“I believe that health is wholeness.”

– Wendell Berry

Unity, ME. As I do most years, this fall I’ll take my Habitat Assessment students to a lovely nearby brook. We’ll observe it for a while, walk in it, feel its current and coolness, pick up some rocks to see what insects and other invertebrates we may find (carefully replacing each rock in its original position). We’ll notice the strong difference in air temperature from the shaded areas to the sunny. Without my prompting, the fishing enthusiasts in the class will point out where they would cast their flies, what fish they may hope to catch, and which of the insects they know to be good fish food.

When I sense that the moment is right, we’ll proceed gently to some initial analysis, identifying the riffles, runs, and pools; sensing the difference in flow rates at different depths; speculating on the relative levels of dissolved oxygen, temperature, and pH.

The students will recognize this waterway as “healthy” and beautiful, intelligible as a brook. If I move with care, the light analysis I introduce will enrich their sense of the whole. The riffles, runs, and pools are part of what makes this a beautiful, healthy stream, and identifying a few of its elements awakens students’ observation and appreciation. If I move too quickly and thoughtlessly, the stream becomes reduced to its parts and processes, even to the point where the stream itself disappears, as the proverbial forest lost in its trees.

After the students get to know the stream as a coherent entity, we will begin to harness the powers of reductionism. These students are, after all, studying to be scientific conservationists, restorationists, and ecosystem managers. At this point, we will start measuring and documenting the physical, chemical, and biological attributes of this stream. Like a doctor uses data from a wellness check-up, we’ll use our data to head off potential problems. What is the water temperature? What can we learn from a complete benthic invertebrate inventory? Is the dissolved oxygen level high enough to supply the decomposers of organic matter and leave enough oxygen for the fish? What is the capacity of the channel to handle a rise in spring flooding? Is the buffer wide enough to prevent erosion from the neighboring farm field?

The students will naturally call this a “good” stream, yet in the following week they will characterize a very different stream – sandy-bottomed, larger, slower moving – also as “good.” In both cases, they will mean something like “healthy.” They will also recognize both streams as beautiful. Similarly, an oak in the college forest with a straight, limbless trunk up to a high crown and the same species in the middle of campus with a low, broad spreading crown – each with a shape fitted to its particular location – will also be called healthy and beautiful.

What do we mean by Good, Healthy, Beautiful?

Is it correct to call a stream, a tree, a trout, and the human conservationist who studies and works with streams, trees, and trout also good, healthy, and beautiful? Certainly these are not scientific descriptions, and besides, the things we study are very different types of beings. Can a stream be healthy, or is that description only pertinent to the biology within the stream? Did I really eat a healthy breakfast this morning? If the plucked, chopped, and cooked spinach in my omelet is healthy, in what sense is this true? Are these descriptions merely metaphorical? Metaphors for what?

To many scientists, the terms “good” and “healthy” and “beautiful” refer to no more than our own emotional reactions to phenomena. The parts of nature are real, as are the mechanisms, especially when described quantitatively. Goodness and beauty have no objective reality, and the molecules of water and rock bouncing against one another in the stream are no more healthy or unhealthy whether they are moving fast or slow, impeded by an accidental spill of gravel or flowing freely. Scientific managers do generally have value judgments to make about streams: whether they can prevent flooding or whether they can supply fish and recreation. In other words, instrumental values to which we can supply utilitarian evaluations are legitimate, but my slow introduction to stream habitat evaluation evokes an additional, nonscientific sense of the term “stream” and its quality that most scientists qua scientists would find difficult to justify.

The scientific-utilitarian approach has similarities with some Christian-utilitarian traditions common in America. At the risk of mischaracterizing to the point of caricature, some theological traditions would describe the natural world as a very separate order from that of the sacred. In the most extreme forms, God’s inscrutable will does not allow us to see goodness and beauty as inherent to the things of nature but only in utilitarian terms. In some traditions, God becomes the designer God of deism, creating the clockwork of the cosmos and then standing by, only intervening now and then. The two common arguments for how the world was created – through God-As-Engineer or through Darwinian evolution – each assume nature is an unsacramental, mechanical final product.

The Analogical Approach

In other traditions, classical and Christian, the sacred is interwoven with the natural and secular, consistent with our intuition of the wholeness of nature and the objects of nature as subjects-unto-themselves. According to these traditions, we are correct to recognize goodness and health as objective and intrinsic to streams and forests. As we have seen, however, this theological stance raises some important questions about the meaning of the adjectives we want to use.

How can it make sense to call water and rock “healthy?” If we take the word health to mean the same thing in any context (the univocal approach), we will not only run into problems with our babbling brook, but also in trying to compare health across different orders of being – the physical stream, the living tree overhanging it, the conscious fish swimming in it, and the angler casting her fly. Further, this puts God, the ultimate and infinite Good, an infinite distance away from the created, fallen, and unfinished world. On the other hand, if we take the word health to mean something completely unrelated in each case (the equivocal approach), like the word “bank” in a stream bank and Bangor Savings Bank, then this won’t get us anywhere either.

