The Amazon Synod Goes Native

Every now and then, the utopians in our midst dust off Rousseau’s Noble Savage thesis and try to convince us that life in the jungle beats life in the air-conditioned suburbs.

The general idea is that people who live close to the state of nature are spiritually superior to “civilized” people who have lost touch with the wisdom of nature. Rousseau’s idea was tested during the French Revolution, and it did lead to a lot of savagery, though not the noble kind. Then it was revived by various Romantic poets such as Wordsworth who encouraged his readers to “quit your books” and “let Nature be your teacher.”

Irving Babbitt’s 1919 book Rousseau and Romanticism should have been the death knell for the Noble Savage hypothesis, but the idea was hard to kill. It popped up again with anthropologist Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, a book which argued that Samoans were free of neurotic “hang-ups” because they enjoyed greater sexual freedom. Then, in the 1960s, due in part to the influence of Mead, came the Woodstock generation, hippie communes, and the Sexual Revolution. In a sense, the children of that era really were the children of Rousseau. Although he idealized the child in his book Emile, Rousseau had no use for real children, and sent all of his own off to orphanages as soon as they were born. As the Woodstock generation grew up and married, many discovered that children were an inconvenience when it came to the pursuit of sex and self-actualization. As divorce and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed, increasing numbers of children were in effect “orphaned.” In short, they were left to grow up on their own without much adult guidance. Marinated in neo-Rousseauian nostrums, the adults assumed that children would just naturally find the right path in life.

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The Sexual Revolution never really went away, but in subsequent decades there was some recognition that “going native” was not conducive to a healthy society. Now, however, we seem to be poised on the brink of a new experiment in Rousseauian living. I was in Miami Beach recently, and a great many of the colorfully tattooed young and not so young crowding the streets and the boardwalks looked like they had come straight out of Haight-Ashbury circa 1970—except that the term “straight” doesn’t quite do justice to the gender fluidity that was on display. Moreover, many of the Miami natives strolling through the shopping areas were wearing considerably less clothing than an Amazonian strolling through the rain forest.

This brings me to the point of this essay. The most ironic thing about this new venture into the primitive is that some of the prime movers are the leaders of the Catholic Church. Take the upcoming Amazon Synod. The working document for the Synod does makes some valid observations about the biological and climatological importance of the Amazonian region and about the exploitation of the Amazonian people. But when it comes to describing the peoples, the “Voice of the Amazon” sounds suspiciously like the voice of Rousseau—or better, the voice of Rousseau harmonized with the voice of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and elevated to the cosmic level. Thus:

  • A fundamental aspect of the root of human sin is to detach oneself from nature… (99)
  • A cosmic dimension of experience (cosmovivencia) palpitates within the families. (75)
  • It is necessary to grasp what the Spirit of the Lord has taught these people throughout the centuries: faith in the God Father-Mother Creator; communion and harmony with the earth; solidarity with one’s companions … the living relationship with nature and “Mother Earth.” (121)

In its celebration of the rain forest, the wise old elders, and the Amazonian “cosmo-vision,” the document reads like a cross between Green Mansions, The Divine Milieu, and Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. The document also calls to mind certain themes from Mutiny on the Bounty. This is because its authors seem to be counseling a mutiny against those traditional Church practices and teachings that might impede the development of an Amazonian brand of Catholicism. If we’re smart, they seem to say, we’ll jump ship (i.e., the Barque of Peter) and go live with the welcoming natives on the tropic island (i.e., Amazonia).

When the document speaks of “inculturation,” which it often does, it means that we should abandon our own culture and adopt that of the Amazonians. Why?  Because they have much to teach us about spirituality, eco-theology, “lived reality,” and communing with the trees, the animals, and “the spirits.” Just as with the working document from last fall’s Youth Synod, this one is all about listening. The earlier document said that the Church must listen to youth because youth are in touch with what’s happening now. The current document says that the Church must listen to the wise elders of the tribes because they’re in touch with the ancient wisdom of the ancestors. Do the two documents contradict each other? Don’t be silly. That’s linear thinking. As Walt Whitman, one of the earlier advocates of cosmic consciousness, wrote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.” So just shut up and listen to your elders.

