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Indigenous Peoples amidst Ecological Crisis: Anthropological and Theological Reflection

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Edgar G. Javier, SVD

Introduction

 

Human beings have been relating with the Earth or the natural world in various and different ways. Some relate with it with reverence, love, and affection. Others relate with it with fear, frustration, and respect. Such ways of relating with the Earth or the natural world are influenced by people’s “environmental sensitivity.”[1] There are diverse and different mindsets and attitudes towards the Earth. While some are “at home on Earth,” others are not; and there are still others finding it difficult to be “at home on Earth.”

In the last decades or so, an ethical and religious attitude of valuing the Earth for its own sake and seeing it as divine or spiritually vital, has emerged. This movement and thought system is called “deep ecology.”[2] It has emerged as one of our contemporary responses to the ill effects of environmental degradation and destruction that we humans have inflicted on the Earth.[3]

This paper is about the Earth, the oikos (household) of God.[4] More specifically, this paper is about the indigenous peoples who are living in God’s oikos amidst ecological crisis, which “calls for urgent reflection on the relationship between humanity and nature, or, more precisely, on the place of humanity within the earth community.”[5] As argued elsewhere, it is said that “the habits of mind and action”[6] of many people across cultures in the world have led to the environmental crisis that we are all experiencing today. “The Earth’s distress,” according to Larry Rasmussen, “is a crisis of culture.”[7] This is “a pathological sign of cultural failure and bankruptcy which requires a new vision and discernment of the place, status, role and responsibility of human beings in the community of life.”[8]

This paper is premised on the indigenous peoples’ belief that the Earth or the natural world embodies a timeless religious truth – that is, the Earth is holy, the Earth is sacred. Today, this timeless truth is teaching us an alternative perspective, a spiritual perspective at that, which “sees the Earth, or nature, or life as sacred.”[9] This perspective, long lived out by indigenous peoples across cultures, is challenging contemporary men and women to rediscover and treasure the divine and sacred in the ordinary physical realities them.

The Earth as Oikos of God is Sacred

God’s household is sacred. In the Hebrew scripture, Job tells us humans of a new cosmology. He says, “Things are so wonderful for me” (Job 42:3). Things are too wonderful for him and for us. The awesome God is revealed through the natural world. God’s sacred artistry is revealed in the splendour of the universe. The natural world bears and manifests God’s imagination and providence. Hence, the natural world was not only born of the sacred creativity of God but also bears the features of this wonderful creativity. Every bit and piece of creation mirrors the sacred creativity of the great Creator, who is powerful, majestic, beautiful, and so on.

At this juncture, an illustration is called for. I like to introduce to you the indigenous peoples of Oceania – the Micronesians, Polynesians, and Melanesians. For these Pacific Islanders, religious tradition is not just a set of beliefs or abstract ideas, but a way of life, their own unique way of life. In their indigenous religious traditions is “an implied cosmology or vision of the universe”[10] that is embedded and reflected in their indigenous culture and primal religion.

Among the different and various peoples of Oceania a foundational concept in their way of life and traditional religion is “their understanding and respect for the sacredness of God, the sacredness and dignity of the people, and the sacredness of the land and the sea.”[11] Since time immemorial, the idea of sacredness had been kept, owned, and treasured in the cultural and religious consciousness of the indigenour peoples. The notion of sacredness influenced all their cultural and religious activities. In Samoa, for example, the idea of “sacredness (mana and tapu) was associated with many aspects of life; it gave dignity to [their] secular actions.”[12] In the island nations of the Pacific, there is never a dull moment. I have seen, I have heard, and I have experienced many of the islanders’ rituals and customs to celebrate the sacredness of God, people, land and sea. Deep in the consciousness of the people is their sense of belonging to God, to one another, to the land and sea.

