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Common ground and common skies: natural law and ecological responsibility.

The stakes involved in interreligious dialogue have grown remarkably across the twentieth century, commensurate with a number of trends that have raised the scale of destruction that can flow from religiously fueled conflict or from ecological irresponsibility. The search for common ground is needed both to check the propensity of groups to employ religious appeals to promote intolerance, hatred, and violence and to empower an internationally broad and serious effort to protect Earth's ecosystems and established climate patterns. In what follows, I will argue that in the last four decades humanity has been given a most important gift--namely, an emerging recognition of our global ecological dependencies and predicament. Where much of modern and postmodern thought has centered our attention both on the inextricable historical character of human experience and the diversity of cultural and religious histories that shape the globe's multiple societies, the rise of the ecological sciences has given us a critical reminder that equal emphasis must be placed on humanity's unified bonds as a species, a biological community, bound by common constraints and needs, and sustained by common ecological energies, food chains, and climate systems of a shared and precious planet.

In short, even as we must situate our understanding of humanity in a historical frame that acknowledges the critical importance of massive cultural and religious diversity and differences, so, too, we must also ecologize our understanding of that historical frame to note the very real environmental dependences, challenges, and global moral responsibilities that all societies and nations share. What this means is that our search for common ground can begin by simply looking down--and up and all around us. What we find really is ground and sky--common ground and common sky--and forests, grasslands, farms, deserts, magnificent mountain ranges, and species--a marvelous array of other life forms, many of whose future existence will depend on the quality of humanity's commitments and choices in the decades and centuries ahead.

For too long the categories of "history" and "nature" have been played off against each other as foils in Western philosophy and theology. Because of this legacy some are inclined to dismiss the significance of the ecological turn as a flat-footed attempt to ignore the dynamic character of history and recover an archaic, classicist model of a stable, metaphysical order of reality. However, I believe ecological thinking arises not so much from ignoring the dynamism of history but, rather, from being overwhelmed by the surging advances in technological, industrial, and agricultural powers that were unleashed in the nineteenth century, gained strength in the twentieth century, and threaten us gravely in the twenty-first century. This upsurge of powers has been coupled with the swelling of humanity's numbers. These together are causing an unnerving "acceleration of history," in which new ranges of power and moral responsibility are gathering in our hands. A new lexicon has emerged in recent decades that marks the emergence of new challenges and unprecedented concerns--global warming, species endangerment and extinction, coral-reef bleaching, aquifer depletion, invasive species, and habitat destruction. These concerns highlight how our understanding of human life must be placed within an overarching ecological frame.

Modern Emphases on Culture and History

Where the dominant worldview of pre-modern peoples--both European and others across the globe--was prominently shaped by attention to the surrounding natural order, a defining characteristic of modernity has been a shift in understanding of the human from a nature-oriented frame to a history-centered one. (1) As Arthur Lovejoy has described this shift in perspective, the ancient vision of a vast "Chain of Being" that highlights humanity's participation in, and relatedness to, the entire fabric of the cosmos gets turned on its side and historicized into a "March of Progress," marked by societal and intellectual advance across the generations. (2) For societies experiencing the rise of modern science, with its attendant advances in technology making possible both the industrial revolution and rapid population growth through advances in agricultural power, water and sewage treatment, and medicine, it is not surprising that their thought-forms would come to concentrate increasingly on the potency of human agency and historical change, not on the stability of the environing natural order.

As European powers sent fleets across seas for trade and conquest, new and sustained contact with non-European cultures, languages, and religions increased intellectual interest in the diversity of cultures and ways of being human. Indeed, the modern discipline of anthropology grew strength from this rising appreciation and interest in the diversity of human cultures. Likewise, the rise of the new discipline of sociology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries developed a strong critique of nature-based notions of human superiority or inferiority as simply ideological justifications for oppressive and exclusionary practices, based on essentialist appeals about race, gender, and class. Instead of nature-based understandings of human behavior and worth, early sociologists tended to stress the overwhelming significance of societal and cultural influence and the openness of history to human agency, adaptability, and change. Most early sociologists were social progressives who had a commitment to the importance of the equality of opportunity for all. During the first half of the twentieth century, dominant streams of sociology, such as both anthropology and psychology, turned against biological or heredity-centered understandings of human behavior and embraced explanations of individual behavior's being shaped by surrounding cultural and historical influences. (3) To many people, such terms as "biology," "race," "instinct," and "heredity" became irrevocably tarnished along with all such "nature-based" understandings of human life. Through steps such as these across broad ranges of the social sciences, human life came to be understood first and foremost through the lens of the categories of "culture" and "history."