According to the document, another thing the Amazonians can teach us is buen vivir—“good living.” In other words, they can show us how to live in poverty and be happy. This is a talent that will prove quite handy because if the socialist, anti-free market economics subscribed to by the document’s authors are put into practice, poverty will spread like wildfire.

These are just a few of the supposed benefits that the Amazonians will confer upon the Church. But what does the Church have to offer to the indigenous people of the Amazon? Well, basically, nothing. Remember that they live closer to Nature than we do, and in the Rousseauian thought-world that makes them more virtuous than us. The authors of the working document really do seem to subscribe to Rousseau’s belief in natural goodness. In a commentary on the document, Fr. Raymond de Souza puts it this way:

The peoples of the Amazon themselves seem curiously exempt from original sin… And without sin, why would there be a need for redemption?

Or a need for conversion? If the spiritually advanced people of the Amazon are okay the way they are, then there’s no need to convert them to Christianity. Indeed, one gets the impression that the Amazon Synod is not intended to convert indigenous people to the Church, but to convert the Church to the Indians’ eco-friendly, pantheistic form of spirituality, with the result that Catholicism becomes a new Church with “an Amazonian face.” Whether this will be a happy face remains to be seen.

It all sounds a little crazy, but if you’ve been paying attention, you will notice that all sorts of bizarre things are happening in the Church these days. Thankfully, we needn’t get into all that here because the Amazonian experiment has enough bizarreness to fill volumes.

One of the odd ironies of this New Age spirituality is that it’s being foisted on the Church by old men. Many of the key players in the Amazonian project are getting along in years, yet they are still enamored of ideas that became popular 60 years ago. It was a time when many young people thought that the “Age of Aquarius”—whatever that means—was about to dawn.

Bishop Erwin Krautler, a member of the preparatory committee of the Amazon Synod, is 80; Cardinal Claudio Hummes, 85, is president of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network; and Cardinal Walter Kasper, who is very much involved in the planning for the Synod, is 86.

Facing off against them is another elderly prelate, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, who is 90. Brandmüller calls the working document for the Synod “heretical” and an “apostasy” from Divine Revelation, and he says it should be rejected. But how can a nonagenarian cardinal possibly understand the youthful, New Age-y vision of those octogenarian cardinals?

One of the hazards of reading highly unusual documents is that one begins to think unusual thoughts. Somehow this standoff between the octogenarians and the nonagenarian reminded me of a scene from The Boys from Brazil. Toward the end of the film, a bloody fight erupts between a sexagenarian (Gregory Peck as Dr. Mengele) and a septuagenarian (Sir Laurence Oliver as the Nazi hunter). Well, that’s only a slight connection to the elderly bishops. But then, as often happens when one stays up late writing, I began to notice other connections. The Boys from Brazil is about a Nazi doctor who has come to Brazil after the war with a plan to implant surrogate mothers with zygotes carrying samples of Hitler’s DNA in the hope of creating Hitler clones who will re-establish the Reich.

It’s a crazy plot, but so is the plan to recast the Church in the image of the Amazon jungle. The synod could be a timely remake of the story. Let’s title it The Boyish Bishops from Brazil.  If you’re a conspiracy theorist, you will see the connection right away. One curiosity of the Amazon synod is that a suspiciously large percentage of the participants are bishops from German-speaking countries. Could it be that a group of aging German bishops, still boyish in their own minds, have hatched a plot to carry the spiritual DNA of Teilhard de Chardin, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Cardinal Carlo Martini, and other New Age prelates to the Amazon with the hope that in the warm moist jungle climate their ideas will germinate and spread throughout the planet, eventually causing all of us to evolve into the Cosmic Christ? The Cosmic Christ, mind you, is not anything like the Christ of the Gospels, but more of a pantheistic spirit that inhabits you and me and the trees and the river and the grass.

