Sunday, June 21, 2015

Habemus Papam Mirabilis

The Pontifex Maximus, a/k/a Pope Francis, is certainly a remarkable Vicar of Christ.  He continues to surprise me and no doubt continues to surprise and horrify, or perhaps delight, others.

I'm fond of his rejection of papal pomp and pretence (and of alliteration).  The creation of a commission to look into efforts of bishops to protect priests who molest children is encouraging as well.  That it took so long for the Church to take this step is sad but unsurprising.  That it took Francis some time to accomplish it is, I think, due more to the fact it likely took quite a bit of searching to find someone willing to sit on such a commission than hesitance on his part.

But in this post I'll address his encyclical on climate change, which astonishes even by virtue of the fact it addresses climate change at all.  This is not one of the traditional concerns of the Holy See.  But it may be that the Pope was serious in choosing his name, in which case he has a serious regard for the Earth and its creatures generally, in which case he may also feel that humanity is not the sole concern of the deity.

Such a view cannot but be welcomed by anyone who can no longer accept a God which for reasons it seems would be inexplicable is primarily if not exclusively focused on the conduct of a species which has its home on a tiny planet circling one unremarkable star among billions in a galaxy among billions.  The universe can only be considered a spectacular waste by those who think this and who consider God to be a creator, transcending the universe but in a way we can't understand, being unable to understand what anything beyond the universe would be.

It would seem, though, that a God concerned with the well being of the entire world would appeal to others whose conception of the divine is not entirely anthropomorphic.  I think that conceptions of God can be judged, and that certain conceptions are more reasonable than others.  One that is not exclusively anthropomorphic is I think of necessity more reasonable than one that is, given the magnitude of the universe.  Indeed, I think belief in an anthropomorphic God, or one that is primarily concerned with humanity, is delusional. 

It's stunning as well for a Pope to state that the view of humanity as holding dominion over the rest of nature and its creatures is in error, even if he ascribes that error to a misreading of scripture rather than acknowledging it as the self-regarding dream of a Bronze-Age tribe of primitives who didn't know any better.  But it would be too much to expect a Pope to abandon scripture at this stage in the development of institutional religion.

Even so, the encyclical is remarkable in that it seems to abjure, by implication, what has probably been the view of most Christians throughout the history of Christianity.  Europeans were infamously unconcerned with the world except as a source of comfort and profit, and this attitude must, in part, be credited to Christianity after the extermination of paganism.  Not only has Christianity, due to the misreading of scripture claimed by the Pope, fostered the belief that man is the master of the universe (as it were) next to God, it has also denigrated the world in worshipping a God who's kingdom is not of the world.  This was especially the case in the days when Christians expected the luridly conceived end of the world to be imminent (some, of course, still do).

Regrettably, the view of the world as inferior and insignificant (or unreal as Cardinal Newman put it) in comparison with the afterlife only seldom motivates the renunciation of it by saints and hermits.  For the rest of us, it contributes to its exploitation.  What does the world and its creatures matter, after all? 

Christians or those with a Christian view of the world are not its only despoilers, of course.  And  it must be admitted that there have been efforts in the Western world to curb our destructive tendencies.  But this represent the first time I'm aware of when a religious leader in the West has condemned those tendencies as part of religious teachings.    I think this is significant, and hope it has a significant effect.

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