Religion, Ecology, Race, and Cultural Evolution

“Today we cannot ignore that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach and should integrate justice in discussions on the environment to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.” -Pope Francis (n.49)

Pope Francis released his encyclical last week. The English translation is HERE.

I have only skimmed it thus far myself, but I am encouraged by the reviews I have read. Especially that by the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, whose work connecting ecology and social justice is among the major spiritual inspirations behind the encyclical. The impact of this document on public policy remains to be seen, but the Pope explicitly intends it to speak to all Earth’s people, not just Catholics.

Conservative politicians are predictably beside themselves. Their common refrain seems to be to tell the Pope to stick to religion and stay out of politics. As I said in a post two weeks ago, perhaps these climate change denying politicians should stay out of science. But of course, part of what the ecological crisis is revealing to us is the way everything–from politics, to religion, to science–is connected. The Earth does not respect our artificial boundaries and all too human constructs. We’ve entered the Anthropocene, which means the old dichotomy between free human subjects and inert natural objects is entirely obsolete: If anything, it is humans who have become inert, unable to act to avoid the worst of the coming ecological catastrophe, while nature–or better, Gaia–is the new dominant actor on the scene, no longer content to remain the static background of human history. The Pope is rightly linking economics, morality, and ecology. There are other issues that need to be addressed, of course (i.e., SEX–more on that in a second), but under Francis’s leadership the Church is way ahead of state governments on this. Politicians need to catch up.

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Other theistically-minded critics are upset by the fact that one of the Pope’s main advisers, Hans Schellnhuber, is a Gaia theorist. About Gaia theory, The Stream’s William Briggs sarcastically writes:

“This is what we might call ‘scientific pantheism,’ a kind that appeals to atheistic scientists. It is an updated version of the pagan belief that the universe itself is God, that the Earth is at least semi-divine—a real Brother Sun and Sister Water! Mother Earth is immanent in creation and not transcendent, like the Christian God.”

Ah yes, the dreaded paganism. It is strange to me that so many Christians seem to neglect the little detail of Christ’s incarnation. Trinitarian theology is not as clear on the issue of transcendence as Briggs makes it seem. And let’s be honest, if Christians continue to insist on the other-worldliness of their God, then their religion will wither away even faster than the ecosystems of this planet. A totally transcendent God is utterly irrelevant to human life on Earth. Who cares about a God unmoved and unaffected by human and earthly concerns? Only death-denying patriarchal authoritarians. This is not to say that some forms of transcendence do not carry liberatory potentials, but I would argue transcendence needs to be held in polar tension with immanence to remain relevant (e.g.,panentheism). The geologian Thomas Berry coined the term “incendence,” which beautifully captures the necessary polarity.

Briggs is also worried about what he views as Schellnhuber’s misanthropic statement that the carrying capacity of Earth is around 1 billion people. There is something important in this criticism, since many “environmentalists” who take a more or less “protectionist” approach seem to imply that humans are some kind of eco-disease who would do best to just withdraw from nature as much as possible, to let it do its wild thing without our unnatural interference. This sort of dualism only re-enforces the problem, in my opinion. Anthropologists have thoroughly deconstructed the idea of “wildnerness” by pointing out that indigenous populations have always been intimately involved in caring for their local ecologies. Restoration ecologists have also made it clear that humans can constructively participate in the flourishing of life on this planet, if only we shift our anthropocentric values so they are inclusive of the intrinsic values of all organisms and habitats.

Finally, Briggs dismisses Schellnhuber’s claim that educating women would help reduce population. The evidence on this question is so unambiguously on Schellnhuber’s side that I’m at a loss as to who Briggs thinks he is kidding. Then I realized he is associated with the Heartland Institute. So much for fidelity to the facts. Or perhaps he is himself Catholic, which would also explain his ideological resistance to sex education.

As I mentioned parenthetically above, the Church’s stance on sexuality remains highly problematic. By continuing to enforce patriarchal norms, the Church is perpetuating an injustice to women and LGBTQ (etc.) communities. I can only hope that the Pope’s Earth-positive message will carry over in time to sex-positivity and gender equality, as well. The Pope is willing to listen to Gaian scientists about climate change and mass extinction but still looks to the Old Testament for his understanding of healthy human sexual relationships? Society’s views on sex continue to change faster than the LGBTQ (…) acronym can keep up. Pope Francis rightly critiques the “rampant individualism” and “self-centered culture of instand gratification” that dominates our postmodern world (Par. 162),  and it is true that in such a context, the sacredness of sexuality is often ignored or debased. But for an institution still so mired in its own sex abuse scandals to pretend to speak with such moral authority about the singular legitimacy of heterosexual marriage as the only container for human sexuality is embarrassing, to say the least. Contemporary human societies are undoubtedly struggling to find new ways to raise and care for children, but instead of condemning so many people to hell, the Church could do a better job supporting anyone, gay or straight, for whom love is the guiding factor in the formation of families. And further, those who wish to express their love without increasing the human population should also be able to avoid the Church’s condemnation, since it is ecologically obvious that we’ve reached and probably surpassed the carrying capacity of this planet. If the Pope is serious about rejecting humanity’s absolute dominion over the planet, he must come to understand this.