One can find a similar repudiation of "nature" and a turn in emphasis to "culture" and "history" in the rise of dominant streams of modern Western philosophy and Christian theology. Many followed Immanuel Kant's "turn to the subject" in concentrating attention on the distinctiveness of human reason that sets us apart from all other life forms and that gives us distinct powers of agency and intentionality. Phenomenology, existentialism, and personalism in the first half of the twentieth century, in privileging the focus on human subjectivity and agency, similarly concentrated attention on human culture and history. Increasingly in the humanities and the social sciences after World War II, the main emphasis centered on humanity's powers of historical action and of cultural "construction" and societal development. (4)


More recently, this grand intellectual turn to culture and to history came to be invigorated by postmodern thinking, emphasizing the sharp differences across the diversity of cultures and the perspectival character of all thought, as it arises out of distinct ranges of experience, interpreted through the categories of distinct cultural and religious traditions. Postmodern thinking, in embracing the multiplicity of languages and cultures, highlights the sharp differences that mark off human communities one from another, even as it concentrates on the linguistic and cultural conditioning of experience and thought. It concentrates on narrative, text, and language, as they ground human understanding and reality. In stressing how the human is linguistic and cultural all the way down, postmodern thinking dissolves notions about the solidity of reality and of universal foundations of human reason or moral judgment. For many people, this emphasis on language and cultural distinctiveness provides a bracing exhilaration in its critique of modernist notions of universal reason and the stability of reality.

In Jean-Francois Lyotard's famous account, postmodern thinking begins in an "incredulity toward meta-narratives" rooted in the "crisis of metaphysical philosophy" and a critique of the modern positivist understanding of science as a discipline giving us an authoritative lock on reality. (5) Heideggerian and Wittgensteinian emphases on the potency of language have been joined in much of postmodernist thinking to poststructuralist approaches to text, stressing the "play of signifiers" without any determinate, stable meaning other than a thoroughly interpretive reception by the individual reader. Jacques Derrida's influential insistence on the "radical instability of all texts" is rooted in his radicalization of Ferdinand de Saussure's analysis of language as a "system of differentially related signs." For Saussure "in the linguistic system there are only differences." (6) Derridian poststructuralism intensifies this stress on difference and attacks the "metaphysical desire" for a "transcendental signified," a "concept independent of language." (7) Derrida stresses the "decentering" and, indeed, the disappearance of the self in his critique of the autonomous, rational self, depicted in modern Enlightenment individualism. The self can claim no longer any "full self-presence" because it is conditioned by a multiplicity of histories and narratives that limit and distort even as they disclose. (8) Decentering is the rupturing recognition that there is no such center, no "transcendental signified," and, thus, all becomes "discourse," and the domain of the "play of signification" is extended infinitely. (9) Instead of the self's controlling language confidently as an instrument to name and shape reality, postmodernity often pictures the self as inextricably shaped and conditioned by language.

The ascendancy of the stress on the categories of "culture," "history," "language," and "particularity of experience" and the attendant emphasis on the sharp differences between and among different cultures and nations has pushed "nature" to the margins of the attention in the humanities and the social sciences. "Nature," as the philosophical foil for the privileged terms, "culture" and "history," came to be considered philosophically and theologically arcane and intellectually uninteresting. Accordingly, "nature" was ceded over to the hard sciences with almost no sense of regret or loss. In this way the understanding of human existence in both the humanities and the social sciences lost balance.

Ecological Concerns and a Global Ethic

In sharp contrast to the modernist and postmodernist privileging of "culture" and "history" as the authoritative frames for understanding human existence, there have been ancient traditions emphasizing how all humanity participates in one grand community whose good dwarfs that of any particular community or nation. This belief in a universal human community was the norm in many periods in the pre-modern West and, indeed, in many other parts of the pre-modern world as well. Where modern and postmodern emphases, by stressing "culture" and "history," stress the plurality and diversity of cultures and the sharp historic and cultural differences between and among them, dominant streams of pre-modern Western philosophy and Christian theology, by interpreting human reality from within a "cosmos" or "nature-centered" frame, highlighted the peoples of the Earth, despite their clear cultural, linguistic, religious, and often racial differences, as one species--one great community sharing common strengths and limits and open to generally shared capacities of rationality.

Today's emerging environmental consciousness shares many of the affirmations made by these ancient traditions that stressed the common fellowship of humanity. The recent emergence of severe environmental concerns pulls many to concentrate more intently on how all human communities depend on the energies and are bound by the constraints of our shared planetary home. In this way the recognition of the massiveness of contemporary environmental concerns calls forth attention to the categories of the "planet," the "human species," and, thus, the common good of humanity and all life-forms that share the sustaining power of the Earth. In stark contrast to the modern and postmodern emphases on the particularity and diversity of human cultures, communities, and nations, the emerging ecological perspective reframes the human condition by highlighting the commonality of needs and interests of all human communities together, as a planetary community utterly dependent on the sustaining gifts of a remarkable planet. (10) As Holmes Rolston puts it: "Earth is really the relevant survival unit." (11)

