Tags: "Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love", "The Origin of Species", Charles Darwin, Eco-feminist theology, Elizabeth A. Johnson
The following is a review of Elizabeth A. Johnson’s splendid new book, Ask the Beasts. It also appears in the spring issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s ordination Conference.
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. By Elizabeth A. Johnson. London: Bloomsbury/Continuum, 2014. 323pp. Hardback: $32.95; eBook: $9.43.
The post-war U.S. women’s movement and the environmental movement were, in significant ways, parallel phenomena. In 1963, the year after Rachel Carson brought environmental concerns before the U.S. public with Silent Spring, Betty Friedan launched the second wave of American feminism with The Feminine Mystique. Five years later Mary Daly drew Catholics into women’s liberation with The Church and the Second Sex. And in 1975, the ever-prescient Rosemary Radford Ruether merged the conversations in New Women, New Earth.
In the forty years since then, many Christian feminist theologians and activists have engaged environmental issues, as have some churches and church-related agencies. Yet as the distinguished eco-feminist theologian Catherine Keller observed recently, “Christianity on the whole continues to function as an anti-ecological public force…”
Critics focus particularly on the belief that human dominion over the earth is central to the doctrine of creation. Feminist theologians have worked to reconstruct this understanding of creation and its corollary, the belief that men should dominate women because women are intrinsically connected to the earth.
Yet given the way our “Christian” nation and the rest of the “First World” continue their brutal practice of extractivism, it can be argued that these feminist and eco-feminist efforts have failed. One reason for this may be that many feminist theologians shifted to theo-ethical concerns (sexism, racism, colonialism, etc.) and paid less—and sometimes no—attention to classical systematic Christian theology. But if Christian practice regarding creation is going to change as radically as it must in this era of climate catastrophe, then the theology that underpins it must be transformed as well. Elizabeth Johnson’s new book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, makes a significant contribution to such a transformation.
In Ask the Beasts, Johnson, a professor of theology at Fordham University and a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, NY, fashions an intellectually sophisticated yet lyric dialogue between the theory of evolution, especially Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, and the Nicene Creed. Her purpose in so doing is to demonstrate that “love of the natural world is an intrinsic part of faith in God,” and to create a theology that will generate passionate ethical action toward plants, animals and ecosystems—as passionate as that which drives faith in God.
The first three chapters of Ask the Beast comprise a close reading of Darwin’s Origin of Species. If, like me, you have gone your whole adult life “believing” in evolution without having read Darwin, or even particularly understanding the theory of natural selection, these chapters alone make Ask the Beasts invaluable. As one reviewer remarks, “A more careful and sensitive reading of (The Origin of Species) would be hard to find anywhere, and not just among theologians.” In the fourth chapter, Johnson explores how aspects of Darwin’s theory have “evolved” since Darwin’s own time, even as contemporary scientists affirm that the theory of evolution is “accurate beyond reasonable doubt.” (102)
Throughout the rest of the book, Johnson constructs a dialogue between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the Nicene Creed, a dialogue that will enable Christians to shift their faith from an “abstract and distant deity” to a “living God intensely engaged with the world.” Chapter 5 braids Darwinism with biblical images, the theology of Thomas Aquinas, and contemporary theology to represent the entire natural world, and not merely human history, as the dwelling place of God. The Holy Spirit, an afterthought in most anthropocentric theology, is the primary actor in this profound theological deepening. (This was also the case in Johnson’s 1992 theological reconstruction, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse). By dint of its ongoing evolution, the natural world “continuously participates in the livingness of the One who is sheer, exuberant aliveness” (148).
The next three chapters fill out this vision, exploring the freedom of creation, the suffering and death of all things, and creation ex nihilo/eschatology, in dialogue with Darwinian thought. Finally, in chapter 9, Johnson’s argument culminates in a new, deeply moving paradigm, that of the “community of creation” in place of the earlier top/down human-dominion paradigm of creation.
