Archive for category Evolutionary Christianity
Facing loss and nourishing resilience, that is, learning from crises, is a great personal challenge
Leonardo Boff’s weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at LeonardoBoff.com.
By Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)
We are all subject to the iron law of entropy: everything is decaying slowly, the body weakens, the years leave their marks, disease takes away our vital capital uncontrollably. That is the law of life, which includes death.
But there are cracks that break the natural flow. They’re the losses caused by traumatic events like the betrayal of a friend, job loss, loss of a loved one through divorce or sudden death. Tragedy is also a part of life.
Facing loss and nourishing resilience, that is, learning from crises, is a great personal challenge. The experience of mourning is especially painful, as it shows the full weight of the Negative. Mourning has one intrinsic requirement: it demands to be suffered through, and overcome positively.
There are many specialized studies on grief. According to the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, experiencing and overcoming it involves several stages.
The first is denial: Faced with the paralyzing fact, the person naturally exclaims, “it can’t be,” “it’s a lie.” Disconsolate wailing erupts that no words can contain.
The second stage is anger that is expressed: “Why precisely to me? What happened isn’t fair.” It’s the moment the person perceives the uncontrollable limits of life and doesn’t want to acknowledge them. It’s common for him to blame himself for the loss, for not having done or for having stopped doing what should have been done.
The third stage is characterized by depression and existential void. We shut ourselves up in our own capsule and pity ourselves. We are reluctant to get back on our feet. Here, every warm hug and word of consolation, though it sounds conventional, gains unexpected meaning. It’s the longing of the soul to hear that there is meaning and that the guidestars were only obscured but haven’t disappeared.
The fourth is the self-empowerment through a sort of negotiation with the pain of loss: “I can’t succumb or sink completely, I have to bear this rending to raise my family or get a degree.” In the middle of the dark night, a point of light announces itself.
The fifth is resigned and calm acceptance of the inescapable fact. We have finally incorporated that scarring wound into our existential journey. Nobody leaves mourning the same as when they go into it. The person forcibly matures and finds that loss is not necessarily total, but always brings an existential gain.
Mourning is a painful journey, so it has to be cared for. Allow me an autobiographical example that better clarifies the need to take care of mourning. In 1981, I lost a sister with whom I had a special affinity. She was the last of the sisters of the 11 siblings. When she was a teacher, at 10 o’clock one morning, in front of the students, she gave a huge cry and fell dead. Mysteriously, at age 33, the aorta had torn.
Our whole family, who came from various parts of the country, was disoriented by the fatal shock. We wept copious tears. We spent two days looking at pictures and remembering, sorrowfully, the events in the life of the beloved little sister. The others could take care of mourning and loss. I had to leave shortly afterwards to go to Chile, where I had to give lectures to all the friars of the Southern Cone. I left brokenhearted. Each talk was an exercise in getting beyond myself. From Chile, I went to Italy where I gave talks on the renewal of religious life for an entire order.
The loss of my dear sister tormented me as something unbearably absurd. I started to faint two or three times a day with no evident physical reason. They had to take me to the doctor. I told him the drama that was going on. He understood it all intuitively and said, “you still haven’t buried your sister and you haven’t kept the necessary mourning period. Until you take care of your grief and bury her, you aren’t going to get better. Part of you died with her and needs to be resurrected.” I canceled all the remaining programs. In silence and prayer, I took care of mourning. When I got back, in a restaurant, as we remembered our dear sister, my theologian brother Clodovis and I wrote on a paper napkin what we then put in the memento book to her blessed memory:
“For thirty-three years, like those of Jesus / Years of hard work and suffering / but also much fruit / Claudia bore the pain of others / In her own heart, as rescue / She was clear as the mountain stream / Kind and gentle as the flower of the field / She wove, stitch by stitch, and in silence / A beautiful brocade / She left two strong and beautiful little ones / And a husband proud of her / Happy are you, Claudia, for the Lord on His return / Found you standing, working / Lamp lit / And you fell into His lap / For the infinite embrace of Peace.”
Among her papers we found this sentence: “There is always a sense of God in all human events — it’s important to discover it.” Until today we go on looking for that sense that we can only glimpse through faith.
Reprinted from Leonardo Boff’s weekly column (Sept. 30/11).
The concept of sustainability, considered in its widest sense and not reduced just to development, embraces all actions focused on maintaining the existence of other beings, because they have the right to coexist with us. And only starting from this premise of coexistence do we utilize, with sobriety and respect, a part of them to satisfy our needs, while also preserving them for future generations.
