“All of this presupposes that we are creatures capable of observing, sustaining, and living suspended in the fragile beauty of the world around us, within us, and beyond us” (p. 358, emphasis added). With these words, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn concludes her argument calling for a recovery of inwardness in response to a pervasive culture she terms “the therapeutic.” We are commended to participate in an ancient conversation that aims to “return us to ourselves,” restoring our inner capacity to recognize the beauty around and within us (p. 322). And yet, the Platonic contemplation of beauty so eloquently and forcefully advocated in this book does not, by itself, ensure that beauty will continue to exist on our fragile planet. In this era of the Anthropocene, in which our exploitive, industrial, global economy threatens the very existence of creation, we must give careful thought not just to beholding, but also preserving beauty. Thus, I propose that our inward awareness of beauty must be complemented by an outward recovery of creatureliness, our divinely bestowed vocation to preserve the beauty of our garden home.
Notre Dame Press, 2020
Lasch-Quinn correctly observes that the therapeutic world-view feeds upon and perpetuates a “full-blown embodiment crisis” (p. 24). Insofar as the appropriate evaluative standard for our bodies is health, we can also see the therapeutic culture as constituting a health crisis. Ironically, while noisily touting health and holism—at least inasmuch as such “products” can be purchased and consumed through the paid guidance of experts—the therapeutic espouses a narrow “functionalist physical and psychological model of health” (p. 18). This incomplete, and hence false, concept of health resonates with the ancient Gnostic dualism that prized spirit and despised matter.
If the therapeutic is rooted in a dualistic contempt for matter, surely this contempt extends not just to the body but to the earth. We can perceive that this is so only by recognizing the unity of creation. The agrarian writer Wendell Berry describes the “geologic fault” characterizing the modern mind thus: “It is a flaw in the mind that runs inevitably into the earth. Thought affects or afflicts substance neither by intention nor by accident, but because, occurring in the Creation that is unified and whole, it must; there is no help for it.”Wendell Berry, “The Body and the Earth,” in The Art of the Commonplace, ed. Norman Wirzba (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2002), 104, emphasis added. Berry’s point is that we cannot separate our mistreatment of the body from our mistreatment of the earth, and this deep-seated contempt for the whole of creation is the root cause of our ill health. “To damage the earth,” he explains, “is to damage your children. To despise the ground is to despise its fruit; to despise the fruit is to despise its eaters. The wholeness of health is broken by despite.”Berry, “Body,” 102. To recognize that our contempt of creation—earth and body together rather than merely the body—lies at the root of our embodiment crisis is to suggest that this crisis must be addressed by a restoration of our creatureliness.
To see ourselves as creatures is to see ourselves as accountable to a Creator. This accountability, at least as it has been understood within the Christian tradition, leads us to consider the ways in which our work must be implicated in an adequate response to the therapeutic. Lasch-Quinn offers a lengthy and incisive definition of the therapeutic culture, the cost of which is the loss of inwardness and its concomitant diminution of our “ability to become adept at the art of living” (p. 18). To this trenchant analysis I would add that the therapeutic is both symptom and result of what Berry calls the “dismemberment and impoverishment of the Creation.” Furthermore, we cannot hope to address this pervasive cultural malaise without acknowledging that “our economy is based on this disease. Its aim is to separate us as far as possible from the sources of life (material, social, and spiritual), to put these sources under the control of corporations and specialized professionals, and to sell them to us at the highest profit.”Berry, “Body, 132. To cast the therapeutic in such terms is to implicate our work in our cultural ill health. To pursue health thus entails recovering the wholeness of work, “the direct connections between living and eating,To see ourselves as creatures is to see ourselves as accountable to a Creator. eating and working, working and loving.”Berry, “Body,” 132. To think holistically about our work, a powerful antidote to the sham holism of the therapeutic, is ineluctably to think about our creaturely vocation.
In order to understand why inwardness must take its place within our creaturely vocation, particularly as it relates to our work, we might consider the film Interstellar. For Lasch-Quinn, this film provides an imaginative depiction of the importance of love and beauty, as seen through a Platonic lens. It is precisely the inner awareness of love and beauty that enables us to be “at home in the universe” (p. 327). Although Lasch-Quinn uses the notion of being “at home” metaphorically in the sense of living in harmony with other human beings (presumably on earth), the film narrates a quest to be at home literally anywhere else in the universe besides earth. This is because, presumably as a result of the greed and folly of our current way of living and working on earth, we have, in the not-too-distant future of the film, nearly exhausted the earth’s fragile capacity to sustain life. While some characters in the film express a dogged commitment to continue farming (a futile task, since the methods of industrial farming depicted in the film are precisely the cause of soil erosion and blight), the protagonist of the film (Cooper, an astronaut, played by Matthew McConaughey) insists that caring for the earth is not the human vocation. He laments, “It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are . . . explorers, pioneers, not caretakers. . . . We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” The naked contempt expressed here bespeaks what, in Wendell Berry’s view, is “one of the characteristic diseases of the twentieth century . . . the suspicion that [we] would be greatly improved if [we] were someplace else.”Wendell Berry, “Pray Without Ceasing,” in That Distant Land: The Collected Stories (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004), 49. Indeed, the film presents us (not always self-consciously) with the logical, and absurd, extension of this suspicion: no matter how poorly we care for our fragile and beautiful home, we will always be able to find a home elsewhere, enabled, of course, by science and technology. Against this naive optimism, I am contending that if we reject our creaturely vocation to care for our earthly home—as it largely appears we are doing—no transcendent vision of beauty will enable us to be at home in the universe. What, then, enables us to recover this vocation?
