Notes for a liberating eco-spirituality.
Or notes for eco-liberating spirituality. Whichever. An authentic spirituality, whether religious or not, is essentially ecological. An ecological spirituality is necessarily liberating, and a liberating spirituality is necessarily ecological. And only an ecological and liberating life is truly “spiritual” regardless of whether it is or is not coated in beliefs, norms and rites that we call religious.
Eco-liberating spirituality, liberating eco-spirituality, eco-spiritual liberation, the Good Life, Sumak Kawsay. Whichever.
1. The Spirit intercedes and moans
“Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26).
This verse of Paul’s suggests to me which the fundamental elements of a liberating eco-spirituality are.
The spirit, the Spirit. does not matter whether we write it with capital letters or not, because such distinctions -as-so many other distinctions- depend only on our mindsets. We recognize the Spirit everywhere, and the diverse cultures call using different names: the Hebrew ruach, the Greek dynamis, the Vedic prana, the Chinese Qi, the Japanese musubi, the Maori mana, the Mapuche Pu-am, the African nyama … These are all reverences and forms of gratitude to the mysterious energy, to the deep breath, to the unstoppable momentum that dwells in all beings!
Intercede for us. Is this to mean it is to intercede for us before “God”? That is certainly what Paul thought, but is this a sovereign “God”, detatched from the world and whom we would accede to through intercessors credible? Simply by expressing ourselves, we are always establishing limits to the infinite, and spirituality means returning its infinity to Infinity itself, providing width and breath to all creatures, and likewise to words.
The Spirit does not “intercede for us” before a Supreme Being, but is, rather, the “intercession” itself, the proximity and compassion that constitutes all of us beings into our deepest, and “divine”, being. But how does the Spirit intercede for us if it is not in us and if it does not do this through us? How will it comfort creatures in their desolation if it is not through our consolation? How will it liberate them or us if we do not liberate them ourselves, if we do not actually liberate ourselves in favour of each other? How will universal intercession be if we do not merge, if we do not interact and if we do not intervene amongst ourselves? How will “God” be in our world if we do not build humanity and the planet in the form of a great interlaced intercession made to the image of the universal Spirit? Only then will we know how to “pray as we ought to do”, to the image of the Spirit that breathes, feels and prays in all beings.
With indescribable moans. Pray and groan, before and beyond words, which always define and often drown meaning. The Spirit prays by groaning with life itself. Sometimes, like life itself, we groan out of pleasure and sometimes out of pain.
Words often do not come; they in fact often are superfluous. This happens especially with the words we call “religious”. Ecoliberating spirituality is not a matter of words, beliefs, rituals, or rules, but rather more a matter of tuning in with deeply heartfelt feelings, thoughts and action, with the groaning of creation, from the atom to the galaxies, of bacteria to forests, from the worms to the apes (which we are). It is the same groan, made of pain and joy, that is present in the whole of creation. The entire cosmos, and especially this little blue and green planet, this wonderful living planet of ours, is criss-crossed by a deep thrill of joy, like water running down a creek, like so many birch leaves swaying in the air, like those swallows flying non-stop all over the place, and … – oh! Also, by the impact of indescribable pain: animals kill to live, and people kill more than any other species: 24,000 people starve every day (almost 9 million every year), and not because the planet still lacks means for everybody, but because 1000 human families own 60% of the assets of the planet, and everything else follows that proportion. How would it be possible for the Spirit not to groan with joy! How can it not moan in pain! And what would spirituality consist of other than –with religion or without it- seizing the indescribable groaning of the Spirit as one’s own?
2. Beyond an anthropocentric and patriarchal Bible
Are the great religious traditions of humanity still inspiring and provoking an ecological, liberating, feminist, pluralist … spirituality? That is where the challenge is. Here is the criterion of what they call “divine” revelation or truth received “from above”. Only whatever releases unchains us, what allows us to breathe, what brings about the reverence and communion of all beings is true.
It is true that all religions were born, on the one hand, from a profound human recognition of sacredness and of the communion of all beings, and secondly, from the awareness of oppression and a hope for universal liberation. But it is obvious that all religions, in different degrees and forms, have also been anti-ecological and antiliberating and therefore anti-spiritual. It is obvious that they all need to undergo thorough self-criticism, a review of their traditional beliefs and rules of conduct, and particularly a reinterpretation of their founding texts.
