The Sacredness of Creation: Muslims’ and Christians’ shared ecological responsibility
Christian W. Troll SJ
The first Loyola Hall Symposium
On 20-21 Feb 2013 was held first Christian-Muslim Loyola Hall (Lahore) Symposium:
Mysticism in East and West: The Concept of the Unity of Being.
It was organized by Ms. Heike Stamer, M Phil, in her capacity of the holder of the Xavier scholarship, and Christian W. Troll. Heike Stamer later in 2013 published the papers and discussions of the symposium in a professionally edited volume: Heike Stamer (ed.), Mysticism in East and West: The Concept of the Unity of Being. Lahore: Multimedia Affairs, 2013.
The central theme of the first symposium grew out of the Ms. Stamer’s MA thesis at Zurich University on the use of the term wahdat al-wujud in the writings of Saʽid al-Din al-Farghani (1231-1300), a thinker belonging to the school of thought of Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240). It turned out to be a splendid occasion for Pakistani scholars, together with a few invited guests from abroad, to reflect here and today in Lahore — this historical seat of Muslim culture and learning — about a theme central to all monotheistic religions: The relationship between God, the Absolute Being to the world of contingent beings; between God, the Creator and the world of creation.
The second Christian-Muslim Loyola Hall Symposium and its theme
Given the very positive response to the first Symposium and the express wish to continue with this initiative after a year or so, it was agreed that it would be good to hold a symposium of this kind annually. Fr. Liam O’Callaghan of the Columban Missionaries in Lahore very positively responded to the proposal made by me to him shortly after the holding of the first symposium last year, to plan and organize together with me the second Symposium.
Very soon it emerged that a deeper reflection on the ‘Sacredness of Creation and the shared ecological responsibility of Muslims and Christians’ would be a most meaningful theme, a theme that has quite clearly the character of a certain urgency about it. In the context of Lahore and Pakistan this theme in fact has been dear to Fr. Liam for years now. He, together with the renowned Catholic lay theologian Dr. Mushtaq Asad and other friends and colleagues, has promoted over the past decades — in the framework of the Columban Fathers’ Mission in Lahore — a number of significant initiatives in this field. These initiatives have all tried very concretely to raise awareness among mosque communities and parishes in a given neighbourhood for the sacredness of creation by focusing attention to the care for the environmental conditions there. These initiatives included common efforts to beautify the neighbourhood as well as reflection on the shared responsibility for the environment from the perspective of the common belief in the One God and Creator.
Fr. Liam and I decided then to convene this second symposium. In the letter of invitation Fr. Liam succinctly described theme and objective of it in the following words:
“The rapid destruction of our environment is arguably the greatest challenge facing the earth community today. We, human beings, are doing enormous damage to the atmosphere, the soil, the rivers and the seas of Earth as well as to plant and animal life. If this reckless exploitation continues, it will result in the destruction of much of what we have come to treasure, all of which has taken billions of years to come into existence in the on-going and inter-dependent process of creation. As spiritual people believing in the God of life, we have a duty and responsibility to act before it is too late.
In Pakistan the alarming reality of rapid environmental degradation ought to compel Muslims and Christians to work together in this task, inspired by our respective religious world views. In fact, interreligious dialogue can provide us with a new way for coming to terms with the challenges associated with ecological degradation, climate change and their causes and effects. The cry of the earth calls us and challenges us to an ecological conversion. If we can respond together with courage and faith, then this will be good news for the poor and the planet.”
Muslims and Christians are united deeply regarding ecological responsibility
In fact, when thinking about what most deeply unites us as Christian and Muslim believers, it is arguably the shared belief in God as the Creator of the universe and thus the Creator also of the planet earth we inhabit. For the believer creation is a gift emanating directly from the Creator. Hence it possesses the quality of sacredness. This in turn implies on the part of the believer, the servant, the worshipper, an attitude of basic respect, if not awe, regarding this sacred gift. Believers experience the universe, the nature, the kosmos as being gifted to them by God and as such as being their sacred vis-à-vis and partner, and, furthermore , as a reality of which they form a part. The orderly harmonious systematic universe we find ourselves part of, for the believer in the One God is a sign (ayah) and, as it were, a mirror of the creator. It bears the imprint of, and reflects, the all-holy Creator God. Hence to deal with it and to think of it as not more than inanimate or animate matter at the disposal of the humankind amounts to a sacrilege.
