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Sins against Nature.

India, Jan. 1 -- On December 15, 2011, The Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council announced that Catholics should include sins against the environment when they visit the confessional. "Any exploitation of nature amounts to sins against God," said the Council.

In my view, The Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council's announcement is a judicious and timely one which should have been made much earlier.

Particularly at the start of this century, we begin to realize that we are members not simply of a human community but of a larger community, the multi-species community, that encompasses the entire world of the living and indeed the entire complex of all those beings that constitute our homeland planet, the earth. As such, we need to be educated for life within the community of life systems, not simply for life within the human community.

The derivation of the term ecology from the Greek word for home suggests the idea of a whole system in which living things are interdependent and leads on to the cosmos as a home in which we share life together. So ecology is the natural extension of justice. It is a dimension of social morality. It is concerned with sensitivity toward all living and non-living resources in the interests of the whole.

Ecological ethics argues that the balance between the human and non-human dimensions of the world is seriously disturbed by our human failure to live within proper limits, and that this is not only destructive of the eco-system outside but is also destructive of the quality of humanness within. It rejects the anthropocentric arrogance of human beings who behave as the lords of creation, in favour of recovering a modest estimate of human beings participating responsibly in this network of life. Human rights over creation are replaced by human responsibility to recognize the rights of the other life forms of creation.

Ecological ethics takes the human order, not as central but as a function of the broader processes of the earth's character and development. If we are able to restore the order of creation through asceticism and modest human presence on the planet, this will be the required "saving work". Salvation is envisaged as a harmonious equilibrium of creaturely rights, which human beings ought to create and share in.

Natural World, Revelation of Divine

Our human alienation from nature must be healed through presenting the abundance and diversity of the natural world as the primary revelation of the divine. Individual creatures may be inadequate signs of God's perfection, but the complexity of what we would today call the "eco-system" is to be accorded a high status as a mediatory representation of divine goodness (ST, I, 47, 1).

We have lost the Aristotelian and Thomistic sense that the whole of contingent reality is an active participation, an actus, through which the world has its own being in all its proper autonomy, integrity and worth only in the degree to which it is totally and immediately grounded in the creative agency of God. Equally, we have lost sight of the interaction of God and the creation which the Eastern orthodox theologoumenon of the divine energies offers: the creation participates in the sphere of the divine energies in which God is present to and in the creation without there being a confusion of the two orders of being.

Non-divine being must be talked about as always and in every respect constituted by, and therefore, nothing apart from an immediate relation with the founding agency of God. One must say created being becomes what it is and this all the more fully, not by way of separation or neutrality from God, but within the intimacy of a relationship to divinity as its total ground.

For the Chalcedonian tradition which Maximus the Confessor represents, the relationship between God and the creation is a "communion of energies", a reciprocity between the Creator and a creation whose dynamic character testifies in itself to the freedom of God's presence in things, being in the whole of creation in its differentiation and yet not being divided, but holding it all together in himself as Being.

Maximus goes so far as to speak of God's relationship to the creation as stages in the process of divine incarnation. Picking up the patristic theme of the relationship between God's truth (the Logos) and the dynamic intelligibility of creation (the logoi of creation), he speaks in terms of a threefold embodiment, almost a gradual incarnation of God's Logos within creation.

The French Dominican Alain Riou summarizes Maximus' approach which presents all the words of God within the framework of God's embodiment. First, the incarnation of the Logos in the logoi of the created beings at the time of the creation of the world and of the four elements, when the Spirit of God covered the waters. Second, the incarnation of the Logos in the logoi of Scripture and the four Gospels, when the Spirit inspired the prophets. Third, the incarnation of the Logos in our flesh, in man of our kind, in the humanity that is ours, realizing the fullness of the four cardinal virtues, when the Spirit covered the Virgin with his shadow.

This approach points us in the direction of considering human salvation within the wider framework of the pluriform activity of the Logos in the world.

In relationship to God the Creator, the creatures are like portraits or images in a mirror or in a series of mirrors of various sizes, shapes, colors, etc. Creatures are nothing more than mirror images or reflections of the omnipresent and sustaining divinity and are thus completely dependent on God's presence.

