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The new Papal encyclical, Laudato Si’, contains an important section on religions in dialogue with science:
It cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life, the interplay of all creatures and the whole of reality. This would be to breech the limits imposed by its own methodology. If we reason only within the confines of the latter, little room would be left for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things. (§199)
The majority of people living on our planet profess to be believers. This should spur religions to dialogue among themselves for the sake of protecting nature, defending the poor, and building networks of respect and fraternity. Dialogue among the various sciences is likewise needed, since each can tend to become enclosed in its own language, while specialization leads to a certain isolation and the absolutization of its own field of knowledge. This prevents us from confronting environmental problems effectively. (§201)
The emphasis on the need for religions to be in dialogue with science logically leads in chapter 6 to a discussion of ecological education and spirituality. The letter refers to the Earth Charter (§207), and calls for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers (§206).
Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption, are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment. These attitudes also attune us to the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us. If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop an alternative lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society. (§208)
“Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment,” (§211) the Pope writes. The Baha’i teachings agree:
The divine purpose is that men should live in unity, concord and agreement and should love one another. Consider the virtues of the human world and realize that the oneness of humanity is the primary foundation of them all. Read the Gospel and the other Holy Books. You will find their fundamentals are one and the same. Therefore, unity is the essential truth of religion and, when so understood, embraces all the virtues of the human world. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 32.
This closely reflects the focus of the Partnership for Education and Research about Responsible Living (http://livingresponsibly.org) and a research program I have helped to lead on values-based learning and indicators (http://esdinds.eu).
Laudato Si’ calls for an ecological conversion, in which spirituality can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world. The ecological crisis summons us all to profound interior conversion to bring about lasting change—which also should create a community conversion. The Papal encyclical discusses how humility helps to overcome the ego, the need for interior peace, and how a balanced lifestyle united with a capacity for wonder can take us to a deeper understanding of life. We should not understand our human superiority as a reason for personal glory or irresponsible dominion, but rather as a different capacity that, in its turn, entails a serious responsibility stemming from our faith:
Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”…. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. (§222)
Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer. (§223)
We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty…. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment. (§229)
The Pope’s letter concludes with a discussion of community actions, the relation of these themes to Catholic beliefs, an interfaith prayer for our Earth and a Christian prayer in union with creation.
Those of you who’ve followed this series of essays understand that human purpose is ultimately spiritual. With that in mind, we all can come to similar conclusions about the nature of our environmental and social crises, the spiritual solutions that are called for, and the urgency of a fundamental transition in our society away from materialism and excessive consumption.
So many sentences in the Pope’s encyclical resonate with Baha’i texts about the connections between all things and the impossibility of separating the inner environment from that outer, that it is not practical to cite them all. The encyclical provides a strong basis for interreligious collaboration in laying the spiritual foundations for positive solutions to the environmental and social crises that threaten us with catastrophe. It also invites a dialogue between science and religion that Baha’is have pursued for over a century. We can only hope and pray that governments will now rise to their responsibilities in the months ahead, while already we advance as rapidly as we can at the level of civil society.
This series of essays was adapted from the International Environmental Forum website: www.iefworld.org