The Church Is Embracing Biodiversity; About Time It Stood For Theodiversity As Well

Aravindan Neelakandan

Oct 14, 2017, 09:01 PM | Updated 09:01 PM IST

Pope Francis leads a mass during a visit to the Roman Parish of San Pier Damiani, in Rome. (ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis leads a mass during a visit to the Roman Parish of San Pier Damiani, in Rome. (ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
  • The link between theology and ecology has been clear in Indic thought and philosophy for thousands of years.
  • As the Church now begins to bat for ecology and biodiversity, it would do well to see the logical next step – theodiversity or diversity of religions.
  • On 3 October, 40 Catholic organisations, “the largest number of Catholic institutions, in countries including Australia, South Africa, Britain and the United States”, came out with a statement favouring green energy. According to the Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM), these organisations will start “shunning investments in fossil fuels and urged others to follow suit”. The decision to disinvest from fossil fuels is based not just “on their shared value of environmental protection” but also on “the financial wisdom of preparing for a carbon-neutral economy”.

     United States President Donald Trump (L) with Pope Francis
    United States President Donald Trump (L) with Pope Francis

    The statement, mostly reported positively in the media and welcomed as exemplary by most of the Western environmental organisations, both academic and activist, is said to have been influenced by the current Pope of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis.

    The Reuters report on the matter points out that among the institutions are “Assisi's Sacro Convento and other Catholic institutions in the Italian town, birthplace of Saint Francis, who inspired Pope Francis.”

    That is an interesting observation.

    Lynn Townsend White Jr (1907-1987)
    Lynn Townsend White Jr (1907-1987)

    Lynn Townsend White Jr (1907-1987), an eminent historian of medieval Christendom, gave a lecture on 26 December 1966, titled ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis’, at the Washington meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This critically acclaimed lecture, published in the journal Science, traced the socio-spiritual roots of the ecological crisis to the triumph of Christianity.

    In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects… To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly 2 millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.

    As a way out for Christendom, White Jr zeroed in on Saint Francis of Assisi – “...possibly we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi”.

    Francis of Assisi believed in animal souls, and that did not sit well with the establishment Church. White Jr even speculated about the source from which Francis possibly inherited this insight.

    What Sir Steven Ruciman calls “the Franciscan doctrine of the animal soul” was quickly stamped out. Quite possibly it was in part inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by the belief in reincarnation held by the Cathar heretics who at that time teemed in Italy and southern France, and who presumably had got it originally from India.

    Even today, the idea of animal souls does not sit well with Christian theology. In 2008, this writer had a personal experience of talking to a brilliant Catholic theology student who tactfully refuted the idea. He asserted, “Francis of Assisi acknowledged that non-human lives are conscious but he never said they have souls!” To White Jr himself, what Francis of Assisi presented was “a unique sort of pan-psychism of all things animate and inanimate, designed for the glorification of their transcendent Creator”.

    Such obsessive Christian necessity to distinguish and re-categorise ideas may arise from deep-seated colonial prejudice in acknowledging their indebtedness to Indic thought, even while hinting at it. Nevertheless, in all the movements within the Catholic Church which aim to develop a theology encompassing ecology, we find an abiding influence of Hindu culture and spirituality.

    John Scotus Eriugena (815-877), St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and Meister Eckhart (1260-1328): All the three provide the substratum on which eco-theology of the twentieth-century Church evolves.
    John Scotus Eriugena (815-877), St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and Meister Eckhart (1260-1328): All the three provide the substratum on which eco-theology of the twentieth-century Church evolves.

    Another medieval Catholic saint-mystic whose works too can play a crucial role in developing an ecological spirituality for Christendom, is Meister Eckhart (1260-1328). Eckhart’s mysticism has a striking resemblance to Hindu Vedanta. Within the Christian tradition, Eckhart can be seen in the lineage of John Scotus Erigena, a ninth-century Irish theologian and neoplatonist. Indologist Koenraad Elst crisply puts them all, Erigena, Francis of Assisi and Eckhart, as “Christian heretics who dressed it in Christian language, though the Church often saw through their un-Christian inspiration”.

    There is also considerable scholarly debate on the Indic influence on Neoplatonism itself, which was the source of much of the higher Christian theology from the early centuries of the Church as well as heretical Christian mysticism. In the case of Eckhart, just two years before his death, his works were subjected to scrutiny by an inquisitor from Rome. Though Eckhart died before the final announcement, his teachings were officially adjudged to contain 17 examples of heresy and 11 of suspected heresy. He narrowly escaped the humiliation of his remains being exhumed and burnt at inquisition.

    This process continues well into the twentieth century also.

    Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ (1881-1955) and Dr Thomas Berry (1914-2009): Both the Catholic theologians who contributed immensely to eco-theology of twentieth-century Church were influenced by Hinduism.
    Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ (1881-1955) and Dr Thomas Berry (1914-2009): Both the Catholic theologians who contributed immensely to eco-theology of twentieth-century Church were influenced by Hinduism.