All creations carry a dignity and a mirroring of the Divine. Each creature images God in a manner unique to its species: each adds another glimpse of the Creator. Each excels as other creatures cannot. And each creature contributes to the whole, to the web that sustains all of life in ways that we are only beginning to discover.

The Aliveness of Matter

Consciously or unconsciously, we often divide the world of matter into two types, living matter and dead matter, assuming that plants, animals and humans are composed of the former, and that rocks and sub-microscopic elements are composed of the latter.

Philosophers such as North Whitehead and others, ancient and modern, assume that "dead" matter is, in its own, unconscious way, "living." Representatives of this perspective include, in different ways and contexts, African traditionalists, native Americans, ancient Greeks, numerous Asian thinkers, Romantic poets from the West, and modern Western thinkers such as Leibniz, Goethe, and the nineteenth-century essayist, John Ruskin.

Much of Whitehead's later philosophy was devoted to a repudiation of the idea that there are "vacuous actualities", that is, actualities which are only objects for observers, without any sense of being subjects for themselves. Whitehead believed it plausible, and indeed more reasonable than not, to assume that reality at any and every level consists of actualities that possess some degree of subjectivity. Taking evolution seriously, Whitehead found it implausible to assume that, for billions of years in cosmic evolution, there were only "dead" objects, be they protons, neutrons, and other such objects, and that then, somewhat miraculously on the planet earth, the "living" emerged from these dead objects.

Just as the Greeks thought that "something" cannot come from "nothing," so Whitehead believed that the "living" cannot come from the "dead"; the living can only come from the alive. Hence, for Whitehead, it seemed more plausible than not to assume that the precursors to biological life on earth -subatomic particles and their aggregates -were themselves alive in some sense. Given Whitehead's line of thinking, inorganic realities are best understood as primitive expressions of, rather than exceptions to, what later in the evolutionary process we call "life."

Second, taking contemporary physics seriously, Whitehead found reasonable to assume that, at bottom, the submicroscopic arena consists, not of "particles" and "waves," but rather of momentary pulsations of energy: energy-events. Particles and waves are themselves composed of such momentary events. As quantum mechanics shows, these events possess the properties characteristic of life. (An entity is living if it takes into account a surrounding environment from its own subjective perspective, either consciously or subconsciously, and perhaps also if it partially determines its own destiny, and thus creates itself in responding to that environment). In coming into being, these particles "take into account" past events, thus exemplifying a capacity to prehend the past; they "respond" to the very events they take into account, thus exemplifying a capacity for creativity. They are in their own way creative and sentient, the earliest instances in our cosmic epoch of what we call subjective experience.

For Whitehead, then, a mountain is alive. A mountain is a massive expression of billions of energy-events, much of which, on occurrence, has its own subjective immediacy. Undoubtedly, the subjectivity of a subatomic energy-event is radically different from a momentary experience of animal life. A subatomic energy-event takes into account and thus prehends its predecessors, but in all probability it does not do so consciously or with the kind of sentience characteristic of animals with central nervous systems. And as it takes into account these predecessors, the energy-event creatively actualizes certain possibilities for response, though it probably does not do so with the kind of anticipation that is characteristic of human life.

For an ecological Christian, rocks are alive in different ways from trees. In all probability, the mode of subjectivity present in an electron-event within the depths of an atom is qualitatively different from that present in a living cell in a tree and both are different from that present within the psyches of advanced organisms such as chimpanzees. To say that all creatures are alive is not to say that they are all alive in the same way or to the same degree.

Intimate Communion

The truth is that my body is part of me, and yet more than me, and that I, in being able to influence my body, am, part of my body, and yet more than it is. My body and I are parts of one another, each immanent within one another and each transcending one another. In the language of Hua-Yen Buddhism, we are "mutually penetrating."

Of course, the relation of "mutual penetration" is not limited to that of psyche and body. With its emphasis on internal realties, an ecological Christianity can affirm that all things are mutually penetrating. The essence of any given thing is implicated in the essence of everything else, and vice-versa. The universe is a seamless web of existence in which all things are enfolded into the constitutions of all other things.

