The social gospel has been around for as long as Jesus, but Walter Rauschenbusch catapulted it into the nation's consciousness in the 19th century, advocating that the kingdom of God was breaking open in the present through social action. Our own age has seen the growth of social justice movements, social justice education, as well as novel movements like Occupy Wall Street. In a broad sense, social justice is about building a fair and equitable society in which all members can share in the goods of life, that is, the development of human community.
The way social justice has developed in Christianity reflects a particular understanding of God and world. In this respect, it is rooted in natural law and the common good, ideas grounded in Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophies. God creates a good creation and the law of the good is imprinted on every human heart.
While the aims of social justice are noble, I wonder if they are realistic. Is it possible to change or transform the structure of systems? After decades of committed social justice work, we are still grappling with the same problems. In some areas, the problems have worsened.
For all that is right about social justice, there is something deeply amiss. Somehow, we feel that by making social justice a primary object of concern, things will eventually get better. What I want to suggest here is that, unless we assume a different viewpoint, things will get worse. While social justice reflects the values of the Gospel, on a much more fundamental level, I think the term "social justice" is somewhat contrived.
A deep disconnect
The problem with social justice is that we have made it a human work when in fact social justice is, in a sense, a definition of nature itself. Social justice cannot exist as an independent phenomenon because it is the underlying principle of all phenomena. By highlighting social justice as a particular area of concern, we unwittingly confess our deep disconnect from nature.
Pope Francis hones in on our alienation from nature in his encyclical Laudato Si' when he calls for a radical renewal of interdependence among the Earth community. Essentially, we have developed a way of human life that opposes nature. Activist Charles Eisenstein writes: "We have defined ourselves as other than what we are, as discrete subjects separate from each other and separate from the world around us."
While modern science has revealed new information about the human person, from cosmology to neuroscience and cognitive psychology, we still think of ourselves as rational, concrete subjects, individual in nature and unrelated to one another, except by chance, accident or good-fortune. This understanding is a particularly Western one with philosophical roots that date back to the ancient Greeks. Christianity adopted Greek philosophical principles in its development of theology.
Stepping back and surveying the historical landscape, I would suggest that religion and, in particular, the monotheistic religions with their ancient philosophies and static cosmologies, lie at the core of social injustice. This would require much more than a column to expound, but for now I am proposing that old philosophical principles that support staunch theological doctrines undergird social injustice. If justice is a principle of nature, then we need a new type of religion consonant with nature, one that elucidates the justice of nature itself. Anything else will not work. As Albert Einstein quipped, you cannot solve a problem with the same conditions that created it.
Peter Wohlleben's book, The Hidden Life of Trees, is a good example of nature's social justice. Wohlleben, a forester by training, describes how he found a tree cut down centuries ago and yet was still alive. How was this possible since without leaves, a tree is unable to perform photosynthesis, which is how it converts sunlight into sugar for sustenance? The ancient tree was clearly receiving nutrients in some other way — for hundreds of years. What scientists have found, Wohlleben writes, is that neighboring trees help each other through their root systems—either directly, by intertwining their roots, or indirectly, by growing fungal networks around the roots that serve as a sort of extended nervous system connecting separate trees.
Wohlleben pondered this astonishing sociality of trees and wondered about what makes strong human communities and societies. Why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together.
American forest ecologist Suzanne Simard found that primeval forests, that is, "natural" forests undisturbed by humans as opposed to "plantation" forests managed for commercial benefit, have a layer of fungus called mycelium under the top soil that connects individual trees with each other. This layer forms a kind of dense "social" network, that Nature magazine dubbed the "wood wide web," which trees use to exchange nutrients and food, to "support" those sick or weak and to "inform" each other of threats.
The hidden communal life of trees is reflective of nature's wholeness. What we can say, broadly speaking, is that nature is a communion of subjects functioning on shared principles, which include mutual cooperation, sympathy and synergy. In distinction to the natural world, humans have become individual consumers, self-absorbed individuals who relate to one another as foreign objects. Nature works along lines of cooperation and organization, while humans work individually, according to principles of competition and power. Nature is like a weaver, constantly threading together the myriad layers of energy fields, whereas humans are like individual atoms bumping into one another. Biological nature lives in synchrony with the cosmos, whereas humans have come to live acosmically.
Refocusing God and world
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin realized that the gap between science and religion lies at the core of our systemic dysfunction. Religion has become fossilized, while science has discovered a radically new universe than what the ancients knew. Nature reveals a luminous thread of justice coursing throughout its systems, while religion sputters around on a circular road, like moss in a stagnant pond.
Teilhard struggled to redefine Christianity as a religion of evolution. Despite the long history of the universe, evolution continues in a direction of increasing complexity, suggesting a force in nature that resists entropy and empowers newness. He named this principle of wholeness in nature as Omega and identified Omega with God. God is not found through opposition to matter (anti-matter) or independent of matter (extra-matter) but through matter (trans-matter)."
