Ecology, Magic, and Cultural Materialism

A Review of Marvin Harris’ Cows Pigs, Wars, and Witches


  “We don’t expect dreamers to explain their dreams; no more should we expect lifestyle participants to explain their lifestyles”

-Marvin Harris

“There are very important and practical issues raised by following this alternative route which says, let’s look to material conditions, to the systems of production, to the needs that human beings have, and to competing alternative solutions to the satisfaction of those needs.”

–Marvin Harris

Intro: A Reason for Being

As part of some preparation for advanced work in ecology, spirituality, and religion, I’ve been moving a bit out of philosophy and into the world of anthropology. Recently I picked up Marvin Harris’ Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture (1974) to better understand the cultural materialist perspective, a paradigm and research strategy I readily admit to actively avoiding for some time.

I have never been all that interested in science (hence part of the movement towards anthropology for me), and so treating ideology scientifically does not seem to make much sense, so that cultural and behavioral events can be seen from an etic perspective as the change agents, rather than assuming, from an emic perspective, the ideas, values, or other mental events are. Such a strategy seems almost like a processual archaeology of sorts, and positivist, seeking the underlying forces of history, downplaying individuality’s role in social change for an environmental determinism, while attributing the engine of transformation to a society’s infrastructure (relations to government, modes of production and reproduction), structure (social relations), and superstructure (ideational aspects and relations, e.g. arts, rituals, goals, etc.)

This goes to what appears to be Marvin’s thesis, that the “social dreamwork” of a culture, or rather, “the lifestyle consciousness of the participants,” obscures the reality of our lives and, in America, has “become a full-fledged industry, culturally manufactured to spread an ideology of market sensibilities and a fiction that capital creates wealth, erasing realities from consciousness like class and labor’s role in creating such wealth.” In fact, this social dreamwork or lifestyle consciousness in really not much more than the manifestation of a society’s cultural adaption to ecological constraints. As Harris writes,

“Ignorance, fear, and conflict are the basic elements of everyday consciousness. From these elements, art and politics fashion that collective dreamwork whose function it is to prevent people from understanding what their social life is all about. Everyday consciousness, therefore, cannot explain itself. It owes its very existence to a developed capacity to deny the facts that explain its existence.” (6)

In his view, the relevant material factors in human events are disguised as lifestyles, wrapping themselves in myths and legends drawing attention to supernatural conditions, giving people a social identity and purpose that conceals the truths of social life. Such deceptions about the mundane causes of culture “weigh upon ordinary consciousness like layered sheets of lead. It is never an easy task to circumvent, penetrate, or lift this oppressive burden.” (5)

Now, I find myself a little offended that the stories I might live my life by, indeed my entire consciousness might be an “oppressive burden” determined by my ecological context (wherefore art thou free will!), and that a degree of over-subjectivity might have deluded my understanding of my own lifestyle and reified that delusion. Nevertheless, I am open to a dose of scientific objectivity concerning the causes of lifestyle phenomena, for the simple reason that scientific materialism might balance out a tendency on my part to privilege the more cultural ideation that the so-called “counterculture” might be employing in part of their criticism of the dominant paradigm (the hope that the Pentagon could be levitated if only enough people had sufficient faith strikes me as one glaring example).

Witchcraft of the Counterculture

And here is really where Marvin’s book seems to start, for the entirety of the book seems to be in service of understanding the failure of Vietnam. Indeed, he believes “our consciousness was mystified by symbols of patriotism, dreams of glory, unyielding pride, and visions of empire…we enthralled ourselves with visions of our own ineffable majesty. In short, we were stoned.” (266) His goal, therefore, and one I can certainly appreciate, is to articulate the sound basis for “assuming that by struggling to demystify our ordinary consciousness we shall improve the prospects for peace and economic and political justice.” Otherwise, we will continue to fail to expand this consciousness beyond the instrumental and banal tasks to the practical significance of national goals and policies, as he, rightly, I think, points out.

