The following information was originally compiled by the late Michael Colebrook
Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941) was a major French philosopher who had a profound influence on Tielhard de Chardin.
There are two excellent web sites providing accounts of the life and work of Bergson. These are at:
The complete text of A New Philosophy:Henri Bergson By Edouard le Roy. Translated from the French by Vincent Benson. Is available at:
There is an English translation of Creative Evolution at:
Thomas Berry, C.P. (November 9, 1914 – June 1, 2009) was a Catholic priest of the Passionist order, cultural historian and ecotheologian (although cosmologist and geologian – or “Earth scholar” – were his preferred descriptors).
Among advocates of deep ecology and “ecospirituality” he is famous for proposing that a deep understanding of the history and functioning of the evolving universe is a necessary inspiration and guide for our own effective functioning as individuals and as a species. He is considered a leader in the tradition of Teilhard de Chardin as demonstrated in the Introduction to his book, The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth. Author Michael Colebrook describes two key elements in Thomas Berry’s thinking: “Firstly, the primary status of the universe. The universe is, ‘the only self-referential reality in the phenomenal world. It is the only text without context. Everything else has to be seen in the context of the universe’. The second element is the significance of story, and in particular the universe as story. ‘The universe story is the quintessence of reality. We perceive the story. We put it in our language, the birds put it in theirs, and the trees put it in theirs. We can read the story of the universe in the trees. Everything tells the story of the universe. The winds tell the story, literally, not just imaginatively. The story has its imprint everywhere, and that is why it is so important to know the story. If you do not know the story, in a sense you do not know yourself; you do not know anything.”
Let me start with a story:
One day in the early months of 1954 the fourteen-year-old Jean Houston was running along a street in New York when she ran into a frail old man. They picked themselves up and he asked her where she was going. She replied that she was going to take her dog for a walk in Central Park. ‘I will go with you’ he said, and after that, several times a week for about a year Jean and the old man, whom she called Mr Tayer, would meet and walk together in Central Park.
Jean continues the story:
Old Mr. Tayer was truly diaphanous to every moment, and being with him was like being in attendance at God’s own party, a continuous celebration of life and its mysteries. But mostly Mr.Tayer was so full of vital sap and juice that he seemed to flow with everything. Always he saw the interconnections between things – the way that everything in the universe, from fox terriers to tree bark to somebody’s red hat to the mind of God, was related to everything else and was very, very good. He wasn’t merely a great appreciator, engaged by all his senses. He was truly penetrated by the reality that was yearning for him as much as he was yearning for it. He talked to the trees, to the wind, to the rocks as dear friends, as beloved even. “Ah, my friend, the mica schist layer, do you remember when…” And I would swear that the mica schist would begin to glitter back. I mean, mica schist will do that, but on a cloudy day? Everything was treated as personal, as sentient, as “thou” And everything that was thou was ensouled with being, and it thou-ed back to him. So when I walked with him, I felt as though a spotlight was following us, bringing radiance and light everywhere. And I was constantly seized by astonishment in the presence of this infinitely beautiful man, who radiated such sweetness, such kindness…
The last time that I ever saw him was the Thursday before Easter Sunday, 1955. I brought him the shell of a snail. “Ah, escargot” he exclaimed and then proceeded to wax ecstatic for the better part of an hour. Snail shells, and galaxies, and the convolutions in the brain, the whorl of flowers and the meanderings of rivers were taken up into a great hymn to the spiralling evolution of spirit and matter.
Several years later someone showed Jean Houston a copy of The Phenomenon of Man, and looking at the jacket she recognised the face and realised that old Mr Tayer was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who had died just a few days after their last meeting.
If there is one man who has inherited the mantle of Teilhard de Chardin it is Thomas Berry. A couple of years ago I asked Ursula King, who has written extensively about Teilhard, what she thought about Thomas Berry. She simply replied, ‘They even look alike’, which they do.
Thomas Berry was born in 1914 in North Carolina, USA. One of a large family of 13 children. He was ordained a Passionist priest in 1942 and studied history at the Catholic University of America. His speciality was the cultural history of China and India. He has taught at a number of American Universities and in 1970 he founded the Centre for Religious Research at Riverdale, New York which has been his base ever since. In addition to his Asian studies he has also looked at the Native American cultures. As he has written, ‘I wished to get beyond the classical civilisations, back into the earlier Shamanic period of the human community. The more I gave to the study of the human venture, the more clearly I saw the need to go back into the dynamics of life itself. I was progressively led back to what I call the study of the earth community, including its geological and biological as well as its human components. I call myself a geologian.’
Thomas Berry received his initiation as a geologian in a childhood encounter with a meadow. His family were moving into a new house on the edge of town:
‘The house, not yet finished, was situated on a slight incline. Down below was a small creek and there across the creek was a meadow. It was an early afternoon in late May when I first wandered down the incline, crossed the creek, and looked out over the scene.
‘The field was covered with white lilies rising above the thick grass. A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember. It was not only the lilies. It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in a clear sky. It was not something conscious that happened just then. I went on about my life as any young person might do.
‘Perhaps it was not simply this moment that made such a deep impression upon me. Perhaps it was a sensitivity that was developed throughout my childhood. Yet as the years pass this moment returns to me, and whenever I think about my basic life attitude and the whole trend of my mind and the causes to which I have given my efforts, I seem to come back to this moment and the impact it has had on my feeling for what is real and worthwhile in life.
‘This early experience, it seems, has become normative for me throughout the entire range of my thinking. Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; whatever opposes this meadow or negates it is not good. My life orientation is that simple. It is also that pervasive. It applies in economics and political orientation as well as in education and religion.’
I have heard Tom Berry talk about his meadow and even well into his eighties he speaks as if the event happened just yesterday. He has elaborated his feelings about the meadow into a set of 12 principles ‘For Understanding the Universe and the Role of the Human in the Universe process’. The first of these principles states:
‘The universe, the solar system, and planet earth in themselves and in their evolutionary emergence constitute for the human community the primary revelation of that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being.’
This represents what I believe are two key elements in Tom Berry’s thinking. Firstly, the primary status of the universe. The universe is, ‘the only self-referential reality in the phenomenal world. It is the only text without context. Everything else has to be seen in the context of the universe’. The second element is the significance of story, and in particular the universe as story. ‘The universe story is the quintessence of reality. We perceive the story. We put it in our language, the birds put it in theirs, and the trees put it in theirs. We can read the story of the universe in the trees. Everything tells the story of the universe. The winds tell the story, literally, not just imaginatively. The story has its imprint everywhere, and that is why it is so important to know the story. If you do not know the story, in a sense you do not know yourself; you do not know anything.’
Here, Tom Berry displays his prime inheritance from Teilhard de Chardin who claimed that, ‘We do not live in a world which can be viewed as a complete and coherent mechanism, we live in a world that is still being created, still creating itself. And, by its very nature it doesn’t know precisely where it is going, it does not follow a determined path. In any truly creative activity the outcome is unpredictable and uncertain.’ The story is not finished, it is still being written, by the birds and the trees and the wind and ourselves and none of us knows for certain what will happen next.
On one of the two unforgettable occasions when I met Tom Berry I put to him the problem of the unpredictability of the future, I quoted Whitehead, that ‘it is the business of the future to be dangerous’ and I asked whether it was possible to reassure those who find this prospect frightening and disturbing. He replied without hesitation, ‘Tell them the story’ – by which he meant the story of the Universe. This story, at least as told by Brian Swimme and Tom Berry in their superb book is marvellous and beautiful and the element of reassurance lies in the probability that it will continue to be so. Although the future is unpredictable, when we look back at the story so far, there is a clear impression of inevitability. That what has happened had to happen somehow, somewhere. Also the story so far covers a period of somewhere around 14 thousand million years and there is every prospect of it continuing for thousands of millions of years to come. This is all the reassurance that we should seek and can expect in a world that is still creating itself. We have the assurance that the Universe has come from somewhere and is almost certainly going somewhere, even if the ‘where’ is unknowable.
Whitehead is clearly a major influence on Berry although he claims that of the two Teilhard was the more important, ‘Whitehead, unlike Teilhard, did not have a clear idea of realistic historical time. He understood process time… He understood the universe as an organism, as holistic, as integral, as interacting, as a process, but he did not have it going anywhere. The story is missing in Whitehead. Teilhard had the story.’ I think Berry is being rather hard on Whitehead who, I suggest, certainly believed that his processes were going somewhere. In Science in the Modern World he talks of evolution as, ‘the development of enduring harmonies of enduring shapes of value, which merge into higher attainments of things beyond themselves. Aesthetic attainment is interwoven in the texture of realisation.’ And again, ‘All organisms modify their environment. Those organisms are successful which modify their environments so as to assist each other. This law is exemplified in nature on a vast scale.’ This sounds to me very like a succinct version of Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, but anticipating it by about 60 years.
As far as I know neither Whitehead nor Teilhard de Chardin were aware of each other’s existence and yet they have so much in common. In Tom Berry they have come together and we can be grateful for this, especially as Berry’s writing is a lot easier to understand than that of either Whitehead or Teilhard.
In spite of Teilhard’s ecological sensibility and his awareness of the connectedness of all things, he was not completely able to transcend the anthropocentrism of his theological background. In an essay he suggested that, ‘Laboriously, through and thanks to the activity of mankind, the new earth is being formed and purified and is taking on definition and clarity.’ And elsewhere, ‘should the planet become uninhabitable before mankind has reached maturity; . . then, there can be no doubt that it would mean the failure of life on earth. Teilhard accepted the Enlightenment idea of human progress; he saw the future of evolution in very human centred terms as leading toward unitary Mind through the development of a collective global consciousness. Tom Berry, on the other hand, sees the necessity of letting his meadow be itself, in its own ways and in its own time. As he has said on numerous occasions, the wellbeing of the Earth is primary, the wellbeing of humanity is derivative and we can ensure the wellbeing of the earth only by letting it be. We cannot care for the Earth, because we don’t know how. In Tom Berry’s universe, the idea of stewardship betrays a level of presumption amounting to the ultimate sin of hubris.
Another of Berry’s legacies from Teilhard, which he acknowledges, is the realisation that the universe, from the beginning, has a spiritual dimension and that the universe story is a sacred story. Berry seldom speaks of God, he thinks that the word has been overused. But he claims that, ‘Peoples generally experience an awesome, stupendous presence that cannot be expressed adequately in human words … people often dance this experience, they express it in music, in art, in the presence of beauty throughout the whole of daily life, in the laughter of children, in the taste of bread, in the sweetness of an apple. At every moment we are experiencing the overwhelming mystery of existence. It is that simple but that ineffable.’ Elsewhere he writes, ‘St Augustine says that God is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. God is more intimate to evrything. Every existence is a mode of divine presence. There is indeed a difference, a distinction, but if there were a difference in the sense of separation, the created world would not be… There is always a mystery of things.’
In her latest book Sacred Gaia Anne Primavesi says that the confines within which we place and then describe God are all on our side of the horizon. She speaks of the need to ‘give God room: room to be God of the whole earth system: enchanting and terrible, giver of life and death.’ This is the God of the sacred story of the universe and its emergent unfolding over a period of some fourteen thousand million years. But, as Tom Berry emphasises, the universe ‘is not a puppet show, it is a reality, functioning from within its own spontaneity. It is so remarkable and so stupendous to come to understand this process. The divine enables the universe to function in this remarkable way. There is a capacity of self-articulation inherent in the universe, and the more we know about that, the more clear it is that we will gain a totally different sense of the universe than we had previously, and a different sense of how the divine functions in relation to the universe.’
Thomas Berry has a lot to say about wildness. In his latest book, The Great Work he has a chapter titled The Wild and the Sacred. These are not, as one might expect, treated as antithetical elements. Rather they are treated as identities. He quotes Thoreau, ‘In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.’ And he goes on to claim that in saying this Thoreau, ‘made a statement of unsurpassed significance in human affairs. I know of no more comprehensive critique of civilisation, this immense effort that has been made over these past ten thousand years to bring the natural world under human control… This we need to know: how to participate creatively in the wildness of the world about us. For it is out of the wild depths of the universe and of our being that the greater visions must come’. What a contrast with the efforts we are making to create comfortable and secure lives for ourselves! What a contrast with the whole thrust of the Biblical vision of the creative process which focuses on the emergence of order and intelligibility!
There is a delightful short story by Stephen Dunstone called ‘God’s First Draft’ which I think captures the idea of wildness. After three attempts to create a perfect world, all of which manifestly failed, God tried the idea of the level playing field…
“Time for the fourth attempt! Let there be light and – no hills or streams or woods or up or down, and let there be five hundred identical men and five hundred identical women; no birds or animals or insects in case they upset the balance, and no fish and no marrows or parsnips or any kind of vegetable, because there must be no hunger or cold or fear or any kind of desire… There… And God looked at his creation; his blameless creatures who stood without blemish, motionless, on this flat featureless world, untouched by any breath of wind. Changeless – eternal. He looked at this world and saw that it was perfect. He sat in his heaven in contemplation of perfection; and no seed of discontent stirred in the timeless silence. No cries of anger or pain or joy pierced the harmony of stillness. He looked and looked, and watched and waited. But nothing came to disturb the world. It was indeed perfect, and would last for ever. And God contemplated eternity. And he said to himself, ‘God, this is boring’. And it’s just as well that he did, because if he hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here today. With a contemptuous click of his fingers he consigned the perfect world to eternal non-existence. Gone. And not a trace of remorse or regret did he feel.
“And God said ‘let there be light and dark and sun and moon and stars and dry land and hills and valleys and woods and streams and all manner of plants and insects and birds and animals and people; and let them fear and fight and feel pain but let them also feel desire and joy and love. Let the wind carry the sound of their suffering but let it carry the sound of their laughter too. Let them grow old but let them give birth, let them toil but let them dance, let there be sorrow but let there be ecstasy; let them work on the world, but let the world work on them. Let what may happen, happen. But above all let them learn from their mistakes.”
Tom Berry seldom engages in theological discourse. However there is one book Befriending the Earth which takes the form of a dialogue with a Jesuit, Thomas Clarke, in which he does address the main themes of Christianity. Although he does his best to voice his concerns as gently as he can, it is clear that his main criticism of mainstream Christianity is that it has not taken on board, or at least has not grasped the full implications of the concept of the time-developmental aspect of the universe. ‘That is why Christians are alienated people in their relationship to the present world. We cannot accept the story of an evolutionary universe as our sacred story… This is possibly the most significant change in human consciousness since the beginning of human consciousness, the change in perception of the world as cosmos to its perception as cosmogenesis, from being to becoming.’
Ralph Waldo Emerson was among the first people to realise the fundamental significance of evolutionary theory, and this was before Darwin. In his essay on Nature published in 1844 he claimed that, ‘we knew nothing properly for lack of perspective. And he asks, Why should we not have a religion by revelation to us, and not of tradition?’
Tom Berry issues the same challenge today. ‘We have to make a shift in our religious understanding. We cannot start with the written scriptures… Why are we not getting our religious insight from our experience of the trees, our experience of the mountains, our experience of the rivers, of the sea and the winds? Why are we not responding religiously to these realities?’ He sets the Book of Nature alongside the Book of Scripture and he leaves one in no doubt about which of the two is of greater relevance in today’s world.
The latest issue of the journal Ecotheology contains a review of a book by Calvin Beisner called Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate. The central argument of the book is that humanity is created to act as stewards of God’s creation. Humanity has legitimate authority to subdue and rule the earth, progressively conforming it to human needs and the glory of God. ‘Creation does not abundantly yield blessed fruits, but it becomes abundantly fruitful only under the wise and resolute hand of man.’ No possible reading of the Book of Nature as we now understand it could lead anyone to such a view. I sometimes wonder what the likes of Calvin Beisner think God was doing during the thirteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety eight million years it took to creation to produce humans.
It is true that the Book of Nature has been substantially re-written during the 20th century. A lot of what we now understand about the universe story has emerged during my lifetime. I was born in 1929, the year in which Edwin Hubble made the critical observations that led to the realisation of the expanding universe, that led to the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, that led to the realisation of an evolving universe. As far as the earth is concerned: the story of plate tectonics, of how the oceans and continents have moved around and evolved, was in its infancy when I went to college. The story of life has changed dramatically with the realisation that bacteria existed for nearly two thousand million years before any more complex forms of life were able to evolve. Much of the story is still shrouded in the unknown and possibly the unknowable.
Tom Berry’s main contribution has been look at the Book of Nature from the top down and to see the Universe story as a coherent whole. He speaks of the force of gravity as the great compassionate curve in which the universe is enfolded. He speaks of the spirituality of carbon. We cannot know the reality of carbon until we see in their wholeness the things that carbon can do. It plays a key role in the fantastic diversity of living creatures including ourselves. It plays a part in our thinking and in our ability to contemplate the spirituality of carbon.
In a recent book, The Great Work (1999), Tom Berry focuses on the most recent pages of the Story of the Universe, the last 65 million years, which opened with a devastating catastrophe when a small comet or asteroid collided with the earth and landed in the sea off the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico. This caused a traumatic extinction event and marked the end of the age of the dinosaurs. Out of the ashes of this catastrophe arose a prodigious flowering of life. Evolution went into overdrive and produced a fantastic radiation of flowering plants and trees, also of birds, mammals and bony fish. On the back of this flowering of diversity, other groups, especially the insects took advantage of the new habitats and have flourished and diversified in their turn. The Cenozoic era has seen a flourishing and abundance of life unique in the whole history of the earth. The emergence of humans is part of this story. But we are now exploiting this abundance to such an extent that the earth is now experiencing another major extinction event. The Great Work as Tom Berry sees it is to carry out a transformation from a period of human devastation of the earth to a period in which humans would be present to the planet in a benign and mutually beneficial manner.
He has something to say about the role of the university in this process. ‘The university would be the context in which the universe reflects on itself in human intelligence and communicates itself to the human community. The university would have the universe as its originating, validating, and unifying referent. Since the universe is an emergent reality the universe would be understood primarily through its story. Education at all levels would be understood as knowing the universe story and the human role in the story. The basic course in any college or university would be the story of the universe.
‘While our universities have gone through many transitions since they first came into being in the early medieval period, they have never experienced anything like the transition that is being asked of them just now. The difficulty cannot be resolved simply by establishing a course or a programme in ecology, for ecology is not a course or programme. Rather it is the foundation of all courses, all programmes and all professions because ecology is a functional cosmology…. Such a functional cosmology can exist, however, only within a university where the spirit dimension of the universe as well as its physical dimension is recognised.’
Brian Swimme & Thomas Berry. The Universe Story (HarperCollins, 1992).
Thomas Berry. The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club Books, 1990).
Thomas Berry & Thomas Clarke. Befriending the Earth (Twenty-Third Publications, 1991)
Thomas Berry. The Great Work (Bell Tower, 1999).
Thomas Berry. Evening Thoughts (Sierra Club books, 2006).
Anne Lonergan & Caroline Richards. Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology. Twenty-Third Publications, 1988.
Wendell Berry is a poet, writer and farmer.
Of particular relevance to this topic is an essay found below.
Teilhard de Chardin
Teilhard’s vision of love is a spirituality that celebrates the oneness of creation, a spirituality that acknowledges love as the clearest understanding we have of God, of ourselves, of history, and of the cosmos ~ David Tracy, theologian.
The day will come when after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire. ~ from The Evolution of Chastity
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ (French: [pjɛʁ tejaʁ də ʃaʁdɛ̃]; May 1, 1881 – April 10, 1955) was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist and geologist and took part in the discovery of Peking Man and Piltdown Man. Teilhard conceived the idea of the Omega Point (a maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which he believed the universe was evolving) and developed Vladimir Vernadsky’s concept of Noosphere. Some of his ideas came into conflict with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, particularly regarding the doctrine of Original Sin and his views concerning the origin of man. He was severely reprimanded and his works were condemned by the Holy Office.
Teilhard’s primary book, The Phenomenon of Man, set forth a sweeping account of the unfolding of the cosmos. He abandoned traditional interpretations of creation in the Book of Genesis in favor of a less strict interpretation. This displeased certain officials in the Roman Curia and in his own order who thought that it undermined the doctrine of original sin developed by Saint Augustine. Teilhard’s position was opposed by his Church superiors, and some of his work was denied publication during his lifetime by the Roman Holy Office. The 1950 encyclical Humani generis condemned several of Teilhard’s opinions while leaving other questions open. However, some of Teilhard’s views became influential in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. More recently, Pope John Paul II indicated a positive attitude towards some of Teilhard’s ideas. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned Teilhard’s idea of the universe as a “living host”
Below are two essays about Teilhard de Chardin
1. Rediscovering Fire: Religion, Science and Mysticism in Teilhard de Chardin
By Ursula King
Department of Theology and Religious Studies,
University of Bristol
(Reprinted from EarthLight, issue #39, Fall 2000
By kind permission of the Editor,K. Lauren de Boer)
PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN’S vision was one of consuming fire, kindled by the radiant powers of love. It was a mystical vision, deeply Christian in origin and orientation. Yet it broke through the boundaries of traditional orthodoxies – whether those of science or religion – and grew into a vision which is global in intent.
