Sunday, June 13, 2010

Christian Environmentalism

Christians - and Catholics in particular - are frequently accused of being obsessed with only one issue - abortion. We are accused of overlooking a host of other problems plaguing the planet to focus on an issue which should really be a private matter between a woman and her doctor.

Maybe they have a point. It's like that pesky Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. crowing about civil rights in the '60's when there were other pressing issues such as the generation gap, the population bomb and the new ice age (as climate change was described back then).

While the slaughter of 1.5 million innocent lives a year is hard to ignore, there are in fact other social issues which demand the attention and energy of Christians. One of these is the environment.

For Christians of a conservative stripe, talk of the environment is a turn off (to use a '60's phrase). It is too trendy an issue, conjuring up nightmares of hippies or the granite face of Al Gore scolding us for leaving the car engine running while we jump into the Gas and Sip for a pack of camels.

The rest of us may be tired of the scare tactics of the global warming debate or soured by the hypocrisy of the rich buying "carbon offsets" instead of changing their behavior.

Nonetheless, concern for the environment is as ancient a Christian virtue as any other. The first paragraphs of the Bible describe the human vocation as stewards or caretakers of the Earth God created. The pages which follow describe the glory of God revealed in nature from the majesty of mountain ranges to the mystery of the ocean's murky depths. Environmentalism is as Christian a calling as care for the poor and is a key component of the Church's social teaching.

One often hears Christians claim that there is no need for the Church to weigh in on environmental issues because there is an abundance of concern for ecology in the secular culture and media. We need, rather, to endeavor to keep the life issues such as abortion and euthanasia on the world's moral compass.

However, I would argue that it is precisely our commitment to human life issues that requires us to be involved in environmentalism. First of all, a healthy environment is essential to human flourishing. Without clean drinking water and fresh air, humans cannot survive. The poor are especially susceptible to the effects of pollution. Our concern for them means that we have to use less of the world's resources and press industry to discharge less pollutants into the air and water.

Secondly, the environmental debate as undertaken by the secular media and culture is growing increasingly anti-human. Women and men, because we exhale carbon dioxide, are considered pollutants. One of the stated goals of many environmental groups is to reduce population throughout the world. As they grow in influence, aid to poor countries will be increasing tied to population control. If a country's birthrate exceeds a certain level, funding will be reduced or cut off. As we have seen in China and are soon to see in Africa, this will lead to horrific human rights abuses such as forced sterilizations and abortions (there's that pesky issue again).

Because of our tradition of caring for the Earth and because of our commitment to life issues, we Christians must not only take part in the environmental movement but take the lead. We must make the case that human beings are good for the environment and that human flourishing is not antithetical to the flourishing of plants and animals. Otherwise human life will be sacrificed at the altar of Gaia, and the poor will bear the brunt of it.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Image of the Invisible God

Now that my youngest daughter is in the first grade, she is asking all the questions about faith which I forgot were so difficult to explain. One question she has really struggled with is the doctrine of the Trinity. How can Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit all be one God? If they are each God, then there must be three gods. Or if there is only one God, then two of them must not be God. I have to admit that I have been at a loss to explain it to her short of telling her that it is impossible to understand. We just have to believe it and wait until we get to Heaven to understand. Though that was the type of explanation I used to balk at when I was a kid, I have to admit that there is really no better answer than that. God has revealed himself to be three Persons in one God. We either accept it in faith or reject Christianity as a whole. Without belief in the Trinity, all of Christian teaching is no more valuable than fortune cookies.

Accepting the doctrine of the Trinity in faith does not mean that we do not turn it around in our heads to try to make sense of it. On the contrary, our faith always engages our reason. The mystery of the Trinity can make some sense to us even if we will never understand it fully.

When my daughter learned about Saint Patrick and the shamrock, it helped her make some sense of the Trinity. The image that always helped me is based on Saint Augustine's psychological analogy.

Each person, because we are self-conscious, has both a real self and a self-image. We have a true self and an image in our mind of who we are. Because we are imperfect, our self-image is not an accurate reflection of our true self. For example, we may not be as ugly or as attractive as we think. Or we may not be as smart or as dumb as we think. Nonetheless, we have this self-image built up based on how people have treated us and our experiences interacting with others.

We are not only able to have an image of ourselves in our minds, we are also capable of having feelings about ourselves. Based on our self-image, we either like ourselves or loathe ourselves. Most of us, I imagine, fall somewhere in between. Just as our self-image is often a distortion of our true selves, so our self-esteem often falls short of the love we deserve to have for ourselves.

What does all this have to do with the doctrine of the Trinity?

The true self corresponds to God the Father. God's self-image refers to God the Son. And God's self-esteem refers to the Holy Spirit.

Because God is perfect, his self-image, Jesus, is a perfect reflection of his being and glory. Saint Paul tells us in the Letter to the Colossians that Jesus is "...the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15). Whoever looks upon Jesus looks upon the Father (Jn. 14:9). Also, because God is perfect, he has a perfect love for himself. Whereas the Son is the image of the Father, the Spirit is God's self-esteem, the love he has for his image, the Son. The Holy Spirit, then, is the very love of God given to us. Again Saint Paul tells us as much in the letter to the Romans: "The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given us" (Rom 5:5).

Saint Augustine's insight was that since we are made in the image and likeness of God, we can find in our psychological makeup a reflection of God's being. Just as each of us is one person though made up of our true self, self-image and self-esteem, so God is one God though Father, Son and Spirit.

Understanding the Trinity in this way also helps us ponder other mysteries such as our incorporation into Christ through baptism, our spiritual adoption through the gift of the Spirit and the mystical communion of the Church.

While this psychological model is much more complicated than the shamrock, I think it helps us begin to make some sense of the mystery that God is.

(painting by Salvador Dali, "The Angelus of Gala"