I write this essay in an over air-conditioned office in the Bronx, aware that the air outside is hot and humid. An article entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth,” published in New York magazine this week, weighs on my mind. Surely, the university could set thermostats a few degrees warmer to do its part in keeping Earth’s warming from getting any worse.
As I made my way to work this morning, I witnessed thousands of NYPD officers—on motorcycles and in police cars—processing to the funeral of the late Miosotis Familia, a career detective and mother of three who was fatally shot almost a week ago. I think of her family and reflect on the value of my relationships and on the value of life.
In true New York summer fashion, there is a huge fly buzzing against the windows in my office. Its size and sound distract me as I type. I ask myself whether the fly’s life is worth preserving or whether its impact on my productivity and what I know about its capacity for contaminating our department warrant its swift termination. Miosotis comes to mind.
Likewise, invisibly and imperceptibly, subatomic particles whir around me and within me, constituting the reality I inhabit: Earth, thermostats, motorcycles, flies—everything. These particles make me look the way I do and keep my body functioning. They make up the desk at which I sit and provide, on a fundamental level, the means by which my fingers, propelled by a mysterious connection between mind, neurons, and skeletomuscular system, put words to page.
Disparate though they may seem, the fly, the NYPD procession, and the air conditioning constitute my present experience and are, as such, aspects of the ecosystem I inhabit. They are aspects of the networks of processes and relationships—what those who work in the natural sciences term constitutive relationships—that ground my concrete particularity as an individual human creature in this time and place. They shape my thoughts and my interactions with this laptop, such that without them, my situation, and this essay, would be different.
As I consider my relationship to the fly in light of my reflections on the value of life, it occurs to me that I can open the window and let the fly return to the wild. It flies away. Without me, the fly would probably still be there buzzing against the window, seeking liberation to a place in which it can flourish in keeping with its existence as a fly. I was part of the fly’s creaturely experience, just as it was part of mine.
Admittedly, seeing reality in this way is—whether from the standpoint of secular society or the Christian tradition—deeply countercultural. As Pope Francis proclaims in Laudato Si’, secular society operates with the individualistic and instrumentalist vision of the technocratic paradigm, which sees all “lesser” creatures, whether other-than-human creatures or the human poor, as means to ends or as tools to be exploited for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful. In contrast to this paradigm, the natural sciences present reality in terms of the lifegiving systems, processes, and ecosystems that make reality what it is, taking as a principal concern the good of the whole and each of its parts rather than privileging one creature over another. Meanwhile, as historian Lynn White famously declared, the Christian faith has often revealed itself to be “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen,” in which “man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature” and so may exploit nature for its gain.
Yet White’s observation does not exhaust all Christian views of the world. In place of this paradigm of domination, I would propose a Christian theological approach based in the shared creatureliness of all things. In keeping with God’s lifegiving declarations in Genesis 1, this approach promotes a theocentric and ecocentric consciousness that fosters an awareness of the value all creatures share by virtue of their distinctive “goodness” before the creator God and their “very goodness” as parts of the whole array of created things (Gen. 1:31).
To see reality from the perspective of creatureliness, one must first confront biblical scholar Richard Bauckham’s lament that humans “somewhere forgot their own creatureliness, their embeddedness within creation, their interdependence with other creatures” with a renewed awareness of what it means to be a creature. Likewise, to see reality in this way is to challenge the assumption of humanity’s priority or superiority with a keen awareness of how Homo sapiens is situated within and constituted by a vast network of evolutionary, ecological, social, and cultural relationships, which according to the Christian tradition are oriented by virtue of creation toward communion with their creator God.
Scholars across disciplines offer accounts of creatureliness that can foster a much-needed shift in how humans view themselves in relation to the rest of creation. Rooted in his lifelong work as an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, the theological writings of William Stoeger are uniquely positioned to make one such contribution. A Jesuit priest, Stoeger graduated with a PhD in astrophysics from Cambridge in 1979. He was a student of famed British astronomer Martin Rees and a classmate of Stephen Hawking. Following the insights of contemporary science, Stoeger posits that everything that exists, has existed, and will exist owes its being to a cosmic evolutionary process that began with the big bang nearly 14 billion years ago. As such, all things—quarks, protons, amoebas, mountains, rivers, ants, and aunts—partake in a common evolution history that unites the past, present, and future in what Stoeger terms “a fundamental ‘togetherness’ in time.” This “togetherness,” which is founded on the co-operation and co-constitution of these temporal modes in the cosmic evolutionary process, implicitly recognizes the interconnectedness of ecological life systems as they operate together in the universe’s history and so provides the foundation of creatureliness from the standpoint of the natural sciences.
