Saturday, September 5, 2015

"It is we who need to change" - Chapter 6 of Laudato si

Hope long deferred makes sick the heart; but a Desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
These words are from the book of Proverbs,  though when I read them I always hear echoes of the English mystic Thomas Traherne.  They remind us, as Traherne does, of the centrality of longing to authentic humanity.  Who we are is constituted, as much as anything, by what we deeply desire; and disordered, unattainable desire leads to a heart sickness that cannot be cured.

In the final chapter of Laudato si, it seems to me that Pope Francis turns his attention to this question of desire.  He has reviewed what science has to say; he has brought to the table the witness of Scripture, of the Catholic tradition, of Christians and of people of other faiths (check out his quotation of the Sufi mystic al-Khawai in this chapter); he has discussed possible "lines of approach and action".  In the Pope's telling of the story, the environmental crisis is ultimately a crisis of relationship.  Disordered desire, inflamed by consumerism and selfishness, has severed people's relationships with the natural world just as it has severed relationships between one person and another.  The solution to the environmental crisis, then, will be found in personal transformation, in redirecting desire, not only in some improved technology for "managing" environmental problems.  At the beginning of his final chapter, the Pope sets out this thesis very directly.  Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change... A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.

It's worth hanging out with this a little, because there is a real question here, posed by Matt Redman in the video above.   Can human beings change - really?  "Practical people" would say that the answer is no. To hang our hopes on a change of human nature is to have no hope.  Anyhow, "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest" (thank you, Adam Smith).  So shouldn't we just tweak expectations a little bit, stop dreaming of a new kind of humanity, and instead work with the "low but steady motivations of people as they actually are"?

Pope Francis isn't buying it. For two thousand years the Christian Church has looked towards the hope of a human transformation so radical that "new birth" is the only appropriate metaphor. It has worshiped God as Trinity; that is, it has believed that relationship and mutuality are the central core of everything that is, the love that moves the sun and the other stars.   The motivations of people as they currently are, the Pope suggests, are not immutable features of human nature but examples of "how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals" who are raised in a "seedbed for selfishness".  Change is possible:
Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts.
 In this final chapter Francis points to "ecological education and spirituality" as a way to effect this change.  Yet he is not only discussing such a change of heart; he is also stirring up desire for it. Can we not see how beautiful is an 'alternative understanding of the quality of life", how simplicity issues in joy and peace?  Do we not yearn for an "ecological conversion", whereby the effects of an  encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in our relationship with the world around us?  Can we not seek "a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion"?  Is there power in the Gospel and Sacraments to effect such change?

Maybe you hope for that.  Maybe you cannot believe it right now - to all believers, I think, such a hope will sometimes seem far-fetched.  But, says the Pope, don't assume that without such a change of heart, a change of laws will get you very far:
The existence of laws and regulations is insufficient in the long run to curb bad conduct, even when effective means of enforcement are present. If the laws are to bring about significant, long-lasting effects, the majority of the members of society must be adequately motivated to accept them, and personally transformed to respond. Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment.
The Pope's call to simplicity, contentment, and love is not new.  It is a measure of the state of our world how extraordinarily radical these ancient truths sound, when Francis takes them out of church and speaks them in the environmental arena.

Video: Can a Nation be Changed? from Revival Generation, Matt Redman and others, 1996. 

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