Monday, January 9, 2012

A different paradigm: listening to nature

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Now that heavy rains, floods, storms, hurricanes and landslides are approaching, we have to relearn how to listen to nature.

All of our Western culture, of Greek origin, is based on seeing. Not without reason the central category - idea (eidos in Greek) - means vision. Tele-vision is its greatest expression. We have developed our vision to the utmost limits. With powerful telescopes we have penetrated even the depths of the universe to see the most distant galaxies. We have descended to the elementary particles and the inner mystery of life. Seeing is everything for us. But we must be aware that this is the way of being of the West and not of everyone.

Other cultures around us -- the Andean one of the Quechua, Aymara and others -- are structured around listening. Logically they also see, but their pecularity is listening to the message of what they see. A peasant from the Bolivian Altiplano told me, "I listen to nature and know what the mountain is saying to me." And a shaman I was talking to told me: "I listen to the Pachamama and I know what she is communicating."

Everything speaks: the stars, sun, moon, the magnificent mountains, serene lakes, deep valleys, fleeting clouds, the rain, birds and animals. These people learn to listen carefully to these voices. Books are not important to them because they are mute, while nature is full of voices. And they have specialized in this listening so that, by seeing the clouds, listening to the wind, watching the flames or the movements of the ants, they know what will happen in nature. This reminds me of an ancient theological tradition developed by St. Augustine and systematized by St. Bonaventure in the Middle Ages: the first divine revelation is the voice of nature, the real book speaking of God. But as we have lost our ability to hear, God, out of mercy, gave us a second book, which is the Bible so that by listening to its contents, we could hear again what nature is telling us.

When Francisco Pizarro in Cajamarca in 1532, through a treacherous ambush, took the Inca chief Atahualpa prisoner, he ordered the Dominican friar Vicente Valverde with his interpreter Felipillo to read him the requirement, a Latin text through which they let themselves be baptized and submitted to the Spanish sovereigns, as the Pope had ordered. If they didn't, they could be enslaved for disobedience. Atahualpa asked him where his authority came from. Valverde gave him the book of the Bible. Atahualpa put it up to his ear. Hearing nothing, he threw the Bible to the floor. It was the signal for Pizarro to slaughter the whole royal guard and imprison the Inca ruler. Thus we see that listening was everything to Atahualpa. The book of the Bible did not speak at all.

For Andean culture everything is structured within a web of vital relationships, full of meaning and messages. They see the thread that penetrates, unifies and gives meaning to everything. We Westerners see the trees but do not perceive the forest. Things are isolated from each other. They are silent. Talking is just for us. We grasp things outside the set of relationships, so our language is formal and cold. In it we have developed philosophies, theologies, doctrines, science and dogma. But this is our way of perceiving the world, not the way of all people.

The Andeans help us to relativize our supposed "universalism." We can express the messages using other relational and inclusive forms and not those mute and objective ones we are accustomed to. They challenge us to listen to the messages that come to us from all sides. These days we should listen to what the black clouds, the forests on the mountainsides, the rivers that rise and break barriers, the steep slopes and loose rocks are warning us about. The natural sciences help us in this listening. But it isn't our cultural habit to grasp warnings from what we see and then our deafness makes us victims of regretable disasters. We only master nature by obeying her, that is, by listening to what she wants to teach us. Deafness will give us bitter lessons.

No comments:

Post a Comment