What we have traditionally called “virtues” are good not because they have been highly recommended but because they are necessary; they make for unity and harmony. Faith, to speak only of the highest of the traditional virtues, is our life’s instinctive leap toward its origin, the motion by which we acknowledge the order and harmony to which we belong. To deny that this is so is not to destroy faith but only to reduce and misdirect it, for faith of some kind is apparently necessary also in the sense that we cannot escape it; we have to have some version of it. Our instinct for faith is like a well-bred border collie, who lacking cattle or sheep will herd children or chickens or cats. If we don’t direct our faith toward God or into some authentic “way” of the soul, then we direct it toward progress or science or weaponry or education or nature or human nature or doctors or gurus or genetic engineers or computers or NASA. And as we reduce the objects of our faith and so reduce our faith, we inevitably reduce ourselves. As creatures of faith, we must choose whether to be religious or to be superstitious, to believe in things that cannot be proved or to believe in things that can be disproved. The present age is an age of superstition, and some of our shallowest superstitions have the authorization of our hardest-headed rationalists and realists. The modern ambition to control nature, for instance, is an ambition based foursquare on a superstition: the idea that what we take nature to be is what nature is, or that nature is that to which it can be reduced. If nature is to be controlled, then it has to be reduced to that which is theoretically controllable. It must be understood as a machine or as the sum of its known, separable, and decipherable parts.
Care, on the contrary, rests upon genuine religion. Care allows creatures to escape our explanations into their actual presence and their essential mystery. In taking care of fellow creatures, we acknowledge that they are not ours; we acknowledge that they belong to an order and a harmony of which we ourselves are parts. To answer the perpetual crisis of our presence in this abounding and dangerous world, we have only the perpetual obligation of care.
The idea that we cannot exempt anything from care is of course difficult, because it is difficult to care for all things. As creatures of modest intelligence, we ought perhaps to fear that it is impossible. And yet it is this very difficulty that is the key to our place and role as human beings. To be fully human, we must accept the likelihood that several or even many things may at the same time be of ultimate importance. That should at least save us from the folly of trying to solve “environmental” problems one at a time. It should inform us that we are dealing with the issue of health in its largest and also its most literal sense: creaturely orders and communities that are whole. And so we see that we must be whole ourselves, for the good solutions must come from our wholeness, our affection and reverence, not from our sense of duty, much less from desperation.