Sunday, October 21, 2007
Mother Earth, Brother Sun, Sister Moon:
some spiritual teachings
Alfred E. Baldacchino
In the name of the Father, man has committed a number of atrocities – in the political arena, in the religious realm, and also in the same ecosystem which sustains him. The holy books of all religions are as old as man himself, and they still teach what they originally were meant to teach. But the different interpretations given to them down the years were very often meant to accommodate man’s relentless greed rather than to get him
closer to the deity he worshipped.
Leafing through the main religious books, be they Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu, the writings give the same clear and identical message. For instance, in the Bible we read that after creating man, God saw
everything that He had made was very good. And the Lord took man and put him in the Garden of Eden, to tend it and to guard it. God also said to Adam and Eve, “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis).
The Western world, which mainly professes Christian beliefs, has not only interpreted ‘subdue’ and ‘dominate’ ad litteram but also implemented it to the fullest ad nauseam. I remember reading teachings that man is unique
and not part of the ecosystem which God has created only for man to ‘exploit’.
Fortunately, following spiritual revival, these teachings have been dumped, though there are still many of their followers around. The Bible and other sacred writings all lead us to better understand their teaching, as some
of the following references clearly show.
A delicate balance
In the Jewish Talmud we read: “When the Holy Blessed-Be-He created the first man, he took him aside and warned him: See my works, see their beauty, their perfection; everything I have created I have created for you.
Take care not to spoil or destroy my work, because there will be no-one to mend it after you.”
As regards creation, the Qur’an, the Muslims’ holy book, teaches: “To Him belongs whatsoever is in the heaven and the earth; All obey His will. And it is He who originates creation” (30:25). Creation was designed to
function as a whole, a dynamic delicate ecological balance. “Transgress not in the balance, and weigh with justice, and skip not in the balance. It is He who has appointed you viceroys in the earth” (6:165).
The Old Testament teaches that the land belongs to God. People are “only strangers and guests”. The land shall not be sold in perpetuity for the land is Mine (Leviticus 25:23). The earth is God’s and all its fullness, the world and all who dwell in it. (Psalm 21:1). Man must rule the world in holiness and righteousness (Wisdom 9, 3). “God took Adam and placed him in a garden… to work it and to preserve it.” (Genesis 2:15.).
The Dalai Lama, in line with Buddhist belief, teaches: “We only have one earth and any damage which we do to it will rebound upon us.” A. Tyiradhammo, from the Dhammapala Buddhist monastery referring to the
delicate ecological dynamic balance explains: “The illusion of separate, independent subjects and objects is merely due to the influence of self-centered ignorance.” The founder-director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environment Sciences, F. Khalid, emphatically declares: “Dominion over Creation remains with the Creator Himself and there is no evidence there of Him having abdicated His responsibilities to one of his
creatures no matter how intelligent.”
Much to answer for
The Tablet, a British Catholic weekly, of October 4, 1986, points out that many who embrace the Christian faith have much to answer for. Quoting Max Nicholson, a well known authority on ecology, The Tablet says that it
has been a tragedy that the most influential religion in the world should have been “one of the very few which preached man’s unqualified right of dominance over nature”. Aboriginal spirituality in Australia teaches that ‘the land is our mother“, “we do not own the earth and the land owns us”. Chief Seattle, of the North American Indians explains: “This we know: the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know: all things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
Quite a different perspective from the interpretation of “dominion” and “exploitation” we Christians have been taught, and on which teaching many an empire has been built, many a life taken, and many a resource plundered. But before any of your readers pulls out his red card, not to accuse me of being an ecofundamentalist, but to show me the way back to the fold following my readings of ‘other’ biblical books and writings, I will now dwell more deeply on the teachings of the spiritual leaders of the Catholic Church. This will be amplified in the next part.
According to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, man is the final and supreme creation, the only being made in God’s image. Nature has been handed over to his dominion. He is commanded to “fill the earth and subdue it” and “rule” over the animals. Man is not only the “master” but also the “guardian” of the ecosystem. But a guardian is one entrusted with property that does not belong to him. His role is to take charge of it and
eventually return it to its owner intact. It has also been explained that the world is not ours. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalms 21:1). It has been handed into our safekeeping only on condition that
we maintain it unspoiled. This approach to creation is also supported by the teachings of other main religions of the world.
Pope John Paul II, addressing the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi, quoted from the Genesis to direct and lead the faithful towards the responsibility of the Lord’s creation. The Pope dwelt on the Church’s commitment to the conservation and improvement of our environment being linked to a command of God. God created all things and then entrusted them to the care of human beings who were themselves
created in His image as we find in the very first pages of the Bible.