The outlook on reality based on faith carries with it the call, the privilege and the duty to praise and serve the Creator, in other words, the vocation to worship (ʽibadat) Him. However, the worship rendered to God the Creator by us human beings who are gifted with the faculties of reason and free will, consists in the desire and effort on the one hand to care for one another by practicing justice and mercy and, on the other, to recognize and accept in practice our task and responsibility to care respectfully, intelligently and diligently for the created universe gifted to us, animate as well as inanimate.
Benedict XVI in his encyclical letter of 2009 Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), no. 48:
“Today the subject of development is also closely related to the duties arising from our relationship to the natural environment. The environment is God's gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole. When nature, including the human being, is viewed as the result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes. In nature, the believer recognizes the wonderful result of God's creative activity, which we may use responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation. If this vision is lost, we end up either considering nature an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it. Neither attitude is consonant with the Christian vision of nature as the fruit of God's creation.”
The second is by the Turkish theologian Ibrahim Özdemir, who writes in an essay on “An Islamic Perspective of Environmental Ethics”:
“Therefore, according to the Qur’an everything in the natural world is a sign (aya) of God and as such it is continuously praising Him. […] Above all, the universe, with all its causal processes, is the prime sign (aya) and proof of its Maker. So, when we look at the Qur’an’s general attitude towards the universe, natural resources, and the relation between human beings and nature we find out that: The main purpose of human beings is nothing else but to serve God, to be grateful to Him, and to worship Him alone. Nature exists for human beings to use it and benefit from it for their own ends. The utility, serviceability, and exploitability of nature by human beings are spoken of in numerous verses. However, human beings are invited to use this opportunity for the good and not to "corrupt the earth" [fasad fi’l-ard], a phrase often repeated in the Qur’an.“
Elucidation of the key terms
The subtitle of our theme speaks of “shared ecological responsibility”. I should like to clarify (a) first the terms “ecology” and “ecological” and (b) then say something about the specific contribution of the belief in Creator and Creation to generate an “ecological ethics” and “ecological responsibility”. (c) In conclusion I shall mention the one fundamental attitude and basic virtue which should, above all, inform the ecological thinking and behaviour of the believer.
It was the German biologist Ernst Häckel who in 1866 introduced the term Ökologie (ecology) indicating by it that part of biology which studies the mutual relations between animate beings and their (animate and inanimate) environment. These, in the given situation, form an Ökosystem (ecosystem).
The public discussion initiated by the Club of Rome in 1972 caused the term to assume a much wider range of meanings, and thus, today, the term stands for the insight — either put forward in popular ways or in the context of scientific discourse — that it is the human beings themselves who to a high degree endanger their environment. At the same time the term stands for the practical effort, to limit this damage in sustained and environmentally sound ways. The term environment includes the natural environment (i.e. the entire biosphere with all animate beings and ecosystems) as well as the environment shaped by humans (e.g. forestry and agriculture, settlement, technical use and change of natural resources) which of course is closely related to the natural environment. It is in this context that we speak of “ecological crisis”, “ecological ethics and responsibility”.
In the public discourse of mainly western or western-influenced cultures the concept “ecology” has furthermore assumed an ideological colouring. The terms “ecology” or “ecological” in our day often are used to indicate a basic attitude of people towards nature and life. In many cases the term “ecology” stands for an integral world-view adopted deliberately in contrast to the dualistic understanding of nature that has characterized much of modern Western thinking since R. Descartes (1596-1650). Often a professed ecological outlook is linked to stressing normative elements such as the demand for the autonomous rights of nature. Such an outlook can develop into a kind of “ecological” belief or doctrine that confounds (or at times even identifies) spirit and matter, human person and nature, God and world, and which at times presents itself as a kind of ecological salvation doctrine (“eco-soteriology”), challenging the teaching of a genuine Christian and Muslim theology of creation.
To formulate norms and practical maxims which would distinguish themselves significantly from a philosophically and rationally based “ecological ethics” cannot and should not be the specific contribution of believers in Creator and Creation to a contemporary ”ecological ethics”. Catholic ethical teaching and much of mainstream Muslim teaching, I think, definitely would hold that the effort for finding moral truth first of all belongs to the authentic competence and responsibility of the socio-historic reason given to humans as such. The ethicist, including the religious one, who cares for the proper relationship of humans to the natural resources, carefully and with an open mind registers the empirical evidences and tries to order and comprehend them on the basis of a comprehensive interpretation of the meaning of human existence. The theological ethicist, in addition, enquires about the ecological significance of the Christian and Muslim faith and tries to evaluate critically and productively the human problems in the light of faith in Creator and creation. Hence the distinctively Christian or Muslim element belongs not to the level of directives for moral action. Rather it concerns the perception and evaluation of nature. Nature as seen in faith perspective is that realm of the creation of God, which has been entrusted by the creator to humans as a precious gift that has to be cared for and protected. Thus for the believer in God as the Creator, the relationship to nature, that is to his or her natural environment, including the non-human co-creatures, stands within the wider framework of his or her relationship to God. This relationship constitutes the all-important key which the belief in Creator and Creation prefixes to the ethically responsible acting of man in and towards nature. The significance of this key, prefixed to ecologically responsible action, consists above all in that it places responsible action into the context of those questions that concern the origin, the meaning and the objective of the whole of creation. The prefixed key furthermore urges the believer to move in the light of his central basic attitudes of faith into ecologically responsible behaviour and action.
