Edgar G. Javier, SVD
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.” 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.” 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.
This paper is about the Earth, the oikos (household) of God. 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.” As argued elsewhere, it is said that “the habits of mind and action” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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” 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.” 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.” 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. 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. 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.
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.
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?
- 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
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Ernst M. Conradie, An Ecological Christian Anthropology: At Home on Earth? (Burlington, Vermont, 2005), 6-7.
 W. Granberg-Michaelson, “Creation in Ecumenical Theology” in D. G. Hallman, ed., Ecotheology: Voices from South and North (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1994), 96-106.
 Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992), 12.
 Larry Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 7.
 Conradie, An Ecological Christian Anthropology, 2.
 Barnhill, “Introduction,” 6-7.
 Dan Barbour, Religion in 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, Fiji: University of the South Pacific Press, 1987), 35.
 See Sally Kenel, “Towards an Ecology of Salvation” in Terrence W. Tilley, ed., New Horizons in Theology (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2005), 183.
 Barnhill, “Introduction,” 7.
 Kenel, “Towards an Ecology of Salvation,” 184.
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