Biodiversity and Salvation: Thomistic Roots for Environmental Ethics

by Willis Jenkins
Biodiversity and Salvation: Thomistic Roots for Environmental Ethics
Willis Jenkins
The Journal of Religion
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Biodiversity and Salvation: Thornistic Roots for Environmental Ethics*

Willis Jenkins / Charlottesville, Virginia


It does not take long reading through the Summa to discover a picture of the cosmos that appears hierarchical and anthropocentric, in which Thomas Aquinas situates a presentation of Christian "dominion" that can often read more like agential domination. Worse, since it is ration- ality that wins human creatures their place near the top of Thomas's chain of being, all the nonrational world can appear to be lacking any sort of intrinsic value, as if just stuff for the projects of rational agents. So it is that Thomas displays both of the cardinal sins decried by many environmentalist thinkers: an anthropocentric assumption and an in- strumentalist regard of material-earthy-bodily things-the twin hall- marks of a logic of domination that it is said underwrites our growing environmental crisis. It has seemed, then, that the place to begin a Christian apology for the possibility of a greener faith is not with Thomas or such of his ilk but, rather, in new models of the world and of God that disallow domination and instrumentalism by displacing hu- mans from the center of life.

Conversation between Christian theologians and environmentalists, in the rare (but increasing) instances that it in fact occurs, therefore usually seeks to find a way around doctrines of transcendence and election to- ward a more materially settled and broadly ecological situation for hu- mans. This has to do with a set of worries that refer back, still, to Lynn White's 1967 accusation that it is an anthropocentric and hierarchical Christianity that has led us (in the Christian West anyway) into ecologi- cal vice and, thus, environmental crisis. Theological responses have ac- cordingly often been organized either by way of immanentist apology

* An earlier version of this article was given at "Ecology, Theology, and Judeo-Christian Environmental Ethics" at the University of Notre Dame, February 2001. Thanks to those present for suggestions, as well as to Jim Childress, Charles Mathewes, and Gene Rogers at the University of Virginia, and to a helpful anonymous reviewer.

O 2003 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

(following White's own suggestion that Christians ought to think like St. Francis), or by ecological revision of the (divinely underwritten) moral order of things. Readings of Thomas can be found in both veins: Mathew Fox celebrates the "living cosmology" of Thomas as a reminder of a minority strand of mystics who celebrate a cosmic Christ and an earthly Spirit,' while Michael Northcott recommends a reinstatement of Thomas's natural law ethic, its anthropocentrism suitably tempered for an ecological age.' Common to both ways, however, is an assumption that theological readers after Rachel Carson and White-that is, after con- sciousness of environmental problems and their social causes-must skim for the green parts, electing those teachings that tend toward eco- logical harmony and passing over those which concentrate too much at- tention on the human.

In contrast, I want to propose here a way of approaching the traditional (human-concerned) doctrines with a view to their environmental virtue. I want to suggest something more, however, than that theology, if the right strands are played, can be absolved of the accusations against it. I think a careful look at the way that salvation works can in fact be helpful to con- temporary problems in environmental theory. For examination I offer an- other reading of Thomas, one not necessarily at odds with the environ- mental promise discovered by Fox and probably in agreement with much of Northcott, but here beginning from what is at personal issue to faith: the becoming perfect of humans.

If there is something to this, the payoff for a Christian environmental ethics would be significant: precisely because as a whole Thomas's system appears exceptionally troublesome to those who would recuperate the seemingly problematic Christian tradition for environmental purposes. If upon closer reading we can find in Thomas a certain regard for the natu- ral world necessary to Christian faith, then we will have done something more helpful than have scanned the tradition for environmentally correct phrases. That is, if Thomas's language of dominion and dichotomy can prove itself at once salvific and verdant, then we will have made a start to- ward doing something more than greenwashing churches; we will have made some headway into understanding a distinctively Christian envi-

' Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), pp. 1 14-16, see also his SheerJoy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992).

Michael Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 226-56, esp. pp. 231-32. (I should note that Northcott's treatment of Christian theology under the aspect of environmental crisis is on the whole a nuanced and very helpful account, and I suspect we share a sense of the environmental promise of orthodox theology) For an attempt at what a Thomistic natural law environmental ethics might look like, see Patrick Halligan, "The Environmental Policy of St. Thomas Aquinas," Environmental Laul 19 (1989).

ronmentalism-one rooted in soteriology and so in the very heart of ec- clesial faith and practice. Furthermore, if we can understand Thomas to have something to say of the deep root of our environmental problems, then we will show this distinctively Christian environmentalism to be help- ful to the broader political task of formulating human answers to ecolog- ical problems.

In what follows I attempt to open this sort of path of inquiry, arguing that the way of human salvation in Thomas implies a robust environmen- tal ethics requiring ecodiversity, an attentive regard of the natural world, and natural entities endowed with what is intended by "intrinsic value." It is an argument of implication and fittingness, an offering of some notes of ecological apology for Thomas, that seeks to show how the physics of his soteriology entails a divinely gifted nature and a truly responsible stew- ardship-concepts fecund both for ecological theologians and secular environmentalists.


To appreciate the significance of the natural for Thomas, a brief setting of his ontological stage is needed. His Christian appropriation of an Aristotelian natural teleology has it that every entity is made perfect through active desire for the object proper to its nature. These fundamental inclinations are always materially mediated and satisfied according to the proper form of each creature. A squirrel, for example, is a creature of God that exercises a desire to be, and to be specifically squirrel, by exercising in the pursuit of its relative perfection such characteristically squirrel habits as mating with other squirrels, eating and storing acorns, and so on. Human nature is more complex, being made up of several sets of tendencies, one proper to all being (the desire to continue existing), one proper to all animals (e.g., the desire to re- produce), and one proper to rational beings (the desire to know)." As that which differentiates them from other material beings,+ this final desire to know is their characteristic and so properly organizing de- sire-which is to say, their characteristically natural one. Like other desires, its satisfaction too is materially mediated: we know by per- ceiving. Yet the final "object" proper to this desire to know is God. As

' Thomas Aquinas, trans. Summa Theologica English Dominican Fathers Translation (New York: Benziger, 1948), 1-11.94.2 (hereafter cited as S.T).

