D.T. Gonzalez – Ecological Works of Mercy

Words of Nature

Contact with nature can bring joy, for “nature is filled with words of love” (LS, 225).  From a mystical perspective, this is true, and we need to rediscover such words of love especially in times of loneliness, affliction, or desolation.  Nature, however, is like a great work of art which offers neithera singular message nor an absolute teaching.  Other messages need to be rediscovered such as, among others, signs of attentiveness, caution, timeliness, and detachment, and the tragicomic consequences of ignorance, inattentiveness, and rashness.  

A form of detachment, for example, is a facet of nature, as the disease-carrying mosquito bites the merciful and the merciless; the hungry lion roars at the friendly and the unfriendly; the fierce heat of a dry season shrivels the crops of the evil and the good; the unexpected rain “weeps differently, arrives as a tantrum that tears mountains and turns villages into gravestones”[17] of the righteous and the unrighteous (cf. Mt 5:45).  It is as if a voice in nature says:whether the moral or immoral person lives or dies is no concern of mine.

The spirituality whose ecological understanding is multifaceted helps us to recognizenot only the equilibrium, harmony, and beauty of creation but also its tragicomic facets and meticulous and scientific complexity. A “mystical meaning to be found” in each thing, being, and force of nature (LS, 233) is helpful in responding concretely to our ecological crisis when such meaning is connected closely to, or is a fruit of, a multifaceted understanding in which religious insight, aesthetic sensibility, and scientific knowledge are kept together in dynamic and creative tension.

Managing and Re-enchanting Nature

In my view, for ecological spirituality to bemore relevant to our current crisis, it has to wrestle with the phenomenon of the dissolution of “nature,” the nature untouched by human intervention.  According to the public intellectual, Anthony Giddens, the human species in our “runaway world” is already living with “managed nature” in ecological-social systems, rather than in natural ecosystems; thus exhortations to return to “nature” or to abolish urbanism represent a nostalgia that can turn into a noxious delusion.[18] In this light, a call to care for, or to reconcile with, creation will have to be distinguished from a call to return to nature.

Today, totally undisturbed and unprotected natural environments exist no longer on land at least.[19] Current wildlife sanctuaries, forest preserves, and nature reserves will remain “natural” only if they are protected and managed carefully.  Whether one admits itor not, our various communities and organizations, including large centralized organizations like States and multinational corporations and agencies, have been managing eco-social environments badly or well.  It is nightmarish to imagine billions of people withdrawing from any participation in managing their eco-social environment, as they fall down in ecstasy before “nature.”

A nostalgic re-enchantment or romanticizing of nature will not bring our ecological-social problems closer to practicaland systematic solutions.  For a re-enchantment to be beneficial, it would have to be akin to Baruch Spinoza’s third level of knowledge, an intuitive and, perhaps, mystical knowledge that can be called a second naivety. This third level cannot be reached without passing through the second level, the comprehension of the scientific determinations and rigors of nature.  Re-enchantment should be neither the imitation of, nor the nostalgic return to, the original naivety of the first level, which comprises mythical beliefs and incoherent prejudices.[20] In this light, a mature ecological spirituality leads one to see the mystical layer or core of nature together with many other layers or facets so much so thatthe mystical nurtures, interacts actively with, and does not substitute for, the practical and the theoretical.


For a short summary and conclusion, let me enumerate ways to specify care for the earth and its dwellers as a new work of mercy:

1. consoling the afflicted by calling attention to creation and its many facets such as the wondrous, the ludicrous, and the meticulous;
2. mourningthe (anthropogenic) extinction of creatures thatcurrent and future generations will behold alive in the wild no more;
3. helping the poor and vulnerable groups to expand their scientific, ethical, aesthetical, cultural, and religious understanding of the climate, nature, and wildlife;
4. helping the poor and vulnerable, especially in geo-hazard zones, to invent or to utilize low-cost local technology for monitoring unexpected changes in the environment and for growing their own organic food and medicinal herbs;
5. practicing hospitality toward climate change refugees and those who have fled from ecological-social disasters.There can be more ecological works of mercy for different contexts.  One Filipino proverb says, “the work of mercy never ends.”[21]

[17] Romulo Baquiran Jr, “The Changing Sky,” in Agam, 62. 

[18] Anthony Giddens, Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), 206-12.

[19] A similar point has been stressed in the German Ideology (1846) where Ludwig Feuerbach’s idealized views of nature and of natural man are criticized.  “Nature, the nature that preceded human history, is not by any means the nature in which Feuerbach lives, it is nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral-islands of recent origin).”  See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology: Part One, ed. C.J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1993), 63.

[20] For a discussion of Spinoza’s three levels of knowledge and of the suitability of neo-spinozism, or panentheisticspinozism, to articulate a Christian God-concept for the contemporary scientific milieu, see Georges De Schrijver, “Changes in the Understanding of the Attributes of God in Deism, Newton, and Spinoza: The Influence of Cosmological Reflection on Religious Thought,” in Naming God Today, eds. H.E. Mertens and L. Boeve (Leuven: KULeuven Press, 1994), 48-61.

[21] See Eugenio, 363.