For an alternative perspective on the role of sex in society, check out primatologist Isabel Behncke’s short presentation about bonobo sexuality. The connections she draws between play and ritual resonate strongly with what I tried to articulate in the paper I delivered at the recent International Whitehead Conference on religion in human and cosmic evolution.

Again, moving toward an ecological civilization is going to take more than just a sustainable and green economy. It is going to take a massive transformation of every aspect of our modern human lives, including how we relate sexually. Conservatives are clearly terrified of such changes, but the power of their ideology pales in comparison to the power of evolutionary creativity. We are primates and our behavior is evolving on every level, or at least needs to if we hope to adapt to a shifting environment.

RB218591_p12_Br, 2/26/10, 11:39 AM,  8C, 4936x7114 (1370+1821), 100%, Custom,  1/25 s, R76.0, G60.1, B69.8

One final word about the terrible shooting in Charleston that stole the headline from the Pope’s encyclical last week. Responding to racism must be part of any integral ecological movement. The Civil War started, as much for economic, as for political and moral reasons. The North was industrializing, while the South remained tied to slave labor and dependent upon the agricultural exports, especially cotton, that their slaves produced. Black slaves helped get this country on its feet economically, mediating between Whites and the natural world. As machines began to take over this mediating role, the moral absurdity of slavery became more and more apparent to those in the North. The ecological and moral consequences of industrialization are only now becoming obvious. This is far more complex than I can articulate fully here, but there is clearly a connection between the White fear of the natural world, the need for mediation (whether by slaves, machines, or something else) to protect us from it, and the ecological crisis. The Union won the war and ended black slavery only to enforce the enslavement of the regenerative processes of Earth to the new machine overlords of techno-capitalism. Healing from the residual racism still blighting our country’s collective psyche seems to me to be a far deeper issue than just being nicer to one another. There are deeper wounds at play here . . . .

Thoughts? The connections I’m drawing are obviously still in their larval phase. I am hoping to start a dialogue to shed light on it all.

13 Replies to “Religion, Ecology, Race, and Cultural Evolution”

  1. Great post Matthew,

    It is ironic that in modern age the pope is told to stay out of politic. The dominant power of money and politic, the priests of the moneycratie religion are now trying to keep the pope out of politic!!!! It is also interesting to you bring in the question of the position of the catholic church on women. I question of women is probably the deepest issue with our current environment crisis situation. There are many evidences sudgesting that humanity at its origin was matriarchal like the bonobos societies. The earliest religious artefacts are those of the great mother and there are no sign of wars in these early phases of humanity. The patriarchial order was brought about by the herders and the manifacturers of metal weapons. This fundamental cultural change from a feminine dominated culture towards a patriarchal hiearchical order based on wars also correspond to a change of dominance of the righ feminine brain hemispere to a dominance of the left male brain hemisphere. It is not so much a battle dominance of a sex versus the other but a battle of the hemispheres. The destruction of the earth can only be stopped through a return to the kind of balance of the hemisphere that created humanity in the first place.
    Regards

  2. The control of the freedom to play and the control of the freedom to be female have a long history. far longer than Christianity; http://www.alternet.org/story/155645/how_frightened_patriarchal_men_have_tried_to_repress_women's_sexuality_through_history ….. and if one begins to evolve out of those politicoreligious constraints and begins to plant the seeds of an ethical revision of the powers behind a long legacy of repression, then you get this; http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/ideology-subsumes-empiricism-in-pope-s-climate-encyclical/ , which addresses the role of the female in climate change, apparently, as if birth control and the control of reproduction was yet again, the focus of ethical consideration. It isn’t women using the pill who are selling off the rainforests to corporate interests; http://www.businessinsider.com/ecuador-selling-its-rainforest-to-china-2013-3 . I’m completely disgusted with the whole mess, frankly.