But not angels, which are incorporeal, immaterial intelligent species. The difference of humans from angels is of course that humans are an embodied, intelligent species and, therefore, come to know things through their corporeal faculties, i.e., their senses. The im- portance of the distinction is the significance of sense and world for human knowing and perfection-as we will be apparent shortly. See Aquinas, S.Z, 1.50.1-2, 54-59.

we will see, the soteriological epistemology that Thomas works out in this tension implies that our appreciation of the particular values of creatures need not be of goods with which our own creative pro- jects separately compete, for the distinctly human good is in fact en- acted through a specific manner of comportment toward other crea- tures: receiving them as iconic gifts within the human movement to perfection. We begin to see creatures moving toward their actuality, or in light of their final form, only within our specifically human movement into God. Thus, regard of creation eventuates rightly from within the setting of our own sanctification. The structure quickly sketched is as follows:

,4. God, as pure act, is the most knowable and thus the satisfaction of human de- sire to know.Wf course God is more than an answer shaped after rationality's cu- riosity, but nonetheless we humans know God primarily, if "in a general and con- fused way," by our natural desire for happiness, knowing God "inasmuch as God is man's beatitude.""

B. Yet it is not just rational creatures who have their end in God, and whose desire for perfection is concomitantly known finally in God: "every creature in- tends to acquire its own perfection, which is the likeness of the divine perfections and goodness."' Every entity has been created by God, and it is therefore fun- damental to every creature to seek God naturally in its own way.' Noting the ravens who call on God in Ps. 146:9, Thomas says that they "are said to call upon God on account of the natural desire whereby all things, each in its own way, de- sire to attain the divine goodness.""

C. The perfection that every created thing desires is then ultimately one.'' Yet each particular creature participates perfection according to its proper na- ture and, therefore, its own distinct mode: "since all things flow from the Divine

Ibid., 1.12.1.

Ibid., 1.2.1. An object is known according to the mode of knowing, "hence the knowledge of every knower is ruled according to its own nature" (I. 12.4). Thus, God is known first and primarily to humans as the perfection of their nature, for to know is the attainment of ra- tionality and human nature is distinguished by rationality. So the human desire for self- completion is a fundamental inclination to know God (I. 12.1).

Ibid., 1.44.4.

Ibid., 1-11.109.3.

Ibid., 11-11.83.10. The various ways to God of nonrational creatures are the distinctive

movements of their natural appetites toward what is proximately good for each of them (I-II.109.3), which is a sign of their inclination toward their Creator, itself a sign of the prov- idence of God moving things to their proper end. In his Compendiumof The0108 (trans. by Cyril Vollert [St. Louis: Herder, 1947]), Thomas says, "All movements and operations of every being are seen to tend to what is perfect. . . the perfection of anything is its goodness. Hence every movement and action of anything whatever tend toward good. . . . Therefore the movement and action of all things tend toward assimilation with the divine goodness" (1.1.103). See also Aquinas, S.T., 1-11.109.1, 1.103.5, 1-11.23.4.

"' "Nature tends to one thing only" (Aquinas, S.T, I-II.1.5), and "the universal end of all things is the Universal Good" (1.103.2).

will, all things in their own way are inclined by appetite towards good, but in different ways.""

This preliminary is simply to point out that for Thomas the good of hu- manity is also the final good of every being; the ontological desire of hu- manity points toward a divine perfection that issues in creaturely diversity and makes possible their peaceful difference. Says Thomas, "God willed to produce creatures for participation in His goodness; by resembling the divine goodness they would represent it . . . God is represented by crea- tures as the transcendent is represented by that which is surpassed."" The transcendence of God, God's excessive difference from the world, founds the differences among creatures and, as a provisional foundation, unites them together in their orientation to divine difference-in their longing to ecstatically participate perfection.

From within the natural participation of perfection we find the begin- nings of a soteriological environmental regard: (1) nonhuman creatures are naturally endowed with value, and (2) humans can know and respect this value, but (3) only insofar as they know God and, thus, only from within the context of participation in the divine life.


Fergus Kerr helps us see how it is for Thomas that knowing the world is a theological exercise. The possibility for humans knowing the world at all, Kerr explains, is rooted in Thomas's doctrine of creation that holds things finally in God, and in his concomitant epistemology that prioritizes the ability of the objects in the world to elicit the mind's participation in their intelligibility.13 Notice that because of a theological priority to epistemology, the nonhuman objects are active toward human knowl- edge. So Kerr says that for Thomas, "Our experience of things is not a con- frontation with something utterly alien, but a way of absorbing, and being absorbed by, the world to which we naturally belong."" But conceiving knowing in this way, as the participated fulfillment of human reason

" Ibid., 1.59.1. Creatures are, therefore, by seeking ends proper to their natures, authen- tically distinct from one another because of their diverse participations in one ultimate per- fection. However, this final end is also the source of their unity, so that actual diversity can be considered as one, yet without occluding real difference, by virtue of their orientation: "things which are in themselves different, may be considered as one, according as they are ordained to one common thing" (1-11.92. I). And, "All things are directed to the divine good- ness as to their end" (~~uinas,?ompendzun of Theology, 1.1. r48). See also Aquinas, S.T, c44.4, and 111.1.2.

I' Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentzles (SMCG), in On the Eternzty of the World, trans. Cyril Vollert (Milwaukee: Marquette Universit), 1964), 11.35 (p. 36).


Fergus Kerr, After Aquznas (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 26-34.
" Kerr, p. 3 1.

through mind-world cooperation, is only credible by a doctrine of creation that holds things as already true in the mind of God.'"

