Saint Boniface, Archbishop of Mentz, Apostle of Germany, and Martyr

Author: Alban Butler


Catherine Dalzell

The oak tree of Saint Boniface is less famous than the shamrock of Saint Patrick, but we might do well to give it some thought. The shamrock, as everyone knows, was plucked to illustrate the triune nature of God; the oak was felled to clear the ground of opposing views.

Saint Boniface ( 680-754 ), a Devon man originally, laid the foundations of the Church in Germany. He made a number of missionary trips to that country, founding new congregations and revisiting old ones. The episode with the oak tree occurred during one of the return visits, at Geismar. It emerged that during his absence, his flock had returned to the druids and were worshipping a tree held to be sacred to Thor. Saint Boniface chopped it down.

One can imagine the scene: Boniface, grim and determined, with his axe; the Germans standing around part curious, part terrified, waiting to see what will happen; the tree itself, unmoved at first by the blows directed to its trunk, now quivering slightly under the repeated impact of the axe. A tree does not fall by degrees. It stands upright, balanced through the remaining diameter of the trunk until near the end. Then comes the final push, and gravity does the rest. A ray of sunlight strikes the ground. Beyond that, nothing. Silence.

The Germans were impressed. I don't suppose they ever enjoyed being Pagans very much. It was a religion of fear and death, and it took little to persuade them to leave it. Christians today know what it is to be rescued from their own personal illusions and addictions, but it would almost be worth belonging to a Pagan society in order to experience the conversion of an entire community from such dehumanizing beliefs. It must have come like the morning after a feverish night, to see in the powers of nature not the vengeance of demons, but God's gift to man.

The oak of Geismar was the first of many, as the new Christians used their freedom to build a civilization in the wilderness of Europe. Wherever the Gospel has been preached, there has been the sound of construction in the background—and even when the Gospel is forgotten, that freedom from the powers of nature won in baptism, continues on its course. Indeed, it often seems that the only Christian teaching still active in public life today is the lesson of St. Boniface and his oak tree.

A fine example of this can be found in the Natural History Museum in London, which is a temple to Darwinism and a hymn of praise to man the technocrat. Some time ago I wrote an essay describing the museum and the world view that it represents. I recently had the opportunity to make a return visit and thought I would check a few details. To my amazement, I found that an entire new wing had been added. It opened off the main hall, the one containing the dinosaur bones, and displays of the ascent of man to world dominance.

I crossed the threshold into the new exhibit, and saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had passed away. The old earth, the earth of the Victorian display cases, was the earth of Darwinism and the survival of the fittest through the long marches of time. None of this remained. Gone were the battling individuals, the struggling species, and the laborious ascent. Gone too the Medieval vaulting with its carved monkeys and deep shadows. This was a new world of light and air and rushing water.

And yet this wing, the new ecology wing, like the Darwinian portion of the museum, is a temple. Science is secondary; this exhibit is for preaching and worship. As you enter, you find yourself in an aisle between white walls. There are quotes written up on the walls about the earth, and the nature of things. From Walt Whitman for instance, we have" The earth does not argue, is not pathetic, has no arrangements, does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten, promise, makes no discriminations, has no conceivable failures, closes nothing, refuses nothing, shuts none out."

And another is taken from Chief Seattle:
"The Earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the Earth."

Marcus Aurelius was also quoted, along with other people not normally associated with the biological sciences.

The quotes were written along translucent walls interspersed with portholes, through which can see dioramas of creatures living in harmony. I suppose the Garden of Eden must have been something like this, but the exhibit gives only glimpses of Paradise, the size of a porthole; the focus is elsewhere. The aisle, the dioramas and the quotes are only by way of preparation, to put you in a receptive mood for what lies ahead.

What lies ahead is the high altar of the exhibit. The Darwinian side also contains a high altar. On the second floor, overlooking the dinosaur hall, there is the mammoth cross-section of a giant sequoia tree, felled around the turn of the century for the world's fair. The tree was fifteen centuries old at the time. A small photograph of the lumberjacks who felled it is displayed beside this monument to nature's power. The moral is clear: man's technical ability has brought him triumph over nature, and over history.

Trees also figure in the central display of the ecology wing, but in this case, the trees are alive. The display consists of sixteen panels of shifting photos. "Water and its movement are essential for life," we are told, and the photos show scenes of water in motion and time-lapse images of growing plants. No animals and no men are to be seen. The display has been fitted out with mirrors to convey the illusion of a globe, while in the background, one hears some of that "new age" music, the kind seems to be everywhere at once, and that simulates the monotony of running water and rustling leaves.

