Laudato Si’ calling us to “bold cultural revolution”, a new synthesis, an authentic humanity

February 6, 2017

Homily by Fr. John Leydon, Assisi Jan 30 2017

I have a friend in the Philippines, Fr. Enrique Escobar, from Peru. To the best of my knowledge he is not related to the Escobar drug cartel! Anyway, before he became a priest he was a teacher and he taught indigenous elementary school children in the Amazon.

One day the class was on an outing in the forest and a child approached Enrique and said “Sir what was the problem with your father?” Enrique was taken aback and asked him: “why do you say that there was a problem with my father?”. The child said “because sir, in our culture, it is the duty of the father to teach his son to walk properly and you do not walk properly!”.  Then Enrique realized that as a modern person he walked in a different way to the indigenous people. If he needed to go somewhere he just went there, not giving attention to much except what he wanted to do. The indigenous were different. When they walked, they looked where they would place their feet, watching out for plants, insects or animals. (Somebody said “yeah, especially snakes!”).

What we are dealing with here is not just a quaint practice but a totally different view and way of relating to reality. It is a contrast between our modern individualistic view of the world where “I” and my concerns are at the center and a worldview where community and inter-relatedness is central.

At one point, in the history of our ancestors, we were all like the indigenous but something changed. In the middle ages, there was a great debate between two theological schools the Realists and the Nominalists. One of the questions that they struggled over was Revelation, how does God reveal (Him)self. The Realists, to whom belonged Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and St. Francis belonged said that there were two sources: Scripture and Nature. This was often symbolized in the pulpits where there were two images: the Book and a Branch. With this view creation was approached with a sense of awe and wonder. The Nominalists, on the other hand, insisted that there was only one source – Scripture. So what was nature for the nominalists? Nature for them was not the object of our faith, but of our reason. Creation did not say anything about God, that was of any use for our salvation, it had no value in itself and was certainly not to be considered sacred. The task was to understand and get control over it.  We can easily see which school prevailed in the development of our modern culture!

The Church never resolved the issue – for a number of reasons… the Galileo controversy and the Protestant Reformation and many other developments did not allow it to focus on the issue and modern culture developed along nominalist lines. But the issue is addressed head on, for the first time in Laudato Si. In 85# we read:  “God has written a precious book, “whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe”. …nature is a constant source of wonder and awe. It is also a continuing revelation of the divine.”

And as if to emphasize the point in particular in relation to the ‘one source or two source’ debate:  “We can say that “alongside revelation properly so-called, contained in sacred Scripture, there is a divine manifestation in the blaze of the sun and the fall of night”.”

Laudato Si is very conscious that our modern technological culture is problematic. While appreciating the technological wonders that we have developed, never-the-less the encyclical contains it a deep critique of our current way of life.  “A certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us. Should we not pause and consider this? At this stage, I propose we focus on the dominant technocratic paradigm and the place of human beings and of human action in the world.”(LS, 101#)

It’s important for us to realize that all of us have been deeply formed by the technocratic culture. I once heard Cardinal Tagle speak on the role of culture in how we become human. He said: “I was born before the internet, which is everywhere today. So it could be said that I have migrated from another age to the present. You could call me a Net-Migrant. This is not true of the youth who were born in the age of the net. They are not net-migrants but Netizens. And we should understand this. Like us they did not chose at what time and in which culture they would become human.”  Over the past few hundred years, most of us have become human in the technocratic culture and I find that this is a food for thought about making judgments in the current crisis.

I heard a story from Brian Swimme that illustrates where our culture has gone wrong and who we are in that culture. In ancient Alexandria there was a wonderful library. This was before printing so every book was hand-written and it is said that it contained almost all the books of western civilization. A library like this could be characterized as the cultural coding of a civilization. At one point the Roman empire weakened and Alexandria was taken over by barbarians. These people were good at warfare but they were not literate and so the library meant little to them. However they enjoyed many things about Roman civilization, especially the baths. So they spent their time enjoying the hot baths. But what did they use to heat the water? You got it! The books. It’s frightening, but understandable because they were illiterate. We – as the modern technocratic civilization are no different, maybe only worse. Our modern technological civilization is eco-illiterate. We are burning up the genetic coding of the planet to satisfy shallow consumeristic needs. And in this matter, we are as unaware of our ignorance as the barbarians were.

Laudato Si calls us to conversion and for me it is important that we realize that the conversion is on this level of vision and not on the level of ‘don’t do this and that’ morality. Sometimes I feel we miss the point when it comes to sin and conversion. There are different levels of sin. The usual understanding is to deal with it on the level of morality. This is when we do something against our conscience and we are aware and  feel guilty. Every religion and culture deals with this, some better than others.  The big sin for me is when we are not aware. Like when the good-living and morally upright people killed Jesus. It explains Jesus’ words on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”. Our technological culture “knows not what it is doing” as it is causing the 6th Great Mass Extinction on Planet Earth. For me this is the level that on which we need understand the call to ecological conversion and ‘bold cultural revolution’.

Yesterday we briefly looked at the gravity of the ecological crisis. We didn’t spend too long at it but it is clear that we are all aware that we could be facing extinction and sooner rather than later. We have difficulty appreciating the urgency of our situation.  We dealt with that in one of the small groups yesterday. We humans, know how to deal with homicide, with a bit of difficulty we can also deal with genocide. But biocide! We are just not wired to get our heads around this. And yet it looks like that this is the catastrophe which we are facing. I often wonder how I will cope with such a disaster. Will I keep the faith? I’m attracted by one of the psalms, written by a farmer with olives, grapes cattle and sheep.

For though the fig tree blossom not

Nor fruit be on the vines,

Though the yield of the olive fail

And terraces produce no nourishment.

Though the flocks disappear from the fold.

And there be no herd in the stalls.

Yet will I rejoice in the Lord

And exult in my saving God.

I often wonder if I experience the breakdown of the systems of the planet and all the suffering and turmoil that will be involved, will I ‘keep the faith’ and continue to rejoice in the Lord. One of the myths of our Enlightenment culture is that we are in control. We are not! We have a lot of ‘power over’ but ultimately we are not in control. There is a call in our times to hear the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth and consequently the voice of God. I would like to think that our joining GCCM is our positive response to that call. We are called to walk in vulnerability and trust, in other words –  faith. The words of the Gospel today urge us to ‘Abide in Me’. We are no different from a bunch of mostly small fishermen gathered on a mountain being told “all power in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go you therefore and teach all nations”.

But there is one final image in LS which gives me great encouragement.  It’s good to be able to name the problem but it’s even better to know that at some level we humans are all feeling the problem and that deep in our hearts there is a desire for authentic living. In doing our work for GCCM we should never be afraid to dialogue with anyone knowing that we are not imposing something alien on them but appealing to something that is already present and in their hearts.

An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis seems to be in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door. Will the promise last, in spite of everything with all that is authentic rising up in stubborn resistance.

May we be inspired to work harder and more creatively in bringing the Good News of the Gospel to all flesh through the inspiration of Laudato Si.