  3. You raise some great points here, Matt! There are a few things I would add.

    Religion:
    Mayra Rivera is a good source of postcolonial/liberation theology, and she argues in support of a transcendent God (see her Touch of Transcendence). Getting rid of transcendence is profoundly antithetical to the biblical tradition. From a biblical perspective, it is only a transcendent God that is relevant to human life. It isn’t just misogynistic death-denial. That’s an anachronistic psychologized hermeneutic inappropriate for biblical exegesis. The biblical God is a revelation of a wholly Other container whose boundlessness provides a salvific context holding the living and the dead. Nothing about the trinity undoes God’s transcendence. Incarnation did not stop Jesus from saying Abba. Rather than critique Briggs’ dismissal of pantheism, we could just show that the Pope and his saintly namesake are not pantheistic but panentheistic (the encyclical’s reference to Teilhard is important in that regard).

    Ecology:
    Regarding conservationism, I think you mean preservationism. John Muir’s preservationism contrasts sharply with Gifford Pinchot’s “conservation ethic.” Preservationism takes humans to be unnatural, such the human impacts ruin the so-called wilderness. Pinchot and other conservationists criticized Muir for opposing humans and nature. They accuse Muir of being anthropocentric. Conservationism is just an older and less technoscientifically developed form of restoration ecology. Although conservationism and restoration ecology refuse any human-nature dualism, we should also bear in mind that they subject humans and nature to instrumental rationality, whereas Muir’s preservationism acknowledged something like intrinsic value in the wild.

    Sex:
    It’s not fair to say that the Pope is getting his understanding of sexual relationships from the Old Testament. First of all, it sounds like you’re assuming that the Hebrew Bible is simply sexist, but you know it’s more complex (e.g., Ruth). If the Pope were interpreting sexuality entirely in biblical terms, a relatively emancipatory position could emerge. Secondly, you’re not accounting for the encyclical’s reference to “sexual difference,” which implicates (without citing) postcolonial and queer discourses on gender and sexuality. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing.

    Race:
    Finally, I agree with you, of course, that racism and the ecological crisis are connected. Integral ecology accounts for intersectional oppressions of race, class, sex, gender, age, ability, and species. I would add that many advocates for abolitionism were drawing on biblical morality. It wasn’t just the proliferation of machines that made slavery appear morally wrong. In fact, in Europe, many abolitionist efforts predate the widespread availability of industrial technology. Also, the protective human-nature mediation provided by slaves and machines should also include the mediation provided by angels, families, the holy spirit, city walls, philosophical ideas, handshakes, parties, and so much more. ….That’s got to be all for now. It’s hard not to ramble. These are some of the most pressing questions of our day.

    1. Thanks for these important corrections and clarifications, Sam. I’ve learned a thing or two!

      I did not mean to dismiss transcendence entirely, just to make it clear that there is an immanent face to the Christian God, as well.

      And yes, I certainly acknowledge the important role of Christianity in the abolitionist movement. I’ve gotten into many an argument with atheists about this point. On the other hand, the Bible was also used by Southerners to defend slavery. I find it hard to understand how one might interpret Jesus’ teachings as supporting oppression. But there’s no question that there were (and are) at least nominal Christians on both sides of the race issue.

      1. Yes, I’ve seen some of those your arguments with atheists. You could compile them into a pretty compelling book.

        It’s not too hard to interpret the teachings of Jesus–the incarnate s/word of God–as supporting oppression…but that might just says something about me. He did tell us to hate our parents. That’s a little weird.

      1. We have it legally in much of the US (though not in some states), but socially and culturally only in small progressive pockets (I mean there are legal protections preventing discrimination, but there is still a lot of hatred, bigotry, and fear among conservatives regarding the changing landscape of sexuality and family life, etc.). I was speaking specifically to the Pope’s/Catholic teachings on the matter, which are embarrassingly dated (not to mention hypocritical considering all the sex scandals…). The Church is doing great harm to women in poor countries by insisting on an abstinence only policy instead of making contraception available. Making contraception available would save lives, but it doesn’t preclude continuing to offer their moral teachings.

  4. I find your comments about race really interesting…especially the idea of Black slavery as mediating between White civilization and the natural world. Also, in regards to the Church’s teachings on sexuality—many of them are an embarrassment. Like the other two Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, institutional Christianity, and especially the Roman Catholic Church, is supremely patriarchal. But, even other branches of Christianity as well as Judaism and even conservative Islam all allow for some birth control and contraception. I mean it’s probably easier to obtain birth control in theocratic Iran than in many Bible Belt states in America under control of Catholic and evangelical Christian conservatives.

  5. I am not familiar with what is being referred to here regarding the Church’s teachings on sexuality, but I can highly, highly recommend a book by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) that discusses sexual ethics, called _Love and Responsibility_. It was published in Polish in 1960, and the English translation was published in 1981. This book is very deep and helpful, specifically basing its aspect of criticism against a ‘utilitarian’ view of sex.

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