On each side of the display of mirrors, there is a stairway leading to a mezzanine of exhibits that elaborate the connection between natural diversity and the survival of species. It is the variety of species, and the connections between living things that make "communities rich enough to cope with change." Co-operation, not competition, is the key to survival. One species, however, has forgotten this truth. "Man is altering the ecosystems, cutting through the connections," and all life is threatened.

Nothing would be further from the natural bent of the human soul than to terminate the diagnosis at this point, without blaming metaphysical error for the catastrophe that is to come. The blame is not long in coming.

We act as if we are separate from nature, as if nature is a free resource for us to plunder.

Further quotes enlarge upon this theme. The root of the problem is perceptual, and spiritual. Man in his arrogance, has "thought himself" away from the rest of nature. And having mentally severed his relationship to the source of life, he has no qualms about exploiting the environment, endangering other species as well as his own. The lumber industry is cited as an example.

A number of thoughts crossed my mind as I toured the exhibit. Chief among these was astonishment at the contrast between the message of the new ecologism and that of the old evolutionism. One can only wonder how the same nature, studied by the same civilization under the same norms of scientific evidence, could yield two such different visions of the universe and man's place in it. In one, we see the individual battling to survive in endless competition with his fellows and with other species; in the other, it is the balance between species that makes for survival. In one, individuality without connection; in the other, community without persons. In one, process, history and drama; in the other, interactions in space, balance, ecosystems. In one, man triumphs through technology; in the other, technology destroys. In one, change is progress; in the other, man's activity is feared But what am I saying? Is this biology, or is it politics? Both exhibits, indeed, have more to do with man than they do with nature. They are there for the moral.

Nature—by which I mean the totality of living things—is readily pressed into the service of political causes. We tend to look to physics for an image of God, but we look to nature for the image of man, in particular, for the image of political man. The burden of politics is, after all, to manage the sustenance of human life, which revolves around the same needs that we share with other living things. All life seeks nourishment, seeks to expand and to reproduce itself—human, animal and vegetable.

But there may be another reason. If the purpose of politics is human life, its central dilemma is to seek a balance between the freedom of the individual and the survival of the group. Politics is the art of the one in the many, and the many for the one. Inert matter makes no distinction between individual and organism. The concepts do not apply. We say "a piece of steel", a "nugget of gold", or simply "steel" and "gold", as if the Earth contained only one allotment of each, that is moulded, divided and recombined at will. Individuality first appears with living things—and with individuality, community. It is almost inevitable that a new perception of nature will suggest a different political outlook, and that a change in politics will look to nature for new symbols.

It is not necessary, of course, for an environmental movement to be simply a foil for a political one. It can actually be about the environment. Environmentalism can be both scientific and sensible, and my recollection of the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies is that it was both. It was motivated by a love of nature, by its beauty, and by a measure of enlightened self- interest. If we poison the air, our children will choke. We could use the world destructively and destroy it—was a timely protest for an important issue. But while viewing the exhibit at the Natural History Museum, and reading some of the recent "Green" literature I have sensed a change of tone, as if the rain forests were now grist to a different mill, one whose upper millstone was political and whose lower was religious. Why for instance was there so little hard science in the exhibit at the Natural History Museum? Why so many quotes from poets and gurus?

The exhibit, as a matter of fact, is mild for the genre. Anyone familiar with "Greenish" publications would at once recognize the symbols and the arguments, but a class of ten-year-old school children for example, could probably sweep through it and return in all innocence to their Mutant Ninja Turtles. I decided to go for the full treatment. I bought a stack of books and a high-lighter pen. One need not read very far to cover the main features of the landscape; but rather than talk in broad generalities, I will use only two of these works, one political and one theological. I assure you that the quotations are fully typical.

The "Green Manifesto" was written by two members of Great Britain's Green Party It is not an official statement of that party, but it offers fairly specific policy statements of what Green politics should be. The authors list four basic principles upon which Green politics must rest.

1. Life on earth should continue. 2. Human life on earth should continue. 3. Natural justice should be done. 4. There is a quality of life worth pursuing independently of material well-being.

