Martin Thornton’s sacramental view of the natural world

This is an extended passage from Martin Thornton’s first book: Rural Synthesis: The Religious Basis for Rural Culture. The book was published in 1948. In this passage, you will note how he builds upon the Church’s understanding of Christology (the nature of Christ and the Incarnation) toward an application to how we understand the natural world Christologically. To my mind, this is utterly fascinating stuff. Enjoy:

Now the orthodox Christian conception of the Incarnate Christ is that He is both perfectly and distinctly God and perfectly and distinctly Man, and that He is One Person. The full significance of this fact is beyond the range of human understanding, and the exact relationship between the human and Divine natures can never be finally ascertained by finite human intelligence, but we can acquire some perception of vital significance by a process of elimination; if we cannot directly explain what this relationship is, we can glimpse much of its meaning by definitely asserting what it is not. The orthodox doctrine as contained in the Chalcedonian Definition has in fact by largely formulated by the rejection of the Christological heresies of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Looking back from the Definition, so to speak, the form of these four errors becomes quite obvious and simple; we can deny that Jesus Christ is perfectly and distinctly God — the heresy of Arius, or we can deny that He is perfectly and distinctly Man — the heresy of Apollinarius. Then we can accept that He is both a human Person and and Divine Person conjoined, that He is in fact two Persons, two Christs, one human and another Divine; this is the error of Nestorius, which was followed by its direct opposite in the heresy of Eutyches, or Monophysitism, which regards Christ as One Person and One Nature, a mixture of both human and Divine, neither of which can be perfect, distinct, and complete.

Now it is plain that all that can be perceived as sacramental is subject to the equivalent four errors: the denial of one or other of the two parts of the sacrament; the failure to relate the two parts together; and the failure to distinguish between them….

The application of the same principles to The Sacramental Land will give us, therefore, similar errors pertaining to the approach to agriculture and rural economy…. Within the unity of The Land we have an ‘outward and visible sign’ consisting of the physical soil, the visible and material world of nature which springs from and is sustained by it: plants, trees, hedges, farms, and buildings; everything, in fact, that we can see within the ‘countryside’. From these surroundings evolves an invisible spirit, a Numinous atmosphere, which results from the uses made of nature by man in communion with God.

Thus, the erroneous approach to The Land, equivalent to Arianism in Christology, would consist of denying the existence of any such spirit; it would regard the soil as a material mechanism rather than a living organism, overemphasize the scientific in agriculture, and suggest that fertility was not a vital force to be cultivated by skillful farming but a material substances to be mined. ‘Land-robbing’ would be justified; and such conception of ‘land-sense’ or ‘rural prophecy’ would be categorically rejected, any sort of skill of vocation in agricultural work would be unnecessary, and the sole qualifications for successful farming would be an academic knowledge and physical strength.

Similarly, Apollinarianism, the opposite Christological heresy, finds expression in rural economy with the attitude of extreme sentimentality, the quest for The Land’s ‘pure spirit’ and the refusal to recognize its practical and material side. It is the approach which converts the countryside into the ‘man-eating orchid’ of Eric Gill, and looks upon the farm-worker as some spiritual idealist possessed of some strange philosophy which scorns such needless things as decent wages and hygienic living conditions. In agriculture, ‘rural Apollinarianism’ shows up in an exaggerated belief in the ‘natural order’, scorning all mechanical and scientific knowledge through refusing to recognize that the soil, whatever it may be besides, has physical and material properties which can be visibly examined and chemically analyzed. It is precisely the same error which misinterprets the idea of ‘faith-healing’, thereby refusing the benefits of medical science.

Nestorianism, or Dualism in philosophy and psycho-physical parallelism in psychology, is reproduced in the tendency to divide The Land into two unrelated values, the practical and the aesthetic. It is the error giving rise to the idea that agriculture is but a useful, practical industry, carried on amid surroundings which for some obscure reason happen to be beautiful and in need of passive protection; the divorcement, that is, of the beautiful visible sign from the spirit which creates it, or the failure to conceive The Land as one cultural whole, wherein beauty and utility go hand in hand.

Finally, both the rural and theological equivalent to Monophysitism in Christology may be expressed by the same single word, namely Pantheism. This is the belief that God and the natural world are one or in agriculture that fertility is God. We find this particular heresy recurring to some extend in all erroneous approach to the rural environment and always leading, by devious routs, to the same unhealthy conclusion: the adoration of nature.

Now we can carry this process of adaptation a stage further: The Person of Christ is the basis of the Christina religion, all its dogma flows from the fact of the Incarnation, and this doctrine, as we have seen, does not oppose the eschatological by the ethic, nor faith by moral practice, but rather tends to co-relate them in correct perspective. This correct ratio, however, does not necessarily grant equal value to the opposing factors, for we can truly say that the eschatological kingdom of God which is to come is a greater human goal than social Utopia in the temporal world; and that good works cannot create faith but flow from it and are therefore subsidiary to it. The Christian faith, embodied in the Church and sacraments, may be regarded as the extension of the Incarnation of the Son, and similarly the perpetual power of fertility may be regarded as the extension of the original creation of the Father.

(from Rural Synthesis: The Religious Basis for Rural Culture, 1948, pp. 70-74)