The Universal Destination of Goods. *

Rerun Novarum… or in that which is exchanged for what the land brings forth” (ibid). Frankly, I personally believe this to be an extremely aberrant argument –especially when it is purported that the estimated total of land held by the Pope as Head of State is around 177 million acres– an argument which in fact reduces a person’s access to the goods of creation and access to food and water. Continue reading The Universal Destination of Goods. *

Our ecology and the  future of Earth. Is it darker than we could ever have imagined?

Our ecology and the future of Earth. Is it darker than we could ever have imagined?

In 2050 the forecast is 10 billion human beings, an increase that translate’s into greater food and water supply instability, risks for groundwater depletion and droughts will occur more frequently, air quality will be affected, a need for extensive use of land, increased pollution by plastic, greater risks and an increase in the number of pandemics, unemployment, disabilities, more disadvantaged and vulnerable people [the elderly, children, women, those with chronic diseases and people taking certain medications will be at highest risk], mortality rates would be effected, a stress would be placed on housing stocks and availability, the risk of civil insurrections and wars increases. And all this, within a context of humans using far more of the natural resources that the Earth has the ability to renew… Continue reading Our ecology and the future of Earth. Is it darker than we could ever have imagined?

The signs of our times

The signs of our times

“When it is evening, you say, ‘Tomorrow there will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning you say, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” (Matthew 16:2-3)

The dramatic events that mark our history interpellate people and society in depth about the human condition: cosmic catastrophes (earthquakes, epidemics) or political events (revolutions, wars, genocides). And of couse questions arise: why? how? Whose fault was it? At the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, the Great Lisbon earthquake which destroyed Lisbon (Saturday, 1 November, 1755 on the Feast of All Saints, at around 09:40 local time) had offered up to noted writer-philosopher Voltaire [used the earthquake in Candide and in his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne] and other philosophers the opportunity to launch these great critical questions, which still resonate after the 1941 שׁוֹאָה Shoah also known as the Holocaust, and in the 1980s the Human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome and 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and the 津波 tsunamis that ensued and of course not forgetting our current Orthocoronavirinae global pandemic which first surfaced on December 31, 2019. 

Both the Jewish and then the Christian faiths have always taken on the historical questions of why? How? Whose fault was it? How do we stop it happening again, and its various interpretations, Christ himself was one day asked about the meaning of a catastrophe (the collapse of the Tower of Siloam in Jerusalem’s old city) and an incomprehensible political-religious event (the massacre by Pilate of some devout Galileans who were offering ritual sacrifices, Luke 13:1-5). The parable of meteorology used by Jesus is inscribed precisely in this question: of what are the times a sign?

Times according to Holy Scripture

The meaning of forecasting opens up to the second meaning, that of time, that of the calendar, duration. It is a time of ‘tomorrow’s’, between that of yesterday, of history, and that of the future. The biblical texts place us within a period that has a meaning, a history that has both a beginning and an end: there have been ‘first days’, and there will be ‘latter days.’ This story extends to us throughout time and subsequent generations, those of ‘ancient times,’ and we are currently on our way toward ‘new times.’ This story, which the Bible tells us, is that of a Covenant between God and humanity: a tumultuous story of dissent and recurrences. We keep the memories of those great witnesses of covenants: the patriarchs Abraham and his son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, also named Israel, and of the prophets Adam the first man, Enoch, Noah, Ruth, Moses and other numerous prophets.

In this reading, the notion of καιρός kairòs “right, critical, or opportune moment” stands out: a term that always designates a present, a decisive “now” that resounds from yesterday to today. The great moments of the ancient covenant revolve around Easter — the Exodus, the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt ca. 1300 BC — announcing it or repeating it and, similarly, a decisive moment for Christians in the Passover [פֶּסַח Pesach] when Jesus was crucified as the Passover Lamb, which takes place during his passion, death and resurrection, and the announcement of his return.

This is the conceptualisation of the times that the parable of Jesus evokes: the terrestrial realities, lived, invite us to understand those of the Kingdom of God which is coming and therefore calls us to be vigilant and to convert.

Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let my people go!

Ecclesial readings

Reading social current events is a relatively modern tradition, but well established within the Church. Each encyclical of her social doctrine arises from the reading of events of a social and cultural dimension that mark the times and that some Christians faced even before the ecclesial authorities were able to intervene.

Allow me to provide some examples. Attention to ‘new realities’ is found in the detailed passages of the individual encyclicals. For the first of these — accurately entitled by Pope Leo XIII Rerum novarum —May 15, 1891,— on the ‘Condition of the Working Classes” in the vast expansion of industrial pursuits and in the changed relations between masters and workmen; in the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses. (RN, № 1). Forty years later, Pope Pius XI with Quadragesimo anno, on the ‘Reconstruction of the social order’—(May 15,  1931) reinterprets the positive fruits of this reading and specifies it in a thematic way, but reveals new events: the hegemony of economic power, socialist and communist ideologies, the de-christianisation of customs (QA, § 113).