While the environmental challenges are alarming, the environmental perspective pulls us to seek out resources in the pre-modern and modern traditions of Europe and the rest of the world that focus centrally on "nature," the communality of humanity as a "species," and the "common good" of the planetary community. As Paul Knitter has noted, even if we accept the argument of the postmodernists that there are no viable "meta-narratives," the emergence of global ecological concerns and threats means that we must acknowledge that there are genuine and pressing "meta-problems." There are globally shared challenges and problems that can only be addressed in concert by the peoples of the world. (12)

Ecological concerns, then, are not just massively important issues in applied ethics. Rather, they function as a whole new way to frame and understand the human condition and our distinct historical location. In this way the rise of ecological consciousness offers potent challenges for many long-held modernist and postmodernist assumptions and values. So, too, an ecological consciousness provides an exciting vantage point for surveying the range of nature-centered and universalist affirmations of a number of pre-modern philosophical and religious understandings from both the West and the East.

There is some irony that, for much of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nature-based appeals to species and biology were often derided as necessarily wedded to, at best, conservative endorsements of the status quo social hierarchies and, at worst, to flat-out racist and sexist regressive political views. Today, in a world needing desperately to respond to global, climate-change concerns and to step up to a mounting range of moral ecological responsibilities, appeals to nature (its services, its energies, and its limits), to biology, and to language of species and ecosystems are now seen by increasing numbers of people as the grounds for a truly progressive new morality and politics to emerge. Nature-based appeals to the vivid blue and gray and green of the seas, the greens and browns of the land masses, and the white of the cloud cover and the polar ice caps potently contrasts with the blackness, emptiness, airlessness, and coldness of space. The rise of ecology reminds us that we are gifted and that we need to honor and protect the gift.

The Moral Equivalent of War

A distinctive American offering to the construction of a "universal ethic" was presented by William James, a Harvard professor of psychology, in 1910 in his important essay, "The Moral Equivalent of War." Modern weaponry, James believed, was rendering war into a true "monstrosity" in which humanity could no longer afford to engage. Yet, he believed that the institution of warfare historically sustained a set of important virtues--"manly virtues" he called them--namely, courage, discipline, strenuousness, pride, and a willingness to engage in self-sacrifice for the common good. His problem, then, was to ponder what common challenge could sustain these virtues if we were to eliminate war, as he felt we must. His conclusion is telling. He argued that this moral equivalent would be found in the world's community of nations' joining in common cause to engage in "the immemorial human warfare against nature." Instead of a military draft, he envisioned that each nation would conscript part of its youth for a certain number of years into an "army enlisted against Nature." He envisioned that young men and women would build canals, drain swamps, build highways, and the like in a common, strenuous effort to subdue nature and improve the lot of humanity. For James this universal ethic would bring general peace among the world's peoples by giving us a "common cause," in which to join. (13)

James's essay is noteworthy both in his attempt to find a common cause for all the peoples of the Earth and also in how noncontroversial it seemed in 1910 that humanity could go to war against nature and somehow actually win. The development of the ecological sciences arose after James wrote his essay, so we cannot blame him for not realizing, as we must, that nature is not passive in taking anything that we humans dish out. Indeed, we know now in ways that James could not that a "war against nature" would be tragically like a real war in that it would generate flesh-and-blood casualties, both nonhuman and human. Whereas James viewed this conflict as a bloodless war, we now know that any such war against nature will lead to our peril. It is clear today that a much better opportunity for promoting international common cause and shared interreligious commitment today would be the recognition of the pressing need for a global project of protecting our common planetary home. (14)

Natural Law in Stoic and Catholic Reflection

The ecological grounding for an emerging global ethic closely parallels a number of the perspectives and themes that dominate the natural-law tradition of Western ethics, an ethic that in the last few centuries has been most closely associated with the Roman Catholic Church. This tradition was grounded in ancient Greek and Roman Stoic notions that the universe itself should be viewed as a great city--a cosmopolis--in which all peoples are citizens of a common Whole. (15)

While the origins of Greek political philosophy concentrated attention on the human within the frame of a particular city-state, the polis, Alexander the Great's conquests gave rise to a vast multicultural empire, which put a premium on the need for a broader philosophical frame for understanding human community. These concerns of the Hellenistic age gave impetus to the Stoic philosophers' vision of the universal community of humanity based on our common rationality and our common participation in the life of the universe, a great polis writ large. (16)

Not surprisingly, many Roman thinkers, in reflecting on their own multicultural empire, were drawn to Stoic views. As Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and philosopher, noted in The Meditations, "All things are interwoven with one another, and the bond which unites them is sacred; practically nothing is alien to anything else, for all things are combined with one another and contribute to the order of the same universe." (17) Stoic ethics flows directly from this affirmation that each individual is a part of that great Whole and that our task is to promote the common good.

