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Working for a Comunity of Life

Today Boff does not speak of liberation but of life protection for the excluded. Sixty years ago Gandhi explained the earth has enough for all people. That is still true today. But the earth will never produce enough for the squanderers.

By Leonardo Boff

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.zeit-fragen.ch/index.php?id=2827&type=98.]

[In his addresses in Switzerland, Leonardo Boff was an "advocate of the poor." As one of the leading proponents of liberation theology, his main theme is defending human rights for the poor.

Leonardo Boff was born in 1938 in Brazil (Concordia) as the son of Italian immigrants. He studied philosophy and theology and was ordained a priest in 1964. He gained a doctorate in 1970. One of his supervisors was Joseph Ratzinger, today's pope Benedict XVI. Teaching activity brought him to Portugal, Spain, the US, Germany and Switzerland. After two speaking- and teaching bans (1985 and 1992), he voluntarily abandoned his priesthood and dedicated himself to other activities including associations and social movements. Since 1993 he has been professor for ethics and theology in Rio de Janeiro.

In 2001 he was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize for his literary work and his struggle for a dignified life of the poor and excluded. He wrote more than 60 books in the areas of theology, philosophy, anthropology and mysticism, books about the logic of the heart and "sympathy" as central starting-points for engagement in social justice.

Today he does not speak of "liberation" but of "life protection" for the "excluded" and points to the present reality of his land, Brazil. A third of the population in Brazil - 50 million people - receives no state help against criminality, starving to death and unemployment.

"When the rich limit the earth so there is enough for fewer and fewer people, social tensions increase alarmingly. We must justly distribute the riches of the earth. Sixty years ago Gandhi explained the earth has enough for all people. That is still true today. But the earth will never produce enough for the squanderers. We need a responsible consumption and a culture of modesty and frugality."
Leonardo Boff in an interview with the Zurich Kirchenboten (1999)]


The problems of our world are all closely interconnected. Therefore isolated solutions with only technical, political or economic means are impossible. A union of new hearts and minds is needed, filled by common shared responsibility, with values and principles of action that are indispensable for another world order. Let us name some of them more exactly.

First - the duty of caring for the earth coming to us from the brilliant process of the evolution of the universe.

Second - respect and reverence for all others, all living beings and different cultures,

Third - the permanent cooperation of everyone with everyone else because we all depend on each other regarding our environment and share a common destiny,

Fourth - social justice that extinguishes differences, removes hierarchies and excludes inequalities,

Fifth - absolute solidarity and sympathy for all beings that suffer beginning with the tortured earth and the weakest and those who most need protection,

Sixth - the common shared responsibility for the future of life, for the eco-systems that guarantee human survival, and ultimately for the survival of the planet earth itself.

Seventh - appropriate initiatives of moderation as a counterweight since our culture is marked by excess and inequalities.

Lastly - self-control of our greed for wealth and consumption so everyone can have enough and feel they are members of the one human family.

All this is only possible on the ground of a conscious reason coming from the heart.

The economy cannot be separated from society because this would destroy the fundamental idea of society and the common good. An economy that works for the community of life is an ideal that gives wings and inspires hearts and minds.


Which Happiness is Possible?

Happiness is one of humanity's most desired goods, but it cannot be bought in the market, on the stock exchange, or in a bank. Nonetheless, a whole industry has been built around it, known as "self-help." With bits of science and psychology, attempts are made to offer an infallible formula to reach "the life you have always dreamed of". Confronted, however, with the inalterable course of things, it proves unsustainable and deceptive. Curiously, the majority of those seeking happiness know intuitively that they cannot find it in pure science or in a technological center. In Brazil they go to a pai or a mãe de santo (priest or priestess), an espírita (spiritualist) center, or they join a charismatic group, seek advice from a guru, read the horoscope, or study the I-Ching of happiness. They know that acquiring happiness is not in the realm of analytical or calculating reason but in the senses, and the emotional and cordial intelligence. This is because happiness must come from within, from the heart and from the senses.
To put it plainly: we cannot go directly to happiness. Those who try that route are almost always unhappy. Happiness derives from something elemental -- from the essence of the human being and from a sense of just measure in everything.

