Sustainable Development of Body-Persons
"God's divine essence encompasses all things and dwells in all." Martin Luther
"Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends to the rest of creation." John Paul II
This essay builds on previous reflections (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) on the family as the most crucial engine for sustainable development. We are dealing here with the emerging cultural transition from patriarchy to a post-patriarchal civilization characterized by gender equality and balance (1). Old habits die hard, and significant resistance to change is to be expected after millennia of patriarchal conditioning (2). What matters for a better future is the integral development of each and every human person. This is a process that, for each person, starts and unfolds in the family (3). It is in the family - the "domestic school" of humanity - that integral human development happens (4). What happens in the "inner sanctum" of the family radiates inward to influence the "inner journey" of each family member, then radiates outward to influence how things work out in the entire human family; "sustainable development" is thereby enhanced or inhibited (5).
The present essay focuses on the integral development of the human person, i.e., development that encompasses the human person in both the objective (corporeal) and subjective (spiritual) dimensions of his/her existence. For such development to get started and be sustained, family life must be liberated from patriarchalism, the deeply rooted but nevertheless supersedable ideology of male hegemony. In other words, we need to overcome the cult of the patriarchal family for more integral human development and greater solidarity and sustainability. In the Christian dispensation, it is the human being (male and female) that has been assumed and redeemed; a reality that, not insignificantly, started in a family, the Holy Family of Nazareth. But, just like this was not a patriarchal family, we need to overcome the "baptized patriarchalism" whereby the patriarchal family is taken as model for Christian families and for practically all structures of both secular and religious governance worldwide.
In the natural order of things (specifically, the nature of human sexuality and the nuptial covenant of man and woman) integral human development must happen in the family. Given that, if it happens in the family, it will happen in society and induce greater solidarity and sustainability, it is always opportune to stop and meditate on the meaning of human personhood, since this is the ground in which the personality of each human being is created, raised, and formed, especially during childhood and early adulthood. This fully developed (or deficiently developed) personality will determine, to a significant extent, the behavior of the person (the "acting person") in society and within the entire community of creation. Ergo, sustainable development is contingent on human development.
Phenomenology and the Human Sciences
We are living at the threshold of a new era, the Anthropocene, when human actions are significantly impacting the natural dynamics of the planet. Some of the impacts are unintended, but the actions of Homo sapiens are mostly intentional, if not always wise. It is clearly very important to enhance our ability to anticipate undesirable impacts of human actions, that they be prevented and the adverse impacts mitigated. But it is even more important for people to make good choices to begin with, as human actions are generally triggered by human needs and desires which transcend the natural laws of biological evolution pursuant to "survival of the fittest." Alas, humans have a noticeable propensity to seek more and more, even in the face of evidence that "more" is not for their own good, individually or collectively.
Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that seeks to understand the determinants of human intentions and actions. These include how the human person perceives his/her environment, including other humans and the concrete totality of the human habitat. People of course act in response to basic biological needs such as food and water, but there is more, much more. Once all basic needs are satisfied, human desires often multiply faster than they can possibly be met. Phenomenology seeks to explain patterns of human behavior by taking into account both the objective and subjective dimensions of the human person as a fully integrated being that is not just a body, or just a disembodied spirit, but a body-person, i.e., a personal subject, a rational animal with mind and will, a body-subject who experiences self-reflective knowledge and is free to make choices (including counter-instinctual choices) in response to both physical needs and affective desires.
Just as Copernicus was a turning point for our understanding of the cosmos, and likewise Newton for physics and Darwin for biology, our understanding of the human phenomenon is significantly advanced by this integral view of the human being that in modern times was initially articulated by Husserl and later further developed by Merleau-Ponty and Wojtyla in philosophy, Freud and Jung in psychology, and is now being worked out in all the human sciences and specifically in human ecology (Marten), cultural anthropology (Naranjo), and theological anthropology (John Paul II). Actually, it is a matter of rediscovering, and building upon, the holistic understanding of human nature that we find in the Bible and other ancient religious texts. It is good to see that these new insights are converging toward a new synthesis of ancient wisdom, modern science, and things divine (Johnson). Recent news that Pope Francis is at work on a new encyclical about the ecology of humanity is an additional sign of hope. The ecological crisis, undeniably grave as it is, may turn out to be an epochal blessing.