A Catholic would probably agree to these principles, but on condition that their order be reversed. One might also point out that if points 3 and 4 are observed, points 1 and 2 will follow as a consequence. But what can it possibly mean for a human, political movement to assert as its first principle that life on Earth should continue, and only in second place that human life should continue? Everything disquieting about the new environmentalism is contained in this choice of emphasis.

If life as such is to be placed above human life, then humanity must rate as simply one species among others. The totality of such species would then be more important than any particular species. This is the launching pad of Anne Primavesi's book "From Apocalypse to Genesis", in which she pursues the consequences of this choice to their logical conclusion and beyond. Primavesi is a theologian, and her book is subtitled "Ecology, Feminism and Christianity." She adopts what she calls the ecological and feminist paradigms as a basis for re-interpreting Christian doctrine, the idea being that only a Greener Christianity can save the environment—or at least, not continue to destroy it.

According to her, the ecological paradigm is "a consistent refusal to fragment the world into separate and independently existing parts. [ ... ] such ecology refuses to fragment the world by separating human beings from inert matter and other living organisms in a way which distances them "above", "apart from" or "beyond" the natural systems of which they are a part. It regards the world as a whole, as an interconnecting non-hierarchical system containing diverse and co-operating equalities. "

Later, she adds a feminist component.

"Ecofeminism stresses the connection between woman and Nature on the grounds that Nature, in our distanced, masculine-scientific culture, has also been made "other", something essentially different from the dominant human male who has an unlimited right to exploit 'Mother Earth.' "

Nature is a system of relationships, but the relationship of scientist to subject matter, of the observer to the observed, is not one to be encouraged; it leads to domination and exploitation. Although stated in stronger terms, this is the same point that was made by the ecology exhibit. Man is guilty before Nature—always in caps—because he has, through rational thought, cut through the "system of relationships" and placed himself at an observer's distance from the forest floor. He has run away from home.

Through reason, man divides himself from nature; through faith he puts the divine into one concept called "God" and everything else into a concept called "Nature," which he can then use as he pleases.

"Today it is official Christian teaching that Nature is desacralized, 'fallen"' Yet hardly a day goes by without someone reminding us that unless we recover a sense of reverence for Nature, we are not going to win the battle for its and our survival."

In other words, it is the Christian distinction between God and creation—not, by the way, the same thing as saying that nature is fallen—that is the source of all evil.

There follows a truly heroic attempt to pursue the "ecological paradigm" to the finish, a refusal to "fragment" to the point of denying any distinctions at all. This is difficult to do, when grammatical structure and the common noun itself constantly channel the general experience of being into utterances about distinct and specific things. Primavesi turns to metaphor as an escape the usual clarity human speech. Metaphor, she argues, is what we must use to speak of God and Nature. This is true enough, and metaphorical language has always been used to say something about a God we can not experience directly, but she uses it to avoid saying anything distinctive at all.

Since metaphor implies both similarity and difference, we must say:

"God is/is not Father. The earth is/is not mother. Adam is/is not body. Adam is/is not spirit. The earth is/is not passive matter."

"Now the metaphors really begin to open up," she says. And to prove it, she offers the following sentence to the reader. "No longer is our imagination kept bunkered inside conceptually grid-locked traps of hierarchy, patriarchy and dualism."

In the sequel, it emerges that to Primavesi, even a simple, declarative sentence like "God is good" is the product of a bunkered imagination, and the kind of thinking that leads to domination and oppression.

This sounds extreme; it is extreme; and one would like to think that Primavesi's book, and the Green Manifesto have only a small readership. But the exhibit at the Natural History Museum was packed with visitors, and basically it was saying the same thing: that man's capacity for rational thought, his scientific study of nature is preventing him from living in harmony with the natural world. These people are not simply condemning greed or poorly planned technical projects; they are not urging reform. They are attacking the principle upon which all scientific thought and engineering practice is based.

This raises an interesting question. How is man supposed to live in harmony with nature, or with anything else, without the use of reason? All human behaviour, however simple, rests upon sizing up the situation and acting upon it. This is as true of brewing a cup of coffee as it is of designing a power dam. Fur us, to exist in nature, to be in harmony with nature, is to be consciously aware of what is going on. We live by knowing and by choosing. Reason is the name of the faculty that does this. Through reason we stand outside the flux of natural causes and perceive some aspect of the truth of things.