The surprising implication here is that this implies that the natural sciences are imperfect until they conceive things as in the mind of God. This is not to say that only mystics can be good biologists; it is to claim that if everything has its first cause and final perfection in God, a thing cannot be known in its fullness as a creature until it is known as in the One who cre- ated it.I6 It remains true that our minds are adequate to comprehending nat- ural objects as such, but this comprehension is not yet able to see them as creatures of God, in their perfection and so in the fullness of their beauty. Natural knowing is therefore inadequate to the sort of understanding re- quired for a normative description of nonhuman entities. In other words, it is so that by nature a human can work to understand snail darters, but it is only by grace that one will be able to see snail darters more relevantly ap- proximate to the way that God sees them. This is because, says Thomas while writing about our knowing God, "comprehension is not a distinct op- eration from vision"; both the vision itself and the entity sought are our ob- jects of comprehension." The knowledge of God that we seek is an adoption into God's vision, which is the grace that (naturally) strengthens the light of reason to see God and, concomitantly, to see others as God sees them.ln

The claim here is that theological science (simply, knowing God) has

normative implications for environmental practice precisely because it is

a knowing that renders the "environment" as a community of God, the

material place that nurtures salvation. For Thomas, a romantic turn to na-

ture, the attempt to look into the natural world for how we ought to struc-

ture our lives, is not wrong-it is just incomplete if one looks no further.

If we look to the natural world and our gaze stops there, if we are not al-

ready moved by and pushed on toward the knowledge of God (and so to

the knowledge of things as in God), then our understanding stops short of


An intensification of this "natural" gaze can issue only in

''"Since minds are what we are, we participate, by exercising our intellectual capacities,

and of course to a very limited extent, in God's own knowledge of the world" (Kerr,

pp. 31-32).

'"'Hence, according to the knowledge whereby things are known by those who see the

essence of God, they are seen in God Himself not by any other similitudes but by the divine

essence alone present to the intellect by which also God Himself is seen" (Aquinas, S.T, [n. 4

above], 1.12.9-10).

"Ibid., 1-11.4.3.

'"Ibid., I. 12.13; "The ultimate end of an intellectual creature is the vision of God in His

essence. . . . Accordingly if God is to be known as He is, in His essence, God Himself must be-

come the form of the intellect knowing Him" (Aquinas, Compendium of Theolog), 1.1.104-5).

'" Since "the knowledge of God is the cause of all things," then "natural things are midway between the knowledge of God and our knowledge. . . . Hence, as natural objects of knowl- edge are prior to our knowledge, and are its measure, so, the knowledge of God is prior to natural things, and is the measure of them" (Aquinas, S.T., 1.14.8).

endless adumbration: the more a thing is known the more it is revealed as unknown, and understanding of an entity (let alone all of nature) is always deferred. If, however, our approach of the natural world is moved in and by the knowledge of God, and we then view the world through our own participation in the intellectual sight of God, we will find the meaning in and of nature for which we have been looking."' Nature in itself, as it ap- pears in the literature of contemporary environmental ethics, is famously elusive, a slippery concept and an empty category. (Whose concept of nature? Whence this category? How permeable are its boundaries?- and like critical questions.) "Nature" under the aspect of God (read: "creation") is, by contrast, populated by many and different species, all related, and all differently, by their unique participation in God (in the virtues of their creation). This participation amounts to and is evidenced by the activity of an entity seeking its perfection, its moving from poten- tiality to act-a movement into the fullness of being. But this movement cannot be finally discerned unless the observer sees the goal sought-and this is to say that the activity of natural objects before human knowing (de- scribed earlier with Kerr) can be understood as nature's movement to- ward God. If then we cast our pursuit of nature in the context of our own pursuit for God, we will find the nature(s) environmentalists have been seeking as we increasingly understand and bless God by God's relations to creation and situate ourselves in nonhuman nature through God's pursuit of

Exploring this phenomenological movement of knowing an entity, we find that creation can be known as such by humans, but only insofar as it is received as gift. We finally know nature only as it gives itself to us in the context of God's giving to us. In the actualization of our desire for God (through our participation in God by grace), we are provoked by sensory knowledge of the natural world to realize something of the character of God and then in this knowledge to apprehend the perfection of the entity that mediates our vision. It is not that nature gives itself to our intuition if only we refine our attention to accommodate its efforts, nor that we dis- cover ourselves to be inextricable from nature and so in the act of know- ing discover ourselves to have already been given by nature all along (al- ready enfolded in nature); rather, creation is there, given to us, in order to give us over to God. Creation hands us over to God (makes us "handy"

''Compare ibid., I.14.5-6.

'' "hd, just as creatures would be imperfect if they proceeded from God and were not or- dained to return to God, so, too, their procession from God would be imperfect unless the return to God were equal to the procession. .. . Thus, it is necessary for the most excellent created intellects to know God, so that their knowledge be equal to the procession of crea- tures from God" (Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on Truth, trans. James McGIynn, S.J. [Chicago: Regnery, 1953]), 11.20.4.

to God) by putting on display God's perfections. Creation performs a par- ticipated analog to the incarnation as God's giving God's self; that is, in Christ creation appears to us as God's availability. We receive this giving of God in and from creation by the (rational) act of seeing natures as the givenness of God. This gift of God's self given for us (yes, for us-to this bald anthropocentrism we will return) is received through a certain re- gard for creation. It is by receiving creation in reference to God that we have something to say about its beings: creation is known as gift to us, and this we can only receive in and by the sight of God (which is to say, by grace).