His deepest desire was to see the essence of things, to find their heart, and probe into the mystery of life, its origin and goal. In the rhythm of life and its evolution, at the centre of the cosmos and the world, Teilhard believed, is a divine centre, a living heart beating with the fiery energy of love and compassion. Now, the heart is really a fleshly reality. But the image of this very flesh, this concentration of living, breathing matter, came to symbolize for Teilhard the very core of the spirit.
His entire outlook on life was profoundly mystical, yet his mysticism was firmly grounded in contemporary scientific research. For Teilhard the mystic, seer, and believer, the immense research efforts and advances of contemporary science, despite their negative side effects and the new ethical problems they cause, ultimately lead to the adoration and worship of something greater than ourselves, to the celebration of and surrender to divinity, to the heart and soul of the world.
Teilhard was one of the first scientists to realize that the human and the universe are inseparable. The only universe we know about is the universe that brought forth the human. Teilhard understood this. He understood that the human story and the universe story identified with each other. The immersion into the deep creative powers of the universe is the most direct contact a human can have with the divine. Such is the spirituality that Teilhard makes available to us. A spirituality that is rooted not in the spatial cosmos of Ptolemy, but in the time-developmental universe that the scientists have detected. – Thomas Berry, geologian.
Teilhard’s ideas were developed in direct living contact with the world, especially the Earth, the stuff of the Earth. As a scientist in the fields of geology and palaeontology, he was in constant contact with the world of rocks and stones, fossils and bones, plants and animals. But he also was in touch with many different places and peoples. All of these were, for Teilhard, the tangible concrete stuff of the universe.
While he worked on his scientific papers in his laboratory and office, he created most of his religious and philosophical writings in an unusual setting different from most academics, far removed from any library. His first essays were written in the trenches of the First World War, in woods and farmhouses, whenever there was respite from battle. In later years, he often composed the final version of his essays on the long boat journeys between Asia, America, and Europe, or during vacation time in his family home in the old land.
As he wrote in his 1918 essay “My Universe”: “It seems to me that every effort I have made, even when directed to a purely natural object, has always been a religious effort. Substantially, it has been one single effort. At all times, in all I’ve done, I’m conscious that my aim has been to obtain the absolute. I would never, I believe, have had the courage to busy myself for the sake of any other end. Science, which means all form of human activity, and religion have always been one and the same thing for me. Both have been, so far as I am concerned, the pursuit of one and the same object.”
The turmoil of the war clarified his ambition. It made him realize in a new way, that matter was charged with life and spirit. He felt so deeply, so vividly, a love of matter, of life. Life is never mistaken, he said, either about its route, or its destination.
This interesting quotation points out the twofold way in which Teilhard refers to science. On one hand, he mentions specific natural sciences such as physics and chemistry (which he taught in his early years) and geology and palaeontology, which were his specialities of research. But he also understood science in a much more generalized sense: as any ordered unified effort of inquiry, and as the systematic knowledge arising from such efforts. In this way his approach to an understanding of the universe, of an ordered cosmos, was larger and more comprehensive than that of traditional science.
Teilhard believed that however much science had achieved, analysis alone, if it was not also related to synthesis, was not enough. He criticised science as often being too reductionist, too constricted by little questions without asking bigger ones about direction and meaning– and about philosophical and ethical concerns relating to our responsibilities in being human.
For Teilhard, the universe is not simply an object of scientific inquiry. It is a reality passionately loved and embraced, something alive, throbbing, and pulsating with energy and growth. He refers to the mother Earth, the terra mater, as our matrix and ground. And he refers to the Earth womb from which we grow and in which we have lasting roots; an Earth whose immensity, richness, and diversity of life he approached with deep reverence and a deep sense of wonder.
At the human level, Teilhard’s world is marked by experiences of suffering and joy, warmth and love, celebration and ecstasy. One has to be attuned to the tonality of his feeling, to the metaphors of fire and music, which he so often uses. He speaks about a note, a melody, a sound, a rhythm that beats for him at the heart of the universe. He also speaks of the spark of fire, the glow, the leaping up of flame, the blaze that sets alive and consumes. These attitudes are summed up in a passage of The Heart of Matter, where he writes; “Throughout my life, by means of my life, the world has little by little caught fire in my sight, until aflame all around me, it has become almost luminous from within. Such has been my experience in contact with the Earth. The diaphany of the divine at the heart of the universe on fire. Christ, the heart, a fire capable of penetrating everywhere, and gradually spreading everywhere.”
FORGED IN THE TRENCHES
TEILHARD FELT INSPIRED and compelled to write his first essays against the battle fires of the First World War. Almost daily at the boundary of life and death, he sensed an urgency of leaving his intellectual testament. He felt he had seen something new which he wanted to pass on to others. From the very first, he wanted to communicate the fire of his vision.
We can ask, therefore, what is this fire? How was it ignited and kept alive? What does this fire mean, and what energies and powers does it transmit? And how can we discover this fire today, kindle it in ourselves and others, feed it and keep it alive? What does he mean by discovering fire, again, a second time?
The war experience immersed him, as he himself wrote, in a baptism of fire, and proved a crucible in which the full power of this vision was forged. Five years of trench warfare brought all his different experiences together into a single process of spiritual transformation.
It is astonishing the amount of work he managed to get done between all the exhaustion of battle. With heightened sensibility (and some may say, extraordinary detachment) he went for lonely walks between battles and reflected in solitude. What was the meaning of all life, and of his own? Where was God on these fields of death and battle? What was humanity heading for? Where was it going? How did all these diverse human groups on both sides of the battle line …belong to one human family? What was the role of the Christian faith in the immense cosmic process that is the evolution of life?
He started a journal, made notes, wrote letters, and composed a series of stirring essays. He wrote them for himself, but he also wrote them for the world. For he wanted to make others see what he felt, saw, and believed. His journal contains the seeds of his thought, the initial plans for his essays, later written out with a meticulous hand in full lengths between the spells of battle. The turmoil of the war clarified his ambition. It made him realize in a new way, that matter was charged with life and spirit. He felt so deeply, so vividly, a love of matter, of life. Life is never mistaken, he said, either about its route, or its destination.
In the midst of these terrible battles of the First World War, surrounded by the experience of death, Teilhard opens his first essay with this extraordinary affirmation, “I am writing these lines from an exuberance of life, and the yearning to live. It is written to express an impassioned vision of the Earth, and in an attempt to find a solution for the doubts that beset my action. Because I love the universe, its energies, its secrets, and its hopes, and because at the same time I am dedicated to God, the only origin, the only issue, and the only end. I want to express my love of matter and life, and reconcile it, if possible, with the unique adoration of the only absolute and definitive god-head.” (“Cosmic Life” fromWritings in the Time of War.)
HARNESSING THE ENERGIES OF LOVE
THE SYMBOLISM OF FIRE was to occur in his writings again and again in the years to come. Nowhere is this vision more radiant and empowering than in the description of his mystical experiences. They truly express a vision of fire which filled him with wonder and amazement, ecstasy and joy, and made him see the world burst into flames. It is this fire which he wanted to pass on and kindle in others. His vision of fire was one of spiritual transformation drawn from the insides of both science and religion. The universe in evolution, studied in great detail in his scientific work, stimulated his zest for being. His Christian faith made him see the universal presence of Christ in all things.
Teilhard loved the Earth and its peoples. He loved his church and his order. And he was filled with the fire of love for the ever-great Christ. For him, the symbol of fire meant the warmth and radiance of love and light, the energy to fuse and transform everything. But fire is, of course, ambivalent. I t can destroy as well as transform. In Teilhard’s understanding, it is the transforming power of the energies of love which alone can create a truly human community and provide it with its strongest points. Thus, the fire of love may be the only energy capable of extinguishing the threat of another fire, namely that of universal conflagration and destruction.
He considered the phenomenon of religion as central to human evolution, and the phenomenon of spirituality as the key element in religion. At the centre of spirituality he perceived the phenomenon of mysticism, which he distinguished into different types. The core of mysticism, the most important and energizing type, was mysticism centred on love, a mysticism of action, which radiated outward and helped to transform and build up the spirit of the world.
Science, religion, and mysticism are always closely intertwined in Teilhard¹s thought, for his science is of central significance to a new mysticism of action and a new understanding of the world. This mysticism of action is the mysticism of unification, of bringing everything, all the diverse elements (the cosmic, human, and divine) together. It is a mysticism of transformation and of sanctification, where holiness is understood as wholeness.
Just a few days before his death, Teilhard wrote his last six pages, which are entitled “Research, Work, and Adoration.” One might consider this text his last intellectual testament. In it, he speaks of the conflict between science and religion ― and its solution. He refers to the fire of a new faith in the human, to be combined with religious faith.
Teilhard endeavoured to seek an ultimate coherence for our manyfold experiences and quests, and tried to convey a vision greater than what either traditional religion or science alone can offer us. From this perspective, religion and mysticism are part of the human search for union ― or communion ― with God via the evolutionary process of the growth and unification of the world. All human efforts, whether scientific or religious, whether action or contemplation, must finally lead to worship, adoration, and ultimately greater unity.
If mysticism, especially the mysticism of love, is the very heart of religion, it must provide us with the deepest springs of energy for both action and interaction with others. It cannot be a mere spirit duality, but must stand for spirit-in-and-through-matter mentality. Spiritual development and religious experience are best seen as closely interrelated with and inseparable from our human experience in general. F. C. Happold has remarked that for Teilhard, human activity in all its forms was capable of divinization. And therefore he described Teilhard’s mysticism “as a mysticism of action, action springing from the inspiration of a universe seen as moved and com-penetrated by God in the totality of its evolution…this is a new type of mysticism, the result of a profound, lifelong reconciling meditation on religious and scientific truth, and it is thus of immense relevance and significance for a scientific age such as ours.” (Mysticism. Pelican Books, London, 1978, p. 395.)
This is an indication of the importance of this global prophet. But this assessment leaves out the living fire which animated Teilhard’s Christian mysticism, summed up by him as a heart of fire, as “a fire with the power to penetrate all things, which invites a surrender to an active feeling of communion with God through the universe.”
Ursula King is professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Bristol, England, where she directs the Centre for Comparative Studies in Religion and Gender. She has been a student of Teilhard¹s works for more than thirty years and was one of the founders of the British Teilhard Association.
2. Teilhard de Chardin and Beyond
by Victor Anderson
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a Catholic theologian, disapproved of by the Vatican, who turned out to be one of the great prophetic voices of the 20th Century. We could say that in some ways he understood more deeply than anyone else what the 20th Century was about, and where it fitted in to the long trajectory of life from its beginnings on this planet to our own time and beyond.
Teilhard de Chardin was a palaeontologist, someone who studies prehistoric life. For many years he took part in fossil expeditions in China, and investigated geology. From his study of prehistory, he built up a vision of the evolutionary process as a whole, including the history and future of the human species. That vision encompassed an understanding of what we now call “globalisation”, the increasing interdependence of different parts of the human species in the different parts of the world.
Teilhard was born in 1881 in central France. His parents were pious Catholics, and his father was a small-scale gentleman farmer with an interest in natural history. At the age of 10, he became a boarder in a Jesuit college.
He joined the Jesuit Order itself at the age of 17, and was ordained just outside Hastings, where he studied theology. During his 20s he united his study of theology with his study of natural history, developing the basic vision he was later to elaborate. He combined these interests through becoming Professor of Geology at the Catholic Institute of Paris.
In 1924 he was forbidden to continue teaching students, and forbidden to address public meetings, because of what the Vatican considered unorthodox and unacceptable views. He was also forbidden to have his books published during his lifetime, and was required to spend long periods in exile from France, one of the reasons he did so much work as a palaeontologist in China. He was committed to remaining a Catholic and Jesuit, and in order to remain within the fold, he obediently accepted these restrictions.
The book he wrote which had the greatest impact, The Phenomenon of Man, was not published until 1955, the year he died, even though the manuscript was completed in 1940.
The Phenomenon of Man is a book about evolution, which he describes as “a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow”, and as “a light illuminating all facts”1. He calls it “a single and continuing trajectory”2 and “a constantly rising tide”3, predominating over all short-term setbacks and variations.
The most important long-term trend within evolution as a whole is towards greater complexity. There is a trend towards greater complexity in matter, beginning even before living things, and then greater complexity in the development of life. Intertwined with increasing complexity there is increasing consciousness. The two aspects, “the interior” and “the exterior”, go together in what he calls “the great law of complexity and consciousness.”4
Teilhard’s view provides a clear sense of direction, an overall scheme within which many things can be understood. He argues that developments which have not fitted this long-term trend have not persisted, and that we can discern what will and will not persist in the developments of today by seeing which are compatible, and which incompatible, with this dual evolution of increased complexity and greater consciousness.
With human beings, consciousness reaches a new stage. Self-consciousness and abstract thought arrive, and through them, our species develops science, art, technology, and religion. Teilhard calls the sphere of interconnected human thought, linking individuals and different parts of the world, the “noosphere”, distinct from, though growing out of, the pre-existing spheres of the geosphere (the Earth) and the biosphere.
The development of humans is, for Teilhard, in line with the long-run trend towards greater complexity and greater consciousness. He describes it as being on the “privileged axis”5 of evolution. And within the process of human evolution, there is evidence that some parts of human development, and some parts of the world, are on the “privileged axis” and others are not. The Christian West is destined to take the lead, with other religions and forms of life being drawn into its orbit.6
What is all this leading to? “The Omega Point”, as Teilhard envisages it, is a point which will eventually be reached through the continuation of existing trends. Interdependence and increasing unity of consciousness will bring with them the increasing power of love, along with greater consciousness and the increasing power of the human will and ability to take action, expressed largely through advances in technology.
The evolutionary process therefore combines growth at the individual level – involving greater consciousness and sense of self – with growth at the collective level too.
In analysing Teilhard’s thought, it is important to recognise, despite its visionary and future-oriented nature, that it is rooted in traditional Christian theology. Like the good Catholic he was, his writings see the cosmos as one single whole, moving in a particular direction. There is no room here for the temptations of “meaninglessness” or “randomness” or relativism. It all makes sense.
His “Omega Point” sounds a lot like God, even though it is a God which has manifested through time, and partly through the actions of human beings.7
His view of evolution is also grounded very much in Christianity, which – despite parts of it opposing evolutionary ideas – is a religion of incarnation in history, a history with a pattern, running from the Creation, through Garden of Eden and the Crucifixion, to the Kingdom ofHeaven. That sense of development makes Christian culture uniquely suited, in Teilhard’s view, to be the soil in which the idea of evolution takes root. Christianity is therefore not inherently antagonistic to evolutionary ideas, as some have argued, but is in a strong sense the basis of them, and so there is a stronger compatibility between evolution and Christianity than there is between evolution and all the other religions.
Another aspect of the incarnational nature of Christianity, the doctrine that God was physically incarnated in this world, is the view that the material world has a spiritual reality and significance. It therefore follows that human actions in the material world, such as work, politics, and family life, all have a spiritual significance.
Teilhard shares the traditional Christian view that Eastern religions have encouraged passivity, fatalism, and rejection of the material world, and are therefore inferior to Christianity. He also argues, however, that Eastern religions have contributed to the evolutionary process through developing profound forms of mysticism at an earlier period than these were developed in the West.
However there is a great deal about Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas which have made him interesting to people outside Christianity. His mystical sense of the unity of all life, including through time, is shared with other traditions, such as forms of Buddhism, paganism, and Sufism. The scope and scale of what his thinking encompasses are inspiring to many who seek a view of the world bigger than simply human history alone.
His sense that the material world, and human actions within it, are significant is widely shared, and interestingly provides a way of seeing a greater significance in politics than is often immediately apparent. This was one of the reasons why Teilhard’s thought proved influential in Christian-Marxist dialogue in the 1960s, for example through the writings of the leading French Communist Party intellectual Roger Garaudy.8
The framework Teilhard set out provides a means of locating and understanding a wide range of current historical phenomena. These include globalisation, and associated with it, the postmodern availability of ideas and styles from all times and places, and the growing power of information and communication technologies. His writings about the first half of the 20th Century, in which he sees totalitarianism, of both fascist and Stalinist varieties, as a sort of crude form of collectivism not properly rooted in the individual personality, provide an interesting basis for thinking about totalitarianism’s rise and fall, and why it didn’t last. His view of humanity’s evolutionary continuity with other life forms also provides a fruitful basis for thinking about key current problems such as climate change and the extinction of species.
His scheme of ideas is a flexible one: although he provides a particular picture, it lends itself to being adapted for other purposes, emphasising one or other element. This has given his thinking a great deal of influence, amongst not only those who consciously follow his thought, but also amongst many who have read the writers he has influenced, without necessarily being particularly aware of where their basic ideas came from. For example, Teilhard de Chardin was a major influence on Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme (e.g. in their wonderful book, The Universe Story)9, Marshall McLuhan (e.g. in Understanding Media)10, and Peter Russell (Awakening Earth)11.
At the same time, however, Teilhard de Chardin’s thinking is deeply problematic, even though some of those he has influenced have adapted it positively and creatively ways. This has been achieved partly through interpreting his works in a way which turns a blind eye to their frequently expressed Catholic piety, emphasising instead his scientific and historical vision.
Berry and Swimme have made an ecological philosophy out of this stream of thought, but that was not Teilhard’s own emphasis.12 He underplays the fragility inherent in humanity’s dependence on the biosphere at a time when human activity is increasingly destructive. His discussion of evolution and progress expresses a technological triumphalism which is out of place now, though much more in tune with the mood of the times when he was writing, in the first half of the 20th Century.
An extreme example of his optimism about technology is this welcome he gave to the atom bomb: “For all their military trappings, the recent [nuclear] explosions … proclaim the coming of the Spirit of the Earth”.13
His version of evolution is one in which humanity is central to such an extent that he describes most animal phyla (other than the vertebrates) as “a thicket of abortive branches”14.
Although his theology provides a basis for valuing family life, personal relationships, human love, and embodiment in the material world, he argued in favour of the doctrine of chastity, which he saw as part of the process of human love becoming less dependent on the flesh. His own relationships were lived according to this doctrine, including his long-standing Platonic friendship with American artist Lucile Swan.
He obediently accepted, throughout his life, the restrictions on his writing and speaking placed on him by the Catholic Church, restrictions which many other people would have taken as sure evidence of the need to leave the Church.15
Like some other evolutionary thinkers, such as Ken Wilber, he has not written about capitalism or analysed the extent to which the dynamics of the capitalist economy shape the development of science, technology, communications, and politics. “Progress” is seen as almost an autonomous agent of change, rather than being structured and organised by particular economic systems at different times and stages of development.
He wrote at a great distance from the politics of his time, largely because he was in exile studying fossils in China at a time when his fellow French intellectuals were debating existentialism, Marxism, fascism and so on. He was therefore ill-equipped to contribute in a well-informed way to some of the issues of his time – although perhaps his distance from them has made him better equipped to contribute to the debates of our own time.
His emphasis on evolution, though inspirational in the sweep of its big picture, brings with it the danger of downplaying cyclical factors, such as the seasons, which are celebrated in neopagan and other calendars, and archetypal factors, such as those explored in Greek mythology and Tarot.
However, the various thinkers whose work has been influenced by Teilhard demonstrate some strategies for adapting and adjusting his framework of ideas, and making something more whole out of them. For example, his view of humanity’s evolution out of other species can be turned into an ecological view of our continued dependence, without doing too much violence to his basic ideas. His optimistic view of technological progress could also be tempered by a sense that technology is always shaped, and to some extent limited, by the specific nature of the economic system in which it develops. Similarly, his sense of what we now call “globalisation” is compatible with, and in some ways finds a fuller expression in, a universalism about the different contributions being made by different cultures and religions, rather than the Western and Christian emphasis which Teilhard himself had.
In all these and many other ways, we can “make our own Teilhard”. The most influential thinkers are the ones who leave us the materials from which to create new thoughts of our own.
1. Teilhard de Chardin: The Phenomenon of Man (Harper & Row). 2nd ed 1965, page 219.
2. ibid, page 34.
3. ibid, page 101.
4. ibid, page 61.
5. ibid. page 142.
6. ibid, page 296.
7. Some similarities here with the philosophy of Hegel. See Emil L Fackenheim: The Religious Dimension in Hegel’s Thought (University of Chicago Press 1967).
8. See Roger Garaudy: From Anathema to Dialogue (Collins 1967).
9. Thomas Berry & Brian Swimme: The Universe Story (Penguin 1994). A similar view, linked with James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis rather than with Teilhard de Chardin, is set out in Elisabet Sahtouris:“Gaia: the human journey from chaos to cosmos (Simon & Schuster 1989).
10. Marshall McLuhan: Understanding Media (Sphere 1967). In the Introduction, he says: “Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporatedly extended to the whole of human society …” (page 11).
11. Peter Russell: “Awakening Earth” (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1982).
12. Thomas Berry was President of the American Teilhard Association. See Thomas Berry:Teilhard in the Ecological Age (American Teilhard Association for the Future of Man 1982). See also Sarah McFarland Taylor: Green Sisters (Harvard University Press 2007).
13.Teilhard de Chardin: “The Future of Man” (Collins 1964), page 147.
