March 28, 2013 / Theology
Contemporary political analysis champions the ideal of a post-racial America, and in some circles, this …
August 28, 2017
Western Christianity’s relationship to Mother Earth over the past three hundred years has been marked by exploitation and destruction. Lynn White Jr. unveiled this; Thomas Berry and others lamented this; Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ proclaimed this; and many believers are choosing to correct this. But to move forward in such efforts, Christians need to explore what brought us to this crossroads and identify who our allies are in this journey toward reimagining the relationships between God, creation, and humanity.
A helpful way to begin this process of reimagining is to trace the dysfunction in our collective mindscape that has led us to forget who we are namely, unique manifestations of inspirited stardust within a sacred cosmic communion. It is our amnesia that has led us to destructive behaviors and put our common future in jeopardy, as Pope Francis recently attested.1 Humanity’s alienation from—and exploitation of—Earth’s landscapes seems to stem from three successive shifts in human mindscapes: a shift from seeing the world as a nurturing mother to seeing her as an untrustworthy, seductive temptress who must be controlled and then, later, as a machine to be exploited for human betterment.2 These shifts were not arbitrary; rather, they addressed a deep fear: if we were not the center of the universe, that could mean we were mere specks of matter adrift in an incomprehensible universe that could be both cruel and fecund. To fortify our own worth and insulate ourselves from our innate frailty, we built dualistic philosophical and scientific systems aimed to separate us from the beasts and to promote the dream of our unequivocal control over creation. This worldview led to both an emphasis on the separation of mind and body and an exaggeration of scientific objectivity and its ability to control nature. This way of imagining the relationship between humanity and creation also legitimized the rise of an insatiable economic system that required unlimited access to Earth’s resources to feed industrialization.
Not surprisingly, these cognitive shifts affected how Christians lived out their faith. A passive, spiritual interiority was cultivated that detached believers from the world. A purely transcendent vision of a divine watchmaker was also promoted, and this led to a radically otherworldly understanding of salvation. The more believers embraced salvation as a rescue from the material world, the more they denied the intrinsic value of embodied life and lost the spiritual impetus to care for creation—or those in our human communities who are identified with Earth. The atrophying of our imaginative grasp of divine immanence also narrowed how Christians understood both the incarnation and the Holy Spirit. We can see how this mindset still promotes apathy today—how strong have Christian responses been to the injustices aimed at indigenous community members at Standing Rock, North Dakota, to the plight of Syrian refugees displaced from their ancestral lands by war, or to the dismantling of legislation aimed at protecting the most vulnerable ecosystems? This myopic mindscape, fed by an emaciated understanding of God’s immanence, continues to erode any sense that a Christian way of life makes sense in an ancient, evolutionary world; it suggests that the way Christians understand creation and how they live and love in this world needs to be adjusted.3
A way to do this is to reimagine the intricately intertwining relationships between God, creation, and humanity; in short, it is to reimagine Christian anthropology. One ally in the broadening of Christian imaginations is a historically mistrusted one: science.
When humans looked to the heavens, we learned that life emerged from a singular moment of great cosmic exuberance wherein the subsequent primordial furnace crafted the elements hydrogen, helium, and lithium. Later, this material formed stars, which gave birth to the elements that would eventually constitute Earth, including the materials that comprise every aspect of our bodies. In the last century, we made an amazing discovery: we are stardust, along with everything around us.4
When we looked deeply into Earth’s mantle and examined the diverse flora and fauna on its surface, we discovered that Earth is immensely creative, bringing forth novelty and complex ways of being for millions of years. We also realized that everything is intertwined in a vast web of relationality since we share a common origin story. Another amazing lesson was that all living bodies—including our own—are powered by sunshine gifted by tiny organisms capable of photosynthesis. And when we became capable of studying the subatomic and quantum levels of life, we discovered many other truths: there is order in chaos; contingency is inherent at every level of life; and despite how much we know, mystery abounds in the universe. Through these truths, the sacred cosmos is teaching us a humbling lesson: humanity is just one of Earth’s many magnificent bursts of creativity, albeit quite a gifted and injurious one.