We take hold of God in the finite; he is sensed as "rising" or "emerging" from the depths, born not in the heart of matter but as the heart of matter. Teilhard believed that without creation, something would be absolutely lacking to God, considered in the fullness not of his being but of his act of union. He proposed that union with God "must be effected by passing through and emerging from matter." While God is in the world and the world is in God, God is more than the world. God is the absolute whole of unlimited possibilities; hence, God is the world's future.
Teilhard was concerned with the evolution of justice. Rather than positing an idealism of the common good, he realized that the heart of matter is consciousness, which expresses itself in love-energy. God is entangled with nature in a way that divine consciousness raises unconscious matter to new levels of consciousness and thus to new levels of love.
Our task is to wake up to the truth of our reality (and by "truth" Teilhard means that which makes life cohere and renders it fecund). This waking up requires interiority and centeredness. Hence the first step toward justice is focusing the mind on higher-ordered levels of love. Life in evolution requires living inward and moving outward; that is, living from an inner unified space of conscious awareness whereby we see the divine light shining through every aspect of our world. Life in evolution means that we are moving not just individually but collectively because we are unfinished and God is doing new things.
Faith in the world
To participate in the world's becoming, we must have faith in one another and faith in the world. Teilhard said that a common faith among all world religions must include faith in humanity, faith in the world and faith in the future as our common bond. As early as 1916 he wrote: "There is a communion with God, and a communion with earth, and a communion with God through earth." The human being must be seen as "an element destined to complete himself cosmically in a higher consciousness in process of formation." What constitutes the "good" is everything that brings "growth of consciousness to the world." A new morality of growth is one that will foster and catalyze evolutionary change, a growth into a new formation of being, a deepening of what we are together in which care for another humanizes us.
In Teilhard's view, religion should empower the evolutionary process by inspiring us to take responsibility for the Earth and for the future and the evolutionary process itself. In this respect, religion must be primarily on the level of human consciousness and human action, rather than in institutions or belief systems, except insofar as these manifest and give direction to the former. A rightly understood faith in the future, and the idea of a possible awakening of a higher state of consciousness, are both seen as necessary for preserving in human beings the taste for action.
Teilhard's vision of a new religion of the Earth means that a spirituality for the individual alone is no longer enough. In his view, the West "has not yet found its formula of faith" that answers the needs of the present. Religions need to recalibrate their vital centers with the cosmos. We need to find a way to harness the mystical currents of the established religious traditions and refocus them on gathering the human community into a common spiritual center so that cooperation and working together for the future may be enkindled. We are responsible for the future.
Teilhard spoke of an ethics oriented toward the future, which means nurturing the values that gather us in, bond us together, create a global consciousness and a cosmic heart. These values are not fixed; rather they must be continuously discovered and discerned. The future is our reality; it is our common good. Integral to this emerging future is the development of personhood and self-actualization. Justice is the work of humanization and personalization and therefore it is mutual in nature. We can only build the world together if are becoming persons together.
We need practices formed around principles of future becoming, emerging communities, faith in persons, faith in the world. The continuous forming and reforming of community is fundamental to future wholeness. In Teilhard's view we must try everything and let go of those things which prevent communal growth and development.
Human flourishing is relational, unitive and communal and thus our most natural state of existence. Any other type of life deviates from nature and alienates us from the future. How to weave social justice into the fabric of our lives is equivalent to asking, "How do we live community on a daily basis?" Community requires persons in relationship and integral to community is the continuous evolution from individual to person, from partial selves to more integral selves.
The arrival of the future
We humans have done a fine job of destroying nature and ourselves in the process. However, by attending to modern science and aligning core religious beliefs with what we now know about nature, we have an opportunity to wake up to our reality and turn in a new direction. But such turning will require a radical revolution in religion and culture. Quite honestly, we are neither prepared for such a revolution nor do we want one. And that is why, despite all our social justice programs and social justice majors, things will not change because justice is not the goal; rather, it is the starting point, the root reality of nature itself.
We are not to work toward justice; rather the justice of nature requires us to evolve toward authentic personhood. Physicist Carlo Rovelli writes, "a living organism is a system that continually reforms itself in order to remain itself." Our human self has a capacity for new relationships, new wholes and new communities, an inner capacity for unlimited growth which is the making of the world. When this growth is thwarted or stunted, the development of the world ceases.
Rovelli also states: "The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty; it is nourished by a radical distrust in certainty." Religions rely on certainty of beliefs, but the unknown future is our most assured reality and the principle of our deepest belonging together.
The evolution of justice is the continuous arrival of the future. We have to think differently about ourselves if we are to evolve toward a different type of self; and we need a religious revolution to nurture this new self-discovery. Religion must begin with evolution. This is our Genesis story and the ground of a new creation. Without a planetary religion open to future becoming, we are headed for disaster. Be assured, however, that nature will do quite well without us.
[Ilia Delio, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Washington, D.C., is the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University. She is the author of 16 books, including Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology and Consciousness (Orbis Books, 2015), and the general editor of the series Catholicity in an Evolving Universe.]