Nor can we escape our own rational nature. Suppose we were to leave large tracts of land deliberately unused, and revert to the use of Medieval technology, like the water wheel and the windmill. We would still not be living in harmony with nature after the manner of cows and seagulls. We would know that we might have chosen otherwise and instead have girdled the earth with gleaming mega-projects, cut down the rain forests and replaced the Amazon basin with cultivated land and small towns.

Without human reason, even nature would not be what it is. Nature does not know its own potential, but we know. Or if we don't know today, we can find out tomorrow. In this light, even some of the more innocent passages of the "Green Manifesto" sound highly restrictive.

We should choose a human scale for human-made systems. This should allow for access, comprehension, control, creativity and the conviviality of the human community.

This is further amplified by the remark "personal excellence is to be encouraged, but not at the expense of others."

I find it hard to understand how personal excellence can be at the expense of others, and further, what is a human scale? What is the appropriate scale of action for a being that can study the quantum effects of sub-atomic particles and the origin of the universe? What is the scale of action of someone who can mentally hold the earth in one hand, with all its burden of living things, and then pass judgement upon himself for not living like moss on the north side of a tree trunk?

There is no natural scale whereby the human mind can be measured. The mind itself will always measure any scale proposed to it, and then leap six feet beyond the end of it. Nor is there any natural balance of nature in the human heart; neither man's lunacy or his generosity are self-limiting.

It is precisely considerations of this kind that have prompted philosophers to distinguish rational beings from those that are alive without the gift of reason. There's more. Once you grant that human reason is what it obviously is—namely a capacity to see the truth of things and to step outside the chain of instinct and blind necessity—you are not far from a proof for the existence of God. Human reason must be lit by some light beyond the chain of blind causality in nature, just as human desire is directed beyond any finite and particular thing within our field of vision.

Anne Primavesi is fully aware of the connection between belief in human rationality and the other Christian doctrines of the soul; its immortality, its fall into sin and redemption by Christ; its destiny in the vision of God. She sees the connection and denounces the whole picture. If belief in the duality of mind and nature is the cause of the current ecological crisis—a crisis whose existence and severity she never questions—and if the Christian doctrine of salvation rests upon the assumption that men are not beasts, then the doctrine of salvation has to go.

How she re-interprets the Bible to get rid of these doctrines makes for interesting reading. Nevertheless, the logic is impeccable. Recall that our starting point is that mankind is a biological species like any other. Man is completely a part of nature, like any other part. Death is a part of nature, therefore death is natural to man. Man was never intended to be immortal; thus death is no punishment for sin, so sin does not exist, and there was no fall.

Why be offended by death? Why, for that matter, be born at all? The Christian refusal to accept human death as a normal biological function has coloured Church policy regarding over-population and birth control—so Primavesi.

She drops the population bomb rather casually in a few passages. Her mind is made up and so, she assumes, is the mind of the reader: nothing to prove, no one to convince. But the Green Manifesto gives an entire chapter to this issue, whose opening sentence reads:

The explosion in human numbers is the greatest long-term threat to the future of human and non-human inhabitants of the Earth.

I have yet to read a "Green" publication that does not contain a sentence of this kind. The "Green Manifesto" assumes, like the rest of them, that there is a population explosion and that the fact that fewer people are dying young is proof that the human race is facing catastrophe. But the authors go further and assume that increasing population threatens even non-material goods. They ask, "Is there one freedom [ ... ] that would increase if our population became twice as great as it is now?" They fear that our freedoms would actually become less.

Nothing can be done until the population problem has been solved; everything is subject to this overriding purpose.

"In terms of foreign aid, the cruel truth is that help given to regimes opposed to population policies is counter-productive and should cease. They are the true enemies of life and do not merit support. So too are those religions which do not actively support birth control. Green governments would reluctantly have to challenge head-on such damaging beliefs. To do otherwise would merely exacerbate the problem." (From the Green Manifesto.)

We began by asserting that man is a species like any other. We proceed to deny his reason, his soul, his compassion for his suffering fellows, and finally we denounce the one thing he shares with nature: natural increase. This demonic theory is against human life itself.

Give me an axe, Saint Boniface! Give me an axe. This is the old slavery of fallen man. The ecology exhibit has a rather curious logo. It shows the image of a man inscribed in a circle, as in Leonardo da Vinci's famous diagram. But whereas da Vinci stressed the mathematical balance in human proportion, the museum logo shows a man turning into a tree, with branches for arms, the legs turning into a trunk. He is putting down roots; becoming vegetable, a quiet return to the Earth, where his mind will trouble him no more. Chop it down, St. Boniface. This is the old enemy, the human sacrifices by moonlight; this is the old religion of hatred and fear.