The essence of the human being rests in the capacity for relating to others. The human being is a web of relations, a sort of rhizome, whose roots point in all directions. He only fulfills himself when he continuously lives out his connections with the universe, with nature, society, other people, with his own heart and with God. Relating to that which is different allows him interchange, enrichment and transformation. Happiness or unhappiness are born from this interplay of relationships, in direct proportion to their quality. Happiness is not possible without relationships.

But that is not enough. It is important to have a deep sense of just measure, in the framework of the concrete human condition. This derives from realizations and frustrations, from violence and tenderness, from the monotony of every day life and from the unexpected, from health, illness, and, finally, death.

To be happy is to find the just measure in relation to these polarities. A creative equilibrium is born there -- without being too pessimistic when seeing shadows, nor too optimistic at seeing lights. To be concretely realistic, creatively taking on the incompleteness of human life, trying, day by day to write straight with crooked lines.

Happiness depends on such an attitude, especially when we face the unavoidable limits, such as frustration and death for example. It's pointless to rebel or to be resigned, but everything changes if we are creative -- that turns the limits into sources of energy and growth. That is what we call resilience -- the art of deriving benefit from adversity and failure. A spiritual sense of life appears there, without which happiness is not sustainable either in the medium or long term. It turns out that death is not the enemy of life, but a leap to another, higher order. If we feel ourselves in the hand of God, we calm down. To die is to submerge in the Source. In this way, as was said by Pedro Demo, the thinker who did the best study in Brazil of the Dialectic of Happiness (Dialetica Da Felicidade -- in three volumes, published by Vozes, Petropolis): "if heaven cannot be brought to earth, we can at least get closer." This is the simple and factual happiness that we can painfully conquer, as the profligate sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

Free translation from the Spanish by Melina Alfaro, done at Refugio Del Rio Grande, Texas.

What future awaits us?

Many analysts, including James Lovelock, Martin Rees, Samuel P. Huntington, Jacques Attali and others, make somber predictions about the future that awaits us. It is true that history does not have laws. It exists in the realm of the freedom that is subject to the Bohr/Heisenberg principle of indetermination and of surprising emergencies, which belong to the process of evolution. However, a long term look lets us see some constants that can help us understand, for instance, the birth, expansion, and fall of complete empires and civilizations. This question was studied by British historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) who wrote a twelve-volume work on those civilizations that are known to history: A Study of History. There he addresses a key category, a true socio-historic constant that sheds some light on the topic in question. It is the correlation of challenge and response. Toynbee points out that a civilization maintains and renews itself to the degree it manages to balance the challenge potential with the response potential that a civilization can summon. When the challenges are such that they exceed the capacity to respond, the decline of the civilization begins. It enters into crisis and disappears.

I think that we are now facing this type of phenomenon. Our civilization paradigm, elaborated in the West and spread across the globe, is falling apart everywhere. The global challenges are so grave, especially those relating to ecology, energy, food, and population, that we are losing the capacity to elicit a collective and inclusive response. Such a civilization will certainly dissolve.

The Spirit Arrives Before the Missionary

One of the effects of globalization — which goes far beyond its economic-financial expression — is the encounter between all types of spiritual and religious traditions. A veritable market of symbolic goods has emerged, where different paths, doctrines, ceremonies, rites and esoterics are offered to meet the needs of the ever growing number of people, usually tired of the excesses of materialism, rationalism, consumerism and the superficiality of our conventional culture.

Behind this phenomenon lies a human search that must be understood and attended to. Contrary to the predictions of the "masters of suspicion," such as Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, the spiritual and the mystical are returning with renewed vigor. They reveal a forgotten human dimension, seen by modernists more as a form of pathology than of health. But today, among the scholars of the science of religion, it is regaining its validity. It is based in cordial and sensible reason, which is not a substitute for, but complementary to, scientific and calculating reason, and is home to the big dreams and guiding stars that give direction to our lives. Religion reveals the human being as an infinite project and provides that which is necessary to put him at ease: the Infinite.

Christians have an especially hard time in the dialogue with the other religions. They hold the belief that they are the bearers of a unique revelation and universal Savior, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. Among some, this belief takes fundamentalist forms, maintaining without question that there is no salvation outside of Christianity, repeating a version with medieval overtones. Others, starting from the Bible itself, and from a more profound theological reflection, assert that all human beings, as well as the cosmos, are permanently under the rainbow of the grace of God. In the first eleven chapters of Genesis, where there is no talk of Israelites as the "chosen people," all the peoples of the Earth are God's peoples. That is still true now.