Theology of the Body and Human Ecology
In the context of families and the human family, John Paul II's Theology of the Body is especially helpful. This work encapsulates both human and ecological phenomenology. Starting with an exegesis of the creation accounts in Chapters 1 and 2 of the Book of Genesis, it proceeds to develop a deep understanding of human nature and human beings, created male and female in the image of God. But this image, which is the deepest essence of each individual human being, fully becomes what it is when men and women reach out to each other (and to other men and women) in mutual self-giving, thereby becoming a communion of persons (communio personarum) that images, in the flesh, the divine communion of the Trinity. It goes on to explore the biblical concept of nuptial covenant on which families are built, the succession of covenants between God and the entire community of creation, and other issues of human sexuality.
Specifically on the nuptial covenant, it explains the mythical texts of Genesis 1 and 2 by focusing on the "original unity of man and woman" and noting that, while in Genesis 1 they were created male and female from the beginning, the oldest text (Genesis 2) describes two stages: an androgynous human being is created first who subjectively experiences solitude even though embedded in a "garden" with other animals, then is sexually differentiated into male and female to overcome loneliness by perceiving and experiencing ("helping") each other in perfect innocence, thereby becoming a communion of body-persons that makes visible the communion of divine persons that abide in their Creator. The myth continues to unfold in Genesis 3. When a desire to become independent from God led them to pretentious choices to that end ("original sin"), their mutual self-giving degenerated into a zero-sum game in which, brute force favoring the male, the female became subservient; a situation which, by a process cultural evolution, gradually became institutionalized as the patriarchal family. This cultural evolution is not analyzed by John Paul II, but it seems to be the best explanation of how male hegemony became the norm (made by human hands, not God's) in the family and in all other human institutions, both secular and religious.
Adam & Eve, mural in
Abreha wa Atsbeha Church, Ethiopia.
From the corruption of male-female solidarity (let alone mutual self-giving) emerged a "patriarchal knot" that to this day continues to have pervasive negative repercussions for human civilization. Untying this knot, and seeking new forms of governance at all levels (families, localities, nations, and the family of nations) is a daunting task. But the voice of God, who respects human freedom but continues to sustain human life and the entire community of creation, also keeps resounding, all over the world, via the so-called "signs of the times." Feminism is one such sign; not the kind of feminism that seeks retaliation in zero-sum games between men and women, and not the kind that seeks to justify sexual promiscuity and denigrate the human body, but the kind that seeks to restore, at least to some extent, the original solidarity between men and women, and between humans and the human habitat. Based on our experience of the past (going back, with John Paul II, to "the beginning"), and the present state of the world (as documented, for example, in the UN Human Development Reports), the task at hand is to go forward to a new civilization of solidarity and sustainability; a process that can and must start in the "domestic school" of the family.
The details of how this cultural transition will come to pass are not predictable, for the same reason that specific gene mutations in biological evolution are not predictable. But, as we face the mounting evidence of a worsening ecological crisis, it seems reasonable to predict that the transition will happen if human civilization is to be preserved; even more so if we embrace the Christian vision of redeemed creation (including humanity) gradually moving toward a "point omega" that in the New Testament is envisioned as "a new heaven and a new earth." It would be naive to expect that the transition will be smooth and painless. We must be prepared to "muddle through" one step at a time. Our best hope is to do it together, as body-persons that we are, seeking to become more fully what we are by actions of cross-gender solidarity extended to all forms of social and ecological justice. Zero-sum games are not sustainable.
Sustainable Development of the Human Family
Much time and energy has been spent in elucidating the meaning of "sustainable development." It is certainly useful as a trigger to discuss the need for a human response to the ecological crisis. But it is also an ambiguous concept. If by "development" is meant the pursuit of infinite population and consumption growth in a finite planet, then development cannot possibly be sustainable. In other words, "if sustainability implies living within the bounds of the regenerative capacity of the earth, with a sense of responsibility for future generations, then present practice is characterized predominantly by unsustainability in the use of both nonrenewable and renewable resources" (Nash). But how can a social system that is based on seeking profit by exercising dominion over nature be reformed to become sustainable? How can we untie this "sustainable development knot"? What is it that makes this knot a Gordian knot?
It is not the symptoms that are visible on the outer surface of the knot. A Gordian knot cannot be untied by just messing around with superficial symptoms. The only way to untie the knot is to remove the root cause that forms the knot. The suggestion here is that patriarchy, the institutionalization of control and domination that is ultimately traceable to "original sin," is the culprit. Reforming patriarchy by a new culture of human solidarity, starting with cross-gender solidarity in family and society, is the only way to untie the knot and make sustainable development feasible to the maximum extent allowed by the concrete limits of the human habitat. In a post-patriarchal culture, it becomes possible for population and consumption growth to be responsibly moderated for the common good. Population growth can be moderated by responsible sharing of the nuptial gifts of love and life. Consumption growth can be moderated by responsible sharing of natural resources. This will not be a return to the original "garden of Eden," but is the next step toward "a new heaven and a new earth."
