My Catholic-Christian Eco-feminism

July 6, 2020 at 3:17 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Christian theology,, ecological theology, Environment, feminism | 3 Comments
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The following is the English version of an article, published in German in January, 2020, in the Swiss feminist journal, FAMA. It subsequently appeared in the publication of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, EqualwRites, and a longer version was distributed as a resource paper by the Global-Justice Overcoming Poverty Network of the International Grail.


I became involved in Christian environmentalism almost by accident when I joined the Grail, the international Catholic laywomen’s movement, in 1965, my senior year in high school. The Grail had come to the US in 1941 and began working almost immediately with the Catholic Rural Life Conference, a precursor to the Back to the Land movement. I began spending summers on the Grail’s 365-acre organic farm in southwest Ohio and eventually lived for four years as part of the community there. Older members were reading Teilhard de Chardin’s reflections on the Noosphere, and Thomas Berry, the geologian-author of the Universe Story, led discussions of his work with us. At one point I was even in charge of the chickens, though I found them hard to reason with.

I was always an urban type at heart, however, so I returned to New York in 1983 and undertook graduate studies in religion, focusing primarily on gender and literary theory. Then, in 2001, as a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, I had occasion, again almost by chance, to participate in a week-long program on the world water crisis led by Maude Barlow, the Canadian water activist. Barlow said something to the effect that a billion people didn’t have access to clean water at that time, three billion wouldn’t by 2050, and with the way things were going, by the end of the century, there wouldn’t be any clean water at all

Barlow scared the daylights out of me. I began teaching courses on Christian ethics and the world water crisis to seminary students and organizing them to gather signatures on a petition to ban plastic water bottles. One Good Friday I preached a sermon on Jesus’ words “I thirst” in a Seven Last Words of Christ service at the biggest black Baptist church in Oakland, proclaiming that the world’s thirsty were expressing themselves in the words of Jesus.

By the time we returned home to New York City in 2008, and I accepted a research appointment at the multi-racial New York Theological Seminary, I had concluded that climate change and the world water crisis were virtually the same. I began working with the Grail’s national and international climate action groups and publishing articles and reviews about climate change and the wider environmental crisis.

Also, because of my appointment at a majority African American seminary, I became particularly concerned about environmental racism, the way that climate change and other environmental degradation does vastly more harm to people in the Global South, and to communities of color here in the US, than to white Europeans and Americans. With my husband, who is also a seminary professor, I have co-taught several courses on environmental racism and preaching, to prepare students to address the climate crisis in their churches. Many of these students were astounded to learn of the racial dimensions of the climate crisis because they had previously experienced the environmental movement as comprised of privileged white people who love polar bears and wilderness. The works of Robert Bullard, the founder of the U.S. environmental justice movement, and Peggy Shepherd, the head of We Act for Environmental Justice here in Harlem, have been extremely important in these efforts.

I have also been strongly influenced in recent years by research on the deep relationship between capitalism and climate change, as elaborated in Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital, for example, as well as in the works of Ian Angus, Jason Moore and Nancy Fraser.  But I am inclined to agree with the distinguished Bengali writer, Amitav Ghosh, who argues, at the end of The Great Derangement, his study of the cultural factors underpinning climate change, that the world religions have the greatest potential to change global attitudes and actions regarding the climate emergency. This is so, he suggests, because they are already organized, and in some cases, speak with a centralized voice.

The primary example, for Ghosh and for me, of religion’s global impact on the climate emergency is, of course, Pope Francis’s 2015 environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’. Now let me be clear here: as a Catholic feminist for forty-five years, I have spent much of my life criticizing the monarchical governance structure of the Catholic Church. Imagine my astonishment when I was invited to speak about a papal encyclical in several different socialist settings!!  I am beginning to think that a centralized religious organization with a globally recognized leader isn’t, in some circumstances, entirely bad.

My writing, teaching and activism have also been strongly influenced by the works of two eco-feminist theologians, the Catholic feminist, Elizabeth Johnson, and the Protestant process theologian, Catherine Keller. Johnson is perhaps best known for her 1992 work She Who is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. In that book, Johnson argues that God/Spirit-Sophia is mediated through the entire natural world, not only through human history. Then, in her 2007 book, Quest for the Living God, Johnson dares to assert that God suffers, because God’s Spirit dwells all throughout a suffering creation.

Johnson expands this vision of the God who suffers in her 2014 book, Ask the Beats: Darwin and the God of Love, inwhich she delineates the relationship between Darwin’s Origin of Species and the Nicene Creed. Since all species suffer in the process of evolution, the logic of incarnation extends divine solidarity from the cross to all creation.  This God whose love continuously sustains and empowers the origin of species is a suffering God who is in solidarity with all creatures dying through endless millennia of evolution from the extinction of species to every sparrow that falls to the ground.

The fissures that underpin the climate crisis are a primary concern for Catherine Keller, too. While Johnson connects God and creation through the cross, Keller draws on process philosophy/theology as well as Paul’s letters to delineate in place of a transcendent sovereign who wills human dominion and radical antagonism, a persuasive God, enfolded within all creation. But while earlier process theology stresses an overall oneness of God with the universe, Keller draws on the Christian mystical tradition to invoke an apophatic God, a silent cosmic creator, in whom we are all one. Since human beings are enfolded with the rest of creation in this divine mystery, we are called to a loving agonism—struggle—with one another toward the emergence of a new, messianic possibility.

