Notre Dame University-Louaize’s (NDU) Benedict XVI Endowed Chair of Religious, Cultural, and Philosophical Studies at the Faculty of Humanities (FH) recently held the second installment of the lecture series, “Muslim/Christian Alliance for the Defense and Cultivation of the Family and the Land in Lebanon,” supported by a generous donation from Dr. Habib Ali Jaafar. Gathering in the Pierre Abou Khater Auditorium, NDU alumna, Crystelle Saleh (BA’19), and Professor Eugene Sensenig of the Faculty of Law and Political Science (FLPS) gave their respective presentations, moderated by the Benedict Chair, Professor Edward Alam.
Saleh’s lecture, “Gender, Nature, and Sacred Stewardship in Islam and Christianity,” interpolated a close reading of Fazlun Khalid’s Signs on the Earth: Islam, Modernity, and the Climate Crisis and her experience as a Catholic working in sustainable development in Lebanon. Khalid’s work provides a historical account of humanity’s relationship to the natural world, coalescing into the Abrahamic faiths’ conception of nature as emblematic of the connection between Creator and creation. “This connection,” explained Saleh, “warrants a response from us to care for God’s creation—the environment and one another—thus deepening our worship of the Creator.”
This point of contact of the Abrahamic faiths, however, has gradually dissolved as civilization progressed into modernity and post-modernity. According to Saleh, the dissolution of communities, particularly those held together by a shared religion, can be largely attributed to the shift from spiritual to material wealth. With the advent of late-stage capitalism in the 20th century, consumerism essentially equated the well-being of the collective to that of the individual; if the individual is materially satisfied, then society is at ease. “Consumerism has thus created an incessant line of production that exhausts the earth’s natural resources, and in turn pollutes the planet and the individual’s soul with material excess,” said Saleh. Khalid’s book corroborates this claim, linking individualism and the modern climate crisis to the introduction of monetary value and the industrial revolution.
“Both governmental and individual action have failed in implementing tangible change for the climate crisis,” Saleh continued. Given that the instant gratification of the individual via material goods is the guiding principle of contemporary existential wellness, as opposed to the worship of God, it follows that solutions to pollution and other environmental issues have similarly fallen on the shoulders of the consumer. “This is a fundamentally flawed plan of action. Global conditions do not fit the criteria to induce widespread, long-term individual lifestyle change.”
Instead, Saleh offered that true intervention can be found at the level of the community, which necessarily prioritizes collective interest, strengthened by a common orientation towards the Creator. Khalid proposes as much via the Four Qur’anic Principles: (1) Tawhid or unity, (2) Fitrah or creation, (3) Mizan or balance, and (4) Khilafah or stewarding. If a Muslim community is tied by these principles, it inherently positions itself in service of the environment and God. “Similarly, Catholic Social Teaching and papal encyclicals such as Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ are examples that inspire communal work towards integral ecology among Christians, cultivating a spirit of work that uplifts God’s creation towards Him, rather than participating in its destruction,” Saleh stated. “We cannot respect our environment when our systems and laws do not help us respect ourselves.”
Moreover, creation is not only defined by the existence of the natural world, but also by the participation in creating new life with God. Saleh explained: “The family is at the heart of the habitat, as it forms the social structure that influences our behavior and attitudes towards the truth and moral law.” There is an intrinsic link, she argued, between the neglect of creation, procreation, and social justice, quoting Saint Pope John Paul II: “Through the family, we belong to the whole of creation.”
Given that the planet and our bodies are gifts from God, per Church teachings, the two are inseparable and need to be treated as such. “Nature is life-giving and sustainable,” Saleh said. “The interconnectedness between the biosphere and natural elements shed light on the role of the sexes as creators and sustainers of life, the union between man and woman becoming the fulfillment of God’s image on earth.” With consumerism muddying our focus on the metaphysical truth of God, bodies are commoditized and fertility is dismissed as irrelevant to societal progress. The result is the demotion of the human spirit to a seeker of pleasure and comfort rather than love of neighbor and heavenly transcendence.