I will refer more directly to the Bible, the founding text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which has also influenced Islam. Many consider the biblical tradition is primarily responsible for the ecological disaster caused by mankind, for having placed so radically the human being, created in the sixth and final day (Gen 1:26), as the centre and the crown of the cosmos, as the only living creature created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), the only image of the single God, lord of all beings (“Fill the earth and subdue it”: Gen 1:28), the one and only manager of divine omnipotence. Psalm 8 represents the highest exaltation of man: “You’ve made them only slightly less than divine, crowning them with glory and grandeur. You’ve let them rule over your handiwork, putting everything under their feet” (Ps 8:5-6).
So thus is how a believer, a theologian and a poet has prayed for the last 2,400 years. By contemplating the starry night sky, admiring the grandeur of the universe, but even more the greatness of man. This isn’t Pascal’s shudder just yet. The human being is regarded as the lord of the land, surrounded by water –the waters from below- and the land is regarded as the centre of the universe, also surrounded by water, the waters from above. And above that is God, surrounded by lesser deities or angels; He is the God of man, a human image. The greatness of the world and through God the greatness of man is enhanced.
Several millennia ago, in the Middle East, human beings had learned to till and cultivate the earth, and make it more fruitful and “multiply more” (“Be fruitful and multiply”: Genesis 1:28). They had become the lords of the earth. But everything has its price. When humans had become the lords of the earth they also became slaves of each other. Man submitted to man, and women submitted to men even more. The “Yahwist account” of creation (Genesis 2:4-25), which nowadays is placed at the same time as the first story as told by priests, is a clear testimony of the primacy of men over women, who were created after the male with his “rib” (many think that the word translated as “rib” means, in reality, the penis bone, which many male mammals possess and which humans lack, all of this is as if the man wanted to excuse the inconsistency of his phallus, which is the symbol of the will for power … and their own unacknowledged lack of confidence). Anthropocentrism thus spontaneously translates into androcentrism.
Christianity took anthropocentrism -and the androcentrism that is inherent to it- to its highest possible degree with its fundamental dogma: “God became a human being” in Jesus (John 1:14). But, since Jesus was a man, the dogma of incarnation is understood as “God became a male.” And it follows that only males can represent Christ, and this is the official reason for which Catholic theology continues to support excluding women from the “higher ministries” or “hierarchy”. Unbelievable but true.
Should we then ignore the Bible as an antiecological and oppressive text, that is incompatible with spirituality? There is no reason whatsoever to do so. The Bible -and this applies all the “sacred texts” from religious or spiritual traditions in general- can inspire us even now, but only on condition that it is read in a different manner. Provided it is taken as the human and historical text it really is, a contingent text from other times and other culture(s). Provided it is reread from the current signs and challenges of the Spirit. On condition it is inspired by the Spirit which is breathing in the text itself, beyond its literality. And provided the numerous eco-spiritual motives present in the Bible are maintained, beyond formulations and interpretations which have nowadays become stifling and oppressive. Then the Bible, like all poems, whether religious or not, can still be an inspiration for us.
Three. A constant self-creation connected world
The great monotheisms of biblical origin (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) inherited the worldview of the ancient Middle East (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Canaan), and the beliefs, rites, and institutions from these religions are tied to that old image of the world: a world (the earth) created and finished by God all in one go, with human beings at the centre; a world marred by the disobedience of the “first forefathers”; a world ruled by God through prophets, mediators or spokespersons of an absolute truth and good; a world in which God intervenes when he wants to punish or cure; a world that one day, whenever God so decides, will disappear to give way to another eternal and double world: the heaven of the righteous and the hell of the wicked.
Let us not ignore any of those myths and beliefs of the past. We are not superior to those who lived in the past in terms of anything of essence. They searched for ways in which they could tell the Mystery, ease the grief, protect life, and keep the breath of life. There is no way to be sure we are any more spiritual than those who lived in ancient times, or more respectful of nature, or freer from our ignorance and the powers that oppress us. It is not at all sure we breathe any better than they did. But their world is no longer our world, and therefore their religion can not be ours. Like them, we need spirituality in justice and peace with ourselves, and with the others, with all living beings, but we need to live in line with our culture and our view of the world.