Finally, I should mention one basic ecological virtue (among others) which would or should inform any ecologically responsible action of the believer — and hopefully of every person.
Together with the joy and gladness on the part of humans — and among them especially the believers in God as Creator — about creation and about the glory of the Creator that shines forth in it, gratitude must be regarded as the fundamental ecological attitude. It constitutes the human person’s and the believer’s pre-ethical orientation which sustains and informs all Christian and Muslim ethics. In this basic orientation or outlook the human person and the believer can best respond and correspond to the creative action of God and to its result, creation in all its dimensions. Here the human person realizes herself as the creature that recognizes, acknowledges and renders thanks. In the fundamental act of receiving and thanking the believer — as the steward of creation — gives an adequate answer to the creative action of God.
However, this basic relationship of the created human being to God will also inform the attitude of the human being to all other creatures of the universe. Gratitude as fundamental attitude generates a specific consciousness that accompanies all technical and cultural activity of the believing person. Nature is given to humans as a permanent condition underlying all their action. In other words: the most basic elements of creation like, for instance, light, water, air, soil, the elementary food, are not made by man but have been entrusted to him. Hence humans do not have the right to use and ‘consume’ them wilfully in their imagined power of being able to bring about everything they want to. The religiously grateful and responsible attitude possesses a specific and proper value. It sets limits to human power of disposition. True, practically it is never easy in a given situation to define the limits set to the human will to shape and transform nature technologically. However we are asking here for accepting certain limits in dealing with the natural environment, its resources that should not be overstepped. Thus the human person becomes more attentive and careful in thought and action.
Finally, a religiously grateful attitude towards the creator will help to see the earth as given on loan. The basic attitude of gratitude towards the Creator can and should sensitize ethically–responsible acting, namely through the conviction in faith that the earth and its natural wealth have been entrusted by the Creator to humans only as a gift on loan as it were. That means, the earth with all that which lives on it and with all the vitally important treasures it contains, does not belong to the human beings, neither to any individual, nor to any people or to any nation however powerful it might be, nor to any global socio-economic power and equally not to a specific time and epoch. The Lord has entrusted to all of us humans, as his stewards and stewardesses, the earth so that we should shape it according to his will. Hence men and women of a certain epoch and culture are entitled to use and to consume the goods of the earth; however, simultaneously they must be concerned to preserve a sufficient stock or reserve of basic life-enabling key-gifts of creation to later generations and epochs.
Linked with this consciousness of the believer of having received the earth as a gift on loan — each one in accordance with his or her share of responsibility — is the knowledge of the believers that at the end of this time on earth they have to give to the Creator an account about the way they have administered creatively the life-space earth entrusted to them, in other words, whether they have been faithful to the mandate given to them, as reliable and prudent “economists” of God and have shaped the lebensraum (living space) earth in wisdom and justice.
Basic structure and dynamics of this symposium
Ultimately we as individuals and as local communities, Muslins and Christians, bear each a share of responsibility.
As believers we are called first of all to learn more and in a systematic way about the facts on the ground, about the real ecological situation and to acquaint ourselves with the chief ecological concerns in our day, globally, regionally, nationally and locally. On the basis of this information about the status quo, this symposium sets out to explore what the two religious traditions, Muslim and Christian, tell the believer with regard to the theme of ecological responsibility.
What do our religious scriptures and traditions mean to us in this situation. In which ways do they want us to relate to our created environment? What do they call us to undertake?
What are some of the main insights and emphases Christian and the Muslim mystics have share with us in their life and teaching? In what ways can they inspire and guide us today with regard to our responsibility towards the environment?
How do poetry and prose literature in the Punjabi and Urdu languages speak about the ecological crisis and our responsibility?
What has up to now been done by Christians and Muslims together here in the Punjab, in Lahore?
And, finally, what are for us Muslims and Christians practical steps in shared action forward?
I wish all of us a fruitful time of mutual informing, reflection and exchange.