Similarly, in Pope John XXIII Mater et magistra on ‘Christianity and Social Progress’ (May 15, 1961) the Pope underlines the most recent social changes: scientific, technical (in particular the use of nuclear energy), social, political innovations, especially on the international level, and notes, judging them favourably , events such as disarmament, human rights, development. Finally, it is worth mentioning the famous affirmation of Paul VI in the encyclical Populorum progressio on ‘the development of peoples’ (March 26, 1967): “he social question ties all men together, in every part of the world’ (PP, № 3).

The snapshots of this series historically situated within ‘our times’ continues, especially on the occasion of anniversaries, such as Paul VI’s Apostolic Letter to Cardinal Maurice Roy entitled Octogesima adveniens (May 14, 1971); even more explicitly with the practically ten-year encyclical letters of John Paul II: Laborem exercens (September 14, 1981), Sollicitudo rei socialis (December 30, 1987, 20th anniversary of Populorum progressio), Centesimus annus (May 1, 1991). Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in veritate (June 29, 2009) is explicitly inscribed in this fidelity to Populorum progressio (chap. I). The Catholic Church lives, and is aware of it, situated in human history: hers is the continuity of attention in the newness of situations.

The expression ‘signs of the times’, popularised by John XXIII during the Second Vatican Council, appears in the decree on the ministry and priestly life (Presbyterorum ordinis (December 7, 1965) § 9, and at the beginning of Gaudium et spes (December 7, 1965): “To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinising the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other.” (GS, № 4). Further on, a passage explains what this spiritual procedure consists of: “The People of God believes that it is led by the Lord’s Spirit, Who fills the earth. Motivated by this faith, it labours to decipher authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires in which this People” (GS, № 11). In summary: an invitation to discern in the Holy Spirit, with a positive discernment and not only in terms of deplore.

Reading the times, how to read our time

The signs are to be observed not ‘in heaven,’ but in our world, in the all human realities. The approach to forecasting indicates that it concern a major part of humanity, if not all of the inhabitants of the earth, whatever the case of social realities may be. It is a question of looking up and scrutinising a reality that is both daily and new, and to interpret it. In all these human realities, understood in all of their depth, being also bearers of existential questions, the Christian is invited to recognize the signs of divine reality, that is, of God’s plan for humanity, from its origins to its end, evolving from current events. They are signs of the Kingdom of God, the final (eschatological) reality, but taking place: Jesus announces that it ‘is near.’ God’s plan in human history was announced by the prophets and made unquestionable by the advent of Jesus Christ, who has invited us to commit ourselves to it wholeheartedly.

To recognize the signs of the times it is necessary to believe and understand that it is the same and only Spirit of God who works within the universe, within history and within the hearts of men. The presupposition of a proper journey of faith is a convergence between the subjectivity of the observers who ask questions and the objectivity of the signs.

Who discerns the signs? Basically, the one who proceeds on a journey of faith, that is to say the subject touched in his conscience and animated by the Holy Spirit. Yet, according to the Second Vatican Council, it is at the same time also the Church, as a collaborative participant, whom truly discerns the signs. This point requires an explanation. To say ‘Church’ is not only designating the authorities recognised within it, but also the people of God, individuals and whole communities. The charism of discernment must never be identified with that of authority, it is rather that of the prophecy of Joel which the Apostle Peter recalled: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; your young men shall see visions,  and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17).

We propose some figures of companions of faith to be privileged in this dialogue which takes place within the Church under the affects of the Spirit. First of all, the humble and the little ones: those whom Christ recognized with joy who saw what was hidden from the wise and learned. And again, conforming to with the Beatitudes, the pure of heart, those thirsty for justice and the merciful, those who are brought before the courts in the name of Christ: beginning with the Apostles, throughout the centuries and even today, they have been and are always numerous. Jesus placed them in the lineage of true prophets. The power of their word before the judges is surprising for everyone and especially for the people of God. The communities, groups and movements that gather in the name of the Gospel, and that help each other to grow in faith, hope and charity in the their life. Sometimes ‘great voices’ that resound in the hearts of many, ‘prophetic’ voices. Finally, the bishops and pastors, the leaders of the communities in their vital relations with all these fellow believers.

The concrete elaboration of the texts of the social doctrine of the Church does not solely involve the church hierarchy, but also the determination of socially committed Christians, the work of social research and the reflections of institutions, observers, theologians and philosophers, all engaged in a extensive dialogue.

But are there men and women who, without belonging visibly to the Church, whom must be taken into consideration within this discernment? Yes, without any doubt: they are “men of good will,” those shepherds in vigil to whom the Lord announces his peace, and those ‘Magi who came from the East’ who saw “a star rise.” The Council affirmed this in the passage quoted above: “the whole man with regard for the full range of his material needs and the demands of his intellectual, moral, spiritual, and religious life; this applies to every man whatsoever and to every group of men, of every race and of every part of the world. Consequently, economic activity is to be carried on according to its own methods and laws within the limits of the moral order, “so that God’s plan for mankind may be realised.” (GS, § 1 № 64.)