In just about two hundred years, the various sciences have shattered the view of the world that for millennia has sustained the major religions and the spirituality of their followers, men are not superior to women nor is the human being the centre of the earth, nor, for that matter, is the Earth is the centre of the universe, and the universe we see is perhaps not the only universe: perhaps other universes existed before ours or maybe today other universes coexist with ours in dimensions that we do not perceive. This universe we do see -all space and time that we can directly observe or calculate mathematically- comes from a gigantic explosion of an infinitely small and dense mass, and since then it all continues to expand. Matter is energy in motion. All of it in movement, as in a dance. As the “matter” is organized or inter-relates in more complex ways, what we call “inferior” emerges as “superior”. Thus, from “inert” earth and water came life – and what a miracle life is! What a miracle it all is! On this planet, and perhaps on countless other planets. And new organisms, more complex forms of life and “superior” beings are constantly sprouting: from “inert” beings, new living beings, sentient beings arise; and from these sentient living beings, other “self-conscious” and “free” beings arise. And so on, incessantly. Everything is related to everything -atomic particles to the most distant galaxies, bacteria are related to blue whales, and all thanks to this relationship everything develops. Life will evolve into new forms hitherto unknown to us, and also to new ways- hopefully more complete ways- of relationships, consciousness and fraternal and liberating freedom.
In short, everything is related to everything else and everything is in constant transformation. The world is still being created. And do not know what is a beginning nor what an end is, nor do we know if there was a “beginning of the world” or whether it will end. In just 200 years, therefore, the foundations of the universe that religions believed immovable have shaken. And for the vast majority of our society, the “shift in paradigm” has taken place in a much shorter period of time. Many who were born around the 1950s in the last century grew up in an agrarian paradigm; when we got to be 20 years old, we had to assimilate the modern paradigm of a rational, scientific, industrial era; 20 years later, we had to be reborn to spirituality and learn to “speak” within the trans-rational, holistic, pluralistic and postmodern paradigm of global information. Three cultural eras in 60 years. Three forms of spirituality.
Modernity has not made us free. Science and technology were necessary, but were not enough and will not suffice for us to know how to live, how to live in justice and peace, how to be free, how to be brethren or how to be equal. In what we call “the West”, in modern times we have acceded to a never-before-imagined “welfare state”, albeit at a terrible price: the devastation of the planet, the submission and humiliation of the South, the plundering of their property. And we ourselves are already paying the price that we made them pay before us; the harsh crisis of our welfare state is a sign of a much more dire humanitarian and planetary crisis brought about by neoliberal capitalism in just a few decades: ravaging hunger, the depletion of fossil fuels accumulated on the earth over millions of years, a climate change due to global warming, the mass extinction of living species, water shortages …
Is it not, in the end, a terrible crisis of spirituality our so-called “Christian” countries are going through? It is a complete failure of the “post-Christian” Modernity. Indeed it is, but it is also a dismal failure of traditional Christianity, as it has not been able to prevent the “Christian countries” when they still had Christian majorities, from committing many crimes and bringing about scores of disasters on Earth. We therefore need to return to the sources of spirituality. Or to the sources of the Gospel. Or to the sources of life.
Or, alternatively, to the sources of the Bible (and other sacred texts), if you will. But we can not return to the beliefs and taboos, rules and forms typical of a world that is no longer our world; we can not believe in a “miraculous intervention” of an arbitrary “god” nor in divine mediators, or immutable dogmas, nor in immovable “hierarchical” institutions. We are living in an interconnected and dynamic world, which is in constant transformation.
Can we find inspiration in the ancient traditions for the liberating eco-spirituality that we are urgently in need of? Yes, we can, without doubt, if we learn to read, if we reread. Let us return, for example, to the story of the creation in Genesis: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” (Gen 1:1). “In the beginning” is not a chronological reference, it does not refer to a past time. “The Beginning” is the permanent source of being and life. Creation is taking place today, here, now, endlessly. Every moment is the first moment of creation. We are not finished. The universe is open. Creation is ongoing. Hope -a confident, detached hope that is free from its achievements- still stands.
“Let there be“, said God again and again. Egetheto. This does not mean “creation is to take place at once”. It means “let things get gradually created”. “Le the world get gradually created from within, from the heart of all beings, from ourselves, by inventing their own future, releasing from oppressions, creating new forms of life that are freer and more fraternal, more universal forms of solidary and peaceful consciousness”.
The Spirit groaning in that groans in all beings, the “Spirit that hovers over the waters” is the inner impulse that animates the boson, the quark, the atom, the molecule, the cell, water, air, plants, forests, animals, the Earth, the galaxies, and the open and immeasurable universe. A liberating eco-spirituality consists of joining, beyond all creeds and forms, breath itself with this creative and liberating breath that moves the world from its smallest to its largest parts.