We Belong to the Earth

Another fundamental concept in the indigenour epistemology of the Pacific Islanders is the strong belief and conviction that they are interdependent with the natural world. Today, this is considered a general ecological principle that speaks of the interrelatedness of all things.[13] This means that “to be human is to be part of nature.” Human kinship with nature penetrates deeply into the essence of who we humans are.[14] Identification with the natural world is a source of deep calm and spirituality. Humans should not view themselves in isolation. All parts of God’s household, the cosmos, are interrelated.[15]

Among the Pacific Islanders, particularly the Samoans interconnectedness is translated into “harmony between humankind, the animal world, the cosmos and the environment.” The Samoans maintain this harmony “by privileging the balance, equivalence and complementarity of all living things.” This is the core of “the Samoan equation for peace.” In Samoa, there are  many proverbs that  commemorate  and celebrate  the sacred  significance of  “the relationship between man/woman  and his/her  earthly  environment”. There  are also many “Samoan  terms  which  are  still used today  that continue to bind  man/woman  and his/ her  environment  in deeply spiritual ways.”

Living in harmony with the natural world is fundamental to living in harmony between and among people. This is the fact that is long recognized, celebrated and lived out by many indigenous peoples. Today, they are  reminding us  that if we  concentrate  on social  harmony  with little or no regard for  ecoharmony,  we will  soon  exhaust the Earth’s ability to sustain  and support us.

Humankind is a unique creature in the natural world. Nevertheless, humans are not separate from the Earth.  Humans are an integral part of the Earth, and the Earth is part of all humans.  Chief   Seattle said long ago, “We did not weave the web of life; we are strands   within it. “

Desecration and Brokenness

            

             But what has gone wrong? Why is it that the sacred Earth is physically degraded and desecrated?  Why is the environment subjected to physical degradation and destruction?  Why is human relatedness to the natural world broken?  This degradation and desecration of the Earth is a serious matter. Humans are not at home on earth!

Humanity is crying (Ps 13:1) and creation is groaning (Rom 8:22). Why?  The reasons are obvious.  Humans  have become  deaf, blind, and insensitive  to the physical, ethical and religious degradation and desecration of the  Earth  that the  anthropocentrism or more  specifically,  the  androcentrism of contemporary  cultures  and religious  have  created.  Likewise,  humans have been  re-cast  into techno-sapiens   that  favor much of the  technological advances at the  expense of  the  homo sapiens  and the  natural  world.  The Earth, or the natural world, is no longer “a source of calm and peace, no longer a pure promise of goodness and happiness.” In short, human beings now live in a frightening new world that humanity and not God has created.

Dianne  Bergant describes this new world: “Our  scientific-technological achievements have thrust us out  of the confines  of  traditional  civilization into  a new age, and our  advances  in devising a  corresponding   worldview has not  kept  pace. Long  standing  patters of  religious  thought  and expressions  of spirituality, once so meaningful  and reassuring, now  seem empty and obsolete, making  religion itself appears to be  an  archaic  practice.

Today, Dianne Bergant,  calls the  attention  of all  humans that “we face the challenge of either  devising a viable religious  worldview that  is more compatible  with contemporary  knowledge and experience, or  resigning  ourselves  to religious  thinking  that is either out of date or, if  attuned to contemporary  science, lacking  a solid  theological foundation. Hence, the challenge to develop a theology of science and a theology of technology is what contemporary human beings have to address.

Dan Barbour also calls all humans to pay close attention to the role of popular religions in contemporary times.  The argument is plain and simple.  Barbour contends that, “Popular religion is not the object of great interest. Indigenous people relate to the land in a way quite different from that of people of the West.  For indigenous peoples, it is more a question of   identity and less a question of rights.  They do not believe that the land belongs to them, but that they belong to the land. To  the extent  that  their culture has not been touched  by  scientific  revolution  with the objectification  of the natural  world, they  enjoy  more of a symbolic  relationship  with nature.“ Since time immemorial, the Native American spirituality for example, has been telling the world that “the Earth is sacred, not just human beings. All creatures have their own rights, not just human beings.