In this way, it is rather a shortage of scientific objectivity, not a surplus, about the causes of lifestyle differences that has brought on two competing tendencies: a grandiose vision of military-messianic consciousness on the one hand, as well as the counter-cultural enthusiasts who, while intending to subvert the scientific worldview, are actually quite harmless, if not complicit, because they simply are too complacent and disconnected to redeem or fulfill their mission on a cosmic scale. That is, the level of popular befuddlement in the counterculture ignores the important and constructive questions of how to serve humane ends and reduce inequities and exploitation, but rather deepens the confusion, psychic involution, and epitomizes amorality, disdaining reason, evidence, and objectivity for a ‘superconsciousness’ that “strips an entire generation of the intellectual means of resisting the next call for a ‘final and decisive struggle’ to achieve redemption and salvation on a cosmic scale.” (263)

This, Marvin states, is no more than a return of the witch craze, where the lifestyle consciousness arises from a set of practical and mundane conditions similar to those responsible for the rise of religious saviors, whose boundless, millennial promises made with boundless, prophet-like conviction ultimately bring history to a preordained consummation, invoking Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich, Lenin’s Communist Jerusalem, Trotsky’s True Paradise, and other devils’ and witches’ utopian fancies. This book then, is designed to uncover the ultimate reasons for these present social phenomena that we must deal with objectively to understand their own influence on our own lives today.

As mentioned, this book begins from a position of anti-warfare as a moral imperative. And yet, the counterculture’s anti-war movement, even with its hope that it can transform society through “revolution by consciousness,” is perhaps more engaged in obscurantism than anything else. Harris writes that while the counterculture touts a radical rejection of science and technological values, it does not reject technological values, remaining explicitly a middle-class movement, steeped in the myth of its social dreamwork and radical doctrines “that prevent people from understanding the causes of their social existence.” (255) This consciousness is, it is claimed, “so far out of touch with practical and mundane constraints is, in fact, witchcraft rather than politics.” The conditions however, “cannot be imagined into or out of existence the way a shaman makes hundred-foot gnats appear and disappear.” Rather, they can only be modified by practical activities aimed at “changing consciousness by changing the material conditions of consciousness.” (253) Theirs then, cannot be called politics, but rather witchcraft, or magic, which seeks to subvert objective knowledge while at the same time subverting the basis of moral judgement. In this regard, in the anthropology of counterculture, primitive, non-technological consciousness is epitomized by the movement’s ideal figure, the shaman, who cultivates hidden powers of the universe and possesses a super-consciousness that both controls history and is prior to structure: Change consciousness, the counterculture’s thought-process goes, and the entire corporate state, and all its evils, will simply be dissolved, along with other “unreal” social illusions—time schedules, rational connections, competition, anger, excellence, authority, private property, law, status, the primacy of the state…

The counterculture, therefore, sees its millennial consciousness as the truth serum that repeals false consciousness (dominant culture), for the sake of propping itself up whereby the non-intellective capacities may reign supreme. In this regard, psychotropic drugs, shamanic states of mind, and social dreaming are thought to unlock the potential of the mind to create a separate reality which can be imagined as a supreme reality.

I will admit that I may be guilty of such thinking (indeed, the entire ecomagicians project may be as well!), and yet at the same time this critique is one I have seen elsewhere, for instance in the thought of Eric Voegelin and his science of politics and political religions. Indeed, just as Voegelin traces the origin of such ideas through history into the structure of consciousness itself, Marvin Harris will answer the question of the origin of this phenomena by looking into the past, at identifiable and intelligible sources as cultures and societies (and I might add, that structure of consciousness in general) struggle to adapt to their environmental circumstances. As such, his layering of new adaptations onto others means a journey to peel those layers back…

Hammering the Witches

For instance, the magical thinking Harris accuses the counterculture of is, he suggests, rooted in the Great Witch Craze culminating in the years after the Protestant Reformation, which Harris explains as “largely created and sustained by the governing classes as a means of suppressing a wave of Christian messianism that sought to protest social and economic inequity. As feudalism gave way to strong national monarchies and the development of trade, markets, banking, land owning and capital enterprises seeking to maximize profits, serfs were displaced and dispossessed, drifting to towns to find new lifeways ruled by commercial profits rather than tradition. Messianic theoreticians like Joachim of Fiore in turn devised prophetic systems that would purge the Church of wealth and luxury while destroying the clergy altogether. As these messianic movements became more militant, preaching the massacre of moneylenders, price-fixing merchants and unscrupulous lawyers until all property would become held in common, these subversive and anti-clerical movements were declared “heretical” and forced underground, or, alternatively the troublemakers and alienated poor were enlisted in the Crusades to fight against approved enemies elsewhere.