The phenomenological insight that we are body-persons brings into sharp focus that what really matters is the integral development of each and every human person, both in the outer dimension of the body and in the inner dimension that, in the body and via the body, radiates outward by acting in solidarity with others. There is more to a body-person than visible skin, outer anatomy, and superficial personality traits. It is time to dismantle the myths of domination and exclusion. It is time to restore confidence in the capacity of humans to be helpful to each other, live in peace, and enjoy the gifts of love and life together with the entire community of creation. But where is it that people can become conscious of this capacity and grow in confidence that they can live accordingly? In the family. The seeds of solidarity must be planted early and in the family, so that they can grow into human behavior pursuant to social and ecological justice. This is the cultural mutation that can pave the way for sustainable development of the human family.
In other words, sustainable development of the human family can happen only to the extent that there is integral development of the human person as a body-person, both objectively and subjectively. We need to see humans as personal subjects, not objects; and we need this new vision of humanity to permeate both the secular and religious dimensions of human relations. In secular leaders (parents, professional and civil authorities) we must learn to see persons committed to serve in a given capacity, not just bodies that image the patriarchs or matriarchs of a bygone era. Given that all humans are "religious" in the sense of needing to belong to something bigger than themselves, nothing does more harm to human wellbeing than living under patriarchal divinities in regal vestments. In religious leaders (priests, ministers, mullahs ...) we must learn to see persons consecrated for divine service, not just bodies that image some exclusivist incarnation that never happened.
Sustainable Evolution of the Community of Creation
As several authors (e.g., Bauckham, Berry, Curry, Johnson, Ophuls) have pointed out, we also must understand that humans are part of nature. It is not only that "dominion" over nature must be exercised responsibly for our own good. We are embedded in nature. Surely, we are not "unnatural." We are unique in nature because we are self-conscious, but this is not en entitlement for human hegemony over nature. In the ecology of humanity, as in all structures that require some form of governance, responsibility must be commensurate with authority. The gift of reflective intelligence and self-consciousness enables us to manage natural resources, yes, but in ways that conserve and ensure the sustainable development of the entire community of creation, not only the human subset; else, "sustainable development" is reduced to an oxymoron, the absurdity of infinite material growth in a finite planet.
The feasibility of sustainable development is contingent on a nuptial covenant between humanity and the human habitat, not unlike the nuptial covenant that, since the beginning of human prehistory as mythologically described in the biblical tradition, has been the prototype of conjugal unity between spouses. Now, "being a loving spouse implies caring, respect, mutuality, reciprocity, and interdependence" (Ophuls). There is little room here for one-sided domination. This is the unity-in-diversity model, in which unity doesn't mean uniformity and diversity doesn't
mean disunity. This is a model of solidarity that entails a hierarchy of authority that is exercised as a hierarchy of service, not a hierarchy of subjugation. It is a model of sustainability that entails a domestic panarchy, with all members of the family participating in family decisions to the extent of their ability. This is the best model for each family and for the entire human family.
Family life is not sustainable if it becomes a zero-sum game. The same applies to social life at all levels (local, national, global), and the same applies to sustainable development of the human family. But there is more: the same applies to the sustainable development of the entire community of creation, humanity included. The quest for ecological unity does not require uniformity between rocks, biota, and humans. Biodiversity does not require senseless warfare between and within species. It requires, rather, that the trajectory from the original creation to the new creation be followed by the whole community of creation, not by humanity alone; and that it be followed by men and women together, liberated from every form of exclusivism. The "new heaven and new earth" is a dynamic celebration, a cosmic liturgy, and one that is already underway every time people gather together to worship the Creator; even though, in most religious traditions, it is still constrained by patriarchal exclusivism.
Going forward, it might be fruitful to start thinking about "sustainable evolution" rather than sustainable development. Building on the insights of biological evolution, it seems reasonable to think about a cultural evolution (not to be confused with a violent revolution) unfolding in conjunction with the transition from patriarchy to a new civilization of solidarity and sustainability. Why not? After all, the patriarchal culture is less than 10,000 years old, whereas humans may have been around for 100,000 years or more. It is hard to imagine that Homo sapiens will mutate to improve our chances of human survival in a planet made desolate by unbridled exploitation of natural resources and extermination of all other living species. On the other hand, it is possible (probable?) for human culture to evolve in response to ecological limits, or even extraterrestrial limits if we manage to "colonize" other planets. Until such time as we reach the outer boundaries of an ever expanding universe, it would be wise (and feasible) for every civilized person to become "a more experienced and wiser savage" (Thoreau).
