Sending the tradition on its way

The following is an excerpt from my book, Convergent Knowing: Christianity and Science in Conversation with a Suffering Creation

There is a saying one hears now and then – in various places – when travelling and seeking directions from the locals: “Oh, you can’t get there from here!” While the weary traveller is not likely to enjoy hearing that she must turn around and begin the journey anew, and from a completely different starting point, there is solace in knowing that she will soon be on the right path. This book takes the religious tradition of Christianity as that weary traveller who beseeches the aid of a local citizen to help it arrive at a world that is both environmentally sustainable and just for all creation.

Imagine the scene: cognizant that the Christian tradition is currently on a path that is too focused on uncritical obedience to past wisdoms and literalist accounts of scripture, and noticing that Christianity seems uneasy with an Earthly route to begin with, you, the local, respond politely, and instruct Christianity that it, well, “can’t get there from here.” You suggest that it turn around, and proceed in a far more Earthly direction, one guided, in large measure, by science. The tradition queries your instructions, declaring that it couldn’t possibly be on the wrong path, because this is the route it has taken since it began its journey.

You point out to the tradition that the world has changed in many ways in the past half-century, and that as far as life on Earth for many Earthlings is concerned, the situation is dire. The oceans of the planet are becoming more hostile to life, with heat and acidity levels nearing or at dangerous levels. Already, you say, humans have brought upon climate change, the sixth-largest rate of species extinction in Earth’s history, changes to the global nitrogen cycle, the destruction of a good portion of Earth’s fresh water, and the pollution of just about all parts of the planet’s surface.[i] You remind Christianity that these problems are the product of a modern industrialized economic system and anthropocentric worldview that see the planet as merely an object to be used for human convenience. If it continues on the present course the tradition would perpetuate the “uncreating” of life that currently marks its complicity with this environmental crisis, something you know Christianity does not wish to do.[ii] But it is not just the environment that Christianity must consider. Taking into account not only dollar per diem figures, but also the deprivation, social exclusion, and lack of participation of a good portion of the global human population, you point out that poverty rates are deplorable. The dignity of countless humans has been trampled by economic forces that are deaf to the cries of the poor. Moreover, you point out, the environmental problems that you outlined above will only exacerbate the social and economic problems facing the majority of humanity.

So, you set the tradition onto a surer path with a new starting point: the threatening anthropogenic global environmental destruction and the growing inequality and persistent poverty afflicting the majority of human beings on the planet. But first you impart four pieces of cautionary advice: first, along the journey, make sure the tradition maintains a close and prolonged association with science, and conserves a willingness to follow the evidence about the universe that science unveils, wherever it may lead; second, acknowledge a blurring of the epistemological boundaries between Christianity and science; third, remain focused on the liberation of not only the human, but the other-than-human, whereby subjects participate as agents in their own freedom from oppression; and, fourth, to the extent possible, include the voices and concerns of the entire Earth community, and multiple ways of apprehending reality, in its journey.

With all that information in hand, you send the tradition on its way. Will it take your advice seriously? Indeed, why did you stress such a starting point for the tradition? Are all your cautionary suggestions necessary? Surely, there must be a simpler route? To find out answers to these questions, read on.


[i] Mitchell, Alanna. Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2009; Rockström, Johan, et al. “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity.” Ecology and Society 14, no. 2 (2009): 1–32. Accessed 1 September 2012. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/.

[ii] The term “uncreating” comes from Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation.

Reconciling the liberations of both a person and a river

So, the ultimate question (for me at least), in an eco-tethered liberation is this: how might we ensure that a single subject’s liberation – and not just between human subjects, but among human subjects and other-than-human subjects (a river, birds for example) – does not impinge on the liberation of an other-than-human subject? More simply put, how do we reconcile the liberations of both a person and a river?

To figure this out, it helps to understand the different dimensions of liberation. Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez* describes 3. The first 2 we have already discussed: the first dimension of liberation is bringing down oppressive unjust structures within society that exploit subjects; the second dimension is where subjects participate in their own flourishing – or as we have discussed in the cosmological sense, subjects are free to follow their evolutionary impulses. (Note: Gutiérrez never applied liberation to any subjects other than humans; in keeping with many theorists, from Leonardo Boff to Stephen Scharper, I am applying this to other-than-human Earth community).

The trick with these first 2 dimensions above is to ensure that one subject’s liberation does not impinge on the liberation of another. For this, Gutiérrez proposes a third and important dimension of liberation at a communal level: this is a relational dimension of liberation that suggests that my liberation is tied up with yours and the rest of the community. In other words, both social and inner freedom (evolutionary impulses), from oppressive structures are dependent upon the larger communal relationship one experiences with all subjects in creation. 

Let’s look at an example to see how this works. My favorite comes from Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry’s book, The Universe Story.** They have us imagine the evolution of two animals, the bison and the horse, as they express self-organizing tendencies, interacting within a prairie ecosystem. There is a communal relationship among two species and the larger community going on here. Berry uses the concept of reciprocity to explain this relationship:

The bison butted heads for self-protection whereas the horse, which shared the same environment, chose to gallop. Why? It was their self-articulations or evolutionary choices that made them that way. But at the same time, these animals were made within the context of their broader community of beings, or bioregion. In a biological sense, these animals did not enter into a fixed rigid external environment.

Thank you Russ R https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljiHY7ZMs5s

Berry and Swimme conclude that the animals worked out their existence in relationship with their larger environment. In another sense, the community said to the horse, “you may be a galloping energy” and to the bison, “you may be a ramming energy, but only if you include all of us and all of our concerns and realities in your life project.”

I love this story because it sums up so well what liberation among a whole community implies: reciprocity. And in the process there is some negotiation going on, as you see above.

