Colombo Telegraph

The Pope, Our Planet & Being Religious

By Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Pope Francis is the head of the largest religious denomination, numbering about 1.2 billion people, and this appeal has been translated into several of the world’s languages. His wish and attempt is “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (italics added). The violence in our hearts is “reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life” (p. 7). What the Pope attempts is a conversion, an ecological conversion though, as I will attempt to show later, the Pope implicitly argues that a truly religious life, whatever the religion, is one in harmony with nature and the environment. He defines ecology as the study of the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop (p. 69). With characteristic modesty, he does not claim to dispose of questions here ‘once and for all’ but accepts they will be “reframed and enriched again and again” (p. 14). I see Pope Francis as coming within a noble tradition, one which goes back to the Buddha and to Christ; to Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. (I am not a Catholic.)

The Encyclical expresses sorrow and concern for the present state of humanity and our planet. We have had, what Aldo Leopold in his A Sand County Almanac (1949) terms, an Abrahamic concept of land: the earth and all on it was given to humanity to exploit and consume. The Pope employs the metaphor of the Amazon and the Congo as being “those richly biodiverse lungs of the planet” (p. 23), and yet they are being daily diminished. The intensive use of fossil fuels, at the heart of the worldwide energy system (p.17), aggravates global warming. “Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain” (p. 18).

The Pope, our Planet and being Religious: Laudato Si’: On care for our common home. Encyclical letter by Pope Francis, August 2015. 120 pages. ISBN: 978 1 78469 070 0.

There’s “water poverty” in many areas and yet, the Pope argues, safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right since it is “essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights” (p. 20. Original in italics). I quote a media report: “On 17th August 2015, local authorities discovered a leakage of diesel into the Kelani river, the source of drinking water for millions of Sri Lankans. Investigations have revealed that the diesel leakage originated from a Coca Cola factory. According to internet reports, Coca Cola is trying to pressurize the Lankan government to settle the issue out of courts, in a way which is advantageous to Coca Cola. Some reports claim that a US embassy official called Lankan authorities to get Coca Cola factory’s operational license reissued and a proposed fine reduced.” Profit, not human welfare, being the priority, public officials and politicians are susceptible to pressure and persuasion from powerful financial organisations.

Biodiversity is not a luxury we can dispense with: “the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of micro-organisms” (p. 21). “Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive (p. 16): we have not developed the capacity to absorb and re-use waste and by-products (pp. 16 & 17). In degrading nature, we degrade ourselves. Anthropocentric beliefs and attitudes are destructive of other forms of life – and of us. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from us, the mere setting in which we live (p. 69).

Apart from ignorance and indifference, the Pope singles out technology and the power of money. We have placed an almost total faith in technology being able to solve problems but the specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult for it to see and recognise the larger picture (p. 56). Acting piecemeal and having no conception of or concern for the whole, it cannot. Complete information is not placed on the table: a selection is made and convincingly presented. Pope Francis is not against technology per se. If an artist should not be stopped from using her or his creativity, neither should those who possess particular gifts for the advancement of science and technology be prevented from using their talents, but we must re-think the goals, the ends and effects (p. 66).

The market promotes consumerism, the more extreme the better, so that there is created in many a compulsive, albeit unconscious, consumerism. (Socrates, asked why he came to the market when he never bought anything, is said to have replied: “I am always amazed to see just how many things there are that I don’t need”.) The economy accepts every technological innovation if it sees financial profit, disregarding the impact on human lives (p. 56). We allow the market to regulate the economy and consider their impact on nature and society as collateral damage (p. 62). Professionals, opinion makers, communication media and centres of power are located in affluent areas, and are far removed from the poor and their daily struggle. Politicians and politics are subject to powerful financial forces, their interests and agenda. One cannot claim “economic freedom” when so many cannot, for various reasons, take advantage of that “freedom” (p. 65). Culture is more than what we have inherited from the past. It is a living, dynamic and participatory present reality: a consumerist vision of human beings has the effect of levelling and creating uniformity, erasing what is distinctive. “The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal” (p. 73). Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jesuit priest and poet, grieved over the beauty lost by the felling of some trees: “O if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hack” (‘Binsey Poplars’, 1879). Jesuit Pope Francis sorrows also over the loss of “another kind of beauty: people’s quality of life” (p. 74). This will have a special resonance in Sri Lanka because the country is advertised abroad as “the Paradise Isle” with an exceptional and varied natural beauty but a far greater “beauty” lies in the health, well-being and contented life of the people. The above bald summary does justice neither to the evidence impressively marshalled by the Pope nor to the eloquence with which he presents his case: I urge readers to get a copy of the Encyclical.