Here, in the context of God's giving to us, we discover the ethical thickness of creation: it is in receiving nature as God's gift for us that we find something special to say about it-something like, but better than, "intrinsic value." Creation is a gift to us not because of its use-value for our projects, but because it reveals God. God's availability in creation displays for our cognition (no, importantly for Thomas: adumbrates the praecognitio of God's self-revelation in Christ, for our recognition) many and different kinds of perfections. The stunning diversity of creation is not for our eco-touristic entertainment, nor to give us building blocks enough to keep us happily constructing our own artifacts; rather, "because His goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness could be supplied by an~ther."'~

All of these beings that we find around us are present in cre- ation first because their natures represent God, ~7ho "prepossesses in Himself all the perfections of creatures, being Himself simply and uni- versally perfect. Hence every creature represents Him, and is like Him so far as it possesses some perfecti~n."~~

While we live on earth we know God through God's likeness reflected in creatures, which are at bottom, in essential nature, nothing else than a relation to God." The value of every creature is that it is a visable participation of God and so functions as an icon of the divine life. Clearly here is in Thomas a theological mandate to preserve ecological diversity, for to do so is to preserve the multifarious character of the availability of God for us. To those who

'' Aquinas, S.T, 1.47.1. " Ibid., 1.13.2: "But every created thing has, in keeping with its form, some participated likeness to the divine goodness" (Aquinas, Compendium of Theology [n. 9 above], I.1.103).

" "Being created, Thomas thinks, means that there is nothing in the creature other than a relationship to the creator" (Kerr [n. 13 above], p. 43). Compare Aquinas, S.T, 1.56.3, 13.1-7. 4.3.

would let the gifts of creation mean only what immediate good they can provide for humansz5 and disregard those entities that they find difficult or dangerous, Thomas replies that everything created is good (however partially) because every created thing can lead us to Godzfi and so is good also for humans."

So far, a directive for preserving biodiversity is clear, but it might seem that Thomas is in danger of substituting a technological instrumentaliza- tion of nature for a soteriological one: creation may now seem the stuff of a certain spiritual technol~gy.~~

We can point beyond this objectification of creation, however, by noting that when we say creation is revelation for us, the "for us" is relative proper to our nature, not the nature of the created entities. Because it is our nature as rational creatures to desire to know and because we know by our embodied experience in the world," all crea- tures, understood under the aspect of a biblical faith, are for us material signs of God. Nonhuman creatures are not in essence spiritual tools- they are, as we have seen, essentially relations to God-but because of the function they perform relative to my desire for God, they are indeed salvifically useful. To say that creation is revelation for us, therefore, is not to say that the essence of nature is to be something for humans. To say that the world is for us the availability of God is a statement about the intrinsic nature of humans, not of other creatures. It is an affirmation of what we are for, not a comprehension of what creation is for. The natures of cre- ation are constituted as gift for us by our own receiving, through them, the grace of God. Creation is not human gift by essential nature, but by prox- imate function, relative to human nature and God's love for us. So cre- ation is not finally known by humans, even "enframed" as gift, but is con-

" By immediate goods I mean those proper to human desires for preservation, suste- nance, shelter-to human use. These uses are of course as right as it is natural to eat-they are not, however, the most excellent use, which is that proper to reason.


Note that this is not at all to say that we can get to God on our own by using our reason to

trace the way up from creatures. As alluded to above, creatures get us to God only insofar as

we are already participating in God through God's self-revelation in Christ-the precogni

tion to which reason subsequently spends a life catching up.

''Aquinas, S.?: (n. 4 above), 1.65.1, 72.1: In fact, the very notion that some created things are intrinsically bad because they are bad for us is for Thomas evidence of both foolishness and sin. Some things seem dangerous or unnecessary because we do not understand their use in the perfection of the universe; if we did and acted in conformation to the world's de- sign, we would have found no injury from the poisonous animals. If there are things that withdraw our attention from their participated perfection, it is because we have "misused" them (i.e., not known them as signs of God's love). The fact that there are beings that act in ways deleterious to human life and to the order of creation generally is an effect of the sin's disordering creation (1.96.1-2).

'% theologian could dismiss the worry as misplaced Pelagianism, but for the environ- mentalist the question is live: do we have here only a theological substitute for the same ob- jectifying vision?

" Ibid., 1.85.

stituted as gift in our receptive activity as creatures loved by God. The question of the being of nonhuman creatures remains questionable, and so the possibility of our difference from them (and theirs from each other) is maintained.

The givenness goes deeper: seeing creation as given for us also points to creation as given-to. Realizing the different and sundry perfections of creation, we are awed by the many creatures around us that also receive the love of God. "Every being in any way existing is from God," receives its determinate form from the divine wisdom, and is preserved by God "continually pouring out existence into [it].""' Insofar as an entity par- ticipates in being and, therefore, reflects the likeness of God, it is the re- cipient of the love of God? To receive creation as revelatory gift is then also to receive all creatures as gifted beings. Thus, discovering the rich- ness of God's life through creatures, we discover also that God has been giving to others all along. Indeed, as Kerr has helped us see, to appreci- ate creatures as given for us is to assume that we ourselves are given with them-in fact, in the sense afforded by participatory knowing, given by them." Truly to receive the gifts that God offers us in creation is to rec- ognize that all the entities around us participate in being and so are di- rected to their own perfection. Understanding creatures in their mode of givenness for us, we see their intrinsic givenness to themselves: God has given every creature the gift of participation, which we see in their manifest striving for an end." To say, therefore, that creation is an in- strument of grace is to refute the very idea of nature's instrumentality. The grace to which creation is instrumental is the grace that allows us to see God and, by seeing God, to appreciate better the diversity of beings who also receive God's grace and communicate themselves to knowers as intelligible only as such receivers.


" To an objection that God must not love irrational creatures, Thomas replies that, "God loves all existing things," which, "insofar as they exist are good" because "God's will is the cause of all things. It must needs be, therefore, that a thing has existence, or any kind of good, only inasmuch as it is willed by God. . . . Hence, since to love anything is nothing else than to will good to that thing, it is manifest that God loves everything that exists" (Ibid., 1.20.2).

" Kerr, pp. 26-34.