These signs appeal to human conscience, stimulate it to good, give rise to paths of conversion (transformation) of hearts.

Places to observe

Creation in all of its beauty, greatness and fragility (represented by this wonderful painting by Gill Bustamante © Act of Creation)

In the beginning, we observe creation in all of its beauty, greatness and fragility. Today it appears to us as changeable, fragile and threatened by humanity itself, creation has a shared history with humanity, whom now at long last has begun to feel a sense of anxiety and a sense of responsibility towards creation. Isn’t ecological awareness also a ‘sign of the times?’ Is  ‘human nature’ threatened by the claims to improve it?

The events must be observed, not only the catastrophes that have led to the discovery of human weakness and the need for salvation. At the time of the Council, in line with the social encyclicals, a more optimistic gaze focused on some cultural and social events: the development of international institutions for peace and justice, the end of the colonial era, the emancipation of women. A certain utopia ran through the Church. Today this occurs less and less and we are aware of the ‘threats’ of the situation, inherent especially in the globalisation of our planet and in biomedicine. But can realism feasibly block any attempt at discernment? ‘Do not be afraid,’ John Paul II echoed. Catastrophism or excessive admiration are the pitfalls which tend to hinder an accurate understanding of the signs of the times. The Bible and the Church’s social teaching are not equivalent to an orbuculum (crystal ball) of a fortune teller, and theology itself can run the risks of going astray in oversimplified interpretations of liberation or punishment.

Gaudium et spes invited us to consider three realities in which an appeal is heard: happenings, needs (values) and desires (cf. GS, № 11). Values ​​are what touches the moral conscience and which is shared with others, determining the union between men at the level of the best that is in them: for example, respect for every man in his dignity. The requests are placed, like values, in the conscience, but in the form of emptiness: deep dissatisfactions and protests in the face of injustice or in the face of the void of meaning. They create active social forces. Values ​​and requests express judgments. Events, especially political ones, are more difficult to evaluate, as they mix good and evil. But the term points to the unexpected, and responds to Christ’s repeated call for “vigilance” regarding the Kingdom that will come ‘like a thief in the night.’

Interrogatives that enable a discernment of the signs

In participants who read the signs, what is their level of freedom? Reading the sign implies a call, and not ideological coercion; an increase in faith, hope and charity and an active commitment, without fear of social intervention. Anyone who is able to recognise an inducement to commit one’s freedom in an event so as to promote greater justice or truth, could gain sight of a particle of the light of Jesus Christ’s Spirit within it.

Among the participants who observe the signs, what is the message? In the Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, gatherings and relations are observed between those who have been touched by the ‘Spirit.’ When such encounters and communities of discernment develop in or around the Church, this in turn constitutes a sign.

Starting from the very reality of what expresses a ‘meaning,’ it is necessary to refer to various criteria. First of all, the truthfulness of a sign is recognized in its human depth. Then in its similarity with an event reported in Sacred Scripture as a sign. This is also true and above all when this sign appears scandalous in the eyes of the world, such as the crucifixion of Jesus or the death of the martyrs. The sign is called ‘of the times,’ that is, of the lived instant, like meteorology and history: a sign appears and can disappear, like a flash or the star of the Magi. But it travels from East to West, and its roots remain in the memory of those who are yet to come.

An object of astonishment, scandal or admiration, the signs of the times do not call for simple aesthetic contemplation. They involve a summon’s that must be answered, and which occasionally indicate the whereabouts of the answer. To answer means to act. And those who respond become themselves sign’s for others. The ‘sign of Jonah’ to whom Jesus refers those who ask him for a sign from heaven, is not comprised in the fact that the prophet Jonah stepped out of the sea monster alive, but in the fact that the inhabitants of Nineveh changed their lives because they gave ear to what Jonah had to say.

The sign of Christ’s Resurrection is not comprised in the fact that he arrived on the clouds of heaven, but in the fact that men and women are converted to His call, committing their lives to the love of God and their brothers and sisters.

Continue reading “The signs of our times”
Believing in sustainability — An interreligious approach to the environment

Believing in sustainability — An interreligious approach to the environment

For several years, the ecological crisis has gone beyond the boundaries of scientific debate to become a political question of primary importance, which involves states and supranational institutions and calls into question the conscience of citizens. But to motivate people and societies to opt for sustainability policies, we must also make use of their cultural resources, of which religious faith is a fundamental part. What are the ideas that religions can share to support an ecological culture?

