Reconciling Creation with the Creed

March 25, 2015 at 9:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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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.

 

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6 Comments »

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  1. I didn’t even realize that Sr. Elizabeth Johnson had published another book. After reading your review, I will have to add it to my list of books to read.

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  2. BEAUTIFUL!

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  3. May our Loving Creator and our Spirit of all that is bring continuous
    curiosity and life to you,Marian, and your ever intelligent way of
    encouraging us to read, read ,read,think and pray.
    Happy Easter to you, Marian
    Love,
    Marcella M SNDdeN

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  4. Thanks for this, Marian! I have been meaning to buy this (waiting for paperback, actually; not yet). Johnson always takes the most solid theological background into new territory!

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  5. I don’t usually read nonfiction, but this review really tempts me, thank you as always for your terrific insights.

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  6. […] Anything written about Catholicism and the environment demands reconsideration after the publication of Pope Francis’s attention-grabbing creation care encyclical on June 18, 2015. This includes my earlier review of Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts. […]

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