Boff, Speaking to the Nonbeliever and Nonperson

Catherine M. Punsalan-Manlimos

We know Leonardo Boff’s theology addresses the questions of the so-called “nonperson,” the members of society whose voices, whose cries go out to us, but are often not heard. They are the poor and the marginalized; they are the indigenous peoples, women, the subsistence or landless farmers, the laborers. They are those whose lives appear to belie a loving and just God and who nevertheless embrace the good that each day brings with gratitude because they see it as a gift from such a God. These are the people for whom and with whom Boff has done theology. But, in the last decade, he has begun to articulate an eco-theology that brings together concern for the earth and concern for those he characterizes as the most endangered of the earth’s species, the poor.1 In this new arena of conversation, in his eco-theology, he has started a conversation that is potentially meaningful even for the so called “nonbeliever,” the primary interlocutor of much of the theology that comes from the First World.

After more than 15 years at Catholic universities with very large (85% or larger) Catholic student populations, I found myself at Seattle University, teaching theology in what I have been told is the “None Zone,” i.e., in an area of the United States where the majority of the responses on questionnaires regarding one’s religious affiliation is “None.” And so, it was in this context that I first encountered students for whom the word “God” was seen as either violently objectionable or at best tolerable. And it was in this context that I made use of Leonardo Boff’s Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor as a text in the course “God in Human Experience.” And to my surprise, even with its clearly theistic and explicitly Trinitarian approach, it was warmly received by many of the students who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. As one whose current theological project is to try to conceive of the religion and science dialogue in a way meaningful for a Third World context, my interest was peaked. I began to ask myself: How does Leonardo Boff address both the questions of nonbelievers and those of the nonperson, especially in his eco-theology? Can his approach provide a guide for undertaking a theological reflection on the role of science in culture from an optic of a “preferential option for the poor?” In this paper, I examine his two books on eco-theology, Ecology and Liberation and Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, to try to uncover the ideas that he engages in that are fruitful for conversations with the nonbeliever. Then I examine the insights that are liberationist within that conversation. Finally, I look at how he brings these together to expand the discourse of both those concerned with the earth and those concerned with the poor.

Speaking to the Nonbeliever

Robert McAfee Brown, in looking at the differences between the “more familiar” way of doing theology in the West and liberation theology, points to the difference in the interlocutors and the questions that they bring to the theological conversation. The dominant questions of Western theology since the Enlightenment have revolved around the meaningfulness of the traditional ways of speaking of God. New philosophical and scientific viewpoints challenge the reasonableness of belief in God.2 The intellectual questions of the nonbelievers have shaped the theological discourse that comes out of the West. It is a discourse that is taking place in a world that has come of age.3

Can one believe in God in a world come of age? Can one believe in God in a world where the natural process of the world can be explained through science? Modern physics, culminating in Newton’s Three Laws of Motion and his Law of Universal Gravitation, not only confirmed Galileo’s position in opposition to that of the Church, it also set in motion a way of conceiving of the world in terms of cause and effect. Even the sacred story of Jesus was questioned in light of the laws of nature and the quest for the historical Jesus began.4 Yet, it was evolutionary theory, which rendered powerless natural theology’s argument from design, that appeared to remove God totally from the world stage. Even the story of life, including human life, no longer needs a divine creator to explain how well-suited each organism is to its environment. Natural selection and adaptation do the trick just as well.5 Where is God found in the new storyline about the world that the natural sciences are telling?

Boff provides an answer to this question as he develops his argument for an eco-spirituality grounded in a contemporary scientific understanding of the world. By doing so Boff responds to the question of the nonbeliever. An important element of his eco-theology is his bringing together insights from contemporary physics and biology to shape the dynamic and dramatic story of the cosmos and of life. In Ecology and Liberation: A New Paradigm, he understands his “spiritual project” in terms of overcoming the “paradigm of modernity.”6 What he calls “cosmic mysticism,” while in one sense is a retrieval of the spiritual traditions of the likes of Francis of Assisi, Teilhard de Chardin, and Bonaventure, is also the fruit of postmodern physics. It is a physics that not only recognizes the interchangeability of matter and energy but one that now recognizes matter, i.e., elementary particles, as energy at high levels of concentration and stability. It is a physics that is characterized both by the complementarity principle, which Boff understands as revealing a reality of complements rather than duality and oppositions, and the principle of indeterminacy. The principle of indeterminacy serves to establish the important role of the observer in a phenomenon, overcoming the hard modernist distinction between subject and object that has led to heavy handed dualism between the knowing subject and the natural world. Instead, “the human being is a constitutive part of everything.”7 In fact, this new physics leads him to conceive of a world that “consists of a highly complex network of relationships in all directions and in all forms”;8 he sees reality ecologically.