Humanity and the Earth are dying. Why? Humans are misusing the Earth to the point and extent that its ability to nurture life is destroyed. Here is a case where Hinduism’s ‘good news’ for us can be proclaimed.  For the Hindus, the physical world is not just what we non- Hindus  think about it. Hinduism suggests that other religions can look on the world as God’s Body. This calls for reverence and care. The earth is sacred. The earth was not created by God. It emanated from  God with its message  that the  world  is sacred and an emanation  of God, Hinduism  can  encourage  contemporary  human beings to become  environmentalists  to save the Earth and humanity.  Human beings, are  therefore challenged  to transform their natural  communities  into basic  human-earth  communities.

A New Vision

 

             The  severity  of our  situation  calls  for a comprehensive  understanding   of our  own part or  role in this planet  in order to formulate  a vision,  political  activism, and  way of life that  embody a reverence for the  sacred and vulnerable Earth. A new vision of life must be founded on the conviction that human are embedded in nature and nature is also embedded   in human beings.  Dianne Bergant passionately argues: “We are truly children of the universe, made of the same stuff as are the mountains and the rain, the sand and the stars. We are governed by the laws of life and growth and death as are the birds and the fish and the grass of the fields. We thrive in the warmth of and through the agency of the sun as does every other living thing.  We come from the earth as from a mother and we are nourished from this same source of life.

In formulating a new vision of life in this age of science and technology, humans must acknowledge that God is in control of the Earth.  It is God who controls the forces of nature. Such belief, according to Dan Barbour, “originated when the heavenly bodies such as the sun, moon, and stars were revered as independent gods.  At that time, the forces of nature, especially forms, of the water such as rain, were considered minor deities… People  viewed  the  blessings  of nature  as signs that  the   gods  were  pleased while the ravages  of nature  were  evidence of the god’s  displeasure.  Indeed, traditional  cultures and  religions  have much to teach  humans  in the formulation  of  a  new  vision  of life.

In postmodern  times,  the formulation of a new vision of life  should employ  theological  aesthetics  whose  concern  includes  awareness of the meaning and application  of metaphors  and imagery for God. Why should metaphors be used and applied? The old Chinese saying tells us that “pictures speak a thousand words?”

Talking about theological aesthetics, Sallie McFague argues that “people speak of God as love but are afraid  to call  God a lover.  But a God who relates   to all that is, not distantly and bloodlessly but intimately and passionately, is appropriately called lover.  God as lover is the one  who loves  the  world not with the fingertips  but  totally and  passionately,  taking pleasure  in its variety  and  richness, finding it attractive and valuable, delighting in its fulfilment.  God as lover  is the moving power of love in the universe,  the desire for  unity all the beloved, the passionate  embrace  that  spins the  ‘ living  pulsing  earth’  around, sends  the blood  through  our veins, and  ‘draws  us into one  another’s arms.’

God as  lover  finds himself needing  the  help  of  those  very  ones  among the beloved of us human  beings who  have been  largely  responsible  of much estrangement that  has  occurred. We are needed lest the love  lose her  beloved; we are needed  so that the love  may be  reconciled with the  beloved.  The model of God as lover then implies that God needs us to save the world.

Patrick Sherry talks about the divine beauty.  He suggests that “divine  beauty is to be explained  in  Trinitarian terms, for the Father’s glory is respected in the Son,  his perfect image, and  diffused  through the Holy Spirit; that  the Spirit  has the mission of communicating  God’s beauty  to the world,  both  through Creation, in the case of natural beauty,  and through  inspiration , in that of artistic  beauty; the  earthly  beauty is thus a reflection of divine   glory and a sign  of the  way in which the Spirit  is  perfecting  creation; and  that  beauty  has an eschatological significance, in that it is an  anticipation  of the restored and  transfigured  world  which will be the  fullness of God’s kingdom.

