Archive for category spirituality
Sustainability: an attempt at defining it
There is a conflict these days among the different ways people understand sustainability. The definition of the 1987 Brundland Report of the UNO is classic: Sustainable development is one that attends the needs of present generations without endangering the capacity of future generations to attend to their needs and aspirations. This concept is correct, but it has two limitations: it is anthropocentric (it only considers human beings) and it says nothing about the community of life (other living beings that also need a biosphere and sustainability.) I will try to make a formulation that is as inclusive as possible:
Sustainability is every action destined to maintain the energy, information, and physical-chemical conditions that make all beings sustainable, especially the living Earth, the community of life and human life, seeking their continuity, and also to attend the needs of present and future generations in such a way that the natural capital is maintained and its capacity of regeneration, reproduction and eco-evolution is enriched.
Let’s rapidly explain the terms of this holistic vision:
To make sustainable all the conditions necessary for the creation of all beings: they exist starting with the combination of energies, of the physical-chemical and informative elements that, combined together, give origin to everything.
To make sustainable all beings: this is about completely overcoming anthropocentrism. All beings emerge from the process of evolution and enjoy an intrinsic value, independent of human use.
To especially make the living Earth sustainable: the Earth is much more than a «thing» (res extensa), lacking intelligence, or a mere means of production. She does not contain life; she is alive, she self-regulates, self-regenerates and evolves. If we do not guarantee the sustainability of the living Earth, called Gaia, we take away the basis of all other forms of sustainability.
To also make the community of life sustainable: the environment does not exist as something secondary and peripheral. We do not just exist: we coexist, and are all interdependent. All living beings are carriers of the same basic genetic alphabet. We form the net of life, microorganisms included. This net creates the biomass and the biodiversity that is necessary for the subsistence of our life on this planet.
To make human life sustainable: we are a singular link of the net of life, the most complex being in our solar system and a spearhead of the process of evolution as we know it, because we are carriers of consciousness, sensibility and intelligence. We feel that we are called upon to care for and to guard Mother Earth, to guarantee the continuity of civilization and also to be vigilant of our destructive capacity.
To make the continuity of the process of evolution sustainable: all beings are conserved and supported by the Basic Energy or the Source that Creates all Beings. The universe possesses an end in itself, by the simple fact of existing, of continuing to expand and create itself.
To make tending to human needs sustainable: through the rational and caring use of the goods and services which the cosmos and the Earth offer us, and without which we would cease to exist. To make sustainable our generation and the generations that will follow ours: the Earth is sufficient for each generation so long as a relation of synergy and cooperation with the Earth is established, and goods and services are distributed equitably. The use of those goods must be guided by generational solidarity. Future generations have the right to inherit a well preserved Earth and nature.
Sustainability is measured by the capacity to conserve natural capital, that it may renew itself and, perhaps through human genius, that it may be enriched for future generations. This widened and integrating concept of sustainability must serve as criteria for evaluating whether or not we have progressed along the path of sustainability, and should serve equally as inspiration or idea-generating for making sustainability a reality in the different fields of human activity. Without it, sustainability is pure rhetoric, without consequences.
“Think Different” – “Accept Uncertainty”
I recently read Walter Isaacson’s provocative and fascinating biography of Steve Jobs, the founder of the Apple Corporation. He was innovative, iconoclastic, weird and a genius. He built his company not only into a successful giant, but made it the highest valued company in the entire world. One of Steve Job’s secrets was that he was never willing to live inside the boundaries of the given. He adopted as the motto of his company the words, “Think Different.” I grant you that he would have been more grammatically correct if his words had been “Think Differently,” but things like that mattered very little to this man. Later he added the slogan “Accept Uncertainty.” The more I thought about Steve Jobs’ slogans, the more I yearned to make them the mottos of the Christian Church, though there is little evidence inside institutional Christianity today that any one would be responsive to either slogan. Nonetheless that idea fed my theological fantasies and caused me to wonder what the Christian Church would look like if its members and leaders had the courage “to think different” and to “accept uncertainty.”
