish, a refusal to "fragment" to the point of denying any distinctions at all. This is difficult to do, when grammatical structure and the common noun itself constantly channel the general experience of being into utterances about distinct and specific things. Primavesi turns to metaphor as an escape from the usual clarity of human speech. Metaphor, she argues, is what we must use to speak of God and Nature. This is true enough, and metaphorical language has always been used to say something about a God we cannot experience directly, but she uses it to avoid saying anything distinctive at all.
Since metaphor implies both similarity and difference, we must say:
she says. And to prove it, she offers the following sentence to the reader:
In the sequel, it emerges that, to Primavesi, even a simple declarative sentence such as "God is good" is the product of a bunkered imagination and of the kind of thinking that leads to domination and oppression. She asserts that we could as well say that God is bad as that he is good. This sounds extreme; it is extreme, and one would like to think that Primavesi's book and Green Manifesto have only a small readership. But the exhibit at the Natural History Museum was packed with visitors, and basically it was saying the same thing: that man's capacity for rational thought, his scientific study of nature is preventing him from living in harmony with the natural world. These people are not simply condemning greed or poorly planned technical projects; they are not urging reform.
They are attacking the principle upon which all scientific thought and engineering practice is based.
This raises an interesting question. How is man supposed to live in harmony with nature, or with anything else, without the use of reason? All human behaviour, however simple, rests upon sizing up the situation and acting upon it This is as true of brewing acup of coffee as it is of designing a power dam. For us, to exist in nature, to be in harmony with nature, is tobe consciously aware of what is going on. We live by knowing and by choosing. Reason is the name of the faculty that does this. Through reason we stand outside the flux of natural causes and perceive some aspect of the truth of things.
Nor can we escape our own rational nature. Suppose we were to leave large tracts of land deliberately unused and revert to the use of medicval technology, such as the water wheel and the windmill. We would still no tbe living in harmony with nature after the manner of cows and seagulls. We would know that we might have chosen otherwise and instead have girdled the earth with gleaming mega-projects, cut down the rain forests, and replaced the Amazon basin with cultivated land and small towns.
Without human reason, even nature would not be what it is. Nature does not know its own potential, but we know. Or if we don't know today, we can find Out tomorrow. In this light, even some of the more innocent passages of Green Manifesto sound highly restrictive.
We should choose a human scale for human-made systems. This should allow for access, comprehension, control, creativity and the conviviality of the human community.
This is further amplified by the remark, "personal excellence is to be encouraged but not at the expense of others."
I find it hard to understand how personal excellence can be at the expense of others. Furthermore, what is a human scale? What is the appropriate scale of action for a being that can study the quantum effects of sub-atomic particles and the origin of the universe? What is the scale of action of someone who can mentally hold the earth in one hand, with all its burden of living things, and then pass judgement upon himself for not living like moss on the north side of a tree trunk?
There is no natural scale whereby the human mind can be measured. The mind itself will always measure any scale proposed to it, and then leap six feet beyond the end of it. Nor is there any natural balance of nature in the human heart; neither man's lunacy nor his generosity are self-limiting.
It is precisely considerations of this kind that have prompted philosophers to distinguish rational beings from those that are alive without the gift of reason. There's more. Once you grant that human reason is what it obviously is - namely a capacity to see the truth of things and to step outside the chain of instinct and blind necessity - you are not far from a proof for the existence of God. Human reason must be lit by some light beyond the chain of blind causality in nature, just as human desire is directed beyond any finite and particular thing within our field of vision.
Anne Primavesi is fully aware of the connection between belief in human rationality and the other Christian doctrines of the soul: its immortality; its fall into sin and redemption by Christ; its destiny in the vision of God. She sees the connection and denounces the whole picture. If belief in the duality of mind and nature is the cause of the current ecological crisis - a crisis whose existence and severity she never questions - and if the Christian doctrine of salvation rests upon the assumption that men are not beasts, then the doctrine of salvation has to go.
