2009 AAR :: the good, the bad, the unsurpassably entertaining

I woke up in Montreal this morning, and still made it back to NYC for class at 2:30 (even if a bit road-weary and goggle-eyed from the drive). While I certainly cannot say that I enjoy the AAR—at least not without adding some serious qualifications—I am glad to have gone, mainly for the opportunity to (re)connect with folks in the theological world whom I don’t often see. Here are the highlights of the conference from my perspective:

The good:

My gold medal goes to Sarah Coakley’s excellent paper on Aquinas, Christology, and the proper uses of apophaticism. Her paper said twice as much any other presentation that I listened to in about a third of the words. I wish that Denys Turner had taken up her provocations a bit more seriously.

The bad:

I have a lot of respect for Miroslav Volf, and I’ve heard him speak with eloquence and profundity. But in the session responding to David Kelsey’s massive new book on theological anthropology, Volf’s presentation was quite a disappointment. He began by admitting that he hadn’t read the book in its entirety (to be fair, it wasn’t clear that all the other panelists had either) and continued by telling us that for that reason he would not be able to offer any substantial critique. He then analyzed the title for about ten minutes, and finished with a provocative assertion of tension between the goodness of creation and the theological implications of accepting an evolutionary narrative.

The unsurpassably entertaining:

Of course, the session starring Zizek and Altizer turned out to be just as entertaining as anyone might have hoped. Altizer was unfortunately married to his written presentation; after his over-the-top delivery he refused to answer questions or make additional comments. Zizek, on the other hand, was hard to peel off the microphone. He spoke at greater length and in greater detail (with greater clarity) about his theological interest than I’ve heard or read elsewhere. In addition to being positively hilarious, his exhortations about prayer and personal commitment to the struggle of a particular tradition (without ironic/cynical/intellectual distance) were the closest thing to a preaching of the gospel that I heard in the two days that I attended. I imagine that mine weren’t the only cheeks shifting nervously in the chair at that point in the talk.

Despite his protests, his theological turn is far from orthodox (for a start, his trinitarianism is modalist), but I can’t help but feeling that Zizek must be counted as a theological ally in the face of the collusion between late-capitalism and liberal humanist optimism. Including Zizek only makes the theological conversation richer.

person and nature in Zizioulas

Is it only a drive to rhetorical clarity that pits person and nature so strongly against one another in the writing of John Zizioulas, or is there something more sinister at work?

Zizioulas’ major ontological theme is the primacy of personhood over nature, over necessity, over essence. Persons are free with respect to their nature—supremely in the case of divine persons and sacramentally in the case of human persons—not determined by them. Thus, God’s being in Trinity is not a fated necessity imposed upon the hypostases by the divine ousia, but represents the freedom of the Father in the generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit. While human persons are beholden to their natures in their biological personhood, by baptism and the eucharist human persons may be incorporated into the Person of the Son and reborn into a new mode of personhood. Zizioulas marks this transition as the movement from bondage to nature and death to a life of freedom. Nature for Zizioulas is a fundamental limitation; the connection of personhood and nature is the imposition of the necessity of death.

The caricature that Zizioulas is open to (but barely avoids) is an equation of nature with death, that the limitation of finitude is already the necessity of death. This barely-evaded equation would lead him to speak of created persons (as beings in the image of divine personhood) as entrapped within nature and awaiting release. It is clear enough that this is a caricature and that Zizioulas has a more positive view of bodiliness, finitude, and the particularity of being in a certain manner (i.e. according to a nature). But the tension only renders the strength of his anti-nature rhetoric all the more baffling.

The concept “nature” carries a double valence—nature as essence / nature as creation. My fear is that Zizioulas’ vehement differentiation and privileging of personhood finally endangers the positive theological value of both. Of course, there is a destructive and arbitrary privileging of personal freedom over “nature,” in which the power of personhood is excercised upon nature, bending it according to the will— and this is not at all what Zizioulas intends to advocate. But his theology stands open to development in that direction without additional safeguards.

