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Retrieving an Ancient Sacramental Ecology, Part 3: “On the Dignity of Man” and the New World

If its origins are neither found in the Bible nor in the early church, from where did this notion of “dominion” or “control” of nature come from? Perhaps surprisingly, if not ironically, it is a fairly modern view, and one found among thinkers of the scientific revolution.

Science and Religion, Friends or Foes?

Some history of science and religion is in order here. Recall for a moment the Augustinian approach to “natural philosophy” (what we now call “science”). Augustine argued that knowledge of the natural world could serve as a “handmaid” to theology. “If those who are called philosophers,” he wrote, “have said things that are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use.” This was the common practice of early apologists, taken from Origen’s advice to “plunder the Egyptians” every good thing that could serve to advance Christianity.

But with the rise of the great universities in the thirteenth century, a new sense of self-autonomy and rationality was beginning to emerge among its professors, and with it attempts to move beyond the Augustinian model. The Franciscan friar Roger Bacon (c. 1219-1292), for instance, considered by many the “first true scientist,” argued that the latest discoveries in nature and the new learning must be used to understand Christianity itself. “Plundering the Egyptians” for Christ was thus subtilty reversed to “we must plunder the Egyptians in order to understand Christ.”

Then came the “nominalism” of English Franciscan William of Ockham (1285-1347), which ultimately severed the continuity between visible and invisible worlds. Then came the “nominalism” of English Franciscan William of Ockham, which ultimately severed the continuity between visible and invisible worlds. Click To Tweet With Ockham the growing conflict between the via antiqua and via moderna becomes more pronounced. Ockham maintained that the world is how it is not because God has woven universals into it, but because God willed it to be just as it is. Ockham’s “nominalism,” his belief that there are no forms or universals or archetypes, is often cited as engendering the empiricism of modern natural science since it claims we must learn about nature by observing it case by case, making generalizations only afterwards. At the same time, Ockham’s position uproots the cosmos from its deeper moorings, allowing nature to be seen as sheer artifact, an aggregate of natural substances without any deeper, inner coherence or dynamism.

Ockham’s vision prevailed, leading to a growing de-sanctified sense of nature. But while nature became increasingly desacralized, emancipated from religious and theological assumptions, humanity was becoming more divinized. This more hopeful and optimistic view of human nature occurred following a period that saw the rages of famine, pestilence, war, and revolt. To this we may also add the spiritual decay of the Avignon Papacy (1309-1378) and the subsequent Great Schism (1378-1417). After such grim realities, humanity started making a comeback in the 1400s.

During this “rebirth,” we see thinkers like the German philosopher Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), whose thought defies easy classification, but in various works, and particularly his De pace fidei (1453), proclaimed an optimistic, almost utopian vision of humanity and its future. According to Ernst Cassirer, in his classic The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (1927), Cusanus ignored the doctrine of Original Sin in favor of “man’s freedom, for only through freedom can man become God-like.” For Cusanus, humanity reigns autonomously and becomes more and more conscious of his own divinity as he conquers the natural world. Cusanus had thus encouraged a new relationship between God, nature, and humanity. As Cassirer put it, the “predicates claimed by divinity” were now “equally attributable to the human soul.”

Oswald Spengler, in his massive two-volume Decline of the West (1918-1922), characterized western culture as a “Faustian spirit” yearning towards the “Apollonian ideal.” The mysterious figure of Johann Georg Faust (1480-1540) emerged from the shadows during the Quattrocento, willing to bargain away his soul in exchange for knowledge. This Faustian drive, the yearning for learning, impelled many men onward in a phrenetic search for knowledge, human and divine.

During the Renaissance, such figures as Francesco Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio, Coluccio Salutati, Pier Paolo Vergerio, Leonardo Bruni, Poggio Bracciolini, Giannozzo Manetti, Lorenzo Valla, Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, many of whom at best only feigned religious orthodoxy, brought together an eclectic mix of individualism, paganism, sensualism, and skepticism. In their work we find a new and exhilarating view of human potential and prowess that made the scientific revolution possible. Most of these figures called for a reformation not only of religion but also natural philosophy, with the conviction that creation could be brought back to a prelapsarian state. While no doubt Faustian in spirit, what we actually find in many of these thinkers is a Dionysian rather than Apollonian ideal, with characteristics of excess, irrationality, and unbridled passion.