The debate on climate change and sustainable development, precisely because of the global nature of the issues addressed, has involved international actors, such as states and supranational organisations. In this context, religions have not yet found space as interlocutors in the official offices. At first sight, this exclusion seems to depend on the strictly technical nature of the debates. However, there is an interest in involving religious representatives for at least two kinds of reasons: the moral implications of the issues on the table and the fact that the majority of the world population organises their lives on the basis of a religious worldview. In other words, religions are meaning-makers and can help motivate people to make choices of justice. Their public relevance is therefore based on the great symbolic and motivational heritage of which they are carriers.

The legacy of a controversy begun in 1967 by Lynn White, in an article of great resonance, in which the Princeton historian identified the cultural roots of the environmental crisis in the biblical vision of the relationship between human beings and nature weighs on the relationship between religions and ecology, which he accused of anthropocentrism (cf. White 1967). However, in the last thirty years, the reflection carried out by development studies has also stimulated interest in the positive contribution of religions. The studies have shown both the complex relationship still existing between politics and religion, and the fact that religions are global players with a strong local roots, capable of significantly influencing society (cf. Deneulin and Rakodi 2011).

In this article we will try to focus on the reasons that justify the religious contribution to the debate on sustainability. These are aspects that coincide, in a transversal way, with the structural dimensions of the spiritual experience and that allow us to lay the foundations of an interreligious environmental ethos.

Interfaith keys for the care of our common home

In this section we will highlight ten dimensions, common to the various spiritual traditions, which allow us to structure a common interpretation between religions of the relationship with the environment. It deals with the prophetic, ascetic, penitential, apocalyptic, sacramental, soteriological, mystical, communal, sapiential and eschatological dimension of the relationship between human being and nature.