Stoic thinking, along with the neo-Platonic cosmology of the Great Chain of Being, were together drawn into shaping dominant streams of medieval Christian theology. In an influential synthesis Thomas Aquinas gave expression to this cosmology in his treatises "On Creation" and "God's Providence" in his Summa Theologiae. He believed that the doctrines of creation and of God's ongoing governance of the created order marked out a moral order whose lineaments we humans could discern via reason. (18) An affirmation of the oneness of the human species grounds Thomas's articulation of a universal ethic. Human reason is able to discern the basic, natural inclinations and ends of the natural order; thus, human reason is able to bridge cultural differences in a meaningful way, due to our common human capacities for right reason. (19) Certain basic themes of the natural-law heritage, such as the priority of the "common good" over that of the individual, remain quite pertinent for informing a viable global ethic for our own age.

While Thomas developed a reason-centered approach to natural law, his dominant frame for understanding human life and experience was, I believe, still creation-centered and God-centered. Whereas modern philosophies and theologies have been much more interested in understanding human life by focusing on the distinctive sphere of human culture and history, important streams of pre-modern philosophy and Christian theology, such as Thomas's, framed their understanding of human life within an account of the general ordering of the created world.

Modern papal social encyclicals have long followed the general affirmation of the natural-law approach to concentrate moral attention on the "common good." While traditionally this good was understood to be the good of a particular society or nation, we can see Pope John XXIII in his widely respected encyclical Pacem in terris (1963) argue that the "signs of the times" show that modern technological, industrial, and economic advances have given rise to truly global challenges that warrant a recognition of the unity of the global human family and our need for a common response. John XXIII's recognition of the scale of truly global problems pushed him to emphasize a vast expansion of human moral responsibility that is owed to promote what he called "the universal common good," namely, the "common good of the entire human family." (20)

In Catholic circles the allegiance to the natural-law approach has waned, especially in the last fifty years as personalist-oriented theology, liberation theology, and the transcendental Thomists--Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan--have influenced many to believe that the natural-law claims are too rigid and need to be discarded in favor of more dynamic understandings of the individual's relationship to God. Bernard Haring gave influential expression to this when he noted that God's call and our response are more central in the moral life than attention to fixed natural-law findings grounded in appeal to static notions of reason and reality. (21) Likewise, Vatican II called on Catholics to ground ethical thinking less on natural-law grounds and to develop a more scripturally based ethical understanding.

While the Vatican continues to call on the natural-law heritage for its continuing condemnation of the use of artificial birth control and of homosexual relations, the Vatican tends to develop and promote its ethical reasoning across the range of socioethical concerns with little or no appeal to the natural-law heritage. But, many Catholic ethicists remain interested in natural-law reasoning, and much is still written on this topic.

Richard Gula has helpfully noted the existence of two historic strains of interpretation of the natural-law tradition, what he calls the "order of reason" approach and the "order of nature" approach. (22) Stoic and medieval expressions of natural law highlighted both humanity's participation in the community of creation and our participation in a universal human community whose members are capable of right reason and are thus also able to affirm common moral truths. Most Catholics who sustain an interest in natural law today follow the "order of reason" view, which holds that natural law is primarily about the common structures of human right reason that all persons, regardless of culture or nation, are able to affirm and by which they can be guided. But, the stress on the commonality of the power and structures of reason seems to pull much Catholic discussion toward an ethics that is closer to a Kantian vision of a universal human community founded in our common reason than a Thomistic one, in which the stress on humanity's common reason was also balanced by an overarching emphasis on humanity's participation within the community of creation, our participation in the vast Chain of Being as one species among many others.

However, a growing number of ecologically oriented thinkers are finding the creation-centered frame of much of pre-modern natural-law thinking intriguing for the strong family resemblance of some of its main themes with those presented today by the ecological sciences. Environmentalists today wish, as did Stoic and medieval thinkers before, to turn attention to the priority of the global common good, a good or whole more expansive than just the good or whole of humanity, even as we ponder the general wisdom of conforming human life and action in some way (and with important qualifications) to the general order of nature. (23) As James Nash, a fine Protestant ethicist, has argued, this historic natural-law emphasis on "following nature" coheres closely to the emphasis given by ecologists and environmentalists on the folly of those who ignore the norm of "ecosystemic fitness or compatibility." (24)

Natural Law among Protestants, Jews, and Muslims

Much of modern and contemporary Protestant thinking has tended to reject the natural-law heritage as affirming too much confidence in human reason and in pulling attention away from God's word and scripture. However, a growing number of Protestant theologians and ethicists today are suggesting that a wholesale Protestant rejection of natural theology and natural law cannot be found in the major Reformation leaders and in many Post-Reformation periods. They cite the appeal to natural law in the works of John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, Hugo Grotius, and Richard Hooker, among others, and in the twentieth century most prominently in Emil Brunner's writings. (25) They argue that widespread Protestant rejection of natural theology and natural law really is a more modern occurrence following from Karl Barth's widely influential rejection of both. Thus, they seek to move beyond Barth's wholesale rejection by appeal to deeper strata of the Protestant heritage.

