Where did the World go Wrong with regard to Climate Change?

March 12, 2015

One particular objective of the Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM) is: “to advance the Catholic relationship between faith and reason, especially as it relates to adaptive decision making in areas of climate change policy”.

The topic of Faith and Reason, deals with many issues; relationship of Faith to Science, Philosophy, History and Anthropology etc. There is one particular question that I would like to deal with in this blog: what is the root cause of the ecological crisis, what went wrong, or where did we go wrong? Finding an answer to this is of vital importance, because it can point us in the right direction as to a solution.

Everybody has an implicit, if not explicit answer to that question. A common answer among Christians is: we are basically a flawed species – a variation on the doctrine of Original Sin. If we accept this as the explanation then the solution is to pray, or do nothing since nothing can be done, or be converted in some way.

Recently, I revisited my philosophy studies, (something I never thought I would do!), and came across a very interesting proposal as to where Western Civilization went wrong. It brings us back to the pre-modern 13th and 14th centuries the debate between Realism and Nominalism. (Don’t run away, yet!). This involves St. Thomas Aquinas (Realism) and William of Ockham (Nominalism).

St. Thomas Aquinas - picture sourced from: thomasaquinas.edu

St. Thomas Aquinas – picture sourced from: thomasaquinas.edu

Aquinas (d.1274), using the Philosophy of Aristotle, brought about a great synthesis between faith and reason. It is one of the flowering achievements of Medieval Culture. The compatibility of faith and reason was symbolized in the drawings on many pulpits of the time – the book and the branch symbolizing Revelation and Nature as two ways that God was speaking to us. Richard Tarnas,  summed up this achievement:

Aquinas … affirmed the Creator’s providential intelligence and the resulting order and beauty within the created world. …the more the world was explored and understood, the greater the knowledge of and reverence for God would result…. Nothing that was true and valuable, even if achieved by man’s natural intellect, could ultimately be foreign to God’s revelation, for both reason and faith derived from the same source.[1]

However, this wonderful synthesis did not last long. It was challenged and displaced by Nominalism that attacked the connection between reason and faith. Ockham (d. 1349) felt that Aquinas’, synthesis between nature and grace threatened God’s Transcendence and Omnipotence. How could God still be all powerful if He was confined by the laws of nature? Knowledge of God, according to Ockham, could only be attained through Revelation – faith and grace, not through natural reason.[2]

Nominalism soon became the dominant way of thinking about Nature and with the Protestant Reformation, Nominalism received a boost: as the thought of nature being a source of revelation was anathema to Luther who stressed Scripture alone, scripura sola. Then, we had the dispute with Galileo and other thinkers. The condemnation of Galileo, created a rift between faith and reason. The Church and the thinkers of the day, parted company, with the Church confining itself to ‘revealed truths’ and the thinkers, free to explore Nature, without any religious or moral restraint.

With Francis Bacon’s scientific method of inquiry based on experimentation and inductive reasoning – as the only way of knowing and then Rene Descartes famous “I think therefore I am” – both consolidated the Nominalist denial of any inherent value or meaning in Creation. The triumph of reason then became complete with the European Enlightenment. The so-called ‘enlightened’ age saw the emergence of the Nation State, based on reason, free from the shackles of Church and Monarchy.

Thus, Nominalism unwittingly laid the foundation to a Church that no longer focussed on Nature as a source of Revelation about God; and for a long time this meant they had nothing to say about the destruction brought about since the Industrial Revolution.

If this is our problem, then it points to a solution where we need to recover a world-view where Nature is intrinsically valued, as revelatory of the Divine. As St. Columban said “if you want to know God, know creation”. The good news is that, in our times, such a world-view is possible because of the putting together of a story of creation, based on the scientific evidence.

The Church today has no problem, in principle, with the evolutionary story of creation, but work needs to be done in developing and propagating such a world view. Thomas Aquinas will undoubtedly be happy, as it will mean a re-affirmation of his Realism over the Nominalism of William of Ockham!

[1] Richard Tarnas: The Passion of the Western Mind, Understanding the Ideas that have shaped our World View, Pimlico, Random House, London, 1991.

[2] See Tarnas pp 206=207.


Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 10.22.09 AMThis blog posting is written by Fr John Leydon, a GCCM founding member, a Columban Missionary in the Philippines and the Director of Center for Ecozoic Living and Learning (CELL) which he co-founded in 1998.