4. “We live, and move, and are, in Him/Her/It “
Everything changes, even “God”, especially “God.” When our picture of the world changes, so does our image of God. It has to change so that the creed does not drown spirituality. Is “God” not that permanent transformational dynamism that makes everything be, continue being and getting to be?
Everything grows, also “God”, especially “God”. What else does spirituality consist of if not that God grows within us, within the others, within everything that is, until God is all in all things and all things are part of everything? What else is spirituality if not liberating God, as they say in Jewish mystical literature –which is always present in the “secular” Etty Hillesum- in her chains and exile, until “God” is fully released in the release of all creatures?
Change in God, growth of God, liberation of God. Does it make sense to speak in this way? It all depends on what you mean by the term “God”, the most polysemic and ambiguous of all terms. Something crucial happened to the word, or to its associated image, for Western society under the age of 65, massively no longer “to believe in God”. They can not believe in the God they imagine, and they are right, because the God they imagine, -when they are explained the Bible or the Koran or listen to the Creed- does not exist. The “personal” God they deny does not exist. But many of those who deny God- most of them, I dare say- have not stopped craving for a deep ecological and liberating spirituality.
Millennia have gone by since the Palaeolithic, perhaps certainly also from the ancient Middle East –with us imagining God as a supreme ruler, the king of heaven and earth. A separate, dualistic and ambivalent god endowed with personality. A theistic God. That image is still present in the three great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). The Spirit, from the hearts of all beings and from current culture calls on us to go beyond theism. Beyond a dualistic image of God. Beyond also – and this must be said openly- a “personal” image of God, to the extent that the term “personal” suggests a dual otherness. Of course, “non-dualism” does not mean “monism”. God and the world are not two nor one, as the Indian Upanihsads already taught us over 2,000 years ago.
“God” is Him / Her / It which the eye does not see but who sees in the eye that sees. And the same goes with all the other senses. And with thought and conscience. It is not an Entity, but the Entity of all beings. It is the “hovering Spirit” or the Spirit vibrating in the current, eternal principle of all beings. It is Beauty, Tenderness, Listening, Welcoming. It is Life. It is All in everything. It is the sacred creativity, the “more” and the “possibility” which are always open for good in all that is. “For in Him / Her / It we live, and move, and have our being ” (Acts 17:28), Paul says, quoting a Stoic poet.
God is entirely revealed in everything: in a raindrop, in a tree leaf, in the chirping of a bird. God is particularly revealed in all the beings that groan, in the scream of the Earth and in the cries of the poor. God is definitely revealed in every word of comfort and compassion God releases. And that is spirituality, whether religious or secular: looking at everything as an epiphany of “God” beyond every name, making it be in everything, liberating all suffering beings, perhaps starting by God him/her/itself. “Believing in God” is believing in Goodness as the ultimate transformative force, and practicing it.
5. Christ Jesus and the total Christ
But does the Christian faith not say that God revealed and fully incarnated himself, once and for all, in Jesus of Nazareth, and that he saved the world or liberated it entirely? Isn’t that what the confession of Jesus as Christ, Lord, Son of God means? The crux of the matter is how to understand this nowadays.
The Christian faith in general and Christology in particular were formulated in the framework of a static, anthropocentric and androcentric, patriarchal and geocentric worldview. That worldview has now been invalidated, and it is therefore necessary to reformulate Christology in an eco-spiritual paradigm or in a global eco-liberating paradigm. Humans are not the end of evolution or the liberation of life, and even less so is the current Homo Sapiens that we are now that Jesus also was.
Jesus announced the Kingdom of God or a full personal and structural liberation, and never considered he was the Kingdom himself, but the final Prophet of the Kingdom. He was also convinced that with him and with his male and female followers- he was already carrying out the beginning of the final liberation. Then the Jewish messianic perspective was supplanted by the ontological Greek perspective, and then the dogmas of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451) came, according to which Jesus is “consubstantial” to God, a divine person with a human-divine nature. According to this, in the whole of the universe or the universes, God would have fully embodied a male and Jewish Homo Sapiens individual 2000 years ago, at a particular stage in the evolution of life, of consciousness, of freedom…
It is necessary to release the Christological dogma from its geocentric, anthropocentric, androcentric scheme. The evolution of life remains open in this or in other planets. What is yet to appear is much more than what has already appeared in life, and this is also the case in Jesus.