It’s hard to convey adequately the scope and artistry of Johnson’s writing. I was especially moved by the last six chapters, in which Johnson weaves together images and concepts from The Origin of Species and other scientific sources with theological texts from across the centuries, powerful biblical material, selections from English literature (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God…”) and the thinking of other eco-theologians. The concluding chapter alone would make a splendid prayer book.
Elizabeth Johnson has shown considerable courage in writing Ask the Beasts. As you may remember, in 2011 the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a stinging critique of Johnson’s previous book, Quest for the Living God, claiming that it completely “undermines the Gospel.” A number of the theological issues that the bishops targeted in that book are also pivotal in Ask the Beasts. As Georgetown theologian John F. Haught explains, the bishops’ critique of Johnson focused particularly on Johnson’s position that God suffers along with creation. Their position is predicated on the argument that God cannot suffer because suffering is always the result of sin. Such a theology serves to keep God separate from—uncontaminated by—a sinful humanity.
But such a dualist theology is utterly incompatible with the evolution of species. Johnson’s expansive reading of natural selection in Ask the Beasts includes the essential function of the suffering and death of some non-human species in the eventual emergence of higher species (including us). But the suffering of non-human species is not, by definition, a result of sin, so all suffering cannot be the result of sin, and it is not theologically inconceivable that God should suffer. For Johnson, God’s oneness with all of creation is so fundamental that God suffers along with creation, even as She is also greater than that suffering.
It may be that the bishops will attack Johnson’s theology in Ask the Beasts as they did the theology in her previous work, though with Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical on the environment and his emphasis on mercy, perhaps not. All that notwithstanding, the news about the effects of human-induced climate change on God’s creation grows increasingly dire. Christians (including the U.S. Catholic bishops) must acknowledge that the obligation to save that creation is at the heart of Christian teaching if such teaching is not soon to become irrelevant. There’s no better way to begin this life-and-death conversion than by engaging deeply with Ask the Beasts.
Tags: Catholics for Choice, Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church, Patricia Miller, The Women's Ordination Conference, US Catholic Bishops
The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the fall 2014 edition of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.
Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church. By Patricia Miller. University of California Press, 2014. 344 pp. Hardback: $24.47. Kindle $19.22.
As I began writing this review of Patricia Miller’s Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church, historian Timothy Kelly’s review of Miller’s book appeared in the National Catholic Reporter.
I agree with much that Kelly says. In Good Catholics, Miller argues convincingly that the organization Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) —now Catholics for Choice (CFC)— “served as an effective counterbalance to the (United States Catholic) bishops in the public arena.” Her analysis focuses primarily on public debates about abortion, though she also explores theology and ethics, popular responses to the abortion controversy, and the history of CFFC/CFC.
In the first part of Good Catholics, Miller uses the activities of four early Catholic feminist theologians—Rosemary Radford Reuther, Jane Furlong Cahill, Mary Daly, and Elizabeth Farians— as a platform for the rest of the book. All four challenged women’s subordination in the church as the secular women’s movement was challenging it in the rest of society. They were also founders of the movement for women’s reproductive rights. In 1964, for example, Ruether, identifying herself as a “Catholic mother,” published an article in the Saturday Evening Post expressing her belief in birth control. In 1971, Cahill, a Philadelphian, defended the morality of abortion at a state hearing in Harrisburg, after which Archbishop Krol called her “the abortion woman.” Farians and Daly were equally feisty on reproductive issues. All four of them were involved in the founding and early activities of CFFC/CFC. (Three also helped start the St. Joan’s International Alliance, the women’s organization that preceded the U.S. Women’s Ordination Conference and Women’s Ordination Worldwide).
The passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973 marked a new era in the fight over U.S. reproductive rights, and public challenges to the bishops’ position on reproductive rights by CFFC drew some thousands of U.S. Catholics to the organization. Then, in 1982, Frances Kissling became president of CFFC. But in Miller’s telling, it was the 1984 NY Times “Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion” that really set off the battle between the American bishops and the pro-choice movement.
