Maybe I’ll be there to shake your hand
Maybe I’ll be there to share the land
That they’ll be givin’ away
When we all live together
– The Guess Who
I can’t say that I am a big fan of the institution of the Pope, but then since I’m not Catholic, my opinion about the Bishops of Rome doesn’t count for much. I can say that I am glad to see the new guy, Francis, making efforts to drag his church into the 21st Century. You may have heard about his recent statements on climate change. What you may not know is that it is more than just a few remarks, it’s a 192-page document called an encyclical, which is a papal letter sent to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. In this document leaked to the public, he says climate change is real, he argues for a new, positive relationship between religion and science, and he criticizes those who are skeptical about climate change for being in “denial.”
And, in what I think is a major step, he says that Christians have misinterpreted the Bible. According to Francis, the book of Genesis lays out “three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.” He says that these relationships have been broken and states “This rupture is sin,” which has “distorted our mandate to ‘have dominion’ over the earth. It’s too bad he didn’t reject the notion of “dominion.” If he had, it would have been truly revolutionary.
The so-called dominion mandate has been the focal point of criticism of the Christian approach to the environmental ethics. The critique is that it has enabled humans to view the earth as merely a tool for human needs. This notion of dominion created the Industrial Revolution and resulted in the wholesale devastation of our planet. There is nothing inherently wrong about using nature, but abusing it is another matter. The Industrial Revolution changed the world, but it would have been better if the changes had occurred in a more responsible manner.
I’d like to mention (and you knew I would) that the view of Eastern philosophy is completely opposite. Western religious philosophy established a dualism in separating human life from nature, and as you know, Buddhism and Taoism are based on non-dualism. In ancient Buddhist texts, there are very few instances where the intrinsic value of nature is directly addressed. However, the oneness of “man” and nature has been a major theme in Taoism from its earliest beginnings.
For the Taoist sage, the environment has always been in an intimate relationship with wisdom or what we Buddhist’s call enlightenment. The highest wisdom is the penetrating insight of the interdependency of all things, and this inter-connectedness is expressed in the sage’s identification between his true nature and nature itself. T’ien-t’ai Buddhism went even further when Chih-i declared that there is nothing in the entire universe that is not within the mind.
We don’t have dominion over the land, it is not our inheritance, or something we bequeath to our children. We participate in nature. We share the land. We are its caretakers only in the sense that we take care of each other.
One writer I’ve read says that the passage I quote below is Chuang Tzu’s attempt to “undermine the whole metaphysical debate: how can one know what is natural and what is human? How can one possible justify the claim that humans are part of nature or the contrary claim that they are not?”* To me, it is a bit simpler. Chuang Tzu is pointing to the non-dual nature of reality. On one hand, we know that things are physically separate, but on the other, everything is equal and one.
One who knows what nature is, and knows what it is that is human, has reached the peak of wisdom. Whoever knows about nature and humanity what nature does lives a life grounded in nature . . . However, there is a difficulty. Knowing is dependent on objects, but the objects of knowledge are transient and therefore uncertain. How can one know what we call nature is not really human, and what is human is not is not really nature?”
from Chapter Six “The Great and Honorable Teacher”
So, now the Pope has joined the chorus of those who call for urgent action on climate change. I wish he had gone further, but a small step in the right direction is better than nothing. Someone over at Fox News called him a Marxist and the “most dangerous man on earth.” Sorry deadhead, the most dangerous are those who just don’t get it, who refuse to understand the earth is a giant, living organism and we humans are the cancer threatening its existence – our existence.
Moving images, poignant words, and a classic song:
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* Perrenboom, R.P. “Beyond Naturalism: A Reconstruction of Daoist Environmental Ethics.” Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions of Thought. Ed. J. Baird Callicott , James McRae. SUNY Press, 2014. 152