The threat of radical lower-class revolution drove Europe towards the Protestant Reformation and beyond, so that it is easy to see why the witch craze and development of European messianism took off—these were rejections of an institutional structure found wanting. And yet, Harris goes beyond this: Witches and heretics, like the counterculture, were no real threat to the established order, for explicit doctrines of social criticism and threatening courses of actions were absent from such groups. Rather, the witch hunters went out of their way to increase the supply of witches simply to make witchcraft, as a threat, more believable. By examining the earthly results of the witch-hunt as opposed to its heavenly aims, Harris recognizes that,

“the poor came to believe that they were being victimized by witches and devils instead of princes and popes…against the people’s phantom enemies, Church and state mounted a bold campaign. The authorities were unstinting in their efforts to ward of this evil, and rich and poor alike could be thankful for the energy and bravery displayed in the battle.” (237)

This is to say, what people thought happened was as interesting as what objectively did happen, in the sense that the reality is distinct from the lifestyle consciousness of the participants. In this way, the Devil was to blame, rather than the corrupt clergy and rapacious nobility, and not only were witches used as scapegoats for any evil seen in leaky roofs, aborted cows, withered oats, soured wine, headaches, infant mortality, broken fences, etc, but now, the church and state were indispensable, great protectors of humanity from an omnipresent enemy. As Harris points out, “Here at last was a reason to pay tithes and obey the tax collector. Vital services pertaining to the life rather than the next were being carried out with sound and fury, flame and smoke. You could actually hear the witches scream as they went down to hell.” (238)

For this reason, out of only three instances of accusations of witchcraft against members of the nobility, not one accused was executed. 82% on the other hand were defenseless older women and lower class midwives, the remaining being those they accused under duress of torture. And so, whereas military messianism brought together the poor and dispossessed over vast regions to focus their energies into battles against those at the top of the social pyramid, the witch craze was a defense of the institutional structure that

“dispersed and fragmented all the latent energies of protest. It demobilized the poor and the dispossessed, increased their social distance, filled them with mutual suspicions, pitted neighbor against neighbor, isolated everyone…in so doing, it drew the poor further away from confronting the ecclesiastical and secular establishment with demands for the redistribution of wealth and the leveling of rank…the magic bullet of society’s privileged and powerful classes.” (240)

And whereas witchcraft, brooms, and Sabbats have their own unique history (Harris traces it to a hallucinogenic herbal medicine containing nightshade that users take to fall into a deep sleep, seemingly creating sensations of flying and dreams of frenzied dancing and orgies), so too does the tradition of messianism…

Adapting to Imperial Violence

Living under the Roman empire, the Jewish people sought a savior, or messiah (Christ in Greek), born out of years of tradition that held Yahweh’s covenant with David and Moses had been broken. Once the relationship had been mended through repentance and atonement, a military prince would end the age of suffering and lead a great Jewish empire into glory. And yet, this was not to be a peaceful messiah, but a vengeful military messiah. For this reason, Palestine was the context for a guerrilla war with centers of insurgent activity aimed at liberating the Jews from Roman rule, with many “zealots,” “bandits,” “magicians,” and “guerrillas” all claiming the mantle of messiah and engaging in a revolutionary praxis involving harassment, provocation, robbery, assassination, terrorism, and martyrdom. As Jewish military-messianism rose and fell, “continuously re-created by the practical exigencies of colonialism and poverty, the revolutionary impulse burst forth,” an insurrectionary fervor culminating in the Jewish Revolt of 66-71 CE followed by Bar Kochva’s miraculous victory in establishing an independent Jewish state in 132CE, albeit for only three years.

When this movement failed, Jews were nearly wiped out, resulting in the complete loss of the territorial integrity of the Jewish state. It was, according to Harris, an “adaptive failure” to the inequities of Roman colonialism. He puts it thus:

“In culture, as in nature, systems that are the product of selective forces frequently fail to survive, not because they are defective or irrational, but because they encounter other systems that are better adapted and more powerful. I think I have shown that the cult of the vengeful messiah, like cargo, was adapted to the practical exigencies of a colonial struggle. It was extremely successful as a means of mobilizing mass resistance in the absence of a formal apparatus for raising and training an army.” (173)

