Thirty years ago, the world rejoiced as the crack-up of Communism’s grip on Eastern Europe, forever symbolized by the Berlin Wall, began. This, however, created enormous dilemmas for prominent representatives of a theology which had taken Marxism very seriously from the late-1960s onwards throughout Latin America.
What became known as “liberation theology” was never a monolithic movement. Nevertheless its most influential strands were influenced by Marxist thought, as many liberationists freely acknowledged. Cursory reading of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s 1971 classic A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation soon confirms this. That stimulus was even more apparent in the works of prominent liberationists like Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino.
Socialism’s collapse in Eastern Europe created significant challenges for those liberationists who relied on Marxist analysis. While many asserted that the Soviet Bloc was a deviation from Marxist ideals, such systems had given expression to key Marxist commitments. Examples included the minimization (if not the effective abolition) of private property, law’s formal subordination to Marxist ideology, and hostility to religion.
1989 didn’t, however, lead some liberation theologians to question substantially their fundamental assumptions. Many simply transferred their attention to the environment. Among the things we have learned from the Amazon Synod is how far such thinking has burrowed its way into Latin American Catholicism.
Of the liberation theologians who transitioned to what’s called “liberation ecology,” Leonardo Boff has gone the furthest in trying to immerse Catholicism in environmentalist concerns and ideology. In Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (1997), Boff stated that the Church “cannot enclose religious persons in dogmas and cultural representations. It must serve as an organized place where people may be initiated, accompanied, and aided [in expressing] the spirit of the age.”
That the “spirit of the age” doesn’t always accord with the truth about God isn’t a question addressed by Boff. In any case, the “spirit of the age,” at least for Boff, was environmentalism of the deep Green variety. Boff’s 1997 book, for instance, argued that “the Earth is not a planet on which life exists . . . the Earth does not contain life. It is life, a living superorganism: Gaia.”
The Gaia hypothesis was first articulated by the chemist James Lovelock in the 1970s. It has since made its way into other disciplines, including theology. On several occasions, Boff has acknowledged that “The vision of James Lovelock . . . helped us see not only that life exists on Earth, but also that Earth itself is a living organism.”
Lovelock’s argument was that all living entities (animals, plants, etc.) on Earth effectively cooperate with inorganic compounds (oxygen, metals, etc.). This makes the planet a self-regulating, perhaps even self-directed entity which preserves all the essentials for life, provided humans don’t interfere too much with what’s going on.
By the late-1990s, the hypothesis began collapsing under the impact of heavy scientific critique. Some scientists pointed out, for example, that Gaia theory couldn’t account for the fact that some parts of the natural world had naturally detrimental effects on other parts of the environment. In short, there was considerable disharmony in nature that owed nothing to human action.
Other scientists criticized Gaia theory’s non-scientific and teleological aspects—features which Lovelock himself waxed and waned about. Its pseudo-religious connotations emerge when we discover that “Gaia” is the name of one of the most primordial of Greek goddesses. In Greek mythology, Gaia (who takes the even more revealing name “Terra” in the equivalent Roman mythos) personified the Earth itself. Ascribing divine status to God’s creation rather than God himself has a name: i.e., pantheism.
Central to Boff’s embrace of Gaia theory is his insistence that humans accept that they are not only homo sapiens (man the wise) but also, Boff claims, homo demens (man the deranged): a species whose dementedness is expressed in failure to recognize the natural world as humanity’s equal. At the core of Boff’s liberation ecology is thus a type of biological egalitarianism. In the forthcoming “ecological and social democracy,” Boff states, religion will promote the idea that “it is not just humans who are citizens but all beings . . . Democracy accordingly issues in a biogracy and cosmoscracy.”
How plants, animals, glaciers, fire or metals would exercise their citizenship in Boff’s biogracy is unclear. After all, they lack reason and free will. But Boff did outline a distinct political structure for his eco-social democracy. It should coalesce around “global bodies, such as the United Nations and its eighteen specialized agencies and fourteen worldwide programs.” A highly centralized, top-down approach towards environmental questions and politics more generally was the future. As in his pre-Gaia days, the principle of subsidiarity doesn’t appear to have exerted substantive influence upon Boff’s thought.