As Stoeger explains, “The results of natural selection at one stage determine the range of new organisms via other natural processes at the next stage” such that “we have four limbs because all of our ancestral species going way back have four appendages.” As a result, to speak of creatureliness from an evolutionary ecological perspective is most basically to recognize that all creatures share a common history; any creature’s evolutionary past must be understood in the context of its evolutionary present, taking stock of the networks of interactions that are at play in every instantiation of its reality—as the fly and the procession were in play for me as I began to write this essay. For example, when evolutionary biologists study fossil records to hypothesize developments in the history of a species, they must take stock of the manifold relationships that bridge the historical gap between a predecessor species and a range of descendant species; they take stock of the relationships that obtain in a creature’s evolutionary history: its concrete ecological environments, its interactions with other creatures, and so forth. Furthermore, because no factor stands in isolation, an adequate conception of creatureliness must consciously and conscientiously reflect on how creatures are constituted, co-constituted, and reconstituted by the ever-shifting networks of relationships that make up their reality. Ecological ethicist Brian Treanor explains that when this evolutionary ecological perspective is applied to humans, it elicits
an increasing awareness and appreciation of our thoroughgoing ordinariness, and perhaps even our insignificance. Our ordinariness is evident in our biology: we are animals, evolved by the same processes as other animals, living on the same planet under largely the same conditions. We live with other plant and animal beings—to say nothing of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and other forms of life—alongside whom we flourish and fail to flourish in an interconnected web of life.
By explicitly highlighting the evolutionary ordinariness of human creatures and humans’ shared participation in the processes and systems that give and sustain life to all things on Earth, Treanor implicitly highlights a key point: evolution does not proceed in the abstract but through concrete, experiential interactions in terrestrial ecosystems. As American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey’s discussion of the clam illustrates, adaptation by natural selection occurs on the basis of concrete, reciprocal interactions between creatures within particular ecological environments. Dewey writes, “Even a clam acts upon the environment and modifies it to some extent. . . . It does something to the environment as well as has something done to itself.” As such, the interactive nature of evolution imparts to our evolutionary ecological definition of creatureliness a dynamic and relational character that challenges any hard distinction between an experiencing subject—typically if not always a human subject—and a passive environment constituted by nonliving or nonsentient creatures. Such a definition recognizes that the ecosystem and subject co-constitute each other in and through their reciprocal interactions with and within the ecological environments they share.
Thus, an adequate notion of creatureliness understands the intrinsically relational nature of reality—evidenced in the evolutionary process and in the ecological makeup of all things—as constitutive of creatures as they stand within the concrete, particular networks of interactions and relations that constitute the totality of their creaturely experience. Dewey summarizes this point, stating that the interactions that constitute creaturely experience are
an affair primarily of doing. The organism does not stand about, Micawberlike, waiting for something to turn up. It does not wait passive and inert for something to impress itself upon it from without. The organism acts in accordance with its own structure, simple or complex, upon its surroundings. As a consequence the changes produced in the environment react upon the organism and its activities. The living creature undergoes, suffers, the consequences of its own behavior.
This vision of creatureliness recognizes that as creatures, flies and humans are co-constituted by the experience they share; albeit in ways the other may never understand, they undergo, suffer, and experience reality together, as co-participants in the ecosystems they share. Dewey concludes in terms that synthesize the preceding discussion that no experiential moment stands in isolation. Rather, everything—every creature—exists by virtue of “an interaction of intra-organic and extra-organic energies, either directly or indirectly,” such that every aspect of an ecological environment, even its “extra-organic” dimensions, is, like the feeling of too-cold air rushing across one’s face on a hot summer day, an active participant in the network of constitutive relations that make up a creature’s being in the world.
Whereas the evolutionary ecological perspective on creatureliness begins from scientific accounts of the interconnectedness of all things by virtue of their participation in, origination from, and experience of a common cosmic evolutionary process, the Christian tradition proposes that creatureliness resides most fundamentally in the common creation of all things—nonliving and living, sentient and nonsentient—by the same Creator God. Because all things are made by God and depend on God for their existence, all things are creatures of God.
But like its scientific counterpart, this theological perspective on creatureliness should not operate in the abstract. Saint Thomas Aquinas reminds us that God is radically present in and with all things as the source of their being and activity as they seek the fulfillment of life (John 10:10) in communion with God. And if Saint Ignatius Loyola’s well known but unwritten principle of “finding God in all things” holds true on a planet in peril, those who profess faith in this God must consider how God’s action as the giver of life functions, or may be truncated or suppressed, with respect to each creature’s particularity, as it exists within the ecological, sociopolitical, and economic networks that constitute its reality. This perspective on creatureliness locates the fundamental dignity of each creature in its particularity as a creature of God and, by extension, denounces any action or system that suppresses or represses a creature’s ability to flourish in keeping with its distinctive constitution as a beloved creature of the Creator.