'' There has been much writing by environmental philosophers mulling over the manifest striving of natural entities. Evidently, the thinking goes, things have a good-for-themselves, and this good is also evidently not ours, so natural things must have their own separate goods, which (therefore?) we must respect. Thomas would say that these scholars have rightly identified the phenomena of end-directed activity but have misnamed it as self- valuing (or as a phenomenon we identify as valuable). Natural entities do indeed seek their good, as do we; however, the good is not known in relation to its own nature nor to human activity, but in reference to the good in which each nature participates in God.

Giftedness then gives us the language to say something consequen- tial about the nonhuman world. Better than trying to say that nature is in- trinsically valuable, which catches us up into an environmental discourse that seems unable to escape being rooted in ~ubjectivity,~'

or, worse, a mar- ket commerce of values, we can affirm the specialness of nature best by saying that creation is for us the grace of God. If we pay attention to what the "for us" says about who we are and what it is we truly desire, and if we really are taken into the grace of God, we will then find natures that are much more than intrinsically valuable; they are intrinsically given-to and so caught up along with us into the divine commerce of grace. Taking na- ture seriously as gift for us, we find that God reveals Godself to be, in a sense, courting in her giving the desire of many kinds of consorts. For all God's giving are received desires for perfection, and in receiving our own we discover the profligate giving of God to many others. The desire of God, we find, is to be desired by many kinds of beings. And, one would surmise, if our goal is to be made deiform, we, too, will want to be desired by many kinds of beings as we are redeemed into God. The sort of an- thropocentrism we find in Thomas, then, is one that centers creation around humanity only insofar as humans receive God's giving to creation.



We have seen that for Thomas we are able to speak of God as possessing the attributes that we observe in the created things because they par- ticipate and are perfected in God. We are therefore able to name God "as far as creatures represent Him,"" and as far as we have been attentive to those creatures. We have seen that whatever good we see in creatures "preexists in God, and in a more excellent and higher way."3fi We are therefore analogically ascribing to God the perfection of the various goods that we have seen in creatures when we name God as their end and sustenance." "In this way therefore He can be named by us from crea- tures, yet not so that the name which signifies Him expresses the di- vine essence itself" but so that we can signify God with what we have known Him by, indicating God by the "community of idea" the name

" The point cannot be pursued here, but it seems to me that environmental thinkers find it difficult to describe an intrinsic value that is at once verifiably "there" and yet does not ap- peal at bottom to the self-valuing of rational agents.

Aquinas, S.?: (n.4 above), I. 13.2.

Y6 Ibid.

" Ibid., I. 13.1.We can know God "from creatures as their principle, and also by way of ex- cellence and remotion."

shares.jThus the eco-Thomist can argue for extensive preservation by saying that if we can bless God insofar as we are able to name God, and this we do at least in part by drawing from creation, then it follows that the more creatures we encounter the more names for God we have, and so the greater capacity to offer our praise. There is an availability to God (and in this sense, an embodiment) in God's significability by human names for the natural world.jY The everyday Christian should want vast reserves for species protection simply in order to know how better to clothe God's name in worship and in prayer. The more kinds of created things we see, the more modes of God's availability for us, the more actively can our reason seek its desire. Ecological diversity is a sort of adumbration of God (God's own phenomenological self-description, given for us), and its preservation promises the continual issue of surprising new descriptions. So it is important that we have not only zoos and gardens for preserving creatures but whole ecosystems that continually produce new creatures. Ecodiversity is the fertile ground of a multichorused praise of God.

With the extinction of species and despoiling of places, we lose the abil- ity to name and praise God and find ourselves left with only the names derived from things made in our own image, the artifices of our own technology. The terrible paucity we are threatened by in ecological degradation is the loss of that by which to bless God, and so the increased likelihood of idolatry: naming God after things made in our own image. When we are left with nothing but our own projects to gaze upon, the traces of God become even more vestigial, while the face of humanity, reflected off the chrome surfaces, dazzles and fixates our gaze. Indeed, technological ecocide appears to us as a mode of deicide: the extinction of species is the impoverishment of God's self-giving for us."This is not to say that the intelligibility of God is reduced by the imperfection of the con- text in which we seek God's knowledge. The goodness of God is not made less by our inability to speak of it. The act of God is unchanged by our frus- tration of its effects. Yet the degradation of creation can be construed as the loss of God because it reduces the fullness of God's availability to us

Ibid., 1.13.1, 13.5, 13.3, 13.6; "Now the names given to God are derived from His ef-

fects" (I.2.2), but "such a representation cannot reach the level of equality, in the that a uni-

vocal effect represents its cause. . . no, God is represented by creatures as the transcendent

is represented by that which is surpassed" (Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles [n. 12 above],


'"quinas, S.?: 111.60.1: "All things that are ordained to one, even in different ways, can be

denominated from it"; "Because we know and name God from creatures, the names we at-

tribute to God signify what belongs to material creatures, of which the knowledge is natural

to us" (1.13.1).

"' Note how an anthropocentric approach mitigates the absolute consequence of its think- ing: God is not being killed, but in our handicapped receptivity to the fullness of God's avail- ability for rational natures it makes it for us as if so.

through the world. We have a responsibility to preserve species and wild- lands if for no other reason than preserving the integrity of human wor- ship, wherein is the fullness of God for us.

Worship now appears as the eucharistic return of creation to God: in our liturgical naming of God from creation we also denominate created things according to their mode of existence in the Divine wisdom; that is, as essentially belonging to their own particularity in This is seen best in Thomas when he says that even in the state of innocence, where humans v~ould have had no need of animals for clothing or food, "man needed animals in order to have experimental knowledge of their natures. This is signified by the fact that God led the animals to man, that he might give them names expressive of their respective nature^."'^ As the creatures were brought before Adam to name, he was to attend carefully to each one, discern its peculiar relation to the rest of the world and to God, and give it a name significant of those relations. Naming appears as a kind of blessing whereby Adam refers creatures to their Creator and by so doing understands the creatures as "spiritual things set before us under the guise of things sensible," and so as signs of their Maker.'j In Eden Thomas places the perfecting work of God in humans in the context of humans working in creation. Humanity is found first in a garden so that just as God "might Himself work in man and keep him by sanctifying him," hu- mans could work to "dress and keep paradise, which dressing would not have involved labor, as it did after sin: but would have been pleasant on account of man's practical knowledge of the powers of nat~re."'~

Known from its soteriological center, the human re-cognition of divine knowl- edge, all of human labor is to be liturgy, a naming of creation, a blessing of this world through the act of blessing God.