Joan Chittister also speaks of divine beauty.  She brings to our attention that “what may be most missing in this highly technological world of ours is beauty. We value efficiency instead. We want functionalism over art. We create trash.  We bask in the kitsch.  But beauty, right proportion in all things, harmony in the universe of our lives, truth in appearances, eludes us.  We paint one good word.  We prefer plastic flower to wild flowers.  We reproduce the Pieta in plastic. We forge the natural and the real for the gaudy and the pretentious.  We are, as a people, awash in the banal.  A loss of commitment to beauty may be the clearest sign we have that we have lost our way to God. Without beauty we miss   the lorry of the face of God in the here and now.”

A New Worldview

 

The environmental crisis should bring us back to our sense.  If this is done, there is a  chance    that our sense of the  holy can be saved.

We need a new worldview, a worldview that emphasizes the “integrity of creation.” By this  we mean “ the value of all creatures  in and for themselves, for one  another, and for  God, and their  interconnectedness  in a diverse  whole  that has  value  for God,  together  constitute  the integrity of creation.”

The thousands of remaining indigenous societies can serve as our model in “manifesting a universal, environmentally sensitive humanity.”  Their societies are dynamic. Their identities are embedded in land, language, subsistence practices, kinship, narratives, and time-honored customs.  Indigenous thought system must be respected.  Although local  or indigenous  epistemologies  lack analytical  distance  required for  rational  thought, nevertheless  they  symbolically  teach  us  ways   of knowing the  world.  In their symbolic language, they provide us a cosmological perspective of the sacredness of the Earth and our   relatedness to the natural world.

The “land ethic” perspective must be   adopted to guide us in   understanding human-earth interactions.  In this scenario, specific indigenous traditions play an important role. This is an  alternative  to the  Cartesian  dualistic  worldview of the   human as knowing  subject and the  natural  world  as simply an object  known by the human.

The Maori  of New Zealand  and the Samoans  offer  us an  alternative. They ground their identity as  people in their  homeland.  The Maori speak of themselves as “people of the land” (tagata whenua), while the Samoans speak of themselves also as “people of the land” (tagata fanua), or “children of the sun” (fanau o le la). This indigenous cosmological perspective establishes all the creatures in and of New Zealand and Samoa, not simply the human, in a web of kinship.

Conclusion

 

I like to conclude  this talk with  some  existential questions  that  are  worth  asking  again… and  again… and again. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Are we alone in the universe?

Endnotes:

 