Likewise, some Jewish and Muslim scholars, in examining their own traditions, find strong articulations of the natural-law heritage expressed there. This is not surprising, because the Western monotheisms share many fundamental doctrinal affirmations about the sovereignty of God and about God's work in creating, ordering, and sustaining the physical universe. David Novak, for example, argues that, while Judaism has long centered its thinking in Torah and a theology of revelation, this revelation has always highlighted that the natural world is a gift from God and that the world is ordered as a vast system that sustains life--and not just human life. Novak wishes to recover the elements in the Jewish heritage that together constitute a Jewish natural-law affirmation that is grounded in the theology of creation, which is so prominent in much of the Hebrew Bible. (26)

Islam, by its concentrated attention to God, likewise must, according to A. Ezzati, spread attention and respect to the widest ranges of God's created order. In this way he develops his view that Islam in its affirmations about divine creation and about the nature of humanity offers a potent theology of the created order. This generates an ethical obligation to respect the harmony between humanity and the rest of creation, and together these affirmations ground a distinctive Islamic natural-law tradition that closely parallels the tradition of natural-law reasoning found in the Christian heritage. (27) It should not really surprise us that the closely similar understanding of God's power and wisdom in creating and sustaining the natural world shared by all the Western monotheisms would also sustain the broadly similar outlines of a natural-law approach in these religious traditions.

Indeed, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr has long argued, we need to appreciate how religions across the world share a vision of human life as participating in a vast order of nature established and sustained by God. Paying special attention to Islamic thinking, Nasr holds:
 The study of the order of nature as envisaged in various religions
 ... reveals remarkable correspondences and similarities.... All
 religions in their deepest teachings, and despite important formal
 differences, relate the order of nature to the order within human
 beings and envisage both orders as bearing the imprint of the
 Divine Reality, which is the Origin of both man and nature. (28)

Natural Order and Dharma in Hinduism and Buddhism

Likewise, strong expressions of affirmation and belief that bear a close family resemblance to the Western natural-law tradition, with its stress on the universal community of humanity, can be found in much of Hindu and Buddhist belief. Both religious traditions stress the moral centrality of dharma, which can be translated broadly as "righteousness, duty, justice" deriving from "dhr" (that which sustains). (29) O. P. Dwivedi has described Hindu dharma as "an ethos, a set of duties that holds the social and moral fabric together by maintaining order in society ... and giving rise to harmony and understanding in our relationships with all of God's creation." Further, "Dharma requires that one consider the entire universe an extended family, with all living beings in this universe members of the same household." (30) He quotes the Mahabharata: "Dharma exists for the general welfare (abhyudaya) of all living beings; hence, that by which the welfare of all living creatures IS sustained, that for sure is Dharma." (31) Dharmic duty casts a wide net of obligations. It is an expansive term, a vision really, interlinking moral duty with cosmic order, not wholly dissimilar from the Western notion of the Great Chain of Being. For K. L. Seshagiri Rao, while dharma deals with moral responsibility and duty, "[i]t also refers to the structure of reality. It is a cosmic law, the law of life and development.... The purpose of dharma is to maintain and conserve the society and the world." (32)

Perhaps the twentieth century's strongest affirmation of the universal community of humanity was given by Mohandas K. Gandhi. His distinctive vision drew power from major Hindu traditions that insist that beyond the diversity and richness of multiple divine manifestations that are affirmed in various Hindu traditions, ritual practices, and temple devotions, there exists the one God who transcends all the manifestations. Because there is one God, the God who creates and sustains all, there can be but one human community. Hence, all men and women are brothers and sisters. (33) To undercut "us" versus "them" thinking as he led the movement for Indian independence against British colonial rule, Gandhi insisted that, while differences across the human family clearly existed, our first affirmation had to be upon the unity of humanity. If this unity is the first note of emphasis, then mutual respect can provide discipline to our encounter with other communities and steer us away from the name-calling and disrespect that leads to animosity and aggression. Instead of "us" versus "them," Gandhi insisted that it was really "us" and "us" and "us" again who may be in conflict but who, in reality, were bound into a common community.