God on Earth

Thus a sort of “anthropological revolution” had occurred. A more optimistic view of human nature along with a positive attitude toward life and the ability of humans to change and improve their world and themselves. But unlike Patristic authors, the biblical notion of “dominion” began to take new meaning among Renaissance thinkers. A much fuller mastery, deeper and broader, was envisioned. The Quattrocento had combined the Imago Dei with the Prometheus motif of Greek myth, claiming that humanity shared in the most fundamental activity of God—the activity of creation.Unlike Patristic authors, the biblical notion of “dominion” began to take new meaning among Renaissance thinkers Click To Tweet

The humanist Petrarch (1304-1374), who never took religion very seriously, greatly valued the life of the here and now. In his Remedies for Fortunes (1366), Petrarch argued that God gave man superiority over all other creatures. Similarly, Ficino (1433-1499), who labored all his life to reconcile Platonism and Christianity, promoted the position that God gave humanity full dominion over all creation. In his Platonic Theology of 1474, Ficino offered a vision of man as its own savior, something that was inconceivable in Augustinian theology. Pico (1463-1494), the wunderkind of the Florentine Academy and pupil of Ficino, proclaimed in his famous Conclusiones (1486), which was later renamed “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” that man was a “miracle” because his creator had endowed him with the capacity to become whatever he wished. Pico argued that man is the “maker and moulder of thyself,” with the liberty “to have what he wishes, to be whatever he wills.” While they recognized that man is finite, Petrarch, Ficino, and Pico all firmly believed mankind was capable of self-mastery and perfection.

Furthermore, according to Florence politician Manetti (1396-1459), “The world and all its beauty seemed to have been first invented and established by Almighty God for the use of man, and afterwards gratefully received by man and rendered more beautiful much more ornate and far more refined.” Most orthodox Christians would have praised the world God created, but it was something new to suggest that humanity might improve on God’s work! As Charles Trinkaus argued in his study, In Our Image and Likeness (1970), themes of likeness to God, immortality, and the mastery of all arts and sciences, were widespread among Renaissance writers.This darker side of the Renaissance is one of many examples where traditional orthodox interpretations of Creation and humanity were ignored for profit and gain. Click To Tweet

In 1397, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici became “God’s banker,” for the Medici bank acted as the central financial institution of the papacy. The Medici family will subsequently have a disproportionate influence over the church for nearly two centuries. Although the Medici family were behind many of the great artistic achievements of the Renaissance, the lines between Christ and culture were increasingly blurred. With the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century voyages of discovery and trade, a new economic power emerged, but one that represents one of the darkest moments of the European Renaissance, marking the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade. As so often in the Renaissance, when wealth was at stake, religious oppositions melted away. Between 1525 and 1550, approximately 40,000 slaves were shipped from Africa to the Americas, enriching Europe but bringing untold misery and suffering of African communities. This darker side of the Renaissance is one of many examples where traditional orthodox interpretations of Creation and humanity were ignored for profit and gain.

The idea that man is marvelously protean, that the individual can take complete charge of his own salvation as well as the world’s, is obviously problematic in terms of the Christian concepts of Original Sin and the Atonement. But these concerns were largely ignored or downplayed by the leading thinkers. Indeed, as Walter Pater recognized in his own study on The Renaissance (1873), the period saw a “spirit of rebellion and revolt against the moral and religious ideas of the time.”

The New “Priests” of Nature

Renaissance thought bestowed upon the early modern period a belief that humanity is capable of penetrating the “inner secrets of nature.” The discovery of these secrets would yield, it was argued, immense benefits to mankind. But with it came the total subjugation of nature, a view rejected by the biblical authors and the Patristics. And yet the thinkers of the early modern period, following the Renaissance humanists, supported their views by appealing to the Bible. According to them, the Bible taught that man was meant for dominion; that this dominion was to be achieved through knowledge of nature; that human technological innovation was virtuous; and that man was divine in essence, a kind of “god on earth.”

What occurred during the early modern period, in short, was a reinterpretation of the Bible, taking the ideas of “dominion” and “image of God” and adapting them to a bold new human project. The decisive formulation of this new project is found in the writings of English philosopher and statesmen Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Often called the “father of empiricism,” Bacon affirmed science as the path to power. His goal was for science to develop a technology which would have the power to “conquer and subdue” nature. According to Bacon, to gain a true understanding of the workings of nature, we must tear it to pieces, constraining, vexing, dissecting, and torturing it to force it to reveal its secrets. In other words, we must bind and torture our master to learn the source of his power. As he wrote in his Novum Organum(1620), with this new learning, we can then produce “a line and race of inventions that may in some degree subdue and overcome the necessities and miseries of humanity.”

For Bacon, human dominion is a God-given right. Thus a kind of violence in experimentation was demanded and encouraged by Bacon. The “ministry of men,” writes Bacon, subtlety and craftly probs nature through experimental procedures. This torture, unlike simple dominion, forces natural objects not simply to gratify man but to reveal their inmost secrets to him, and hence to render themselves open to all future forms of manipulation.Bacon and his followers often referred to men of science as the new “priests of nature.” Click To Tweet

As Bacon called for the torture of nature for the sake of power, he also defended his view of the purpose of science by connecting it to God’s blessing of humanity with dominion. But Bacon’s call to dominion over nature through the development of science and technology reflected a very different view of the relationship between humanity and creation than had been characteristic of pre-modern Christian thought. Humanity was no longer to be viewed primarily as a part of nature. Bacon’s conception of science made humanity’s empire over nature through works of utility and power the core values of the modern scientific project. Bacon and his followers often referred to men of science as the new “priests of nature.” But while his language and categories seemed to be grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition, this was a new understanding, and one largely divorced from pre-modern Christian thought.