Moreover, the Scriptures show that the Spirit fills the face of the Earth, enters history, animates people to do good, to live in truth and act with justice and love. The Spirit arrives before the missionary. Before expounding his message, the missionary needs to recognize the works performed by the Spirit throughout the world; and continue them.

Christ can not be reduced to His Palestinian form. When He became the man, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son entered the process of evolution, touched human reality, and reached a cosmic dimension. It was the Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus, in the Middle Ages, and Teilhard de Chardin, in modern times, who pointed out that the Son is present in original matter and energy, and that His presence was intensified as complexity developed and conscience grew, until He burst forth in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. This individuation did not diminish His divine and cosmic character, rather, it could emerge under other names and other figures, who reveal in their lives and works the proximity of the mystery of God. To avoid "Christianization" of the subject, we can speak, as do the great traditions, of Wisdom/Sophia. It is present in creation, in the life of the peoples and especially in the lessons of the masters and the wise. Or the category, Logos or Verb, is also used, to reveal the moment of intelligibility and ordination of the universe. It is not an impersonal Energy but one of high subjectivity and supreme consciousness.

These visions anchor our lives in a positive manner, allowing us to withstand the avatars of this difficult existence.

On the Proper Use of Relativism

Today, through the mass media, images and peoples from all over the world come in from the roof tops, the doors and windows, and coexist with us. It is the effect of the globalized networks of communication. The first reaction is perplexity, that could provoke two attitudes: interest in knowing them better, which implies openness and dialogue, or distancing, that presupposes closing the spirit and excluding them. Either way, an undeniable perception occurs: our way of being is not the only one. There are human beings who, without ceasing to be human, are different. This is to say, our way of life, of inhabiting the world, of thinking, of valuing and of eating, is not absolute. There are thousands of other forms of being human, from the ways of the Siberian Eskimo, through the Yanomamis of Brazil, all the way to the sophisticated inhabitants of closed condominiums, where opulent and terrified elites protect themselves. The same can be said about the differences of cultures, languages, religions, ethics and leisure.

From this relativism immediately appears in two forms: first, it is important to see as relative all ways of being; none is absolute to the point of invalidating the others; an attitude of respect and of welcoming of the difference is also necessary, because, for the simple fact of being here, they have the right to exist and co-exist. Second, relativity also seeks to express the fact that all are in one way related to the other. They cannot be thought of independently of each other because they are all carriers of the same humanity. Therefore we have to broaden the understanding of the human beyond our own concrete expression. We are one geo-society, unitary, multiple, and different.

All these human manifestations carry value and truth. But they are a relative value and truth, that is to say, related to each other, self implicated, given that none, taken by itself, is absolute.

Then, is there no absolute truth? Is there value in the "every thing goes" of some postmodernists? No, it does not mean that everything has value. Everything has value to the extent that it relates with others, respectful of their differences. Each is carrier of truth, but no-one has a monopoly on the truth. All, in one way or the other, participate in the truth, but they can grow towards a more complete truth, to the extent that they open up more and more to each other.

The Spanish poet Antonio Machado put it well: "Your truth? No, Truth; / come seek it with me./As for yours, you can keep it." If together we seek truth, in dialogue and cordiality, then more and more my truth disappears, letting The Truth, accepted by all, take its place.

The illusion of the West is in imagining that the only window that gives access to the truth, to the true religion, to authentic culture and to critical knowledge, is its way of seeing and of living, and that the other windows only show distorted landscapes. The West condemns itself to a visceral fundamentalism that in the past has led it to cause massacres to impose its religion, and now, wars, to force democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We ought to make good use of relativism, inspired by culinary art. There is only one culinary art, the one that prepares human nourishment. But it takes many forms, in diverse gastronomy: the Mineira or the Nordestina in Brazil, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Mexican and others. No one can say that one is true and exquisite and not the others. All are exquisite in their own way, and all of them show the extraordinary versatility of the culinary art. Why should it be different with the truth?

There is a debate in science and in philosophical reflections that constantly reappears and that is also present in our everyday existence. Given how things are in the world, be it in social or ecological aspects -- the disasters that are happening with thousands of victims --, or considering our own lives, that are filled with contradictions, with short moments of happiness and long ones of tribulation, we ask ourselves: does life have meaning after all? Is it not just a game of contradictions, where crimes are mixed with virtues, where cunning is mixed with generosity, and Pharisaic with rectitude? It is not uncommon to find persons who seem to be kind and tender, but when one comes closer to them, they reveal themselves to be headstrong and, frequently, authoritarian.