Buddhism's early history is so intertwined with early Hindu practice and belief that it is not surprising that they share a similar understanding of dharma and a number of other doctrines. In Buddhist thought the moral stress on dharma, or dhamma in the Pall Canon, is likewise prominent. A number of suttas of the Pali canon highlight an early Buddhist emphasis on a "close relationship between human morality and the natural environment." Later commentaries articulated these views in an affirmation of the existence of five natural laws (panca niyamadhamma): physical, biological, psychological, moral, and causal laws. Together these laws "demonstrate that people and nature are bound together in a reciprocal, causal relationship with changes in one necessarily bringing about changes in the other." (34)

Thai Buddhist voices have been particularly strong on connecting notions of dharma with the system of nature. Buddhadasa Bikkhu, for one, extends the understanding of community widely to include the "entire cosmos." (35) Likewise, Phra Prayudh Payutto, a famous Thai monk and scholar, has written extensively discussing dharmic understandings of human nature, the make-up of reality, and Buddhist understandings of "natural law." In his influential work Buddhadhamma, he wrote of a number of principles, such as "dependent origination" as pertaining to "natural law." Indeed, he understands the Buddhist view of dharma as expressed in his sub-title as "natural laws and values for life." (36)

Likewise, the present Dalai Lama has often spoken of a Buddhist understanding of natural law. In The Compassionate Life he held that
 human interdependence is a natural law--that is to say, according
 to natural law, we depend on others to live. If, under certain
 circumstances, because something is wrong inside us, our attitude
 toward our fellow human beings on whom we depend becomes hostile,
 how can we hope to attain peace of mind or a happy life? According
 to basic human nature or natural law, interdependence--giving and
 receiving affection--is the key to happiness. (37)

Elsewhere, he states, "In Buddhism the principle of causality is accepted as a natural law. In dealing with reality, you have to take that law into account." (38)

For the Dalai Lama humanity is clearly divided into multiple communities marked by sharp linguistic, cultural, and historical differences; still, all humans are joined in solidarity as sentient creatures facing common human suffering and frailties, including old age, illness, and death. He stresses "our basic sameness as human beings" (39) and holds that there is one community of humanity that is subject to a common set of "universal ethical principles." (40) He believes that we all share "responsibility toward the whole human family." (41)

Central both to Buddhist tradition and to the Dalai Lama's teaching is the ancient concept of "dependent origination" (sometimes called "dependent co-arising"), the view that emphasizes the fundamental relationality that governs all existent entities and beings. It stresses how "all things and events arise in dependence on a complex web of interrelated causes and conditions." (42) From this doctrine Buddhism develops directly an ethic of stressing universal community, compassion, and what the Dalai Lama refers to as "universal responsibility." (43) Buddhism's stress on sentience and suffering pushes it to stress the universal human community and, indeed, the broader community of all sentient life. This and the historic emphasis on relationality give Buddhism distinctive resources for highlighting the need for ecological responsibility.

This sketch of natural law and dharma traditions across religions West and East is surely not comprehensive and is merely offered to suggest the wide number of religious and philosophical heritages across the globe that offer us guidance as we attempt to construct an ethic that concentrates attention on the universal human community and our radical dependency on the wellbeing of our planetary home. (44)

A New Global Creation Story

Our understanding of the universal human community must be deeply ecologized. By itself the stress on the human community can remain anthropocentric and bound up in a set of modernist and postmodernist assumptions that fail to take seriously the dual facts that humanity has evolved from, and is sustained by, the environing planetary ecosystem. Any understanding today of the human condition that ignores the findings of the ecological sciences is simply dangerously inadequate. As we ecologize our thinking today, we can be helpfully informed by the range of pre-modern religious and philosophical traditions, both East and West, sketched before, that offer an understanding of humanity within the framework of the order of nature. The broader order of reality and these traditions of thought offer important points of convergence with the emerging ecological paradigm.

Recall Knitter's suggestion that, even if for the sake of argument we might be willing to accept the postmodernist denial of any universalist "meta-narratives," we must acknowledge that today humanity does in fact face massive "meta-problems." Knitter is surely right in this, but still many ecologically oriented thinkers believe that the biological and ecological sciences are offering us an overarching and compelling meta-narrative that commands our attention and reflection. The broadening awareness across societies around the world regarding the seriousness of global ecological concerns indicates the existence of a planetary-wide meta-narrative. The lineaments and the stakes involved in this meta-narrative have been dawning slowly across the last five decades. This intensifying awareness that we--all of our communities--live on a planet in peril is clearly the foundation of a new meta-narrative, one that is eliciting a recognition of meta-responsibilities. It is "meta" because it flames human reality as a global whole, not as a series of discrete cultures or particularist histories. It is a "narrative" because it tries to make sense of the flow of historical change and action.

