Friday, February 23, 2018

Science meets spirituality

Published in the Fiji Times as Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, October 04, 2017
James Bhagwan(left) with Elisabeth Holland
 and Prof Derrick Armstrong at the IPCC Special Report
on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate
First Lead Author Meeting at Tanoa International
in Nadi yesterday. Picture: BALJEET SINGH - Fiji Times

Last Thursday, I attended the last of the 2017 Public Lecture Series organised by the Pacific Theological College's Institute for Mission and Research, the University of the South Pacific's Faculty of Arts, Law and Education and the Pacific Regional Seminary around the theme "Churches in Conversation with Society on Issues that Matter".

The speaker was Archbishop Peter Loy Chong of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Suva. His topic: "Reweaving the Ecological Mat — Ecology and Development".

As a starting point, Archbishop Chong encouraged a talanoa (discussion) about what we hold sacred from our cultural identities, what is tabu for us, what our totems are.

In other words, he guided those present to engage in a process to acknowledge what we held sacred in the environment — a sacred connection to cosmology (the understanding of our relationship not just being part of the vanua/ land/ environment but with being part of the very fabric of the universe itself). The exercise was to illustrate our interconnectedness with the environment and how we express that relationship.

His thesis statement, resonating with Pope Francis' Encyclical, "Laudati Si: Care for our Common Home," was that: "In the beginning there existed a relationship of interconnectedness among all things in the whole of creation. Today we are losing our interconnectedness. Our common home, Mother Earth, is becoming a pile of filth. We have to reweave the threads of our interconnectedness. Where do we look to for resources and inspirations for interconnectedness? We look to indigenous and native cosmology and the spiritual traditions."

Pointing out that the language of domination has desacralised creation/the environment in order to exploit natural resources to a point that the world is at a state of exhaustion, Archbishop Chong argued that the sacred thread that once connected all things is lost.

The reweaving of this ecological mat begins with the renewal of our interconnectedness with the environment and continues with an understanding and acceptance of our interdependence.

Just as the task of weaving and reweaving is a community effort, the task of reweaving the ecological mat requires the effort of different communities. Each community reflects a particular strand in the mat.

A number of important strands in this mat are provided by scientific community.

This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has brought around 100 experts from over 30 countries to Nadi to begin drafting the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

The meeting is hosted by the Government of Fiji and USP.

"This is the first time the IPCC has undertaken a focused report on the processes that drive change and the resulting impacts to oceans and the frozen parts of our planet," said IPCC vice-chair Ko Barrett.

"There is a huge volume of scientific information for us to assess, which can help policymakers to better understand the changes we are seeing and the risks to lives and livelihoods that may occur with future change."

I was privileged to be invited to share a prayer of blessing at the official opening of this important meeting.

The making of a space for spirituality in a meeting of scientists was way of framing this gathering in the context of the Pacific.

The people of Oceania are a deeply spiritual people as I have pointed out in a previous article ("Sacredness of Creation" FT 13/9/17

It was also an affirmation that in the context of climate change, spirituality and science are important stands of the ecological mat that is being rewoven.

The first time I read a report from the IPCC was in 2007, the year the IPCC and Al Gore jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change".

The report was presented during the 2007 Pacific Church Leaders Meeting, organised by the World Council of Churches and Pacific Conference of Churches, as part of "evidence" in a mock court session on the reality of the human role in climate change and its impacts.

One of the authors of the 2007 IPCC report and co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize is Professor Elisabeth Holland, director of USP's Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development (PaCE-SD).

Most of my conversations with Prof Holland about climate change are not in an office or university lecture hall but standing on the shore — our feet in the sand, washed by wave after wave of the Pacific Ocean — the moana.

These "beach conferences" in which our feet connected with both the land and the sea, where the beauty and fragility of the ocean inspire the wondering mind of science and the contemplative heart of spirituality meet are a metaphor of the space in which science and spirituality can meet.

Although I am a Methodist minister, my favourite theologian is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit Priest who was a theologian, philosopher, geologist and palaeontologist.

His writings also focused on the far distant origins, evolution and ultimate purpose of the universe (cosmology).

One day, while working on the excavation of the Peking Man he found himself alone in the desert: longing to celebrate the mass, he had neither bread nor wine but instead declared the world as an altar and the struggles and suffering of humanity the elements.

The revelation he received was that God's living and life-giving Word is present in all matter.

Once censured by the Catholic Church, Teilhard was quoted by Pope Francis in Laudato Si, the encyclical on care for our common home.

The story of Teilhard is significant as scientists gather for the IPCC meeting here in the Pacific, given that as a deeply spiritual people, our spirituality is the lens through which we understand and respond to the world around us.

I once read that science and spirituality are tools to investigate reality from two different angles. Each discipline asks a fundamentally different question.

Science asks: how does the universe work?

Spirituality asks: why is there a universe and what is its purpose, and what is our purpose of existence as human beings?

Scientists can tell us what needs to be done to address a situation. Spirituality provides an moral and ethical framework to mobilise and motivate the action.

I consider the contribution of those on the IPCC to address climate change as a prophetic task. They are today's prophets called to speak the truth of climate change to the political and economic powers.

Like the ancient prophets, many do not like to hear their message.

Climate sceptics have delayed such acceptance by decades. Many do not want to deal with the problem — mitigation, which seems to have been side-stepped. Living with any consequences — adaptation, which will be infinitely more serious given that many are still not really addressing the problem.

As a Christian two key motivations for me to respond to truth of the IPCC come from Jesus's commandments to us (Mark 12:30-31 and Luke 10: 27) to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Deepak Chopra recently wrote:

"Our future depends on the concerted effort of science and spirituality working together, because separately, neither has been up to the monumental task. Science works fine in everyday affairs without dealing with spirituality.

"And on the other side, spirituality can continue serving people's spiritual needs as they go through their individual insights, crises and awakenings.

"However, unless the two views join forces, we won't be using our full human capability to solve problems.

"Such a comprehensive human effort is precisely what global solutions require.

"Beyond providing a platform for addressing humanity's problems, the joint efforts of science and spirituality promises to be the foundation for the next evolutionary leap in human potential."

* Reverend James Bhagwan is a regular contributor to this column. Views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.

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