Last week, the Catholic Studies Chair in the public university where I teach sponsored an event that brought Monsignor Kevin Irwin from The Catholic University of America; School of Theology and Religious Studies, Washington DC, into our midst. His hour-long talk was titled, “Pope Francis’ Teaching on the Environment.”
The monsignor couched his talk in the Latin American proverb, “We drink water from our own wells.” In other words, our life experiences (to a large extent) give us a prism through which we see the world. We construct a “reality” from that view–a view that in turn shapes us. Pope Francis, according to the monsignor, was shaped by the huge unemployment rate and resultant poverty that happened (and is still ongoing) in his native country–Argentina. In addition, he saw first hand how large corporations had taken over the country, laying claim to resources not belonging to them. Furthermore, environmental destruction has taken a heavy toll on the Amazon in Brazil–an area “beloved” to the current Pope. These are some of the waters from the well which Pope Francis has drunk, shaping his worldview.
The Pope’s encyclical on the environment is a response to the global environmental crisis. Pollution, climate change, the issue of water (flooding and drought as well as who gets access to potable water), and the loss of biodiversity (extinction of many species of animals and plants) are “issues” that have come to a head in the last few decades. Globally, we face challenges today unheard of in centuries gone by. As culture moves forward, “issues” take shape that we could not have predicted.
At this point, the monsignor interjected, “We are Catholics. We believe in a triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are prepared to die for the truth of the Trinity.” Other things are not so “set in stone.” The eating of fish on Friday, for example. “Who does that anymore?” he asked. (The Church no longer considers eating fish on Friday essential for Catholics.) Finding effective ways to eradicate pollution and save the biodiversity of the planet is not always clear, he noted, but regarding the Trinity, we can be sure.
I find it interesting that religious institutions–especially those claiming to have revelation from God–find ways to stay relevant (sort of and only at times) with some issues (abolishing compulsory, Friday fish eating, for example, and more recently climbing on board with the environmental issues of our day), yet remain staunchly entrenched with and adamant about their ideas of the nature of God. The monsignor was sure that God expressed HIMSELF in Trinitarian form.
Even though I did not grow up in the Catholic Church, my fundamentalist, Protestant upbringing expected me to hold onto and vehemently defend certain doctrinal “truths” such as the Trinity. I’m familiar with the monsignor’s “dying for ‘truth'” mentality. Conceptualizing God as a Trinity is one way (of many) that faith communities understand the “ultimate.” The Trinitarian image of God is a symbolic effort to capture what the monsignor’s faith community understands to be “ultimate.” How does a symbol become something that people are willing to die for? Sadly enough, there are those (history bears this out) that are willing to kill the monsignor (and those who believe like him) just because the Trinitarian conception of God clashes with how others understand what they call God.
Over time, I’ve come to see that God is a word (symbol) used to convey “ultimate truth,” something which we cannot apprehend, but only approximate. Since we (humans) cannot effectively or completely express what is ultimate with our human tools (language, music, sculpture, painting, drama), we use symbols such as the beautiful, lush paintings displayed frequently by contributors to this blog that point us in the direction of the sacred, divine, holy, ultimate. Call it what you will.
If God (a word/symbol) is a shorthand for the human expression of what is ultimate, why do we (at times) insist the symbol is “set in stone?” Some of us think that God is first and foremost a triune being. Others say God is “one.” Even others profess that “self” is God. What do these images look like when they play out in our day-to-day lives? Could a Trinitarian conception of the divine reflect the variety of tasks carried out by divinity, much like the many arms/hands depicted in Hindu mythology? Might the “oneness” expression of divinity reflect the unity our human spirits/souls have with one another? Perhaps focusing on the “self” as sacred shows our intimate connection with the divine as we become “perfect”–ridding ourselves of violence and anger, eventually merging with the divine? Often, though, our assertions about the nature of God become concrete, dividing us one from the other, siphoning off our energies. How does a Trinitarian expression of God restore the biodiversity of our planet? How does it help with animal conservation, equitable water supplies, and other environmental concerns in the Pope’s encyclical?
Environmental activism has become increasingly deadly. Dian Fossey, an American zoologist, paid with her life (Rwanda 1985), defending her beloved mountain gorillas against poachers. Her work was subsequently captured in a book and motion picture, “Gorillas in the Mist.” There are others who shared Dian’s commitment to the environment and they, too, were murdered protecting our planet. See: http://www.care2.com/causes/10-environmental-and-animal-activists-who-were-killed-for-taking-a-stand.html These people did not die for a symbol.
What I am suggesting is that one’s willingness to die for the concept of a triune God will not accomplish the healing of what Pope Francis has called his “beloved” Amazon. It’s good that the Church is addressing our environmental crisis. I would like to see the Church put the needs of all living things in the forefront of dialogue, not “the immutability of the doctrine of the Trinity.” Does it really matter if we symbolize the “ultimate” as a Trinity, Oneness, or anything else when we go about healing the earth and all that dwells therein?
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.