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The Pope Moves the Church


Sunday July 05, 2015

[This essay appeared in the Financial Times on July 3, 2015]
 

Free market conservatives hate it, it fails to address the threat of overpopulation, and it dismisses carbon credits as a way to combat global warming. Nonetheless Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, will ultimately be recognised as one of the most significant events in the modern environmental movement. Above all, it takes a big step towards healing a breach between western religions and nature that dates back to the dawn of monotheism.

Francis goes much further than Pope Paul VI, who more than 40 years ago inveighed against the “ill-considered exploitation of nature”. He explicitly recognises and explores the link be­tween what he construes as a warped interpretation of dominion — an interpretation that relegates nature to mere stuff put at humanity’s disposal — and the wanton despoliation of the planet. His encyclical builds on the thinking of the many Christians who mined Biblical texts to support the notion that the creation is sacred. The Pope cited his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, who averred “through the greatness and beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker”.

It is no overstatement to say that the present, human-wrought, sixth-great extinction crisis — the biggest die-off in species since the dinosaurs — as well as the climate crisis that may prove our undoing, are a result of the view of dominium Pope Francis seeks to bury. Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, recognised this nearly 50 years ago. He argued in an essay on the origins of pollution that the arc of western religion has been to get the gods off our back so that humanity can do business. This started in ancient Greece, where moral space for exploiting nature was created by moving the gods out of the trees and exiling them to Mount Olympus.

The advent of monotheism took this further by bundling the deities into one God and placing Him in outer space. Throw in the Protestant revolution, which made material success virtuous, and it was but a short step to the throw­away consumer society Pope Francis rails against.

The conclusion that humanity is intrinsically different from the rest of nature made sense to early Christian thinkers, given that they rarely encountered any creature that suggested continuity between animals and people. By contrast, in central Africa, great apes provided a constant reminder for the animists that nature is a continuum. It is notable that the version of Genesis recounted by Josephus — a Zelig-like figure of Roman times who was first a Jewish general, then an adviser to the son of the Emperor Vespasian and also an important historian — states that humans could talk to the animals before the fall, an explicit statement that knowledge and intellect separate us from the rest of the natural order. Over the years, the text and the interpretation changed; instead of being a curse, the knowledge that caused our alienation from nature morphed into a glory.

Fast forward to 1962, when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring marked the dawn of the modern environmental movement, awakening the world to pollution. A few years later there was some success in teaching language to chimpanzees, which may ultimately have done more to undermine the concepts of human nature that supported the moral justification for our abuse of nature.

Today, attitudes about animal intelligence have shifted to the point where US courts have permitted filings arguing that chimpanzees should be regarded not as property but persons. An un­thinking sense of entitlement has given way to an honest struggle to reconcile acknowledgement of our ties to nature with the functioning of a modern industrial society — the same conundrum Francis addresses in his encyclical.

Indeed, there is proof in the encyclical that the Pope is mindful of the conundrum posed by recognising that nature is sacred in a modern industrial society. In paragraph 90, he acknowledges that humanity must accept its responsibilities without the divination of nature paralysing all economic activity or eclipsing the plight of the poor. There is no easy way to achieve that balance, but even the subtle shift from entitlement to respect and awareness of life’s interconnections could work wonders.

Thus religion, at its most profound, changes. Two decades ago I asked James Parks Morton, then dean of Saint John the Divine, the Episcopal cathedral in New York City, how the Church could reconcile the idea of respect for nature with an ethos that for centuries has viewed nature as mere stuff. His simple answer was that a cathedral’s transept was the centre of the soul of its community; and, if the centre moved, the church had to move. Pope Francis is trying to move the church. Laudate Papa.

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]

 

The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.



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