Pace Zizioulas, sacramental grace does not convey a freedom from the limitations of nature, but abolishes death by engulfing its “necessity” in the illimitable communion of God’s love, where it is overwhelmed, judged, and forgotten.

Karl Rahner’s Anthropocentrism

One unavoidable aspect of attending a Jesuit school is an ever-greater familiarity with the thought of Karl Rahner. While Rahner is not a theological hero or guiding light to me, I am quite glad to have gotten to know him. However, while there is much to appreciate, and much of Rahner’s legacy that has gone unnoticed both by his theological fanclub and by his detractors, I’ve repeatedly found myself coughing at his narrowly anthropocentric approach.

Karl Rahner’s essay “Christology within an Evolutionary View of the World” attempts to reconcile Christology and evolution through a narrative of formal necessities that draws parallels between the two, apparently unrelated (or worse, divergent) story lines. The starting point of this extended narrative is the deep interconnection between consciousness (or “spirit”) and matter in the one world. Rahner reflects on what it must mean that matter has come, through the course of evolution, to become self-aware in very complex ways, and thus self-transcendent—human beings wonder at beauty and grapple with expansive questions about life’s meaning. Because the teleology of creation’s self-transcendence points to an ultimate, deeper union between Spirit and matter, and ultimately to the union of matter and spirit with their creator and sustainer, the Hypostatic Union (understood formally as the self-communication of God within creation) fits naturally into “the history of the cosmos,” which is “always basically a spiritual history” (172). His essay concludes by “plugging in” the particulars of Christian faith (e.g. Jesus Christ, Israel, church) to the abstract culmination of evolutionary trajectories in Hypostatic Union and expanding on this narrative by connecting it to the more traditional narrative of sin, alienation, redemption, and reconciliation.

The great strength of Rahner’s essay, and perhaps its deepest contribution to an explicitly ecological theology, is his effort to make the “matter/spirit” binary that pervades Western thought (in many permutations) comprehensible within the theological binary of nature and grace (and particularly the Thomistic understanding thereof). Spirit is an emergent quality of matter that is “really effected by what was there before” and yet represents “the inner increase of being proper to the previous existing reality” (164). Consciousness does not abolish matter, nor should it seek to flee from it, but rather perfects matter. Consciousness is to be understood as the natural “becoming” of matter (166). Rahner points out that even though science presupposes this transcendence, it cannot quite think in these terms (qua science) because science’s approach to consciousness is always to consciousness as an object of study; the observer herself always remains invisible (transcendent!) (169). This connection is fertile ground for ecological thinking because it de-mythologizes detached, instrumental reason and encourages a more organic understanding of the connection between spirit and matter. In humanity, matter has indeed come to reflect upon itself and to radically manipulate matter (both human matter and other kinds) according to its own interests. Yet, if consciousness is the perfection of matter in an inseparable way, then matter (all matter) must be seen as the natural ecosystem of consciousness, and therefore deserving of careful attention and care. Consciousness, in this regard, is not set over-against matter as master to slave, but belongs to it. Human perfection, subsequently, cannot be thought of in isolation from the care of all earthly matter—and provision for the flourishing of all life.

