Appreciating the Beauty of Earth

By Schaefer, Jame | Theological Studies, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Appreciating the Beauty of Earth


Schaefer, Jame, Theological Studies


[Categories used by contemporary environmental philosophers to explore esthetic appreciation for the beauty of the physical world have parallels in reflections by patristic and medieval theologians on the beauty of God's creation. A sampling of the theologians' notions yields a promising foundation for ecological ethics from a theistic perspective, especially when understood from their world view at the time the text was written, reformulated to reflect broad scientific findings about the world today, and worked creatively to identify norms for human behavior.]

ESTHETIC APPRECIATION for the beauty of the natural environment has been widely acknowledged in the secular literature as foundational for ecological ethics. Among the philosophers who have advanced this status is Gene Hargrove, editor and founder of the journal Environmental Ethics, who points to the emergence of thinking in Western culture that natural beauty is intrinsically valuable and should be protected.(1) Focusing on the nature of esthetic appreciation, Noel Carroll stresses the authenticity of appreciation that occurs when the individual is moved emotionally by natural phenomena.(2) Conversely, Allen Carlson dwells on the cognitive dimension of esthetic appreciation and finds it most appropriate when brought about by scientific knowledge and its "commonsense predecessors."(3) Holmes Rolston fosters esthetic appreciation for "wild" biological systems and emphasizes the deeper appreciation that occurs when personal experience with natural places (the emotional-subjective dimension) combines with information about it (the cognitive dimension).(4) Stan Godlovitch argues that the only fitting esthetic regard is appreciation that comes from the mysteriousness or the incomprehensibility of the natural environment.(5)

While there are many nuances in the works of these and other philosophers who explore the various aspects of esthetic appreciation for the natural environment, analyzing their subtleties is not the primary focus of my article. What is significant for me is the framing of their discussions around the affective, cognitive, affective-cognitive, and mysterious dimensions of esthetic appreciation that I find helpful in advancing theological discourse on a parallel notion in the works of some eminent patristic and medieval Christian theologians, namely the beauty of creation. They expressed feelings and thoughts about the beauty of the physical world in ways that resemble modern philosophical thinking, but also added another way that has no parallel in today's secular literature. Their expressions of appreciation suggest promising foundations for ecological ethics from a theocentric perspective, especially when their notions are understood from the world views of their times and when they are reformulated to reflect our modern understanding of the world informed by scientific findings, and are creatively worked to identify norms for human behavior.(6)

I demonstrate this "critical-creative" approach to appropriating and extending centuries-old notions about the beauty of creation in order to discern their fruitfulness for addressing today's ecological degradation. I begin by exploring a sampling of reflections by patristic and medieval theologians who conveyed their appreciation for the beauty of the world in five discernable ways. The world views from which these theologians wrote are distinguished subsequently from our present understanding of the world. I conclude with the theocentric ethics of esthetic appreciation that flows from reworking traditional thinking about God's beautiful creation. This exercise is offered as an initial effort to tap the Christian tradition and to retrieve notions that may facilitate thinking about and acting more responsibly toward our battered planet.

THE BEAUTY OF CREATION IN PATRISTIC AND MEDIEVAL TEXTS

Among the patristic and medieval theologians who describe the natural world as beautiful are: Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. …

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