restricted access 2 In Defense of Living Nature: Finding Common Ground in a Medieval Tradition
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Science and traditional Christianity have often been regarded as adversaries between whom there can be, at best, a mutual pact of silence and disengagement. Yet the current environmental crisis has prompted thoughtful men and women in both camps to reconsider the terms of this standoff and to ask whether it might be possible to find, at the very least, common ground for shared action on behalf of urgently needed reforms. Among committed Christians, we are beginning to see a growing dismay over the ways their cherished beliefs have been co-opted by a reactionary and plutocratic political regime. Men and women of science, for their part, have understandably been reluctant to enter into conversation with theologians and church leaders who all too often reject out of hand the very premises of their life’s work. Yet they too have begun asking whether they are closing themselves off from powerful allies with whom they might share common sensibilities of appreciation for the natural world and a shared commitment to respect and preserve it in its beauty and integrity. As E. O. Wilson put it in Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, addressed to an anonymous Baptist pastor, “I suggest that we set aside our differences in order to save the Creation. The defense of living Nature is a universal value” (2007, p. 4). For the past several years, my own work has focused on the early scholastic conception of a natural law and its contemporary relevance. This research has convinced me that there is indeed a basis for cooperation between scientists and chapter Two In Defense of Living Nature Finding Common Ground in a Medieval Tradition Jean Porter, Ph.D. 18 Jean Porter religious believers, grounded in mutual sensibilities and perhaps, for at least some scientists and some believers, in shared beliefs about the integrity and value of the natural order. What I have in mind is, not so much the scholastics’ theory of the natural law per se, but the assumptions and the general theological approach that undergirded it. The scholastic concept of the natural law could only have emerged within a context that was friendly to the idea of nature and optimistic about the capacities of the human intellect to understand and appropriately value the natural world—even apart from the guidance of revelation and Christian belief. This context, in turn, reflected a robust philosophy of nature that began to emerge in the late eleventh century and, correlatively, a broadly expansive and open theology that emphasized the intrinsic intelligibility and goodness of the created order. Here we find starting points for real common ground between religion and science , or at least between some important constituencies in each camp. It may seem odd, or even perverse, to turn to the early medieval period as a resource for addressing a postmodern problem, yet this approach offers at least one advantage in that it enables us to bypass the distinctively modern congeries of assumptions and commitments that lead us to assume that scientific and religious worldviews must necessarily be at odds. The Scholastic Conception of Nature The story I want to tell begins in the prescholastic period, in the centers of learning associated with the great European cathedrals, where distinguished scholars laid the foundations for a systematic philosophy of nature. They are characterized, first of all, by their commitment to Platonic philosophy, particularly as it was mediated to them through Plato’s Timaeus (the only Platonic dialogue available in Latin translation at this time) and a number of Platonically minded theologians from earlier eras. As Winthrop Wetherbee says, for these scholars “to study nature was in effect to decode the Timaeus” (1988, p. 34), and they were particularly concerned with reconciling Plato’s account of the fabrication of the world in that dialogue with the creation story given in Genesis. Their devotion to Plato and his commentators generated views that seem strange to us, including (for some) a belief in a world-soul that exists apart from both God and the visible universe and a tendency to personify Nature, speaking as if she were an entity in her own right. Nonetheless, these odd views should not blind us to the importance of their work; it marks the first moment when Christian scholars made a systematic attempt to reconcile Scripture with philosophical accounts of the origins and In Defense of Living Nature 19 intrinsic character of the visible world. By no means did they proceed by imposing a simple scriptural narrative...


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Subject Headings

  • Bioethics.
  • Biotechnology -- Moral and ethical aspects.
  • Nature -- Effect of human beings on.
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