The timeliness of this idea also intrigued me. If there ever was a moment in which Christianity needed to step outside the traditional theological formulas and speak in bold new accents, it is today. Such exciting possibilities are, however, overwhelmingly resisted in religious circles where security, peace and the absence of either conflict or change are all regarded as virtues. So I have decided to do a series of columns throughout the coming year through which I can invite Christians into a new kind of dialogue. I want to speculate about what Christianity might actually evolve into if Christians had the courage to do things like Steve Jobs did, that is, not to let what is be the limits of what can be. What would be different, for example, if we were able to free the Christ experience from the first century interpretation of that experience as we now have it in the New Testament? Why do we continue to pretend that a first century interpretation is somehow going to embody truth for all ages? What would Christianity look like if we were willing to separate the Christ experience from the fourth century’s interpretation of that experience as presently found in the creeds? Why do we continue to pretend that fourth century words are adequate to be the bearers of ultimate truth for all time? Recently I had a letter from a friend who wanted to start a book study group in her Methodist Church in Mississippi to be a meeting place for those who wanted to explore the edges of Christianity. They wanted to read some of the boundary-breaking theologians. Her request was denied by her current minister. It was his job, he said, to “defend the faith not to question it.”
How can either the scriptures or the creeds be studied in any meaningful way if the assumption is that they are, in their present forms, identified with unchanging reality? That dated attitude precludes the possibility of any different thinking from that of the first century in regard to the scriptures or the fourth century in regard to the creeds. The world’s knowledge has, however, increased exponentially from that which marked the minds of people in New Testament times or those at the time the creeds were formed. No one today, for example, believes that demon possession is the cause of either mental illness or epilepsy, that Jesus could literally ascend into the sky of a three-tiered universe in which the planet earth was the center or that everything not understood in life had to be explained by an appeal to a supernatural miracle. Modern Christian scholars no longer even debate the traditional claims made through a literal reciting of the creeds that the virgin birth is about biology or that the resurrection is about the physical resuscitation of a deceased body back into the life of this world. If the only choices we have in dealing with either scripture or creed is to believe these words literally or not at all, then the future is bleak indeed. We can either become “true believing fundamentalists” (and they come in both Protestant and Catholic varieties), or we can give up Christianity altogether as an ancient, but now irrelevant superstition and take our places as citizens of “the secular city.” If we choose the former then we will watch Protestants protect themselves from change by claiming an inerrant Bible and Roman Catholics protect themselves from change by claiming an infallible Pope. Both claims are preludes to death and both are today widely regarded as absurd. If the latter alternative is adopted then the dying of Christianity will continue, but at accelerating speed until the Christian God takes a place in the museums of human antiquity along side other deceased deities like Baal, Marduk and the gods of the Olympus.
Increasingly modern men and women can no longer live their lives within the boundaries set by the church. Popular Christianity is today represented in the media in devastatingly negative terms. We are the ones who are trying to protect our children from learning about evolution in public schools; we are the opponents of the feminist movement, battling to keep women outside equal rights to in all areas of their lives, including control over their reproductive abilities, and we are the ill-informed bearers of religious homophobia who continue to hold to prejudiced definitions that have long ago been dismissed in medical and scientific circles. This characterization of Christianity is a major, but undeniable embarrassment to which few people will be drawn. “Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” provides us with a new alternative.
When the insights of our space age became almost universally acknowledged as true in the educated world, the God we defined as dwelling above the sky, watching over us, answering our prayers and intervening supernaturally in human history became quite simply unimaginable. Yet to listen to the words in most church liturgies one gets the impression that little has changed in how we understand the world since the high Middle Ages. Most of the hymns we sing and the prayers we pray on Sunday mornings still reflect this theistic definition of God. As believers we have somehow closed our minds to the reality that the planet earth is not the center of anything. It rather revolves around a mid-sized star, our sun, which is located about two-thirds of the way toward the edge of our galaxy, called the Milky Way, in which there are about 200 billion other stars, most of them larger than our sun. Beyond our single galaxy there are in the visible universe between100 billion and one trillion other galaxies, separated by distances that the human mind simply cannot fathom. So if people inside the church continue to define God in that familiar theistic pattern as an external being located somewhere above the sky and ready to come to our aid, they are engaging in little more than pious language that is untranslatable inside the bounds of current human knowledge. The fact is, however, that traditional Christians seem to know of no other way to talk about God and have made no effort to “think different” in the 500 or so years since Copernicus first challenged our three-tiered mentality and construct. Is it any wonder that modern people who come to worship services have a glazed-over look before much time inside church has passed? How would we worship, however, if we dared to “think different” or “accept uncertainty?” Yet as obvious as this question is, anyone who asks it inside church walls on a Sunday morning would be considered quite controversial, even radical! Someone will surely charge that person with being an atheist!