The second half of Good Catholics documents the history of that struggle, up to and including the bishops’ recent attacks on the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act. I found especially sobering Miller’s discussion of the alliance between the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Religious Right, undercutting as it does the church’s emphasis on social justice and the common good since before the New Deal. CFFC/CFC has played a crucial role in opposing this alliance, making politicians and the country aware that the USCCB’s stance is not the only Catholic position.
Miller would seem to draw at least two conclusions from her narrative of “the battle over abortion in the Catholic Church.” The first I agree with as far as it goes: from Cahill and Ruether to the contraceptives mandate, “the debate had really been about women and sex.” I would add that the Catholic institutional fixation on controlling sexuality is also about the church’s loss of secular power since at least the liberal revolutions of the mid-19th century, but that’s another story.
I find Miller’s other conclusion, about the impact of the Catholic reproductive rights movement (and therefore CFFC/CFC) more problematic. In the last chapter she writes:
“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this alternative theology (of reproductive rights) to modern Catholics and their ability to grapple with issues of sexuality within the context of their religion—especially because they have been abandoned by the hierarchy on the issue…. (as Louis Utley of Merger Watch said) … having a progressive voice representing 98% of Catholic women is extremely helpful.”(266).
Let me be clear here: like Miller, I am grateful to CFFC/CFC for providing an alternative Catholic voice on reproductive rights in the public arena. As the hierarchy has moved steadily to the right, trying to identify contraceptives with abortifacients, for example, I regret not having supported the group financially over the years.
But on the ground, beneath the public conversation, where “modern (U.S.) Catholics” “grapple” with sexuality, the situation is much more ambiguous than Miller acknowledges. Even if 98 percent of Catholic women report having used contraceptives at some time, it doesn’t follow that they consider themselves “represented” by the reproductive rights movement. Indeed, among U.S. Catholics, even liberal/ progressive ones, CFFC and reproductive rights, or at least, abortion rights, have been marginalized for a long time.
Kelly acknowledges this in his NCR review, suggesting at the end that Miller’s book “will likely give off sparks.” I am reminded here of an experience I had on the national Women’s Ordination Conference board about a decade ago. There had been some kind of crisis—a fire, maybe—in the WOC office, where the board usually met. Francis Kissling, who had been a friend of the leaders of WOC in its early days, offered to let us meet in the CFFC offices nearby. But at least one, and possibly two, board members adamantly refused to use the offices of CFFC for a meeting. Let me be clear here: CFFC had not asked WOC to endorse their position; Kissling had simply offered the space when it was needed. But some members of the Board refused to set foot there. And the rest of the board gave in. A friend who’s involved in the national leadership of Dignity also assures me that abortion and contraception are never mentioned at Dignity meetings. (A member of the current Women’s Ordination Conference staff wrote to tell me, after this article was published in EqualwRites, that this is no longer the attitude of the WOC board).
Some of the reaction of WOC board members may have been strategic, not wanting to get a single-issue organization off track. Myself, I suspect that it’s more than that. Catholics may well use contraceptives and have abortions at the same rate as the rest of the country, as some polls suggest. And a considerable majority indicate in such polls that they support reproductive rights.
But it’s not just Catholic “attitudes” or what we write in a private poll that’s significant. It’s also what we’re willing to stand up for and speak out about in public. Patricia Miller may argue that we cannot overestimate the impact CFFC has had on “modern Catholics…and their attitudes about sexuality.” But who wants to risk being shamed by the local archbishop, or even by other members of whatever liberal Catholic group we’re active in?
Tags: Carolyn Gratton, Grailville, The International Grail Movement, The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur
If you are an (early) baby-boomer like me, or older than I am (almost 68), what I’m going to say here won’t be anything new to you. If you’re a lot younger, maybe. But in any case, perhaps we can share reflections and begin to come to terms with some of this hard stuff.
