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Generative Integration: Gift, Community and Creation

Identity: Issue Three

Daniel A. Drain

Taylor, Michael Dominic, The Foundations of Nature: Metaphysics of Gift for an Integral Ecological Ethic (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020).

The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, conceived of the relationship between God and the world in the following terms:

[I]f the expression, the independence of temporal affairs, is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is. For without the Creator the creature would disappear. For their part, however, all believers of whatever religion always hear His revealing voice in the discourse of creatures. When God is forgotten, however, the creature itself grows unintelligible. (GS, 36)

Michael D. Taylor’s recent work, The Foundations of Nature: Metaphysics of Gift for an Integral Ecological Ethic[1] is a clarion call to a global culture that has largely become unable to understand itself, that has grown “unintelligible.” Taylor is to be commended for writing such a fine text that does very many things masterfully. It unfolds a brief history of metaphysics; shows the incoherence of viewing the world in the way that so many of us, qua (post)modern, can’t help but do (i.e., technologically); explicates the insidious but ineradicable presence of a technological paradigm present in the genesis, development, and unfolding of liberal bioethics; thinks through what it means to see the created universe in light of a Creator God; and also, perhaps most significantly, offers several responses to the all-too-pressing question, What are we to do?

God sees each thing that he has made, and sees that it is good. Put most plainly: somehow, it is good to be not-God. But even that is not the whole story. Only after the creation of man as the dual-unity of man and woman does God look again at all that he has made and sees that it is, indeed, very good.

Taylor brings to the table not only remarkable chops as a philosopher, metaphysician, and theologian, but, just as importantly, experience and expertise in bioethics and ecology. He is a master of science in the Thomistic-Aristotelian tradition who has put “first things first” and because of that can see every other thing in astonishing detail. Because of his unique formation as a thinker, Taylor can deftly provide diagnoses and re-readings of modern schools of thought that are so clarifying, so therapeutic, that one cannot help but feel refreshed. Consider the following description of the phenomenon of the evolution of life considered in light of a metaphysics of gift:

These three sisters [truth, goodness, and beauty] are the mark of existence and go where it goes. It is no wonder that the development of life has favored forms that are most receptive to the truth of their surroundings, which has guided the evolution of increasingly more accurate sense organs and central nervous systems capable of interpreting the truth of reality. It has favored those creatures most capable of achieving the goodness appropriate to their particular nature, and so we admire the myriad ways living beings have adapted to reality.

Like most millennials, my usual engagement with “nature” is through documentaries I can stream online just like any other entertainment consumable; Taylor’s book reignited in me a deep desire to get out of the house, let my daughter play in the dirt, and try and see how many species of insect we could find in our yard. That alone is worth the price of admission. But the depth and richness of Taylor’s work goes well beyond encouraging outdoorsmanship.

In an essay titled, “On the Christian’s Capacity to See,” Hans Urs von Balthasar laments the obfuscating effects of the modern technological worldview which has wreaked havoc upon our ability to perceive reality as a symbol of God, saying, “Our technology pulls all symbols to pieces.”[2] Though we cannot afford to underestimate how destructive it is to see the world as a concatenation of parts outside of parts, apt only for violent manipulation by an external, mastering force, Balthasar does not leave us hopeless; even this deprivation of vision might spur us blind moderns to stumble around in the dark long enough to encounter God again. Or, as he puts it,

The technologized world awakens in many people a yearning for the “truly blessed night” in which God visited mankind and redeemed it through his suffering. In this yearning, they realize their blindness and burst out with petition; “Lord, let me receive my sight”—to see the figure that your Word took upon himself in his Incarnation, the figure that can be read only by those who see the divine majesty and the divine humility shining forth from Christ’s human countenance and gestures. . . . [F]or whatever happens we are guaranteed at least this: the God who graciously gives himself is powerful enough to impress his figure on those who wish to follow him. Whether the world chooses to recognize this image or not, its presence gives those who bear its form the power to become shapers of form in their turn.[3]

Those of us determined to fight off this technologically-induced myopia would do well with Taylor as our guide. The solution to our blindness is to embrace a metaphysics of gift, which is unfolded in what makes up the central (and longest) chapter of the work, “Thinking through Gift: Contemplating Nature’s Splendor.” Here, Taylor takes us on a tour of the thought of five heavyweight exponents of the metaphysics of gift—Thomas Aquinas, Erich Przywara, Ferdinand Ulrich, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and David L. Schindler—and in the course of said tour, ably summarizes what each has to say to us about analogy. Whether you are a seasoned reader of metaphysics strapped for time, unable to engage such giants on their own, or if perhaps you are leading the good life of contemplation outside of any institutional enrollments or commitments, Taylor’s summaries here are invaluable (and, for my part, will be mandatory reading for any intrepid students who come to me for direction). This chapter is worthy of reading and study even if the rest of the book does not interest you.

And while the earlier chapters of The Foundations of Nature are each worthwhile in their own right (the genealogy of modernity in the second chapter was particularly helpful), Taylor’s final chapter is especially so, as it draws together all of the best of the foregoing into a new unity from which to engage the “Where do we go from here?” question most fruitfully. Taylor’s entire work can be read as an answer to the call of Gaudium et spes to see the nature of creaturely autonomy aright: through the metaphysics of gift, we come to see the goodness of creation as creation. Since it is the case that creation is not merely “a heap,” but is instead a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, it is the task of a metaphysics of gift to dynamically, liturgically, unfold the meaning of that “more.” According to Taylor, “[Analogy] is capable of grasping the ‘more’ that neither [a merely ecological explanatory] system’s holism nor the uneasy juxtaposition can adequately characterize.” “The key,” Taylor shows us, “is to see the asymmetrical polar relationship in which gift is prior: the things of the physical world can have instrumental value without being reduced to that value, just as contractual relations can be embraced within the richness of a covenant.”

One of the elements, among many, from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis that ought to shock us is what God himself sees in creation. We would do well to recall that Genesis could not be clearer that Creation is not God; indeed, the rhythmic, poetic, litany-like unfolding of nature’s fecundity—“let them bring forth…each according to its kind”—is a reiteration of Creation’s distinction from God. There is simply God and not-God. But God’s own beholding of not-God (sealed in the promise of play and leisure inherent in the hallowed sabbath day) is its own sort of proto-evangelium: God sees each thing that he has made, and sees that it is good. Put most plainly: somehow, it is good to be not-God. But even that is not the whole story. Only after the creation of man as the dual-unity of man and woman does God look again at all that he has made and sees that it is, indeed, very good. Man, the image of God, who holds dominion over creation, illuminates for us the truth of the relationship between God and man, man and creation, and therefore God and creation: man and creation each becomes more itself when generatively integrated with God, his law, and the nature of things, which are themselves good.

To record every salutary description, appreciate every distinction, and explicate every new insight in Taylor’s book would entail simply producing a facsimile of his text. Taylor’s book, like his estimation of creation, can only be appreciated by dwelling in it as a gift, thereby seeing it most truly.

[1] A work which was awarded the prestigious Expanded Reason Award in 2021.

[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “On the Christian’s Capacity to See,” in Explorations in Theology, vol V: Man is Created (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 74.

[3] Ibid., 76.

Daniel Drain is a Ph.D. candidate at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, DC and works full-time as a Director of Religious Education in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He also teaches courses as an adjunct in the Department of Philosophy and Theology at DeSales University. Daniel lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, Mary Colleen, and their daughter, Philomena.

Posted on April 20, 2022

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