But why does a spiritual leader concern himself with these earthly issues? USA Presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, said (June 2015) that religion ought to be about making us better as people. But what does it mean to be “better”? I now turn to the third aspect, ‘being religious’, though my field was Literature and not theology. There are believers, sceptics and atheists. Those who believe in a religion are further classified as nominal or practising. The former subscribe to a religion but only in name: their religious belief does not manifest itself in any form in their daily lives. Those who believe and practise their religion may evidence that faith by attending temple, mosque or church, and by observing religious rituals and rites. In the politicised use of religion, an outward religious conformity may be enforced by threats but, as Gandhi said, the essence of religion lies in the practising of morality: see Sarvan, Religion Without God in the Colombo Telegraph, 27 January 2014. But what is it to be moral? Is it abstaining from sexual transgression (Alas, alas, that ever sex was thought to be sinful: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath) and eschewing violence? Or, going further, is it to be kind and helpful to others? My mother, Mrs Ponnuthurai, often quoted the words of Etienne de Grellet, Quaker missionary: I pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being, let me do it now for I shall not pass this way again. Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is set in the 1930s, in Alabama known for its maltreatment, even by the standards of the time, of the African American (then referred to as Negro or, worse, as Niggers). White Atticus Finch is assigned to defend a black man against the charge of raping a white woman. Instead of perfunctorily doing what was required, Atticus, convinced of the man’s innocence, sets out to get him freed, exciting the hostility and contempt of white society. His children have to endure being called “nigger lovers” but, as Atticus explains to them, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that unjustly charged and victimised man (Chapter Eleven). It’s somewhat on the lines of, “I could not love thee, Dear, so much / Loved I not Honour more” (Richard Lovelace, 1618 – 1658). The one makes the other an imperative.

But Pope Francis lifts the concept of morality to a higher and much broader level. We human beings belong to one family, and occupy one home, Planet Earth, which we share with others: animals, birds, the creatures of the sea, insects, plants, flowers and trees. We cannot heal our relationships with nature and the environment without healing fundamental human relationships (p. 60). Our openness to others remains the source of our nobility as human persons (p. 61). This recalls to me a Hadith of the Prophet Mohammed: You will not enter paradise unless you believe. And you will not believe until you love one another. In other words, paradise is through, and only through, love. Ecological problems at the root are because a certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone wrong. We are taught to give but must now also learn to give up; give up attitudes and behavioural patterns that are destructive. If being religious is to lead a moral life, to Pope Francis a moral life includes care for others – and that encompasses care for nature and the environment.

Buddhism, as I understand it, is par excellence a moral and philosophical guide, one that preaches Ahimsa to all living things, human and non-human. (That’s why true Buddhists – and Hindus – are vegetarian.) Buddhism being the most powerful and influential religion in Sri Lanka, I am confident Buddhist leaders address these concerns which may appear abstract and impersonal but in their effects are very real and personal. As Pope Francis emphasises, despite apparent difference and diversity, we are finally one family inhabiting one home. However, more conscious of, excited and intensely emotional about ‘accidents’ such as nationality, ethnic division, skin-colour, religious affiliation, language, we insufficiently heed what will gravely harm, if not ultimately destroy, all of us. One would say that human beings are children playing and quarrelling by the sea, preoccupied and unaware of the collecting waves – except that these waves are of our own making!

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