We usually say that it is the condition humaine that makes us learners (sapiens) and simultaneously insane (demens). In fact, we are the enduring coexistence of those contradictions. Will it be always that way? Will we be able, in our lifetime, to imitate God who writes straight with crooked lines?

Religious and even well-educated people are not free from these anguishes. Faith does not spare the faithful from this darkness. One can listen to the mystics, such as Saint John of the Cross, who speaks of the "dark night of the senses," when all the delights of life disappear and aridity destroys the soul. And that is only the beginning. Then comes "the night of the spirit." This is "terrible and dreadful", because it submerges the soul in the experience of hell and in the total absence of God.

Those who have the patience and stubbornness to continue believing in the sun, even though it has been swallowed by the night or jailed by darkness, will inherit a happiness and delight that anticipates that which we call heaven. But how long it takes and at what cost!

This question frequently appears now in reflection on modern cosmology. Renown scientists opt for the non-directionality of the universe. To them, it simply has no meaning. There are others — and I quote only one, Freeman Dyson, the well known physicist from Great Britain, who said: "The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming." In effect, the anthropic principle aserts that had a subtle equilibrium of billionths of a second between the force of attraction and the force of expansion not occurred in the very first moments after the big bang, the conditions to form matter would not have been present, life would have been impossible, and it would have been equally impossible for the human being to come into existence.

Looking back at the process of evolution that is already 13,700 million years old, we cannot deny that there was an ascending escalation towards ever greater complexity, towards more life, and towards ever more subjectivity that allows us to think, to feel, to love and to care. The well known thinker R. Wright talks in this context about the "non-zero-sum." He says that "on balance, over the long run, non-zero-sum situations produce more positive sums than negative sums." In other words: an unquestionable directionality of history has validity, and it causes the tie to break in favor of the sensible over the absurd. That minimum of positivity, non-zero-sum, holds the hope for the happy destiny of the universe and of our sorrowful existence. The confrontation between chaos and cosmos, justice and injustice, continues; but the outcome tends towards the victory of cosmos and justice.

In Search of Ecological Wisdom

The globalized civilizing paradigm, based on the war against Gaia and against nature, is bringing the entire life system to a huge impasse. There are clear signs that the Earth can no longer sustain the systemic exploitation of her resources, and the constant offenses to the dignity of her sons and daughters, those humans who are excluded and condemned by the millions to die of hunger. But we must remember that it is not us who will win this war, but Gaia. As Eric Hobsbawm observed in the last page of his well known book, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991: "The future cannot be a continuation of the past...Our world risks both explosion and implosion. It must change... the alternative to a changed society, is darkness."

How can we avoid this darkness that could spell defeat for our civilization and eventually bring Armageddon to the human species? We must recall other civilizations that can inspire ecological wisdom. There are many. I choose the Mayan civilization for the simple reason that in March of this year, I had the opportunity to spend 20 days visiting the Central American regions that are still inhabited by the survivors of that extraordinary civilization, and to talk at length with their wise men and women, religious guides and shamans. From their immense wealth I would like to touch only two central topics that are missing from the way we inhabit the world: their world view, which is in harmony with all beings, and their fascinating anthropology, centered in the heart.

Mayan wisdom derives from the most remote times and has been preserved by passing it from parent to child. Since they did not suffer a direct attack by modern culture, they faithfully keep their ancient traditions and teachings, also preserved in writings such as the Popol Vuh and the Chilam Balam books. The basic intuition of their world view is very close to that of modern cosmology and quantum physics. The universe is built and maintained by cosmic energies of the Creator and Maker of everything. What exists in nature was born from the love encounter between the Heart of Heaven and the Heart of the Earth. Mother Earth is a living being who vibrates, feels, senses, works, breeds and nourishes all her sons and daughters. The basic duality between formation and disintegration (we would say between chaos and cosmos) confers dynamism on the universal process. The welfare of human beings consists in their being permanently synchronized with this process and in cultivating a profound respect for all beings. Then the human feels consubstantial with Mother Earth and enjoys all her beauty and protection. Death itself is not an enemy; it brings a more radical involvement with the universe.