Ecology is the paradigm that sees the universal inter(retro)relatedness of everything. Ecological thinking is holistic thinking; it is “continually seeing the whole, which is not derived from the sum of the parts but from the organic interdependence of all the elements.”9 He begins with this thinking and seeks to lead his readers to a conversion. The important starting point in Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor is a retelling of the story of creation from the insights of contemporary cosmology, moving his conversation partner from the primordial soup infinitely near the beginning of the beginning to the details of the emergence of the elementary particles that would constitute the building blocks of the entire cosmos. He draws attention to the “the four original interconnections: gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the strong and weak nuclear forces” that are the principles of the ongoing interconnection found at the very beginning of the story, “charged with direction and rationality,” that constitute all that is.10 By traveling from the early beginning to the emergence of the supernova that gave birth to the elements that came to be the galaxies, the planets, the second order stars, and finally human beings, he concludes that “as portion of the universe, we are all brothers and sisters: elementary particles, quarks, stones, snails, animals, humans, stars, galaxies ... We have a common origin and certainly a single common destiny.”11 He points to the vastness of cosmic space, moving in closer and closer towards the Milky Way, our solar system, and to Mother Earth until one is made to focus on the emergence of life within her and the drama that unfolds there. What is especially interesting at this stage of the story is that he acknowledges that one need not posit a divinity at work to bring about life and yet he goes on to do so. He claims that:

We do not need to invoke a transcendent external principle to explain the emergence of life, as the religions and classic cosmology generally do. It suffices that the principle of the complexification and organization of all, and hence also of life, namely the cosmogenic principle, is present in the infinitesimally small primordial sphere—which, however, is created by a supreme intelligence, an infinite love, and an eternal passion.12

When he finally arrives at the human being, whom he designates as co-creator, he recalls the relationship between matter and energy, of the process of increasing complexity and interiority at work from the very beginning. He acknowledges the role of the observer in determining reality from an array of probabilities. This enables him to argue for both the inter(retro)dependence of all beings in the cosmos—for the observer is not just a human being but all beings—and for the Universal Observer whose observation leads to the collapse of the universal wave, leading to the particular universe in which we find ourselves. But in this awesome world, human beings are recognized as being sublimely unique in their uniqueness for not only are human beings unique as all beings are unique, they are unique in knowing that they are unique.13

By the end of Boff’s rendering of the cosmic story, he has, on the one hand, given his readers what appears to be a scientifically grounded account of the coming into being of the cosmos and the human beings within it, and on the other, a Christian story of creation in contemporary language. The Christian story tells of a God who creates in an orderly and purposeful manner all that is, establishing relationship between and among all that God creates. This theme echoes the great order that one finds in the Priestly creation account (Gen. 1:1-2:4a) that recalls the systematic separation of the great cosmic elements, the day and night, the sky and bodies of water below, and the land masses, in preparation for the various creatures that would be created to dwell within them. In his story of cosmogenesis, Boff establishes the profound inter(retro)relationship of all that is: cosmic brotherhood and sisterhood, with human beings emerging with a special mandate as the creatures that are capable of reflectively recognizing their uniqueness and their relatedness to all that is.

We note the liberal use he makes of the findings of science. He does not approach them with the same caution as those who engage primarily in the religion and science discourse. He does not present them in order to argue for the possibility of belief in God in our times.14 Instead, he makes use of them in the telling of a story. He makes use of the prevailing cosmology in much the same way that one can imagine the Priestly writers made use of the cosmology of the Near East in structuring the creation story of Genesis 1 to speak to the Israelites of God’s presence in creation and in God’s power over chaos. There is a profound theological message about the interconnectedness of created reality and its status as created that Boff wants to get across. The first stage of recapturing the sense of the sacredness of the earth is by showing those elements in the cosmogenic story that evoke a response of tremendumand fascinosum.15 The idea of connectedness is inherent in the cosmology that he employs. But the manner by which the idea of connectedness and the place of the human being within it reflects Boff’s theological sensibility and his theological agenda.16 He states: “it is important that we know our cosmology as well as possible in order to better savor God’s grandeur and glory.”17