Rahner’s essay, despite efforts to marry consciousness and matter together more closely, falls prey to the critique of anthropocentrism in that he tells both stories, the evolutionary and the soteriological, with the union of matter and spirit in humanity at the center, while matter elsewhere plays a secondary role. Anthropocentric thinking may be inevitable for human beings, but—to be more precise—perhaps anthropological exceptionalism is not. Anthropological exceptionalism is the belief that humanity has a unique vocation and destiny that the remainder of creation does not share (or only shares through humanity’s administration). Rahner employs this sort of thinking when he says, “natural history develops towards man, continues in him as his history, is conserved and surpassed in him and hence reaches its proper goal with and in the history of the human spirit” (168). The created world fades into the background as the shining destiny of humanity comes to the foreground! Rahner’s construal of the culmination of creation’s history in divine self-communication—essentially a verbal metaphor—rather than in divine communion essentially limits the experience of salvation to human beings (or any other creatures capable of “knowing”). This way of telling the story risks making the rest of nature unnecessary as soon as it plays its part in producing humanity through evolution; humanity becomes the central location of redemption. Rahner evidently feels this tension, because he qualifies his account of divine self-communication by saying, “God’s communication of himself does not suddenly become uncosmic—directed merely to an isolated, separate subjectivity—but is given to the human race and is historical” (174). Despite Rahner’s hedges, however, depicting the telos of creation as the immortality of the emergent spirit/consciousness, through divine self-communication (primarily an interchange of knowledge—coming to know and being known) leaves the rest of creation aside. The most ecologically prescient aspect of the concept of self-communication is not the verbal metaphor, but that part implying coming and indwelling—“communication” understood as “transfer”. Humanity might still fruitfully be thought of as the center of creation’s knowledge of God, and even as a mediator of divine blessing, but a more robustly theo-political account of creation’s destiny (i.e. Jubilee, cosmic Sabbath, shalom, Day of the Lord) would depict peace for all of creation as integral to peace for any part of creation.

All paranthetical references are to: Karl Rahner, “Christology within an Evolutionary View,” in Theological Investigations 5, (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press, 1966), 157-92.


Genesis and Christian Theology

In July a group of scholars are gathering at St. Andrews, Scotland in order to share thoughts, papers, and conversation on the book of Genesis and Christian Theology. As soon as I saw the announcement for the conference I was thrilled; my own theological interests always seem to orbit around theologians of various times and places reading the first few chapters of Genesis. 

At any rate, I got some very good news last week. I submitted a proposal for the conference and received and invitation to attend and read a short paper. I’ll be presenting a paper entitled (subject to change): “Naming God’s Creatures: Gregory of Nyssa on Genesis 2:19-20 and Being Human.” I’ll be examining the way that Gregory deals with human language in the interaction between Adam, God (who is bringing all the creatures to Adam “to see what he would call them”), and creation. 

In all honesty, I’m a bit awestruck (not to say terrified) at the opportunity to interact for a few days with the scholars attending. If anyone else will be in the area, I certainly recommend attending what promises to be a inspiring week.

Ecological Trajectories in Moltmann’s Christology

Here’s a hint of what I’ve been up to lately, (besides not-blogging). What follows is the introduction to a paper I’m working on for a course in contemporary Christology. I’d love to hear what folks think about trying to get past anthropocentrism, and about Christology as the key-stone to the endeavor. 

The major conceptual puzzle necessary to address the ecological crisis is the task of reconfiguring the relationship between human beings and the natural world on which they depend for breath and life. This is struggle for hearts and minds, concerning the way we see the world and our own place in it. Anthropocentric schemes that overemphasize human uniqueness and privilege human interests are now spurious, but difficult to avoid as a “default” that overwhelms other modes of seeing and thinking. Theologically too, if “all the world’s a stage,” humanity has been traditionally cast as the central character—a dramatic role replete with comic and tragic interaction with God and creation.[1] Yet, as we place the phenomenal scope of natural history and the evolution of life alongside the scope of the destruction within human capabilities, humanity appears as a crazed member of the chorus rushing to center stage to demand the full attention of everyone in the theatre by tearing apart the set. The rhythm and momentum of the production grind to a shocking halt; the other actors and actresses reluctantly edge off the stage one by one. Anthropocentrism has not been a good logic for the oikos of creation.           

