The worldview and the attitude to nature

Prof. Ryszard F. Sadowski SDB

December 22, 2021

Adoption of a specific worldview by a man influences one’s attitude towards nature. For example, moving away from the worldview adopted by ancient Greek philosophy and Christian thought in favor of the modern worldview proposed by René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, etc. completely changed the human attitude to nature with all its consequences, both positive (progress related to the scientific and technological revolution) and negative (ecological crisis related to the over-exploitation of resources and pollution of the planet).

According to the modern worldview, man is the only being that is characterized by consciousness (latin res cogitans), while the rest of nature is only characterized by extension (latin res extensa). This created a huge abyss between man and the rest of creation. According to this concept, man ceased to be a member of the community of existence, becoming in nature not only a “foreigner”, but even its “master and owner”, as F. Bacon described it. The modern approach to reality means that the order present in the world no longer has values or goals in it, is not based on a hierarchy of quality, or on the pursuit of created things to achieve a calling or destiny. You cannot hear the music of the spheres in it, and the Earth ceases to be the center of the cosmos. Instead, it becomes one of many celestial bodies scattered in the vastness of the universe. The order of the new worldview is based on mathematics, geometry and mechanics. The place of the earlier image of the world identified with the divine cosmos is now taken by a universe made of one matter, obedient to the laws of mechanics, unlimited, susceptible to changes and transformations made by man in it. Depriving nature of its intrinsic value means that man begins to use it to satisfy one’s needs in any way, without considering one’s actions towards nature in ethical terms.

It seems worth returning to the classical worldview, which sees nature not only as its internal value and purpose, but also indicates the bond between man and nature and one’s obligations towards it. Contrary to numerous accusations, the Christian worldview does not allow man to freely use nature to satisfy one’s whims. On the contrary, thanks to granting him specific competences with respect to creation, the Creator imposed on him the obligation to care for the world, of which man is only the steward, while its only owner is God.

The Christian worldview, understood in this way, was present in Western thought from the very beginning of Christianity. This is illustrated by sacred art, which shows the ideas of Christians about the structure of the world, the place of man in nature and his duties towards it. A good example of this is the sculpture placed in the German cathedral in Bamberg, entitled The Bamberg Horseman .

This sculpture was created in the 30s of the 13th century and is a synthesis of the biblical style of human presence in the world and the Christian worldview and its relation to nature. It shows the hierarchical arrangement of the elements of the world, the center of which is a man who surpasses nature, but is subject to God. The lowest rung of the ladder of beings is the abyss of hell, symbolically represented in the form of a demonic mask, which is the right base of the sculpture. The next rung of this ladder is a dead rock, which is the left base of the platform on which the sculpture is located. It is worth noting that this landing, starting from the bottom, consists of soil in which lush grass is rooted, symbolizing the world of plants. Above is a horse – a representative of the animal world. The rider on the horse is shown wearing a crown, which reminds that man, the crown of creation, is the ruler of inanimate and animate nature. The noble posture of the rider and the freely hanging reins indicate that man rules his creature wisely and gently. This is confirmed by the clearly exposed lushness of the grass and the good condition of the animal. All this indicates that the honest fulfillment by man of the duties assigned to him by the Creator for creation contributes to the success of both man and the rest of creation. Since man’s power over the world is not absolute, it is given to him by God only to a limited extent. Man is not the owner of the world, but only its steward. The only ruler of the world is the Creator, which in the worldview presented in the sculpture is symbolized by the canopy at the top of the composition. This canopy represents Heavenly Jerusalem, the throne and God’s abode. This symbolic representation of God the Creator is, on the one hand, a synthesis of the Christian worldview, and on the other hand, it is the goal towards which man and its creation subordinate to him is moving.

Proper understanding of the place and role of man in the world, even if this place is privileged, does not pose a threat to the condition of the Earth. This topic is taken up by Pope Francis in the encyclical Laudato si’, emphasizing the differences between Christian and modern anthropocentrism. The Pope points out that it is precisely because of its unique position that man is capable of taking care of the world entrusted to him. (No. 68-69) Properly understood Christian anthropocentrism emphasizes the priority of “being” over “being used”. (No. 69) There are also many indications that it is the modern worldview that underlies anthropocentrism, which the Pope describes as tyrannical (No. 68), distorted (No. 69), excessive (No. 116) and misguided (No. 122).

Christian anthropocentrism is much more moderate than modern anthropocentrism. God is at the top of the Christian picture of the world, while at the top of the modern picture of the world there is man, who is free to freely use nature to satisfy one’s needs. It seems, however, that the proper shaping of man’s relationship to nature cannot involve the rejection of modern thought. The modern progress of mankind owes a lot to it. It’s more about recognizing the destructive elements of modernity and finding ways to minimize them. There are many indications that the Christian worldview can be useful in this, because it fosters the formation of pro-environmental attitudes and taking responsibility for the entire creation.