Fear has a remedy, and it is called love. Perfect love casts out fear, the Apostle said, and where love is not, fear takes over. Saint Boniface did not go to Germany to start a lumber business. He went to offer the Pagans a share in the divine life, or the indwelling of the Trinity, as the catechism puts it. The same offer is being made today. But what does it mean?

The mystery of the Trinity is the mystery of love. Love is what joins two people in a bond that is real, and yet without annihilating either party. Love, fundamentally, is what is lacking in Primavesi's analysis. To her, all differences of substance are differences of value; and differences of value lead inevitably to domination.

"If Nature is seen as "not God", then this licenses human control of it." (Primavesi.)

All distinctions are dangerous, and separation is only one aspect of subordination.

"It is now clear how hierarchy works as a principle of separation and subordination—between God and angels, angles and man, man and woman, baptized Christian and unbaptized Pagan, humanity and Nature."

I am sure that we could, with the help of Satan, produce a world not unlike the one she believes herself already to inhabit. Those looking for evidence that we are progressing along this path will not lack for material. But only a mind void of love could believe that all distinctions must of necessity lead to domination.

Let us consider a typical male-dominated hierarchical work: The Divine Comedy of Dante. I can think of no better work for this purpose. It covers typical male concerns: the nature of God, the beauty of women, local politics, and the ambition of the poet. Furthermore, it categorizes. It turns the cosmos into a filing cabinet for souls, to such an extent that we might well ask where, after Dante, hierarchical thinking can go. According to Primavesi's theory, the poem should read like a Nazi recruiting poster. One would expect a battle field, where the citizens of Paradise jump all over the poor souls of Purgatory, who in turn torment the damned, while singing boastful, little songs about their own superior virtue. One would expect to read how the male Dante instructs the female Beatrice, who in turn berates the Pagan Virgil for his lack of faith.

This does not happen. It does not even float as a possibility. It might happen were the universe to be turned inside out, and the devil reign as God, but under the current state of things, this does not happen. Instead, the poem ends with a great hymn to the Trinity. Dante first implores the aid of the Blessed Virgin that he may be able to remember and relate what he has seen of the vision of God, which is the soul's desire. He then tries to convey what indeed cannot be grasped of the divine unity in three persons, of the Father eternally begetting the Son, and of the Spirit proceeding from these two. He speaks of a communication so true that the entire divine being is poured out from the Father in the Eternal Word, and of their union in a love so free, it can only be God the Spirit.

Dante also records that in his vision of the Trinity, he saw the entire universe, but unified in love, not scattered through the divisions of time and space, as we experience it. Here, then, is the true pattern of unity in diversity and diversity in unity. Its origin is in the origin of all things; having believed it of God, we can see it in nature. But those who start with nature will find in it nothing but chaos.

The mystery of love is the mystery of existence, in which all things participate to the extent that they were made to do so, and for as long as they are able. In death, the unity fails and the diversity dissipates. This is true of the organism in a concrete way, and true also of human thought and practice when the soul is sick or dead. Just as milk curdles when it sours, the ideas in a mind without God lose their just balance, and separate and clump with lunatic intensity. People grab at the diversity of rootless individualism, or long for nostalgic communities that sustain themselves without personal resolve.

Often, dead fragments of the former Trinitarian balance co-exist, neither pole aware of the other's existence, and we find several contradictory extremes inhabiting the same mind or the same institution, without apparent conflict. The Natural History Museum is a good example: XIXth century Liberalism and XXth century Holism, side by side.

As I left the new ecology exhibit, I noticed a sign thanking British Petroleum for their financial support. Are the giants of industry supporting the Revolution? Or is it that the Revolution is already part of the Establishment? Birth control, even when not linked to the nightmare of government targets, is the industrial state in a bottle. It is distilled essence of capitalism: divide pleasure from substance, and exploit each on its own, like a low calorie snack with de-alcholized beer.

Before leaving, I visited the museum shop. It occupies enough floor space for the complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. There you can buy yourself a piece of the ecological experience: a T-shirt depicting the rain forest, an umbrella with coloured parrots on it, presumably for use in the rain forest, and buttons of the exhibit logo, the man turning into a tree. I wonder, can I purchase a small axe?

First appeared in the Canadian Catholic Review, Feb. 1995.