  1. Prophetic dimension. The denunciation of social injustice linked to the processes of exploitation of nature was the gateway to the ecological debate for the great religious traditions (see Tucker 2003). In the case of biblical religions, this denunciation has an assonance with the prophetic tradition: just as the prophets of Israel exposed the lies and injustices in the social relations of their time, today this denunciation becomes current on a large scale, extending over time to the generations future and in space to that ‘distant neighbour’ that suffers the consequences of the indiscriminate use of resources. The changes that took place during the twentieth century, with the awareness of global threats, such as weapons of mass destruction, have extended the moral community to the whole of humanity. Our concepts of justice, duty and responsibility have changed: it is no longer possible to apply these categories, without taking into account the distant consequences, in time and space, of our choices. The prophetic denunciation therefore takes on a global dimension, indicating “the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet” (Laudato si’ № 16). The intersection between the social question and the ecological question is a strong point of the statements of the religious authorities. It is an approach that derives from the experience of accompanying marginal communities and which, on the other hand, corresponds to the central insights of political ecology. Religious traditions propose an exercise of ‘double listening’ — of the Earth and the poor, of the present and of the past, of the local context and global dynamics, of external signs and interior inspirations — which integrates technical analyses. This interdisciplinary approach today provides the structure of the prophetic denunciation that animates the encyclical Laudato si’ and other similar religious declarations. [1]
  2. Ascetic dimension. All spiritual traditions include practices of voluntary simplicity, such as fasting, aimed at purifying the relationship with God and with one’s neighbour. They acquire, in the current context, a new importance, in the light of the overexploitation of the planet’s resources. It is precisely in the contestation of consumerism and the “throwaway culture” that religions can make one of the most original contributions, calling the faithful to a sober lifestyle. The tendency to accumulate and consume without limits, typical of the richest societies, is not only scandalous in itself, in the face of the persistence of large swathes of misery, but it is also the cultural vector of environmental degradation. On the other hand, religious traditions have always seen the essentiality of life as a structural element of the spiritual experience. A particularly strong choice comes from the Hindu community, which comes to propose the renunciation of meat consumption as a means of combating global warming. [2] However, it is also necessary to avoid a purely ecological exploitation of practices that are aimed at freeing the believer from his disordered impulses and facilitating his relationship with others and with God. Therefore Pope Francis proposes the model of St. Francis of Assisi , for which ‘poverty and austerity […] were not only an external asceticism, but something more radical: a renunciation of making reality a mere object of use and domination’ (LS, № 11) . Ultimately, the main motivation that sustains asceticism is, for the believer, the spiritual search, which implies the fact of opposing the commodification of all areas of life and the instrumental use of relationships with others and with nature.
  3. Penitential dimension. Biblical prophets preached repentance and conversion of the heart to change behaviour. Without doubt, this invitation is not exclusive to monotheistic religions. Other traditions, in fact, have developed penitential practices to redeem the sins committed against others and against God. Can we include nature in the list of victims of human sin? The encyclical Laudato si’ offers an answer, articulating sin in the rupture of the three fundamental relationships: with one’s neighbour, with God and with the environment; relationships that have deteriorated ‘not only outside, but also within us’ (№ 66). The ecological crisis shows the full extent of the scope of sin, which involves those who are far away, those who have not yet been born, as in the case of future generations, and all living creation. It was the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I who used, for the first time, this harsh language when speaking of environmental degradation: “that human beings destroy biological diversity in divine creation; that deteriorate the integrity of the Earth and contribute to climate change, stripping the planet of its forests and destroying wetlands; that pollute the water, the soil, the air. All these are sins” (His All Holiness Bartholomew I Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. 1997). As the sense of sin widens, penitential practices must also be renewed, in order to develop in the faithful the sensitivity to feel involved in the suffering of other creatures.
  4. Apocalyptic dimension. Environmental movements have often evoked future scenarios of destruction: a communication strategy that has been criticised by many as ineffective. These narrative forms cross a genre widespread in all religious traditions: the apocalyptic. An example is the Letter of the Rabbis on the climate crisis of 2015, which warns: “in chapter 26 of Leviticus, the Torah warns us that if we prevent the Earth from resting ‘it will rest’ however, to our detriment, with drought, famine and exile that turns everyone into refugees.” It is interesting to note that the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic tales do not intend to convey pessimism or resignation, but above all point to the possibility of a transformed life, in the importance of giving a new value and a new meaning to existence. Buddhist and Hindu traditions also warn of the ‘karmic’ consequences of our actions, helping the believer to become aware of the consequences of his choices. In summary, apocalyptic narratives can help broaden the moral imagination and perceive the values ​​at stake.
  5. Sacramental dimension. The aptitude to grasp the signs of the divine presence in the material world distinguishes numerous religious traditions, including the Catholic one, which sees in the sacrament a visible sign of grace. A sacralisation of nature is thus made possible, which does not expire in pantheism, but grasps in the created world a mediation of supernatural life. Pope Francis expresses himself in this line: ‘the world is something more than a problem to be solved, it is a joyful mystery that we contemplate in joy and praise’ (LS, № 12). Destroying nature means eliminating this mediation of the mystery of God.
  6. Soteriological dimension. From its origins, the environmental movement has attributed a therapeutic function to the relationship with nature: wild or poorly man-made spaces have become new pilgrimage sites, where the urban population can find rest and restore their psycho-physical balance. Industrial society, which has left the struggle for survival behind it, has begun to perceive nature no longer as a threat but as a resource of meaning. This aesthetic and therapeutic function translates, in secular terms, that dimension that religious traditions call ‘salvific’: the ability to rebuild relationships — with God, with others — interrupted by sin, healing man’s inner disorder and restoring the right balances. However, the risk that nature ends up being seen only as an aesthetic resource for the human being is not excluded. This would re-propose a dualist and anthropocentric scheme. The Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change (2015) proposes a more balanced vision: ‘we must wake up and become aware that the Earth is our mother and our home, therefore we cannot cut the umbilical cord that unites us to her. When the Earth gets sick, we get sick, because we are part of it.’ The social dimension of environmental problems has not always been duly emphasised in environmental issues (see Northcott 2015). On this point, however, resides an aspect of great importance for religious traditions, which is the community character of salvation. Faced with individualistic tendencies, religions affirm that salvation is a collective task that leads to a relational vision of society, in which the believer lives as a member of a “sublime brotherhood with all creation” (LS, № 221).