Here we find foreshadowed the eucharistic character of stewardship: not only is it our responsibility to take care of the earth, but it is also our vocation to the gather up the various loves of the earth and return them to their Lover. Ifit is our responsibility as masters to demonstrate the love of God for every creature, so, too, is it our liturgical work to hold up and bless the natural love every creature has for God. Noting that every thing loves God in its own way, Thomas remembers that Dionysius said, "God leads everything to love of Himself," and he comments in response, "Hence, in the state of perfect nature man referred the love of himselfand of all other things to the love of God as to its end."'j Stewardship then is at

" Compare Thomas's description of sacraments in ibid., 111.60.4
"Ibid., 1.96.1.
"Ibid., 111.60.4.
" Ibid., 1.102.4.
'' Ibid., 1-11.109.3 (my emphasis).

once the preservation of the possibility of praising God and, itself a litur- gical work, is eucharistic at its center.


For Thomas, stewardship is rooted in justice, and justice is an act of God's providence, the divine love by which creation is brought to its perfec- tion. As we have just seen, insofar as humans participate in that move- ment, stewardship is a eucharistic performance. From here there are two questions Thomas might ask of the stewards of creation, one ecologi- cal and one soteriological. First, are the natures God created moving to their proper perfection? (Or are they trapped in potentin, enframed by our technology and edificial environments as no more than resource?) Second, how praiseworthy of God are our uses and constructs of nature? (Do they make visible the harmony of created differences that can point us toward God, or do they stop the gaze in homogeneity, making opaque God's availability in the world?)

The ecological task of stewardship is the dispensation of justice, giving

each its due "according to the equality of proportion" and so bringing each

creature to its perfection in God through its place in the created order.'The

work of stewardship is to be a minister of GodS justice, which is the act of

God completing what God's mercy has begun. For insofar as every entity

participates in being, it participates in the goodness of creation, which jus-

tice follows as its servant: "the work of divine justice always presupposes the

work of mercy, and is founded thereupon."''Justice thus honors the gifted-

ness that we have seen to be the heart of every creature, "which participates

in goodness to the extent to which it participates in being,"and which is it-

self participation of God.48 Here is what may be called the "right" of every

created thing: seen under the aspect of creation, we have a prima facie duty

to every entity to honor the divine goodness to which its participated exis-

tence refers. The first question the eco-Thomist may ask of our labor is: Are

we respecting the goodness continually bestowed on every thing?

Justice respects the particular character of each creature's participation

in God. Some are to be honored more than others because of their greater

perfection; "some are closer to the end than others, and so participate in

the divine goodness more abundantly."'God wills the movement of cre-


Ibid., 11-111.38.1 1.

" Ibid., 1.21.4.

'"quinas, Dzsputed Questions on Truth (n. 21 above), quote at 11.20.4, see also S.?: (n. 4

above), 1.44.1-4.

" Aquinas, Co~r~pendium

of Theoloa (n. 9 above), I. 1.148. There are many participations of the divine goodness, some closer to perfection than others, thus issuing in various repre- sentations of goodness, and this for the perfection of the universe as a whole, the beauty of

ation into perfection through this ratio of being; diversity is ordered to unity in God. It is then proper that the lower creatures exist for the higher; indeed, the lower are perfected by participating in the higher.'" So it is fitting that "the plants make use of the earth for their nourishment, and animals make use of plants . . . [and] that man should be master over

animal^."^' That the lives of lions require those of donkeys, says Thomas, is a lesser evil, permitted by the relative imperfection of donkeys to lions, so that the greater perfection in the diversity of the universe might be dis- played.52 Predation, that every entity eats and is eaten, is an operation of diversification, part of the material process by which the glory of the uni- verse is made newly manifest. Since the goodness, which is simple in God is manifold and divided in creatures, "the whole universe participates the divine goodness more perfectly and represents it better than any creature whatever."" Every entity, including humans, is to the universe as a part to the whole and exists for the greater perfection of the universe, which it- self exists for God: "Now the universe of creatures, to which man is com- pared as part to whole, is not the last end, but is ordained to God, as to its last end."54

Now it may well be true, as Michael Northcott has pointed out, that Thomas too blithely skims over the waste and suffering these natural operations of diversification inv~lve.~' Thomas seems relatively uncon- cerned for a theodicy of natural yet here we find strikingly nonan- thropomorphic ethical purchase to a hierarchy of being: if it is true that God loves all creatures, and some are loved more than others on the ba- sis of their likeness to God, and that the whole order of creation repre- sents the divine goodness better than any single creature, then it follows that more is owed by justice to the whole of creation. There is then in Thomas the principle of ecocentrism: let us be concerned with whole earth systems, with keystone habitats, biomes, and ecosystems, for these

which consists in its diversity and, therefore, in the harmony of the many imperfect partici- pations ofits members: "For the universe would not be perfect if only one grade ofgoodness were found in things" (Aquinas, S.T., 1.4'7.2). Therefore, the justice that is accorded in re- spect of the goodness to which existence is referred must also be diverse in its operation. This justice follows the love of God, who loves some creatures more than others because of their nearer likeness to God; thus, the greater good in which a creature participates, the more it is willed by God into greater goodness yet (cf. Aquinas, Dzsputed Questions on fiuth, 11.20.4).