The rise of the ecological sciences is a great gift to humanity in the last century. They tell us both how the world works and about humanity's place within it. In addition they provide important bridge-work between modernist and postmodernist insistences on the diversity of human cultures and of historical dynamism and the emerging scientific picture of the natural world. By insisting that nature has a remarkable evolutionary history and that human history needs to be understood within that flame, ecology calls for a historicized understanding of nature and an ecologized understanding of history. Similarly, by emphasizing the importance of species' diversity and relationality, ecology provides a basis for highlighting and appreciating humanity's rich cultural and religious diversity. Ecological awareness is deeply sensitized to parts-whole relationships. Thus, it can appreciate both species as parts and ecosystems as wholes. Similarly, it can appreciate cultural differences and the diversity of national interests and still view societies and nations as members of a shared global community.

As Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest and self-styled "geologian," argues, the observational sciences, in giving us in the last three decades an empirical account of the origins of the universe and of the evolutionary development of life on Earth, are offering us a potent spiritual gift--namely, a new revelatory moment highlighting the scale of creation and the sacredness of the universe and life itself. For Berry this newly emerging scientific account deserves to be recognized by the world's religious communities as our common "Creation Story," a universal story of origins holding vast inspirational and moral power. For him this story is the primary revelation of the ways of God in the world. In this way it is a sacred meta-narrative in which the more particular narratives of peoples are but a part. (45) Like many of the sacred narratives of the world's religions, it depicts an account of creation, the energies building up and sustaining, and a "fall," the unleashing of human powers that degrade and endanger creation. It depicts a cosmic struggle, too, between these two systems of energy.

If one's disciplinary lens focuses tightly on "culture," it immediately spotlights "difference" and "diversity." With that lens we see no meta-narratives but only the narratives of particular human communities. However, if one's lens focuses on planetary history, one must speak of a "meta-narrative"--in this case, the story of life on Earth. Contemporary ecology thus performs a similar service to ethics that ancient cosmology once did; it situates ethics in conversation with understandings of the human as a part of the broader order of the natural world. (46) Whereas ancient cosmology, at least in the West, tended to emphasize the stability of the natural order that flamed and comforted human life, contemporary ecology destabilizes our sense of security and emphasizes the need for energizing globally shared practices of ecological responsibility. (47) Even a basic interest in ecological stories in the daily news sharpens our attention and increases our anxieties. The drumbeat of stories of ecological concern quickens, and we join Berry in affirming that saving the ecosystems and established climate patterns of Earth is our and future generations' "great work." (48)

In conclusion, we need not search far for "common ground," for we already stand on a shared planet. Emerging ecological challenges both give alarm and also mark an opportunity to reposition the debates about ethical and religious conversation across diverse religions and cultures. The rise of the social sciences tended to dethrone notions of natural-law foundations for ethics by their stance of suspicion regarding appeals to "nature" to establish trans-cultural notions of ethical or religious truth. More recently, postmodern turns in thinking have heightened our sensitivity to the dangers of claims about "meta-narratives" that affirm "universal truth" but that, when unmasked, appear to be mere totalizing projections of the truth-claims and moral judgments of a particular historical culture or age. These are rightly suspected to be masking the perspectives and agendas of those societies with the most power. Our admirable sensitivity to cultural and religious diversity needs to be set in balance with an appreciation for the unity of humanity, bound by the supports and constraints of our remarkable planetary home.

(1) See Robin W. Lovin and Frank E. Reynolds, eds., Cosmogony and Ethical Order: New Studies in Comparative Ethics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 1-8.

(2) Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (New York: Harper & Row, 1936), pp. 242-287.

(3) Carl N. Degler, In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 187-192. See also Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 2002).

(4) See Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967); and, more recently, fan Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

(5) Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, tr. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. xxiv-xxv, 9.

(6) See David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 54.

(7) Alan Bass, "Translator's Introduction," in Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, tr. with intro Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. xv.

(8) Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 279.

(9) Ibid., p. 280.

(10) See Paul Kennedy, Preparing for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Random House, 1993), pp. 3-20, 95-132; and Peter Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2002). For a helpful distinction between "deconstructive postmodernism" and "'ecological postmodernism," see Charlene Spretnak, The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern Worm (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1997), pp. 64-79.

(11) Holmes Rolston III, "Environmental Ethics: Some Challenges for Christians," in Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler, eds., Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence, 3rd ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2004), p. 237.

(12) Paul F. Knitter, "Deep Ecumenicity versus Incommensurability: Finding Common Ground on a Common Earth," in Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether, eds., Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 368. See also his more extended treatment in Paul F. Knitter, One Earth, Many Religions: Multifaith Dialogue and Global Responsibility (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995).

(13) William James, "The Moral Equivalent of War," in Richard A. Wasserstrom, ed., War and Morality (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1970), pp. 11-13

(14) See Max Oelschlaeger, Caring for Creation: An Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis (New Haven, CT, and London: Yal,, University Press, 1994).

(15) See F. H. Sandbach, The Stoics, 2nd ed (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1989).

(16) Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co., 1960), pp. 77-82.