How she reinterprets the Bible to be rid of these doctrines makes for interesting reading. Nevertheless, the logic is impeccable. Recall that our starting point is that mankind is a biological species like any other. Man is completely a part of nature, like any other part. Death is a part of nature; therefore death is natural to man. Man was never intended to be immortal. Thus death is no punishment for sin; so sin does not exist, and there was no fall. Why be offended by death? Why, for that matter, be born at all? The Christian refusal to accept human death as a normal biological function has coloured Church policy regarding over-population and birth control - so Primavesi writes. She drops the population bomb rather casually in a few passages.
Her mind is made up and so, she assumes, is the mind of the reader, nothing to prove, no one to convince. But Green Manifesto gives an entire chapter to this issue, whose opening sentence reads:
I have yet to read a "Green" publication that does not contain a sentence of this kind. Green Manifesto assumes, like the rest of them, that there is a population explosion and that the fact that fewer people are dying young is proof that the human race is facing catastrophe. But the authors go further and assume that increasing population threatens even non-material goods. They ask, "Is there one freedom. . . that would increase if our population became twice as great as it is now?" They fear that our freedoms would actually become less. Nothing can be done until the population problem has been solved; everything is subject to this overriding purpose.
We began by asserting that man is a species like any other. We proceed to deny his reason, his soul, his compassion for his suffering fellows, and finally we denounce the one thing he shares with nature: natural increase. This demonic theory is against human life itself.
Give me an axe, Saint Boniface! Give me an axe. This is the old slavery of fallen man. The ecology exhibit has a rather curious logo. It shows the image of a man inscribed in a circle, as in Leonardo da Vinci's famous diagram. But whereas da Vinci stressed the mathematical balance in human proportion, the museum logo shows a man turning into a tree, with branches for arms, the legs turning into a trunk. He is putting down roots, becoming vegetable, a quiet return to the Earth where his mind will trouble him no more. Chop it down, Saint Boniface. This is the old enemy, the human sacrifices by moonlight; this is the old religion of hatred and fear.
Fear has a remedy, and it is called love. Perfect love casts out fear, the Apostle said and, where love is not, fear takes over. Saint Boniface did not go to Germany to start a lumber business. He went to offer pagans a share in the divine life, or the indwelling of the Trinity as the catechism puts it. The same offer is being made today. But what does it mean?
The mystery of the Trinity is the mystery of love. Love is what joins two people in a bond that is real, and yet without annihilating either party. Love, fundamentally, is what is lacking in Primavesi's analysis. To her, all differences of substance are differences of value; and differences of value lead inevitably to domination.
All distinctions are dangerous, and separation is only one aspect of subordination.
It is now clear how hierarchy works as a principle of separation and subordination - between God and angels, angels and man, man and woman, baptized Christian and unbaptized Pagan, humanity and Nature.
I am sure that we could, with the help of Satan, produce a world not unlike the one she believes herself already to inhabit. Those looking for evidence that we are moving along this path will not lack for material. But only a mind void of love could believe that all distinctions must of necessity lead to domination.
Let us consider a typical male-dominated hierarchical work: Dante's Divine Comedy. I can think of no better work for this purpose. It covers typical male concerns: the nature of God, the beauty of women, local politics, and the ambition of the poet. Furthermore, it categorizes. It turns the cosmos into a filing cabinet for souls to such an extent that we might well ask where, after Dante, hierarchical thinking can go. According to Priinavesi's theory, the poem should read like a Nazi recruiting poster. One would expect a battlefield, where the citizens of Paradise jump all over the poor souls of Purgatory, who in turn torment the damned, while singing boastful little songs about their own superior virtue. One would expect to read how the male Dante instructs the female Beatrice, who in turn berates the pagan Virgil for his lack of faith.
