Itching ears is an old expression, denoting the desire to hear what we want to hear, to hear ethical and practical teachings that suit us, that affirm our goals, desires, and lifestyles. It comes from a letter the Apostle Paul wrote to a young pastor, Timothy, nearly two-thousand years ago. Paul warns Timothy to hold fast to truth, even though “The time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”
Apparently, not much has changed in two-thousand years. Many still want to hear a message that suits their goals and lifestyles, a message that leaves their comfortable life in tact.
In anticipation of Pope Francis’ encyclical on caring for creation, “Laudato Si,” curiosity has surrounded the potential responses from prominent American Catholic politicians. Rick Santorum stated, before the encyclical, that “we are probably better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.” In this case, the church actually is leaving science to the scientists (in a Pope who studied chemistry before entering seminary endorsing the conclusion held by the vast majority of scientists—hardly another Galileo situation!). But, that is not what concerns me in Santorum’s comment.
What concerns me in Santorum’s comment is the attitude that some spheres of life are not “theological”—that is, that some spheres of life are not important to God—and that some spheres of life are inherently amoral. Stated this way, I have a strong sense that Santorum would say, (echoing Prufrock’s braceleted and perfumed women), “That is not what I meant at all; / That is not it, at all.” But, in separating science from theology and morality, marking science a domain in which the church should remain silent, Santorum is saying precisely that some areas of life do not belong to God.
Santorum is not alone in this implicit attitude. Jeb Bush recently stated, “I don’t get economic policies from my bishops or my cardinals or my Pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” Religion is about “making us better as people”—religion is not about economics, not about climate change.
Such statements on the separation of church and everyday life beg the question, what is being “better person” a “moral person,” if betterment and morality have nothing to do with how we manage our natural and financial resources and how we care for the created beings (human and non-human) over whom we have power?
Jesus had quite a bit to say about economics and the environment—exhorting his followers to give their possessions to the poor, give their extra clothes and food to those who had none, while encouraging his listeners that God cares for every sparrow and every lily. More importantly, he insisted that the whole person and the whole of life belong to God.
One day, some Pharisees and Herodians approached Jesus, asking him if it was lawful or not to pay taxes. As with any tax question asked political and religious leaders, the question was a test—any answer Jesus gave would condemn him as either a rebel against Rome or a Roman sympathizer. Instead of answering, Jesus asks for a coin. He then questions his interrogators, “whose image and inscription is this?” When they answered, “Caesar’s,” Jesus famously responds, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.”
The story has been used, by some, to argue for exactly the separation that Santorum and Bush suggest—and the sort of separation that their opponents on the left argue for more consistently. The problem with using Jesus’ words to endorse bracketing some parts of life from religious reflection and subsequent action is that Jesus’ answer is, in its context, a demand for the whole person—their heart, mind and might (as in strength, resources, positions of power and influence) to be given to God.
“Whose image does the coin bear?” “Caesar’s.” But whose image does every human being bear? The image of God.
The echoes of Genesis were more than apparent to Jesus’ first listeners who were silenced by his answer. From the very beginning of Genesis, the idea that human beings bear the image of God is foundational to the narrative of God and creation. Because of that image, humans have a unique place in the created order, a place that involves both incredible dignity and incredible responsibility. Such dignity and responsibility are particularly evident in our economic and environmental actions.
Render unto God the things that are God’s…. The whole person bears God’s image. So, all desires, pursuits, actions, possessions, and lifestyles belong to God and should be rendered to him. To separate our economic lives and environmental actions from religion and morality is to “wander away into myths” of self-sufficiency and pride, myths that frequently endorse our comfortable lifestyles and the status quo. By embracing such myths, we abandon the biblical narrative and its vision for a flourishing world, a vision grounded in each person actively bearing the image of God within his temple, which is the whole of creation.
The Pope’s encyclical is a call to render our lives to God by taking seriously our created role to tend and nurture creation. The encyclical is a call to see the ways in which environmental and economic actions are intertwined, a call to see that caring for the world is essential in securing justice for the poor. To bracket the environment and economics from religious reflection is to miss the heart of the gospel. It is to lose sight of the wonderful news that all of life belongs to God and is being redeemed by God through Christ.