For me, it was a remarkable meeting. From the time I left high school, I’ve considered myself an atheist, and there I was, listening to a Catholic priest outline a radical reinterpretation of Christianity that totally captured my imagination with its celebration of sustainability.
The priest was Stephen Dunn, and his order is the Congregation of the Passion, or the Passionists, of whom there are about 3,000 around the world. We met in his small, tidy office in an outlying corner of St. Michael’s University College near Bay and Wellesley Streets in Toronto. He is a professor of Christian ethics and director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology.
He starts from the position that one of Christianity’s greatest difficulties is that it has had a sense of God that is separate from nature. God as transcendent, is how theologians express it. Quoting from Thomas Berry, a New York City priest who has led the Passionists in their search for new meaning in Christianity, Dunn says that making God a god only for humans has weakened our sense of the sacred in the natural world and has become the context for our use and abuse of the planet.
Also with an acknowledgement to Berry, he says that science in our century has brought us to a realization that everything is evolving and has always evolved. And everything has roots in a common beginning. Consequently, we are descendants of, and cousins to, everything else in the universe.
By this, Dunn means cousins not only to what we usually refer to as animate beings — horses and bees and fish and birds — but also to grass and trees and flowers.
Cousin to a flower! I love that thought. And I love it even more when it comes from a respected source that prevents me from being labelled a dingbat tree hugger.
According to Berry, the Ten Commandments are no longer adequate. « Not a single commandment gives us any direction regarding the natural world,’’ he says in the published report of a 1990 colloquium entitled Befriending the Earth ($11, Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut). In an analogy to Exodus, he adds: « The human community and the natural world will go into the future as a single sacred community, or we will both perish in the desert.’’
What about salvation, I asked Dunn? It has been cast as a reward for performing good deeds, like earning travel points to heaven, I said. And as such it smacks of being self-centred and covetous. Besides, I saw precious little talk in the Bible about good deeds toward living things other than people.
I was afraid I might have offended him by being too confrontational, but no, he smiled gently. « I agree,’’ he said. « We’ve been saddled with that interpretation for too long a time.’’
The primary route to salvation, for him, is based on God’s covenant with Noah who saved all creatures from the flood. In return for being saved, says Dunn, every living thing is charged with attending to the well being of all creation. In this sense, all of creation is important to God; all of creation is a single sacred community.
To see salvation as occurring only after death is a warped way of looking at it, he says. « Salvation is about being true to the gift of life; it is not about trying to manipulate what happens when this life is over. It is not a result, it is a process.’’
It is a growing relationship of trust, like the developing trust of a child who learns to benefit from what is offered by a parent. The way to develop trust, and an increasingly profound experience of salvation, is to attend to the well being of all other forms of life.
So caring for the health of each tree, each pond, each porcupine is a primary spiritual undertaking.
I left our meeting still an atheist. But I also left with an immense respect for the possibilities within Christianity.