Aquinas, S.T., 1-11.4.6; "in the order of the universe, lower beings realize their last end chiefly by their subordination to higher beings" (Aquinas, Co~r~pependiu~r~

of Theolog3.', I. 1.148). "Aquinas, S.T, 1.96.1. "Ibid.,I.48.2,22.2. '"bid., 1.47.1. " 'bid., 1-11.2.8. "Northcott (n. 3 above), p. 231. '"quinas, S.T, 1.49.2.

are more representative of God than single species or particular enti- ties." Just stewardship requires savvy ecology.

Ecological justice to a creature therefore includes several levels of re- spect: (1)the goodness in which every creature participates, (2)its relative nobility, (3) its subordination to the good of the universe, and (4)its ulti- mate ordination to God. These are summarized by Thomas:

So, therefore, in the parts of the universe also every creature exists for its own proper act and perfection [I], and the less noble for the nobler, as those crea- tures that are less noble than man exist for the sake of man [2] whilst each and every creature exists for the sake of the entire universe [3]. Furthermore, the en- tire universe, with all its parts, is ordained towards God as its end, inasmuch as it imitates, as it were, and shows forth the Divine goodness, to the glory of God. [4], Reasonable creatures, however, have in some special and higher manner God as their end, since they can attain to Him by their own operations, by know- ing and loving Him. Thus it is plain that Divine goodness is the end of all cor- poreal beings.'"

Where the fundamental dignity of creatures is not respected, where cre- ation is impoverished by improper use by its inhabitants, and where the good of creatures is not seen as ordained finally to God, this is inj~stice.~' Indeed, as Jill LeBlanc suggests, as the misuse of goods ordained to God, it may well be considered bla~pherny.~~


Notice that near to the end of the passage quoted above Thomas makes special mention of the place of reasonable creatures in the order of the universe and in ordination to God." The peculiar responsibility of these rational creatures for justice can be seen in Thomas's view of provi- dence. For Thomas, the providence of God is principal to every creature's existence, each of whom "would fall into nothingness were it not kept in being by the operation of the Divine power."62 This preservation is mediated, however, for as we have seen, God governs the order of being

;'These higher orders of creation represent more keenly the divine wisdom, showing more of the idea by which God creates. Compare ibid., 1.44.3. -'"bid., 1.65.2.


Notice, in reference to the problem that environmentalists have with describing what, at root, is going on, that injustice as the root of a worldwide crisis is a positive description of what is happening on earth-and it is one that resonates with both ecclesial and secular mis- sion programs.

""Jill LeBlanc, "Eco-Thomism," En71ironmental Ethics 21 (1999): 300-301.

"' Compare Aquinas, Compendium ofTheolog3: (n. 9 above), I. 1.103.

'" Aquinas, S.T (n. 4 above), I. 104.1, cf. Sunlm Contra Gentiles, trans. English Dominicans (London: Burns, Oats, & Ll'ashbourne, 1934), 11.25.

by means of the higher creatures." This subsidiarity of authority allows the lower to be perfected by participating in the proximate higher (as the human body is perfected by participating in the salvation of the whole nature) and gives sanctifying responsibility to certain delegated governors.'j4 The stewardship role of humans is thus required of them by the order of the creation, in which they have their existence and for which they are to care, as the responsibility accorded to them by their ecological situation and its concomitant mediation of providence. Thomas uses the example of the preservative quality of salt functioning as a secondary cause of God's preservative pro~idence.~' Extending his metaphor to biblical reference, we can say that humans are to be the salt of the earth, to be a "middle cause" of the preservation of being (unless the salt has lost its flavor).

This power humanity is to mediate is of course only comely when mod- eled after its source: the governing action by which God brings creation to its fulfillment. If "it is not fitting that the supreme goodness of God should produce things without giving them their perfection . . . [which] consists in the attainment of its end," and that "therefore it belongs to the Divine goodness, as it brought things into existence, so to lead them to their end,'' then the government by humanity over creation, insofar as it rightly ad- ministers the providence of God, is thus to be about bringing things to their perfect end.fi6 Government seeks the participation of all creatures in good and so has two effects: "the preservation of things in their goodness, and the moving of things to good."67 Stewardship, therefore, as the medi- ation of divine providence, is defined by Thomas as being both about con- servation and careful tending;@ we are to protect the participations of goodness and to move things to their ordained end, which proximately is their natural perfection and ultimately is God.fiy

The dominion of humanity does not therefore, as it has seemed, issue from a capricious election by God of one creature to lord over the rest; it is, rather, the responsibility humanity undertakes proper to the mode of

""In the creation itself He established an order among things so that some depend on oth- ers, by which they are preserved in being, though He remains the principal cause of their preservation" (Aquinas, S.T, I. 104.2).

"Ibid., 1-11.4.3, 1.103.6, cf. 11-11.2.6.

"Ibid., 1.104.2.

"hid., quote at 1.103.1, see 1.103.3, cf. 1.103.6.

"Ibid., 1.103.4.

"That is, stewardship includes both conservation in rerum bonum and guberr~atio.(The 1948 Dominican edition of the Summa entitles Questions 103-19 "The Conservation and Gov- ernment of Creatures.")

"For the government of any prudent governor is directed to the perfection of the things governed, as regards its attainment, increase, or preservation. Therefore whatever pertains to perfection is to be safeguarded by providence rather than what savours of imperfection and defect" (Aquinas, Sztmma Contra Gentiles, IIIa.73).

God's providence, the order of creation, and its own nature. So when Thomas says, "In a certain sense, therefore, we may say the whole of cor- poreal nature exists for man, inasmuch as he is a rational animalf17"-that "certain sense" is creative love of God's care for all the world. It is, by char- acter of their nature, the ecological place of humans actively to undertake this task as the material mediators of God's love. So it is in this sense that "the consummation of the whole ofcorporeal nature depends, to some ex- tent, on man's consummation."" Humans are rightful masters of creation only insofar as they are fully participating in God's loving act of provi- dence.'? It is indeed natural for humans to lord over creation, but only in- sofar as lordship takes the pattern of Jesus. Remembering in his treatise on the incarnation that "it belongs to the nature of goodness to commu- nicate itself to others," that analogical to this communication is the adop- tion of humanity into the Sonship of Christ, and that every creature is made through this Word, Thomas recalls the only truly lordly mode of hu- man activity within ~reation.~"o when Thomas says of humanity that other creatures "are rightly subject to his government,"" it is the sort of dominion that is shaped by a responsibility to care for and lead-the sort that has in mind a Good Shepherd.

