019 Gore, Las Casas, Jaki


While in college, Senator Al Gore awakened to the reality of the environmental crisis when, in a science class, he had to deal with data documenting the steady increase of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere. Later as a fledgling congressman from Tennessee, he held hearings and sought to alert the public to less-than-popular issues such as impending global warming. In 1987, deciding to run for president, he made the environment a central component in his campaign–a move which, as George Will noted, apparently addressed issues which were, “in the eyes of the electorate, not even peripheral.”

Yet Gore persevered, seeking to stay informed, trying to make known his concerns. He recently researched and wrote (by himself, so far as I can gather, which is no small task for a politician) Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, c. 1992). He says he wrote the book mainly because he thinks “that [the environmental crisis] is an outer manifestation of an inner crisis that is, for lack of a better word, spiritual” (p. 12).

First, Gore illustrates the extent of the problem–the hole in the ozone over Antarctica; global warming; soil erosion; falling forests; disappearing species. The data’s up-to-date, accurate, understandable. Readers familiar with the issues will find few surprises, little “new” data, for the book does not aspire to break new ground.

What Gore clearly calls for is action, not research. We’re too often told we need more data, more research, before trying to do anything. But “a choice to ‘do nothing’ in response to the mounting evidence is actually a choice to continue and even accelerate the reckless environmental destruction that is creating the catastrophe at hand” (p. 37). Yet he clearly appreciates scientific research and uses it to describe the many areas where ecosystems suffer and decay. His great strength here is his clarity of explanation and striking illustrations. He shows, for example, how the world’s climate has been dramatically altered by volcanic explosions in the past. A Japanese volcano’s massive eruption caused unusually cold weather in Europe which contributed to the social unrest which launched the French Revolution in 1789! Volcanic dust, however, only remains aloft for a few years at most. What might happen if a more permanent form of pollution, such as the gradual build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, permanently blankets the earth?

After 150 pages to documenting various dimensions of the dilemma, Gore proposes, in Part Two, ways to deal with it. He urges us to “search for balance,” to find out how to live wisely with creation, to be caretakers rather than exploiters.

To do so demands we develop economic criteria which weigh the worth of the environment as well as the value of human ingenuity and labor. Since “For all practical purposes, the GNP measurement treasured by economists treats the rapid and reckless destruction of the environment as a good thing!” (p. 185), some new standards must be invoked. The hidden, but very real, environmental costs of economic activity must be identified and considered.

“Consumer” economics, consumption judged sacrosanct and admirable, must be rejected. (When you think about it, a consumer consumes things, takes and devours and discards things; it’s strange that we proudly wear the label as a merit badge!) Indeed, as Herman Daly says: “‘There is something fundamentally wrong in treating the earth as if it were a business in liquidation'” (p. 191).

Along with economics, technology must be evaluated and re-evaluated. Unfortunately, “our fascination with technology displaces what used to be a fascination with the wonder of nature. Like the young child who thinks bread originates on a store shelf, we begin to forget that technology acts upon nature to meet our needs” (p. 207).

To the amazement of folks like Dan Quayle, Gore dares suggest we now live in a “dysfunctional civilization”! What he means is that we have improperly ordered our priorities as a people. We have lost a healthy relationship with our Creator as well as His creation. There should be a religious, not an economic, focus to civilization.

Too many of us are consumer addicts. Jokes about shopping in the mall to bring meaning to life are all too true! Gore believes “that our civilization is, in effect, addicted to the consumption of the earth itself” (p. 220). Thus we “easily lose ourselves in the forms of culture, society, technology, the media, and the rituals of production and consumption, but the price we pay is the loss of our spiritual lives” (p. 221).

We really need an “environmentalism of the spirit.” Surely spiritual as well as economic goods deserve reverence. A Baptist, Gore says his “own religious experience and training” (p. 244) encourage him to care for creation. In fact: “my own faith is rooted in the unshakable belief in God as creator and sustainer, a deeply personal interpretation of and relationship with Christ, and an awareness of a constant and holy spiritual presence in all people, all life, and all things” (p. 368).

Thus “The old story of God’s covenant with both the earth and humankind, and its assignment to human beings of the role of good stewards and faithful servants was “a powerful, noble, and just explanation of who we are in relation to God’s earth. What we need today is a fresh telling of our story with the distortions removed” (p. 218).

In the final section, Part Three, the senator urges us to “strike the balance” through political action. It’s imperative that we “make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization” (p. 269). Grass-roots organizers in communities around the world have shouldered the task. Scientists and housewives have joined hands to clean up their neighborhoods.

Such folks, largely unknown outside their neighborhoods, flourish throughout the world. They are “ordinary people with a deeply embedded sense of right and wrong–usually imparted by a strong and caring parent during their upbringing–and a stubborn refusal to bend their principles even when the opposing force appears invincible and even deadly” (p. 283). Gore tells some of their stories and applauds such independent, localized efforts. Much good comes from their endeavors.