But I digress. In fact, I see that I am wandering. But isn’t that the point of it all, i.e., to be able to wander freely and fluidly from one lived experience to the next and to enter the great stream of consciousness and be re-baptized in the waters of the Amazon? Such free association is fully justified by the document itself, which tells us that “we must relearn how to weave the links that connect all the dimensions of life” (102). Besides, Fr. George Rutler frequently employs the free association method, so it must be okay. Could he have learned this technique from an elderly shaman in the rain forest? It seems unlikely, but in Amazonland anything is possible. For example, the document keeps insisting that the liturgical and doctrinal innovations it proposes are in perfect continuity with Church tradition.

Hmm. Maybe. For example, one of the high-level synod participants seems the very embodiment of the “old” Church’s authoritarian approach. Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, Germany, said the synod will lead the Church to a “point of no return.” And after that “nothing will be the same as it was.” Reichsbishop Ubermensch, er, Overbeck, is also reputed to have said: “We have ways of making you comply.”

As we all know by now, God wills a diversity of religions. And the neo-Rousseauian bishops seem happy to comply by ordering up a whole menu of diversities: one form of Christianity for the Amazon Basin with an Amazonian face; another, we presume, for the Australian outback with an aboriginal face; and still another, no doubt, for the South Seas with a Polynesian face. As for the Church in Europe and North America, it needs to put on a happy face—most likely some fluid blend of the Amazonian, aboriginal, and Polynesian face.

The trouble is that all this mixing up of Christianity with other traditions and spiritualities is bound to result in a dilution of Christianity. When you filter the Christian faith through 50 trillion gallons of Amazon rain water and then submerge it in a giant vat of bubbling psycho-socio-eco babble, you end up with a faith that is no longer recognizable.

In the process, Christ loses his unique identity as the one way to the Father. Instead, he is forced to take his place alongside other religion founders such as Buddha and Muhammad, and with other assorted deities such as Brahma, Vishnu, and Quetzalcoatl.

The declaration Dominus Jesus declared that “Jesus Christ has a significance and a value for the human race and its history, which is unique and singular, proper to him alone, exclusive, universal, and absolute.” The Gospel message, in short, excludes all competing practices and spiritualities. And it is universal—i.e., accessible to all.

However, for some reason, the New Age bishops seem to think that the farmers, fishermen, and herders of the Amazon couldn’t possibly understand the message that was addressed to farmers, fishermen, and herders in first-century Judea without first having it translated into a language that only German theologians understand. On the other hand, they are quite sure that the Amazonians, perhaps guided by some Yoda-like elder, will quickly grasp the fine points of Teilhard de Chardin’s mystical musings about “Christogenesis,” “cosmogenesis,” “ultrahominization,” the “biosphere,” the “noosphere,” and the “Omega point.”

In places, the document borders on unintentional self-parody. Here are a couple of samples:

Thus a Church called to be even more synodal begins by listening to the peoples and to the earth by coming into contact with the abundant reality of an Amazon full of life and wisdom but also of contrasts. It continues with the cry that is provoked by destructive deforestation and extractivist activities and that demands an integral ecological conversion. (5)

Such an understanding of life is characterized by the connectivity and harmony of relationships between water, territory, and nature, community life and culture, God and the various spiritual forces. (13)

Reading through this pseudo-profundity, especially the part about “various spiritual forces,” I was reminded of the banquet scene near the end of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. The members of the N.I.C.E. Institute have gathered to congratulate themselves on their program to remake human nature along more scientific lines. But they have made the mistake of enlisting dark spiritual forces in their endeavor, and eventually they find that they are no longer in control.

As the directors of the Institute rise to speak in turn, their talk is turned into gibberish. Thus, the Deputy Director thinks he is making sense, but the audience hears him saying:

Tidies and fuglemen—I sheel foor that we all—er—most steeply rebut the defensible, though, I trust, lavatory Aspasia which gleams to have selected our redeemed inspector this deceiving. It would—ah—be shark, very shark, from anyone’s debenture…

The stream of babble nicely exposes the essential nuttiness behind the high-sounding proposals of the N.I.C.E. project. Eventually, one hopes, the Amazon project will be seen in the same light—as a “very shark” enterprise.

Editor’s note: Pictured above, Pope Francis poses with a performer from Mexico during his weekly general audience in St.Peter’s Square on August 29, 2018, at the Vatican. (Photo credit: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)


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