Thus, at every level of reality we are offered scientific images and narratives to awaken us to the fact that Christian theology is inextricably connected to Earth’s ecologies. Our universe story and planetary communion can help Christians reimagine how the Creator and Redeemer of this world can be both transcendent and intimately involved in this unfinished, good creation. Heidi Ann Russell affirms this in her book Quantum Shift: “The new images of reality taken from a contemporary scientific worldview give us new images for thinking about God, humanity, sin, grace, and other theological concepts.”5 To change human behaviors toward our planetary home, Christians must thus appreciate Earth as both a self-contained household and as a microcosm of a bigger, still unfolding 13.8-billion-year family history.6
And at this point in human history, if we do not choose abundant life for all, we will have chosen certain death. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis indicates that the physical degradation of Earth’s ecosystems and human society indicates a deterioration of our spiritual lives: “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.”7 Pope Francis does not mince his words: our common home is becoming “an immense pile of filth,” and this is worsening the plight of the poor and vulnerable.8 We need to fall in love again with Earth so that our atrophied Christian imaginations can become more robust and inspire “vigorous and creative” reflections concerning God, creation, and humanity.9 Pope Francis concurs:
An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about.10
Scientific and theological Earth literacy, the result of what the pope refers to as “ecological conversion,”11 demands the development of a new Christian anthropology namely, an ecotheological anthropology.
Perhaps this new relational framework could look like Claire Colinet’s sculpture Joueuse de Boule—a playful, theological juggling that embodies a deep appreciation for three balls: the ecosystems (oikos which can be translated into ecos) gifted by God (theos) within which humans (anthropos) dwell.12 The juggling of these three balls must be intentional: ecological anthropology without reflection upon God (theology) is untethered, like a tree without roots; theological anthropology without ecology is too narrow, like a firmly rooted tree with no leaves; and ecological theology without the human lens (anthropology) is ineffectual, for we cannot overlook our humanness any more than a rooted, leafy tree can overlook the presence and importance of its trunk and branches. If any of the three parts of the tree are missing—that is, the leaves, roots, or branches—the tree dies. The same is true for Christian anthropology; without purposeful attention to creation, God, and humanity, a Christian anthropology will wither, leading to the “wrong understanding” described by Pope Francis.
By considering the abundance of research that has surfaced since the birth of ecotheology circa the 1980s, believers who choose to embrace an ecotheological anthropology take on four primary commitments: a grander horizon for eschatological hope; a radical optimism for our interdependent, cosmic web of life; an avowal of a cosmic-numinous communion; and an embrace of the dynamic, unfolding nature of the universe which is necessarily both creative and destructive.13 Each commitment highlights vital aspects of a strong trifold, twenty-first-century Christian anthropology, but how this wisdom takes shape in the minds and hearts of each juggler will differ.
Jugglers who adopt an ecotheological anthropology affirm an expansive vision of eschatological hope, that is a hope in an ultimate end time or heavenly existence when all of creation is drawn up into perfect communion with God. This hope is not new, but what is novel is its breadth and depth. Its breadth extends through all time and space, encompassing all of creation—from Bethlehem back to the big bang and from the empty tomb forward to end times. Hope for peace and ultimate fulfillment in God’s loving embrace is not reserved only for humans; today’s bold jugglers can assert this precisely because they embrace a cosmic horizon for hope.
