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Environmental Crisis, Cosmic Opportunity

May 30, 2010
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by: Robert A. Ludwig, Ph.D.

Perhaps the single most important spiritual issue of our time emerges in the global ecological crisis we face. The vast devastation that human beings have visited on the Earth in modernity poses profound threats to the survival of all life forms on the planet. Pollution of the land, air, and water has introduced life-threatening toxins into the food-chain and our bodies. Depletion of the protective ozone, global warming, alarming increments in human population growth, and the killing off of millions of plant and animal species–all of these suggest a grim future devoid of natural aesthetics and a radically diminished existence, if, indeed, we can survive at all. The source of these problems is not superficial. It has to do with our self-understanding and our relationship to the natural world. We are alienated from nature, estranged from the elegant magnificence which is all about us and within us. Growing awareness of this alienation and estrangement challenges our fundamental meanings and values.

We need to stand back from the present crisis and assess why things are so amiss. What are the underlying reasons for today’s threatening situation? The answer, of course, is the human species. We are what has thrown the natural world into such imbalance. But is the human species intrinsically the problem? Are we a mistake of nature, inevitably drawn to behaviors which are destructive to the planet as a whole? A closer look suggests that the underlying problem is not the human species as such, but the human species of the past 200 years–and more precisely, the human species in the Western hemisphere and north of the equator during the past 200 years. It is modern Eurocentered humanity that has plundered nature and wrought such destruction to the planet.

Thomas Berry suggests that the underlying problem is twofold: otherworldly religion and controlling science–religion that denigrates the natural world and sees it as at best neutral and at worst our spiritual enemy; and science as conquest which seeks to conquer and subjugate the world of nature. Transcending nature through religion and overcoming nature through science–these prevailing attitudes combine to create a human species which devastates the natural world, perceiving itself as separate from, and even alien to, nature. Clearly, it is our understanding and perception that must change.

This change in perception begins with the physical universe (physics), with the Earth (seen from space), and with nature (ecology). Our understanding of the physical universe has changed dramatically and rapidly in the twentieth century, triggered mostly by the insights of Albert Einstein and our ability to observe both the macro (through telescopes) and the micro (through particle separators). Space travel has provided us with a mirror image of the Earth as a wonderful blue and green jewel which hangs in the blackness of space. For the first time we can see the planet as a whole. The ecological crisis has caused us to rethink our relationship to nature, and we are beginning to recognize ourselves as part of an intricate, interdependent web of life–more radically connected to and dependent upon the natural world than we had previously thought. The new physics, NASA, and the ecological dangers we now face are combining to change our perception of reality, our self-understanding, and the meaning and value of human activity.

This is both familiar to Christian faith and an extraordinary challenge to our tradition. It is familiar because ancient Israel developed a creation myth which tied the emergence of the natural world to the God who led them forth from Egypt. The Earth, the sun, the stars, the cycle of seasons, the power of fertility–all were seen as the handiwork of the same God who had liberated Israel and brought Judah back from Babylonian exile.

It is familiar, also, because early Christian traditions began to connect Jesus of Nazareth with the unseen wisdom of God (sophia), who was responsible for creation. We get images of a cosmic Christ in the Pauline and Johannine writings as well as in the Book of Revelation–“He is the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth . . . all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:15-16). The basileia proclaimed by Jesus in word and deed is universal, encompassing everything there is.

It is familiar, also, because Christian thinkers throughout the past 2,000 years have explored the connections between creation and redemption, between what we know about universal reality and our faith in Jesus. Plato’s understanding of the universe undergirds Augustine’s theology. Aristotle’s description of the physical universe is the basis for Thomas Aquinas’ thought. Christian mysticisms celebrate the unity of all things in God. Catholic figures like Francis of Assisi, Hildegarde of Bingen, and Meister Eckhart saw all of creation suffused with spirit. Only in recent centuries does Christianity reflect a split understanding of the natural universe (phenomena) and the sacred (noumena). So retrieving an integrated understanding is familiarly Catholic.

But the new paradigm is also a profound challenge to many of our assumptions and previous understandings. Copernicus and Galileo, in challenging previous understandings of the universe, were condemned by Rome, beginning a prolonged conflict between science and religion. That conflict intensified with the Enlightenment, during which reason and empiricism were seen as the tools of science in the exploration of the universe and society, and revelation and faith were diminutized, given over to the sphere of the private individual and the interior life of belief and value. One could choose either science or faith for an integrated understanding, or one could choose both science and faith, but in a bifurcated reality. Our newly emergent sense of the universe and nature shatters that separation and opens up new opportunities for an integrated understanding which brings faith and science together, but not without challenges. There has also been within the Christian tradition generally a locating of revelation in history rather than nature, a focus on time rather than place. Recovering a sense of the revelatory character of the cosmos and seeing the physical (matter and bodies) as the location of salvation is a daunting challenge, given our history of being influenced by dualisms in which the physical universe was perceived rather negatively.

Environmental damage, the extent and intensity of which we are only now beginning to glimpse, is tied to problematic patterns of perception–attitudes grounded in long-standing assumptions and beliefs–as well as the anti-nature behaviors which flow from them. Christianity, as it has developed over the centuries, is part of the problem. Some (Lynn White, for example) would say it is the problem behind our ecological crisis. We have focused almost exclusively on the human, and seen the rest of creation as there for us. We have focused on human purpose as salvation from this world–in a heavenly realm beyond space and time. We have seen matter, the body, the physical world in a pejorative way, emphasizing control of and transcendence from. Our dualisms have led us to see the spiritual, the soul, and true human purpose above and beyond the earth, the universe, and physical reality. With these attitudes, it is no wonder that we are now witnessing pollution of air and water, destruction of the great rain forests, and the extinction of millions of plant and animal species. To the extent that we have embraced hierarchy, patriarchy, and dualism, Christianity is a hidden culprit in the ecological devastation we are now facing.

A revised and updated Christianity today means listening to the voices of physics, as well as to the beliefs and values expressed in the religions of indigenous peoples. It means listening to the voices of the Earth and her many creatures, who cry out for relief from the human assault. It means recognizing that the rule of God comes long before Jesus of Nazareth and that the meaning disclosed by him is ultimately cosmic and universal. Today we must perceive the reconstructed universe disclosed in the new physics, that we see the human and the Christian in the larger context of 15 billion years of cosmic evolution. We must find a creative integration of Christian faith and the harmony and balance which nature requires. Christian faith today must be about cosmic liberation and cosmic healing–connecting human creativity to the wondrous music of the universe.

About The Author

Robert A. Ludwig, Ph.D. is the director of Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Pastoral Studies and Professor of Pastoral Theology. Dr. Ludwig is a frequent presenter at conferences, workshops, symposia, and ministry gatherings throughout the country. He is past president of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association (1979-1980) and has served as consultant to the U.S. Catholic bishops in their pastoral letter on campus ministry (Empowered By the Spirit: Campus Ministry Faces the Future, 1984) and for the bishop-delegates to the international synod on the laity (1987).

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