Such revolutions occurred, according to Harris, because the environmental conditions for the Jews were so abhorrent they revolted against the most powerful empire the world had known, so that the Jewish military-messianic consciousness expanded greatly at the time of Christ, stories of whom were only written about after the destruction of the Jewish temple, so that Harris will conclude that the Jesus cult would rework the militant messianic character into a “prince of peace” figure, whose adherents (Paul, in particular) would proselytize successfully to both Jews (wanting to escape persecution) and non-Jews (without demanding circumcision). For this reason, Christianity was able to grow after the fall of Jerusalem as the gospels spread, absolving Romans of guilt and allowing Jews to escape persecution. Christianity then was able to become a state within a state, which “concentrated in the urban centers, had infiltrated the Roman upper class, maintained effective social welfare programs, and were building a fiscally independent international corporation led by skilled administrators [so that] the Christian churches had once again become a political threat to Roman law and order,” eventually undergoing imperial persecution again by Christians before Constantine would adopt it as the state religion after uniting his armies under the banner. Turning the militant messiah into a purely peaceful, non-hostile leader had become a “practical necessity” in the years after the Jewish destruction when a defeated people sought to distance themselves from a movement seeking to topple Rome, growing until it could be the lynchpin of that same empire’s imperial violence, the language of the Jesus cult’s stories changing accordingly.

Messianic cults are not however relegated to the middle east and Europe however. As Marvin Harris demonstrates, the so-called “Phantom Cargo Cults” engaged in a similar belief system.

 After Europeans colonized New Guinea, indigenous groups were astonished by the amount of cargo that seemed to come from nowhere to their homeland, airlifted into strongholds or coming from ships. Natives, seeing this, soon began anticipating a total upgrading of their own lives, where, in accordance with their own ancestral worship, the “dead and living will be reunited, the white man thrown out or subordinated, drudgery abolished, with no shortages of anything. The arrival of the cargo, in other words, will mark the beginning of heaven on earth.” (134)

Cargo prophets emerged when white missionaries and government soldiers, taking on the mantle of “Big Men”,  began bribing natives with promises of cargo to convert them to Christianity. This would eventually lead to open rebellion once natives realized missionaries and soldiers were exploiting them without giving them rewards of cargo, believing that cargo was not produced by men but rather in a supernatural realm, not accepting or able to learn theories of European capitalism or colonial economic policy. As these concepts, analogous to themes in the aboriginal belief system, became the idiom in which mass resistance to colonial exploitation was first expressed, Harris points out how the wealth enjoyed by colonizers and produced through the work of the indigenous groups and expropriation of their lands created a new symbol, “cargo,” that, like the messianism of the Jews, becomes the vehicle to express the wealth they believe they are entitled to but that their colonizers have failed to reciprocate, which in turn demands a millennial mechanism for redistribution.

Reciprocation, Primitive Warfare, and Carrying Capacity

The idea of reciprocation has its own roots in the “Big Man” system of New Guinea and similarly in the Potlatches of North American native groups as well. In these cases, the drive for prestige will have as its object a ceremony in which to show oneself superior to other rivals. Indeed, the whole aboriginal economic system might be bent to the service of such obsessions. And yet, beyond the social dreamwork of personal aggrandizement is something else. That is, prestige is not their only reward, but rather, competitive feasting by big men and the chiefs involved in “wasting” wealth in the potlatch ceremonies “acts as an automatic equalizer of annual fluctuations in productivity among a series of villages that occupy different microenvironments.” (118) The greatest chiefs, the big men, gain their prestige  by being the best providers, able to transfer food and valuables from centers of high productivity to less fortunate areas. Transfers are thus assured so that unpredictable fluctuations in food sources are addressed, stabilizing regional populations as a whole. That is, “they gather together the results of the productive effort of many individuals and then redistribute the aggregate wealth in different quantities to a different set of people.” (121) Reciprocity then is the technical term for an economic exchange, so that if the exchange is not reciprocated “people begin to suspect that the taker is possessed by malevolent spirits or is practicing witchcraft. In egalitarian societies, individuals who consistently violate the rules of reciprocity are in fact likely to be psychotic and a menace to their community.” (123)

Beyond an individual, or social aspect to competitive feasting, there is the larger ecological context that is addressed as well. Marvin points this out thusly: “Competitive feasting and other forms of redistribution overwhelmed the primordial reliance upon reciprocity when it became possible to increase the duration and intensity of work without inflicting irreversible damage upon the habitat’s carrying capacity.” (127) This is to say, whereas reciprocity continues, as gift-givers become powerful, no longer needing to obey the rules of reciprocity, they begin to force people to pay taxes and work for them, enslaving others who must then engage in intensive extra productive effort which depletes the resources around. To paraphrase, conditions where everyone has equal access to the means of subsistence means competitive feasting prevents the labor force from engaging in levels of productivity that offer no margin of safety during periods of crises. However, once reciprocation is ignored and intensive extra productive effort is engaged in, an adverse effect upon group survival is engaged in that ecosystems simply cannot tolerate. The relationship between individuals, and therefore between society and its ecological context becomes unbalanced, much like European capitalism and taxation did, replacing reciprocity with competition, in turn forcing mankind to work harder to feed more people at even lower levels of material well-being, leading to stratification of classes and further desire to maximize productivity to “keep up with the Jones’” so to speak.