14. Teilhard de Chardin: “The Phenomenon of Man”, page 132.
15. See Matthew Fox: Confessions: the making of a postdenominational priest (HarperCollins 1997). This includes Fox’s account of why, in circumstances in some ways similar to those faced by Teilhard de Chardin, he did decide to leave the Roman Catholic Church
Francis of Assisi
Brother Sun and Sister Moon – The Spiritual Vision of Francis of Assisi
The Canticle of Brother Sun
Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Praised be You, my Lord,
through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.
Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy willl,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.
On Easter Sunday 1980 Pope John Paul II declared Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of ecology and the philosopher Henryk Skolimowski has declared that “We need a new light to brighten up our present sombre horizons. The light of ecological spirituality, guided and inspired by the visions and simplicity of Saint Francis offers us a promising new perspective as we enter the twenty-first century and indeed the Third Millennium.”
It is likely that each one of us has experienced the sense of awe and wonder that is evoked by the beauty of the natural world. A wonderful sunrise or sunset, a starry night, a rainbow or the radiance of a field of sunflowers, for example, can move, inspire, and even overwhelm us. Such experiences capture our attention and elicit positive feelings and emotions. They can be described as ‘wonderful’ because they are beautiful, amazing, and even breathtaking. In his celebrated Canticle of the Sun, his song of praise to God as Creator, Francis appears to be overwhelmed by the vibrancy, energy and dynamism of the whole of nature; the sun, moon, stars, wind, air, water and fire. He responds to the whole of creation with spontaneity, joy and celebration. Francis perceives the whole of life as being a medium through which the Divine is revealed. For Francis, the creation, the web of life, forms an interactive, relational cosmic dance, it is iconic. Creation is revelatory; it is a vehicle of Transcendence. In his Canticle Francis approaches the Divine with reverence, respect, devotion, submission and humility, as being the source, the ground of being, of all life. Francis praises God for “… sister moon and every star that You have formed to shine …” and he acknowledges that wind, air, breezes and clouds “… To everyone that breathes You give a share.” Francis felt inspired to create a musical melody to complement the words of his Canticle which Franciscan Friars would sing as they ventured into the towns and villages like travelling minstrels, troubadours, teaching and preaching. After singing the Canticle one of the Brothers would declare to the people: “We are the wandering minstrels of God, and the only reward we ask is that you live a life of true penitence.!
Brother Ramon SSF has suggested that in the Canticle of the Sun “Praise of the cosmos is also the symbolic, unconsciously spoken language that expresses the interior journeys of the depths of the soul.” In this perspective the Canticle has more than one level of meaning. On one level it presents a celebratory affirmation of nature but on another level it reflects Francis’ deep contemplative reverential encounter with God. The Canticle, therefore, has internal and external dimensions; its terms of reference simultaneously relates the inner experience of the human spirit to the world in which we live and to the sense of something Other, the Beyond in our midst. Francis’ understanding of creation as an expression of the Divine affirms Christianity’s incarnational and sacramental tradition in which matter, physicality, embodiment, is the medium through which God is revealed. This perspective confirms the book of Genesis’ recognition of creation as a positive event: “And God saw that it was good.”
Ultimately, Francis’ song of praise celebrating the whole of creation and its origins in God should not be seen simply as a poetic, pastoral, romantic celebration of life. It is all of these things but it also articulates deep theological, philosophical, spiritual and ethical perspectives about the way things are, about the very nature of human existence and about the place of humankind in relation to other living creatures and to the wider cosmos. In the modern world it is imperative that we explore anew Francis’ relational way of seeing the world as it can be suggested that it is able to provide an inspiring framework from which to begin a process of identifying the practical action which can follow from the belief that we have a moral responsibility for the fragile planet in which we live which is, according to many commentators, on the point of ecological and economic collapse. All of the world’s faiths, including Christianity, have to engage proactively with this task. Indeed, there is a view that ecological transformation, in its widest sense, can be regarded as the most urgent priority of the Church’s mission; it is not an optional ethical extra but is central to what it means to be a community of faith in the modern world.
Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio
One of the most well-known and well-loved stories about Francis’ life is that of the wolf of Gubbio. While he was staying in the mountain town of Gubbio, Francis was told that a large fierce wolf was on the prowl, killing and eating animals and even attacking people. The citizens of Gubbio were living in fear of the wolf as a result of which they became increasingly reluctant to venture out of the city gate. However, Francis, putting his trust in Christ, went out of the city with a friend to meet the wolf. Crowds watched as the wolf came running towards him. Francis made the sign of the cross and said “Come to me, brother wolf, and in Christ’s name I command you not to harm me or anybody.” At this the wolf ceased his advance and he lowered his head and lay at Francis’ feet. Francis asked the wolf to make a promise not to terrorise the people of Gubbio ever again in return for which the people would care for him by providing him with the food he needed. Francis said to him: “… brother wolf, I want you and them to make peace so that they may be no more harmed by you, nor the hounds further pursue you, The wolf demonstrated his agreement to this proposal by the submissive and conciliatory movements of his body, tail and ears and the bowing of his head placing his paw into Francis’ hand. The people of Gubbio were amazed at what they believed to be a miracle.
This story, with its presentation of an example of harmony between Francis and the natural world, including those aspects of creation which challenge and frighten us, can, upon first reading, appear to present a child-like, naive, view of the Franciscan way. It can appear to suggest an idealised view of the world in which, ultimately, life’s tensions and challenges are resolved and the world is restored to order. However, there is another way of looking at the story. The story of Francis and the wolf is presented in “The Little Flowers of Saint Francis”, a medieval Italian manuscript, which includes stories, teachings and aphorisms illustrating the life of Francis and his followers. What can be regarded as being the key to understanding the profound insights and truth of the story can be located in Francis’ request that the wolf should make peace with the people of Gubbio. I suggest that “making peace” is what this story is, at its heart, about. Francis is recognising that the citizens of Gubbio and the wolf were polarised; they regarded each other as enemies. The people were afraid of the wolf’s capacity to hurt them and the wolf was afraid that he would be hounded down, captured and killed. The wolf and the people, therefore, lived in mutual suspicion and mistrust and there appeared to be no hope of breaking this cycle of negativity and violence. However, things only began to change when Francis made the courageous proactive decision, inspired by his faith, to address the situation and try to bring about reconciliation. Central to his approach to resolution and reconciliation was a non-violent approach in which he took the risk of being attacked by the wolf. However, the wolf appears to recognise that Francis does not fear him and is a man of peace; this is not what the wolf would have expected. The story also makes it clear that Francis presents the people of Gubbio with a challenge; he requires them to promise that they will provide the wolf with his daily necessities. This accord between the people and the wolf is sealed by making the “welkin ring acclaiming the peace of wolf and people” as a result of which the people were able to live in safety and the wolf lived like a ward of the state. When he grew old and died the citizens mourned him. The phrase to “make the welkin ring” derives from the Old English word “wolcen” which refers to the sky, the firmament, the heavens. To “make the welkin ring”, therefore, is to make a sound so loud that it is almost as if it permeates the entire universe. The celebratory declaration of peace between the wolf and the people of Gubbio is not simply an ending of hostilities, the absence of conflict; rather, it is the joyous anthemic affirmation, a song of praise and thanksgiving, reflecting the outcome of a positive process of active peace-making which involves negotiation, the letting go of assumed identities and claims to power followed by a declaration of mutual support and a shared way forward. Making the welkin ring, therefore, illustrates that, from a Franciscan perspective, non-violence, peace-making, has a cosmic dimension. The story of Francis and the wolf presents the powerful idea that reconciliation has cosmic implications; there is a relationship between the ways in which human beings relate to themselves, to each other and to other creatures and this fundamentally impacts upon the nature of reality, the very structure of the universe. In this perspective, therefore, all things that exist are interrelated and interdependent. The very fabric of the cosmos and the web of life are adversely affected by conflict and violence in all its many and varied forms and, conversely, creation flourishes when peace, justice, harmony, ecological responsibility and well-being prevail. Actions have consequences; what is sown is reaped. Francis, therefore, recalls us to a (re)discovery of Jesus’ non-violent ethics of the Kingdom of God; the challenge of the Franciscan spiritual vision is located in its power to call us to the actualisation of this way of being in all areas of life: personal and social, in the family and the community, in our country and internationally so that economics, politics, education, spirituality, the arts, science and technology can begin to transcend their increasingly narrow and shallow definitions of what constitutes well-being, happiness and personal fulfilment. Francis, echoing Jesus, reminds us that it is by letting go of our false selves, by refusing to hide behind our titles and status, abandoning what is ephemeral and inauthentic, that we can discover who we truly are. When the almost overwhelming significance of the Biblical idea that each human being is made in the image of God, that in each person we are presented with the face of Christ, is truly understood it will be possible to begin to create a just, peaceful and ecologically transformed future.
‘Saint Francis Explored’ – an essay by by Kelvin Ravenscroft
(Bradford Cathedral 4 October 2010)
Janusz Korczak wrote: “An educator who does not enforce but sets free, does not drag but uplifts, does not crush but shapes, does not dictate but instructs, does not demand but requests, will experience inspired moments with the child.”
In this declaration from his work “How To Love A Child”, Korczak acknowledges that at the heart of the process of teaching and learning is the capacity for students and teachers to be inspired. Inspiration can be defined as “being stimulated to creative thought or action”. To be inspired means to be motivated, energised and animated to engage positively and creatively with something which has meaning and significance. We are inspired by that which has the capacity to connect with us deeply. We can be inspired by, for example, a work of art, a piece of music, a film, by the beauty and wonder of the natural world, by someone or something we love or by the example of great effort, achievement and acts of compassion. Korczak is affirming that education, the art of teaching and learning, pedagogy, is ultimately about relationship, encounter and engagement with others and the world in which we live.
The experience of Janusz Korczak and his orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto of Nazi-occupied Poland was located in the context of an apocalyptic vision of a world which appeared to have gone mad. The old order had been subverted and a chilling ideology was systematically and clinically defining millions of people as undesirable, as being less than human, for whom the only fate was certain death.
In his ‘Ghetto Diary’ Korczak declared: “Thank you, Merciful Lord, for the meadow and the bright sunsets, for the refreshing evening breeze after a hot day of toil and struggle.Thank you, Merciful Lord, for having arranged so wisely to provide flowers with fragrance, glow worms with the glow, and make the stars in the sky sparkle.”
Korczak is offering a prayer of thanksgiving for the beauties of the earth. His cosmic gratitude is rooted in an appreciation of the natural world which, despite the sufferings of life, presents to him a hopeful vision of beauty and joy. Korczak’s contemplation, reflection and meditation were undertaken in the midst of the challenging life of the orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto at a time when the lives of he and his children hung in the balance. The future was most uncertain. Despite this Korczak took the time to mindfully and attentively focus not solely on the challenges, stresses and strains of running the orphanage but, instead, he took the time to be grateful for each positive aspect of the children’s existence. He said a glorious Yes! to life when it would have been understandable for him to have been ground down by the daily challenges he and his children faced.
Grigory Pomerants, the Russian dissident, essayist and philosopher has affirmed what he calls ‘the still small voice from the great silence’ and he has declared that the ‘Old Adam turns away from the kind of contemplation and silence in which the deeper interior whisper can be heard’. Like Korczak, Pomerants affirms the power of being attentive, mindful and fully aware in the present moment even (perhaps especially) when all around you the world appears to be falling apart. Indeed, Pomerants has indicated that what kept him going, what gave him hope, a reason for living, during his time spent in the labour camps of the Gulag was the midnight sun in the far-North of the Soviet Union and of the beauties of nature. Despite the Gulag’s challenges Pomerant’s life affirms that a contemplative vision can enable people to ‘discern the footprint of God, the essential thread in all things.’
Central to Korczak’s vision, and at the heart of his legacy is the recognition that in a world of unpredictability, uncertainty, and even chaos, it is imperative to attempt to create inspirational oases of calm, order and structure which provide a foundation for the possibility of facilitating meaning and hope for the future. Even in the darkest situation there is the possibility of discerning meaning and hope, however imperceptible this might appear to be. In the world of the 21st century, with its significant challenges and opportunities, Korczak’s recognition of the requirement to create order out of chaos, meaning out of meaninglessness, to create a sanctuary, is to be taken seriously.
Amidst the trials and tribulations of the Ghetto experience with the possibility of death an ever-present reality, Korczak recognised and affirmed the requirement to create and maintain an atmosphere and an ethos of structure, order, discipline, calm and beauty, and he recognised that a response to, and relationship with, the natural world can act as an inspiration and as a catalyst for hope. Although Korczak could easily have become overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges he faced he was resolutely determined to give the children in his care a meaningful experience of life rooted in a wider connection with the natural world, however limited this may understandably have been.
The ‘Ghetto Diary’ presents Janusz Korczak’s powerful and poignant observations, meditations and reflections upon the experience of life with his orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto. It contains wide ranging reflections upon the joy and pain, the challenges and opportunities, presented by existence. In his ‘Ghetto Diary’ Korczak poignantly looks back upon his life and he reflects upon significant experiences, including those of his childhood, which have impacted upon his development and he is mindful of the detail of the joys and pains, the challenges and opportunities, the despair and the hopes, which the children in his care experience.
In a profound sense the ‘Ghetto Diary’ is a book of memory in which Korczak attempts to make sense of his life in relation to his vocation as a children’s advocate. In Polish, a diary, a book of memory, is known as a pamietnik. There is a very real sense in which a pamietnik, however, is not simply a factual time-line recording of events but is also a reflection and commentary upon event, upon memory. As a literary genre, therefore, it is a creative synthesis of historical and existential reflection. The past and the present are inextricably interwoven and interrelated. In addition, through their capacity to challenge, illuminate and inspire, pamietniks are not only the reflections of a specific individual or community, they can assume a universal aspect. The memories, dreams and reflections of one person can become the story of every woman and man. There is a profound sense, therefore, in which the experience of Janusz Korczak and his orphans can be regarded as a powerful illustration of the contradictions and paradoxes of the human condition and the capacity of human beings to embrace political, economic and religious extremism. The fate of Korczak and his orphans reminds us, in the early years of the 21st century, of the imperative to take steps to avoid entering a new Dark Ages in which prejudice and discrimination, stereotyping and scapegoating, injustice, extremism and conflict reassert themselves.
Throughout history humankind has engaged with questions of meaning, purpose and value, particularly with reference to the dark nights of the soul which can arise in response to the existence of evil and suffering. Indeed, in the ancient Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes the writer declares: “I have seen everything that is under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (1:14)
The spiritual traditions of the world can be regarded as living, dynamic, organic networks of relationships in which the past, present and future are understood with reference to an Ultimate concern, a Transcendent framework, a Divine reality, which, in some sense, provides a reconciliation of the tensions which exist between the real and the ideal, between life as it is and life as it could be, between the life shattering experience of evil and suffering and the life-affirming experience of joy, love, beauty, truth, justice and peace. Spiritual traditions are, therefore, in a very real sense, living pamietniks; they engage the individual and the communities to which they belong in a process of relating their traditions to contemporary experience. Spiritual traditions have, ultimately, to be living traditions; they have to engage the real lives and experiences of real people in the real world with the insights and wisdoms of the past. In this way, the past, present and future are inextricably linked; the “modern”, therefore, does not exist in isolation because it is rooted in what has gone before it. Indeed, both the “modern” and the “post-modern” can only exist on the foundations of what has preceded them. Modern spiritualities, therefore, have to take seriously the roots of their traditions. To be a radical means to be a person of roots, who is able to creatively engage with the challenges of contemporary society through being immersed in a tradition which has preceded them. To be a radical provides the freedom to embrace both tradition and the modern and hold them in a creative tension. The twentieth century provided us with many examples of spiritual radicals such as, for example, Martin Luther King, Thich Nhat Hahn, the Dalai Lama, Daisetz Suzuki, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Buber, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Simone Weil, Dorothy Day and Dag Hammarskjold who all illustrated that dark periods in human history elicit in us the capacity to actualise an alternative way characterised by peace, justice and ecological responsibility.
The insights of spiritual traditions are also powerfully complemented by the creative insights into existence elucidated by, for example, poets, novelists, painters, sculptors, musicians and filmmakers and it can be suggested that the power of great art resides, ultimately, in its capacity to empower and inspire us to begin to make sense of our place in the world and to locate us in a meaningful network of relationships and in an authentic connection with the physical space, the environment, in which we live. Spiritual traditions and the creative impulse, complemented by the powerful and majestic insights of scientific and technological discovery, can provide the resources to engage with the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s view that existence is characterised by anxiety, despair, abandonment and forlornness.
A poignant and moving example of the capacity of the creative impulse to engage with human experience and particularly in its attempt to illuminate suffering is presented in the composer Mychael Danna’s soundtrack to the film “Ararat”. Track 2 of the soundtrack is based upon an ancient melody which symbolises the words of Jesus upon the cross to his mother Mary: ‘Dear woman, here is your Son’.
In the Armenian Orthodox Church, the night from Maundy Thursday to Good Friday is kept as a vigil and a profound and solemn period of devotional prayer, contemplation, meditation and reflection. This is known as the night of the Tenebrae, during which sin, evil and death predominate. At this point the world, which appears to prefer darkness to light, has its way. Choosing to remain in darkness, men choose to destroy the light. At midnight, the lights of the Church are extinguished one by one until the congregation kneels in total darkness. Echoing Sartre’s analysis of the human condition and Janusz Korczak’s death with his orphans at the hands of the Nazis at the concentration camp of Treblinka in August 1942, this is a time of sorrow, destitution, forlornness, anguish and abandonment.
In a world in which joy and pain, disappointment and hope, co-exist in what can seem, at times, to be a powerful yet paradoxical, irrational and meaningless combination, it is understandable why people ask what can possibly be an authentic response to the political economic, ecological and spiritual challenges which face the human race and the planet on which we are, ultimately, travellers, pilgrims and stewards. This evening I wish to suggest that within the Christian faith there exists a radical spiritual tradition which can be (re)discovered and reflected upon which has the potential to provide the inspiration for us to be empowered to live meaningful lives in an increasingly unpredictable and uncertain world. It is the Franciscan tradition which will be the focus of tonight’s exploration and this tradition will be considered with particular reference to its meaning as a catalyst for ecological transformation together with its implications for justice and peace.
I have made reference earlier to the concept of pamietnik as a creative literary genre. In effect, this evening’s exploration of the spiritual vision of Francis of Assisi is a contemporary form of pamietnik in the sense that it interweaves historical exploration with existential and spiritual reflection; it attempts to relate the past to the present with a view to contributing to a process of considering ways in which the life, spirituality and legacy of Saint Francis can impact upon our lives in the early years of the 21st century and inspire and motivate us to live authentic, engaged and transformed lives.
This evening aims to stimulate further exploration and discussion of the Franciscan tradition. It cannot attempt to present a detailed, comprehensive and definitive analysis of the origins and development of Franciscanism nor can it illustrate Francis’ radical spiritual vision with an in depth reference to his spiritual biography. However, what it can try to do is illustrate key themes of Franciscan spirituality in order to facilitate reflection upon what they can mean for today’s world.
Francis was born in Assisi in 1181 or 1182 the son of a prosperous cloth merchant, Pietro Bernadone. Pietro was travelling in France when his son was born. Although Pietro’s wife, the Lady Pica (who herself was born in France, in Provence) named her new son Giovanni (John), when Pietro returned to Assisi with the profits of his trading, he decided to name his son Francesco, Francis, in response to his successful French commercial ventures. Indeed, French language and culture were to influence Francis deeply, in particular the traditions of the wandering troubadours. Until his early twenties Francis lived a privileged life. As a young man he became part of a group of wealthy young men known as the Tripudianti who displayed an epicurean approach to life enjoying food, wine, singing and dancing and flirting with beautiful young women. Francis became known as the King of Feasts as he and his peers processed through the streets of Assisi singing and dancing. Francis aspired to honour and fame but he did not really have a clear view about the manner in which he would achieve this. He attempted to realise his ambitions by participating in the war with Perugia but he was taken prisoner and imprisoned for over a year. Upon his release he returned to Assisi but he suffered from significant ill-health. A long period of recuperation and soul-searching combined to provide a space in which a new sense of meaning and purpose could begin to emerge. Despite the failure of his involvement in the Perugian conflict Francis still wished to pursue military ambitions so he enlisted as a soldier in the war between the Papal armies and the Emperor Frederick II’s armies at Apulia. Whilst travelling to battle he heard a voice calling him to follow and serve God and to return to his homeland. This experience marked the end of his career as a soldier and the beginning of the process of his spiritual awakening.