The depth of this eschatological hope is also new. This newness stems from the recovery of some of the language, ideas, and imagery used by classic theologians. For example, Irenaeus’s depiction of creation’s gradual maturation from imperfection to a perfect union with God (rather than a fall from an original state of perfection) has affected the work of many contemporary ecotheologians, including Denis Edwards, Catherine Keller, and Elizabeth Johnson; Maximus the Confessor’s vision of the cosmic liturgy that fed his staunch refusal to diminish or negate either pole of Christ’s divine-human nature echoes in the work of Ilia Delio and others. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Christ-centered vision of God’s luring of the unfinished cosmos toward fulfilment and peace has influenced so many who followed him including Thomas Berry, Celia Deane-Drummond, and Gloria Schaab. These novel eschatological perspectives enable people of faith to speak about hope in new ways; Christians with a well-formed scientific Earth literacy are attuned to the hope for newness of life that dwells at the creative edges of vulnerability and uncertainty, even as all of creation is being drawn into the open horizon of the future by the risen Christ. This Christ is known as both the promise of new life in the present and the cosmic attractor, or divine magnetism, that directs and sustains Earth’s own creative capabilities as all of creation journeys toward union with God in the future.14
This is the antithesis of the apathetic, absentee divine watchmaker. God is a personal deity who animates theosis and labors in, with, and under Earth’s creative impetus to draw this world toward new life. This new vision promises hope to those experiencing alienation and futility; God is no longer apathetic but is both laboring with us as we struggle and up ahead moving us toward an ultimate purpose, namely, fullness of life in Christ. Eschatological hope grounded in an ecotheological anthropology also beckons us to not necessarily fear randomness or contingency, for it is a part of the very fabric of our world. Furthermore, appreciating Earth’s potentiality and creativity, present quite literally at the water’s edge, can inform our understanding of the term Immanuel—God with us—and reveal God’s presence and not absence during moments of great transformation.
This vision of hope also affirms that God’s providential care does not have to be limited to special moments of divine intervention, and it speaks to God’s choice to manifest divine power as vulnerability and empowerment rather than domination or power-over. What this commitment promises is that when embraced fully, Christians can fall deeply in love with “that endlessly rotting and renewing riot of life of which we are a clever and troublesome bit” and work tirelessly for justice and abundant life for all of creation—both now and at the end of time.15 Moreover, jugglers who commit to this form of eschatological hope can intelligibly discern the difference between injustice inflicted by human agents (e.g., human atrocities such as the Holocaust) and tragic moments of destruction that are necessary parts of an evolving universe. This will lead to the rejection of simplistic, distorted eschatological ideas, such as the beliefs that natural selection justifies (and sanctifies) slavery or that the more catastrophic the tragedies we experience (e.g., world wars or climate change), the closer we will be to the perfection promised at end time. Ultimate answers to how God brings healing to the inherent and inflicted wounds of our world will always transcend human intellectual capacities, but modern Earth-literate visions of peace and justice at the eschaton can better equip people of faith to experience healing and stimulate more compassionate responses to all those who are suffering in our world.
A second commitment made by jugglers who embrace an ecotheological anthropology is the affirmation of the intrinsic worth of our interdependent, diverse world. This is a radical optimism for the world, and its theological source stems from the profession in Genesis that, indeed, creation is very good (Gen. 1:31). It is also woven into classic Christian thought: Maximus the Confessor’s theology affirmed the interconnectivity of creation via Christ’s polarity, Francis of Assisi’s theology espoused a radical vision of interdependency and kinship, and Thomas Aquinas’s theology declared the inherent worth of cosmic diversity.16 Yet these earlier voices could not have even begun to imagine the grand scope of Earth’s fecundity. Indeed, in the seventeenth century, about ten thousand species of invertebrates were known, whereas today, we know that the number of microorganisms living in one teaspoon of soil (1 billion) is more than three times the current population of the entire United States and that the class Arachnida (spiders) manifests in more than thirty-eight thousand species.17 We especially marvel at Earth’s prolific creativity when we study the virosphere; if all the ten nonillion (1 × 1031) viruses on Earth were laid end to end, “they would stretch for 100 million light years.”18 Christians must awaken to the intrinsic goodness of the immensely diverse webs of life characterizing our evolutionary world and accordingly, name this as the theological source of our impetus to care for our unfamiliar—and sometimes unruly—neighbors.
There are several theological consequences to affirming this commitment. An undeniable consequence is that each creature becomes a unique realization of divine love and a contributor to the great universe story. Our creaturely kin are inspirited, or animated, by the same Spirit, or rûaḥ (i.e., the life breath of God), that we are and hence, as Laudato Si’ articulates eloquently, “there is a divine manifestation in the blaze of the sun and the fall of night.”19 We are no longer the sole possessors of intrinsic worth nor the ultimate reference point for determining the worth of other created life. Today’s inspired jugglers will reexamine how they understand human dignity in relation to the intrinsic worth of all other forms of created life.
