By Prashant Olalekar
Sep 21st, 2021

“To be religious is to be interreligious.” This inclusive, integral insight of General Congregation 34 (130) in 1995 served to widen the frontiers of interreligious dialogue in Jesuit circles. While GCs 32 and 33 focused on the inseparable link of faith and justice, GCs 35 and 36 drew attention to urgent ecological concerns worldwide. Pope Francis calling for a response to the cry of the Earth and cry of the poor highlighted Integral Ecology in his encyclical Laudato Si thus demonstrating the inseparable connection between justice and ecology. As we become more aware of the unifying web of the universe, it is vital to develop a holistic approach to dialogue so that together with faith, justice, and ecology it is viewed as interrelated and interdependent in our interconnected universe.

Blocks to Interconnection

Among the major blocks to interconnection and interdependence today the following four “isms” rooted in egoism need to be addressed urgently:  i. Individualism:  I am the best ii. Fundamentalism: My interpretation of religion is best iii. Nationalism: My nation is best. iv. Anthropocentrism: My species is best. Like John Donne’s assertion “No man is an island,” we can also say that no religion, no nation, no species is an island. While our individual, religious, national, and human identities definitely need to be valued, we cannot consider ourselves as isolated individuals, religions, nations or species separated from the rest.

Shift from ‘Me’ to ‘We’

It is imperative to foster the paradigm shift from ‘Me’ to ‘We” and inculcate a spirit of collaboration rather than fall prey to the separatist mindset of a corporate culture that supports cutthroat competition. This implies accepting the reality that “to be” is to “interbe” popularized by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. An enlightening insight like this affirms our interconnection with and interdependence on other human beings, other species as well as the rest of creation. It evokes a spirituality of compassion, that is common to all faiths. It is worth pondering the rabbinic words of wisdom: “What is the difference between kindness and compassion. Kindness gives to ‘another’, for Compassion there is no ‘other’”. True Compassion strikes at the root of any form of othering however benevolent it may be.

All faith traditions have their own version of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This familiar rule is inclusive, communitarian and seeks for the common good which eventually benefits the individual too.  Our growing ecological concern has recently made us aware of the universal green rule: “Do unto the Earth as you would like the Earth to do unto you.”

Dialogue with the Earth

The signs of the times indicate that we are being called to go beyond interreligious dialogue with humans to ecological dialogue, namely, dialogue with the Earth. The first step in this holistic dialogue would be to listen to the Earth. Are we listening to the Earth that is screaming, through current crises like climate change and COVID 19? Such crises are provoking widespread panic but also bringing the stark realization that we swim or sink together. There is a desperate search, understandably, for a vaccine to cure Covid but the root causes related to disastrous projects of unbridled development involving massive deforestation and degradation of the environment are ignored.  This calls for radical ecological conversion as advocated by Pope Francis in Laudato Si (LS 216-221) and involves a threefold reconciliation with nature, others and God as envisaged by GC 36 (1:21).

Universal Holistic Vision

Albert Einstein offers us a wholesome universal vision that challenges us to free ourselves from the constricting confines of the prison of anthropocentrism.

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Fritjof Capra, the legendary author of the “Tao of Physics,” who explored the similarities between mystical traditions and science, confirms this universal vision: “In today’s world, we belong to many different communities, but we share two communities to which we all belong. We are all members of humanity, and we all belong to the global biosphere.”

The Sanskrit dictum ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakum’, which literally means ‘the earth is one family,’ is usually translated from an anthropocentric perspective as “the world is one family.” As a result, humans are kept in focus, while other species and the rest of creation are overlooked.

The renowned secular humanist Carl Sagan, calls for the solidarity of human beings, who despite divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds are more alike than different. He recommends for our survival a broadening of our narrow loyalties to include the whole community of humans as well as planet Earth. Would it not make more sense to think of ourselves as Earth citizens rather than patriotic national bigots ready to die for one’s country in conflicts and wars that wreak destruction on humans and the environment of another country? It is high time we develop an Earth anthem to be sung on appropriate public occasions expressing our loyalty to our Mother Earth rather than glory only in our national anthem.

Widening the Horizons of Dialogue

A radical change in our traditional understanding of interreligious dialogue that is focused exclusively on humans is called for. In ‘The Sacred Universe,’ Thomas Berry, who is deeply indebted to Teilhard de Chardin, starts with the story of the origins of the universe from the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago to make a convincing case for an interdisciplinary dialogue that can ensure a sustainable future. Recognising the universe as our primary educator he states unequivocally, “The universe is the primary revelation of the divine, the primary scripture, the primary locus of divine-human communication.” Many religious leaders, with a fundamentalist attitude, who tend to give absolute authority to their own scriptures and traditions, may find this a bitter pill to swallow. Exploring the insights of science and ecofeminism together with those of various religions and indigenous traditions will offer diverse perspectives on creation and the integral divine-human-nature relationship. This will open up abundant scope to widen the horizons of dialogue that envisions a reinterpretation of the sacred scriptures from an ecological and evolutionary perspective.

Earth Charter as Common Ground for Dialogue

Prominent secularists are advocating that the Constitution of India should be treated as a sacred book as fundamentalist interpretations of various scriptures and traditions can be divisive and dangerous for communal harmony. Going beyond our narrow national interests can we look to the Earth Charter as a common universal ground for interdisciplinary dialogue? It provides a comprehensive vision of our ideals of respect and care for the community of life, of ecological integrity, of social and economic justice, as well as democracy, non-violence, and peace. It “seeks to inspire in all peoples a sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility for the well-being of the human family, the greater community of life, and future generations.”

To Be Human is to be Universal

We are being called to radically reconsider our human identity as a part of creation and not apart from it. In the process of saving the Earth we should make use of the abundant resources of various faiths and secular sciences to respect and revere God’s creation. Our interreligious dialogue while exploring new frontiers should flow from and lead to joint compassionate action that will ensure not only human survival but the flourishing of all life in the universe. Just as we affirm “to be religious is to be interreligious,” can we also assert “to be human is to be universal,” where ‘universal’ literally means our interconnection with the whole universe?