The root of our ecological crisis is therefore a matter of improper gov- ernment (which is a degenerate mode ofbeing human) and its consequent disorder of natural harmonyi"n fact, one of the ways that Thomas ex- plains the Fall is that humanity presumptuously sought to rule over cre- ation in its own way, interrupting love's communication in providence with its will to dominate other ~reatures.~~ubsequent

violence and dis- ruption in creation is the result of human sin, which disorders the media- tion of God's love. Other creatures began to disregard the mastery of humanity ("before man had disobeyed, nothing disobeyed him that was naturally subject to him"), and the cosmos became less intelligently or- dered.7i When humanity rebelled from God it abdicated its proper lord- ship and so lost the respect proper to its natural role. In trying to be some- thing more than human, humans were repayed with being regarded by

'"quinas, Compendzum of Theology (n. 9 above), 1.1.148.

" Ibid., perhaps anticipating what Sergei Bulgakov would call "the humanization of the

world" (see, among others, The Bride of the Lamb [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 20021).

"Jean Porter closes her book, The Recove9 of Vtrtzte (Louisville, Ky.: WestminsterIJohn Knox Press, 1990), recommendingjust such a pursuit ofThomistic ethics for application to environmental justice; p. 178.

"Aquinas, S.7: (n. 4 above), quote at 111.1.2, God "~'orks in order to communicate to oth-

ers the abundance of His perfection" (111.23.1); see also 111.23.1, 23.3, 16.4.

" Ibid., 1.96.1; also 1-11.93.

'' Compare ibid., 1-11.92.1.

'' Ibid., 11-111.162-64.

" Ibid., 1.96.1, 11-111.164.2.

the rest of creation as less than human. The disorder of creation is evi- dence that as human actuality decayed into corruption, the performance of proper humanity was made more difficult. The injustice that we know as ecological crisis is the effect of the disorder wrought by humans unable to subject creation to the providence of God. Our ecological problem is not too much humanity, but not enough of it.

It is then a soteriological question that Thomas can ask of our steward- ship in inquiring whether our projects refer fittingly to the divine good by which their creaturely "material" has its being. Or do they reflect the like- ness of humans to such a degree that this referentiality is largely lost? So when the question is put to us, "Why not plastic trees?" we know the an- swer must have to do with whether plastic trees or organic trees better reflect the goodness and wisdom of God. It is for us a soteriological ques- tion because seeking the good of every creature under our power, and in manner appropriate to divine wisdom, is how rational animals seek their own good. Providential care of nonhuman beings is integral to the voca- tion of being human. Some uses of the world, it turns out, are irrational- both in the sense that they offend divine beauty and contradict ecological order and in the sense that they are degenerative of humanity.

Note that this is not simply a matter of preferring the "natural" over the "artificial," but of actively desiring what is good for creation. For Thomas there is no ground for an essential difference between artificial and natu- ral. Both nature and humanity "concreate," making composites out of form and matter, and both presuppose in their making the creation of God." This means that every creature, whether made by nature or con- structed by technology, bears the trace of the Trinity.7g Whether it is more preferable to have a plastic or a pine tree is not a matter of category or of essence, but of the degree to which the availability of God is visible. The question is, how evident is the love of this thing for its Creator? This can- not be answered except by careful attentiveness to the creatures around us, and only insofar as we see them "within" the sight of God. That is, the question cannot be answered except through love: Thomas says the movement of the will toward comprehension of any intelligible thing is a movement of love, and to love a thing is to will it its own proper good.R0 So we see that making decisions in favor of one creature or another or plan- ning to bring about a certain kind of new entity involves loving that crea- ture and willing it its proper good. Now in willing an entity the good proper to it we must know and comprehend its good, which, if done justly

'"bid., 1.45.8.

"Inasmuch as it subsists in being it bears the trace of the Father, of the Word as it has a form, and of the Spirit in that it has relation to something else (1.45.7).


Aquinas, S.T, 1-11.4.3, 1.20.2.

in respect of the ordination of goods, will be evidently a greater or lesser good, and so a higher or lower participated perfection. Insofar as we want to associate with more luminous representations of God (or, more divinely sensuous bodies), we will choose the higher participated perfection."' In choosing, then, between plastic trees and conifer trees, I suspect that in the respective love we might have for both, the perfection of growing trees will be more compelling, more iconic. Furthermore, insofar as we are proper ministers of God's goodness we would have it that all our develop- ment that uses, replaces, or replicates trees would be part of a work that preserves and realizes the perfections in which trees participate. "Sus- tainable development" is now really an inferior ambition, for Thomas calls us to a salvific development: a mode of working on earth that renders the world as liturgy-as a place that performs the presence of God for us.


There is the possibility from Thomas, read in the anguish ofenvironmental crisis, to hear a clarion call to a distinctively Christian environmentalism, one that happily avoids the determination of anthropocentric, ecocentric, or even theocentric by showing the harmony of several centrisms: it is in our own best interests to be able to perfect our nature (anthropocentric) by seeking the knowledge of God through worship (theocentric), which we are able best to do by understanding the many different perfections of the cosmos and our particular place among them (ecocentric). That is to say, for Thomas, part of the way that God works for the perfection of humans is to invite them into the wisdom, beauty, and goodness made available on earth through active participation in God's love for creation.

81 ‘4

Now every creature may be compared to God, as the air is to the sun which enlightens

it" (ibid., I. 104.1).IVe are then to choose air which is clear and bright, rather than air which has little light (or is too polluted to communicate that light).

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