  7. Mystical dimension. It is not easy to define what mysticism is. It is easier to investigate the writings and lives of mystics to sketch out the features of a type of spiritual experience, which is not the exclusive prerogative of a select few, but a real possibility for each person. This is the path that Pope Francis follows, when he indicates some figures of saints, especially of the Franciscan and Benedictine tradition, who embodied the model of a life reconciled with God, with humanity and with creation: Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure, Benedict of Nursia, etc. Even in the biographies of the great religious figures of history we often discover the role played by nature in their spiritual experiences, such as the enlightenment of the Buddha under a fig tree, or the lonely cave in which, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad received the revelation of the Koran. In many cases, the mystical experience reveals, on the one hand, the harmony between the Creator and creation and, on the other, the way in which the world dominates humanity; thus the limited character of our existence is manifested, with the need to accept an ethical code (the Torah or the Koran) or a process of personal transformation (the eightfold Buddhist path). These intuitions — the awareness of interdependence and finitude, the discovery of a moral law, the need for a journey — are vital in a Promethean culture marked by the exaltation of individual autonomy and contempt for what is fragile. Above all, the spiritual sense of interconnection between living beings echoes the contemporary ecological discourse, which finds one of its pillars in the interrelation between organisms. The task of disseminating and assimilating the results of scientific research on sustainability requires ecological literacy; however, it also requires a profound spirituality, which supports socio-political commitment. The various dualisms introduced by modernity — between spirituality and work, science and religion, res extensa and res cogitans, etc., — have hindered the emergence of holistic visions of reality, as well as the dialogue between scientific knowledge and spirituality. The monastic tradition, which harmonises active life and contemplation, is then back to topicality. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh proposed a synthesis, outlining the traits of a conscious, compassionate and committed way of life. By making the Buddhist monastic tradition dialogue with today’s environmental challenges, he proposes some ‘practices for a conscious life,’ which can help to live in a more balanced and respectful of nature (Nhat Hanh 2008).
  8. Community dimension. The centrality recognized in this dimension is another contribution of religions to the ecological debate. Today’s culture attaches great importance to individual choices to transform reality, less to the sense of coordinated action of a community. There are good reasons for valuing the community as a unit of analysis and practical action. First of all, a practical reason: to direct the effort of the individual, often disoriented by the complexity of the choices at stake. But there is also a spiritual reason: to interpret one’s life in relation to others; in this sense, the concrete community also mediates a vaster sense of belonging: ‘created by the same Father, we all beings of the universe are united by invisible bonds and form a sort of universal family’ (LS, № 89). It is a new way of seeing the world. Finally, feeling part of a network of relationships that goes beyond the limits of time and space and also the boundaries of species, helps to root an ethos of responsibility in the person. It is also a pedagogical challenge: perceiving oneself as part of a ‘universal fraternity’ (№ 228) is a moral and spiritual attitude that asks to be cultivated. In the social doctrine of the Church this sense of belonging flows into the care of the common good, that is, the set of conditions that allow a dignified life to flourish. Today this concept must be understood on a planetary scale. When Pope Francis says that ‘the climate is a common good’ (№ 23) he signals the fact that natural balances are a condition of possibility for any other human good.
  9. Wisdom dimension. The Greeks distinguished different forms of knowledge: τέχνη tékhnē (technical knowledge), φρόνησῐςphrónēsis (practical wisdom), ἐπιστήμη epistēmē (science or knowledge) and σοφία sophía (wisdom). Articulating these dimensions of knowledge is fundamental in an era characterised by academic fragmentation and information saturation that often result in the difficulty of establishing an effective social dialogue. The need emerges to reconstruct collective narratives capable of motivating people: in this, religions can make a contribution. Throughout history, they have offered world-views capable of creating social cohesion around a code of ethics and political institutions. Today it is clear that they cannot perform this function in the same way. However, a dialogue between science and religions is possible and desirable, leading to a global vision of a sapiential type, in which the scientific description of reality is compatible with religious interpretation.
  10. Eschatological dimension. One of the main criticisms that the ecological movement has addressed to biblical religions is the excessive trust of the latter in an unearthly salvation, which would be at the expense of commitment in the present world. This accusation is not entirely without foundation: there will always be the temptation of a religious ‘flight’ that removes responsibility for the believer with respect to his civil duties. It is no coincidence that some evangelical churches and other fundamentalist groups of other religions have skeptical or denial positions on environmental problems. For this reason Pope Francis said: ‘while we wait, we unite to take care of this house that has been entrusted to us, knowing that what is good in it will be taken on in the feast of heaven’ (LS, № 244). This ‘expectation’ characterises the condition of the believer, in the tension between future hope and the present task. According to the saying of the Jesuits, it is a question of living and working as if everything depended on us, knowing that everything depends on God. Hope is, for most religions, a constitutive element of faith. To support it, it is useful to rehabilitate the potential of religious rites, to ‘dramatise’ love for the poor and respect for creation. Indeed, the liturgy lives a double dimension: it symbolically tends towards the future through the signs of the present. It can ‘unmask the perverse logic that promises the future by consuming the present. An act that silences the poor and destroys other creatures, in the name of future growth, is a false sacrifice’ (Jenkins 2013, 47-48). The authentic hope that comes from faith does not distance us from the present: it seeks instead to encounter new paths of salvation.

