The Blinding of Human Environmental Greatness

Albert Einstein, Orest Chwolson, Isaac Newton, St. Augustine, and St. Ambrose.

There is a great darkness that is descending on our world—a darkness that emerges from an ever deepening blindness of the eye that sees truth, the eye that sees the invisible, the eye that gives voice to the reality of beauty. Man and woman are blurred. Human and beast are considered increasingly interchangeable. A parish priest recently asked his seventh grade religion class whether they would choose saving one hundred endangered species, or one human life. The protracted silence on the part of the students betrayed their thinking of weighing one option against the other, much to the dismay and consternation of the presbyter. This muddling of the human and the animal, this blindness barely perceives the dark wind blowing; howling with a kind of perverse jagged voice, that once was silent, but now is becoming stridently audible. Within this darkness, there is a pounding on the door of our lives that demands that the human person be removed from any privileged environmental position with a concomitant elevation of the animal, and even a river (in New Zealand) toward a status of “person.” This blinding of the eye aims at reducing the human person to just another species among millions. The human person is increasingly presented as the central source of environmental destruction and devastation, precisely as being the “top predator” and marauder. More and more, the cry is to move humanity from the position at the top of an environmental triangle, inserting the human person into a kind of ecological circle of all animals and plants and rivers—to harness the blinded Samson to the wheel of the ox, treading out the grain. Only then, so it is said, is there a possibility of containing and restoring the environment beyond its current perceived state of corruption. This pulling down of the human being, the denial of any “exceptionalism,” has a rather long history, but today it is presented in a modern, indirect, and often, not-so-subtle form.

The philosophy that the human being may be considered equal to non-human animals has continued to be a shadowy cloak enveloping the current environmental conflicts. Consider the following from a 2008 National Academy of Science report on evolution which speaks glibly of the “common structures and behaviors among many species. A person writes, a cow walks, a whale swims, and a bat flies with structures built of bones that are different in detail, but also remarkably similar to each other.1 What are we to make of this listing, and the “insight” of a remarkable similarity of one with the other? While the anatomical structures are similar, the act of writing is clearly of a different order than a cow walking, or a whale swimming. To write requires an existence that is outside the purely anatomical, and is a result of an acting, rational species. Such a listing, and a comparison with a rather phony astonishment of similarity, places the human person in an environmental and evolutionary “oneness” with lower forms of life. The eye is then increasingly denied any sharpness of vision, and the true difference of nature in an existential sense of the human person, and the surrounding environment, becomes deeply out of focus. This is not the Christian perspective of man and woman, and their relationship to the environment.

In a 2014 Wall Street Journal book review, the author is described as having “a keen biologist’s eye and an ability to pull back for a whole-ecosystem view. He writes of himself as merely another colonizing species in a vast wilderness, only one of a society of cohabiting organisms that include mice and weasels, beetles and bacteria.”2 Note how the author sees himself “as merely another colonizing species,” not just living with, but cohabitating with, the weasels, beetles, and bacteria. While there is an element of truth in the closeness or distance that exists between the human and the animal and plant ecologies, to cohabit means to enter into an intimate relationship (usually defined as sexual) over a long period of time. Our relationship with the beetle or the weasel is clearly not one of such intimacy.

I wish here to offer a perspective of the person that can provide some hope to release us from the sadness resulting from casting Homo Sapiens into the midst of the environment as just another animal (or even plant) species. Only through the human, with his/her divine likeness, can the environment even be perceived and known and loved. I proceed from the beginnings, the emergence of light.

Now light is invisible. It courses through our universe as a hidden, veiled vitality of energy. Light cannot be seen. At its most basic level, light is darkness, a most strange contradiction. So what makes light visible? What illuminates the darkness? Remarkably, all is made visible through the human eye, and its bond with the human brain, and consciousness. Into the dark and silent physics of beginnings and unfolding of light energy, there is inserted the human eye, an incredible presence which makes the physics come alive. The energy that pours into the eye is received by six to seven million receptors (German for “catchers of images”), transmitted to the brain, and then interpreted, in all its brilliance and colors and detail, as the beauty of a child digging in the sand of the seashore, or the emergence of brilliant purple violets in spring.

Contemplate then the cosmos before the human eye. The bursting forth of the universe with the Big Bang was then in total darkness. Why? There was no one to make it visible. All was there, but in darkness, and hidden. What a joy when the first created humans opened their eyes, and looked up. Their glance made the stars to sparkle, the moon to glow, the sun to shine. For countless millennia, all was in blackness and obscurity until the eye appeared—the pinnacle of sight and interpretation and contemplation of what is made visible. For the human person to make the environment visible was to give it a dignity through the gaze of the Creator. To “see” a river is to comprehend more than its physics and biology. It is to give a certain level of grandeur to its beauty. The animal sees most often with a more or less one-dimensional view, even though animal eyes vary greatly in size and structure. The one-dimensional view is most often a need to satisfy hunger, or reproductive urgencies. But for the human, the eye sees, and names, and classifies, and orders, and gives a solemnity to even the tiniest ant, and the largest oak. What was once the darkness of light is illuminated in the deepest way by the eye, and the accompanying reason, nature, and faith of the human person.

