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New cosmology no longer new in Vietnam.

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM * "So what's your idea of God?" I put the question to Sr. Dang Thi Ngoc Bich as she sat after a class at the archdiocesan pastoral center here.

Ngoc Bich, a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary Queen of the World, was with a group of a dozen or so other women religious at the center, which draws religious and lay for pastoral education. The religious generally use its facilities during the day and laypeople come more often at night, after work.

"God's a mystery" Ngoc Bich answered after thinking on the question for a half minute. She then added, "If I could describe God, it wouldn't be God."

And, of course, she was right. The women broke into laughter, as if to say to the questioner: "That was a stupid question. What did you expect?"

Truth is, I didn't quite know what to expect. But what surprised me more than her answer was the course the women were taking at the center--a course on ecology with a focus on what is loosely known as the new cosmology, its spiritual underpinning.

Ngoc Bich appears to be cut from the same stripe as so many other Vietnamese women religious: young and cheerful. Vietnam is a young country Most of its people are under the age of 25. Most women religious are under the age of 35. At 34 years old, Ngoc Bich has already been a religious for 17 years.

If there is a shortage of women religious in the West, here in Vietnam the problem is one of abundance. Over and over one hears it said that with so many young women eager to join religious communities, resources are strapped and issues of religious and spiritual formation are paramount.

I asked the women at the center what they felt is the greatest social challenge facing Vietnam today Almost in unison the women said ecology Unless the people attend to ecological needs, they explained, all other social issues will only get worse, and the fabric of Vietnamese society will weaken.

Studies have indicated, for example, that one-third to one-half of the Mekong Delta, the nation's primary food source, is in peril and could be underwater in 50 years if sea levels continue to rise.

That ecology would be viewed by these women as Vietnam's No. 1 social challenge took me by surprise. But it was followed by another because they were coming to ecological issues through what was for them a relatively new spiritual framework: the presence of God in creation.

Vietnam lacks educational resources. And so does the Catholic church here. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese have voracious appetites for education. Textbooks are a luxury at the pastoral center. So educators make up their own resources. In this ecology class the students were reading from booklets sealed together with plastic binders. These texts were culled from the writing of others, primarily Catholics who have been writing books on the new cosmology in recent years.

I asked the women if I could look through one of their booklets and paged to the footnotes to get a sense of the source materials. That was the next surprise. Among the names I found were Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry Brian Swimme, Jesuit Fr. Albert Fritsch, Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, and Rosemary Radford Ruether--all long familiar to NCR readers, but still relatively new to these Vietnamese women.

Let it be said that Catholicism is finding new scientific and spiritual roots here in Vietnam. The new cosmology is more than a Western phenomenon. As Christians around the globe tackle with pressing ecological issues, they are finding ways to educate others by attempting to reach spiritual sensibilities.

It was not long ago, Ngoc Bich told me, that many Vietnamese did not understand the causes of climate change. It's different now, she added: "We know people are responsible and that climate change is being exacerbated by bad human choices."

She said pervasive Asian poverty, increased flooding and new human migrations can now be traced to ecological abuse.

The way Catholicism is being taught here is changing. This is a young and relatively conservative church. It is also a hurting church facing monumental social and environmental challenges.

It seems these messages are reaching an important target audience: the religious educators of tomorrow.

After some more thought, Ngoc Bich said to me in Vietnamese: "God is a transcendent Creator, giving life to all creation. The task is clear. We need to preserve this creation."
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Title Annotation:Missionary Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary Queen; ECOLOGY
Author:Fox, Thomas C.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:9VIET
Date:Apr 15, 2011
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