This does not happen. It does not even float as a possibility. It might happen were the universe to be turned inside out and the devil reign as God, but under the current state of things, this does not happen. Instead, the poem ends with a great hymn to the Trinity. Dante first implores the aid of the Blessed Virgin that he may be able to remember and relate what he has seen of the vision of God, which is the soul's desire. He then tries to convey what indeed cannot be grasped of the divine unity in three Persons, of the Father eternally begetting the Son and of the Spirit proceeding from these two. He speaks of a communication so true that the entire divine being is poured out from the Father in the Eternal Word, and of their union in a love so free itcan only be God the Spirit.
Dante also records that in his vision of the Trinity, he saw the entire universe, but unified in love, not scattered through the divisions of time and space as we experience it. Here, then, is the true pattern of unity in diversity and diversity in unity. Its origin is in the origin of all things; having believed it of God, we can see it in nature. But those who start with nature will find in it nothing but chaos.
The mystery of love is the mystery of existence, in which all things participate to the extent that they were made to do so, and for as long as they are able. In death, the unity fails, and the diversity dissipates. This is true of the organism in a concrete way, and true also of human thought and practice when the soul is sick or dead. Just as milk curdles when it sours, the ideas in a mind without God lose their just balance, and separate and clump with lunatic intensity. People grab at the diversity of rootless individualism or long for nostalgic communities that sustain themselves without personal resolve.
Often, dead fragments of the former trinitarian balance coexist, neither pole aware of the other's existence, and we find several contradictory extremes inhabiting the same mind or the same institution, without apparent conflict. The Natural History Museum is a good example: nineteenth-century liberalism and twentieth-century holism side by side.
As I left the new ecology exhibit, I noticed a sign thanking British Petroleum for their financial support. Are the giants of industry supporting the Revolution? Or is it that the Revolution is already part of the Establishment? Birth control, even when not linked to the nightmare of government targets, is the industrial state in a bottle. It is distilled essence of capitalism: divide pleasure from substance and exploit each on its own, like a low-calorie snack with dealcoholized beer.
Before leaving, I visited the museum shop. It occupies enough floor space for the complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. There you can buy yourself a piece of the ecological experience: a T-shirt depicting the rain forest, an umbrella with coloured parrots on it - presumably for use in the rain forest - and buttons of the exhibit logo, the man turning into a tree. I wonder, can I purchase a small axe?
Catherine Dalzell's stimulating "Give me an Axe, Saint Boniface!" hit a neuralgic point. It's intriguing that she mentioned Boniface's oak tree with Patrick's shamrock. The latter is clearly a fiction; the shamrock does not appear even in Irish folklore until the 17th century. But it was Patrick's successors, the travelling Celtic monks, who first brought the faith to Germany in the 6th and 7th centuries. Their faith may well have included a reverence for the earth which could have extended to tolerance for Druid customs like their esteem for oak groves. The Celtic amalgam of faith included a veneration for all of Creation, and the Gospel in Ireland so merged with the original religion that there were no martyrs. The Druids became priests and the bards became scribal monks. Cannot a mighty oak speak of God too?
Boniface's axe cleared that reverence away; and somehow it seems to me that the clearcuts of British Columbia, so painful to look at, the contemporary blasphemy, are connected to his axe's blows. Boniface may well represent a throwback to the gnostic disparagement of creation which the Church tried to free herself from in the early centuries, but it persists, except perhaps in exceptional spirits like Augustine and Francis.
In both creation stories in the Bible, the human being is never isolated from the rest of creation, let alone set up in confrontation with it. The command to be fruitful and multiply is addressed to us and the animals in Genesis 1.28 and 22 respectively. "Fill the earth and subdue it," means just that. . . eat vegetables! We are not invited to subdue the world, for which Genesis has another word. There was a cohesion there in all that God made, and it was to perdure. Bios is symbiosis. God made the world because God wanted it made, says Wendell Berry. God loves it; and it is still God's. How can a person of faith not love it too?
The Hebrew Bible has no word for nature, so there can hardly have been a nature/human dichotomy. In Colossians 1.15-20, Paul sets up a parallel between creation through Christ (v.15-18a), and redemption through Christ (18b-20), and redemption has the same purview as creation, that is to all that exists, and with the boldest possible emphasis on that all. There is no concern to skim the human cream off the supposed top of creation. We look to a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21.1). Hildegarde of Bingen viewed the primal creation as green; but then through our sin comes the winter; and now we await the Springtime of the Spirit.