The universe also fits within this concept. From the new cosmology, we now know that we are made of the dust of stars and that passing through us is the mysterious Basic Energy that nourishes everything and which unfolds into the four forces –gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear strong and weak– that, by always acting together, maintain us as we are.
As conscious and intelligent beings, we have our place and our function within the cosmologic process. Although we are not the center of everything, we certainly are one of those forward points through which the universe turns into itself, that is to say, the universe becomes conscious. The weak anthropological principle allows us say that, for us to be what we are, all the energies and processes of evolution had to organize themselves in such an articulated and subtle manner that our appearance was possible. Otherwise, I would not be writing here.
Through us, the universe and the Earth look at and contemplate themselves. The capacity to see appeared 600 million years ago. Until then, the Earth was blind. The profound and starry sky, the Iguaçu Falls, where I am now, the green of the nearby jungles, could not be seen. Through our sight, the Earth and the universe can see all of this indescribable beauty.
The original peoples, from the Andean to the samis of the Arctic, felt one with the universe, as brothers and sisters of the stars, making a great cosmic family. We have lost that feeling of mutual belonging. They felt that the cosmic forces balanced the paths of all beings and acted within them. To live in consonance with these fundamental energies was to have a sustainable life, filled with meaning.
We know from quantum physics that consciousness and the material world are connected and that the manner a scientist chooses to make his observation affects the observed object. Observer and observed object are inseparably linked. Hence the inclusion of consciousness in scientific theories and in the very cosmic reality is a fact that has already been assimilated by a large part of the scientific community. We form, in effect, a complex and diversified whole.
The figures of the shamans are well- known. They were always present in the ancient world and are now retuning with renewed vigor, as quantum physicist P. Drouot has shown in his book, The shaman, the physicist and the mystic (El chamán, el físico y el místico, Vergara, 2001) for which I was honored to prepare a prologue. The shaman lives a singular state of consciousness that allows him to enter into intimate contact with the cosmic energies. The shaman understands the call of the mountains, the lakes, the woods and the jungles, the call of the animals and of human beings. The shaman knows how to direct such energies towards healing ends and to harmonize them with the whole.
Inside each of us lies the shaman dimension. That shaman energy causes us to stand speechless in the face of the immensity of the sea, to sense the eyes of another person, to be entranced on seeing a newborn child. We need to liberate the shaman dimension within us, so as to enter into harmony with all around us, and to feel at peace.
Could not our desire to travel with the spacecrafts in cosmic space perhaps be the archetypical desire to search for our stellar origins, and the desire to return to our place of birth? Several astronauts have expressed similar ideas. This unstoppable search for equilibrium with the entire universe and to feel that we are part of the universe pertains to the intelligible notion of sustainability.
Sustainability includes valuation of this human and spiritual capital. Its effect is to generate within us respect, and a sense of sacredness, before all realities, values that nourish the profound ecology and which help us to respect and live in symbiosis with Mother Earth. This attitude is urgently needed, to moderate the destructive forces that have overtaken us in recent decades.
Making Sense of Evolution
The belief that we must choose between evolution and religion is seductive. Biologist, Richard Dawkins, is only one of many atheistic scientists who believe it’s one or the other. Intelligent Design (ID) proponents, freaked out by the capacity of nature to evolve itself through natural selection and genetic mutation, (and thus elbow out the need for a Designer), likewise try to persuade us that it’s evolution or faith.
Thank goodness for the clear-minded intelligence of theologian John Haught, who brilliantly reveals how the common underlying assumptions of both these camps give rise to the false choice. Ironically, the embittered enemy camps share the same mythic God—a cosmic engineer God who intervenes episodically to design a perfect universe. One camp believes in that God and other doesn’t. So, they hammer away at each other. But it’s not a fair fight. The atheists are going to win this one every time, simply by pointing out the existence of evil, evolutionary dead-ends, and vestigial bits that clearly serve no purpose (such as the human appendix). The universe isn’t perfectly designed by a cosmic engineer. (But it is beautiful in its design, and imperfection is part of its beauty.)
Why don’t these atheists pick on someone their own size, like John Haught? Because anybody with real theological chops exposes the superficiality of their worldview, and how they have set up a straw theological man to tear down. They call John Haught an “accommodationist” (accommodating to ID proponents) but they can’t have actually read his theology. He is anything but. They make two basic “blunders” according to Haught. I will deal with one of the blunders in this blog, and the second one next week.
Blunder one: By presenting evolution and natural selection as an alternative to a designer God, they leave their own territory and enter the land of theology and metaphysics. The problem is that they seem to cross this border unconsciously. There ought to be border guards asking them for their metaphysical passports. They are at home when they describe the physical processes of life. But then, by stealth and under cover of the night, they cross the border into the land of metaphysics and make pronouncements about the nature of Ultimate Reality.