Another significant christological consequence is that believers become more attuned to the fact that the incarnation, the body of Jesus, was made up of the biological tissues that evolved from Earth’s creative processes spanning 4.5 billion years. Thus, the second person of the Trinity chose to be stardust and as the risen Christ will draw all manifestations of stardust into perfect communion with the Creator. This vision of the Word made flesh, often called “deep” incarnation, expands beyond Jesus’s thirty-three biological years to encompass the materiality of the past, present, and future. Ecotheologians, such as Ilia Delio and Denis Edwards, use the idea of deep incarnation to ascribe intrinsic worth to all of creation and not just human creatures.20 The sacred universe story is a wondrous, divinely inspired kaleidoscope of creativity, telling an intimate story of kinship within a cosmic web of life and with the Creator of such a world. This commitment to the goodness of creation must inform how we live and love as members of a sacred planetary communion.
Skilled jugglers who espouse an ecotheological anthropology have also awoken to the intimate dance of the spiritual and material, and this is a third commitment they avow. In some ways, this belief in a numinous-cosmic communion represents a response to at least two historical trends: the rise of the previously mentioned machine metaphor that became popular during the Enlightenment and industrial revolution and a Cartesian philosophy that left little room for understanding Earth as a web of life and even less for speaking of an immanent, animating Spirit in creation. When the despiritualized machine metaphor was coupled with a radical anthropocentrism, which was itself fueled by humanity’s increasing technological capabilities, believers found it harder to understand the closeness of God and the sacredness of our world. This alienation from the notion of God’s immanence in creation made it easy to justify using this machine (i.e., Earth) to benefit the only creature self-proclaimed to have been endowed with the numinous (i.e., the soul), and it thus set in motion patterns of thinking and behaviors that now threaten the very survival of our planet.
Many classic theologians resisted this alienation of matter and spirit, and they guided Christians away from this dangerous self-absorption: Benedictine nun Hildegard of Bingen and the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin were both theologians and artisans of science who, despite their many differences, articulate their encounter with the ineffable at the heart of the cosmos. Hildegard’s understanding of viriditas—inspirited, embodied fecundity—and Teilhard’s dual commitment to the cosmic and numinous give those embracing this third commitment today both a solid footing within the Christian tradition and the space and sustenance to develop new creative expressions of this synthesis. For example, Irish poet John O’Donohue espouses that if you believe that you are walking into a living, sacred universe, you will walk very differently than if you believe that you are walking through dead space.21 Pope Francis articulates similar sentiments:
The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things.22
If jugglers who embrace an ecotheological anthropology believe that they are inspirited stardust, they may better appreciate God’s self-communication and have a stronger impetus to care for our common home.
A final commitment held by any juggler who adopts an ecotheological anthropology is the thoughtful engagement with the painfully creative cadence that animates our dynamic, evolutionary world.23 The universe teaches us that great moments of creativity and innovation come from disintegration, suffering, and death. The violent collapse and destruction of first-generation stars created the building blocks of all life that followed; the powerful convergence of tectonic plates in the Pacific Ring of Fire gave birth to the Galapagos Islands;24 monarch butterflies, if they are not allowed to engage in the struggle to emerge from their chrysalides, are unable to sustain flight, leaving them crippled and doomed; the sacrifice of independence by an ancient predatory species of bacteria brought forth mitochondria, the powerhouse of all complex cells.25 Thus, from the smallest to largest level of our universe story, sacrifice and creativity—death and new life—are inextricably intertwined. Holmes Rolston III concurs: “Biological nature is always giving birth, regenerating, always in travail. Something is always dying and something is always living on. . . . This whole evolutionary upslope is a calling in which renewed life comes by blasting the old. Life is gathered up in the midst of its throes, a blessed tragedy lived in grace through a besetting storm.”26 Theologians have also affirmed this—Niels Gregersen indicates that this cosmic sacrifice is part of the birthing woes of nature’s “unstoppable creativity,”27 while Gloria Schaab’s midwifery description of God as transcendent Mother birthing “the incarnate cosmos through the immanent creativity of the cosmos itself” gives us a way of understanding the pain inherent to our evolving world.28 Thus creativity and cruciformity—the building up or genesis and the breaking down or emptying—cannot be uncoupled, and this is a new adventure in theological conversations. Since we now know that our evolutionary world is perfused with incalculable levels of suffering and violence spanning 13.8 billion years, how do Christians speak of this in light of their belief in God who is love? Compassionate jugglers espousing an ecotheological anthropology have new ways of contributing to these conversations; when they look to the incarnation and Trinity, they are able to recognize the creative and cruciform force that animates the cosmos as a kenotic-kinetic.