Of the five philosophical schools discussed by Lasch-Quinn, I would agree that the New Platonism provides resources that are helpful for this sort of recovery. Yet these resources, however necessary, are insufficient. To show what is lacking in the New Platonism, I turn to Augustine, whose response to the radical dualism of Manicheanism was indeed aided by the writings of the Neoplatonists. Yet he also acknowledges that which he did not find in their writings: the revelation that the one true source of love in the cosmos took on human flesh and dwelled among humans (Confessions VII.13–14). Augustine was preceded by some two centuries in his life-changing discovery by Irenaeus, who stressed the importance of the incarnation in his refutation of Gnosticism. Against the Gnostics’ claim that the Creator was merely an evil pseudo-god, Irenaeus insisted that the God who made Adam from the virgin soil was the very same God who created Jesus from Mary’s virgin womb (Against Heresies 3.21.9–10). Whereas Adam rebelled against his creaturely vocation, Jesus obeyed, and through his obedience recapitulated the human story in a way that undoes the corrupting effects of Adam’s sin and restores God’s handiwork. At stake here was the very nature of salvation. The Gnostics saw the material world as merely a stage upon which the drama of salvation took place. Once our salvation is achieved and we (or rather, the elect who possess the true gnōsis) are transferred to the realm of absolute spirit, then the material world—our earthly prison—is of no consequence. Like the intrepid astronauts in the film Interstellar, the Gnostics loudly insisted: “Earth is not our home.”
Irenaeus, of course, did not invent the idea of recapitulation (from the Greek anakephalaiōsis, a gathering or summing up) out of whole cloth. The Apostle Paul first gave voice to this hope in his letter to the church in Ephesus, praising the wisdom and insight with which God has made known the mystery of his will, “set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up (anakephalaiōsasthai) all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). Paul (or as many scholars insist, a later disciple) is himself engaged here in a kind of gathering up of the tradition, rooted in Israel’s scriptures, of our divinely bestowed vocation. In the creation account in Genesis 2, God forms a human from humus (adam from adamah) and gives to this creature the sacred task of tending the soil of our garden home (Gen 2:7, 15). When Paul,The recovery of creatureliness entails a vocation to care for creation in a way that reflects the loving intention of the Creator. and Irenaeus after him, envision the recapitulation of all things in heaven and on earth, they look forward to a restoration of our creaturely vocation to wisely and lovingly care for creation in a way that reveals the character and intentions of the Creator. This restoration doubtless entails just such a return to inwardness as Lasch-Quinn eloquently articulates. But it also comprehends our work, the activity by which we fulfill, or fail in, our divinely bestowed vocation.
The recovery of creatureliness, then, entails a vocation to care for creation in a way that reflects the loving intention of the Creator, a task that encompasses our work as well as our relationship to the land and to the communities of people who cultivate the land, which we can think of as the “land community.” Although Lasch-Quinn does not develop the notion of creatureliness as I have done, there are hints that the beautiful life she commends does indeed possess a communal dimension. Against the instrumentalizing of people, she proposes the “spiritual discipline of living in community with others” (p. 332). Against the notion of philosophy as “purely personal,” she insists that living philosophically “ties our personal strivings in a meaningful way to the world of others” (p. 336). This recognition that inwardness leads properly to holistic social relations suggests compatibility between inwardness and creatureliness.
If, as Lasch-Quinn has suggested, we may be returned to ourselves by joining an ancient conversation among Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, and above all, Platonists, I would like to suggest another conversation partner: the Apostle Paul. At first blush, he seems an unlikely candidate. He is clearly not a philosopher; indeed, his one explicit mention of philosophia (Col 2:8) might suggest he took a jaundiced view to a life spent in pursuit of wisdom. Moreover, he might seem to have little interest in the agrarian-inflected argument I have been articulating. Like the astronauts in Interstellar and the Gnostics before them, Paul has sometimes been perceived as taking a dim view of the material goodness of creation, or of the possibility of moral formation as it was conceived among philosophical schools. I suggest, however, that Paul ought not to be so quickly dismissed from a conversation about a life that is both good and beautiful. Paul believed that God’s kingdom on earth, inaugurated through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, had ushered in a new age, which he calls the “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). Unlike so much of the church’s activity in the modern era, Paul was not “dedicated to incanting anemic souls to heaven.”Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in The Art of the Commonplace, ed. Norman Wirzba (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2002), 319. Rather, he played the role of midwife, giving birth to virtue-forming communities of men and women called to a renewed creaturely vocation, a task requiring both the inward and outward transformation of their bodies as they daily gave themselves in allegiance to Jesus as king. This allegiance both requires and fosters virtues that enable the church to live in eager anticipation of God’s eschatological restoration and renewal of creation. Such virtues, for example endurance and hope (Rom 5:1–5), can be thought of as agrarian, in that they are concerned with the proper relationship of people to land and with the health of both. They are also quintessentially creaturely virtues in that they enable us to eagerly anticipate the eschatological liberation of creation from its “bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21).Julien C. H. Smith, Paul and the Good Life: Transformation and Citizenship in the Commonwealth of God (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2020), 169–78. Paul’s vision of beauty both anchors us in the story of God’s creation and restores us to our proper place within that story.
We are, as Lasch-Quinn observes, creatures with a capacity to observe, sustain, and live amidst beauty. These capacities inevitably touch upon both the work we do, and whether our work fosters the flourishing of the land community. Therefore, whether inwardness can restore us to ourselves depends in no small measure upon outwardness, the ways in which our work participates in our sacred vocation to care for our beautiful garden home.