While Boff engages the pondering of the nonbeliever, he does it as a believer. He unabashedly writes of a Supreme Intelligence, an Absolute Observer. He presents the classic metaphysical argument against the contradictory claim of being coming from nothing and claims “we are driven back to the conviction of the great religions and the mystical traditions of humankind: the universe comes from a Creator who said fiat and things came into being.”18 He takes the inherent contradiction of the claim and asserts that “on the strictly scientific level we can stammer with reverence that prior to the big bang there was not simply nothing … there was the Unknowable.”19 He speaks in the less threatening language of “Mystery,” “the Unknowable,” “Supreme and Transcendent Energy,” while presenting a Trinitarian God, a Cosmic Christ, and an Indwelling Spirit. As one student states regarding her encounter with Boff, “his ideas about God being the Creator and the Organizer behind something like the big-bang theory, the idea made a lot sense. Finally here was a way for me to say yes to both God and science in a non-conflicting way.”20

He even engages the nonbeliever by challenging the modernist premise that all knowledge must be instrumental knowledge. He lays bare the ambiguity of technology.21 He sees the return to the religious and the mystical as a result of the failures of modernity. This, too, engages the nonbeliever for at the heart of much of contemporary non-belief and rejection of God is faith in human beings, through science and technology, to order our world and eventually gain control over all that threaten us. Human ingenuity and modernity are not sufficient. Something has gone wrong.22 The destruction of the earth and the dangers posed to the most vulnerable of earth’s creatures, especially the poor, are evidence of this.23 The ambiguity of science, the most creative of human activities, reveals the need for a radical conversion, for a spiritual revolution.

Even the language of revolution is not borrowed immediately from the political arena. Instead, he borrows from the thought of Werner Heisenberg, the quantum physicist who formulated the Uncertainty Principle. When anomalies mount that can no longer be accommodated by a prevailing scientific theory they give birth to a scientific revolution.24 In an analogous way, a new vision of the world emerging out of contemporary cosmology that can no longer be understood within the confines of conventional spirituality leads to a spiritual revolution. “The conventional spirituality of the church and of most historic religions is tied to models of life and interpretations of the world (worldviews) that no longer suit contemporary sensitivity.”25 Contemporary scientific theories are used to articulate a holistic vision that draws the conversation partner in the direction of a new way of viewing the world and of being in the world; it draws the conversation partner towards an eco-spirituality.

Speaking to the Nonperson

If Boff simply succeeded in engaging the nonbelievers in his eco-spirituality, he would hardly be of special interest. If he was able to enter into conversation with the nonbelievers by at least showing the possibility of the meaningfulness of religious discourse in light of the contemporary scientific view of the world, he would have begun to answer the questions of an elite group. As McAfee Brown points out, “those questions in our day are the questions of a privileged minority.”26 Had the conversation remained on that level, Boff would be irrelevant to those whose primary interlocutors are the poor, whose cries are as heart-wrenching if not more so than the cries of Mother Earth. More accurately, the cries of Mother Earth shatter their lives in ways that the privileged who can shield themselves from the devastating effects of polluted rivers, global warming, and soil erosion can hardly understand. For the cries of the poor are the cries of the earth in unmistakable language, in the language of recrimination against the earth that no longer provides for their needs, against fellow human beings who do not even hear them, and against a God who appears to be impotent to save them from their tragic fate. Arid lands and dying seas no longer feed them. Fellow human beings crush them even as they are made objects of charity. And God, where is God in all this? Is there truly a God who loves them and desires to liberate them from their oppression? In this context, the great cosmic story, while revelatory of the great order of the cosmos and of relationships that manifest brotherhood and sisterhood of all creation, does not yet acknowledge the tragedy that exists for the consciousness of the cosmos and of Mother Earth, that is, human beings.27

It is in Boff’s analysis of the root causes of the ecological crisis that the liberationist is engaged most dramatically. When he examines what is behind the loss of connectedness that has led to a wounded Mother Earth, he spares little and allows for no excuses. He acknowledges the role of technology in the ecological crisis but not without reminding the reader that there is a model of development as unlimited growth that lies at the back of how technology is used.28At the same time, the model of development is part and parcel of the model of society that is materialist and consumerist.29 But this is not yet exhaustive, for a closer look reveals that at the heart of such a society are human beings who understand themselves as the center of everything, for whom everything else is intended. And lest we be fooled, this anthropocentrism is actually androcentrism because it is the male that sees itself as lord over nature and the female is subsumed in the category of nature.30 This androcentrism and dominating will to power that is found in the human being manifests itself in the very civilization that has been constructed. What Boff discovers is that the emergence of modern science and technology has led to a great tragedy because they have become a tool for the dominating will to power that characterizes human beings. He says that “the project of techno-science has created a close association at the service of the obsessive will to power and domination.”31 Let there be no mistake about it, Judeo-Christian faith is held equally responsible for the loss of connectedness that has its roots in a distorted understanding of power. He points particularly to six ideas in this faith tradition that he labels anti-ecological: a) monotheism, b) patriarchy, c) anthropocentricism, d) the call to have dominion over the earth, e) the tribal ideology of election, and f) the belief in the fall of nature.32 All these contribute to the loss of reverence for the earth and the creation of destructive relationship among and between human being and the others of earth’s creatures. While these ideas are presented as the inexcusable causes of the broken relationship between human beings and the earth, they also stand at the heart of the broken relationship found among human beings. Specifically:

In analyzing the causes of the impoverishment that afflicts most of the world’s population, liberation theology became aware that a perverse logic was at work. The very same logic of the prevailing system of accumulation and social organization that leads to the exploitation of workers also leads to the pillage of whole nations and ultimately to the plundering of nature.33

He explicitly names the root causes of the breakdown in relationships that are at the core of the destruction of both the environment and the weakest members of the human community, of the poor and of women who have been lumped with the non-human world in the way they are abused and used. The sin that is at the heart of the pillage of the earth is at the heart of the oppression of so many peoples of the world. It is the coming together of the human refusal to accept their rightful place in the order of finite creation and the desire to cling to life at all cost. It is the convergence of the human will to power and domination emboldened and strengthened by the tools of science and technology. This is the new story of the Fall.

Summary Conclusion

One can look at what contemporary cosmology tells us about the world and see how it opens up our vision to the sacred in the cosmos. This is the insight of many scientists, who stumble upon theological and mystical discoveries as they articulate their science.34 The scientific world need not exclude belief in God. In fact, belief is rendered reasonable by what contemporary science tells us about the world. What Boff has done to engage the nonbeliever is to articulate a theology that makes use of scientific knowledge about the world. He does not feign non-belief in erecting his theology. Instead, he retells central stories of the tradition in light of some prevailing scientific theories. And so, cosmology provides the framework of retelling the story of creation and of the wonder of the work of God in creating. At the same time, social analysis, in the manner undertaken by liberation theologians for decades, enables him to identify the roots of the destruction of the primordial relationships that the scientific cosmic story brings to light. Thus, the story of the fall can be retold and reinterpreted in light of the insights of the social sciences combined with evolutionary cosmology, undertaken precisely from the perspective of the most vulnerable.

In Boff’s approach, science becomes a source of knowledge about reality. This knowledge allows for the retelling of two central stories of Judeo-Christian faith, stories that attempt to articulate faith and confidence in a loving, creator God in the face of the tragedy of the reality of sin. Insofar as it makes use of a scientific vision of the world, it appeals to the nonbeliever. Inasmuch as it faces squarely the reality of brokenness in the world and names the causes of this, it addresses the concerns of the nonperson.


1. Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, tr. Philip Berryman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), pp. 110-113.

2. A survey of the works of some of the prominent thinkers in the area of religion and science bears this out. Carl Sagan is well known for his popularization of a Godless universe in such works as Cosmos (New York: Ballantine, 1985). On the other side of the issue are thinkers who want to argue against these authors and claim that belief in God is not only possible in an age of science but that science can provide insights for deepening our understanding of traditional faith claims. See, for example, John Polkinghorne, Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding (London; SPCK, 1988) and Belief in God in an Age of Science (Yale University Press, 1998). Many of the writings of Langdon B. Gilkey touch upon the problem of belief in God in the age of modernity and modern science. Of particular interest are his Society and the Sacred: Towards a Theology of a Culture in Decline (New York: Crossroads, 1981) and his Nature, Reality, and the Sacred: The Nexus of Science and Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

3. Robert McAfee Brown, Theology in a New Key: Responding to Liberation Themes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), p. 63.

4. Raymond Brown, in summarizing the various quests for the historical Jesus refers, for example, to David Friedrich Strauss’ first criteria for determining what can be accepted as historical in the accounts about Jesus. Specifically, “’when the narration is irreconcilable with the known and universal laws which govern the course of events,’ then such an event is not historical. By ‘known and universal laws,’ Strauss would have had reference to Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) laws of motion.” Cf. Introducing the New Testament: In Literature and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 54-67, esp. p. 55. Brown quotes David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, ed. Peter C. Hodgson, tr. George Eliot, Life of Jesus Series (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972 [1835-36]), p. 88.

5. Cf. Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Touch Stone, 1995) and Richard Dawkins’ popular The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: WW Norton & Co., 1996) and his recent The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). On the other side of the issue, see for example John Haught, God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000) and Deeper Than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in an Age of Evolution (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003).

