In 2018, when His Holiness The Dalai Lama requested the Mind and Life Institute to organize a weeklong dialogue with top scientists and scholars to discuss our ecological situation and offer ways to move forward constructively, one of the participants was Sallie McFague, a Distinguished Theologian at the Vancouver School of Theology in British Columbia, Canada. She died in 2019. Her writings analyzed how metaphor lies at the heart of how we speak about God, and she applied it to ecology—caring for the earth as if it were God’s body. I was inspired by the book that resulted from that dialogue: Ecology, Ethics, And Interdependence (1). In particular, Sallie introduced me to an expanded meaning of the word “Kenosis,” a term I hadn’t heard in many years but was so moved by I wrote Love—Period!, a screenplay that revolves around the concept.
Kenōsis derives from kenoun, a Greek word meaning “to empty out” or “purge.” Eary Christian theologians used it to refer to Jesus’ act of “self-emptying”—relinquishing divine attributes (and some say His personal will)—in order to experience human suffering and death. In Blessed Are The Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint (2) Sallie elaborates her thesis: “We are not called to love God or the world. Rather, we are called to love God in the world. We love God by loving the world. We love God through and with the world. And this turns out to be kenōtic, a sacrificial love.” In the dialogue with His Holiness The Dalai Lama and invited guests she said “Real abundance in life doesn’t come from getting more and more things, it comes from giving up those things when others need them—and living differently.”
The first of Buddhism’s eight paramitas (perfections) for enlightened action is dama, or mutual generosity—if we have something, anything that could benefit another who needs it, then to give it away benefits all.
The idea of “giving up” and words like “self-emptying,” “restraint” and “sacrifice” go against the cultural grain, but most religions and spiritual philosophies have from the outset proclaimed that happiness is found more in relationships than in things, and that simple living can lead to a fuller life. Sallie says “The abundant life, at both personal and public levels, is not found by satisfying one’s ego in a market-oriented, individualistic culture, but is found by losing one’s self in service to others.” Further, noting that every breath we take and every mouthful we eat depends on others, she says “Abundant life for all (my emphasis) is only possible if some of us restrain our desires.”
As I write, the current world population is approaching 8 billion souls. Scientists generally agree that the earth’s carrying capacity is 10 billion. It’s a hopeful sign that, in the wake of Covid-19, climate catastrophes, social confrontations and political ignorance more of us are becoming aware of how deeply we are interconnected and interdependent with all other forms of life, and we’re appreciating the planet’s vulnerability. Sallie wrote that the “Vocabulary of self-limitation, egolessness, sharing, giving space to others and limiting our energy use no longer sounds like a special language for the saints, but rather, as an ethic for all of us.” Meaning those of us who enjoy the privilege of abundance.
My mother sometimes admonished my sister and me to eat everything on our plate, offering the perspective that “People are starving in China.” Now, people are starving everywhere. A BBC journalist recently posted a television story on the likelihood of enormous mass migrations given the increase in deforestation, drought and other climate catastrophes. Considering the challenges that lie ahead, the practice of kenōsis or restraint may seem like a small thing, but it’s something we all can do. And as Sallie noted, “real abundance” is making some space in our lives so others may flourish. It’s a gift we can give to the world, right here and now.
In Ecology, Ethics, and Interdependence, editor John Dunne said “We need practical guidance on what we can do.” Sallie responded to him by offering her “planetary house rules”—“Take only your share. Clean up after yourself. And keep the house in good repair for others.” Wanting to be more specific, I created the following list of guidelines. Full disclosure—some of them I can’t or don’t do for one reason or another right now, but I hold them as an ideal. They’re the kinds of activity that contribute to the practice kenōsis.
- Satisfy wants less frequently than needs
- Refrain from buying or replacing a vehicle that runs on fossil fuel
- Limit the purchase of shoes, clothes or other wearing apparel
- Leave the lights off until necessary
- Use existing materials of any kind before buying new
- Borrow books and videos from the library rather than purchase them
- For short distances, ride a bicycle
- Pick up litter so it doesn’t get flushed down the sewer system
- Offer charitable contributions to ecology-focused nonprofit initiatives
- Drive the shortest distance between two points
- Turn off electronic devices when not needed for long periods
- Don’t leave a car or truck motor running when not in use
- Cut back on meat
- Buy organic produce as much as possible
- Use fewer devices that require disposable batteries
- Use existing office supplies before buying more
- Recycle everything possible
- Use hand rather than power tools, especially those that burn fossil fuel
- Ask for paper rather than plastic cups at restaurants
- Borrow or rent tools rather than purchase them
- Take shorter and fewer hot showers
- Reduce the use of plastic containers
- Take reusable cloth bags to the grocery store
In my postings, I often refer to the principle that decisions made by the members of a living system maintain and improve the functionality and sustainability of the whole by taking responsibility for the health and well-being of both themselves and the greater systems in which they live. The practice of kenōsis—restraint—is one of the ways we can directly impact our communities, nations and planet. And in doing so, our inner life is nourished and enriched. One of Sallie McFague’s great contributions to the world is material kenōsis, the idea that by emptying our lives of certain comforts and stuff, our souls are filled up.
1. John Dunne and Daniel Goleman Editors. (2018). Ecology, Ethics, and Interdependence: The Dalai Lama in Conversation with Leading Thinkers on Climate Change. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
2. McFague, Sallie. (2013) Blessed Are The Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
3. Mind And Life Institute: In my opinion, an exceptional organization that’s changing the world for the better. The language on their Mission page is values-rich. Here’s the link: “Who We Are—Mission.”
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