Keller’s theology draws on a re-envisioning of evolution, and in particular, the work of the revolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, in which species evolve through collaboration rather than competitive “survival of the fittest.”  Such a science-based reconfiguration of hierarchical theology demands from us all a recognition of the deep intersectionalism between the human and extra-human elements of creation. In some respects, this shift to a new science moves Christian ecofeminism even beyond Elizabeth Johnson’s interweaving of Darwin and the suffering God of love and has profound implications for contemporary politics as well as the planet and the Christian tradition.  Keller’s latest book, Political Theology of the Earth, does a remarkable job of exploring these implications.

What has perhaps influenced my thinking more than anything else is Keller’s insertion of the silence of God into the heart of the cosmos.  A number of Catholic feminist and liberation theologians, including Ivone Gebara and Elizabeth Johnson. have drawn on the apophatic, mystical tradition to connect this God of unknowing to the relatedness at the heart of reality. Keller goes on to envision a messianic contraction, an utter transformation emerging from the heart of this divine silence in which the entire cosmos is enfolded. For me, this vision of God has replaced the transcendent God at the heart of the theology in which I was educated and which far too often underpins Christian attitudes toward the current planetary crisis.

Thanks to Johnson, Keller, and others, it is this vision of a compassionate and persuasive God in whose transformative silence all creation is enfolded that will, I trust, energize my eco-feminist writing, teaching and activism in the months and years to come.


Marian Ronan, “Theologian’s Work Connects God, Women and Creation.” The National Catholic Reporter, April 22-May 5 2016, 1a.

Marian Ronan, review of Catherine Keller’s Political Theology of the Earth.  The National Catholic Reporter, September 6-19, 2019, 28.


Cynthia Barnett’s “Blue Revolution”

August 21, 2013 at 11:01 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I became a water activist in the early 2000s, when I heard Maude Barlow say that by the end of the century, at the rate we were going, there wouldn’t be any clean water left on the planet. Eventually, however, I came to think that climate change—droughts, melting glaciers, the salination of groundwater—was the world water crisis. Now I am not so sure.

Cynthia Barnett’s Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis* is a galvanizing examination of the U.S. water crisis and a proposal for how to solve it. In the first three chapters, Barnett explores the U.S. relationship with water that caused today’s water shortages. At the heart of this crisis, we learn, are massive past interventions in the natural flow of water—the building of dams, canals and levees. The Florida Everglades and the Sacramento –San Joaquin Delta in California are outstanding examples. To remedy the damage done to our water supply by the building of just such infrastructure, politicians and corporations now perversely propose to build even more of it.

American obliviousness to the extent of our water use makes the crisis even worse.  Our single greatest use of water in the U.S. is for energy production—hydropower, thermal, even solar. Next comes irrigation, with agribusiness draining aquifers at a terrifying pace and the Federal government still subsidizing water-intensive crops in very dry sections of the country. Almost as problematic are widespread efforts by municipal water systems, under the influence of global water firms, to enact technical fixes to water shortages. These include long-distance pipelines (an official in Nevada proposes piping water in from the Mississippi River) though such fixes only generate a new set of problems. And then there’s our obsession with turf. When other details of Blue Revolution have escaped my aging brain, I will still remember Barnett’s characterization of the 63,240 square miles of water-gulping back yards and golf courses across the U.S. as a “fifty-first state”!

Barnett presents water use and management in Singapore and the Netherlands as examples of approaches we would do well to adopt. But the heart of the “blue revolution” is what she calls a “water ethic,” a contemporary take on Aldo Leopold‘s 1949 “land ethic.” In place of any more humongous, expensive technological hydro-fixes must come a whole new ethical approach to water. All the people who lust after endless inexpensive supplies of water have to face up to the fact that the resources aren’t there. Instead we must use less water, plain and simple.

The heart of Barnett’s argument is chapter 11, “An American Water Ethic,” with its stress on water conservation and reuse, especially rainwater harvesting. San Antonio,Texas; Monterey, California; and Perth, Australia, are the models here, saving million of gallons of water (and millions of dollars) annually by having convinced their residents to reduce their water use substantially. The underpinnings of such a change, however, are increased community involvement in water-use decisions, and on an even deeper level, educating ourselves to understand water as an essential, even sacred, element of life.

And what about climate change? In some parts of the book, I regret what strikes me as Barnett’s creation of an either-or between the two: green revolution vs. blue. It seems to me that we need both.

But by its conclusion, Blue Revolution had also convinced me that at least sometimes Americans are choosing ostensibly green options to the detriment of blue essentials. The use of millions upon millions of gallons of water laced with sand and toxic chemicals to frack for a supposed transition fuel, natural gas, is one example. The massive use of water to irrigate corn for use in ethanol is another.

In the end, I’m sure you will agree that what we need is a true land-and-water ethic; the earth won’t survive without it. May we deepen ourselves in this double ethic and do everything we can to share it far and wide.

Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis. By Cynthia Barnett. Boston: Beacon, 2012. Paperback. $16.  296 pp.

This post is a slight revision of a review that appeared in the most recent issue of Gumbo, the monthly newsletter of the Grail in the U.S.

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