Rediscovering Our Place

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, and God’s spirit hovered over the waters. . . . Then God said,
“Let the earth bring forth vegetation:
every kind of plant that bears seed
and every kind of fruit tree on earth
that bears fruit with its seed in it.”
And so it happened:
the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed
and every kind of fruit tree on earth that
bears fruit with its seed in it.
God saw how good it was.
Genesis 1:1,11-2

In Laudato Si Pope Francis states that “The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.” (II,66) Genesis does not tell us precisely how God created the universe but rather the deeper and eternal truths of the One from whom the world comes and to whom it belongs and, further, of our place in God’s world. Everything in the world is related to God and to everything else, which means that we have an inherent responsibility to all others, to the earth and to God. At the heart of creation is the truth of “a mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.”

In beginning his papacy with the encyclical “On Our Common Home,” Pope Francis seems to have prioritized the degradation of our earth that our pursuit of comfort and consumption has wrought as the primary moral concern of our time. Beyond the issue of its certitude, if it is even a possibility, as almost all climatologists seem to agree, that the effect of warming on our planet will threaten our very survival, how is it that we cannot marshal the moral and political will to foster a significant level of concerted action in response?

Those of us who are citizens of the United States inhabit the society that in its waste and overconsumption has been the most responsible for the perilous state of our planet, and yet in our recent national election this reality was barely mentioned. One’s perspective on this topic, as on almost every topic of public interest at this point, seems governed largely by political affiliation and ideology. Our own citizenry, and so our elected leaders, are unable to dialogue about appropriate response as we cannot even agree, all evidence to the contrary, on the reality of the problem. With climate change, as with every large scale social problem that confronts us, we seem unable to find a shared discourse within which we can, despite our differing perspectives, work together.

In his Letter on Humanism Martin Heidegger wrote that “wide and rapid devastation of language not only undermines aesthetic and moral responsibility in every use of language; it arises from a threat to the essence of humanity.” For decades now, the language of our political discourse has lacked any reference to the aspect of “the essence of humanity” to which Pope Francis refers, namely, responsibility. Wherever we find ourselves on the political spectrum, we speak readily of rights, of satisfaction, of happiness, of power but almost not at all of responsibility.

If it is true that “God created the heavens and the earth” and everything that is in it, then the earth is not ours. We do not, perhaps, have an inalienable individual right to property if that somehow diminishes any other one’s right to live. In whatever we use and appropriate to our use, we are to use it in such a way that we are being responsible to God, to our neighbor, to the earth. As Pope Francis says, “each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” What would happen if the “house of being” that is our language, in the personal, social, and political realms, became infused with a sense of such a responsibility toward God, neighbor, and the earth in the present and for the future? Might this not dramatically alter the very nature of our political discourse?

Christian tradition has discerned in the gospels what it terms three “evangelical counsels”: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Each of these counsels concerns our responsibility, that is our “right relationship” to the earth, to other persons, and to God. In this light, poverty means that each of us and our communities and societies can “take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence” but that we are responsible, as we do so, to “protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations,” as well as for all its present inhabitants. To take from the earth more than I need is to fail my responsibility to all the others. It is also to violate the teaching of Genesis. We do not make the earth good; God has made it that way. We are to respect that goodness and to be stewards of it. As with the earth, so with each person we meet and encounter. We do not make them worthwhile; they are already worthy of reverence. Our responsibility is to respect that. So too with ourselves. It is in our relationship to God and our responsibility to live out God’s will that we realize our true value and destiny.

Buddhism speaks of the “Eightfold Path.” “Right Speech” is a core constituent of that path. As long as our shared speech suffers the devastation of the absence of the spiritual and transcendent truth of our distinctive humanness, we perhaps will never find a way to “work together” to stop our selfish and willful destruction of “our common home.” The Scriptures begin with a reminder of who we are, where we and our world come from, and of the One, whose world it is, to whom we are responsible. All of the great human wisdom traditions understand that distinctively human life requires of us submission to this truth. For all of our diversity, we share a common responsibility for each other, for the earth, and ultimately to the One to whom all of it and all of us belong.

We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23). 

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, II,#67

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