Francis struggled with his spiritual identity; at this stage he did not have a clear sense of what his vocation should be. He spent much time in prayer at the Etruscan tombs outside Assisi reflecting, often in tears, about the direction of his life. Outside Assisi was the Church of San Damiano, which was in a state of serious disrepair. Francis prayed at the Church and he heard a voice saying “Francis, rebuild my Church.” This revelation provided him with a mission and a role and he entered enthusiastically into the renovation of San Damiano. Francis returned to his parents’ house and he loaded a horse, belonging to his father, with a collection of fine cloth which he sold at market. He wished to donate the money he raised to the rebuilding of San Damiano. Pietro Bernadone was incensed that his son had taken the horse and cloth without permission and he made the decision to present Francis to the magistrate at Assisi. However, Francis refused to submit to the summons as he believed that as he was a man dedicated to God he should only be subject to the Bishop. A hearing took place at the Cathedral in Assisi at which Bishop Guido encouraged Francis to repay the money to his father. In response to this Francis took off all the clothes he was wearing and, completely naked, he placed the clothes in front of the Bishop. Although this act could be seen as being simultaneously provocative and courageous, it can be regarded as being a statement that Francis’ developing spiritual vision, his way of seeing the world, was in stark contrast to the power and wealth of the Church. Through this act Francis was proclaiming that, just as Jesus had been vulnerable and had, as Saint Paul declared in his letter to the Church at Philippi, “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant”, to be a follower of Christ requires setting aside, letting go, of everything which inhibits our capacity to live and love a life which embodies the spirituality of the Kingdom of God, the ethics of the Beatitudes which affirm that blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Francis’ emerging spiritual vision had at its heart the recognition that to be a Christian, a follower and disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, is a counter-cultural, dare one even say, revolutionary, act because it inspires and empowers the development of new ways of seeing the world in which the established conventions are challenged and subverted and replaced with a spirituality and ethics of love, compassion, peace, justice and ecological transformation.
Embarking enthusiastically on his new vocation and mission, within two years Francis had restored three churches, including the Portiuncula, the Chapel of St Mary of the Angels, and gained twelve followers, the first disciple being Bernard of Quintavalle. The Franciscan brotherhood grew rapidly and within eleven years there were over five thousand all of whom took a vow of poverty. This brotherhood became known as the First Order of Saint Francis. Francis also founded the Order of Poor Clares in honour of their first abbess. The Order of Poor Clares became known as the Second Order of Saint Francis. Clare was a beautiful young woman from a noble Assisi family who relinquished her inheritance in order to follow the way of Francis and to live a life of poverty. She cut her hair and wore simple clothes symbolising her new way of life in which she became a spiritual companion, a soul friend, to Francis. It can be suggested that Clare’s deep devotional spirituality and her bond with Francis profoundly impacted upon the development of Franciscanism; indeed, her contribution to Franciscan spirituality has all too often been overlooked and underappreciated and there is a need for her significance to be reassessed. That task, however, is for another day …
In due course a Third Order was established. The Third Order admitted both sexes and provided those who wished to continue living their secular lives the opportunity to follow the Franciscan way through adoption of a Rule of Life inspired by Franciscan principles. The first lay brother was Lord Orlando of Chiusi in Castantino who donated to the Franciscan community Mount La Verna, which was the location upon which, in due course, Francis would receive the stigmata. All of the three Franciscan Orders spread widely and rapidly and they all continue to this day.
In their song ‘Book of Golden Stories’ the Celtic group Runrig declare:
“You took me through the pages
Good happiness is shared
Lost in a web of changes
This could be the last dance
Waiting in the wind
Until the minstrel comes to save us.”
In his reverential and revolutionary understanding of the cosmos Francis of Assisi, God’s minstrel, inspires us to keep still believing, to be able to see the miraculous in our midst, the extraordinary in the ordinary, the sacred in the profane.
Francis’ devotion to God and his recognition that life is, ultimately, miraculous resulted in a profound change in perception, a radically new way of looking at the world, which led to a transformed sense of self involving a heightened awareness of the responsibility for making authentic moral choices. Francis’ decision to embrace a life of poverty was the beginning of a lifetime of living according to the radical demands of Jesus’ life-affirming ethic of the Kingdom. In Francis’ life moral responsibility is reflected in compassionate concern which is translated into action on behalf of those who are in physical, mental, emotional or spiritual need.
Francis’ celebration of the presence of God permeating the whole of the cosmos and its profound ecological significance and implications is complemented by a deep sense of justice. His understanding of justice is rooted in his decision to renounce his life of privilege in order to live in radical simplicity unencumbered by personal possessions. Francis recognised that the age in which he lived was a time of deep social divisions. Great wealth, concentrated in the hands of the privileged few, existed alongside deep poverty. There were many who where marginalised and excluded from mainstream society. Director Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 neo-realist film “Francis, God’s Jester”, which presents a series of episodes from the life of Francis and his disciples, illustrating the harshness and brutality of the times in which they lived, includes a most powerful and moving scene in which Francis encounters a leper. Lepers were the outcasts of society, not only because people feared the spread of disease but also because there were those who regarded the lepers’ plight as being evidence of sin and God’s displeasure. The existence of disease and disability was seen by the comfortable, including many in the Church, as being evidence of moral weakness. However, Francis subverted such a perspective. Rossellini’s film presents Francis moved to tears by the leper’s plight and he is inspired to pass him some food. However, Francis recognises that this is not enough; he realises that he should not simply treat the leper as a person in need of charity but should relate to him in terms of his unique personhood. The film, therefore, presents Francis embracing the leper. There is no conversation between them but Francis’ non-verbal affirmation empathically and compassionately illustrates that there is a genuine encounter, a real meeting, between them.
The stone carver and painter Greg Tricker’s marvellous 2005 book “Francis of Assisi- Paintings For Our Time” includes an episode from the life of Francis entitled “The Shared Bowl”. The story reads as follows: “A leper who was ill and suffering was being cared for by Brother James, a simple-hearted childlike person. He thought it would be a nice change for the leper to leave the hospital and to walk through the woods out to the Portiuncula. They set out, meeting St Francis on the way who was horrified and said ‘You must not lead these Brother Christians abroad in this fashion; it is not decent for you or them.’ But as soon as he had spoken, he regretted it realising how much his words could hurt the leper. To show his penance, St Francis said, ‘I will eat out of the same bowl as my Brother Christian.’ So a bowl of food was placed between them. His fingers touched the leper’s fingers as they ate together from the same bowl. Francis was ready to lose his life rather than to be unkind.”
This retelling of an important episode in Francis’ life clearly illustrates that he is no idealised saint because he demonstrates the capacity to unfairly judge others and act in a hurtful manner. However, what is powerful about the story is that Francis is ashamed about the way in which he has behaved and he decides to make amends for his actions by being alongside the leper and sharing food. Francis, therefore makes himself vulnerable and he is truly sorry for his actions.
Henryk Skolimowski has declared: “Unless we conceive of a human being as a sacred particle in a sacred universe, the grounds of human dignity and ultimately of social justice will be thin and wanting. We need to create a reverential economics in order to avoid violent revolutions in the future.” In his actions Francis clearly demonstrates that each human being is sacred, that they have intrinsic dignity and that, as a result, all our relationships should be characterised by social justice. In today’s world, in which even the richest countries of the world are engaged in a process of re-evaluating and reconfiguring their economic and political structures, Francis’ life and vision presents a timely reminder that the human impact of all decisions should be at the heart of all policy making. If the Franciscan spiritual vision is to be taken seriously it can be suggested that statements such as “Let the market decide”, “What we need is growth” and “There is no alternative” are perhaps not the most meaningful and appropriate responses to the challenges and opportunities with which we are faced. Indeed, part of the process of formulating authentic, creative and innovative responses could involve the Christian Church in developing a systematic critique, informed by the Beatitudes of Jesus and Francis’ radical simplicity, of much of what is regarded as economic, political and ecological orthodoxy with its focus on unlimited growth, rampant consumerism, militarism and ecological devastation and degradation.
One of the most well-known and well-loved stories about Francis’ life is that of the wolf of Gubbio. While he was staying in the mountain town of Gubbio, Francis was told that a large fierce wolf was on the prowl, killing and eating animals and even attacking people. The citizens of Gubbio were living in fear of the wolf as a result of which they became increasingly reluctant to venture out of the city gate. However, Francis, putting his trust in Christ, went out of the city with a friend to meet the wolf. Crowds watched as the wolf came running towards him. Francis made the sign of the cross and said “Come to me, brother wolf, and in Christ’s name I command you not to harm me or anybody.” At this the wolf ceased his advance and he lowered his head and lay at Francis’ feet. Francis asked the wolf to make a promise not to terrorise the people of Gubbio ever again in return for which the people would care for him by providing him with the food he needed. Francis said to him: “… brother wolf, I want you and them to make peace so that they may be no more harmed by you, nor the hounds further pursue you, The wolf demonstrated his agreement to this proposal by the submissive and conciliatory movements of his body, tail and ears and the bowing of his head placing his paw into Francis’ hand. The people of Gubbio were amazed at what they believed to be a miracle.
This story, with its presentation of an example of harmony between Francis and the natural world, including those aspects of creation which challenge and frighten us, can, upon first reading, appear to present a child-like, naive, view of the Franciscan way. It can appear to suggest an idealised view of the world in which, ultimately, life’s tensions and challenges are resolved and the world is restored to order. However, there is another way of looking at the story. The story of Francis and the wolf is presented in “The Little Flowers of Saint Francis”, a medieval Italian manuscript, which includes stories, teachings and aphorisms illustrating the life of Francis and his followers. What can be regarded as being the key to understanding the profound insights and truth of the story can be located in Francis’ request that the wolf should make peace with the people of Gubbio. I suggest that “making peace” is what this story is, at its heart, about. Francis is recognising that the citizens of Gubbio and the wolf were polarised; they regarded each other as enemies. The people were afraid of the wolf’s capacity to hurt them and the wolf was afraid that he would be hounded down, captured and killed. The wolf and the people, therefore, lived in mutual suspicion and mistrust and there appeared to be no hope of breaking this cycle of negativity and violence. However, things only began to change when Francis made the courageous proactive decision, inspired by his faith, to address the situation and try to bring about reconciliation. Central to his approach to resolution and reconciliation was a non-violent approach in which he took the risk of being attacked by the wolf. However, the wolf appears to recognise that Francis does not fear him and is a man of peace; this is not what the wolf would have expected. The story also makes it clear that Francis presents the people of Gubbio with a challenge; he requires them to promise that they will provide the wolf with his daily necessities. This accord between the people and the wolf is sealed by making the “welkin ring acclaiming the peace of wolf and people” as a result of which the people were able to live in safety and the wolf lived like a ward of the state. When he grew old and died the citizens mourned him. The phrase to “make the welkin ring” derives from the Old English word “wolcen” which refers to the sky, the firmament, the heavens. To “make the welkin ring”, therefore, is to make a sound so loud that it permeates the entire universe. The celebratory declaration of peace between the wolf and the people of Gubbio is not simply an ending of hostilities, the absence of conflict; rather, it is the joyous anthemic affirmation, a song of praise and thanksgiving, reflecting the outcome of a positive process of active peace-making which involves negotiation, the letting go of assumed identities and claims to power followed by a declaration of mutual support and a shared way forward. Making the welkin ring, therefore, illustrates that, from a Franciscan perspective, non-violence, peace-making, has a cosmic dimension. The story of Francis and the wolf presents the powerful idea that reconciliation has cosmic implications; there is a relationship between the ways in which human beings relate to themselves, to each other and to other creatures and this fundamentally impacts upon the nature of reality, the very structure of the universe. In this perspective, therefore, all things that exist are interrelated and interdependent. The very fabric of the cosmos and the web of life are adversely affected by conflict and violence in all its many and varied forms and, conversely, creation flourishes when peace, justice, harmony, ecological responsibility and well-being prevail. Actions have consequences; what is sown is reaped. Francis, therefore, recalls us to a (re)discovery of Jesus’ non-violent ethics of the Kingdom of God; the challenge of the Franciscan spiritual vision is located in its power to call us to the actualisation of this way of being in all areas of life: personal and social, in the family and the community, in our country and internationally so that economics, politics, education, spirituality, the arts, science and technology can begin to transcend their increasingly narrow and shallow definitions of what constitutes well-being, happiness and personal fulfilment. Francis, echoing Jesus, reminds us that it is by letting go of our false selves, by refusing to hide behind our titles and status, abandoning what is ephemeral and inauthentic, that we can discover who we truly are. When the almost overwhelming significance of the Biblical idea that each human being is made in the image of God, that in each person we are presented with the face of Christ, is truly understood it will be possible to begin to create a just, peaceful and ecologically transformed future.
In their song “My Hope Is Safe With Thee”, Eden’s Bridge proclaim that:
“Though storms may rage
And I may fail
My strength will come from Thee
Through wind and hail
You shield my sail
My hope is safe with Thee.”
The song affirms that in the midst of the vicissitudes of life, at the heart of the Christian faith is the belief in, and the experience of, God’s presence alongside us. Francis lived a life in which he was deeply aware of God being present to, and with, him. However, the affirmation that “My hope is safe with thee” does not mean that faith means that all of life’s problems are solved or that life necessarily becomes easier or simpler. Indeed, Francis’s decision to follow Jesus radically changed his life; in a real sense his decision to follow Christ at a deep level resulted in his life, in many ways, becoming significantly harder, both materially and physically. His profound living out of the implications of the Gospel and the ethic of the Kingdom of God was costly; it demanded a transformation of all aspects of his life. However, in the integration of his recognition of God’s presence permeating the whole of creation with his affirmation of the face of Christ being present in each and every human being he illustrates how it is possible to begin to facilitate peace and reconciliation.
This essay began with reference to the experience of the educator Janusz Korczak. I wish to continue this exploration of Saint Francis’ radical spiritual vision through consideration of a story, a modern legend, by a writer who was a contemporary of Korczak,
Joseph Roth’s short story The Legend of the Holy Drinker was written a few months before his death, at the age of forty-four, in May 1939. In 1988 the film of the book was released to critical acclaim. The film, directed by Ermanno Olmi, won a Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in that year and four Italian Oscars during 1988-89. It stars Rutger Hauer as Andreas, an ex-miner jailed for an accidental murder, now released from prison and living homeless in Paris. He is as poor as Saint Francis.
A mysterious old man offers Andreas two hundred francs on the condition that he repay it the following Sunday to the church of Sainte Marie des Batignolles. The film chronicles Andreas’ encounters with faces from the past and present and presents a scenario in which each time he spends the money he wakes up, usually from a drunken stupor, to find that the bank notes have miraculously reappeared in his wallet.
There is a sense in which Joseph Roth’s own life echoed that of Andreas. Alcoholism had destroyed his health and in 1938 he suffered a heart attack which left him severely incapacitated. In what can be regarded as being perhaps the most powerful and painful scene in the film, Andreas escapes from the torrential rain by spending the night drinking alone in a bar. Throughout the night his solitary drinking contrasts with the experience of deep respect, caring and love displayed in the interaction of others in the bar. Andreas, in his isolation, reflects upon his life and appears to experience despair, meaninglessness and a sense of loss. Through his promise to repay the money to the Church Andreas has the possibility of finding a purpose, goal or mission to his life. When Andreas’ money runs out it is always unexpectedly replaced. Is this chance, coincidence or providence? He encounters friends and loved ones from the past who have a significant effect on his present life; how is this to be explained? The task of returning the money to the Church allows him to transform his apparently aimless life into a life lived from a transcendent perspective.
In his experiences, both joyful and despairing, Andreas appears to be searching for meaning to his life. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has suggested that “man is characterised by his “search for meaning” rather than his “search for himself’. Indeed, Andreas appears to be engaged in a profound existential quest, attempting to make sense of his situation. Ultimately, the film poses the question “Is death the premature and tragic end to Andreas’ life or is it the fulfilment of his mission?”
Through such themes and concepts the film can be recognised as being an inspiring, and deeply contemplative, exploration of the nature of existence, including the joy and the pain of life, together with examination of the relationship between meaning and well-being. However, it can be suggested that The Legend of the Holy Drinker is actually a parable about the human condition. Perhaps what it powerfully illustrates is that human beings have available to them all the resources they need to live well. Indeed, even though Andreas appears to squander the money which he receives from others, it is regularly replenished. The gifts which Andreas receives can be viewed as being a metaphor for the gifts, the resources, the natural world provides to us in abundance which are, all too often, shared inequitably or are wasted on a vast scale leading to the creation of a world which is ravaged by greed and the quest for power and dominance. In succumbing to his personal addictions, Andreas all too often finds himself to be alone, alienated from others, cut off from those around him, even those who try to reach out and help him. Whatever the messages of the film may be, it does appear to suggest that, echoing Francis of Assisi, meaning is found in encounter with others, through a reverential, loving engagement with our fellow human beings and through a response to, and relationship with, the Divine. In such a perspective, the world in which we live, therefore, has personal, social, ecological and cosmic dimensions and meaning and well-being is to be found in a holistic interaction of these dimensions.
In her recent work, “Absence of Mind” the author Marilynne Robinson has commented that “Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words – I AM.” In her 2005 novel “Gilead”, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Robinson explores the experience of the Rev John Ames, who, in 1956, towards the end of his life, writes a letter to his young son. The idea is that the son will open the letter after John’s death and as he grows up he will be able to revisit the letter and begin to learn and reflect upon the life of John and his ancestors. In an evocative scene John recalls how, when he was a child, he visited with his father the grave of his grandfather. He describes his father kneeling deep in prayer at his grandfather’s grave:
“Every prayer seemed long to me at that age, and I was truly bone tired. I tried to keep my eyes closed, but after a while I had to look around a little. And this is something I remember very well. At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realised that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taught skeins of light suspended between them. I wanted my father to see it, but I knew I’d have to startle him out of his prayer, and I wanted to do it the best way, so I took his hand and kissed it. And then I said, ‘Look at the moon.’ And he did. We just stood there until the sun was down and the moon was up. They seemed to float on the horizon for quite a long time, I suppose because they were both so bright you couldn’t get a clear look at them. And that grave, and my father and I, were exactly between them, which seemed amazing to me at the time, since I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of the horizon. My father said, ‘I would never have thought that this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.’
It can be suggested that this extract from Gilead encapsulates four key elements of Francis of Assisi’s spiritual vision. Firstly, the experience of John and his father takes place in a context of prayer and thanksgiving. The experience has a profoundly prayerful, contemplative and meditative quality to it. Secondly, at the heart of their experience is a deep response to, and appreciation of, the beauty of creation and their place within it. Ultimately, their lives are located in a cosmic context. Thirdly, this awe and wonder in response to the world as it its centre the image of the sun and moon. We have explored earlier the concept of “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” in Francis’ way of seeing the world and Gilead’s lunar and solar motifs, evoking Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” panoramas, can be thought of as reminding us of our connection to the web of life, to the Divine source and to our place within the cycle and rhythms of creation. Fourthly, John Ames’ loving non-verbal interaction with his prayerful father is a reminder that at the heart of the spiritual traditions of the world is the imperative to relate to others, to our world and to the Divine, authentically and compassionately, in what Martin Buber has termed “I-Thou” encounters. It is my view that the imagery and experiences presented in the Gilead extract are deeply Franciscan and confirm Marilynne Robinson’s affirmation that at the heart of the spiritual life is that sense, awareness and presence of the I-AM.
Through exploration of, and dialogue with, the life of Francis of Assisi it is possible, therefore, to embark on a process of the development of an appreciation of Francis’ transformative way of seeing and experiencing the world. The development of our sensitivity to Francis’ recognition of a Transcendent reality permeating the universe can facilitate the capacity to acknowledge the primacy of existential questions, questions of ultimate concern, of meaning, purpose and value. Francis’ life can act as a model, an illustration, of a life lived in the light of eternity, a life which is authentic and empowered because it undertakes to relate all aspects of existence to a reality which is both experienced within the human soul and is also understood as being a Presence, a ‘Thou’ beyond the self. In such a relational dialogical approach each one of us is an ‘I’ who encounters the ‘Thou’ of Francis of Assisi as a result of which we can be challenged, inspired and empowered to live authentically and to develop spiritually as an Iconic Self.
Earlier, in the extract from the Ararat soundtrack, we explored the experience of darkness, of the sense of betrayal and abandonment at the heart of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. I conclude this lecture with a further song from Eden’s Bridge entitled “The Earth Waits.” The song’s theme can be regarded as being the experience of watching and waiting, the sense of expectancy and anticipation related to the actualisation of the Kingdom of God. The song includes the words:
“When I listen to the words of long ago
It is clear that we’ve forgotten all we’ve known
Let us set aside the night
And put on the arms of light
And wait for the dawn to come
For day will soon be here!”
The song’s imagery evokes the idea of new beginnings, the movement from darkness to light, the transition from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. The life, legacy and spiritual vision of Francis of Assisi, in its radical rediscovery and affirmation of Jesus’ message, person and work, can be regarded as presenting a reminder to our world of the requirement for personal, social and global transformation in which ecology, justice and peace are at the heart of engaged faith.
Through development of a transformed awareness, appreciation and compassionate response to the world, in solidarity with Saint Francis, it is possible to affirm the perspective of the theologian Don Cupitt that “… through religious and moral action the world can be made so seriously beautiful that one is glad to pass away into union with it.”
(c) Copyright Kelvin Ravenscroft 2010
Articles by Brian Goodwin
An interview by Dr David King
GenEthics News, Issue 11. March/April 1996, pp.6-8.