But national and international strategies are needed to avoid global catastrophes. So Gore suggests we adopt an environmental Marshall Plan with a five-fold objective: stabilizing world population; devising appropriate technologies; refining economic standards and objectives; negotiating international agreements; and establishing educational means whereby earth’s peoples are environmentally educated.

“No goal is more crucial to healing the global environment than stabilizing human population” (p. 307). Through education, by eliminating the poverty which encourages large families, Gore thinks we can slow the soaring population rate.

Through research and innovation, through creative taxation strategies, we need to encourage the use of appropriate agricultural, forestry, energy, and building technologies. When a hoe will do, why bring in a tractor? When we can convert sunshine into electricity, why burn coal? E.F. Schumacher devoted his energies to such strategies, and Gore underlines their importance.

A new, global economics must be established. Environmental costs and benefits must be considered. The GNP has to be discarded as a measuring rod for economic policy. Instead, we need to find something like the Iroquois principle, evident in their council decisions, of considering the impact of what we do on the seventh generation–trying to do what’s best for the folks who will live on earth 150 years from now! Taxation policies, banking policies, all need amendment.

Such steps demand new international treaties and agreements. Such are, we know, often ineffective. But they are better than nothing; at times they secure positive dividends. Consequently, Gore hopes, a new global environmental consensus will emerge which will better protect planet earth.

Though Gore’s objectives stagger the imagination, he at least has the political experience to suggest possible ways to attain them. (I wish I thought Gore’s election as Vice President would bring immediate change in the environmental arena, but I’m resigned to seeing Clinton, if elected, place the planet’s well being on a back burner so as to placate the folks more interested in more immediate issues, the gut issues which determine elections!)

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Amidst all the clamor over the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landfall, the name of Bartolome de las Casas occasionally surfaced. As the “defender of the Indians,” he enjoys a certain renown among today’s booming corps of anti-Western intellectuals as well of those of us who consider ourselves Indian historians (who may or may not be anti-Western).

So it’s appropriate that one of Las Casas’ main works, The Only Way, ed. Helen Rand Parish, trans. Francis Patrick Sullivan, (New York: Paulist Press, c. 1992), should appear this year. Along with the new translation comes a solid body of scholarship, rooted in careful study of various manuscripts, reconstructing historical events and identifying personalities which provide a meaningful context for the treatise.

Helen Rand Parish is a Research Associate of Bancroft Library at the University of California-Berkeley and directs Las Casas studies at the Graduate Theological Union. She has devoted her scholarly life to Las Casas and certainly knows her subject. In her lengthy introduction, Parish focuses on “Las Casas’ Spirituality–The Three Crises.” It’s a marvelous account, so let me deal with it before turning to The Only Way.

Las Casas journeyed to the New World in his teens, initially enchanted, along with many of his relatives, by Christopher Columbus’ 1493 triumphal procession through the streets of Seville. On the island of Hispaniola he farmed land Columbus gave his father and participated in some of the military expeditions which subdued native inhabitants. Opportunity for wealth and power awaited him.

But Las Casas responded to a religious vocation and was ordained a priest in 1507, in Rome, at the age of 23. After studying canon law at Salamanca, he returned to Hispaniola and began his work as a priest in 1510. The next year, some brave Dominican missionaries spoke out against the Spaniards’ savage mistreatment of Indian peoples, especially condemning the encomienda system which enslaved them. Las Casas’ conscience was pricked and he began internally debating the Spanish conquest.

The next year he accompanied Panfilo de Narvaez on an expedition to pacify Cuba. Though the Spanish peacefully occupied the new lands, gradually massacres and mistreatment became the pattern. Thus “Cuba, once a tropical paradise, became before his eyes a hell on earth. Las Casas . . . watched the fields abandoned and the native economy destroyed–both men and women dragged off to be worked to death, digging, panning for gold, and the younger women taken to the cities to serve the pleasures and households of the Spaniards” (p. 19).

In the midst of this, Las Casas experienced his first crisis, a “prophetic crisis,” for “the blinders fell from his eyes and he saw that everything the Spaniards had done in the Indies from the beginning–all that brutal exploitation and decimation of innocent Indians, with no heed for their welfare or their conversion–was completely wrong and mortal sin besides” (p. 20).

Consequently, he began to speak and write, both in the Indies and in Spain, defending the Native Americans. He then joined the Dominicans, who had condemned Spanish brutalities. He compiled histories, documenting the unending atrocities. He drafted scholarly arguments, urging church and civil authorities to protect the Indians.

He argued, against Spanish intellectuals like Sepulveda, that Indians were fully human, every bit as rational and ethical as Europeans. In time he had some success, and the Spanish king issued orders, the “New Laws of 1542-1543, which insisted Indians enjoy at least some legal protection. He died, at the age of 82, in Madrid, still fighting for his beloved Indians!

In the midst of his struggles, he wrote, while in a monastery in Santo Domingo in 1534, a book entitled The Only Way to Draw All People to a Living Faith. In it he set forth the only missionary strategy he considered biblical, reasonable, and efficacious. It was the way of Jesus Christ. But his ideas were denounced, and his efforts to implement them were frustrated.