My mother, God bless her, did her best. But she was not noted for her warmth or supportiveness–at least not to my brother and me. Some of the cousins fared better; Mom sometimes rose to occasions. But as for me, I spent my younger years looking for a mother, or mothers, to make up for certain significant lacks.
One of the groups who rose to the occasion big time were the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who staffed the Catholic girls high school I attended in the early 1960s, Notre Dame, Moylan, south of Philadelphia. The nuns at that high school were the first genuinely educated people I had ever met, and the love and support they showed me is hard to describe adequately. A number of them still send me birthday cards, and pray for my husband when he’s sick, and love the things I write.
Toward the end of my senior year at Moylan, one of the Sisters of Notre Dame there, Sister Marcella Marie, invited a member of the Grail, the international Catholic laywomen’s movement, to come and speak about the Grail. After Veronica Barbato’s talk, I began going up to the Grail’s center on Chester Avenue in Philadelphia for programs and liturgical events. The Grail seemed to me to be the perfect embodiment of the Second Vatican Council, which had just ended.
Eventually one of the Grail women drove me out to the group’s national headquarters, Grailville, in rural southwestern Ohio. I began spending summers there while I was in college and teaching the fourth grade–don’t even ask!!–after which I joined the Grailville staff for four years (1975 to 1979). While I was at Grailville I co-authored my first book, led programs, met nationally-known feminist theologians, became concerned about the environment (Grailville is an organic farm) and more or less started being the person I am today. It was an extraordinary experience.
In my encounter with the Sisters of Notre Dame, and again with the Grail women, I was most deeply influenced by those a generation ahead of me, women who were in their twenties and thirties for the most part. This means that I have been in conversation with–and loved–a number of them for fifty years.
And now they are dying. I said to someone recently that being in the Grail for me now is like having fifty mothers all in their eighties. And it’s true with the SNDs as well.
Let me illustrate this with two stories. A few years ago, at the funeral of a Moylan classmate, I ran into a woman named Eileen Holahan. She had been an SND for many years, and the director of the glee club at Notre Dame, an activity that had given me great joy. Eileen had left the convent somewhat later in life than a lot of women did, and worked as a professional for several decades. At the time of my friend’s funeral, Eileen was in her early eighties, but in good health, and we had a few wonderful visits when I was in Baltimore, where she lived. Then last winter, one day, her sister called to say Eileen had fallen on the ice outside her apartment building, damaged her brain, and died. I still can’t believe it. I keep expecting her to telephone me.
Then this past Christmas Eve I called Carolyn Gratton, an internationally known Grail member whom another Grail member, Anne Burke, used to take me to visit when Carolyn was a graduate student in psychology at Duquesne in Pittsburgh in the late 1960s. Carolyn finished her Ph.D. and went on to be a recognized expert and author in the areas of spirituality and spiritual direction. I didn’t always agree with her–she was so much more benign a person than I am–but we had been talking throughout my entire adult life. When I called her on Christmas eve, I told her I’d be up to Toronto to see her in the spring. Next morning there was an email from the Grail saying that Carolyn had died in her sleep.
Then there’s Ruthie Chisholm, another Grail member who had spent decades nursing with the Grail team at Rubaga Hospital in Uganda. I lived with Ruth for a while at the Grail Center up in Cornwall, New York, after she returned from Uganda. Ruth had a terrible stroke a few years ago, so her death was not unexpected; in many respects,actually, it was a blessing, because she had been totally disabled by the stroke, she, a woman who had always been active. But it’s hard to imagine the world without her.
As I said at the outset, none of this should be all that surprising. Indeed, it’s the new normal; people get old and then they die. So will I, I’m told. But it’s unbelievably hard to imagine a world without these and the other radiant women who impacted my life so significantly.
Perhaps I’ll just stop writing now and go have a visit with them.