    A principal progenitor of ecological theology in Catholicism was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a Jesuit paleontologist. He was continually hounded by the Church authorities and was repeatedly stopped from expressing his philosophical ideas or giving lectures. He was forbidden by the Church to publish what would become his most influential theological work, The Phenomenon of Man, which was published posthumously. For almost for a decade after his death, his works were censured and Catholic book houses were repeatedly warned not to sell his books.

    De Chardin had read William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) in late 1917. But as theologian Ursula King points out, “between 1916, when Teilhard was working on Cosmic Life, and early 1918, the time of completing The Soul of the World, his essays contain no reference to either Hindu or Buddhist terms”.

    De Chardin visited India in 1935. He had all the colonial prejudices of his time. Well aware of the freedom movement, he opined that India was not ready for self-rule. Despite his life-long suffering quest for a “cosmic religion”, his theological and colonial conditioning seemed to have introduced a veil between him and his Indic experience. King writes:

    Teilhard was neither impressed ....nor did he appreciate the Hindu assertion “of a cosmic unity, which was in many ways analogous to his own ideas,” at least he did not realize it then. Close comparisons reveal a certain affinity between Hindu sense of unity and some of Teilhard’s ideas about oneness, as Beatrice Bruteau has shown in a detailed study comparing his thoughts with central aspects of the Hindu tradition.
    Ursula King, Teilhard de Chardin and Eastern Religions: Spirituality and Mysticism in an Evolutionary World, Paulist Press, 2011

    Beatrice Bruteau indeed writes about the way de Chardin could have found a validation for his formulation in Hinduism:

    The position on man as the active factor in the evolutionary process was an important part of his theory and in Hinduism he could have found a parallel to his ideas as close as his own religious tradition.

    Despite his harsh and unjustifiable judgment on Hindus, he had witnessed the Hindu veneration for what can today be identified as the autopoietic movement of nature, a fundamental spontaneous creative process which is considered as important for evolution.

    Apparently, the god had visited their fields a few days ago in the guise of a flood, leaving behind numerous symbols of his procreative power in the shape of some longish pebbles, which were regarded as an especial mark of divine favour. From the temple, where festivities were in full swing, came the sound of flutes and drums and the nasal incantations of the priest... The whole village seemed to be involved in the festival. In several houses we glimpsed old men seated by candle-light, holding their hands before their foreheads in prayer ... and chanting continuously from books with such devotion that for a moment we felt ourselves carried back in time to the far-off days when the Vedic hymns still formed part of daily worship.
    Helmut de Terra, Memories of Teilhard de Chardin (translated by J Maxwell Brownjohan), 1969

    Yet de Chardin either missed it all and/or could never consciously bring himself to acknowledge the Hindu influence in his thought. King even thinks that he might have become aware of the works of Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) at least in his last days:

    Although Teilhard was unfamiliar with Sri Aurobindo’s writings, he may have recognized at the end of his life that Sri Aurobindo’s great book, The Life Divine, is marked by a similar thrust and orientation as his own work.

    Today, Catholic theology, which aims to have a dialogue with the science of ecology, has to invoke de Chardin. A recent encyclical, ‘Laudato Si’, released by Pope Francis on 24 May 2015, which deals with climate change, biodiversity and so on, mentions de Chardin in one of its 172 references and footnotes. That is quite a recognition given that in 1963 there was a papal reprimanding the works of de Chardin.

    Well into the twentieth century, the checkered lineage of Assisi, Eckhart and de Chardin continues in the works of Thomas Berry (1914-2009), another Christian theologian who had extensive dialogue with ecological science and the environmental movement. Berry was largely free of theological prejudices against Indian spirituality. He passionately defended the Vedas against the usual Western characterisation of it as ‘primitive’. Instead, he saw Vedic hymnal literature as “highly developed in its literary form, in its intellectual insight and in its questioning attitude”. He also pointed out as its glory “its imaginative and emotional qualities” and “a deeply religious mood”.

    He went on to declare:

    In quality, in quantity, in significance for man’s intellectual, cultural and spiritual life, this literature in its totality is unsurpassed among all other literary traditions of the world.

    Berry also pointed out the importance of Hindu spiritual traditions with respect to their reverence for life.

    What strikes us immediately is the extent to which the experience of the divine is inseparable in India from the experience of the natural forms that surround us throughout the universe. ... We read in the Upanishads that the divine is the numinous presence within every visible form. ... One of the most profound doctrines of India is the doctrine of Ahimsa (non-injury), a term that can be understood as a negative way of expressing a positive all-embracing love or affection for every being in the universe.
    Thomas Berry, Religions of India: Hinduism, Yoga, Buddhism, Columbia University Press, 1996

    Taking forward the thesis put forth by White Jr, Berry further refines and restates it.