            Yet, Christian theology operates with a principle of Christological maximalism, variously expressed, that locates the deepest intensity of God’s presence in creation in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of a human being—an anthropos at the heart of things.[2] Thus, for Christian ecotheology, imagining a Christology that is coherent in the tradition and moves beyond anthropocentrism is simultaneously a most significant desideratum and the crux maneuver for the whole systematic enterprise.[3] If Christology can be ecologically grounded in a thoroughgoing manner, then other theological loci—creation, election, reconciliation, eschatology—seem to fall into place. If Christology cannot be integrated, then all the other pieces seem to develop odd angles that prevent them from coming together in an ecological frame. Without an ecological Christology, there is clearly, painfully, a piece missing. And yet, despite the flood of ecotheological writing, relatively little attention has been given to Christology proper.[4]

            Jürgen Moltmann is widely recognized as a touchstone figure in the growing concern for ecological theology.[5] And, in searching out an ecological Christology, he is a doubly apt figure. From the beginning of his career, he has been a Christocentric theologian. Significantly, Moltmann was also one of the first theologians to recognize the importance of wholeheartedly addressing environmental degradation from a theological perspective.[6] Furthermore, the growing ecological concern in Moltmann’s theology has generated significant changes in his Christology.[7] The contention of this essay is that Moltmann’s developments represent necessary starting points for any effort to articulate faith in Jesus Christ without giving ground to destructive habits of anthropocentry thought.[8] I will also argue that although scholars have noted the ecological implications of many aspects of Jürgen Moltmann’s theology, insufficient attention has been given to the ecological significance of shifts within his Christology.

       The task of this paper, then, is three-fold. First, I will briefly document the lack of attention to the ecological significance of shifts within Moltmann’s Christology. Second, I will discuss four trajectories of development found within Moltmann’s Christology from The Crucified God, written when ecological concerns were only beginning to enter Moltmann’s agenda, to The Way of Jesus Christ, a book in which those concerns take a determinative role. Finally, I will evaluate the significance of the trajectories in Moltmann’s Christology in ecological terms and argue for the necessity of certain shifts if future Christologies are to avoid underwriting deleterious modes of interaction with the natural world.


[1] Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2/7.

[2] Despite taking all sides in the heated debates about Jesus’ historicity, ethnicity, masculinity, divinity, and humanity, Christians are inclined to attribute as much significance to Jesus’ life as possible whether in the end that significance is existential, political, theological or otherwise. The concept is from George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postleberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 94; quoted in Terrence Tilley, The Disciples’ Jesus: Christology as Reconciling Practice (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 205.

[3] The difficulty of constructing an ecological Christology is compounded by the general absence of Jesus interaction with the natural world in the memories of Jesus handed down textually. Where these interactions are addressed thematically in the gospels (Jesus walking on water, directing a miraculous catch of fish, etc.) they seem to signify Jesus’ dominion over all nature, rather than a concern for the natural world in its own right. Clearly, Jesus was not an environmentalist. He appears in the disciples’ memory as someone predominantly concerned with human injustice, illness, demonic and political oppression, and with Israel’s religious practices. 

[4] The current issues in the main discourse of Christology at present are: gender questions, Christian-Jewish interactions, interreligious dialogue, political/economic liberation. Ecology only enters these conversations secondarily (most notably in the liberation conversation). One the other hand, ecotheology only rarely touches down in Christology, finding its key loci in creation, pneumatology, eschatology. Most volumes of ecological theology sidestep Christological questions. Exceptions include: Denis Edwards, Jesus the Wisdom of God: An Ecological Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995); or Sallie McFague, “An Ecological Christology: Does Christianity Have It?” in Christianity and Ecology, ed. Dieter Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 29-45. Zzz – Does Body of God hit Christology?

[5] Examples of this recognition?

[6]  Other early figures to make ecology a programmatic element in their theology include Joseph Sittler, Rosemary Radford Ruether, H. Paul Santmire,

[7] Bauckham, Moltmann’s Theology, zzz.

[8] Perhaps the pattern Moltmann presents is only one of many possible sets of starting points for an ecological Christology. At present, however, the proposals on offer are so few that one cannot find any significant dialogue concerning ecological Christology. Any additions to the field would be significant.

Theologians from the Abyss :: Symeon the New Theologian

 

Um...roar...I come to over-analyze your ontology!
Um...roar...I come to over-analyze your ontology!