Interreligious dialogue and ecological crisis

In the last fifty years, religious traditions have entered a relatively new area, that of sustainability, engaging in fruitful dialogue with civil society. A dialogue, we underline, with a strongly ecumenical and interreligious trait. Without having foreseen it, the ecological question has allowed one of the greatest public exercises of theology in recent history. Therefore, we conclude this reflection by affirming that the great spiritual traditions will not only be decisive in addressing the complexity of socio-environmental objectives, but these challenges will also condition the spiritual evolution of humanity: “the response of religion to the environmental crisis […] is the most important factor in determining whether religion will be a vital part of humanity’s future or whether it will sink into growing irrelevance ”(Gottlieb 2006, 18).

A more extensive version of the article was published with the title “Creer En La Sostenibilidad — Las Religiones Ante El Reto Medioambiental”, in Cristianisme i Justícia, 212 by Fr. Jaime Tatay Nieto S.J., (2019). [https://www.cristianismeijusticia.net/sites/default/files/pdf/es212.pdf] Translation and adaptation by Fr. Ugo-Maria Ginex ESB, Holy Celtic Church International. The Hermit of Saint Bruno St. Mary’s Hermitage Nr. Canterbury Kent.

Note

  1. On 17 and 18 August 2015, a meeting of about 60 representatives of the Islamic world from 20 countries was held in Istanbul. The meeting concluded with the publication of an Islamic declaration on climate change (cf. Howard 2015). [https://www.ifees.org.uk/about/islamic-declaration-on-global-climate-change/declaration-drafting-team/]
  2. ‘On a personal level, we can reduce this state of suffering by changing our lifestyles […]. Adopting a vegetarian diet is one of the most incisive acts a person can choose to reduce the environmental impact’ (Bhumi Devi Ki Jai! A Hindu Declaration on Climate Change, November 23, 2015). [http://www.hinduclimatedeclaration2015.org/english]

DECLARATIONS

A Rabbinic Letter on Climate Crisis, 29 October 2015, [https://theshalomcenter.org/RabbinicLetterClimate].

Bhumi Devi Ki Jai! A Hindu Declaration on Climate Change, 23 November 2015, <http://www.hinduclimatedeclaration2015.org/english>.

Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, 18 August 2015, [https://www.ifees.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/climate_declarationmmwb.pdf].

The Time to Act is Now: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change, 14 May 2015,  [https://oneearthsangha.org/articles/buddhist-declaration-on-climate-change/].

Continue reading “Believing in sustainability — An interreligious approach to the environment”
What must we do in the face of climate change? The Actions and policies required to appease it.

What must we do in the face of climate change? The Actions and policies required to appease it.

The consequences of climate crisis are precisely this, a crisis, and therefore if we wish our children and grandchildren to have any kind of future at all, we have a duty to act immediately and we must do so in a manner that is both just and determined. The alternative is that our children and their children will not be able to breathe, drink water, nourish themselves or see a living animal, that is of course unless you have millions stashed away for them to support themselves. Continue reading What must we do in the face of climate change? The Actions and policies required to appease it.

Be a gardener and custodian in God’s Garden

Be a gardener and custodian in God’s Garden

An article by the former Bishop of Birmingham The Rt. Revd. Hugh William Montefiore (†2005) in ‘Preaching for our Planet‘ pp. 82-86. Mowbray Publishing Preaching Series 1992.

A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed. Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.

Song of Solomon 4:12-15 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised)
Buckfast Abbey

You might think that, with a text taken from the Song of Solomon, my subject is erotic poetry, or, as writers like St. Bernard understood the poem, that it concerns the love of Christ for his Church. If you think that, I’m afraid that you will be disappointed. In fact, I am going to speak about gardening, and my text describes an oriental garden, with water, fruit and spices. It conjures up a delicious picture of sun and shade, fragrance and blossom, and the background tinkle of water. It is worth our noticing that when the writer of Solomon’s Song wanted words to describe the seductive beauty of a beloved, he turned to the imagery of a garden. Earlier he calls her ‘a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.’ (Song of Solomon 2:1.) Metaphors from the garden spring naturally to the lips of lovers, because the garden is a thing of beauty and fragrance, precious and well loved. It has been so down the ages. The hanging gardens of Babylon were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Bible ends with a city, the city of God; but let us not forget that it begins with a garden, the garden of Eden. That is what the word ‘paradise’ means in the Greek language. 

OUR NATURAL LOVE OF GARDENS 

In Britain people love their gardens. Selling plants for gardens is big business— you only have to visit a garden centre to see that. In many European countries people live in high-rise blocks without gardens. Of course we have many of these in Britain, and that is one of the reasons why there is such a large demand for cut flowers in a big city. Yet despite this, two out of three houses do have gardens. Sometimes these are large. When I was a diocesan bishop my See house had a three acres of garden attached to it. It was by far the best perk of being within the diocese, but it was not easy to give it all the attention that it deserved. Most gardens are small. Now that I am retired, our garden measures only 37 feet by 35; but every inch of it is lovingly tended, and this is typical of many such gardens. Why is this?

It is refreshing to be able to renew our contact with nature. Something stirs within us when we see the natural processes of germination and growth. We find the beauty of flowers, plants and trees deeply moving. The variety of their shapes and colours and fragrances delights us. The presence of birds and wildlife is a further source of pleasure — although not the pests like the slugs and greenfly! As we keep down the weeds, we are reminded of their spiritual undertones which we find in the gospel parables. 

This love of gardens seems entirely proper. Francis Bacon called it ‘the purest of human pleasures’. But it is more than mere pleasure. Gardens speak to us not only of the beauty of creation, but also of the creativity of the Creator. We know that the striking colours of flowers attract bees, which enable plants to propagate their kind; but this does not explain the gracefulness of their shapes or the wonderful harmony of their colouring, or even the marvellous fragrance of some of their flowers or leaves. They are part of the beauty God imprints on his creation. Frances Gurney wrote: 

One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth. 

I don’t think that that is quite true because I am nearer God’s Heart when I receive the Blessed Sacrament, but I’m sure you all know what she means by God’s presence in a garden. 