The reasons for Las Casas’ unpopularity are clear. He not only urged the Indians be converted peacefully, persuaded to embrace the Faith through love and kindness, but he also demanded their lands be returned! “He insisted that everything had been stolen from the Indians because the conquest and encomienda were illegal and immoral. Therefore the Spaniards were obligated to make total restitution, as circumstances would permit” (p. 45). He even dared suggest that the Indians should be free to restore their native rulers!

Las Casas begins The Only Way with a prologue which insists on the “humanity of the Indians.” As one of the earliest Europeans to know them, Las Casas asserts they were amazingly skilled in various arts such as logic, grammar, and music. Their political systems worked smoothly. Indeed: they were inferior to none” and rivaled “the Greeks and the Romans” (p. 65).

Having established their humanity, Las Casas then focuses on their “true evangelization.” The way of Jesus, he argued, is the way of gentle persuasion, the way God deals with all His creatures, “leading them to fulfill their natural purposes–a gentle, coaxing, gracious way” (p. 68). “What is clear is that Christ gave His apostles permission and power to preach the gospel to those willing to hear it, and that only! Not power to punish the unwilling by any force, pressure, or harshness” (p. 77).

On the other hand, there is “false evangelization.” This approach violates peoples’ minds and wills. False strategies win people through wars rather than winsome words. War’s “face is a gruesome glare, as fierce as hell; its angers like those of men gone mad, crazed like beasts, bitter, bitter men. War is all curse and catcall; it is the grating, fearsome screech of weapon on weapon left and right and dead men falling” (p. 121). Such will never make Christians out of victims!

Alleged “Christian warriors are the vanguard of anti-Christ” (p. 148), Las Casas cried. Indeed: “Mohammed and Mohammedans decimated infidel peoples. For shame, so have we! We have devastated lands and regions and provinces and kingdoms teeming with innocent people utterly open to our teaching!” (p. 149). How awful! How un-Christlike! How unlike a true missionary! In his judgment, “wars of conversion” are in fact mortal sin.

To conclude his treatise, Las Casas argues, in his Epilogue, that America’s lands should be returned to their rightful owners, the Native Americans. The Spanish conquest was unjust, and compensatory justice should be implemented.

To make his case, Las Casas thoroughly mines Scripture and Church Fathers. He incessantly quotes biblical passages, St. Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, and above all St John Chrysostom. He knew his sources and used them well! He was a missionary, a bishop, a busy churchman–but he was clearly a scholar who devoted much attention to his books! The impressive thing about The Only Way, beyond its courageous author and its historical documentation, is its missiology. Here’s a man who lived and wrote nearly 500 years ago, a man uniquely able to observe how unreached peoples respond to the Gospel, who insisted missionaries not only preach the Gospel but identify with the people and uphold their native traditions and rights. It’s a fine book, and we’re indebted to the editor and translator for a first-rate presentation.

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In God and the Cosmologists (Washington: Regnery Gateway, c. 1989), Stanley L. Jaki continues his quest to tie together contemporary physics and traditional theology, insisting that “All great philosophical systems have been cosmologies” (p. ix).

In his judgment, modern science facilitates the articulation of classical metaphysics. “True metaphysics implies series of assertions about a Reality beyond the universe, as the cause of the reality of the universe itself” (p. 84).

To do this, the reigning ideology of the past few centuries, loosely waving the Enlightenment flag, must be suitably buried. This means, especially, the final internment of Immanuel Kant, who exacted from his followers “the highest price that any rationalist philosopher can demand. The price was the universe” (p. 11). Kant did so in order to construct a universe in his own mind. Amazingly, he was “so self-centered as to write repeatedly, ‘I am God,’ in his last great work, the Opus postumum” (p. 12).

Repudiating Kant, Jaki obviously aligns himself with philosophical realism, a stance he contends science dictates. Furthermore–coming to the thesis of the book–the universe, inescapably and objectively real, also points “beyond its specific phases to an origin which has to be a factor metaphysically beyond the universe” (p. 52). Given the specificity and contingency of the universe, cosmological analyses and hypotheses and assertions are necessary.

There are those, of course, who fault any effort to make sense of the universe. One logical positivist, H. Reichenbach, insisted: “‘We have no absolutely conclusive evidence that there is a physical world, and we have no absolutely conclusive evidence either that we exist'” (p. 224). Such allegedly “scientific” notions are easily popularized, so that M. Esslin, describing our era, can say: “‘Suddenly man sees himself faced with a universe that is both frightening and illogical–in a word, absurd. All assurances of hope, all explanations of ultimate meaning have suddenly been unmasked as nonsensical illusions, empty chatter, whistling in the dark'” (p. 215).

Standing against such cosmic anguish, Jaki insists that we take common, ordinary events and experiences as realities which, rightly understood, point toward eternal realities. Thus, with the poet Robert Browning, we can declare: “This world’s no blot for us, / Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good: / To find its meaning is my meat and drink” (p. 201).

The essays collected in this volume help us do precisely that.