"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark." Rabindranath Tagore
"To believe in heaven is to refuse to accept hell on earth." James Cone
This is no pie-in-the-sky heaven on earth. The "ecology of humanity" must be a "body-person ecology" because humans are an evolutionary synthesis of flesh and consciousness. As bodies, we need food, water, shelter. As persons, we need to love and be loved. These two dimensions are not simply juxtaposed side by side, or either one on top of the other, but constitute an integrated unity in the diversity of masculinity and femininity. It follows that sustainable development hinges on integral development of body-persons as such, and becomes an exercise in futility when pursued in terms of either material needs alone or spiritual needs alone.
An integral (phenomenological, experience-based, perceptible via body language) understanding of human nature recognizes that humans are embedded in nature, and there is also a unity-in-diversity between humanity and the human habitat, including all living species and the concrete totality of the biophysical world. Beyond a certain point, which appears to be imminent at the current stage of population and consumption growth, conservation and further evolution of this unity is bound to stall, and become unsustainable, unless the patriarchal culture of dominion is superseded by a culture of mutuality and solidarity. Therefore, old structures of secular/religious patriarchy must be deconstructed and reconstructed into a more natural order of things, a new synthesis of service-oriented hierarchy and fully-participatory panarchy.
Nothing good has to be destroyed. In the biblical tradition, the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament is one of change with continuity and provides a model for the required paradigm shift. "The Word of God entered into solidarity not only with all humanity but also with the whole biophysical world of which human beings are a part and on which their existence depends" (Johnson). The nuptial unity of male and female body-persons, which in the beginning provided a solid foundation for the natural order, later degenerated into patriarchy by way of abusive domination (human abuse of other humans, human abuse of creation). There is no need to reinvent human nature, but it is imperative to go back and restore, to the maximum possible extent, the original nuptial unity between man and woman, and between humanity and the human habitat.
A cultural evolution from patriarchy to a more egalitarian culture is possible. It is probable. In fact, it is arguably inevitable if we are to survive the ecological crisis in the long term. It is a cultural evolution that must be worked out within each family and throughout the entire human family. For those who believe in properly interpreted biblical revelation, it is the only conceivable way to hope for "a new heaven and a new earth." It will take time. We who are alive today may not live to see this new culture of unity-in-diversity. But we can, and we must, keep praying and working in support of this evolution, for the glory of God and the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren.
Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gallimard, Paris, 1945. English translation by Colin Smith, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1962. See also The Visible and the Invisible, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gallimard, Paris, 1964. English translation by Alphonso Lingis, Northwestern University Press, 1969.
The Human Phenomenon, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Harper & Brothers, 1955.
The Acting Person, Karol Wojtyla, Analecta Husserliana, 1979.
Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on the Book of Genesis, John Paul II, St. Paul Editions, 1981. See also The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan, John Paul II, Pauline Books, 1997.
Our Common Future, Report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission), 1987.
Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation, John Paul II, Message on the World Day of Peace, 1 January 1990.
Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility, James Nash, Churches' Center for Theology and Public Policy, Abingdon, 1991.
Pauline Teaching on the Body Person, Male and Female. Excerpted from The Feminist Question: Feminist Theology in the Light of Christian Tradition, Francis Martin, Eerdmans Publishing, 1995.
The Female Body and the Sacramental Priesthood in Neo-Orthodox Catholic Theology, Tina Beattie, Centre for Comparative Studies in Religion and Gender, University of Bristol, 1999.
Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems, Lance H. Gunderson & C. S. Holling (Editors), Island Press, 2001.
Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World, Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Michael Zimmerman, Integral Books, 2009.
The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-first Century, Thomas Berry, Columbia University Press, 2009.
The Cosmic Liturgy and the Mind of the Creator, David Clayton, New Liturgical Movement, Spring 2009.
An Earthy Christology, Elizabeth Johnson, America, 13 April 2009.
Panarchy and the Law, J. B. Ruhl, Ecology and Society, Volume 17, Number 3, 2012.
Ecology and Religion, John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Island Press, 2014.
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Elizabeth Johnson, Bloombury, 2014.
Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility, PAS/PASS, Vatican, forthcoming 2-6 May 2014.
Current series on the family and integral human development:
- Gender Balance in the Post-Patriarchal Age, Mother Pelican, November 2013.
- On Gender Groupthink, Solidarity, and Sustainability, Mother Pelican, December 2013.
- On Gender, Family, and Integral Human Development, Mother Pelican, January 2014.
- On Families and the Human Family, Mother Pelican, February 2014.
- Sustainable Development of the Human Family, Mother Pelican, March 2014.
- Sustainable Development of Body-Persons, Mother Pelican, April 2014.