This liberation of Christology is much simpler if we return to the historical Jesus and to his conscience. Not in order to adopt his (anthropocentric) image of the world or his (anthropomorphic) image of God, but to be guided by his inspiration beyond images. He did not believe he was “God,” but a liberating prophet from the liberating Kingdom of God. And he did not “incarnate” God in his “metaphysical” constitution, but in his whole being; he did not incarnate God for his “double nature” (human and divine), but for the way they live. Each of his atoms and cells, the air he breathed, water and wine he drank, the bread and fish that he ate … incarnated God. His life incarnated God: his compassion touched and healed, the freedom he risked and innovated on, the Samaritan proximity with which he lifted the wounded, his commensality that blazed trails and welcomed, his trust in God as the power of good, his faith in the goodness of every human being. That is the human form of what was “divine” in Jesus. And in all human beings.
God is not an extra-cosmic being, which incarnates himself when –in a singular instance- his “divine nature” binds in Jesus to the worldly or “human nature”. God is the Being of all beings and all forms: the boson, the quark, the atom, stones, geraniums, swallows, dolphins, kangaroos, men … are God’s visible flesh. But God or what is “divine” is not confined to any particular form. Also not in the particular -unfinished- form of Jesus.
God is incarnated in all flesh that suffers and rejoices, in every living being, in all materials that vibrate and dance, in all good and beautiful things, in all compassion and tenderness, in every relationship that creates and recreates. God will be completely incarnated when -beyond temporal computation and parameters- all creatures reach their full “internal” and “external” liberation in a way we can not imagine, but only crave. Then, beyond the outline of a “chronological future” – all reality will be liberated, whether in Messianic or “Christological” form. But that hope will not be fulfilled by the intervention of any external “god”, but from the heart of humanity and from everything that exists. And Jesus? Jesus is for Christians, the Sacrament of that anticipated hope, the image of our being and of our vocation, and the image of the task of every human being and of all beings.
6. A new alliance with all living beings
It is difficult to determine if the collapse of the more developed living species on the planet -including the human species- is irreversible or whether there is still a solution. What is indisputable is that all the alarms are on, that human action is primarily responsible and that only a drastic turn of human civilization can avoid general disaster. Will the human species, which is a wonderful form of Life, have turned out to be a cancer for our whole wonderful planet? This is a grim moment in time. Common life is at stake.
It’s time to seal a solemn agreement for the community of life on the planet. “ “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9.12 to 13). Thus speaks God, or Life, after the Flood in the Genesis. We are in the universal flood, caused by the insatiable greed of a few humans and the inaction of many. The time has come to remember and restore the covenant of life. All living beings long for their full liberation (Rom 8:22). Let the groan of pain become groans of joy.
The time has come to fully adopt the “Universal Declaration of the Common Good of the Earth and Humanity” beyond abstract discussions about “rights”, which continues to be too anthropocentric a language. All beings seek wellbeing. Only what is good for all is good for a few, which is the maximum common good possible. It is not fair to make any animal suffer, except in case of major need. And what are we to eat? We shall have to keep killing to stay alive –which is a disturbing condition of life- but we shall have to do so with the utmost reverence and gratitude, causing the least possible pain, and conscious of being part of the Mystic Communion of Life.
The time has come to remember that the earth is not our property. We are the ones who belong to the Earth, which belongs to all living creatures. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it”. (Gen 2:15). For us to take care of it. We are here to take care of it, to take care of ourselves. The time has come to get the machinery to grind to a halt. I mean that lethal machinery for all, especially for the most vulnerable of beings, the machinery of unlimited growth, the machinery of maximum possible production and speculation without scruples: economics for enrichment. We must all learn to live better with less. And it is urgent that some countries decrease so that others may live. The planet can not survive and nor will we on it without a true planetary ecosocialism.
The time has come to endorse the most sacred law of the Bible, the law of rest. “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work” (Gen 2:2). At least one day off every seven days should be implemented on a global level (Ex 20, 8-11), and a sabbatical year every seven years (Lv 25.1-7), as well as a jubilee year every 50 years, so that the earth and all human beings rest and the poor recover the vital goods they have been deprived of (Lv 25.8 to 17). So that all beings may be contented, as only a few could not be content without everybody else being contented.
Life is urging us towards a profound ecology, or what is the same, to an eco-liberating spirituality that is beyond cultural, religious and political borders.
(Translated by Andrés Krankerberger)
(Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians – VOICES 2014 / 2-3, p. 75-84)