A culture where the heart is at the center
Since the so-called Century of Lights, (1715-1789), our culture has rigorously applied the understanding of Rene Descartes, (1596-1650), that the human being is “lord and master” of Nature and can dispose of her at his whim. Descartes gave absolute value to reason and the scientific spirit: whatever cannot pass the test of reason, loses legitimacy. From this there followed a severe criticism of all traditions, especially of traditional Christian faith.
This also closed many windows of the spirit that permit knowledge without necessarily passing through the rational cannons. Blaise Pascal already noted that reductionism in his Thoughts about the logique du coeur, (“the heart has reasons unknown to reason”), and in the esprit de finesse, that differentiated itself from the esprit de géométrie, this is, from the calculating and analytical instrumental reason.
But what was thoroughly relegated to the margins and even defamed was the heart, the organ of the sensibility and of the universe of emotions, with the pretext that from the scientific point of view, it would spoil “clear and distinctive ideas” (Descartes). Thus arose a knowledge without heart, but functional to the goal of modernity, that was, and still is, of making knowledge a power, a power as a means of dominating nature, peoples, and cultures. That was the metaphysics (the understanding of reality) underlying all of colonialism, slavery, and eventually, the destruction of the different, such as the rich cultures of the original peoples of Latin America (remember Bartolome de las Casas with his History of the Destruction of the Indies).
Curiously, all modern epistemology that incorporates quantum mechanics, the new astrology, the phenomenological philosophy and analytical psychology have shown that all knowledge comes impregnated with the emotions of the subject, and that subject and object are indissolubly linked, sometimes by hidden interests (J. Habermas).
Starting from these observations and with the pitiless experience of modern wars, it was thought to rescue the heart. After all, in the heart resides love, affection, compassion, the feeling of respect, the bases of human dignity and inalienable rights. Michel Mafessoli, in France, David Goleman in the United States, Adela Cortina in Spain, Muniz Sodre, in Brazil and many others around the world, have worked hard to rescue emotional intelligence, or sensible or cordial reason. Personally, I believe that facing the globalized crises of our lifestyle and of our relationship with the Earth, without cordial reason, we will not move to safeguard the vitality of Mother Earth and guarantee the future of our civilization.
What appears new to us, and a conquest –the rights of the heart–, was the axis of the great Mayan culture of Central America, particularly in Guatemala. Since they did not experience the circumcision of modern reason, they faithfully kept the traditions that came through the Grandmothers and Grandfathers, throughout the generations. Their principal written texts, the Popol Vuh and The Books of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, bear witness to that wisdom.
I have participated many times in Mayan celebrations, with their priests and priestesses. They are always done around the fire. They start by calling to the heart of the winds, of the mountains, the heart of the waters, the trees and the heart of the ancestors. These calls are made in the middle of a native perfumed incense that produces a lot of smoke.
Listening to them talk of the energies of nature and of the universe, it seemed to me that, except for the differences of language, their cosmic vision was very much like quantum physics. Everything to them is energy and movement, between formation and disintegration (we would say: the dialectics of chaos-cosmos) that give dynamism to the Universe. They were eminent mathematicians and had invented the number zero. Their calculus of the course of the stars approximates in many ways what we have attained with modern telescopes.
Beautifully they say that everything that exists was born from the loving encounter of two hearts, the heart of Heaven and the heart of the Earth. The Earth is Pacha Mama, a living being who feels, intuits, vibrates and inspires human beings. Humans are the “illustrious sons and daughters, the investigators, the searchers of the existence”, affirmations that remind us of Martin Heidegger.
The essence of the human being is the heart, that must be cared for to be affable, understanding and loving. All the education that continues throughout life consists of cultivating the dimension of the heart. The Brothers of La Salle have in the capital city of Guatemala an immense College –Prodessa– where young Mayans live in a bilingual internship. There the Mayan cosmic vision is recaptured and systematized at the same time that ancestral knowledge is assimilated and combined with the modern, especially linked to agriculture and respectful relationships with nature.
I am pleased to end with a text that a wise Mayan woman passed to me at the close of an encounter with only Mayan people: “When you have to choose between two paths, ask yourself which of them has heart. Whoever chooses the path of the heart never will be wrong” (Popol Vuh).
Leonardo Boff is a brazilian theologian and ecologist, has written Christianity in a Nutshell, Orbis 2014
Free translation from the Spanish by
Servicios Koinonia, http://www.servicioskoinonia.org.
Done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas, EE.UU.