Because we think of gardens as something very personal, we forget that in the aggregate the gardens of this country cover some 12 million acres! That is a very considerable amount of land. It constitutes an important habitat for wildlife. I know that wildlife is often encouraged by birdtables and the like, but unfortunately some gardening activities are not in the best interests of the environment as a whole. 

Let me speak about one of these. Do you use peat in your garden? Judging from the number of bags of peat sold in garden centres the odds are that you do. Do you realise that by so doing you are helping to endanger a diminishing national and international resource? Please don’t think that this is just the cry of an ecological fanatic. It is endorsed at the highest levels: for example, the use of alternatives to peat actually has government support. Most British peat-bogs are located in the North, especially the north of Scotland and, thank goodness, they are too inaccessible for commercial exploitation. It is the so-called Lowland Raised Bogs in England that are under threat. Only about 5,000 hectares of primary bog of this type are now left. It cannot be regenerated. When it’s gone, it’s gone. 

Peat Bog Yorkshire

THE USE OF PEAT IN GARDENS 

Peat is not a soil nutrient, but it has a great capacity for retaining and releasing water and at the same time for retaining air, which is very useful for some plants. It is also very long lasting if it is not dried out. These are the reasons why people buy it. Surely, you may be thinking, peat-bogs are not all that important. But that is not so. They are unique habitats of great importance for wildlife, and for some species their last refuge. They are a valuable genetic source for the future. They act as natural reservoirs of highly purified water, and it is important to retain our wetlands for they have vital ecological functions. Peat-bogs are also important for storing and releasing carbon dioxide, although the mechanisms by which they do this are not yet fully understood. If you heed the call not to help in further diminishing peat-bogs beyond the stage where they cannot regenerate, then you could easily use alternatives, among which are included bark, coir (coconut fibre) and many, many others. Even with your little garden, you could in this way help to retain some of our ancient and valuable natural resources. 

THE USE OF PESTICIDES IN GARDENS 

Do you use pesticides in your garden? It would be surprising if you didn’t. Every gardener knows that pest is the right word to describe the insects and wildlife which spoil our growing plants, and the viruses which infect them. Indeed, those who say that all pesticides are wrong are usually not aware of the vast amount of damage that pests can do, not only to plants, but also to food in store, not to mention the 30 per cent loss that pests would inflict on crops if pesticides were not used. But did you know that, quite apart from farmers and professional nurserymen, domestic gardeners spend £30 million each year on pesticides? Some of these are: derived from natural sources, such as pyrethrum, and do no lasting harm. Others are very toxic. They linger in the soil. They can affect wildlife, and even human beings. It is the synthetic pesticides and fertilisers of which we should beware. It would be possible for you to avoid using any of these synthetic varieties and to start gardening organically instead. Have you ever thought of that? I am constantly amazed by those people who insist on buying organic vegetables in a supermarket, but who never dream of gardening organically at home! 

Press here to see bee-toxic pesticides

There are other ways in which we can be ‘green gardeners’. We can be careful not to dispose of any toxic substances such as paint and oil by throwing them on the ground. We can make our own fertiliser by creating compost through putting vegetable peelings, grass cuttings and other organic material in a compost heap or compost tumbler. We can plant species that attract wildlife. We can insist on native species of plants and food in our gardens. We can even consider growing some of our own food. These, you may think, are all small matters. Indeed, seeing the size of our gardens, that is true enough. But there are millions and millions of us, and in the aggregate all this adds up to a considerable sum. Furthermore, it can help each one of us to feel that we are doing our bit. When it comes to ecology it is the easiest thing in the world to complain about what others are doing, especially in the world of big business, without in any way changing our own life-style or our own habits. 

CUSTODIAN FOR GOD 

And the earth really does matter. It belongs to God, not to us. We are only trustees for God. This was made perfectly clear by the Old Testament law of jubilee, whereby after 50 years all land returned to its original owner. The earth, like the sea and the rivers and the air, are our primary resources. The topsoil has taken hundreds of years to form: it is an amazing amalgam of living organic matter mixed with trace elements and inorganic substances. We must not spoil it, because it will take a very long time to regenerate. Again, we must not use up valuable and endangered resources like peat. We must not use violent means of killing insects and other pests which result in lasting damage to wildlife and future plant life. The fact that so much good land has already been wasted makes it even more necessary for us to conserve what remains. We owe this to God, and we owe it to those who come after us. 

I began by extolling the beauties and pleasures of a garden. I end with a warning, lest in the care of our garden we unwittingly endanger the future. Today is Sunday. The probability is that you will be at leisure for the rest of the day; and no doubt many of you will be out in your gardens. May I ask you to look at them this afternoon as revealing to you something about the creativity of the Creator? And may I also suggest to you that, if necessary, you decide to make some changes in your future gardening practices? 

Continue reading “Be a gardener and custodian in God’s Garden”