Such a category of creatures is vast and—following White’s critique—certainly exceeds common Christian conceptions of creatureliness, which typically understand human creatures as of a different order than other-than-human creatures. To be clear, I do not think the proposed perspectives on creatureliness offer an easy fix for the problem of anthropocentrism or obviates the need for discussions of subjectivity and consciousness, especially at their more advanced levels. There are and always will be organisms with higher levels of consciousness and advanced capacities for analyzing experience and forming knowledge. Likewise, theology must continue to wrestle with ideas like the imago Dei and with the priority of God’s self-communication to human creatures in the tradition. Rather, in keeping with the evolutionary ecological perspective, this conception of creatureliness rejects the traditional assumption of anthropocentrism—that all things are made for humanity—to take up a theocentric and ecocentric posture that focuses attention on the relationships creatures share with other creatures and their ecosystems, insofar as these relationships participate in an ultimate relationship with the creator God. Thus, even though inorganic matter may not partake in a literal sense of the lifegiving breath of God (Gen. 2), such matter may be rightly called creaturely on the basis of its creation by God and, as Psalm 148:7–10 proclaims, its participation in the cosmos’s praise of the Creator:
Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
In practice, then, this theological perspective on creatureliness aims to answer Johnson’s challenge to theologians and to people of faith “to complete our recent anthropological turns by turning to the entire interconnected community of life and network of life-systems in which the human race is embedded, all of which has its own intrinsic value before God.” Creatureliness pushes people of faith to put into practice what ecotheologian Norman Wirzba names “the ecological insight”: a fundamental humility before their fellow creatures, who share a common, albeit diversified, experience and knowledge of the world. As Johnson puts it, “With a kind of species humility, we need to reimagine systematically the uniqueness of being human in the context of our profound kinship with the rest of nature.” Against what Wirzba terms humanity’s “abiding rebellion against creatureliness,” the praxis of the “ecological insight” promotes a vision of the cosmos that takes stock of the ways in which human actions, beliefs, and systems of power promote or inhibit the flourishing of humans’ fellow creatures according to their own kind, by virtue of their creation by God—no matter how basic or developed their experience of reality might be. As Stoeger puts it, this vision understands the inherent value of all creatures as
positive, relative to their absence, and relative to one another and to ourselves. . . . They are goods in themselves, because of their existence and intrinsic organization, complexity, constitutive relationships, and beauty. But they are also goods because of their relationships with other things . . . because of the essential and non-essential contributions they make to the systems, organisms, and ecologies of which they are a part.
Here, against an instrumentalist vision that attributes value to other-than-human creatures on the basis of their usefulness to human aims and concerns, Stoeger emphasizes the intrinsic value of all creatures on the basis of their existence and their participation in and contribution to the ecosystems they inhabit.
Expanding the horizons of creatureliness and creaturely experience in this way demands compassionate consideration of the interactive and relational makeup of reality and the ways in which all creatures engage reality together—as with the fly, the theologian, the NYPD, and the air conditioner. For example, although the H2O molecules in which an algae lives may not experience reality like a human or like the algae itself, as the algae’s life system, factors such as water quality and temperature are constitutive of the algae’s existence and so participate in the total system that—empowered by the lifegiving action of the Creator—gives and sustains the life of the algae itself. Wirzba summarizes this beautifully:
We are always already and viscerally (through lungs and stomachs) implicated in and in-formed by others—bacteria, worms, butterflies, chickens, cows, gardeners—all of which together depend on the wild power of God as their source. . . . God is intimately and mysteriously present in the liveliness witnessed in their activity. Creaturely life is always life received from God and inspired and nurtured by others. To “be” is to be dependent and vulnerable.
In light of the planet’s present state, no other vision will do.
Together, these two perspectives on creatureliness offer a firm foundation on which to construct a renewed ecological vision amid Earth’s present, threatened state. But what would it mean to see reality in keeping with this understanding, and how might such a vision change Christian praxis and, more broadly, shape human culture?
