A reflection by Teresa White, fcJ first appeared in Church Times, to mark the Season of Creation with a plea for moderation
Today, many voices tell us that we are living in a fractured world; that human behaviour, past and present, is a main cause of the brokenness that we see around us; and that – unless we reverse present trends – the earth will become increasingly barren and precarious, and human life will be radically diminished.
These prophetic voices urge us to recognise the interconnectedness of the whole of creation, and to do everything in our power to repair some of the damage that we have caused.
In Judaism, the rabbinical texts of the Talmud have been wrestling with such thoughts for centuries. They use the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) to denote humanity’s responsibility, not only to keep the world in good working order, but also actively to bring it closer to the harmonious state for which it was created by God. The phrase can also mean working for the benefit or betterment of society, or for the avoidance of chaos. All three meanings have a striking relevance for us today.
Tikkun olam is not merely a philosophical notion: it is a wonderfully practical one. When you see something is broken, mend it; when you find something that is lost, return it; when you see something that needs to be done, do it. In the context of the natural world, this is how we should “repair” God’s creation, how we should take care of the earth, our common home.
In the annals of human endeavour, tikkun olam has never been more urgent. Unless we make every effort to repair our broken world, and – where we can – heal some of the wounds that humans have inflicted on it, we will continue to contribute to the destruction of many living things, including ourselves. Now is the time for crucial reparatory action.
Today, the future of life on earth is dependent on human agency to a degree unimagined in former times. Having taken extensive control of earth’s life-systems, we have interfered with the chemical structure of soil, air, and water and, in doing so, damaged or destroyed many aspects of the planet that we inhabit. In Laudato Si’ (which, in many respects, offers a Christian parallel to the teaching of tikkun olam), Pope Francis does not mince his words: the earth is beginning to look like an immense pile of filth, and, if we don’t change our behaviour, it won’t be long before we make it uninhabitable – for ourselves and for future generations.
For those with eyes to see, the present climate emergency unambiguously exposes the problems that people are experiencing in different parts of the world: global warming, rising sea temperatures, scarred and ruined landscapes, wildfires, tsunamis, floods and droughts, pandemics, myriad endangered or extinct plant and animal species, and deeply troubled human communities.
Yet it appears that anthropocentrism is still the default mindset of many people, especially the rich and powerful, who seem intent on pursuing material prosperity at all costs – even when they know that unlimited growth and the throwaway economy will result in the terminal impoverishment of the planet. Consumerism, individualism, and disregard of the common good clearly show that care of the planet is not a priority for many.
Against this depressing background, what can we do? Socrates once said that every wise person instinctively knows that leading a frugal life is good for us. Although he himself lived sparingly, he would often go to the marketplace to look at all the wares on display. Asked why he did this, he replied: I love to go there and discover how many things I can live perfectly happily without.
Pope Francis echoes Socrates’s words in his observation that Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little (Laudato Si’: 223).
Along with prudence, justice, and fortitude, moderation (or temperance) is one of the four cardinal virtues. It is closely linked to the other three, especially justice: it is not right for us to follow our self-serving inclinations if, in doing so, we close our eyes to the needs of others and neglect to care for creation.
Yet, it has to be said that moderation is not a popular notion today. Adverts ply us with exhortations to buy, buy, buy. Many of us respond, often losing sight of the damage that our excessive purchasing can cause. “Go on, spoil yourself,” we are urged, as we are tempted yet again into buying some self-indulgence that is “naughty but nice”. And who can resist “three for the price of two”? – this in spite of the fact that we often end up wasting at least part of our bargain purchase.
Sometimes, even a smidgen of moderation could help us resist the craving to seek, or take, more – sometimes far more – than we reasonably need or can profitably use. Moderation tells us that “Enough is as good as a feast”; “Share your surplus with those who have less”; and “Small is beautiful.”
In our approach to ecology, moderation in some sense de-centres the human: it encourages us to balance our desires for excess with reverence for all life and for the natural environment. Having too much of anything, hoarding too many things, seeking or taking more than we need – food, money, possessions, comforts – imprisons the human spirit. It can blind us to other people’s needs, and lead us to neglect our human duty to take care of our common home.
Moderation offers a more balanced and harmonious vision. It seeks the greater good and, in doing so, sharpens our concern for the poor and the weak. It leads us to cultivate what Thomas Berry calls a more benign mode of presence on the earth.
It is not yet too late to make concerted efforts to repair the world; but the scientists tell us that it soon will be. Tikkun olam is more than a good idea: it is essential for our survival.
Image by Jacquie Klose – stock.adobe.com
This reflection by Teresa White, fcJ has appeared in Church Times in 15 September 2023. Sr Teresa a former teacher, she spent many years in the ministry of spirituality at Katherine House, an FCJ retreat and conference centre in Salford, UK.