Humans are truly remarkable at seeing the invisible. Consider Newton, who at the age of just 23, wondered what it was that made a ball fall from one’s hands. The unique eyes of this young man saw what was darkness to the rest of humanity. He saw the invisible force of gravity. Michio Kaku, in an insightful tour de force of Einstein, reminds us that this in-sight-full event was so monumental that Newton was forever immortalized by the poet Alexander Pope in:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.3

Well, not “all.” But from the “eyes” of Newton, there emerged a new light into this environment whose behavior lay hidden in darkness. Some three centuries later, the eyes of Einstein, gazing upward to the universe, saw the invisible penetrated beyond the limits of human sight, with the famous Einstein lenses and rings. (Editor’s comment from Wikipedia: “In observational astronomy, an Einstein ring, also known as an Einstein-Chwolson ring, or Chwolson ring, is the deformation of the light from a source (such as a galaxy or star) into a ring through gravitational lensing of the source’s light by an object with an extremely large mass (such as another galaxy or a black hole). This occurs when the source, lens, and observer are all aligned” to enter the domain of illuminating hidden, dark, invisible realities.”)

Now “The Eye Listens”4 and from Einstein’s predictions a hundred years ago, the human has just recently been able to hear (“see”), the tiny chirping sound of two black holes colliding a billion light years away, the evidence of gravitational waves rippling through the mysterious world of space and time. What heights man has achieved. What enormous responsibility accompanies the reaching of each new summit. Has the human person darkened and silenced the environment? Yes. Has the human person corrupted and oppressed the very universe it set ablaze with its gaze? Undoubtedly, yes. Is the human person then to be thrown down from its height, and placed among all creatures, so that a hope for restoration of dignity may be realized? Here is the foundational flaw in this environmental thinking: that somehow, if only the human person wasn’t present in such dense and overpowering numbers, then all would be environmentally well.

Yet it is from the very height of human presence in the environment that the true dignity of the environment is enlightened and made visible. But there is more, much more. The senses are extended beyond the human to the eyes of faith that see from an entirely different, yet related, dimension. The senses of faith see revelatory images and sounds that are released to our comprehension by belief in the transmission of truths from God, who speaks and enlightens from the “outside” to the inner sense of our being. Eyes of faith then see and hear meaning which is so often shrouded in darkness. That meaning is given completeness in Christianity, which sees beyond the immediate, beyond the obvious, beyond the obscure, in order to enlighten the hidden and silent mysteries of our lives, and our environment. That’s why we can speak of the eyes of faith so that the wonderful cry of Augustine’s sermon at Pentecost is understood: “The blessed day has dawned for us on which holy Church makes her first radiant appearance to the eyes of faith and sets the hearts of believers on fire.”5

Only these wonderful eyes of faith, with receptors beyond the biological and consciousness, and beyond neurons, can behold the first radiant appearance of the Church. It is through the grace of the Spirit “where the world is illuminated.”6

This illumination of the great dignity of this world is seen through the God-given creation of the human eye—both in its physical form, and in its form of faith, that is embedded in the greatness of the human person. The dignity of the environment emerges only through the accompaniment of the eyes of faith, made present through the senses of the Christian.

So, let us not be so cavalier in our equating the human with the non-human, of demanding a lessening of the human presence, of cursing our humanity. To do so, is to fail to see that it is precisely through our presence—our eyes that see beyond the sensible—that the very essence of the environment—its truth, goodness and beauty and, finally, its dignity—are revealed and made open to love.

  1. National Academy of Sciences, “Science, Evolution, and Creationism” (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2008).
  2. Julie Zickefoose, “Book Review: Adirondack’ by Edward Kanze,” Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2014.
  3. Michio Kaku, Einstein’s Cosmos, How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time (Great Discoveries), Kindle Edition (New York, NY: W.W.Norton & Co., 2004).
  4. Paul Claudel, The Eye Listens (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1950).
  5. Augustine, “Sermon 271 (PL 38: 1245-1246),” in Word in Season III, 2nd ed. (Augustinian Press, 1990).
  6. P. Schaff, E. de Romestin, and H.T.F. Duckworth, “Three Books of St. Ambrose on the Holy Spirit.,” in St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters, vol. 10, Logos Catholic Edition (New York, NY: Christian Literature Co., 1896), 118–19.
Robert V. Thomann, Ph.D., D. Min. About Robert V. Thomann, Ph.D., D. Min.

Robert V. Thomann, Ph.D., D. Min. has ministered as a Permanent Deacon together with his wife, Joan, in Our Lady of Mount Carmel for more than four decades. Their ministries have included Marriage Preparation, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and Responsible Catechists for communities of the Neo-catechumenal Way in the Parish. Bob is an Emeritus Professor of Environmental Engineering and Science at Manhattan College and an Emeritus Member of the National Academy of Engineering. He has taught in the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Guam and in the diaconate programs of Newark and Paterson, New Jersey. His latest book: A Hemorrhaging Church; Evangelization and the Neocatechumenal Way is published through Amazon. He is currently completing a book entitled: Environmental Fear or Christian Environmental Love; The Great Environmental Choice.

Comments

  1. Ted Heywood says:

    WOW!
    An amazing ‘insight’ into the difference between Humans and the other creatures of the world. No other ‘creature’ has the ability to ‘see’ the incredible beauty of the physical world as it is. Or, with intelligence and reason, the invisible world as it is.