All human beings are seen as "the illustrious sons and daughters, the inquirers and seekers of existence." To reach plenitude the human being goes through three phases, a true process of individualization. The human being can be "a person of clay": who talks, but is not consistent, because clay dissolves in water. The human can develop more and move up to being "a person of wood": with understanding, but not a soul that feels, because wood is rigid and insensitive. Finally, the phase of "a person of corn" is reached: "the human being knows what is near and what is far away", and is characterized by the fact of having a heart. This is why "s/he feels perfectly, perceives the Universe, the Source of Life" and palpitates with the rhythm of the Heart of Heaven and of the Heart of The Earth.
The essence of the human being is in the heart, in what we have been saying for many years, in primordial reason and sensitive intelligence. In giving it centrality, manifested in caring and respect, is how we can save ourselves.

Four "Rs" Against Consumerism

Hunger is a constant in all societies throughout history. Now, however, it has reached shameful and simply cruel dimensions. Hunger shows a humanity that has lost compassion and mercy. To eradicate hunger is a humanistic, ethical, social and environmental imperative. The most urgent and attainable precondition, that must be immediately acted upon, is the creation of a new standard of consumption.

The dominant society evidently is consumerist. It gives centrality to private consumption, without self-imposed limits, as a goal of the society itself and of the life of its people. Under it, one consumes not only what is necessary, which is justifiable, but the superfluous, which is questionable. This consumerism is only possible because the economic policies that produce the superfluous goods are continuously nourished, supported and justified. A great part of the production is devoted to producing things which we do not need to live decently.

Since it relates to superfluous stuff, the mechanisms of propaganda, marketing and persuasion are used to induce people to consume, and to make them believe that what is superfluous is necessary and that it is a secret fountain of happiness.

Fundamental to this type of marketing is developing habits in the consumers, until a consumerist culture and an imperious need to consume have been created. More and more artificial needs are generated and accordingly, the means of their production and distribution are established. The needs are unlimited, because they are grounded in desire, which is, by its nature, unlimited. For this reason, production also tends to be unlimited. A society then appears, which has already been denounced by Marx, marked by fetishes, filled with superfluous goods, blanketed with supermarkets, true sanctuaries to consumerism, with altars filled with miracle working idols, but idols all the same; an unsatisfied and empty society because nothing can satisfy it. This is why consumption is nervously growing, without our knowing how long the finite Earth will tolerate the infinite exploitation of its resources.

It is not surprising that President Bush has summoned the population to consume more and more, in order to save the economy in crisis, of course, at the expense of the sustainability of the planet and its ecosystems. Against that, it is worth recalling the words of Robert Kennedy on March 18, 1968: "...We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in an endless amassing of worldly goods... The gross national product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.". Three months later he was murdered.

To face consumerism it is urgent that we consciously practice an anti-culture mode. The four principal "Rs" must be incorporated into our daily life: reduce the objects of consumption, reuse those we have already used, recycle products, giving them other uses, and finally, reject all that which marketing, shamessly or subtly, pushes us to consume.
Without this consistent spirit of rebellion against all types of manipulation of desire and the will to follow other paths guided by moderation, just measure, and responsible, solidarian consumption, we run the risk of falling into the insidious pits of consumerism, increasing the number of hungry people and empoverishing the planet, which is ever more devastated today.

What is essential in Christianity is not that it affirms the incarnation of God — other religions also did that —, but that it affirms that utopia (that which does not take place) turned into eutopia (a good place). There was One in whose death not just death was defeated, which in itself would still be small, but in whom irrupted all the inner and exterior possibilities hidden in the human being. Jesus is the "newest Adam," in an expression of Saint Paul, the homo absconditus now revealed. But He is only the first among many brothers and sisters; we will follow Him, Saint Paul concludes.

To announce such hope in the present somber context is not irrelevant. It transforms the eventual tragedy of the Earth and of Humanity, due to social and ecological threats, into a purifying crisis. We are on a dangerous journey, but life will be guaranteed and the Planet will yet be regenerated.

The groups who are carriers of the message, religions and the Christian churches, should proclaim such hope from the highest rooftops. Weeds did not grow on the grave of Jesus. Beginning with the crisis of Crucifixion on Good Friday, life triumphed. This is why tragedy cannot have the last word. Life, in its solar splendor, has it!

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