Spirituality for today

26 01 2009

by Frank Turner SJ

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Frei  Betto (Carlos Alberto Libanio Christo OP) is a well-known writer and social activist, an adviser to the President of Brazil on the Zero Hunger programme.

Frei Betto (foto de Anselmo Dias SJ)

Frei Betto (foto de Anselmo Dias SJ)

He began his presentation by considering “inner ecology”, the practice of compassionate self-awareness: ‘caress your heart’; ask if your sense of humour is intoxicated with anger and arrogance, whether your gestures are aggressive and ‘poisoned’; consider whether you seek tolerance and forgiveness without sacrificing justice and respect for life, whether you treat everyone as an equal, whether they be ‘devoured by misery’ or lost in the illusion of nobility. This awareness is crucial, since we always bring ourselves to our social struggles.

As others have done in these days, he proposed that we are living through a change of epoch. As the hegemony of the Church gave way to that of reason (where “reason” could be narrowed to Cartesian rationalism) and a theocentric paradigm to an anthropocentric paradigm, we are at the point of moving to a paradigm that can be called “holistic”. For both science and spirituality disallow the previously reflex opposition of ‘mind’ and ‘matter’, the ‘human being’ and some inanimate ‘nature’. In the whole of divine creation there is a convergence, a synergy, a unity that is fully to be realized. Similarly we can now, once again, understand the vision of Meister Eckhart, that to come close to God is also to come closer to ourselves, just as in the depths of ourselves we find God, who is indeed in all things and people (panentheism). Science now discloses that we humans are not above nature but part of nature. In an equivalent way, we should realize more deeply that spirituality is not an escape from life (the too familiar images of autumn leaves, sunsets, that are so far from the daily realities of the lives of so many who suffer) but is found in the heart of life as its fullness. The spiritual journey of Jesus has nothing to do with the contemplation of nature at its most tranquil, but is a path of struggle. The infancy narratives themselves direct us firmly to his Crucifixion as the victim of two political powers.  So what kind of faith in Jesus is not political?

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Frei Betto noted that the question, “What must I do to attain eternal life?” is always the question posed by the privileged or prosperous insider: by Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, the doctor of the Law. Jesus refuses to offer any version of eternal life as an added extra. The question of the poor, that draws his full response is “What must I do to have life here and now?”. It may be a leper, or Bartimaeus or the Canaanite woman. To this, Jesus responds by offering more abundant life. The fullness of Christian life is fully human life: we are not made human by faith in Jesus as such but by sharing the faith of Jesus.

In  this way, Frei Betto integrated his inner ecology (the peace we must bring to our struggle so as not simply to spread our own disaffection), with the challenge that our struggle is valid only as an expression of the conflict with those forces of destruction that threaten the lives of the poor, the conflict that forms a central motif of the Gospels. For this hearer, his argument may best be summarized in the promise of the Fourth Gospel: “I leave you peace, but not peace as the world gives it. In the world you will have trouble. But fear not, I have conquered the world”.





We and Creation: Some paradoxes

24 01 2009

by Fernando Franco

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Mary Cowell is an English woman who has worked as a documentary maker with the BBC. I met her at breakfast and we talked about a subject she loves deeply: ecology and creation. She is here to share her strong feelings about the lack of awareness on issues of ecology in the Church. She told me that “we need to carefully un-pack what we mean when we say we are made in the image and likeness of God; science in the 21st Century is telling us many challenging things about what it is to be human.  DNA science tells us we share 98% of our DNA with a gorilla – our closest relative – but 60% with a fruit fly and 50% with a cabbage.  So what is the face of God?”

I was struck when she asked me pointedly the role of the Society of Jesus in supporting the right view on Ecology. We Jesuits have talked about the earth in the documents of GC 35. The questions however are coming to us faster and more deeply than we ever expected. She added for my own consideration these words:

dsc004754“We are intricately inter-connected with all life and we are part of a web of life rather than a Victorian ‘chain of being’.  What does that mean theologically? It is also challenging to us to acknowledge that if all ‘higher’ animals like top predators and mammals, such as ourselves, were wiped out tomorrow, life on earth would carry on fine without us, with a few adjustments.  But if we destroy the beetles on earth then all life dies in about three months.  We are utterly dependent on creatures we have very little emotional connection with and very often see as unimportant – and for Catholics that is a new challenge to our perceptions.”

She strongly criticized an idealized view of creation, a mere dream or movement to contemplate the “the beauty of creation”. She made her point passionately:

“Indeed it is beautiful, but it is blindly ruthless and that beauty is the result of sheer, unthinking competition.  So what does that tell us about God in all things? What this understanding requires is for us to be humble, to accept facts that challenge us and to consider their implications in the light of faith. Humility is the key word!”

I did get the message. We are too far away from this way of thinking and we need to be humble to be open.

[Editor’s note: read Mary Colwell’s challenging article about “The Future of the Amazon” here]





Creation and the Exodus: two complementary traditions

23 01 2009
by Fernando Franco
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It was a good idea to reach Belem a day and a half earlier. One has more free time and the physical clock gets more time to adjust itself and a busy Jesuit gets the leisure to roam this beautiful vast city of two million people. A group of us decided to attend the morning lectures at the ‘World Forum on Theology and Liberation’, a gathering of ‘progressive’ theologians as they like to call themselves. The Forum meets just before the World Social Forum begins, and this year has attracted more than 900 participants from all over the world.

A theology professor from South Africa presented an insightful and provocative presentation on the ethical implications of sustainability with three examples. The first referred to the unfortunate fact that in many slums of South Africa buckets are used to collect night soil, a euphemism used also quite often in India to describe human waste. Human dignity, he said made it peremptory to stop this practice and provide all human beings with decent sanitation. The second example dwelt with a recent official survey on the water quality of drinking-water reservoirs in South Africa. The conclusions were devastating: the level of the water toxicity was very high. Mining and residual waters were contaminating the reservoirs. The third example talked about the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe, and the danger that the flood of immigrants into South Africa would become a vehicle of transmission of the terrible disease.

In all the three examples, water was the key element but the role it played was quite different. Poor people need more water to have proper sanitation and some greens may not see it as a problem of ecology. Developing the mining industry had polluted the water and hence ‘development’ was against taking care of the earth. Lack of clean water in a neighbouring country was raising an issue of health in South Africa. The issue of water raises apparently contradictory claims.

The South African professor passionately defended a vision that took a balanced view between those who defend anti-poverty programmes and those who talk of creation per se. We need to integrate these two approaches: the need to give justice and dignity to people and to take care of the earth (water). Both ‘justice to the poor’ and justice to the earth were two complementary sides of one whole. We Christian need to read together the account of creation in Genesis and the account of the people’s liberation in Exodus.

This is going to be a forceful debate at this pre-Forum because it is a debate that is considerably weakening the forces of those who are committed to fight for both.