The Baconian aim of power over nature was particularly inspiring to members of the Royal Society of London, which was first established in 1665. Bishop Thomas Sprat (1635-1713), who wrote the official History of the Royal Society in in 1667, repeats the Baconian notion of penetrating the “secrets of nature.” Sometimes the penetrating of these mysteries is discussed in rather strong and disconcerting language, as when Sprat declares that European man has not yet had time to “pierce into” all the “secrets” of newly discovered America.

Sprat calls on the man of science to be bold, aggressive, and unafraid to search out what is hidden, using any and every means, including intrusive new instruments. As it was in Bacon, Sprat personifies nature as female, and the learning of her secrets analogous to gaining access to her bedroom. At one point, he uses a sexual metaphor, relating the new science of nature to the enjoyment of the sexual favors of a woman. He claims that the “Beautiful Bosom” of nature will be “Expos’d” to our view, so that we can enter its secret “Garden” and “satisfy” ourselves with “plenty.” He thus combines the themes of sex and violence, suggesting a near-coercion of nature analogous to the rape of a half-willing woman.Baconianism speaks of an invasive and brutal tyranny over Creation which is unqualified, since it considers nature only as an object of human knowledge and a source of human power and comfort. Click To Tweet

Bacon and his disciples, having absorbed the Renaissance view of man as “magus” and creator, leads to the “godded man,” as Eric Voegelin put it in his provocative Science, Politics & Gnosticism (1968). This “divine” image of man called for the penetration of the secrets of nature, with acts of violence, torture, and rape if necessary, for the benefit of mankind. To be sure, this dominion over nature and the accompanying enthusiasm for technical development were sometimes couched in biblical terms, but it must be insisted that the view of Bacon and his followers has no biblical precedent. As we have seen, the Bible speaks of a human dominion over Creation in qualified terms. But Baconianism speaks of an invasive and brutal tyranny over Creation which is unqualified, since it considers nature only as an object of human knowledge and a source of human power and comfort.

The empirical study of nature in time came to supersede special revelation as a basis for authority. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the “Two Books” metaphor ultimately collapsed into the one book of nature. Men of science will begin to see naturalism in contrast to supernaturalism. Belief in the supernatural or divine providence will be seen as actually diminishing or opposing the integrity of the natural. The implication is that revelation is no longer necessary.

There is mounting evidence that the ideas of the major thinkers in the scientific pantheon were influenced not by Christian ideas, despite their religiosity, but unorthodox ones. The Judeo-Christian doctrine that man was made in God’s image spawned all kinds of heretical, gnostic, and Pelagian doctrines which, like Hydra heads, emerged and reemerged through all the centuries. In one way or another, and from a wide variety of classical and gnostic sources, ideas arose minimizing or denying the Augustinian view that man could not be redeemed by his own efforts but only through Christ. Though he held a visceral hostility towards the Christian faith, even the French existentialist and atheist philosopher Albert Camus recognized in his The Rebel (1951) that, historically speaking, the “children of Cain have triumphed.” Indeed, Cain (qanah), the creative “city-builder” of Genesis 4:17, may be seen as eponymous to Renaissance scientific innovation, which was invariably tide to practical requirements and nowhere more than on the field of warfare. That is, as children of Cain, civilization will always find new and better ways to kill each other—and this include the natural world.

In short, notions of raping nature and utopianism does not belong to Christianity, and thus the subsequent industrial revolution, landfills, offshore spills, toxic wastes, and global climate change, which have brought about our ecological crisis, is quite the opposite from what Lynn White Jr. argued in his 1965 article. While earlier generations of the church were perhaps not fertile ground for the optimistic evaluation of human potential and power, it did offer a view of stewardship of Creation that discouraged the raping and abuse of nature.Thus our destiny and the destiny of the Creation are intertwined. Click To Tweet

Thus, it seems that far from the Christian tradition being seriously culpable in the generation of environmental crisis, our current ecological problems stem from ideas founded among more worldly thinkers with more worldly goals. Although the advent of modern science and industrialization have contributed to human flourishing, the ecological problems arising from this activity cannot be overlooked. Those engaged in scientific pursuits must therefore exercise caution. In the pre-modern Christian view, humanity was given dominion over creation as a divine representative. This injunction, bound up with our being made in God’s image, indicates that dominion is an essential part of our human identity. Thus our destiny and the destiny of the Creation are intertwined.

Like Faust, who, in seeking knowledge of life and death, we have sold our soul to Mephistopheles. This preference for learning and contempt for institutional religion became extremely popular among early modern thinkers. And, indeed, remains so today. But this belief in the self-autonomy of humanity, this mechanical image of man and creation, has only led to the destruction of both nature and human identity. We must find a way back.

James C. Ungureanu

James C. Ungureanu (Ph.D., University of Queensland) is an intellectual historian and research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He is the author of Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Retracing the Origins of Conflict (UPP, 2019). His writing has appeared in such journals as Fides et HistoriaChurch History, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, Science & Christian Belief, and Zygon, among others. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and two children.

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