An eminent German biologist and philosopher whose main claim of relevence to this resource pack is that he invented the term Ecology. In his Generelle Morphologie der Organismen(1866), Haeckel wrote, ‘By ecology we mean the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature, the total relations of the animal to both its inorganic and organic environment; including its friendly and inimical relations with those animals and plants with which it comes into contact. In a word, all the complex relationships referred to as the struggle for existence’
Below are the texts of:
1. An article called Building Bridges, a commentary on his book The Riddle of the Universe (1899).
2. An extract from The Riddle of the Universe dealing with Haeckel’s views on Pantheism.
There are accounts of his life and work at
Haeckel was a very competent artist.
He illustrated many of his own
publications. More examples of his
work can be found at: CLICK
The Site includes copies of the full set of illustrations from Haeckel’s BookKunstformen_der_Natur
This Article first appeared in Ecotheology vol. 10, 2001.<
Just a hundred years ago, in 1899, the noted German biologist Ernst Haeckel published a book called The Riddle of the Universe1. In it he reviewed what he believed to be the most significant scientific achievements of the nineteenth century and considered their impact on the relationship between science and religion. Amongst his other achievements it was Haeckel who, in an earlier work2, introduced the term Ecology to describe the study of organisms in relation to where they live. To mark the centenary of the publication of Haeckel’s book it seems appropriate to take a look at the world through the eyes of the founder of scientific ecology and to compare this with the developments of the 20th century.
In spite of being a biologist, Haeckel believed that the key scientific development of the century was the firm establishment of the conservation laws for both matter and energy. These laws state that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, they can only be transformed. He combined these into what he saw as a single Law of Substance. The logical consequences of this law provide the key to Haeckel’s metaphysics and theology. He believed that, if matter and energy are fundamentally conserved, then the universe must be totally self-contained and therefore all phenomena must be accorded naturalistic origins. Based on the prevalent reductionist reasoning of his time, Haeckel’s monistic view led him to conclude that the universe had to be eternal, any form of origin or beginning seemed to him to require an external, supernatural creator; an idea which he rejected. In addition, the Law of Substance implied that the universe must also be subject to ubiquitous, deterministic and mechanical causality with the further implication that genuine creativity is not possible. All there can be is change in the context of continuity, albeit in apparently progressive and evolutionary forms. Haeckel subscribed to the view held by T.H.Huxley3 that Darwinian natural selection implied that biological evolution was a completely deterministic process.
With respect to the debate between science and religion, Haeckel claimed that, ‘one of the distinctive features of the expiring [19th] century is the increasing vehemence of the opposition between science and Christianity… In the same proportion in which the victorious progress of modern science has surpassed all the scientific achievements of earlier ages has the untenability been proved of those mystic views which would subdue reason under the yoke of an alleged revelation’. Haeckel’s main criticisms of religion in general and Christianity in particular were that it was seen to relate exclusively to humans and that it was far more concerned with the supernatural than with the natural. Given a self-contained, monistic cosmos there can be no supernatural, by definition. Even so, Haeckel was not a complete atheist. He drew a clear distinction between monism and materialism. He quotes Goethe, ‘matter cannot exist and be operative without spirit, nor spirit without matter’ and paraphrases Spinoza, ‘matter, or infinitely extended substance, and spirit, or sensitive and thinking substance, are the two fundamental attributes of the all-embracing divine essence of the world.’ Based on these ideas, Haeckel looked for a completely naturalistic religion involving a form of pantheism. In his search he looked at the qualities of truth, goodness and beauty. For Haeckel, ‘the goddess of truth dwells in the temple of nature, in the green woods, on the blue sea, and on the snowy summits of the hills – not in the gloom of the cloister … nor in the clouds of incense of the Christian churches’. But, ‘it is otherwise with the divine ideal of eternal goodness… The idea of the good … in our monistic religion coincides for the most part with the Christian idea of virtue’. With regard to beauty, Haeckel again emphasised its manifestations in nature and particularly in the world of living things. He implicitly acknowledged the role of the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century in the dawning of an appreciation of the beauties of wild nature, ‘the glories of the Alps and the crystal splendour of the glacier world … the majesty of the oceans and the lovely scenery of its coasts.
At first sight it is difficult reconcile Haeckel’s emphasis on rationality as sole source truth with his obvious leanings towards romanticism he advocates supremacy reason primarily opposition subservience any form super-natural revelation and to contemporary claims church in the conclusion of>The Riddle of the Universe he claims that ‘in a thoroughly logical mind, applying the highest principles with equal force in the entire field of the cosmos – in both organic and inorganic nature – the antithetical positions of theism and pantheism, vitalism and mechanism, approach until they touch each other’. Here he clearly seeks to transcend the dualism of reason versus Romanticism although he goes on to admit that ‘the number is always small of the thinkers who will boldly reject dualism and embrace pure monism’.>
The turn of the century, when Haeckel published his book, has to be seen as a dark period in the relations between science and religion. A.N.Wilson’s recent book God’s Funeral4 chronicles the vicissitudes of Western Christianity in the nineteenth century. The book takes its title from a poem by Thomas Hardy composed somewhere between 1908 and 1910 in which he writes:
And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem.
And what we had imagined we believed
Till, in Time’s stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning.
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.5
There is little doubt that the ‘uncompromising rude reality’ of nineteenth century science played a significant part in God’s Funeral and even now, the best part of a hundred years later, we still live in the shadow of this period. For some, God’s Funeral meant just that; for Haeckel it implied the eclipse of theism, but clearly not the rejection of all forms of spirituality provided they were compatible with his monistic universe.
In the two last verses of his poem Hardy suggests the possibility of a faint glimmer of hope:
Whereof, to lift the general night
A certain few who stood aloof had said,
‘See you upon the horizon that small light –
Swelling somewhat?’ Each mourner shook his head.
And they composed a crowd of whom
Some were right good, and many neigh the best…>
But, even as Hardy was writing his poem, advances in science were under way which would compromise some of the apparent certainties of the nineteenth century and which led to a wider recognition and swelling of ‘that small light’.
At the end of the twentieth century, with its enormous expansion of scientific activity it would be quite impossible to emulate Haeckel and review its achievements within the compass of a single volume, let alone in a short article. In the final chapter of his book, Haeckel claims that, ‘only one riddle of the universe now remains – the problem of substance. What is the real character of this mighty world-wonder?’ At the close of the twentieth century, in spite of all the developments of quantum theory and relativity theory, this riddle still remains. We know more about what substance is not but the real nature of the ‘stuff of the universe’ still eludes us. Max Planck claims that, ‘Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of Nature. And it is because in the last analysis we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve’6.
Nevertheless, there are aspects of Haeckel’s beliefs that are worth considering in the light of the scientific developments of the twentieth century. His belief in a self-contained universe, the emphasis on evolutionary processes, the unity and continuity of nature and the synthesis of matter and spirit, all find echoes in the world views that have emerged in this century.>
We no longer believe in an eternal universe even though we now know that the time frame of evolutionary history occupies thousands of millions of years compared with the hundreds of millions assumed at the turn of the century. It is now generally accepted that the universe did have an origin in a singular event, known as the Big Bang, and the time that has elapsed since this event is somewhere around fifteen thousand million years7.
With regard to deterministic causality, developments in the relatively new discipline of General Systems Theory8 have shown that most, if not all, complex systems, from atoms, to living organisms, to galaxies, exhibit inherent properties that are not reducible to those of the parts from which they are made. While retaining Haeckel’s concept of a totally self-contained universe, such a universe can exhibit essentially autonomous states of being. The ‘stuff of the universe’ contains the potential for everything, but its laws do not determine all the properties or behaviour of actual manifestations. If the emergent phenomena are not reducible and cannot be explained in terms of the properties of parts, then it follows that they are not predictable. Coupled with systems theory are relatively recent developments in studies of complexity which have emphasised the phenomena of uncertainty, unpredictability and the potential for chaotic behaviour in complex systems. At the same time these studies have high-lighted the creative potential of such systems. It now seems that the universe is in fact inherently creative and that creative processes are focussed on the boundary between chaos and order9.
As Keith Ward has pointed out, a creative, emergent universe has implications for religion, ‘the one huge change which no ancient scripture foresaw is the realisation that the universe is emergent; that new things come into existence, and that in the future, not in the past, lies the key to the nature of the whole process. This is a new perception, which must transform every religious tradition. The final truth no longer lies in the past, in some primeval revelation given to great seers and passed on to our degenerate age in some secret tradition… Final truth lies in the future, though it is dimly foreseen by sages who grasp something of the goal towards which all things move.’ This realisation means that a dialogue between science and religion is not only desirable, it is necessary. Basil Willey suggests that, ‘Ever since the Renaissance the Creation had been steadily gaining in prestige as “the art of God”… The emotion of the “numinous”, formerly associated with super-nature, had become attached to Nature itself; and by the end of the eighteenth century the divinity, the sacredness of nature was, to those affected by this tradition, almost a first datum of consciousness.’11 Among those affected were many of the nineteenth-century Romantics who also saw the study and contemplation of nature as a means of emancipation from religious and political dogmas. In spite of Haeckel’s strict application of rationality with regard to the material world, his approach to matters spiritual had much in common with that of the Romantics and especially with Goethe.
The discipline of Ecology has expanded and acquired a significance that Haeckel could not have dreamed of. In his Generelle Morphologie der Organismen, Haeckel wrote, ‘By ecology we mean the body of knowledge concerning the economy of nature, the total relations of the animal to both its inorganic and organic environment; including its friendly and inimical relations with those animals and plants with which it comes into contact. In a word, all the complex relationships referred to as the struggle for existence’. For Haeckel the prime objective of ecology was to throw light on evolutionary processes and to contribute towards the goal of drawing the evolutionary tree of life12. As it has developed as a scientific discipline, ecology is now concerned with the dynamics of populations and communities, with significant applications relating to conservation and the management of living natural resources. Ecological studies have shown that living things are not simply actors on an environmental stage, as Haeckel viewed them, they also work to create the environments in which they live. Ecology originally focussed on individual species; it has grown to embrace the entire biosphere and has demonstrated that evolutionary continuity is complemented by an existential continuity reflected in the interdependence of living systems. One of the very first ecologists, John Muir, realised this when he said, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’13 The concept was developed in the early part of this century by the Russian geologist Vladimir Vernadsky, who, according to Lynn Margulis, was ‘the first person in history to come to grips with the real implications of the fact that the Earth is a self-contained sphere.’14
In recent years, ecology has expanded beyond the confines of a particular scientific discipline. There is now an apparently ever growing set of Eco-disciplines including theology, philosophy, psychology, feminism, ethics and economics. These developments led Eugene Odum to add the sub-title A Bridge Between Science and Society to the latest edition of his classic textbook on ecology15. He claims that ecology can provide a bridge from a narrow concern for human existence to seeing this as derived from and set within the wider frame of the web of life on earth as described by the sciences. If we can recover something of the Romantic vision of the sacredness of nature, coupled with the study of nature as a means to liberation, so also can ecology contribute towards building the bridge from a very human centred religion to one that acknowledges the spirituality of the whole created order. This is not to claim that ecology is unique among the sciences in this pursuit16 but it is suggested that ecology speaks to us with particular relevance to the human condition in relation to how we live on the earth.
From an ecological perspective it is not possible to regard humanity as in any way separate from nature. Haeckel coined the term ‘anthropism’ to describe ‘that powerful and world-wide group of erroneous opinions which opposes the human organism to the whole of the rest of nature, and represents it to be the preordained end of organic creation, an entity essentially distinct from it, a godlike being’. It is only in our minds that we create this divide. We now understand that mind is an emergent phenomenon and part of the continuum of nature. We now realise that the human species is totally embedded in the natural ecology of the earth. Humans are just one of somewhere between 10 and 30 million species of living things that currently inhabit the earth. As a species we participate in the web of life on the same terms as other creatures. We emerged through the same evolutionary processes as other creatures and are intimately involved in the history of the earth, which is part of the history of the solar system, which is part of the history of the cosmos. From this perspective, the only thing that marks humans out as in any way special is that, as far as we know, we are the only creatures that possess a sufficient degree of self-reflective consciousness to be aware of all this. The realisation of the continuity of nature, as stressed by Haeckel and reinforced by scientific developments in the twentieth century clearly has implications for theology and religion. The almost total focus on humanity in traditional Christianity can no longer be maintained. Lynn White’s criticism that ‘Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen’17, has to be addressed.
There is an ecological version of Haeckel’s Law of Substance which, as presented by Odum, says ‘matter circulates, energy dissipates’. The same idea is expressed in more emotive terms by John Muir, ‘Plants, animals and stars are all kept in place, bridled along appointed ways, with one another, and through the midst of one another – killing and being killed, eating and being eaten, in harmonious proportions and quantities.’18 In the same vein, Brian Swimme, based on a disturbing experience in the Brazilian rainforest, writes, ‘I who have been so terrified of becoming food for the forest come to see a simple truth – that all existence concerns eating and being eaten, and that this applies on more than the simplistic, literal level.’19 Ecology is centred on the cycles of life and death and how these are manifest and maintained in a prodigious diversity of forms virtually everywhere on the face of the earth. As Goethe stated, ‘Life is her [nature’s] most exquisite invention; and death is her expert contrivance to get plenty of life.’20 Ursula Goodenough provides a very clear account of the evolutionary significance of death; as she points out, ‘our sentient brains are uniquely capable of experiencing deep regret and sorrow and fear at the prospect of our own death, yet it is the invention of death … that made possible the existence of our brains.’21>
There is material here for theological reflection. At the centre of the Christian faith there is a life and a death coupled with a sacramental meal. Teilhard de Chardin filled his chalice with ‘all the sap which is to be pressed out this day from all the earth’s fruits.’22 John Muir filled his with the sap of his beloved Sequoia trees23. The farmer and poet, Wendell Berry writes that, ‘To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skilfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.’24 These three writers clearly imply that we need to establish, in the words of Teilhard de Chardin, ‘a communion with God through earth,’25 and they also believe that this can be done from within the Christian tradition.<
Scientific ecology can contribute to this process in a number of ways. Firstly, the discipline of ecology is also an excellent antidote for any tendency towards hubris. In my career as a field ecologist and in my progression of fields of study from a stream across the bottom of my boyhood garden, to Windermere, to the North Atlantic Ocean, I always realised that I was faced with systems that I would never fully understand. I was constantly groping in the dark, devising methods to answer questions in the knowledge that the results would probably contribute to the answers of quite different questions.
Secondly, it is necessary to accept the universality and significance of evolutionary processes. Teilhard de Chardin answers his own question, ‘Is evolution a theory, a system or a hypothesis? It is much more: it is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow and which they must satisfy henceforward if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow.’26 The key to the development of sound evolutionary theories was the proposal, first put forward by James Hutton in 1788 in the context of geology27, that the processes that can be observed and studied today are the same as those which have been at work throughout the history of the Earth. This makes it possible, through studies of contemporary phenomena coupled with the historical record of rock strata and the existence of fossil organisms, to infer at least something of the nature of that history. Thus, scientific ecology describes the stage on which terrestrial evolution takes place and it has contributed significantly to our knowledge of the workings of evolutionary processes. If evolutionary theory stresses the historical continuity of nature, scientific ecology has demonstrated the existential continuity of nature, at least as far as terrestrial systems are concerned. The vision of continuity in nature has been a remarkably consistent insight in the Christian mystical tradition. Hildegard von Bingen, for example, expressed it in the language of her time:‘O Holy Spirit,/ You are the mighty way in which every/ thing that is in the heavens,/ on the earth, and under the earth,/ is penetrated with connectedness,/ is penetrated with relatedness.’28
Thirdly, scientific ecology can contribute towards dealing with some of our misconceptions about the rest of the natural world. Chief among these is the judgmental view of a fallen world with nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. In the same poem Tennyson asks, ‘Are God and Nature then at strife,/ That Nature lends such evil dreams?/ So careful of the type she seems,/ So careless of the single life.’29Predation, parasitism and plague, earthquake, fire, storm and flood are frequently regarded as natural evils. This perception raises the question of whether the universe as it is can be the creation of a loving God. Annie Dillard sees this as a failure of our imagination, ‘Intricacy is that which is given from the beginning, the birthright, and in intricacy is the hardiness of complexity that ensures against the failure of all life. This is our heritage, the piebald landscape of time. We walk around; we see a shred of the infinite possible combinations of an infinite variety of forms. Anything can happen; any pattern of speckles may appear in a world ceaselessly bawling with newness… Beauty itself is the fruit of the creator’s exuberance that grew such a tangle, and the grotesques and horrors bloom from that same free growth, that intricate scramble and twine up and down the conditions of time.’30 This may not be the language of science but it is the essential language of ecology. Humans have tried to carve out a niche in the natural world within which we can survive and we would like the rest of nature to conform to our view of how the world should be. We prefer nature to be tame, or at least tameable, but the rest of the natural world is wild and Annie Dillard is saying that this is the way it has to be in order to survive and be creative. Henry David Thoreau believed that, ‘in Wildness is the preservation of the World.’31
Finally, and according to Haeckel, ‘The astonishment with which we gaze upon the starry heavens and the microscopic life in a drop of water, the awe with which we trace the marvellous working of energy in the motion of matter, the reverence with which we grasp the universal dominance of the law of substance throughout the universe – all these are part of our emotional life, falling under the heading of “natural religion”… The modern man needs no special church, no narrow, enclosed portion of space. For through the length and breadth of free nature, wherever he turns his gaze, to the whole universe or to any single part of it, he finds, indeed, the grim “struggle for life,” but by its side are ever “the good, the true and the beautiful”; his church is commensurate with the whole of glorious nature.’ Sallie McFague would not go as far as Haeckel but she does claim that ‘“Amazing revelations” come through the earth, not above it or in spite of it. An incarnational theology encourages us to dare to love nature – all the different bodies, both human and those of other lifeforms, on our earth – to find them valuable and wonderful in themselves, for themselves.’32 She also claims that ‘we cannot love what we do not know’. Scientific ecology is continually adding to our knowledge of the natural world and increasing our awareness of the marvel and the mystery by showing us how, on earth, everything fits together into a harmonious, ever changing, self-organising and self-creating system. McFague’s incarnational theology echoes those of de Chardin, Muir and Berry with their emphasis on the physical manifestations of nature and their inclusiveness of the whole of nature. In order to achieve a full awareness of what this means we have to cultivate an openness to the rest of nature as it is in its own right. It can be claimed that Ernst Haeckel, as well as founding the science of Ecology; in his critique of ‘anthropism’ and in advocating ‘natural religion’, he was well ahead of his time in providing pointers towards the development of a realistic theology of nature.
Ernst Haeckel, The Riddle of the Universe, Tr. Joseph McCabe (New York: 2. Prometheus Books, 1992).
3. Ernst Haeckel, Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (Jena: 1866).
4. T.H.Huxley, The Genealogy of Animals(http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE2/GeNan.html)
5. A.N.Wilson, God’s Funeral (London: John Murray, 1999).
6. Thomas Hardy, The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1974).
7. John Barrow & Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: OUP, 1986), p. 123.
8. Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996).
9. See, for example, Lee Smolin. The Life of the Cosmos (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997)
10. Stuart Kauffman, The Origins of Order (Oxford: OUP, 1993)
11. Keith Ward, A Vision to Pursue (London: SCM Press, 1991), pp. 148-149.
12. Basil Willey, On Wordsworth and the Locke Tradition. In M.H. Abrams (Ed.),English Romantic Poets (Oxford: OUP, 1975), p. 121.
13. Steven Rose. Lifelines (London, The Penguin Press, 1997), p. 184.
14. Terry Gifford (Ed.), John Muir, the Eight Wilderness Discovery Books (London: Baton Wicks, 1996), p. 248.
15. Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere, Tr. David Langmuir (New York: Copernicus, 1998), p. 15.
16. Eugene Odum, Ecology, a Bridge between Science and Society (Sunderland, Mass.: Sinauer Associates, 1997).
17. See, for example, Christopher Southgate et al, God, Humanity and the Cosmos(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999).
18. Lynn White, The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis (Science, 155: 1203-1207. March, 1967). Terry Gifford, op cit, pp. 874-875.
19. Brian Swimme, Fangs and Feasts (Interchange, Summer 1998).
20. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Passages selected by T.H. Huxley for the inaugural number of ‘Nature’, quoted in Rupert Sheldrake, The Rebirth of Nature (London: Rider, 1991), p. 53.
21. Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature (New York: OUP, 1998), p. 149.
22. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe (London: Collins, 1965), p. 19.
23. Terry Gifford (Ed.), John Muir, His Life and Letters and Other Writings (London: Baton Wicks, 1996), pp. 139-141.
24. Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981), p. 281.
25. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Writings in Time of War (London: Collins, 1968).
26. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (London: Collins, Fount, 1977), p. 241.
27. James Hutton, Theory of the Earth (Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1: 209-305. 1788).
28. Gabriel Uhlein, Meditations with Hildegard of Bingen (Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Co. 1983) p. 41.
29. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam(http://library.utoronto.ca/www/utel/rp/authors/tennyson.html).
30. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988), pp. 144-146.
31. Henry David Thoreau, Walking(http://www.glue.umd.edu/~pdouglas/walking.html).
32. Sallie McFague, Super, Natural Christians (Minneapolis: Fortress press, 1997) p. 31.
From The Riddle of the Universe, 1901.
