Life & Soul

What the Amazon synod document gets wrong about Creation

A young member of an indigenous group from the Amazon region listens during a meeting with Pope Francis (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The summer afforded me several opportunities to see the sea. Two new Grief to Grace sites, in Perth and on the Côte d’Azur, were near the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean respectively, and I managed some moments of great peace in the midst of intense work. It was soothing and conducive to prayer to walk by the sea and hear, in Matthew Arnold’s words, the eternal “begin and cease” of the tides, letting the rhythm calm and soothe. Studies have shown what the ancients knew anyway: that there are health benefits from being by the sea. Mood-enhancing serotonin levels in the brain improve. The sea is nature’s own medicine for stress, depression or loss.

In that sense I am all for “hearing the cry of the earth” and recognising how lifestyles of compulsive accumulation and excessive reliance on technology lead to overexploitation of resources, and how such a lifestyle dehumanises us. But I am struggling to understand the strange mélange of socio-economic jargon and pantheism that characterises the working document for next month’s Amazon synod. Claims like “The unique diversity of the Amazon region – biological, religious and cultural – suggests a new Pentecost” imply that this region is itself a locus of revelation, that the religion and culture of indigenous peoples can teach the Church something she never knew.

Apparently a “cosmic dimension of experience (cosmovivencia) palpitates within the families” of the region, drawing on “age-old traditional knowledge and practices … in harmony with God, nature and the community”. This cosmic experience begets harmony “Between peoples, between generations, with nature, in dialogue with the spirits.”

So what is Catholic ancestral faith when it comes to creation? Is nature a source of revelation? Can we too live in harmony with God by better hearing the songs and cries of earth?

The existence of God is evident in the traces of himself he has left in Creation, but this a little like saying that keeping a fossil is the same as having a pet dinosaur. God is the source of creation and present in it through his Holy Spirit, who searches the depths of all things. But he infinitely transcends creation, which can reveal what God is but not who he is. The presence of the divine, the transcendent, deriving from human experience of tides or stars or medicinal plants, may invite spiritual reflection which may in turn be formulated into religious belief.

But such belief is not a Pentecost, just a reminder to care for creation. Ideas are not salvific. Indigenous cosmologies may “palpitate” but they do not save. Only the action of the Trinity in Creation saves and only that action allows us to truly understand Creation. The Word is the true light which enlightens every man, through whom and for whom all things were made. The end, or purpose, of the created world is neither that we should perfect it as our common home nor penetrate its secrets, but that it should give glory to God, that Christ may be all in all.

Now, you may say, “the glory of God is man fully alive”. But that’s half a quotation. St Irenaeus added, “and the life of man is the vision of God”. That true and clear vision of God is not revealed to indigenous wisdom or untrammelled cultures or religious sensibilities. It wasn’t even revealed in the culture or religion of Israel, the Chosen People. It is only revealed through the revelation of God as Trinity when the Father sent his Son and Spirit proceeding from them both, the Spirit who guides the Church to know all truth.