Consciousness distinguishes us from the rest of creation, but it connects us too. I like the idea of the Universe becoming conscious in us so that we can help move from the cenozoic to what Father Tom Berry calls the ecozoic epoch.
At the Easter Vigil tonight, we were told that all creation exulted in Jesus' victory as the Exultet sang "heaven is wedded with earth." I think that ancient hymn used to mention the bees who made the wax for the Easter Candle. The presiding celebrant, as the rubrics prescribe, still plunged the great Candle into the Easter water receptacle three times in an awfully phallic way. In some places the neophytes are immersed in water as of old, smeared with oil, and led to a real Eucharistic meal of hearty bread and fine wine in which the Risen Lord still comes bodily.
No radical nature/human break here; the biblical cohesion is maintained. Holiness today means reintegrating ourselves more into the web of life from which we find ourselves isolated, says Jürgen Moltmann. Separation always reminds me of sin. Life at the expense of others is not only immoral, it is no longer possible; it's not the animals or us, as I heard a news broadcaster say last week. That was always an illusion. It's the animals and us, or none of us. Bios is symbiosis.
The Holy Spirit is appreciated more and more now as the integrating Person, both within the Trinity, and with that unique mission to the world, which is to reintegrate all into the Trinity. Metropolitan John [Zizioulas] of Pergamo, until recently professor of theology at the University of Glasgow, addressed the Faith and Order Conference of the World Conference of Churches at Santiago de Compostela in 1993. For the first time Catholics were full participants, and all heard a message from the Pope.
The Metropolitan said that koinonia, the New Testament word for communion, so revered by the Fathers but usually crudely translated as "fellowship," has emerged as the key concept for ecumenical unity. God is koinonia in his very being, because God is Trinity, and the Three live in relationship, in mutual self-giving love. Christ himself is koinonia, born of the Spirit, an inclusive person recapitulating all creation. So the Church too must be koinonia, if it is to reflect the nature of God and Christ as communion. So the mission of the Church is understood in the light of koinonia. We are to try to inculturate the Gospel into the world [like St. Patrick apparently did], not to oppose the world [like St. Boniface apparently did]. We look to the world's needs and try to discover how the Gospel responds to them.
But we do not stop there. A Church as koinonia relates to all of God's creation. The Metropolitan believes that perhaps the most urgent mission of the Church today is to proclaim that there is a koinonia between the human being and the world, and to reach its fullness, he says, koinonia must find its place at the heart of the Church. He goes on to extend that koinonia to the communities [human and otherwise?] who have passed before us, as well as to those who are to come. For the Church in communion, there is no past, present or future; the Kingdom saves us from this splitting. (This is remarkably similar to the First Nations' worldview.)
But how can we respect the communities which are to come if selfishly we leave them a dilapidated world? No, I prefer John the Baptist's axe to Boniface's. "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees. Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise" (Lk 3.9-10). It is human self-centredness that needs the cutting, not the trees. Which image will we choose: Boniface felling the mighty oak, or Patrick caressing the fragile shamrock? It seems to me that the new wing at London's Natural History Museum speaks of a conversion we all have to make, and Catherine Daizell (Collins) for all her appreciable wisdom missed the forest for the trees.
Doctor Daizell (Collins) replies:
I am very grateful to Father McGrory for pointing out that the incident of St. Patrick and the shamrock is fictional. I never found that image convincing. I am also grateful to him for informing me of the phallic symbolism in the Easter ritual: being a lady, I would never have reached that interpretation without assistance and would have spent the rest of my days in the serene belief that the Easter candle and the waters of baptism referred to the new creation and not the old.