The personal anthropism of God has become so natural to the majority of believers that they experience no shock when they find God personified in human form in pictures and statues, and in the varied images of the poet, in which God takes human form – that is, is changed into a vertebrate. In some myths, even, God takes the form of other mammals (an ape, lion, bull, etc.), and more rarely of a bird (eagle, dove, or stork), or of some lower vertebrate (serpent, crocodile, dragon, etc.).
In the higher and more abstract forms of religion this idea of bodily appearance is entirely abandoned, and God is adored as a ‘pure spirit’ without a body. ‘God is a spirit, and they who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.’ Nevertheless, the psychic activity of this ‘pure spirit’ remains just the same as that of the anthropomorphic God. In reality, even this immaterial spirit is not conceived to be incorporeal, but merely invisible, gaseous. We thus arrive at the paradoxical conception of God as a gaseous vertebrate!
Pantheism teaches that God and the world are one. The idea of God is identical with that of nature or substance. This pantheistic view is sharply opposed in principle to all possible forms of theism, although there have been many attempts made from both sides to bridge over the deep chasm that separates the two. There is always this fundamental contradiction between them, that in theism God is opposed to nature as an extramundane being, as creating and sustaining the world, and acting upon it from without, while in pantheism God, as an intra-mundane being, is everywhere identical with nature itself, and is operative within the world as ‘force’ or ‘energy’. The latter view alone is compatible with our supreme law – the law of substance. It follows necessarily that pantheism is the world-system of the modern scientist. There are, it is true, still a few men of science who context this, and think it possible to reconcile the old theistic theory of human nature with the pantheistic truth of the law of substance. All these efforts rest on confusion or sophistry – when they are honest.
As pantheism is a result of an advanced conception of nature in the civilized mind, it is naturally much younger than theism, the crudest forms of which are found in great variety in the uncivilized races of ten thousand years ago. We do, indeed, find the germs of pantheism in different religions at the very dawn of philosophy in the earliest civilized peoples (in India, Egypt, China, and Japan), several thousand years before the time of Christ; still, we do not meet a definite philosophical expression of it until the hylozoism of the Ionic philosophers, in the first half of the sixth century before Christ. All the great thinkers of this flourishing period of Hellenic thought are surpassed by the famous Anaximander, of Miletus, who conceived the essential unity of the infinite universe more profoundly and more clearly than his master, Thales, or his pupil, Anaximenes. Not only the great thought of the original unity of the cosmos and the development of all phenomena out of the all-pervading primitive matter found expression in Anaximander, but he even enunciated the bold idea of countless worlds in a periodic alternation of birth and death.
Many other great philosophers of classical antiquity, especially Democritus, Heraclitus, and Empedocles, had, in the same or an analogous sense, a profound conception of this unity of nature and God, of body and spirit, which has obtained its highest expression in the law of substance of our modern monism. The famous Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius Carus, has presented it in a highly poetic form in his poemDe Rerum Natura.
However, this true pantheistic monism was soon entirely displaced by the mystic dualism of Plato, and especially by the powerful influence which the idealistic philosophy obtained by its blending with Christian dogmas. When the papacy attained to its spiritual despotism over the world, pantheism was hopelessly crushed; Giordano Bruno, its most gifted defender, was burned alive by the ‘Vicar of Christ’ in the Campo dei Fiori at Rome on February 17, 1600.
It was not until the middle of the seventeenth century that Pantheism was exhibited in its purest form by the great Baruch Spinoza; he gave for the totality of things a definition of substance in which God and the world are inseparably united. The clearness, confidence, and consistency of Spinoza’s monistic system are the more remarkable when we remember that this gifted thinker of two hundred and fifty years ago was without the support of all those sound empirical bases which have been obtained in the second half of the nineteenth century. The propagation of his views, especially in Germany, is due, above all, to the immortal works of our greatest poet and thinker – Wolfgang Goethe. His splendid God and the World, Prometheus, Faust, etc., embody the great thoughts of pantheism in the most perfect poetic creations.
Atheism affirms that there are no gods or goddesses, assuming that god means a personal, extramundane entity. This ‘godless world-system’ substantially agrees with the monism or pantheism of the modern scientist; it is only another expression for it, emphasizing its negative aspect, the non-existence of any supernatural deity. In this sense Schopenhauer justly remarks: Pantheism is only a polite form of atheism. The truth of pantheism lies in its destruction of the dualist antithesis of God and the world, in its recognition that the world exists in virtue of its own inherent forces.
The maxim of the pantheist, ‘God and the world are one,’ is merely a polite way of giving the Lord God his conge. During the whole of the Middle Ages, under the bloody despotism of the popes, atheism was persecuted with fire and sword as a most pernicious system. As the ‘godless’ man is plainly identified with the ‘wicked’ in the Gospel, and is threatened – simply on account of his want of faith – with the eternal fires of hell, it was very natural that every good Christian should be anxious to avoid the suspicion of atheism. Unfortunately, the idea still prevails very widely. The atheistic scientist who devotes his strength and his life to the search for the truth, is freely credited with all that is evil; the theistic church-goer, who thoughtlessly follows the empty ceremonies of Catholic worship, is at once assumed to be a good citizen, even if there be no meaning whatever in his faith and his morality be deplorable.
This error will only be destroyed when, in the twentieth century, the prevalent superstition gives place to rational knowledge and to a monistic conception of the unity of God and the world.
Stuart A. Kauffman
STUART A. KAUFFMAN, is a professor at the University of Calgary with a shared appointment between biological sciences and physics and astronomy. He is also the leader of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics (IBI) which conducts leading-edge interdisciplinary research in systems biology.
Dr. Kauffman is also an emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, a MacArthur Fellow and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute.
Originally a medical doctor, Dr. Kauffman’s primary work has been as a theoretical biologist studying the origin of life and molecular organization. Thirty-five years ago, he developed the Kauffman models, which are random networks exhibiting a kind of self-organization that he terms “order for free.”
Dr. Kauffman was the founding general partner and chief scientific officer of The Bios Group, a company (acquired in 2003 by NuTech Solutions) that applies the science of complexity to business management problems. He is the author of The Origins of Order, Investigations, and At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization.
Further Reading on Edge:
“A Possible Solution For The Problem Of Time In Quantum Cosmology”[4.7.97]
By Stuart Kauffman and Lee Smolin
“The Adjacent Possible” A Talk with Stewart Kauffman [11.3.04]
“Beyond Reductionism: Reinventing the Sacred” [11.17.06]
By Stuart Kauffman
A good biography and bibliography can be found in the Resurgence website.
One of the best bits is “Poems I Love”
|An excellent account of the life and work of Lynn Margulis:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_MargulisRead about one of her famous themes: Endosymbiosis_________________________________________________________________
Bibliography and Papers
Author: Sallie McFague
Sallie McFague is the former Carpenter Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt University. She teaches and writes in the area of religious language, especially as that language affects our behaviour toward others, including other life-forms and the ecosystem that supports all life. Her most recent book, (McFague, 1987) criticizes the monarchical language for God (God as king and the world as ‘realm’), suggesting instead that we consider the models of God as mother, lover, and friend of the world. She is presently working with materials from ‘the common creation story,’ the so-called Big Bang billions of years ago and the subsequent evolutionary history, as a resource for re-imagining both the transcendence and immanence of God as well as the proper place of human beings in the scheme of things.
Bibliography of Sallie McFague’s writings
An Earthly Theological Agenda
Reprinted from Carol Adams (ed.) Ecofeminism and the Sacred (Continuum, 1999), pp. 84-98.
I teach a survey course in contemporary theology that covers the 20th century. When I took a similar course as a divinity student at Yale in the late ‘50s, it had considerable unity. We studied the great German theologians whose names began with ‘B’ (seemingly a prerequisite for theological luminosity) Barth, Bultmann, Brunner, Bonhoeffer – and, of course, Tillich. They were all concerned with the same issues, notably reason and revelation, faith and history, issues of methodology and especially, epistemology: how can we know God?
More recent theology has no such unity. The first major shift came in the late ‘60s, with the arrival of the various liberation theologies which are still growing and changing as more and different voices from the underside of history insist on being heard. While what separates these various theologies is great (much greater than what separated German theology and its American counterparts), one issue, at least, unites them: they ask not how we can know God but how we can change the world. We are now at the threshold of a second major shift in theological reflection during this century, a shift in which the main issue will be not only how we can change the world but how we can save it from deterioration and its species from extinction.
The extraordinary events of the past few years, with the simultaneous lessening of cold-war tension and worldwide awakening to the consequences of human destruction of the flora and fauna and the ecosystem that supports them, signal a major change in focus. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the focus of the liberation theologies widened to include, in addition to all oppressed human beings, all oppressed creatures as well as planet earth.
Liberation theologies insist rightly that all theologies are written from particular contexts. The one context which has been neglected and is now emerging is the broadest as well as the most basic: the context of the planet, a context which we all share and without which we cannot survive. It seems to me that this latest shift in 20th-century theology is not to a different issue from that of liberation theologies, but to a deepening of it, a recognition that the fate of the oppressed and the fate of the earth are inextricably interrelated, for we all live on one planet – a planet vulnerable to our destructive behaviour.
The link between justice and ecological issues becomes especially evident in light of the dualistic, hierarchical mode of Western thought in which a superior and an inferior are correlated: male/ female, white people/people of colour, heterosexual/homosexual, able-bodied/physically challenged, culture/ nature, mind/body, human/nonhuman. These correlated terms – most often normatively ranked – reveal clearly that domination and destruction of the natural world is inexorably linked with the domination and oppression of the poor, people of colour, and all others that fall on the ‘inferior’ side of the correlation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ancient and deep identification of women and nature, an identification so profound that it touches the very marrow of our being: our birth from the bodies of our mothers and our nourishment from the body of the earth. The power of nature – and of women – to give and withhold life epitomizes the inescapable connection between the two and thus the necessary relationship of justice and ecological issues. As many have noted, the status of women and the status of nature have been historically commensurate: as goes one, so goes the other.
A similar correlation can be seen between other forms of human oppression and a disregard for the natural world. Unless ecological health is maintained, for instance, the poor and others with limited access to scarce goods (due to race, class, gender, or physical capability) cannot be fed. Grain must be grown for all to have bread. The characteristic Western mind-set has accorded intrinsic value, and hence duties of justice, principally to the upper half of the dualism and has considered it appropriate for those on the lower half to be used for the benefit of those on the upper. Western multinational corporations, for example, regard it as ‘reasonable’ and ‘normal’ to use Third World people and natural resources for their own financial benefit, at whatever cost to the indigenous peoples and the health of their lands.
The connection among the various forms of oppression is increasingly becoming clear to many, as evidenced by the World Council of Churches’ inclusion of ‘the integrity of creation’ in its rallying cry of ‘peace and justice.’ In the closing years of the 20th century we are being called to do something unprecedented: to think wholistically, to think about ‘everything that is,’ because everything on this planet is interrelated and interdependent and hence the fate of each is tied to the fate of the whole.
This state of affairs brought about a major ‘conversion’ in my own theological journey. I began as an Earthian in the ‘50s, finding Earth’s heady divine transcendence and ‘otherness’ to be as invigorating as cold mountain air to my conventional religious upbringing. Like many of my generation, I found in Earth what appeared to be a refreshing and needed alternative to liberalism. But after years of work on the poetic, metaphorical nature of religious language land hence its relative, constructive, and necessarily changing character), and in view of feminism’s critique of the hierarchical, dualistic nature of the language of the Jewish and Christian traditions, my bonds to biblicism and the Barthian God loosened. Those years were the ‘deconstructive’ phase of my development as a theologian.
My constructive phase began upon reading Gordon Kaufman’s 1983 Presidential Address to the American Academy of Religion. Kaufman called for a paradigm shift, given the exigencies of our time – the possibility of nuclear war. He called theologians to deconstruct and reconstruct the basic symbols of the Jewish and Christian traditions – God, Christ, and Torah – so as to be on the side of life rather than against it, as was the central symbol of God with its traditional patriarchal, hierarchical, militaristic imagery. I answered this call, and my subsequent work has been concerned with contributing to that task.
While the nuclear threat has lessened somewhat, the threat of ecological deterioration has increased: they are related as ‘quick kill’ to ‘slow death.’ In other words, we have been given some time. We need to use it well, for we may not have much of it. The agenda this shift sets for theologians is multifaceted, given the many different tasks that need to be done. This paradigm shift, if accepted, suggests a new mode of theological production, one characterized by advocacy, collegiality, and the appreciation of differences.
Until the rise of liberation theologies, theology was more concerned with having intellectual respectability in the academy than with forging an alliance with the oppressed or particular political or social attitudes and practices. There was a convenient division between theology (concerned with the knowledge of God) and ethics (a lesser enterprise for action-oriented types). Theologians were also usually ‘solo’ players, each concerned to write his (the ‘hers’ were in short supply) magnum opus, a complete systematic theology. As the deconstructionists have underscored, these theologians also strove to assert, against different voices, the one voice (their own – or at least the voice of their own kind) as the truth, the ‘universal’ truth.
Our situation calls for a different way of conducting ourselves as theologians. Like all people we need, in both our personal and professional lives, to work for the well-being of our planet and all its creatures. We need to work in a collegial fashion, realizing that we contribute only a tiny fragment. Feminists have often suggested a ‘quilt’ metaphor as an appropriate methodology: each of us can contribute only a small ‘square’ to the whole. Such a view of scholarship may appear alien to an academy that rewards works ‘totalizing’ others in the field and insisting on one view.
The times are too perilous and it is too late in the day for such games. We need to work together, each in his or her own small way, to create a planetary situation that is more viable and less vulnerable. A collegial theology explicitly supports difference. One of the principal insights of both feminism and post-modern science is that while everything is interrelated and interdependent, everything (maple leaves, stars, deer, dirt – and not just human beings) is different from everything else. Individuality and interrelatedness are features of the universe hence; no one voice or single species is the only one that counts.
If advocacy, collegiality, and difference characterized theological reflection and if the agenda of theology widened to include the context of our planet, some significant changes would occur. I will suggest three.
First, it would mean a more or less common agenda for theological reflection, though one with an almost infinite number of different tasks. The encompassing agenda would be to deconstruct and reconstruct the central symbols of the Jewish and Christian tradition in favour of life and its fulfilment, keeping the liberation the oppressed, including the earth and all its creatures, in central focus. That is so broad, so inclusive an agenda that it allows for myriad ways to construe it and carry it out. It does, however, turn the eyes of theologians away from heaven and toward the earth; or, more accurately, it causes us to connect the starry heavens with the earth, as the ‘common’ creation story claims, telling us that everything in the universe, including stars, dirt, robins, black holes, sunsets, plants, and human beings, is the product of an enormous explosion billions of years ago. In whatever ways we might reconstruct the symbols of God, human being and earth, this can no longer be done in a dualistic fashion, for the heavens and the earth are one phenomenon, albeit an incredibly ancient, rich, and varied one.
If theology is going to reflect wholistically, that is, in terms of the picture of Current reality, then it must do so in ways consonant with the new story of creation. One clear directive that this story gives theology is to understand human beings as earthlings (not aliens or tourists on the planet) and God, as immanently present in the processes of the universe, including those of our planet. Such a focus has important implications for the contribution of theologians to ‘saving the planet,’ for theologies emerging from a coming together of God and humans in and on the earth imply a cosmocentric rather than anthropocentric focus. This does not, by the way, mean that theology should reject theocentrism; rather, it means that the divine concern includes all of creation. Nor does it imply the substitution of a creation focus for the tradition’s concern with redemption; rather, it insists that redemption should include all dimensions of creation, not just human beings.
A second implication of accepting this paradigm shift is a focus on praxis. As Juan Segundo has said, theology is not one of the ‘liberal arts,’ for it contains an element of the prophetic, making it at the very least an unpopular enterprise and at times a dangerous one. The academy has been suspicious of it with good reason, willing to accept religious studies but aware that theology contains an element of commitment foreign to the canons of scholarly objectivity. (Marxist or Freudian commitments, curiously, have been acceptable in the academy, but not theological ones.) Increasingly, however, the hermeneutics of suspicion and deconstruction are helping to unmask simplistic, absolutist notions of objectivity, revealing a variety of perspectives, interpretations, commitments, and contexts. Moreover, this variety is being viewed as not only enriching but also necessary. Hence the emphasis on praxis and commitment, on a concerned theology, need in no way imply a lack of scholarly rigor or a retreat to fideism. Rather, it insists that one of the criteria of constructive theological reflection – thinking about our place in the earth and the earth’s relation to its source – is a concern with the consequences of proposed constructions for those who live within them.
Theological constructs are no more benign than scientific ones. With the marriage of science and technology beginning in the 17th century, the commitments and concerns of the scientific community have increasingly been determined by the military-industrial-government complex that funds basic research. The ethical consequences of scientific research – which projects get funded and the consequences of the funded projects – are or ought to be scientific issues and not issues merely for the victims of the fall – out of these projects. Likewise, theological reflection is a concerned affair, concerned that this constructive thinking be on the side of the well-being of the planet and al its creatures. For centuries people have lived within the constructs of Christian reflection and interpretation, unknowingly as well as knowingly. Some of these constructs have been liberating, but many others have been oppressive, patriarchal, and provincial. Indeed, theology is not a ‘liberal art,’ but a prophetic activity, announcing and interpreting the salvific love of God to all of creation.
A third implication of this paradigm shift is that the theological task is not only diverse in itself (there are many theologies), but also contributes to the planetary agenda of the 21st century, an agenda that beckons and challenges us to move beyond nationalism, militarism, limitless economic growth, consumerism, uncontrollable population growth, and ecological deterioration. In wars that have never before been so clear and stark, we have met the enemy and know it is ourselves. While the wholistic, planetary perspective leads some to insist that all will be well if a ‘creation spirituality’ were to replace the traditional ‘redemption spirituality’ of the Christian tradition, the issue is not that simple. It is surely the case that the overemphasis on redemption to the neglect of creation needs to be redressed; moreover, there is much in the common creation story that calls us to a profound appreciation of the wonders of our being and the being of all other creatures. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that such knowledge and appreciation will be sufficient to deal with the exigencies of our situation.
The enemy – indifferent, selfish, short-sighted, xenophobic, anthropocentric, greedy human beings – calls, at the very least, for a renewed emphasis on sin as the cause of much of the planet’s woes and an emphasis on a broad and profound repentance. Theology, along with other institutions, fields of study, and expertise, can deepen our sense of complicity in the earth’s decay. In addition to turning our eyes and hearts to an appreciation of the beauty, richness, and singularity of our planet through a renewed theology of creation and nature, theology ought also to underscore and elaborate on the myriad ways that we personally and corporately have ruined and continue to ruin God’s splendid creation – acts which we and no other creature can knowingly commit. The present dire situation calls for radicalizing the Christian understanding of sin and evil. Human responsibility for the fate of the earth is a recent and terrible knowledge; our loss of innocence is total, for we know what we have done. If theologians were to accept this context and agenda of their work, they would see themselves in dialogue with all those in other areas and fields similarly engaged: those who feed the homeless and fight for animal rights; the cosmologists who tell us of the common origins land hence interrelatedness) of all forms of matter and life; economists who examine how we must change if the earth is to support its population; the legislators and judges who work to advance civil rights for those discriminated against in our society; the Greenham women who picket nuclear plants, and the women of northern India who literally ‘hug’ trees to protect them from destruction, and so on and on.
Theology is an ‘earthy’ affair in the best sense of that word: it helps people to live rightly, appropriately, on the earth, in our home. It is, as the Jewish and Christian traditions have always insisted, concerned with ‘right relations,’ relations with God, neighbour, and self, but now the context has broadened to include what has dropped out of the picture in the past few hundred years– the oppressed neighbours, the other creatures, and the earth that supports us all. This shift could be seen as a return to the roots of a tradition that has insisted on the creator, redeemer God as the source and salvation of all that is. We now know that ‘all that is’ is vaster, more complex, more awesome, more interdependent, than any other people have ever known. The new theologies that emerge from such a context have the opportunity to view divine transcendence in deeper, more awesome, and more intimate ways than ever before. They also have the obligation to understand human beings and all other forms of life as radically interrelated and interdependent as well as to understand our special responsibility for the planet’s well-being.
My own work takes place within this context and attempts to add a small square to the growing planetary quilt. I would like to become very specific now. What is my – little ‘square’ that I offer to the common quilt? What can I as a theologian in the Christian tradition do constructively so that our planet can continue to support life in community? I emphasise ‘as a theologian,’ because I believe that the planetary agenda cannot be an avocation, something one does in addition to one’s everyday work – a pastime or hobby, as it were – but needs to be one’s vocation one’s central calling. It is perhaps obvious how raising children, gardening, teaching, nursing, or caring for animals might contribute to the planet’s agenda, but how does theology (let alone business, law, housekeeping, plumbing, or car manufacturing)? I leave it to each of those areas to imagine how they might fit, for I believe they, in fact, must fit (if not, their legitimacy is in question). But those who practice these arts and skills ought to be the ones who say in what ways they do fit or ought to change in order to do so.