(17) Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, The Meditations, tr. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1983), p. 62. See Stephen Toulmin, "Nature and Nature's God," Journal of Religious Ethics 13 (Spring, 1985): 37-52, for an interesting discussion of some ecologically informed thinkers who are developing perspectives similar to the overall Stoic vision.

(18) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, tr. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols. (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1948).

(19) Among important recent works on Thomas and the natural-law tradition are: Anthony J. Lisska, Aquinas's Theory of Natural Law: An Analytical Reconstruction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Stephen J. Pope, ed., The Ethics of Aquinas (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2002); and Jean Porter, Natural and Divine Law: Reclaiming the Tradition for Christian Ethics (Ottawa: Novalis, 1999).

(20) Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris, [section] 132 in Seven Great Encyclicals, intro. William J. Gibbons (Glen Rock, NJ: Paulist Press, 1963), p. 316.

(21) See Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, tr. William V. Dych (New York: Seabury Press, 1978); Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972); and Bernard Hating, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, tr. Edwin G. Kaiser, 3 vols. (Paramus, NJ: Newman Press, 1961).

(22) Richard M. Gula, Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality (New York: Paulist Press, 1989).

(23) See William French, "Catholicism and the Common Good of the Biosphere," in Michael Barnes, ed., An Ecology of the Spirit: Religious Reflection and Environmental Consciousness (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990), pp. 177-194.

(24) James A. Nash, "Seeking Moral Norms in Nature: Natural Law and Ecological Responsibility," in Hessel and Ruether, Christianity and Ecology, p. 244.

(25) Indeed, a number of Protestants, including James Nash, noted above, are attempting to recover natural-law views from within there particular traditions. See Michael Cromartie, ed., A Preserving Grace: Protestants, Catholics, and Natural Law (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997); and Carl E. Braaten, "Natural Law in Theology and Ethics," in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., The Two Cities: The Church's Responsibility for the Earthly City (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), pp. 42-58.

(26) David Novak, Natural Law in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). For Jewish ecologically oriented theology and ethical reflection, see Arthur Waskow, ed., Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought, 2 vols. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000).

(27) Abu al-Fazl Ezzati, Islam and Natural Law (London: Islamic College for Advanced Studies Press, 2002). For treatments of Islam's engagement with ecological concerns, see Richard C. Foltz, Frederick M Denny, and Azizan Baharuddin, eds., Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

(28) Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature, The 1994 Cadbury Lectures at the University of Birmingham (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 24; and idem, Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1968).

(29) See Vasuda Narayanan, "Water, Wood, and Wisdom: Ecological Perspectives from the Hindu Traditions," in Daedalus 130 (Fall, 2001): 181.

(30) O. P. Dwivedi, "Dharmic Ecology," in Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker, eds., Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth. Sky, and Water, Publication of the Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School, Religions of the World and Ecology Series (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 13.

(31) Ibid.

(32) K. L. Seshagiri Rao, "The Five Great Elements (Pancamahabhuta): An Ecological Perspective," in Chapple and Tucker, Hinduism and Ecology, pp. 24-25. For another fine source on Hinduism and ecology, see Lance E. Nelson, ed, Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).

(33) Mahatma Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers: Autobiographical Reflections, comp. and ed. Krishna Kripalani (New York: Continuum, 1990), pp. 51-73.

(34) Lily de Silva, "Early Buddhist Attitudes toward Nature," in Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft, eds., Dharma Rain." Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism (Boston, MA, and London: Shambhala, 2000), p. 94.

(35) Donald K. Swearer, "The Hermeneutics of Buddhist Ecology in Contemporary Thailand: Buddhadasa and Dhammapitaka," in Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryuken Williams, eds., Buddhism and Ecology. The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds, Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions Publications, Religions of the World and Ecology Series (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 28.

(36) Phra Prayudh Payutto, Buddhadhamma: Natural Laws and Values for Life, tr. Grant A. Olson (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995).

(37) Tenzin Gyatso (the fourteenth Dalai Lama), The Compassionate Life (Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2003), pp. 3-4.

(38) The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), pp. 38-39.

(39) His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), p. 4.

(40) Ibid., p. 22.

(41) Ibid., p. 20.

(42) Ibid., pp. 36-37.

(43) Ibid., p. 162.

(44) For an important contribution to a global ethic, see Hans Kung, A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

(45) Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988), pp. 98, 105, 107, 123-137.

(46) See Robin W. Lovin and Frank E. Reynolds, eds., Cosmogony and Ethical Order: New Studies in Comparative Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 1-35.

(47) See J. R. McNeill, Something New under the Sun. An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), wherein he takes the words of Ecclesiastes that calm us that there is "nothing new under the sun" and shows that, in fact, ecological threats are radically new.

(48) Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999).
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Author:French, William
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Date:Jun 22, 2007
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