Leonardo Boff & Backdoor Polytheism

What made Christianity so dangerous [to imperial Rome] was its uncompromising, radical de-divinization of the world.
—Eric Voegelin,
The New Science of Politics

Early Christian thinking, like the biblical thinking of the Jewish culture which informed it, was a sedition against the entire pagan world of the sacred. It abolished nature gods: the moon goddess, the gods of thunder, of the hunt, of fertility, the harvest, the waters, all the deities of pagan cosmology. It denied Flora and Faunus sacred status. It cut down the sacred oak, climbed sacred mountains, and built atop the sacred moss.

William Blake. Ancient of Days (1794). Pierpont Morgan Library, NYC.
William Blake. Ancient of Days (1794). Pierpont Morgan Library, NYC.

The radical desacralizing process of nascent Christianity held to the biblical polemic. Jacques Ellul  summarized that vision with brisk economy:

God speaks his word and things are. This is all. What this means is that God is truly outside the world, that he is totally transcendent. He is not enclosed in any part of this creation. He is beyond it. He has established a Creator-creature relation, but this is a relation of love, not a sacral relation. . . . The Christian God makes himself known in Jesus Christ and not elsewhere.

Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff’s evolutionary euphoria, in full feather in his Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, undoes all that. Jesus’ roots, like ours, are in the Milky Way. “His homeland is the solar system, and his house is planet Earth.” Jesus is no longer the totality of the Word but, more modestly, its “peak.” The incarnation extends to all humanity who will “also be verbified” by the Word. From this perspective, the biblical intuition of a hidden God—inaccessible apart from Jesus Christ—is obsolete. It is an androcentric archaism blind to the grand drama of cosmic progress to which ecology is key.

Boff’s dream would re-sanctify planet Earth, reconstitute a pre-modern and non-Christian sense of the sacred. Reported adviser to Pope Francis on the coming climate encyclical, the ex-Franciscan brings to his task the cosmic orphism of Teilhard de Chardin and giddy embrace of the noosphere—that notional final stage of evolution from which is thought to emerge, in Boff’s words, “a common consciousness around the Earth, and which would function as the Earth’s brain.”

Artist Unnamed. God the Father Measuring the Universe (13th Century). Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.
Artist Unnamed. God the Father Measuring the Universe (13th Century). Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

The Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation issues from the same linear, patriarchal mind as modern scientific cosmology—that ”rationalist and dualist” system at the root of modern man’s assault on “God’s extended Body.” It has wreaked “massive destruction of the many-colored universe of polytheism and its anthropological significance.” To counter the devastation, Boff exalts the myths of deep ecology:

All the living and nonliving elements are interconnected and make up an organic whole in dynamic equilibrium: the great living being, Earth. It is indeed, as the indigenous peoples and the mystics have always called it, the great and good Mother, Nurse, and Pacha Mama.

Boff would relax emphasis on monotheism. However valid it might be philosophically and theologically, emphatic monotheism is damaging psychologically and politically. Christianity’s struggle against polytheism failed “to safeguard the element of truth” in it:

That truth is that the universe with its variegated beings, mountains, fountains, forests, rivers, firmament, and so forth, is permeated with powerful energies and hence is the bearer of mystery and sacredness.

Entranced by hybrid eco-spiritualities buttressed by Jungian psychology and scavengings from modern physics, Boff argues for “recovery of the aspect of truth in paganism, with its rich pantheon of divinities inhabiting all the spaces in nature”:

Indeed, human beings are inhabited by many powerful energy centers overflowing them on all sides and with the universal Energy shaping the cosmos for billions of years, centers that impart a profound meaning to existence. Throughout history, these transcendent forces have been hypostatized in the form of male and female deities. . . . The deities functioned as powerful archetypes of the depths of the human being. The radicalization of monotheism, as it battled polytheism, closed many doors of the human soul.

. . . To cure humankind of its polytheism, early Christianity subjected the faithful to a violent and harsh medication. . . . A rigid monotheism is not salutary for the soul—as if all spiritual riches could be reduced to a single principle.