The Pope explained that it is a requirement of our human dignity, and therefore a serious responsibility to exercise dominion over creation in such a way that it truly serves the human family. Exploitation of the riches of nature must take place according to criteria that take into account not only the immediate need of the people but also the needs of future generations. In this way, the stewardship entrusted by God to man will not be guided by short-sightedness or selfish pursuit, rather it will take into account the fact that all created goods are directed to the good of all humanity.
In a way one can undoubtedly say that Pope John Paul was laying the foundations for national strategies for sustainable development, a concept arising out of Agenda 21 which is a comprehensive plan of action to be
taken globally, nationally and locally by organisations of the United Nations system, governments, and major groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment. (see my article in The Sunday Times of
Pope John Paul II continued with his teachings on man’s role and responsibility for the environment in his famous speech on the celebration of the World Day of Peace on January 1, 1990. The Holy Father emphasised that states should jointly implement internationally accepted standards and make or facilitate necessary socio-economic adjustments within their society.
In his keynote address, the Pope touched upon respect for nature, collective selfishness, disregard for others, dishonesty, the ecological crisis which reveals man’s lack of moral character and ethical values, interference in the ecosystem, uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life and reckless exploitation of natural resources, emphasising the need for a sound economic, industrial and scientific progress.
John Paul II stressed that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, by regional conflicts, by the never ending injustices among people and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life. Such a lifestyle harbours a sense of precariousness and insecurity and “is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty”, he said.
Furthermore, certain motivating forces contributing to today’s ecological crisis reveal its moral character. We have now realised, at a painful cost, that “we cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due
attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations.”
A moral issue
Many patterns of environmental pollution, and the uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life, and the reckless exploitation of natural resources underlie a most profound and serious indication of the moral
implication evident in the lack of respect for life.
The Pope warns that “even if this is carried out in the name of progress and well-being, it is ultimately to mankind’s disadvantage” because the “respect for life, and above all the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress.”
A lesson to be learnt by the leaders of any social entity from this dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is the extent to which greed and selfishness – both individual and collective “…are contrary to the order of creation,
an order which is characterised by mutual interdependence.”
Our planet is administered, governed, ruled or dictated by politicians, who if guided by such teachings would definitely make our world a better place to live in. Unfortunately, politicians, worldwide, are more concerned
with their short-term delivery during the term with which they have been entrusted. The long-term vision is left for the electorate, if there is one, and for future generations to solve, if they are still around.
This is what has fuelled the environmental crisis worldwide, because of the expected quick results at the expense of hidden costs of long-term damage. No wonder Paul John II lamented that “…the seriousness of the
ecological issue lays bare the depth of man’s moral crisis” and “the air and its atmosphere are telling us that there is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral issue.” (my italics).
Man, the most intelligent being created by God, is the only creation who can rebel against his Creator and who can destroy himself. Adam and Eve were the first to immediately oblige and rebel, and they were followed by
their subsequent progenies, when they crucified the Son of the Creator. It is not surprising then that man, the climax of intelligence on this planet, wipes out other “inferior” living species over which he has been given
dominance. It is also not surprising at all that man is the only creation who again through his ‘intelligence’, can sabotage his own existence – something he is very close to achieving.
Christians who still believe, by conviction or through convenience, that as the most intelligent being on earth, man has unqualified rights of dominance over nature, should do well to take heed of Pope John II’s
admonishment that “Christians, in particular, realise that their responsibility within creation and their duty toward nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith” and that “modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its lifestyle” whether they prefer to emphasise the quality of life enriched by spiritual values rather than the quality of life swamped with material possessions, but empty of joy.
At a conference on man and the environment on December 1971, Cardinal Villot, then Vatican Secretary of State, declared that “every attack on creation is an insult to the Creator”. As far back as 1986, a lone voice
boldly took a first step in this insular fast-desiccating intellectual desert, within the enclave of his social institution.
The late Mgr Professor Carmel Sant, on December 20 of that year, in his oration entitled Natural Environment: the biblical perspective, at the graduation ceremony at the Seminary at Tal-Virtù, courageously wrote: “It is man’s moral responsibility to care for God’s creatures around him, on whom his own physical existence and spiritual uplift depend. Hence it is not only within the competence of the Church and her ministers to intervene and take a definite stand for the defence of the environment, but their duty to take such a step”.
One needs to explain that the graduation ceremony was held at Tal-Virtù because the Faculty of Theology was booted out of the University at Tal-Qroqq, on the pretext that such teachings and studies should not be
subsidised by public funds. Now, almost 21 years later, the first ripples of that address have reached our shores. If only these directions can be taken in hand, in the name of the Father.
(To be concluded)