But this having been said, the rest of the letter is of the kind to prompt a writer to sell the computer and take up accounting instead. "Is it possible," one asks in despair, "that I write as badly as this? Am I so lacking in clarity that no part of my meaning gets through?" I have already taken aim at the excesses of technological arrogance typified by old-fashioned Darwinism (CCR, October 1993). In this essay I take aim at the opposite error of sentimental pantheism. While recognizing that the former view was worth leaving, I do not consider all alternative destinations to be equally valid.
Furthermore, I must protest the charge that I have missed the forest for the trees. I protest on the grounds that I was aiming at neither. I was not in a forest, nor was I looking at genuine, living trees. I was in a museum, a human creation, an exhibit on ecology funded by a major petroleum company and located in one of the world's most sophisticated cities. What I saw there was neither nature nor respect for nature; it was a piece of human fantasy, and it offended me. It offended me as a scientist, and it offended me as a Christian, since the exhibit condemned human reason as such (not merely its abuse) and promoted the worship of that which is not God.
When St. Boniface returned to his converts at Geismar, he did not find people engaged in luminous environmental discourse. The Germans were not planting a greenbelt around Geismar or uttering Werther-like comments on the simplicity of country life. They were worshipping the god of war and imputing sanctity to a tree. Reverence of this kind benefits mankind solely by its abolition, and St. Boniface rightly punctured the credulity of his gullible and inexperienced Christians.
After St. Boniface had established numerous churches in Germany, he went to France where he reformed the Frankish church. I would like to meet a man who can convert Germans and reform Frenchmen, who knows when to speak and when to chop. I expect his concern was primarily for men's souls, given the way that he spent his life, and that is why he succeeded.
That is also my concern, and it always has been. Environmentalism as such does not interest me. The scientific problems are challenging, the mathematical models required are fascinating, but I happily leave these issues to the experts. The new religion of environmentalism, however, belongs to a different category altogether. It is not scientific in origin, nor is it practical in scope.
Since I have been brought to task for my essay perhaps I should come clean and admit to the readers of the CCR (The Canadian Catholic Review) that I was not altogether truthful about what happened. I did in fact go to the Natural History Museum, and it was just as I described. But it was not in that location that 1 first demanded of St. Boniface an axe. No, it was at a cocktail party hosted by a member of the English department of a certain Canadian university. The guests were the type of academic whose verbal skills outstrip their inteffigence, and whose knowledge of the physical world has been more influenced by Wordsworth than by mathematics.
I was sitting, drink in hand, beside an innocent-looking member of the English department, from the Southern United States. One tends to assume that anyone with a Southern accent will be civilized, and that anyone who is civilized will be sensible. This turned out not to be the case, since as the conversation progressed, it emerged that this woman had been known to consult runes when faced with an important decision. The runes in question were a modem piece of nonsense created from the old Norse runes, a writing system probably of Christian invention. They were printed on simulated plastic stones kept in a drawstring bag. When faced with a problem you draw out a stone, note the rune, and consult the manual for an explanation.
It had been a long day, and I was not prepared for this. I was new to academic life at the time and still expected some semblance of a common worldview from the faculty. As a Christian I was used to the idea that we were the supenaturalists, fighting for faith and miracles in a world of science. I knew all the arguments against rationalism by heart. I had read C.S. Lewis and Jacques Maritain. I was prepared. Then, as this woman rallied on about her runes in their bag, I saw the scenery change. New mobilization orders had arrived. The soldiers of Christ, Western division, will now leave the desert and fight in the jungle. It was not a cheering thought.
But however dark the fight, we never fight alone. Rationalism, I remembered, is but a recent aberration, largely confined to the educated classes. The usual battle is against superstition. It always has been, and science without faith can do little to change that. The saints have gone before us, met the same difficulties and conquered. Everything old is new again. It was then that I invoked St. Boniface and his axe.