  • John a Grim, “Indigenous Traditions and Deep Ecology,” in Deep Ecology  and World Religions: New  Essays  on  Sacred Ground, David Landis Barnhill and Roger S. Gottlieb, eds. ( New York: State University  of New York Press, 2004), 36.
  • The Norwegian  philosopher, Arne Naess, coined this phrase  in    He is called the father of  deep ecology.  See the continuities and  changes in his thinking in his article “The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects,” in Environmental Philosophy,  Michael  Zimmerman et al., eds.  (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1993), 193-212.
  • David Landis Barnhill, “Introduction” to Deep Ecology and World Religions: New  Essays  on  Sacred Ground, David Landis Barnhill and Roger S. Gottlieb, eds.  ( New York: State University  of New York Press, 2004), 1.
  • , 6-7.
  • Dan Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), xiii and  5-6.
  • Henare Tate, “Understanding the Meaning of Peace in the Traditional  Religions and Cultures  of Oceania,” in Pontifical  Council for Interreligious  Dialogue, Resources  for Peace in Traditional  Religions (PCIR: Vatican City, 2006) 262, 268.
  • Malama Meleisea, Lagaga: A Short History of Western Samoa (Suva: University of the South Pacific, 1987), 35.
  • Sally Kenel, “Towards an Ecology of Salvation,” in New Horizons in Theology, Terrence W. Tilley, ed. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2005), 183.
  • Barnhill, “Introduction,” 7.
  • Kenel, “Towards an Ecology of Salvation,”184.
  • Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Taisi Tupuola Tufuga Efi, “In Search of Harmony: Peace in Samoan Indigenous  Religion,” in Pontifical  Council  for Interreligious  Dialogue, Resources for Peace  in Traditional  Religions (PCIR: Vatican City, 2006), 281-282.
  • Barnhill, “Introduction,”, 4.
  • Dianne Bergant, Biblical Perspectives on the Integrity of Creation (Manila: Catholic Biblical Association of the Philippines, 2007), 1. [Italics  supplied]
  • , 13.
  • Brennan Hill, Paul Knitter and William Madges, Faith and Religion and Theology: A Contemporary Introduction (Mystic, Connecticut: Twenty-Third Publications, 1997), 249.
  • , 222.
  • Barnhill and Gottlieb, “Introduction,” 15.
  • Dianne Bergant, The World is a Prayerful Place(Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1992), 28.
  • Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science,
  • Gesa, Elsbeth Thiessen, ed. Theological Aesthetics: A Reader (Grand Rapids, Michigan:Eerdmans, 2004), 346.
  • See SAliue McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).
  • Thiessen, Theological Aesthetics,
  • See Patrick Sherry, Spirit and Beauty: An Introduction  to Theological Aesthetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002).
  • Thiessen, Theological Aesthetics,
  • Joan Chittister, “Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light, “ Religious Life Review  40 (May-June 2001).
  • Thiessen, Theological Aesthetics,
  • Roger S. Gottlieb, “Spiritual Deep Ecology and World Religions,” in Deep Ecology  and World Religions: New  Essays  on  Sacred Ground, David Landis Barnhill and Roger S. Gottlieb, eds. ( New York: State University  of New York Press, 2004), 32.
  • Charles Birch, William Easkin and Jan B. McDAniel, eds. Liberating Life (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1990), 277 cited  in Bergant,  Biblical Perspectives  on the Integrity of Creation, 3.
  • John A. Grim, “: Indigenous Traditions and Deep Ecology

[1] John A. Grim, “Indigenous Traditions and Deep Ecology” in David Landis Barnhill and Roger S. Gottlieb, eds., Deep Ecology and World Religions: New Essays on Sacred Ground (New York: State University of New York Press, 2004), 36.

[2] The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, coined the phrase “deep ecology” in 1973. He is called the father of deep ecology. See the continuities and changes in his thinking in “Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects” in Michael Zimmerman et all., eds., Environmental Philosophy (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1993), 193-212.

[3] See David Landis Barnhill, “Introduction” to Deep Ecology and World Religions: New Essays on Sacred Ground (New York: State University of New York Press, 2004), 1.

[4] Ernst M. Conradie, An Ecological Christian Anthropology: At Home on Earth?  (Burlington, Vermont, 2005), 6-7.

[5] W. Granberg-Michaelson, “Creation in Ecumenical Theology” in D. G. Hallman, ed., Ecotheology: Voices from South and North (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1994), 96-106.

[6] Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992), 12.

[7] Larry Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 7.

[8] Conradie, An Ecological Christian Anthropology, 2.

 

[9] Barnhill, “Introduction,” 6-7.

[10] Dan Barbour, Religion in Age of Science (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), xiii and 5-6.

[11] Henare Tate, “Understanding the Meaning of Peace in the Traditional Religions and Cultures of Oceania” in Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Resources for Peace in Traditional Religions (PCIR: Vatican City, 2006), 262, 268.

[12] Malama Meleisea, Lagaga: A Short History of Western Samoa (Suva, Fiji: University of the South Pacific Press, 1987), 35.

[13] See Sally Kenel, “Towards an Ecology of Salvation” in Terrence W. Tilley, ed., New Horizons in Theology (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2005), 183.

[14] Barnhill, “Introduction,” 7.

[15] Kenel, “Towards an Ecology of Salvation,” 184.

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