Heaven on Earth
There is another characteristic of liberation ecology which was prefigured in Marxist-influenced liberation theologies. This concerns tendencies to “immanentize the eschaton,” to use the expression employed by the political scientist Eric Voegelin.
One feature of many pre-1989 liberation theologies was their relative silence about the life which Christianity teaches lies beyond death. It wasn’t that they denied it outright. Rather, their focus was almost exclusively upon earthly injustices and overcoming them. Many liberation theologians even portrayed traditional Christian teaching about suffering as potentially redemptive in the same way that Marx presented religion: i.e., a rationalization of unjust status quos which anesthetized people to the structural unfairness surrounding them. Some liberationists subsequently held that removal of all oppressive structures would inaugurate a more natural state of affairs: a world free of alienation and remarkably similar to the earthly utopia which Marx said lay at the end of history.
Similar patterns permeate some liberation ecologists’ thinking. In a 2016 interview, Boff contended that the intellectual and economic revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries “gave rise to the idea of conquest of people and the Earth. The Earth was no longer viewed as the great Mother, alive and purposeful. Instead, it was reduced to something to be exploited by humans for wealth accumulation.” From this standpoint, the pre-Enlightenment, pre-capitalist environment was a placid, almost pristine world which was naturally hospitable to humans.
Such claims are historically questionable. Humans were extensively using—and often abusing—the natural world long before the seventeenth century. That includes pre-Christian indigenous societies. In A God Within (1973), the Pulitzer-prize winning biologist René Dubos illustrated how Maya peoples inflicted immense ecological damage throughout southern Mexico and Central America long before the Spanish conquest. These nations had never heard of Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, or market economies.
More generally, liberation ecology has a distinctly romantic edge to it. Its adherents seem reluctant to concede that, with or without humans, the natural world isn’t a symphonic paradise. Animals, for instance, are hardly kind to each other. Millions of species have disappeared without any human involvement. Moreover, nature has inflicted enormous harm upon people for millennia through unpredictable events like earthquakes. The claim that the environment is somehow naturally benign and nurturing, save when humans disrupt it, simply isn’t true.
To this we should add that neither pre-Enlightenment Judaism nor Christianity invested plants or animals with a status equivalent to humans, let alone that of a divine-like Mother. Indeed, Judaism and Christianity played the pivotal role in de-divinizing the natural world. They thus helped sweep aside the pagan religions of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Babylon which irrationally ascribed divine qualities to elements like water and activities such as war. Certainly, the Scriptures present the created world as good. But they don’t portray the natural world as perfect or claim that nature is somehow intrinsically better than or equal to humans: for therein lie slippery slopes to syncretism and paganism.
No Salvation outside politics
There is, however, another important similarity between yesterday’s liberation theologians and today’s liberation ecologists. None have succeeded in stemming the drift of Latin Americans away from Catholicism.
There’s many reasons for this decline, but one is surely the way in which many liberation theologians and liberation ecologists locate salvation’s essence in politics. In remarks written in 1984, Joseph Ratzinger observed that most liberation theologians believed that nothing lay outside politics. Hence, he said, they regarded any theology which wasn’t “‘practical,’ i.e., not essentially political . . . as ‘idealistic’ and thus lacking in reality, or else is condemned as a vehicle for the oppressors’ maintenance of power.” Judging from their writings, many liberation ecologists embrace this position.
The problem is that politics can’t answer those ultimate questions about life, death, good, evil, and humanity’s ultimate origins and destiny which haunt everyone’s imagination. Perhaps one reason why some Latin Americans have embraced various evangelical confessions is that many such movements put Christ first, and keep politics firmly in its place. That’s a lesson, however, that some Latin American liberation ecologists and their ecclesial fellow-travelers haven’t absorbed. And like liberation theology, the consequent damage inflicted by radical liberation ecology upon Catholicism’s ability—even willingness—to evangelize Latin Americans is likely to be deep and lasting.
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