Here’s an example: Richard Dawkins new book, The Magic of Reality, is a delightful read when he sticks to science. I am reading it, and it is filling in many gaps from my pathetic science education. It’s written for adolescents and young adults, which is just about perfect for me. But out of the blue at the end of a delightful chapter on diversity, he drops in the following zinger: “Next time you see an animal—any animal—or any plant, look at it and say to yourself: what I am looking at is an elaborate machine for passing on the genes that made it. I’m looking a survival machine for genes. Next time you look in the mirror, just think: that is what you are too. (Emphasis mine). That’s “magical?” It’s terrifying and depressing.
But is it true? How does he know it’s true? Has science led him to that conclusion? But science doesn’t draw conclusions about the nature of Reality, just how that part of reality we call physical reality works. Am I the only one who finds this chilling? Is this any better than having fundamentalist Christians trying to brainwash children into believing that ID is a legitimate scientific theory? I don’t want my children growing up to believe that they are “machines”—didn’t this language go out of style with Newton? Nor do I want them believing that every thought, feeling, and choice is predetermined by a bit of physical matter.
Here Dawkins is no longer acting as the brilliant scientist he is. He’s morphed into a metaphysician advocating a particular worldview—one could even say a theology. How did we get from describing physical reality—the proper domain of science— to this metaphysical pronouncement about the nature of ultimate reality?
Blunder one, again: natural selection is not an alternative to intelligent design. It is physical process, which partially describes Reality. Darwin’s discovery was brilliant and is still valid today, but there are other valid theories of evolution (See Back to Darwin: A Richer Account, by John Cobb). In the four-quadrant diagram below, philosopher, Ken Wilber outlines the four fundamental perspectives from within which we see and know Reality.
Each quadrant has its corresponding ways of knowing reality (epistemologies). The right hand quadrants are the domains of science—physical, tangible reality. The best method we have for knowing this external dimension of reality that we call “nature” is the scientific method. The left hand quadrants describe the interior, subjective dimensions of reality. The upper left quadrant is the realm of “I” or consciousness. The lower left (LL) quadrant is the realm of “We”, the intersubjective domain, where worldviews arise and evolve.
What Richard Dawkins and other materialists do is to collapse all of reality into their preferred quadrant, the upper right (UR). It’s called reductionism or in Wilber’s terms “quadrant absolutism”. EVERYTHING (the other three quadrants) can be reduced to the physical! If you want to know everything about the reality “machine” take it apart until you get to the fundamental unit of reality—for Dawkins, this is genetic material. Genes have replaced the mythic God for him in the sense that they absolutely control life. It’s not only scientists who can be guilty of this. Spiritual folk who make the claim that they create reality in an absolute fashion through their consciousness collapse all the other three quadrants down to the upper left (UL).
Even consciousness (UL) is said to be created by the brain (UR). But it’s one thing to say that consciousness and brain function are correlated (they are); it’s a completely other thing to claim that consciousness can be reduced to the spongy grey matter inside our skulls (it can’t be). Furthermore, when he ends his chapter on DNA with the claim that the young, impressionable reader is nothing more than selfish, physical bits of matter, using her to pass on genetic material, Richard Dawkins is either unknowingly or sneakily migrating into the LL quadrant and presenting a worldview—genetic determinism. I repeat, this is not science. It’s fine for him to weigh in with his opinions—if he would simply preface such pronouncements with something like, “I’m not speaking with the authority of science here. This is just my personal opinion.”
What Wilber proposes is that if you want a theory of everything you need to employ what he calls “integral methodological pluralism” (sorry about that). All it means is that there are methods of knowing reality that are native to each quadrant or domain. If you want to know about physical nature (UR and LR), then the scientific method is by far the best method.
But if Richard Dawkins wants to know reality as it arises in the UL quadrant (the realm of consciousness), he will need to follow the methodological injunctions of the historical religious traditions about how to meditate and then practice for 10,000 hours or so, and then weigh in on whether the Pure Awareness he is experiencing can be reduced to brain function. (There is a correlation, of course. Every quadrant is correlated to the others. But correlation is not to be confused with causation. Just because you can measure Theta brain waves in Zen meditators doesn’t mean that they are caused by the brain). The problem is that Richard Dawkins is not the least bit interested in what religion has to say about the nature of reality because science, in his view, is the better “alternative”. It’s not an alternative, Dr. Dawkins, it’s just a beautiful and wondrous way of understanding one astounding aspect of reality—the physical.
 John Haught, Making Sense of Evolution, See chapter 2 on Design