Venus of Willendorf (Upper Paleolithic). Natural History Museum, Wien.
Venus of Willendorf (Upper Paleolithic). Natural History Museum, Wien.

By their very bodies, women are superior to men in overcoming “the dualisms introduced by patriarchal and androcentric culture.” They are natural bearers of a redemptive cosmology that yields ecological wisdom and “cosmic fellowship.” The insights of eco-feminism are crucial to Boff’s insistence on a new covenant with nature. Women are instinctive beings who refuse rule by reason alone. Hence, they are closer to the “archetypal universe of the personal, group, and cosmic consciousness.”

Boff leans on that rickety epistemology popularized as women’s way of knowing. By the “wholeness of female experience,” women are attuned to “planetary and cosmic sacredness.” Christianity’s assault on female deities disrupted the world’s “gender balance” and created “a break in social and religious ecology.”

Boff is fond of referring to women as generators of life. But strictly speaking, it is men who generate life. Women incubate it. Given the agenda Boff’s rhetoric serves, the distinction matters. So does his revival tent scaremongering. He preceded Al Gore with threats of environmental catastrophe and extermination:

If Gaia has had to rid itself of myriad species over its life history, who can assure us that it will not be forced to rid itself of our own? Our species is a threat to all other species; it is terribly aggressive and is proving to be a geocide, an ecocide, and a true Satan of the Earth.

Our theologian does not like “the species Homo.” Certainly not the Western male variety. He exempts only indigenous peoples and the Eternal Feminine from the dock.

The “imperial and feudal” Church, with its popes and bishops, has been corrupted by the same “linear logic” that has brought humanity to the point of immanent ecological collapse. While there is still time, a new paradigm must be forged. The Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (1972) points the way. Christian conscience must acknowledge the Gaia hypothesis: humanity is not entitled to hierarchical dominance in the sentient super-organism called Earth. It is “the great cosmic community,” not merely man and woman, that is made in the image and likeness of God.

For anyone seeking exercises for initiation into eco-spirituality, Boff suggests K. Keyes, Jr., Handbook to Higher Consciousness; A. LaChance, Greenspirit: The Twelve Steps of Green Spirituality; and some others.

Celestial Globe Drawn on a Flat Sheet (1729). Reiner Ottens, mapmaker. Amsterdam.
Celestial Globe Drawn on a Flat Sheet (1729). Reiner Ottens, mapmaker. Amsterdam.

First published in 1995, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor remains a vivid witness to the ecotopian vision at the heart of Boff’s advisory role on environmental matters. His recent Francis of Rome & Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church (2014) repeats the twenty-year old mantra. His exultant doctrine of Woman-inflected “cosmic fellowship” still stands:

There are many people who say that the twenty-first century will be the woman’s century. Life is threatened, and they who generate life will know how to take care of all life forms and of our sister Mother Earth herself, as Saint Francis called her. She is alive, she is Pacha Mama, she is Gaia, she is the Great Mother who gives us everything we need to live. Pope Francis will need to strengthen this mission entrusted to women and to all of us.

Boff’s refrain—“everything is spiritual”—echoes Teilhard’s “everything is sacred.” It is a doctrine that Dietrich von Hildebrand had repudiated decades earlier in his essay “Teilhard de Chardin: A False Prophet.” However sublime the principle sounds, von Hildebrand argued, it bristles with “nihilistic denial of low and high, of good and evil.” Like Gaian dogma, it denies hierarchy to the structures of reality. In seeming to exalt everything, it “results in denying everything.”

St. Hildegard of Bingen. Man as Center of the Universe (12th C.). Biblioteca Statele, Lucca.
St. Hildegard of Bingen. Man as Center of the Universe (12th C.). Biblioteca Statele, Lucca.

The line between the crackpot and the mystical is not at all narrow. It is broad and deep. But the chasm can be obscured with rational-sounding phrases (e.g. “crisis of the social paradigm”) and magpie assemblages of scientific and scholarly references woven together with christological language. Doubtless, it is camouflaged most significantly—and insidiously—by incontestable concern for the poor.

You will decide for yourself whether to welcome Boff’s environmental counsel to Francis of Rome. Or dread it.