Each form of life is integrated with every other life form. Even beyond the earth, by force of gravitation, every particle of the physical world attracts and is attracted to every other particle. This attraction holds the differentiated universe together and enables it to be a universe of individual realities. The universe is not a vast smudge of matter, some jelly-like substance extended indefinitely in space. Nor is the universe a collection of unrelated particles. The universe is, rather, a vast multiplicity of individual realities with both qualitative and quantitative differences all in communion with each other. The individuals of similar form are bound together in their unity of form. The species are related to one another by derivation: the later, more complex life forms are derived from the earlier, more simple life forms.

That which really joins us all in one community of life began about fifteen billion years ago in one initial burst of creative energy to which we are all linked. In that "big bang" (or more accurately, great light) was contained all that is in the universe, all that has unfolded eon upon eon, galaxies, solar systems, our earth, life, right down to the present moment. From the first, every particle carried within it the seeds of the next unfolding, including human consciousness.

The earth itself is approximately four and half billion years old and over those billions of years has evolved the variety of life forms that exist today.

We are like passengers on a small planet revolving around an average star we call our "sun", one of a hundred billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, one of the hundred billion galaxies in the universe.

We belong to the "earth family" with whom we share the obligation to promote the nurturance and well-being of each member. It is only in the total community of life that the human family can flourish and come to its full stature.

There is no way we can attend to the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, unless we attend at the same time to the "poor" of endangered species, strip-mined hills, eroded croplands, polluted rivers and gutted mountains. It is all of a piece, justice for poor people, justice for the earth. If we divorce people from the earth and pretend we are working for the poor while ignoring what is happening to their life-support systems, e.g., oceans, air, soil, plant and animal species, we are duping ourselves and them. If we do not keep the lifeboat afloat, the poor as well as all others will not survive.

The poverty of people and degradation of the environment go hand in hand. We have been concerned about the impact of economic growth upon the environment. We are now forced to concern ourselves with the impact of ecological stress upon our economic projects.

Responsibility to Future Generations

We have a responsibility not only to ourselves, but also to future human generations, to the hundreds of billions of people who have not yet been born, who have a right to be, who deserve a world at least as beautiful as ours, whose genes are now in our custody and no one else's. And we will have a responsibility to nonhuman generations as well, to the myriad species who, like ourselves, add to the divine life.

Human dignity consists in the responsible use of freedom. But this is not sufficient to define the origin and nature of human dignity, and the Declaration of Vatican II on Religious Freedom itself goes on to state unequivocally that it "is disclosed by the revelation that man is made in the image of God" (Walter Abbot, ed., Vatican Documents (Geoffrey Chapman, 1966), p. 689). This claim for our dignity (as opposed to that of any other species) presumes that we alone are made in the image of God, an anthropological postulate used to argue for a sharp distinction between our species and all others: one often expressed in the claim that we are the center of creation.

How does this claim accord with the concrete exigencies of contemporary ecological consciousness?

Our global economic expansion, for instance, and the resultant increase in carbon emissions has affected world climate adversely. It does not make sense if our economic growth causes more damage than benefit, not only to ourselves but to the planet which has to sustain that growth.

The negative impact of our economic infrastructure and consumerist lifestyles undermines theological arguments for our supreme dignity and for its theological corollary, our God-given right to dominate the Earth household. Our dysfunctional behavior within that household ill accords with that responsible use of freedom which we claim would accord with our dignity.

Can we honestly argue that a planetary household created and sustained over billions of years exists for our sole use and benefit? Can we claim a divine mandate for our species' increase in numbers to such an extent that we consume a totally disproportionate amount of the household's resources? Can we invoke a 'God-given' right to exploit and abuse the species by claiming that human communities alone, and their relationships with one another, are all that 'count' before God? In other words, can we make a convincing claim to our right to destroy our own life-support systems? Not unless, ecology says, we are compiling the longest suicide note in history. And making God countersign it!

Ecologically, all our inter-relationships, and those with whom we share them, count as part of an inter-connected physical and moral order. We can no longer see our well-being or our dignity as divorced in any real sense from that of the whole earth household. How we live affects all its members and, measured along different time-scales, their lives affect ours.

It is now time to wrap up this account. As the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council declared, Catholics should include sins against the environment when they visit the confessional. "Any exploitation of nature amounts to sins against God."

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Publication:Indian Currents
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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