A classical approach – from Plato and Aristotle to the Christian appropriation and development of the concept by Thomas Aquinas and others – is to use the words analogically. We know what it means to use the words healthy and good when it comes to human beings. For a bear or a fish to flourish as a bear or a fish – to be fully, wholly themselves – means something different than it does for a human being, and while the words good and healthy mean something similar to human goodness and health, they don’t mean exactly the same thing. Similarly, the silver maple that commonly reaches out in long arching branches over streams in New England has its own mode of flourishing, analogous to – but not exactly the same as – the other orders of being. Conceptually and logically, it is easy to recognize that the primary analogate, the origin without which the others would not make sense, is Infinite Goodness. Theologically, classical theists refer to the Infinite (the horizon where the True, Good, Beautiful, Unity, etc. converge) as God. Goodness, health, and beauty in nature are images that exist analogically through descending orders of being from participation in their source and primary analogate.

Analogies in the Political Sphere

In other coursework my students will address the political aspects of environmental protection, and we can ask if the concept of analogy could be applied here too. The central theme in American politics today is freedom. Those working to conserve and manage streams and lakes, forests and farmland, oceans and atmosphere are quite often put in the middle of debates between those who want to strengthen environmental protection and those who feel their liberties are being violated by regulation.

Again, we can recognize how differences in the way we conceptualize God lead to different ways in which Christians, particularly in America, might approach political life and, in particular, understand freedom.

Patristic Christian theologians may have been able to articulate how freedom for our trout-filled stream – becoming richer in its completeness because unimpeded by physical disruption, pollution, or invasive species – is related to the question of legal frameworks for society. The comparison was dependent on the idea that God is first of all Infinite Good. God’s will flowed from God’s goodness, and we could know something of goodness not simply from the providential sustenance we received from creation but also from the intrinsic, albeit analogical, goodness we recognized in nature or from witnessing an act of human kindness. Freedom referred to the ability of creation to manifest its particular good.

As John Milbank points out, for Aquinas, natural law was an analogical concept that applied to and brought order to individual creatures as well as to the legal structures that governed social life at every scale from family to international relations. This understanding fostered a collective search for the common good at each of these scales.

At the risk once again of caricature, in some popular theologies developed in the late medieval or early modern periods (and still prevalent today), God’s will became “inscrutable,” the human “totally depraved,” and God’s sovereign power and will became primary rather than God’s goodness. At the same time, the freedom of our stream became meaningless because freedom only applied to human beings. As Milbank puts it, in this lens “Nature no longer means ‘essence’ or ‘kind’ each having its own proper mode of being and purpose. There is now only a single, flattened ‘nature’ in the landscape-background to our human doings…Nature is now set over against culture rather than seen as our extended body which we have to respect and order.”

The analogy of human freedom to God’s freedom also changed. Rather than human freedom referring to the ability to flourish as a human being and to develop fully one’s individual gifts, freedom became reduced to today’s “freedom to choose,” a consumer-type of freedom. This is because God became more like a god – a big guy with a psychological self, weighing options and choosing one rather than the ultimate source of all being. Human relationship to God becomes limited to obedience of individuals to an omnipotent authority whose power is emphasized, whose dictates are clear, but whose goodness and love – beyond supplying instrumental goods – is hidden from us in an inscrutable will.

Fortunately, many theologians are recovering the classical understanding of freedom, bringing it in to harmony with freedom of choice, and applying it analogically to the whole of creation.

Two Futures, Briefly Sketched

As environmental quality and societal harmony continue to degrade, the theological options and consequences of the above observations become clearer.

In what critics have called the “two tier” or “layer cake” model of nature and grace, the order of the sacred is distinct from and separate from the order of secular nature. The secular, devoid of intrinsic meaning, is a place of competing wills and assertion of power. As American freedom no longer provides protection for Christians to live their own way, it is not surprising that we see a call to impose order on the secular. In some circles of Roman Catholicism the theory known as Integralism takes the form of a fascistic theocracy in which political authority imposes policies perceived to be the divine will. In some American evangelical circles it takes the form of employing a “mean dog” in the White House who will make it safe to say Merry Christmas in public again. Depending on the sympathies of the sovereign, this could mean strong environmental regulations or it could mean leaving environmental concerns to market forces; either way, nature would be subject to the imposition of will by those with the power to do so.

But as Milbank and others argue, nature and grace are always already woven together in a different kind of integrity. Nature and society are good but fallen, in need of healing. We can discern the good, beautiful, healthy, and free in different modes for different levels of being and scales of our social lives. If we can foster a freedom to flourish rather than our modern freedom of choice, and if we can recognize versions of a common good appropriate to different real entities of social order from the family to the town to the nation, integrated with the rest of nature at scales from the local and regional to the biosphere, then the need to impose order through laws and regulations is minimized, replaced by deliberative, cooperative action towards a common good. To anyone who finds this implausible, I recommend joining one of the many local land trusts or watershed conservation groups who successfully bring together farmers, foresters, and recreation interests to work with the lands they know and love. These groups illustrate that the thick intelligibility, beauty, and goodness of things in nature and of social ties is real, and that reality can be obscured but not eliminated.

Image Credit: Gustave Courbet, “A Brook In The Forest” (1868).

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