    The present disruption of all the basic life systems of Earth has come about within a culture that emerged from a biblical-Christian matrix. It did not arise out of the Buddhist world or Hindu or Chinese or Japanese worlds or the Islamic world. It emerged from within our Western Christian-derived civilization. If the other civilizations were not ideal in their presence to the natural world, if they intruded extensively into the functioning of the planet, their intrusion, in its nature and in its order of magnitude, nowhere approaches the disturbance brought about by our Western disruption of the planetary process. Although our Western industrial civilization was itself a deviation from Christian ideals, it came originally from within a Christian context. In its historical expression it could not have arisen out of any other tradition. We might conclude then that the Christian tradition is susceptible to being transformed in this direction. Until we accept the fact that our central beliefs carry with them a vulnerable aspect we will never overcome our present failure to deal with the increasing disruption of the planet.
    Thomas Berry, The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth (1989)

    These eco-theological movements within the Church perhaps may provide a common ground for Hindu-Christian dialogue with a shared common minimum ecological vision without any hidden agenda for proselytisation. Just as how Hindu spirituality has been a gentle, invisible guiding catalyst in the marginalised but important mystic streams within Christendom in the past centuries, it continues to be in the same way a positive influence on the margins of Christian theology even in this century. This, Hinduism has been able to do with no vast colonial surplus, institutional infrastructure and state support, all of which the Church has had in plenty.

    However, the crucial question is, where does the Church stand on global environmental issues? It is laudable that the Church is taking environmental issues seriously and, in the form of disinvestment from non-green-energy sources, is making a statement.

    India has been fighting a serious ecology-politics battle. It is also representing post-colonial countries in forging a way out of the climate crisis.

    External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj
    External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj

    So when Trump while pulling out of the international climate pact, charged that India was in it for the “billions and billions and billions and billions of dollars” that it will get, he betrayed an arrogant ignorance of Indian culture and traditions. India’s deep commitment to Paris Climate Accord as External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj pointed out, was “not because we are afraid of any power, influenced by friend or foe, or tempted by some imagined greed”.

    This is an outcome of a philosophy that is at least 5,000 years old. Our Prime Minister has, on his personal initiative, launched the International Solar Alliance as witness to our abiding commitment to a cause.

    Yet India finds no support from the Holy See with respect to this particular charge levelled against it. On the other hand, one finds Catholic officials always condemning India or asking India to mend its ways on the issue of religious freedom.

    Here again, cutting across denominations, Christian proselytising forces have been fundamentally anti-ecological. It should be remembered that for ages, and against the onslaught of various forces, Hindu tribal communities have safeguarded the sacred groves, a pan-Indic phenomenon. Christian evangelising during the colonial period came as the biggest destroyer of sacred groves.

    From the very beginning of the Christian encounter in India, veneration of the tree was specifically targeted by missionaries. Jean-Antoine Dubois (1765-1848), French Catholic missionary who worked in India in the early decades of the nineteenth century, wrote:

    When God ordered the Israelites to take possession of the land of Cannan, He commanded them above all things to destroy the sacred groves with which those buildings were surrounded as are those of the Hindus to this day.
    J A Dubois, Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies (1816)

    Professor P S Ramakrishnan, of the School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has studied the sacred groves extensively, points out:

    Many traditional societies all over the world value a large number of plant species from the wild and sometimes animal species too, for a variety of reasons, both economical and/or spiritual. To cite an example, in the north-east Indian hill areas, where over a hundred traditional tribal societies live, it was not uncommon in the past to find one such grove, maintained by each village community; it is unfortunate that much of this valuable heritage was lost with the advent of Christianity in the region, with only a few well-protected groves how present in the region.
    ‘Ecology and Sustainable Development’, National Book Trust, 2001

    What is astonishing is the theological continuity of this anti-ecological aversion towards Indic eco-spirituality.

    In 2008, at Ranchi, Jharkhand, which is one of the epicentres of Christian proselytisation of tribal communities, the Bible Society of India was forced to withdraw the Kuduk language, one of the main tribal languages in the state. This was because the Biblical verses were translated to target the specific local widespread tree veneration of the Sarna tradition. The verse from the Hebrew Bible, which was specifically related to an old historic event in ancient Canaan and Israel, has been made to fit the proselytising context of local communities. “Destroy the trees and Sarna places of worship”, the verse read.

    This was not a simple mistake. The central committee officials of Kendriya Sarna Samithi pointed out that the missionaries had been carrying out a 13-year crusade through “Nemha Bible” to demolish the “Sarna Dharm”. According to them, the Nemha Bible published by the Bible Society of India, Bengaluru, intentionally insulted and incited hatred against the Sarna believers.

    So, when the state government of Jharkhand recently passed a bill restricting proselytisation activities in the state with a strong tribal population, the Catholic Church, if it is truly committed to the environment, should welcome it rather than oppose it locally and in international forums. It is telling that the present Indian government, which is proactively leading post-colonised countries in the effort of global communities to preserve the planet and attain sustainable development preserving biodiversity, is also trying to preserve the local theo-diversity against the onslaught of expansionist monocultures.

    It is time the Catholic Church, which is one of the West’s most dominant institutions, recognises this fact and starts the dialogue earnestly with mutual respect and with no hidden proselytisation agenda. Let the Catholic Church show its concern for biodiversity by respecting theodiversity and guide other Christian denominations as well by announcing a moratorium on its evangelical activities.

    Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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