There are many different theological tasks relevant to planetary well-being. One of central importance is learning to think differently about ourselves, others, and our planet, because learning to think differently usually precedes being willing and able to act differently. Much of one’s thinking at the basic level of worldview and one’s place in it is derived from the dominant images in the religious traditions of one’s culture. This ‘thinking’ is not primarily conscious, nor is it limited to active members of a religious tradition. Western culture was and still is profoundly formed by the Hebrew and Christian religions and their stories, images, and concepts regarding the place of human beings, history, and nature in the scheme of things. Moreover, I believe it is the major images or metaphors of a tradition that influence behaviour more powerfully than its central concepts or ideas. For instance, it is the image of God as king and lord rather than the idea of God as transcendent that has entered deeply into Western consciousness.
Let me suggest briefly some ways in which the modern worldview that is widely held in our culture has been deeply influenced by Christianity, and especially by Protestant Christianity. As many have pointed out, the Christian tradition is and has been not only deeply androcentric (centred on males and male imagery for the divine), but also deeply anthropocentric (focused on human well-being) to the almost total neglect of other species and the natural world, especially during the last few hundred years. It is also focused on redemption narrowly conceived, on human salvation, often understood in individualistic and otherworldly terms. The creation and health of all, of the earth and its creatures, has seldom been a central concern of the tradition. Moreover, the dominant imagery of this tradition has been monarchical. God is imaged as king, lord, and patriarch of a kingdom that he rules, a kingdom hierarchically ordered. God has all the power in this picture, with human beings seen as rebellious, prideful sinners against the divine right.
Needless to say, this picture is not what thoughtful Christians or other thoughtful people influenced by Christian culture hold consciously, but its main tenets have seeped into the Western worldview to the extent that most Westerners, quite unselfconsciously, believe in the sacredness of every individual human being (while scarcely protesting the extinction of all the members of other species); believe males to be ‘naturally’ superior to females; find human fulfilment (however one defines it) more important than the well-being of the planet; and picture God (whether or not one is a believer) as a distant, almighty super-person. Moreover, this dualistic, hierarchical picture supports another form of dangerous behaviour: the superiority of one’s own nation over others and hence the validation of a nationalistic, militaristic, xenophobic horizon. Christianity is surely not alone responsible for this worldview, but to the extent it has contributed to and supported it, the deconstruction of some of its major metaphors and the construction of others is in order.
The portrayal of God as monarch ruling over his kingdom is the dominant model in Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant thinking and is so widely accepted that it often is not recognized as a picture, that is, a construction of the divine/ human relationship. To many, God b the lord and king of the universe.1 Yet the monarchical model has been thoroughly and roundly criticised not only by feminists but by a host of other theologians as well. It is not necessary to review the criticism of the model here, except for a few points. In the monarchical model, God is distant from the world, relates only to the human world, and controls that world through domination and benevolence.2
On the first point: the relationship of a king to his subjects is necessarily a distant one, for royalty is ‘untouchable.’ God as king is in his kingdom, which is not of this earth, and we remain in another place, far from his dwelling. In this picture, God is worldless and the world is Godless – the world is empty of God’s presence. Whatever one does for the world is finally not important in this model, for its ruler does not inhabit it as his primary residence and his subjects are well advised not to become too enamoured of it either. At most, the king is benevolent, but this benevolence extends only to human subjects.
And this is the second point: as a political model focused on governing human beings, it leaves out the entire rest of the earth and its many creatures. It is simply blank as to the natural world and hence has encouraged a similar indifference in human beings. God’s kingdom is composed exclusively of human beings.
Finally, in this model, God rules either through domination or benevolence, thus undercutting human responsibility for the earth. It is simplistic to blame the Hebrew and Christian traditions for the ecological crisis, as some have done, on the grounds that Genesis instructs human beings to have ‘dominion’ over nature; nevertheless, the imagery of sovereignty supports attitudes of control and use toward the non-human world. Whatever might have been nature’s superiority in the past, the balance of power has shifted to us. Extinction of species by nature, for instance, is in a different dimension from extinction by design, which only we can bring about. The model is lacking, even if God’s power is seen as benevolent rather than as domineering. Then it is assumed that all will be well, that God will care for the world with no help from us. The heavenly father will take care of his children; we can leave it up to him.
The images in this model are constructions, and as such they are partial, relative, and inadequate. They are metaphors abstracted from human relations (relations with kings, lords, masters) and applied to God. Hence, they are in no sense ‘descriptions’ of God; yet their power is deep and old, their influence inscribed into our being from our earliest years. They are, therefore, difficult to discard. Yet, as we have seen, the monarchical model is dangerous in our time, for it encourages a sense of distance from the world, is concerned only with human beings, and supports attitudes of either domination of the world or passivity toward it. This chilling realization adds a new importance to the images we use to characterize our relationship to God, to others, and to the non-human world. No matter how ancient a metaphorical tradition may be, and regardless of its credentials in scripture, liturgy, and creedal statements, it still must be discarded if it threatens the continuation and fulfilment of life. If, as I believe, the heart of the Christian gospel is the salvific power of God for all of creation, triumphalistic metaphors cannot express that reality in our time whatever their appropriateness may have been in the past.
What are other possibilities for imaging God’s relationship to the world and our place within it? The first question one must ask is: what world? Probably the single most important thing that theologians can do for the planetary agenda is to insist that the ‘world’ in question, the world in which to understand both God and human beings, is the contemporary scientific picture of the earth, its history, and our place in it that is emerging from cosmology, astrophysics, and biology. Neither the world of the Bible, nor of Newtonian dualistic mechanism, nor of present-day creationism is the world to which we must respond as theologians. I am not suggesting in any sense that science dictate to theology or that the two fields be integrated, but making a much more modest, though critically important, proposal. Contemporary theology, if it is to help people to think and act wholistically, must make its understanding of the God/world relationship consonant with contemporary views of reality. A theology that is not commensurate with reality as culturally understood is not credible. Moreover, the contemporary view coming from the sciences is so awesome, rich, and provocative for imaging both divine and human relationships that the political models seem pale and narrow in comparison.
In broad strokes, the common creation story emerging from the various sciences claims that some fifteen or so billion years ago the universe began with a big bang, exploding matter, which was intensely hot and infinitely concentrated, outward to create some hundred billion galaxies of which our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one, housing our sun and its planets. From this beginning came all that followed, so that everything that is is related, woven into a seamless network, with life gradually emerging after billions of years on this planet land probably on others as well), and evolving into the incredibly complex and beautiful earth that is our home. All things living and all things not living are the products of the same primal explosion and evolutionary history, and hence are interrelated in (an internal way from the very beginning. We are distant cousins to the stars and near relations to the oceans, plants, and all other living creatures on our planet.
The characteristics of this picture suggest radically different possibilities for understanding both God and human existence than we found in the monarch/realm worldview. The ‘world’ here is, first of all, the universe, beside which the traditional range of divine concern mainly with human subjects dwindles, to put it mildly. In this view, God relates to the entire fifteen-billion-year history of the universe and all its entities, living and nonliving. On the ‘clock’ of the universe, human existence appears a few seconds before midnight. This suggests, surely, that the whole show could scarcely have been put on for our benefit; our natural anthropocentrism is, indeed, sobered. Nevertheless, it took fifteen billion years to evolve creatures as complex as human beings; hence, the question arises of our peculiar role in this story, especially in relation to our own planet.
A second feature of the common creation story is the radical interrelatedness and interdependence of all aspects of it, a feature of utmost importance to the development of an ecological sensibility. It is one story, a common story, so that everything that is traces its ancestral roots within it, and the closer in time and space entities are, the closer they are related. Thus, while we may rightly feel some distance from such ‘relatives’ as exploding stars, we are ‘kissing cousins’ with everything on planet earth and literally brothers and sisters to all other human beings. Such intimacy does not, however, undercut difference; in fact, one of the outstanding features of post-modern science’s view of reality is that individuality and interdependence characterize everything. It is not just human beings that have individuality, for the veins on every maple leaf, the configuration of every sunset, and the composition of every pile of dirt is different from every other one. This portrayal of reality undercuts notions of human existence as separate from the natural, physical world; or of human individuality as the only form of individuality; or of human beings existing apart from radical interdependence and interrelatedness with others of our own species, with other species, and with the ecosystem. The continuity of nonliving and living matter displays another crucial feature: the inverse dependency of the most complex entities on the less complex. Thus, the plants can do very nicely without us, but we would perish quickly without them. The higher and more complex the level, the more vulnerable it is and the more dependent upon the levels that support it. Again, we see implications for reconceiving the ‘place’ of human beings in the scheme of things.
Another feature of the common creation story is its public character; it is available to all who wish to learn about it. Other creation stories, the cosmogonies of the various world religions, are sectarian, limited to the adherents of different religions. Our present one is not so limited, for any person on the planet has potential access to it and simply as a human being is included in it. This common story is available to be remythologized by any and every religious tradition and hence is a place of meeting for the religions, whose conflicts in the past and present have often been the cause of immense suffering and bloodshed. What this common story suggests is that our primary loyalty should not be to nation or religion, but to the Earth and its Creator (albeit that Creator may be understood in different ways). We are members of the universe and citizens of planet earth. Were that reality to sink into human consciousness all over the world, not only war among human beings but ecological destruction would have little support in reality. This is not to say they would disappear, but those who continued in such practices would be living a lie, that is, living in a way that is out of keeping with reality as currently understood.
Finally, the common creation story is a story: it is an historical narrative with a beginning, middle, and presumed end, unlike the Newtonian universe which was static and deterministic. It is not a ‘realm’ belonging to a king, but a changing, living, evolving event (with billions of smaller events making up its history). In our new cosmic story, time is irreversible, genuine novelty results from the interplay of chance and necessity, and the future is open. This is an unfinished universe, a dynamic universe, still in process. Other cosmologies, including mythic ones such as Genesis and even early scientific ones, have not been historical, for in them creation was ‘finished.’ Rather than viewing God as an external, separate being ruling over the world, it is appropriate to see God as in, with, and under the entire evolutionary process. Paul’s statement that God is the one ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ takes on new and profound significance. In this picture God would be understood as a continuing creator, but of equal importance, we human beings might be seen as partners, as the self-conscious, reflexive part of the creation that can participate in furthering the process.
To summarise: the characteristics of the common creation story suggest a decentering and recentering of human beings. We are radically interrelated with and dependent on everything else in the universe and especially on our planet. We exist as individuals in a vast community of individuals within the ecosystem, each of which is related in intricate ways to all others in the community of life. We exist, with all other human beings from other nations and religions, within a common creation story that each of us can know about and identify with. The creation of which we are a part is an ongoing, dynamic story which we alone (so we believe) understand, and hence, we have the potential to help it continue and thrive, or to let it deteriorate through our destructive, greedy ways.
Our position in this story is radically different than in the king/realm picture. We are decentered as the only subjects of the king and recentered as those responsible for both knowing the common creation story and being able to help it flourish. In this story we feel profoundly connected with all other forms of life, not in a romantic way, but in a realistic way. We are so connected, and hence, we had better live as if we were. We feel deeply related, especially, to all other human beings, our closest relatives, and realize that together we need to learn to live responsibly and appropriately in our common home.
If this kind of thinking became widespread – thinking of ourselves as citizens of the planet, breaking down all forms of parochialism – some of the things that must happen if we and the earth are to survive and flourish, might be able to. Once the scales have fallen from one’s eyes, once one has seen and believed that reality is put together in such a fashion that one is profoundly united to and interdependent with all other beings, everything is changed. One sees the world differently: not anthropocentrically, not in a utilitarian way, not in terms of dualistic hierarchies, not in parochial terms. One has a sense of belonging to the earth, having a place in it along with all other creatures, and loving it more than one ever thought possible.
But, interestingly, such a perspective does not diminish either human beings or God; in fact, both are enlarged. Human beings have been decentered as the point and goal of creation, and recentered as partners in its continuing creation. God has been decentered as king of human beings and recentered as the source, power, and goal of the fifteen-billion-year history of the universe. As ethicist James Gustafson puts it, while we are not the ‘measure’ of creation, we are its ‘measurer’ (Gustafson 1981, 82). We are not the centre or the point of creation, but we are the only ones, to our knowledge, who know the story of creation. In fact, we human beings presently alive are the first human beings who really know this story, because it is only in the last fifty years or less that it has gradually emerged from the scientific community. We alone know this awesome fact, and the more one knows about this story– the micro and macro worlds that surround our middle world, the worlds of the very tiny and the unimaginable immense and ancient– the more filled with wonder one becomes. This is not to suggest that an aesthetic response is the principal one. Wonder and awe at the immensity and age of the universe can generate a sense of indifference toward puny earthly problems. A genuine aesthetic response is necessarily accompanied by an ethical one; that is, our responsibility for preserving the beauty, diversity, and well-being of our tiny corner of the universe, planet earth. As those responsible for helping the creative process to continue and thrive on our planet, we can scarcely imagine a higher calling. We have been recentered as co-creators.
In this picture of God and the world, God is certainly not diminished. To think of God as creator and continuing creator of this massive, breathtaking cosmic history makes all other traditional images of divine transcendence, whether political or metaphysical, seem small, indeed. The model of God as king is, by comparison, ‘domesticated transcendence,’ for a king only rules over human beings. A genuinely transcendent model would insist that God is the source, power, and goal of the total universe, but a source, power, and goal that works within its natural processes; hence, the model, while genuinely transcendent, is also profoundly immanental. The king/realm model is neither genuinely transcendent (God is king over one species recently arrived on a minor planet in an ordinary galaxy) nor genuinely immanent (God as king is an external super person, not the source, power, and goal of the entire universe).
The model that comes to mind as we think about God and the world in the new creation story is not ‘the king and his realm’ but the ‘universe as God’s body.’ The ancient organic metaphor which, in one form or another, was central to the Western sensibility for thousands of years until it was replaced by the mechanistic model in the seventeenth century, is emerging again in post-modern science, in ecology, and in feminism. It has, of course, ah4ays been present in Goddess religions and in Native American traditions.
The universe as God’s body is an immensely attractive, powerful model. To think of the entire evolutionary process, with all the billions of galaxies of stars and planets from the beginning of time, some fifteen billion years ago, as the ‘body’ of God, the visible ‘sacrament’ as it were of the invisible God, is a model of profound immanence and overwhelming transcendence. God is immanent in all – the processes of reality, expressing the divine intentions and purposes through those processes, and at the same time God, as the agent of the process, is transcendent over it, though as its internal source, power, and goal rather than as an external controller.
As a physical image stressing divine embodiment, it underscores what our tradition has seldom allowed: that matter is of God and is good, that, indeed, if God is embodied, then matter, the natural world, is not only ‘good’ but in some sense sacred – a place where God is present. It is a model that could be a rival to the monarchical language, for the base, or conventional meaning of the model, is of profound and radical importance to us: our bodies and the bodies of other human beings whom wt love, as well as the bodies of life forms we rely on and are now coming to appreciate (other animals, trees, plants, rocks, sky, and sail); It is a model with great religious potential, for it opens up the entire universe and especially our planet as a way of making God sacramentally present to us – God does not meet us only in the despair of personal crises nor only in the political battles for the liberation of oppressed human beings, but also in the beauty as well as the increasing deterioration of the natural world. Moreover, this model suggests a decentering and recentering for human being, a new sense of our proper place in the scheme of things – a place not as God’s darling but as God’s partner, as the ones, at least on our planet, who can and must take care of the body of God.
With the common creation story we now have a resource for re-imaging and radicalizing God as creator and redeemer of all that is, with human well-being as one important though by no means the only focus of divine concern. Within this story we human beings find, once again, our proper place within the whole, a place that, with the rise of modern science and its wedding to technology, seemingly giving us control over the natural world, we have forgotten. Yet now our place is more responsible than ever before, because we know that we have power, not the power to create but the power to destroy. We realize that it is only by living appropriately, in proper relations with all other beings, that wt can fulfil our responsibilities to the well-being of creation. Within this story, God is, once again, the source, power, and goal of all that is, the creator and redeemer of the cosmos, and not merely king of human beings. Yet, now God is giver and renewer of a universe so vast, so old, so diverse, so complex that all earlier and other images of divine glory and transcendence are dwarfed by comparison. And yet, this transcendence is one immanental to the universe, for God is not a super-person, a king, external to cosmic processes, but the source, power, and goal immanent in these processes.
One of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation was ‘let God be God.’ That is precisely what the common creation story, as a resource for theology, suggests. It is God and not we who crer8tes and makes whole. We, at the most, are helpers, whose proper place within the whole on which we depend is to acknowledge who we are in reality and where we ht The common creation story tells us that the earth is our home; we belong here; and we have responsibilities to our home.
It is precisely this sense of belonging, of being at home, that is the heart of the matter. It is the heart of the matter because it is the case: we do belong. As philosopher Mary Midgley writes, ‘We are not tourists here … We are at home in this world because we were made for it. We have developed here, on: this planet, and we are adapted to life here … We are not fit to live anywhere else’ (Midgley 1978, 194-95). Post-modern science allows us to regain what late medieval culture lost at the Reformation and during the rise of dualistic mechanism in the 17th century; a sense of the whole and where we fit in it. Medieval culture was organic, at least to the extent that it saw human beings, while still central, as embedded in nature and dependent upon God. For the last several centuries, for a variety of complex reasons, we have lost that sense of belonging. Protestant focus on the individual and otherworldly salvation, as well as Cartesian dualism of mind and body, divided what we are now trying to bring back together and what must be reintegrated if we and other being are to survive and prosper. But now, once again, we know that we belong to the earth, and we know it more deeply and thoroughly than any other human beings have ever known it. The common creation story is more than a scientific affair; it is implicitly – deeply moral, for it raises the question of the place of human beings in nature and calls for a kind of praxis in which we are ourselves in proportion, in harmony, and in a fitting manner relating to all others that live and all systems that support life.
To feel that we belong to the earth and to accept our proper place within it is the beginning of a natural piety, what Jonathan Edwards called ‘consent to being,’ consent to what is. It is the sense that we and all others belong together in a cosmos, related in an orderly fashion, one to the other. It is the sense that each and every being is valuable in and for itself, and that the whole forms a unity in which each being, including oneself, has a place. It involves an ethical response, for the sense of belonging, of being at home, only comes when we accept our proper place and live in a fitting, appropriate way with all other beings. It is, finally, a religious sense, a response of wonder at and appreciation for the unbelievably vast, old, rich, diverse, and surprising cosmos, of which one’s self is an infinitesimal but conscious part, the part able to sing its praises.
To summarize: one square in the quilt, one contribution to the planetary agenda, is the deconstruction of models and metaphors oppressive and dangerous to our planet as well as the suggestion of alternatives. Since the Christian tradition has contributed a number of problematic images, it is incumbent upon its theologians to analyze and criticize such models and metaphors. It is also the responsibility of theologians to suggest, from current resources, alternative models and metaphors to express the relation of God to the cosmos as well as the place of human beings in the cosmos. The common creation story is one such rich resource to re-image both divine and human reality in relation to the universe, and especially to our planet.
In conclusion, the planetary agenda is the most serious, most awesome fact facing us; it is concerned with whether we live or die and how well we live, if we do live – questions usually reserved for religions and their solutions to issues of mortality and salvation. We see now, however, that health and well-being are profoundly ‘earthy’ affairs – while still being religious ones, with all the urgency of religious questions. It is no exaggeration to say that the planetary agenda is a life-and-death matter. We now know this, and we know that our time is limited to do what needs to be done. The planetary agenda is everyone’s agenda. Each of us is called upon to contribute one square to the quilt. As time is short, we had better get about the business of doing so.
1. ‘The monarchical model of God as King was developed systematically, both in Jewish thought (God as Lord and King of the Universe), in medieval Christian thought (with its emphasis on divine omnipotence), and in the Reformation (especially in Calvin’s insistence on God’s sovereignty). In the portrayal of God’s relation to the world, the dominant western historical model has been that of the absolute monarch ruling over his kingdom’ (Barbour 1974, 156).
2. For a more complete critique of the monarchical model, see McFague 1987, ch. 3).
Barbour, Ian. Myths, Models and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion (Harper and Rowe, 1974).
Gustafson, James. Ethics from aTheocentric Position (University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 81.
McFague, Sallie. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age(Fortress Press, 1987).
Midgley, Mary. Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature (Cornell University Press, 1978), pp194-195.
|It has to be emphasised that this page is written primarily for a UK and European audience.There is an enormous web-site (Sierra Club) devoted to John Muir.
John Muir in Scotland
The John Muir Trust is concerned with the preservation of Wilderness areas.
John Muir’s birthplace in Dunbar has been preserved as a museum and visitor centre.
The Life and times of John Muir
It has been my experience that when you mention the name John Muir the reaction is often, ‘Who? I’ve never heard of him.
In America he features in the primary school curriculum. Elsewhere, he is less well known and I feel that I have to provide a bit of background before launching in to a brief biography and analysis of John Muir’s thinking.
