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Faith and climate reach outwards

26 June 2015

Religion and approaches to the earth are not just inner concerns, argues Andrew Davison

The place of faith: Jeb Bush, hand on heart, tells the Pope to back off

The place of faith: Jeb Bush, hand on heart, tells the Pope to back off

"AS SOON as you hear the words 'I confess,' you beat upon your chest," said St Augustine of Hippo in one of his sermons. Since the days of the Early Church, Christians have struck their breast as an outward sign of penitence: "Strike the chest three times with the right hand," the Roman Missal enjoins the priest, and the people often followed suit.

By beating the chest, Augustine went on to say, the penitent Christian "shows what lies hidden within the heart". On Wednesday of last week, news websites around the world featured a video clip of Jeb Bush, one of the Republican contenders for the United States' presidency, likewise bringing his hand to his chest, but not to confess sin - rather to deny it. This was no outward demonstration of his wrongdoing, but an exoneration from it. The contrast is striking.

Mr Bush was talking about climate change, which has been placed firmly back on the agenda by Pope Francis and his encyclical Laudato Si'. Francis may be "an extraordinary leader", but in Mr Bush's eyes, he has overstepped his remit: "Religion ought to be about making us better as people, less about things that end up getting into the political realm."

This is where Mr Bush brings his hand to his chest. Recounting it with gestures, like a liturgical text with a rubric, it would go like this: "Religion ought to be about making us [here he touches his breast -pectus manu percutit] better as people, less about things that end up getting into the political realm."

Much could be said in criticism of this sentence, not least that any such separation of religion, being better as people, and politics uses those words in ways that ought to be unrecognisable to the Christian religion.

The visual cue, with Mr Bush's hand brought to his chest, suggests that the central question is about the role of the heart.

His contrast is between the heart, which lies within us and is supposedly the true realm for religion, and all those external matters - melting icecaps, species on the verge of extinction, displaced people - with which the Pope has overreached his mandate.


CERTAINLY, the heart has an honoured place in Jewish and Christian thinking. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength," we read in Deuteronomy, and Jesus took up those words as the first part of his summary of the Law. The Hebrew word lev ("heart") eludes precise translation, but ever since it was rendered into Greek as kardia, we have turned to the idea of the heart to express the innermost reality of a person.

Unfortunately for Mr Bush, neither Deuteronomy nor Jesus leaves the matter there. Loving God, for them, also involves the soul and strength. The first of those Hebrew words is nephesh, and it refers to the whole of the person.

In a seemingly bizarre conjunction, the word is also used to refer to the neck. The association, it seems, is that the neck, or throat, marks the outer extremity of the person, the boundary between a person and the world. The soul, nephesh, is not some ethereal part of us, but the whole of what we amount to, to our outermost edges. Aristotle, with his psuchē, and Aquinas, with his anima, endorsed a similar vision.

After heart and soul comes strength: "You shall love the Lord your God . . . with all your strength." This presents us with even odder Hebrew usage. The word that we translate as strength or might is meod, and it means "very", or "muchness", "force", or "abundance". Alongside heart and soul, then, the call is to love God with our "very" or "muchness".

To understand what is going on, consider that the Hebrew picture is not like that of a philosopher who might describe the elements of a human being as parts that add up to a whole (as Augustine listed memory, intellect, and will, for instance). Rather, the Hebrew vision is of concentric rings: the heart at the centre of the person, the soul reaching out to her upmost periphery, and meod spilling further out still: into her ambit, into the world and as her influence on it.

Rather than a pie-chart division like memory, intellect, and will, we have circles: heart, soul, and all that comes within the reach of our strength. Money and livelihood are obviously in play with meod, and the Aramaic Targums translate it as "possessions", accordingly.


MR BUSH would have us subscribe to an inward religion of the heart. His words say so, and his gesture - see it for yourself online - does so even more clearly. But neither Moses nor Jesus would have religion end with the inward heart. For them, religion takes in the soul, or nephesh: the whole of what we are.

Further still, the business of loving God involves our strength, or meod. It extends to our ambit, to the world around us, and to the influence we have upon it.

Mark's Gospel, and Luke's, record that Jesus also threw in "with all your mind" for good measure: a point that those who dismiss the science of climate change would do well to remember.

Slowly, since the Industrial Revolution, the behaviour of the Earth's atmosphere has come to dance to the sound of a human drum: the climate now bears human fingerprints. In this epoch, our influence has become global, as Pope Francis reminds us in Laudato Si'. And yet, his message is not without hope. We have strength - meod - and if that strength can be reconnected with heart and soul, and with mind, then it can be power to heal, not only to harm.

As Pope Francis has shown again with his latest encyclical, an integrated and healthy vision of the human being, and an integrated and healthy vision of the wider human community, go together.


The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, Fellow in Theology at Corpus Christi College, and Canon Philosopher of St Albans Cathedral.

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