Marvin talks about primitive warfare as another example of addressing carrying capacity. For instance, the Yanomamo engage in warfare and brutal sexual relations due to, as Harris states, “the fact that there are already too many Yanomamo in relation to their ability to exploit their habitat.” (104) For this reason, warfare and violence are extreme, necessitating a primacy of male children for battle, leading to female infanticide. The lower female birthrates, and increased amount of fighting males prevents the further degradation of their habitat’s carrying capacity, or “eating the forest” beyond what it will take to sustain their culture. Similarly, the Maring people engage in warfare “as an ecologically adaptive lifestyle,” that regulates and maintains their systems, so that “population pressure exists as soon as a population begins to move closer to the point of calorie or protein deficiencies, or as soon as it begins to grow and consume at a rate which sooner or later must degrade and deplete the life-sustaining capacities of its environment.” (66)

Similarly, this idea of an ecologically adaptive lifestyle can qualify the relationship between human cultures and animals as well. For instance, Harris describes as the reason for a taboo on pork by desert cultures as stemming from the fact that pigs, unlike sheep or cows, are more of a threat than an asset to the ecological and cultural integrity of their society and ecosystems due to the fact that pigs, unlike cows and sheep, compete for food with humans without providing other items like wool or milk. It is more than simply economically inefficient; it borders on being fatal to the continuity of the society in question. This is similar to the Hindu worshipping of cows and taboo on beef-eating which would strain the entire ecosystem. Cows instead provide for a continual source of traction animal, along with milk and dung (for energy/heat), and if they were killed for meat, their owners would starve as they would have no way to cultivate the fields they will depend on after monsoon rains. The cow’s symbolic and religious status as mother of everything that is alive no doubt stems from its integral role in the maintenance of Indian culture:

“What I am saying is that cow love is an active element in a complex, finely articulated material and cultural order. Cow love mobilizes the latent capacity of human beings to persevere in a low-energy ecosystem in which there is little room for waste or indolence. Cow love contributes to the adaptive resilience of the human population by preserving temporarily dry or barren but still useful animals; by discouraging the growth of an energy-expensive beef industry; by protecting cattle that fatten in the public domain or at landlord’s expense; and by preserving the recovery potential of the cattle population during droughts and famines….Since the effective mobilization of all human action depends upon the acceptance of psychologically compelling creeds and doctrines, we have to expect that economic systems will always oscillate under and over their points of optimum efficiency. But the assumption that the whole system can be made to work better simply by attacking its consciousness is naive and dangerous.” (30)

This is similar to the Maring’s systemization of Pig Love in New Guinea, in which pigs thrive in the temperate and humid forests, freely roaming over the forest floor, until the steady increase of pig population overburdens and endangers the gardens on which the Maring depend on for survival, virgin lands are brought into use, and the efficiency of the entire agricultural system plummets. This in turn is when a pig feast that pleases the ancestors will take place, ridding the Maring of animals that have grown parasitic and helping to keep the pig population from becoming too much of a good thing. In this way, Harris shows, “the entire system results in an efficient distribution of plants, animals, and people in the region, from a human ecological point of view.” (56)

The Past in Service of the Present

Here, we reach the “bottom layer” of Marvin Harris’ cake, and with it his reminder, or article of faith, that complex cultural phenomena is objectively reducible to basic constituent precepts, namely that spiritual motivations have their basis in ecological necessity. His logic, it appears, therefore goes something like this:

The sacred relationship Hindus have to cows is fundamentally geographic and ecological in nature (Ch. 1) , much as Jewish and Islamic bans on pork (Ch. 2) is—namely, it is an ecological adaptation that has been intuited and enshrined in doctrine over the course of generations. In a likewise manner, primitive warfare (Ch. 3) and violent patriarchy (Ch. 4) act in a similar way, attempting to ensure carrying capacity will not be strained to a point that would induce societal collapse or increase societal discontent to unsustainable levels. The Big-Man system and potlatches (Ch. 5) similarly act as mechanisms to maintain balance within societies and act as ways to protect against dangers of fluctuations in ecological productivity of the region. However, once the reciprocation is pushed to the point of imbalance, where certain individuals produce more that the ecosystem can accommodate, exploitation may occur, leading to the enslavement of others, in turn setting the conditions for rebellion against such individuals. This can be seen in the cargo prophets (Ch. 6) or militant-messiahs (Ch. 7) and their “peaceful” adaptation (Ch. 8) whose appeals to spirituality communicates and expands a new conscious realization that has been molded by unsustainable environmental conditions. And while such spiritualities as witchcraft may be as innocuous as tripping out on hallucinogenic plants and crafting herbal remedies (Ch. 9), those engaged in exploiting people may develop and spread narratives painting these individuals as threats to the established order (Ch. 10), to both scapegoat others as the causes of resource deprivation they themselves are responsible for, but also to foster dependence on the state or religious apparatus as a way to maintain the legitimacy of their own existence as they perform the assumed necessary function of eradicating society of these “threats,” paralleling much of the phenomena of the 60s-70s as with the counterculture, anti-war movements of the (Ch. 11) .

Here, the same basic conditions present in the 60s and 70s, when Marvin Harris’ book was published, are perhaps more so today, as ecological conditions seem to have only worsened. Whereas there is a state and religious apparatus that seems bent on exploiting capital and a technological logic to maintain inequity for the benefit of a few, there appears is at the same time a militant messianic-like movement attempting to confront and oppose such an apparatus. However, in opposing the “objective,” “scientific,” and “technological” aspects of the ruling apparatus, this messianic movement risks remaining unthreatening, destined to remain a “failed adaptation” for as long as it assumes consciousness is not defined by the material conditions that contextualize it. Harris repeats, “Head trips and freak-outs cannot alter the material basis of exploitation and alienation.” (263)

As mentioned out the outset, the cultural materialist perspective Harris utilizes, while I appreciate it, is not my own center of gravity. Rather I contend that “outside” (in this case “environment”) and “inside” (or human consciousness) do to an extent, “resonate” with one another, and do so synchronistically.

This is to say that while the ecological context may remain unconscious to an extent, as with the larger meta-institutions that may remain hidden from an individual’s awareness, it is never totally absent from consciousness, if for no other reason than the interrelated structure of the universe. Rather, a culture’s socio-ecological relation is intuited at a fundamental level, symbolized and ritualized in both economy and spirituality or religion subconsciously, until, through anamnetic meditation, the hidden structure of consciousness can be retrieved from oblivion and integrated into one’s working understanding and conscious self-awareness. This is to say, our unconscious (but present nonetheless!) awareness of ecological trends and unsustainable relationships must become evermore conscious if we are to avoid collapse or ever address ecological and social inequity, whether through rituals, taboos, or other new developments in religious (or political or economic for that matter) ideology, and with it, our daily behaviors and their impact on the wider social structures and ecological forces that contextualize them.

As a final reflection, it is my observation that while cultural materialism certainly develops a probabilistic infrastructural determinism in which modes of production are taken as the most significant force behind the evolution of culture, it will only be through the ideational and symbolic “dreamwork” and lifestyle consciousness that we will be mobilized to address that infrastructure in material and lasting ways. In this regard I will end with a quote from the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality, “Laudato Si,” on the necessity to care for our common home:

“It cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life, the interplay of all creatures and the whole of reality. This would be to breach the limits imposed by its own methodology. If we reason only within the confines of the latter, little room would be left for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things…any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well…If a mistaken understanding of our own principles has at times led us to justify mistreating nature, to exercise tyranny over creation, to engage in war, injustice and acts of violence, we believers should acknowledge that by so doing we were not faithful to the treasures of wisdom which we have been called to protect and preserve. Cultural limitations in different eras often affected the perception of these ethical and spiritual treasures, yet by constantly returning to their sources, religions will be better equipped to respond to today’s needs…the gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which demands patience, self-discipline and generosity, always keeping in mind that “realities are greater than ideas.” (From Religions in Dialogue with Science, 199-201)

Whether these words are merely ideas determined by material conditions, or fundamentally able to change those material conditions, or even simply the expression of something greater than either, I will leave up to the reader.


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