In our world Newtonian laws are counted on to operate in mathematically precise ways until we reach the realm of the subatomic world on one side and the astrophysical world on the other. There is, therefore, in Newton’s world no room for a God who lives above the sky and who operates on our lives with supernatural power. Yet we read of miracles in the Bible. People continue to tell of sightings of the Virgin and even to make their way by the thousands to such religious shrines as Lourdes. In popular culture a person like Tim Tebow, the former University of Florida and now Denver Broncos’ quarterback, kneels to give thanks to God for the victory of his team on the gridiron and sportscasters, citing six last minute victory drives that carried the Broncos into the National Football League playoffs, claim on national television to be “believers” though in what I am still not sure. Their belief seems not so much about Tebow’s prayer life as it is in Tebow’s strong will to win. Does anyone really think that God intervenes in human history to help the Denver football team win because Tim Tebow is a convinced believer? If this power is real then why did God not intervene to stop the holocaust, to end slavery and segregation, to guide the hurricane away from New Orleans or to protect the Haitians from the earthquake? Does this not make God so trivial as to be unbelievable? Yet if someone were to say in a church on a Sunday morning that there is no longer a supernatural deity above the sky, who answers our prayers, a deep and hostile response would be inevitable. The gap between the knowledge by which we live and the faith we continue to practice is vast. Our unwillingness to part with these woefully inadequate concepts continues primarily because we know no others and we fear the bottomless pit of nothingness far more than we are embarrassed by continuing to parrot unbelievable mantras as if they were still capable of being held by any thinking citizen of the 21st century. No one appears willing or eager to “think different” or to “accept uncertainty.”
There is no chance that human thought is going to turn away from the demonstrated wisdom of Copernicus, Galileo or Isaac Newton. If there is no other way to envision the holy, the God of yesterday will simply die. That is why it is so imperative that those of us who love the Christian faith be willing to “think different” and “accept uncertainty.”
How can we learn to think as Christians outside the theological boxes of antiquity? It begins I believe by dismissing “theism” as an adequate definition of God and to recognize that the opposite of theism is not “atheism.” Can we do that? Will people still experience God in the definitions that emerge beyond theism? Time alone will tell, but for now just let these questions resonate. To them we will return.
~John Shelby Spong
The Purpose of Religion (e-newsletter Jan 16,2012)
Religion has various functions at various stages of life. It is a guidepost from early life through to the end. It is a direction, a map. But it is not a guarantee of anything. Religion has corrupted as much as it has saved. Clearly, there must be something more than the religion itself that must be our goal.
In early life, in youth, the function of religion is the formation of conscience. Religion sets the standards that mark the path. Every religion, according to the Universal Code of Ethics adopted at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999, accepts four nonnegotiables: not to steal, not to lie, not to murder, and not to exploit another sexually. These are the guidelines of the good life. There is a law above the law, we learn. And that law is the end toward which we tend.
In middle age, religion becomes a social guide. It is a measure of our relationship with others. It creates the standards that measure the quality of the soul as well as the behaviors of the person. It becomes an attitude toward life. Some things are holy, some things are not. It is the ideals to which we cling, even as we drift a bit from the moorings of our early life. All the absolutes begin to be tested. We begin to understand that religion is more a deep-down struggle to believe and to do than simply a way of acting, sterile on paper, full of thorns in the flesh.
Finally, as we grow older, when we begin the last stage of life, it is clear that behaviors and failures are not the stuff of religion much anymore. Now, the ecstasy of life and the surrender to the Mystery become the last of the revelations of religion. Now, everything we learned long ago, gave up to some degree long ago, never left completely long ago, begins to make sense. Begins to become me. Begins my new beginning as a person.
Then, in the later years, religion ceases to be simply a series of rites and rituals, of rules and answers for which I get some kind of eternal points. Religion becomes what it was always meant to be: a search for a relationship with the Spirit who draws us on. Always on. Even to the point where “on” is unclear.
Religion is not a millstone around the neck anymore. It is the warm, soft, strong, hard awareness that yes, it has all been for something worthwhile.