6. Leonardo Boff, Ecology and Theology: A New Paradigm, tr. John Cumming (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), pp. 36-37.

7. Ibid.,p. 39.

8. Ibid., pp. 39-40.

9. Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, p. 41.

10. Ibid., p. 45.

11. Ibid. In a theological text, this phrase can refer to far more than simply the big bang and some proposed scientific theory of the end. Rather, the common origin and destiny in Mystery, in the Creator, is implied.

12. Ibid., p. 50. At such moments, one gets the sense that Boff says too much for the atheists and agnostics and far too little for the Christian. Nevertheless, one can also note a confident insertion of a faith position in the cosmic story that one cannot find in someone trying to convince the nonbeliever of the reasonableness of belief in God. Instead, he cuts them off just where he would draw them in. Compare this with the way that John Polkinghorne uses modern cosmology and the Anthropic Principle to argue for the reasonableness of belief in God, cf. Belief in God in an Age of Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 1-24.

13. Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, pp. 53-61.

14. See, for example, the way that John Polkinghorne uses the same ideas to argue for the reasonableness of the “God hypothesis,” i.e., that “there is a Mind and a Purpose behind the history of the universe and that the One whose veiled presences intimated in this way is worthy of worship and the ground of hope.” Cf. Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 1.

15. Ibid., pp. 115-118.

16. “Holistic ecology involves a kind of activity and thought that includes and relates all being among themselves and with their environment from a perspective encompassing what is infinitely small (elementary energies and particles), what is infinitely vast (cosmic space), what is infinitely complex (life), what is infinitely deep (the human heart), and what is infinitely mysterious (what existed before the big bang, the unlimited ocean of energy from which everything emanates—quantum vacuum, symbol of the creator God).” Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, p. 42.

17. Ibid., p. 189.

18. Ibid., p. 142.

19. Ibid., p. 143.

20. Kerry McGuire, “God is the Creator and Organizer,” a Reflection Paper submitted to Catherine Punsalan for the Course, TRST 230: God in Human Experience, at Seattle University, on 16 May 2005, p. 3.

21. Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, pp. 72-25.

22. One of the most interesting contributions of thinkers on evolution to the theological conversation has been the way in which they understand the notion of original sin. In his work, Boff provides an evolutionary understanding of what appears as sin somehow as a consequence of a world becoming. In the context of the evolution of the human being who is now able to conceive of utopias, of the future, and the possibility of immortality, original sin is a manifestation of the refusal to participate in the evolutionary process, to trust the process of becoming of the cosmos by passing from death to life. Instead, human beings attempt to cling to life and grasp for immortality at all cost, destroying the fundamental relatedness of creation and creating death and destruction for others in the natural order. Ibid., pp. 81-85.

23. Cf. Ibid., esp. Chapter 4, which give examples of massive destruction of forests, animal species, and whole groups of indigenous peoples observed in the Amazon region.

24. Ibid, pp. 187-188. He refers to Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (New York: Harper 1958; Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999).

25. Ibid., p. 189.

26. McAfee Brown, Theology in a New Key, p. 63.

27. Here I am reminded of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s work On Job (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), where he argues that the experience of the poor can lead one to proper language about God and the possibility of disinterested religion. Here, the language of prophecy and the language of contemplation bring together great insights about God that grow out of the experience of the suffering of the innocent and the insights that emerge from contemplation of the gratuitousness of God’s love and of the cosmos that bears this out. I think this is one way of organizing Boff’s reflection on the Cry of the Earth and the Cry of the Poor. Boff draws his interlocutors towards opening themselves up to contemplating the sacred that permeates the cosmos, to discover within the cosmogenic principle or the anthropic principle the great originator of all creation. This is also to discover, in the orderliness that is drawn out of chaos, the reliability in the midst of the openness, the activity of a divine intelligence. Ultimately, he calls on those who see this to a new vision that situates the demand of justice that comes from the poor within the great cosmic story of our brotherhood and sisterhood with one another and all created reality, our inter(retro)relatedness with all that is.

28. Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, pp. 64-67.

29. Ibid., p. 67.

30. Ibid., pp. 70-71.

31. Ibid., p. 73.

32. Ibid., pp. 78-81.

33. Ibid., pp. 110-11.

34. Clearly this is not a foregone conclusion. Just as you have scientist theologians like John Polkinghorne, Ian Barbour, and Arthur Peacocke, you also have thinkers like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and Michael Ruse, who can take the same theories and find there the very contradiction to the claim to divinity.