From Scripture, kenosis can be understood as two movements occurring in the life of Christ (affirming and emptying), and they are usually articulated in tandem. A main example is in Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phil 2:6–11) where there is a movement of descent, or self-emptying (vv. 6–8), and ascent, or self-affirming (vv. 9–11). Thus, in his self-emptying, Christ affirmed his true self as the second person of the Trinity. These two movements cannot be uncoupled, even though the self-emptying is often over-emphasized. Jürgen Moltmann also roots kenosis within the triune family: “The Son by virtue of his self-surrender exists wholly in the Father, the Father wholly in the Son, the Spirit wholly in the Father and Son. Kenotic self-surrender is God’s trinitarian nature.”29 Edwards adds nuance to Moltmann’s vision by viewing Trinitarian kenosis as receptivity—each person of the Trinity both receives and gives to the others. He argues that since “the universe can be understood as unfolding ‘within’ the Trinitarian relations of mutual love,” or divine perichoresis, then the universe can be understood as possessing a kenotic disposition that involves being receptive to the other.30 In other words, the moment God made space in Godself for the universe, all of creation was infused with a kenotic disposition.
Each member of creation—in their own way according to their unique nature—participates in this cosmic dialectic of creativity (self-affirmation) and cruciformity (self-sacrifice). For example, the self-giving of the first stars during supernovas offered the matter for the creation of new life forms. Solitary hydrogen atoms with unique forms and functions lose their individual identities as hydrogen and couple with oxygen to build an innovative new molecule—water. When humans emerged, the ancient kenotic-kinetic dialectic manifested quite distinctively; these creatures could now appreciate their place in the universe story and could choose to deny their participation in this dynamic. Many warned that this denial would be foolish. Hildegard of Bingen’s illuminations, especially her fourth vision in part one of Book of Divine Works, show how the rhythm of human activity should be in step with the cycles of fertility and cruciformity inherent to Earth—tending the soil, planting the wheat and harvesting are inextricably intertwined as are humanity’s birth from the ground, activities on Earth, and return to the soil after death.31 Modern science concurs with her conclusion though not with her interpretations of biological phenomena. Yet, Hildegard’s lesson on living attuned to the cosmic ebb and flow of giving and receiving found in nature is as apt today as in the twelfth century.
Besides a general cosmic-kenotic disposition, two thousand years ago there lived a man who manifested this kenotic-kinetic uniquely. Not only did Christ participate in the kenotic disposition manifested by the first stars and human beings, but he perfected it as only the second person of the Trinity could. Indeed, the kenotic-kinetic can be seen as both the driving force that moved creation toward the complexity we see today and the eternal magnetism still luring the cosmos toward final fulfilment in the risen Christ. The incarnation and the cross are our gateways for glimpsing the paradoxically self-affirming/self-sacrificial propensity of the Trinity, and this is reflected, albeit dimly, in the creative-cruciform dynamic animating the cosmos. Hence, jugglers who embrace an ecotheological anthropology must pay serious theological attention to both the shadowy and fecund side of our unfolding universe. The promise held by this commitment is that they will become more attuned to the creative and sacrificial dialectic inherent to the world, and this will enable them to differentiate between, on the one hand, inherent finitude and suffering we ought to participate in and, on the other hand, inflicted, anthropogenic suffering that can and should be eradicated.
Catherine Wright is an assistant professor in the religion and philosophy department at Wingate University in North Carolina, where she works with community, church, and student groups to foster more sustainable practices and build more vibrant ecosystems and human communities. She received her PhD at the University of St. Michael’s College and Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology, and her book Creation, God, and Humanity: Engaging the Mystery of Suffering Within the Sacred Cosmos is coming out in November 2017 with Paulist Press. Her academic specialties include ecotheology, Christian ethics, sustainability-oriented community engagement, and human suffering.