Later, as I got to know this woman better, I learned that she was one of the radical feminist members of the English department, who also did double duty in women's studies. She loaned me some books; I went to some movies. Feminists were rethinking the relationship between man and nature, which to them had been ruined through a rationalistic, Cartesian way of thinking aided by a patriarchal, hierarchical church. That at least was their theory. 1 had a different explanation. Not one of these women was a scientist, not one was a philosopher, not one was an historian; that this same patriarchal church had condemned the materialism of Descartes did not reckon in their thinking. Clearly we had a group of women who had all failed grade-ten math. They were not happy, and they wanted revenge.
This was several years ago. Since then the links between radical feminism and the new environmentalism have only increased. And while there is serious, if underfunded, work being done to understand and manage industrial growth, the movement of which I speak seems more interested in wild, pseudo-religious feelings than in sober and constructive research. Like most women, when faced with an intellectual difficulty like replying to this letter, I go to the mall. This morning the shop windows were full of displays relating to Earth Day, to be celebrated next Sunday on April 22. Earth Day has acquired for itself much of the rhetoric formerly associated with Easter.
This is not ecology. Rather, this is a new religion. What we are dealing with is a cynical attempt to invent a religion for the political purpose of having something to say on public holidays and something "spiritual" to teach the children in school. This is idolatry; it is stupid; it is uncalled for, and it can't possibly work. It was against idolatry that St. Boniface raised his axe. As to the clearcuts of British Columbia, St. Boniface is not responsible for these. A liberator is not responsible for the misuse of liberty pursued by the former captives. Nor is St. Boniface to be blamed for isolating man from nature. This has never been the Catholic position. On the other hand, the disciples of the Carpenter's Son have never been opposed to technology; in fact, since mediaval times invention has been seen as a duty before God and a weapon against hunger and distress. I have no problem with that. As a professional mathematician, I am not about to apologize for belonging to a technological society or for the Church's role in freeing man from the worship of nature. The alternative does not greatly appeal.
I agree with Father McGrory that human selfishness should be opposed. But if he reaches for the axe of the Baptist he will soon discover that he has grasped the axe of the missionary. It is a double axe, to match the double commandment of love of God and love of neighbour: one edge cuts down idolatry, the other human greed. From the prophet Amos to the most recent papal encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, those called by the Spirit have warned that when faith is discarded the weak are oppressed.
Thus we should not be surprised to discover that what began as a cocktail-party affectation of pseudo-intellectual feminist elites is now used as the cheese in a trap for the world's poor. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, the United Nations is taking on a greater role in determining the new world order. The outlines of the new society are being drafted at a series of Conferences: Rio, Cairo, Copenhagen, and soon to come, Beijing. The themes are different: the environment, population, social development, and women. But what emerges through it all is a driving imperative on the part of the wealthy nations to limit the population of the poor.
This was most evident at Cairo, but the same issues run through all of the conferences. Only the emphasis is changed to suit the occasion: the environment, women's rights, population control. It sounds wonderful, until you see what it implies for the poorer nations, and with what cynicism the noblest human ideals have been perverted to suit the purposes of the wealthy. For instance, the education and advancement of women is advocated simply on the grounds that an educated woman has fewer children than an illiterate one. I had always thought education was a bonum honestum, to be pursued for its own sake, and because a mind is a terrible thing to waste. But to the U.N., the life of the mind is subordinate to material progress instead of the other way around.
An idea should be defended or opposed on its own merits, and not judged by the company it keeps. But neither should we be naïve. When I see the band wagon passing by, I look before boarding to see who has hired the vehicle and who is paying the driver. The travesty of science offered up by the Natural History Museum, and by many of our schools today, in the name of saving the planet is too often paid for by government and industry, too often supported by those opposed to the Church, too little concerned with genuine analysis and practical solutions, that no Christian should swallow the new gospel without careful thought. There are, as with any fad, germs of truth there, and it doubtless will be the vocation of some poor Christian intellectual to separate the good from the bad. I see no reason to be overly gentle in the task. Now, has anybody seen my axe?
Reprinted with permission from The Canadian Catholic Review (13  6-13). The Canadian Catholic Review has ceased publication.
Section Contents Copyright ©; Mark Alder and Catherine Collins 2000
This version: 1st April 2001