To my mind, the preceding discussion indicates that the ecological crisis is most basically a crisis of imagination, in which Christianity and humanity more broadly have lost the ability to see creation rightly, to perceive the inalienable integrity and value to which Stoeger, Johnson, and Wirzba attest. As Dewey explains, “The imagination is a way of seeing and feeling things as they compose an integral whole . . . the large and general blending of interests at the point where the mind comes in contact with the world.” This suggests, then, that imagination must be conceived as a dynamic, evolving, embodied process, through which creatures engage the totalities of the reality they inhabit. Imagination is the lens through which experience passes and the basis for judgments of value and significance. To wit: how does a human imagine a fly?
If we assume this definition of imagination, we must ask whether humans have lost the ability to imagine other-than-human creatures as anything but a set of resources to be exploited for their supposed gain. Entrenched in systems of profit and consumption, one wonders whether a humanity so bereft of imagination will ever recognize its deep connections with otherkind and its ability to confront and change the harsh realities Earth and Earth’s creatures face.
Following Wirzba’s “ecological insight,” I would suggest that Christianity—and humanity more broadly—needs a new ecological imaginary, a new lens that can both correct the distorted vision that has led human creatures away from Earth and promote humanity’s sense of interconnectedness with other creatures, given their common evolution, common creatureliness, and common participation in God’s life. Making this point clear, Stoeger unites scientific analyses of the natural world with his faith in a Creator God who is present “in every nook and cranny” of the cosmos to bear witness to the possibility of such an imagination. He writes,
We need to sense and relish our profound connectedness to all our ancestors, to all of the events and processes on which our life and being depend, stretching back from the present moment to our parents, to the animals and more primitive organisms from which we have evolved, to the stars whose life and death produced all the heavy elements (heavier than helium) which make up our bodies, to the Big Bang in which our possibility was first initiated and expressed.
Later he concludes, “We are in deep solidarity with all living things on this earth!” In my reading, these passages exemplify what I term a creation imagination—a conscious, critical awareness of the interconnectedness of all things that promotes a praxis of active solidarity with all creatures as loci of God’s lifegiving, creative action. A creation imagination leads human creatures to discern new ways of living in solidarity with creation and for the flourishing of all creatures, great and small, precisely as they exist within the concrete networks of processes and relationships that constitute their reality.
To seek the flourishing of life in this way is, as theologian Michael Welker explains, to recognize that creation describes a “relationship not only of dependence but also of cooperation and co-creation” among all creatures for the good of all creatures. To illustrate this point, he notes that although God names human creatures tillers of the soil and cultivators of Earth, they can only perform this work through cooperation with the rains and soil, with the life cycles that are at work in the garden of life, such that “the creature is drawn up into and bound up into the process of creation by developing and relativizing itself and thereby fruitfully bringing itself into these associations of relations of interdependence, without which the creature would not exist.”
Bauckham builds on Welker’s point, making the connection in terms of the experience all creatures share. He writes,
What we have in common with the lilies of the field is not just that we are creatures of God, but that we are fellow-members of the community of God’s creation, sharing the same Earth, affected by the processes of the Earth, affecting the processes that affect each other, with common interests at least in life and flourishing, with the common end of glorifying the creator.
By emphasizing the need for humans to “develop and relativize” themselves in the interest of life, Welker and Bauckham call human creatures to live with an active awareness of their ecological situation as a basis for understanding how their action and inaction contribute or fail to contribute to the well-being of Earth’s macro and microecosystems, within which all creatures are inextricably “bound up” in relationship. A creation imagination holds that what creates is good and that what contributes to un-creation—to the loss of life and wholeness—violates the integrity of God’s lifegiving, creative act. In Johnson’s terms, such an imagination entails a “falling in love with the Earth as an inherently valuable, living community in which we participate and bending every effort to be creatively faithful to its well-being, in tune with the living God who brought it into being and cherishes it with unconditional love.” For followers of Jesus, this inherently entails care for Earth and its creatures, whose dignity stands untrammeled before their Creator God, so that humans may, taking cues from their Creator, let creation “be” and let it “bring forth” (see Genesis chapter 1).
I finish this essay on a cool, rainy day, in a coffee shop in New York’s West Village. I am taking a break from volunteering at a racial justice workshop. The air conditioning is on full blast, even though there’s no need for it. People stream in and out of the door. Wet umbrellas bump against one another. A man fixes a flat tire on his bike outside while harried drivers honk their horns. There is no funeral procession weighing on my mind. There are no flies here. In light of the creation imagination I strive to let guide my life, the fly’s absence makes me feel somehow estranged from myself. I desire to be bothered, to be called to recognize my interrelatedness with the fly. In fact, I am grateful to the fly—as my partner in creatureliness—whose interaction with me shaped this essay and who, in gratitude, I surely could not harm.