Saleh concluded with a clear assertion: “Nature is a harsh, objective truth.” So long as society defines itself through material and consumerism, the environment, the family, and the individual will suffer. “God gave us the material world in order to praise Him. It is sustainable systems that glorify God, rather than overconsumption and the unbridled exhaustion of resources.”
After a brief intermission, Sensenig took to the podium with his presentation, “Faith Saving Water: Muslims, Christians, and the Environment,” building upon the theme of stewardship and the material world. Sensenig sought to determine whether prioritizing environmental care renders faith a localized place on earth. He drew from the title of the conference to define these parameters: as Christians and Muslims, though the call to care for the land and family are noble, they should not be sought as ends in and of themselves. “To focus on the land and family for their own sake is to shift our focus from God to the material world; nation, property, and clan become like little gods instead,” Sensenig stated.
In the case of Lebanon, being multi-confessional as it is, there is a prevalent assumption that the confessionalism itself is the issue. Sensenig contested this proposition, instead offering that “not only is confessionalism normal, it is God-given.” Sectarianism, in comparison, does not enable us to celebrate the diversity of the ecosystem and other individuals or groups. “Instead, sectarianism turns confessionalism toxic because we worship our family, i.e., the power-base of sulta, property, and nation, not God.”
To demonstrate, Sensenig introduced his concept of the Isaacian Fallacy, based on the relationship of Abraham with the land, his family, and God. “When God initially calls Abraham, He exhorts him to leave his country, kindred, and father’s house (cf. Gen 12:1), which marks the transition from the young Abraham to the mature one,” said Sensenig. God’s request is not without reward: Abraham is promised all the surrounding land, and, initially without an heir, descendants as numerable as the stars (cf. Gen 13:14–15; 15:5–6). This parallels Christ’s promise that those who leave their family and home for the sake of the Gospel will be granted eternal life, which showcases a recurring—and seemingly paradoxical—theme in the Holy Bible that by surrendering material wealth, it will be returned to them in greater measure and worth (cf. Mk 10:29–30).
The Isaacian Fallacy, then, occurs with the birth of Isaac and Abraham’s subsequent reversion to his old thinking. “Though he had initially followed God’s word, Abraham remains young and therefore concerned with the physical world when he becomes a physical father,” Sensenig stated. The young Abraham can be likened to Lot and his wife, who were similarly asked to leave Sodom and Gomorrah to be spared in their destruction. Rather than leaving the gifts of the world behind her and moving forward to the heavenly kingdom, Lot’s wife looks back at the cities and turns in to a pillar of salt (cf. Gen 19:17, 26).
However, Isaac is also the juncture of Abraham’s spiritual growth: God asks Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice, to which Abraham ultimately complies, though Isaac is saved (cf. Gen 22:9–14). “God does not allow Abraham to sacrifice his son because the sacrifice itself was not the issue, but rather putting submission to divine law before family, property, and nation,” according to Sensenig. He continued: “When God saw that Abraham initially had not turned away from family and land and submitted to His will, He asked for a true demonstration of Abraham’s converted heart, and the latter’s willingness was the mark of his maturity, walking away from the Isaacian Fallacy.”
Sensenig’s presentation thus explored the paradox that will allow Christians and Muslims to cultivate the family in land in Lebanon in earnest: by first offering them to God in a sincere act of worship of the Creator, and taking care of His creation for His sake, not ours. Sensenig then presented examples from the work at the FLPS and its Gender, Communications, and Global Mobility (GCGM) studies unit, in which the mature Abraham’s lessons and vision are being implemented in the West Asia and North Africa Region (WANA). The GCGM has published studies in promotion of women working in offshore petroleum extraction in addition to the role of gender equality in combatting sectarianism for the sake of just governance in Lebanon.
The conclusive, overarching message of Sensenig’s lecture was that “faith is not a place. If we are looking to participate in the salvation of the family and the land in Lebanon, we cannot limit our faith to worldly parameters.”
It is as Jesus said: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (cf. Matt 6:33).