Let’s return to the case in point: the liberations of both a human and a river. The human, in working out her liberation, has a right to water (for thirst, cleaning, energy for example). But the river, in realizing its liberation, has rights too: to flow and remain clean, moreover, its waters must circulate throughout the planet so that they can also benefit other lifeforms on the planet. However (and this is me talking, not Berry), the rights of the river AND the human are both determined (limited if you prefer) in relation to the larger biotic community (communion). No right is absolute.  

Some of you might have problems with this, but hear me out: first, not all rights are equivalent. As Berry contends, each subject has rights according to its being: a river has river rights, and a human has human rights. Both subjects have to negotiate their rights within a larger biotic community where all rights are taken into account. In this way, a human can work on articulating her liberation, but she must include all of the biotic community and all of its concerns and realities in her life project.

What I am calling an eco-tethered liberation is precisely this articulation of multiple liberations within the larger concerns and reality of the biotic community. Liberation can only be shared within the larger biotic community. Here, the welfare of one subject or groups is entwined with the welfare of other subjects within the same community. Liberation becomes an ongoing process of listening and negotiating ultimately among the whole of creation.

Just so no one is thinking each subject has to listen and negotiate with an entire planet, it is important to underline that this negotiation should occur bioregionally (an identifiable geographical area of interacting life systems). Berry stressed this, as do Mark Hathaway and Leonardo Boff in their book, The Tao of Liberation.*** Hathaway and Boff state that humans must learn to “fit ourselves into the ecosystem and natural economy of the particular place, rather than trying to mold the place to suit our personal taste (albeit, presumably, some mutuality of shaping does occur).” This negotiation of liberation, of place and space, is best done at the bioregional level.

In the next blog, it’s time to look at all we have discussed in light of the climate crisis facing our planet.

~Simon

* Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Caridad Inda and ed. John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988).

** Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1992).

***The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009)

An Eco-tethered Liberation Part I

So far, we’ve established what a messy ethics might generally look like, and why it is liberation and not simply social justice that should be the thrust behind it; we also touched upon why we must seek the liberation of all creation, not just humans. Before dealing with multiple ways of knowing (as I suggested in the last blog), we are first going to have to dig a little deeper into this inclusive understanding of liberation, because, ultimately, I want to explain a new form of liberation, one that is crucial to the functioning of messy ethics: I call this eco-tethered liberation.

A sign at Ignatian farm in Guelph, Ontario. What speed is Godspeed when liberation of all creation is at stake?

Let’s be clear: it is the destruction of all creation – not simply humans, certainly those that are poor and/or oppressed – that is at stake. As liberation philosopher Enrique Dussel puts it, we live at the end of a five hundred year-old hegemonic (a fancy term for living under dominance of others) system that has reached “absolute limits,”* the ecological destruction of the planet and the destruction of humanity itself. As a result, he maintains, we find ourselves constantly searching for solutions to problems we have to think about for the first time.

This is where messy ethics (and, as we will see, eco-tethered liberation) fits in: conventional modes of ethical thinking are not helping us create sustainable and just communities. How we live in our globalized world matters; yet, as we have seen, the right action is not always so obvious.

It is for this reason that the liberation of each subject becomes vital: each subject (person, toad or tree) must become the author of her/his own story if we are to foster a just and sustainable world; and to make this happen, a communal conversation must take place (hence, multiple ways of knowing). But I am getting ahead of myself.

At this point, consider that since the environmental crisis sprouts from the same roots of economic, racial, and political oppression, liberation ought to be universal.  The logic that exploits peoples for the sake of a few rich and powerful, is the same logic that destroys ecosystems; in other words, there is a causal relationship between the exploitation of humans (“Hey, let’s dump our toxic chemicals where the poor live, as they don’t have the clout to fight us”) and the natural world (“Hey, let’s dump our toxic chemicals into the ground, after all it is just matter, an object to be exploited; besides, it has no legal standing”). That’s why I love what ecotheologian Charles Birch writes:

It is a cock-eyed view that regards ecological liberation as a distraction from the task of liberation of the poor. One cannot be done without the other. It is time to recognize that the liberation movement is finally one movement. It includes women’s liberation, men’s liberation, the liberation of science and technology, animal liberation, plant liberation, and the liberation of the air and the oceans, the forests, deserts, mountains and valleys.**

So how are we to understand liberation for all creation?

It’s going to take a few blogs to fully explain this. I only touched upon it in the last one. To be sure, in discussing the impulse for liberation of other-than-human creation, a scientific cosmological perspective is helpful. As I stated in the last blog, the thinking of Thomas Berry is needed, but so is the thinking of mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme.

Here, assuming the form-producing dynamics of evolution to be the same at every place in the universe, Swimme and Berry suggest that three principles or intensions govern the universe.*** The authors identify these as differentiation, communion, and subjectivity. Only when we understand these three governing principles, they maintain, can we begin to understand the cosmology or, as Berry prefers, the story of the universe, which they portray as a cosmogenesis (to denote its constant creation or changing and developing nature).

While neither Berry nor Swimme ever proposed the word liberation, my contention is that these same principles form a basis for an evolutionary impulse to liberation.

On the subsequent blogs entries, I will explain these impulses as described by Berry and Swimme, starting with differentiation.

~Simon Appolloni

*Enrique Dussel, Ethics of Liberation: In an Age of Globalization and Exclusion, trans.
Eduardo Mendieta, Camilo Pérez Bustillo, Yolanda Angulo and Nelson
Madonado-Torres (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013), 39.
**Peter W.
Bakken, Joan Gibb Engel, and J. Ronald Engel, Ecology, Justice, and Christian Faith: A Critical Guide to the
Literature (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995), 10.
***Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1992).