Thoughts for Earth Day 2014
In Kris Kristofferson’s poignant song, “Me and Bobbie Magee,” there is the haunting line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Let me transpose the idea: “Freedom’s just another word for everythin’ left to lose.” By itself, the line “nothin’ left to lose” is metaphysically incorrect, although it has its truth in human experience. The universe, if created by God, is not a “sound and fury signifying nothing.” If God created the universe out of nothing, then the universe signifies everything that God intends. A thing is wonderful when it is significant, revealing purpose metaphorically and analogically. There is no wonder in the insignificant, and thus no purpose. In a metaphorical universe, there is nothing insignificant. If the universe is not created by God, if the universe is not a metaphor analogically expressive of the fullness of meaning, then, indeed, there is “nothin’ left to lose” because there was nothing there to gain in the first place, and everything signifies nothing. There is nothing to imagine that would not be merely “imaginary.” This latter insight is close to the heart of Buddhism.
No one deserves a star or merits a sunset. The universe, if created by God, is a vast metaphor saying that it is God’s gift. It has been said, very cynically, that “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” And such a person will have nothing to be thankful for. Chesterton wrote in his St. Francis, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.”
There is a tendency when speaking of metaphors to say that something is a “mere” metaphor. But if God created the universe, then it is no “mere” metaphor. The Catholic analogical imagination imagines that everything speaks of God and everything is a gift of God. If God saw that everything was good, then human beings must see everything as a gift, a gift for which human beings are responsible and accountable. This gift deserves our gratitude, a gratitude that can be put into environmental action. Gratitude may be the “real skill” with which Thomas Berry hopes “to raise the sails and to catch the power of the wind as it passes by.”
Since Fall, 2001, our College has offered the course, “Ecology and the Environmental Challenge,” required of all the students of the Sebago Lake Program. The course is a teaching challenge not just for the professors, but also for the whole College community. It is not just about self-preservation. We need to go much further. As Pope John Paul II stated, “An education in ecological responsibility is urgent: responsibility for oneself, for others and for the earth . . . A true education in responsibility entails a genuine conversion in ways of thought and behavior.”
I would add that a genuine conversion of imagination, one consonant with the Catholic imagination, is needed if we are going, as a College, to contribute solutions for our environmental crisis. A universe that is good, that is filled with real things that are good, and that speaks of God, surrounds us. If it is so, we are indebted to God for it, an infinite debt that can only be repaid by an everlasting hymn of gratitude. Dante Gabriel Rosetti said somewhere that “the worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.” Every Earth Day, we should remind ourselves that our “Attainable/Sustainable” efforts need to be grounded in the deepest Catholic identity of the Mission of the College. Gratitude is a greater motive for environmental action than self-preservation. In Chesterton’s words, all “goods look better when they look like gifts.”
Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.