The nineteenth century biologist, staunch supporter of Charles Darwin, and originator of the term ‘agnostic’, Thomas Henry Huxley believed in a mechanistic and determined world. I quote, the existing world lay, potentially in the cosmic vapour, and a sufficient intelligence could, from a knowledge of the properties of that vapour, have predicted, say, the state of the Fauna of Great Britain in 1868. At the same time, Huxley was moved to select some passages from the writings of the Romantic poet and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for inclusion in the first issue of the prestigious scientific journal Nature. Again I quote:
Goethe’s view of Nature is fairly typical of the reaction against mechanistic views characteristic of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century European Romanticism, epitomised in the writings of Coleridge and Wordsworth
It is this vision of the natural world, the Romantic vision, in its own development and how it fared in opposition to the main stream mechanistic and deterministic views that I want to focus on. And in particular I want to look at what happened in America because what happened there has, I think, had a more profound influence on today’s world, than what happened in Europe.
The Romantic vision made the Trans-Atlantic crossing in the person of the American poet, essayist and unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson.
This is how Emerson opened an address to the Senior Divinity Class of Harvard University in July 1838. This openness to nature did not go own very well and Emerson was not invited back to Harvard for the best part of thirty years.
In 1833, just five years before Emerson’s address to the Divinity Class, he made a tour of Europe during which he visited Coleridge and Wordsworth. Both men were then in their sixties and Emerson’s visit was probably in the nature of a pilgrimage to the feet of the Grand Old Men of English Romanticism.
The first fruits of the Romantic influence on Emerson appeared in 1836 with the publication of his essay Nature. He started work on it on the voyage home from Europe.
Just a year later, 1837, Henry David Thoreau graduated from Harvard, hoping to follow a career as a writer. Emerson offered Thoreau a place in his home, earning his keep as a handyman, while he concentrated on his writing. There he stayed until shortly before moving to Walden Pond in July 1845. The book that Thoreau wrote about the two years he spent in this more or less wilderness area was, and still is, an important contribution to environmental thinking.
I think it can be argued that the modern environmental movement has its origins in the combination of European Romanticism and the American obsession with wilderness. Thoreau set the scene but I believe that the chief honours have to go to a Scotsman, John Muir.
John Muir was born at 128 High Street, Dunbar, Scotland on 21st April 1838. It is typical of him that he opens the autobiography of his youth with the statement that, ‘When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything that was wild … though solemnly warned that I must play at home in the garden and back yard, lest I should learn to think bad thoughts and say bad words. All in vain. In spite of the sure sore punishments that followed like shadows, the natural inherited wildness in our blood ran true on its glorious course as invincible and unstoppable as stars’. We are told about the sea and the sky, the birds and the fields, and ‘a mother field mouse with half a dozen naked young hanging to her teats’, before being introduced to his own parents, Daniel and Ann, his grandfather, his elder sisters Margaret and Sarah and younger brother David.
In 1849 when John was 11 years old, the family emigrated to America and started farming at Fountain Lake in Marquette County, Wisconsin. Again, John’s first comments about his new life refer to wildness, ‘This sudden plash into pure wildness – baptism in Nature’s warm heart – how utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons, so unlike the dismal grammar ashes and cinders so long thrashed into us.’ Not for the best part of three chapters, dealing with the natural surroundings, the lake, the birds and the animals, do we learn of the long hours of intense physical labour that were expected of him.
John got no schooling. His father, who was deeply religious with a strong fundamentalist faith, devoted more and more of his time to evangelism. He became an itinerant preacher and left most of the running of the farm to the rest of his family, with the bulk of the burden falling on the eldest son John. In spite of, perhaps because of his father’s disapproval, John did his best to educate himself, reading widely in literature, including the English Romantics, and in mathematics and philosophy.
In 1860, at the age of 22, John Muir left home, taking with him a clock he had made entirely from wood and a thermometer of his own design. These attracted considerable attention when displayed at a Fair at Madison. This success led to his enrolling as a student at the University of Wisconsin, where he studied for two and a half years, maintaining himself by teaching in a local school. At the University he was introduced to the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, to the evolutionary theories in geology of Charles Lyell and Louis Agassiz and the very new and up-to-date theory of the Origin of Species just published (1859) by Charles Darwin. While at Wisconsin John Muir developed a passionate interest in botany that was to enrich so much of the rest of his life.
In 1864 without completing his studies at Wisconsin, John Muir went to Canada. The more recent of his biographers are clear that he did this in order to avoid being drafted into the Union army to fight in the civil war. Previous biographers were more reticent on this point. On his return to America, Muir got a job as an engineer at a carriage factory in Indianapolis. In an accident he suffered serious damage to one of his eyes. On recovering, a process that took several months, Muir decided to give up on mechanical inventions and to devote the rest of his life to the study of ‘the inventions of God’, as he put it.
In the year 1867, at the age of 29, Muir set out on a very long walk of 1000 miles from Indianapolis to Florida. Influenced by the writings of the German geographer and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, Muir’s original intention was to reach South America. He was diverted from this by suffering from a fairly serious fever in Florida. On recovering, and by a roundabout route via Cuba and New York, he arrived in San Francisco on 28th March 1868 and immediately made his way to the Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada mountains which was to be his home, off and on, for the next twelve years. For the first five years John Muir lived throughout the year in or near the valley, earning his keep by various tasks, caring for sheep, managing a saw-mill, and guiding. He saw to it that paid work occupied as little of his time as possible and that most of his time was spent exploring and studying the Yosemite valley and its surroundings.
What sparked John Muir’s intense interest in Yosemite, apart from the sheer beauty and magnificence of the place, was a geological controversy about how the valley came to be. The generally accepted story about the Yosemite Valley was that it was formed by a collapse into some subterranean abyss. John Muir came to believe that it was formed by the action of glaciers, and indeed that the whole of the Sierra Nevada range, with the possible exception of some of the highest peaks, was sculptured by the action of ice acting over tens of thousands of years.
He describes his methods:
In May 1871 Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Yosemite with some friends. In an account of the event Muir says, I was excited as I had never been excited before, and my heart throbbed as if an angel from heaven had alighted on the Sierran rocks.After some hesitation Muir introduced himself to Emerson and over the following days they spent much time together. To his profound disappointment he was unable to persuade Emerson’s friends to allow him to camp out under the trees, but the house habit was not to be overcome, nor the strange dread of pure night air, though it is only cooled day air with a little dew in it… And to think of this being a Boston choice. Sad commentary on culture and the glorious transcendentalism… After sundown I built a great fire, and as usual had it all to myself. And though lonesome for the first time in these forests, I quickly took heart again – the trees had not gone to Boston, nor the birds.
After the first few years John Muir did not live continuously in the valley. He passed the winters, increasingly occupied by writing, in either Oakland or San Francisco, and his summers were spent on trips to other areas of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and further afield in Oregon and elsewhere. He developed a particular affinity to the area of Mount Shasta, a volcanic region at the northern limit of the range. In the summer of 1877 Muir was invited to guide the botanists Professor Asa Gray and Sir Joseph Hooker (then director of Kew Gardens) on a trip to Mount Shasta during which they shared their passion for trees. At about this time John Muir began to write and lobby in public for the protection of his beloved forests. This developed into a general concern for the conservation of wilderness areas, an activity that occupied an increasing proportion of his energies.
Although, during these years John Muir spent much of his time alone, either on his ‘long lonely excursions’ or at his writing desk, he had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances and he kept up a lively correspondence with his family and other near and distant friends. Through Jeanne Carr, he was introduced some time in 1874 to Louie Wanda Strentzel the daughter of a Polish immigrant who owned a large fruit farm near Martinez, just over 30 miles north east of San Francisco. Two years later on April 14th 1880 they were married. In July of the same year Muir went on a trip to Alaska, which included an adventure with a dog, Stikeen. Muir’s account of this richly deserves its reputation as one of the best of animal stories.
Muir had rented from his father-in-law part of the Strentzel fruit ranch at Martinez, which he now had to manage, a very different prospect from his previous experience of farming in Wisconsin. The birth of two daughters, Wanda in 1881 and Helen in 1886 added to his responsibilities.
In 1889 Muir arranged to visit Yosemite with Robert Underwood Johnson the editor of Century magazine to which Muir was a regular contributor. Johnson suggested that Muir should start a campaign to get the area designated as a National Park. Through Muir’s articles and effective lobbying by Johnson in Washington the campaign made good progress and just over a year later, on 1st October 1890 Yosemite National Park came into being.
In 1892 John’s younger brother David moved from Wisconsin and took over the Martinez ranch. The following year, 1893, it seems that John Muir had the confidence, and the means, to go on an extended trip to the East coast and on to Europe. Muir managed three more trips to Alaska in ‘96, ‘97 and ’99, and also in 1896 he took part in a U.S. Forestry Commission survey in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
President Theodore Roosevelt visited the High Sierra in May 1903 and expressed a desire to meet John Muir, then 65 years of age. They spent three days on their own camping out under the trees of the Yosemite woods. In an address given at Sacramento a few days later the President said:
One has a clear vision of John Muir standing at the President’s elbow. Roosevelt went on to double the number of National Parks, create sixteen National Monuments, including the Grand Canyon and dramatically increase the areas designated as National Forests.
John Muir died of pneumonia, at the age of 76, in Los Angeles, on 24th December 1914. He was buried in the Strentzel family cemetery in the Alhambra Valley, Martinez.
For many years Muir struggled with an internal conflict between his Calvinist upbringing which stressed the virtues of duty to family and hard, unrelenting work as essential to salvation and, on the other hand, the lure of the natural world in its wildest aspects. What finally tipped the balance was the serious accident to his eye in the carriage factory in Indianapolis in 1867 when Muir was 29 years old. ‘As soon as I got out into Heaven’s light I started on another long excursion, making haste with all my heart to store my mind with the Lord’s beauty and thus be ready for any fate, light or dark. And it was from this time that my long continuous wanderings may be said to have fairly commenced.
Muir’s academic training was at the hands of teachers who emphasised that the way to find out about nature was by extensive and detailed studies in the field, as opposed to theorising in the study or laboratory, although he needed little urging in this respect. Muir’s detailed studies frequently took the form of what he called ‘long lonely excursions’ that were to become a feature of his life. These excursions made him what he became. The later trips in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada mountains were often arduous explorations into unknown territory. John Muir became an outstanding mountaineer. Muir’s trips often took several weeks and involved hundreds of miles of wilderness journey, not counting the climbs and descents. All this was done with the minimum of equipment, matches, a sack of flour, tea, and a blanket, sometimes a mule or horse for the longer trips.
He was, at the best of times, a reluctant author. As he says, When I began my wanderings in God’s wilds, I never dreamed of writing a word for publication, and since beginning literary work it has never seemed possible that much good to others could come of it. Written descriptions of fire or bread are of but little use to the cold or starving. Descriptive writing amounts to little more than “Hurrah here’s something! Come!” Others did not share this view. Several of his friends encouraged him and none more than Jeanne Carr, the wife of one of Muir’s professors at Wisconsin, who had moved to California. She not only urged him to write, but also did her best to see that his work was published. Muir did all his writing with a quill pen, and his first biographer was of the opinion that, The most patriotic service ever rendered by an American eagle was that of the one who contributed a wing pinion to John Muir for the defence of the western forests.
I would like to quote two passages of Muir’s writing which give a good flavour of its quality.
But let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.
These musings are far removed from the view of death as the wages of sin that was part of his father’s faith. In his analysis of this passage Frederick Turner says, The inseparability of life and death and their reconciliation in nature had been a theme of the Romantics for over half a century, and Muir had first encountered it in reading them. . . But judged in the context of Muir’s personal history, the meditation evidences a major breakthrough against the inhibiting intellectual and spiritual influences of his childhood and adolescence. The view of nature as process, as a continuing cycle of life and death, of building and breaking, were to become a cornerstone of John Muir’s philosophy of nature. He came to experience storm and earthquake, fire and flood as essential features of the creative processes of the natural world.
The second passage was written at the end of his 1000 mile walk, at Cedar Key in Florida, during his long recovery from a fever:
With such views of the Creator it is, of course, not surprising that erroneous views should be entertained of the creation. To such properly trimmed people, the sheep, for example, is an easy problem – food and clothing ‘for us,’ eating grass and daisies white by divine appointment for this predestined purpose, on perceiving the demand for wool that would be occasioned by the eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden…
But if we should ask these profound expositors of God’s intentions, How about those man-eating animals – lions, tigers, alligators – which smack their lips over raw man? Or about those myriads of noxious insects that destroy labour and drink his blood? Doubtless man was intended for food and drink for all these? Oh, no! Not at all! These are unresolvable difficulties connected with Eden’s apple and the Devil…
Now, it never seems to occur to these far-seeing teachers that Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one. Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unity of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit – the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest trans-microscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge.
This star, our own good earth, made many a successful journey around the heavens ere man was made, and whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere man appeared to claim them. After human beings have also played their part in Creation’s plan, they too may disappear without any general burning or extraordinary commotion whatever.
This passage is a good example of Muir’s irrepressible and wry sense of humour which, as a literary form, probably shows the influence of one of his favourite poets, Robert Burns.
It is clear that John Muir experienced God as immanent, as intimately present within the whole of creation, so much so that several writers have claimed that Muir was a pantheist. It is true that he almost completely withdrew from any form of institutional religion, as he wrote to his brother David, I have not been at church a single time since leaving home. Yet this glorious valley might well be called a church, for every lover of the great Creator who comes within the broad overwhelming influences of the place fails not to worship as he never did before. He found God revealed and perceptible in nature rather than in church or the scriptures but throughout his writing he speaks of God as a transcendent being, separate from but acting within creation. In a letter to a friend he wrote God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and rounded bored wells here and there in favoured races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainising all.’
A major theme of much of Muir’s writing was an attempt to persuade others to climb the mountains or camp in the forests and experience their spirituality for themselves, and even when he was campaigning for the strict preservation of wilderness areas his vision always included provision for human visitors. But if you will go to the midst of these bleached bones of mountains and dwell confidingly and waitingly with them, be assured that every death-taint will speedily disappear; the hardest rocks will pulse with life, secrets of divine beauty and love will be revealed to you by lakes, and meadows, and a thousand flowers, and an atmosphere of spirit be felt brooding over all.
There can be little doubt that Muir’s view of spirit as permeating the whole of the natural world was derived from his own openness to it. Another letter to Jeanne Carr, probably written some time in 1870 during his first full year in Yosemite, is certainly worth quoting in full:
The letter epitomises Muir’s relationships with the natural world, achieved through an extended consciousness to include nature within his selfhood. At the same time there is no hint of his merging with nature or loosing himself in nature. What there is, is a clear and utterly joyful opening up to nature, an extension of self to embrace the selves of the trees and the squirrels while still retaining an obvious respect for, and delight in, their separateness and individuality. During Muir’s sojourn in Yosemite this extended consciousness became a continuously lived experience to the extent that separation from wilderness would present problems for him in both physical and mental wellbeing for the rest of his life.
Muir’s particular genius was to experience the whole of nature as a harmonious process in which all phenomena play a positive role. He recognised that the destructive powers of earthquake, wild-fire, storm, flood and avalanche are an integral part of the evolving life of the landscape. They provide opportunities for renewal and, in the long term have to be considered as creative. His reaction to a violent earthquake which occurred while he was living in Yosemite is typical:
When the shocks finished Muir was able to examine a newly formed talus while the fragmented rocks were still hot from their long cascade down the side of the valley.
Most of Muir’s biographers and commentators have stressed the problems of arriving at any overall assessment of him. He defies classification as scientist, mountaineer, writer, conservationist, philosopher or mystic because he was all of these. He simply did not recognise such distinctions and this is reflected in his writing. He saw and thought and lived in a context of wholes. Through an almost total openness to the natural world as an organic, living, dynamic whole he developed a sensibility that is more than biocentric, it can only be described as cosmocentric in its all-embracing scope, and, as a result of the various cultural and experiential influences that contributed towards making him what he became, his response was articulated in terms of an inextricable blend of science, philosophy, aesthetics and spirituality.
There is only one designation that comes near to describing John Muir: he was a prophet. He could have been referring to himself when he said, The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains – mountain-dwellers who have grown strong there with the forest trees in Nature’s workshops. In his writing Muir was openly critical of the anthropocentric rationalism and narrow materialism of American civilisation. He recognised, as did Thoreau, Emerson and many of the Romantics that a deep sense of alienation from the natural world coupled with a failure to recognise its spiritual dimension was the root cause of the problem. But, like a true prophet, he was not content with analysis and criticism, he was in a position to propose a solution:
Through his openness to nature he saw that we are at home in the natural world. As he wrote, with deceptive simplicity, in his journal in the year before he died, I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. He experienced nature as process, ‘the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation’ and he saw the divine as actively involved in the making. The world is not ‘fallen’, it is still being made and is an expression of divine harmony. It is not only the mountains – all things and all creatures are fountains, that rare breed whose life unifies theorie and praxis.Nowhere in his writings does he Nowhere in his writings does he attempt a clear and comprehensive presentation of his views. These have to be sought, bit by bit, in his books and particularly in his letters and journals. The process is richly rewarding. Although not always acknowledged, many of Muir’s ideas are re-emerging and being given new life in the modern ecological movement. His critique of anthropocentrism is echoed in many recent studies and his vision of the implications of an evolutionary universe was well ahead of its time. But above all, he speaks to us today most clearly and insistently in his call to experience the natural world in its wildness, both as a source of spiritual enlightenment and as nurturing a true sense of belonging to the earth, with all that this implies for the structuring of human society and for our individual life styles. But we have to let John Muir have the last word on the harvests of healing and wisdom available to all of us:
The following biography is from the Templeton Foundation site and marks the award of the Templeton Prize to Arthur Peacocke in 2001.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Arthur Peacocke
Author: Pauline Ashby
Jalaluddin Rumi was born in 1207, in Balkh, which is in Afghanistan. His father was an important scholar and teacher of that area. Around 1212 he moved his family to Smarkand, a city where the cultures of both Turkey and Persia met. The Mongol invasions were bringing death and destruction to a large part of the Muslim world at that time, and Rumi’s family and friends, journeyed westward to escape it.
They arrived in Konya in Turkey, and Rumi’s father was given a professorship and he taught there until his death in 1231. Jalaluddin Rumi, took over from his father, as university professor.
In 1244 there was a significant meeting of Rumi with a wandering Sufi, a lover of the Prophet Muhammad, the sun of Tabriz, Shamsuddin. Rumi and Shams became inseparable. The university professor in Rumi diminished, and his spiritual side increased. Rumi’s students became jealous of the close friendship with Shams, and this caused Shams to disappear. Forty days after the loss of Shams, Rumi ordered mourning robes. Rumi had changed. He now wrote or spoke poetry as never before. He whirled around reciting poems which expressed his longing and love, and which also expressed his astonishment with his own transformed state.
The message of Rumi is timeless and is one of boundless, and boundary-less love. He said, ‘I am neither of the East or the West, no boundaries exist in my breast’
Rumi referred to himself as, ‘Dust on the path of Muhammad. Dust can be nothing but dust; it signifies humility, and submission. Even the tiniest insect may move the lightness of dust.’ Rumi had no rigid, ‘stony-hearted,’ attitude toward life.
His message of non-duality speaks to us strongly today. It can also be found in the Christian scriptures, as in the gospel of John, ‘The father and I are One.’ Non-duality is both a spiritual imperative and an ecological one. Mankind is being directed by the eternally fresh voice of the ancient mystics, toward realising the sacredness of the whole creation, and of its unity with the Divine.
In suppressing our grief, jealousies, fears and pains, we also suppress delight, joy and our love. Rumi knew that not to accept, as our own, the so-called, ‘negativities’, within, the way would be barred to owning our birthright: peace, love and contentment
It is over 700 years since Rumi wrote these words. How recent it is that our culture was caught in repression, the, ‘stiff upper lip,’ and the psychologically damaging, suppression of the emotions? ‘Modern’, psychology now understands the dangers of suppressing the teachers that make themselves felt within.
We have green bin collection and black bin collection alternately. Walking out at night I try to discern which colour to put out in the morning by the colour of the ones already out by neighbours. I think of you Rumi, when I cannot tell black from green, however hard I try. Without the light of the sun, there is indeed no colour. Without silence there would be no music. Without space there would be no object. If we do not experience grief we cannot know joy. I was taught as a child, ‘God is everywhere’, but it never penetrated my heart before a Sufi mystic expressed it so poetically, God being everywhere, renders Him invisible.
Rumi died in Konya in 1272. The day of his death has become known as the Shebi Arus, the Wedding Night. This was the occasion when Rumi was united with his Beloved in eternal life. We will find the same idea realised in the Song of Songs, of the Old Testament, ‘My love is mine and I am his’. We will find it in the New Testament with its many references to marriage. In the account of the wedding in Cana, there is no bride or groom mentioned. Their notable absence signifies that the marriage refers to the mystical union.
The poems and stories of Rumi serve as bridge to Reality, and point toward the union of the Soul with the Beloved. The works of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, also known as Mevlana, include the Mathnawi, the Divan-I-Shams-I Tabriz, Fihi Ma Fihi, the Makatib, and Majalis-I-Sab’ah.
He had existed without the petty differences, which divide men, and therefore was free to live in the Pure Light, which existed before the Prophet Muhammad. This place is the same space referred to by Jesus: ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ This place is available to us all.