“[Humanity] was made in the image of God and deemed worthy of angelic and immortal life, but if he was rightly deprived of that angelic state as well as of eternal life and condemned to death, corruption, and the curse, all because he transgressed that one commandment of God, then what will happen to those of [Adam’s] race who meddle in theology while they still bear the image of dust and have never been purified? You are trying to meddle in the teachings about God and divine things, but you have never been taught yourself. Tell me, have you first come up from hell to appear on earth? How did you manage this? Through what steps and stages did you make the ascent? Who helped you, and what manner of creature were they? You came to the surface stinking and rotten with corruption, no more than a corpse in the thrall of death.” 

 

I’m pretty sure that I’ve heard some of my friends in Biblical studies say something similar about those who “meddle in theology.” Pretty run of the mill polemic, actually… 

_____________

Symeon the New Theologian, Symeon the New Theologian: The Practical and Theological Chapters and The Three Theological Discourses, trans. Paul McGuckin, (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1982), 120.

Eschatology and Ecology

The problematic relationship between Christian theology and ecology is often set up as a question of eschatology. The problem of whether Christians can really value created being is made synonymous with the question of whether the planet is destined for fire when we all “go to heaven” or whether the earth, too, will be redeemed. The ecological program of theological re-education becomes the task of convincing people that all of creation has a future with God (and usually involves copious, and atypically literal, reference to Revelation 21). While this eschatological perspective on creation is clearly important, more and more I think that it is a red herring rather than the crux of the issue.

A metaphor is helpful here. If we think of creation as the stage on which salvation history takes place, then the real drama is human history, and “nature” is made into a static entity which serves as the backdrop. The stage is manipulable according to the needs of the story and the movements of the characters. In this context the questions in the paragraph above come naturally. Will the stage be preserved? Does the stage get to come along when the actors who have gone off-stage are finally invited into the fullness of fellowship with God? In this vision, history happens to, and with, and through human beings while creation merely tags along as the proper habitat for bodily resurrection at the great day of the Lord.

But the real issue ecologically is not what “will happen” (or better put theologically, the shape of the “not yet” for creation that corresponds to the “already” of Jesus Christ), but the human relationship to creation in the present. We can think about creation as a resource to be instrumentalized even while we hope for its eventual replenishing. Our willingness to undermine the integrity of all the planet’s ecosystems and consume the ground out from underneath our own feet betrays a flippant conception of the world in the present.

Here are a few questions rumbling under the surface:

In what way do rocks, trees, birds, fields, and rivers relate to God on their own, without human intrusion?

Should we (can we?!) try to think about this relationship theologically in order to protect it?

How can we think theologically about positive human interaction with creation—inevitably including eating, building, and being creative—without assuming that creation is a resource provided for our purposes? 

How can we comprehend the magnitude of God’s acts in Jesus Christ, without arrogantly assuming that humanity mediates creation’s significance to God? 

free market as religion :: economics as theology

“Our present economic system should also be understood as our religion, because it has come to fulfill a religious function for us. The discipline of economics is less a science than the theology of that religion, and its god, the Market, has become a vicious circle of ever-increasing production and consumption by pretending to offer a secular salvation. The collapse of communism makes it more apparent that the Market is becoming the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe into a worldview and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as ‘secular.’” (15)

It is important to pay attention to the conceptual employment of both “secularity” and “religion.” Both concepts have shifted their content so that they demarcate autonomous spheres of ethical thinking. “Religion” is an abstract term that enables the speaker to lump incredibly diverse worldviews together in a single term, and generally, to contrast them to something else. “Religion” is the corral which contains a certain motley collection of worldviews in order to open space for the “secular.” The “secular” on the other hand is the “real” world in which thought is reduced to basic material and utilitarian terms, without the distraction of (private) values, beliefs, or metaphysical constraints. Past traditions (with their encumbering and superstitious restrictions) and any sense of the intrinsic importance of wild beauty or freedom are “external” considerations, things for other people to worry about in private—after all we live in the real world, the public sphere. 

“Although it may offend our vanity, it is somewhat ludicrous to think of conventional religious institutions as we know them today serving a significant role in solving the environmental crisis. Their more immediate problem is whether they, like the rain forests we anxiously monitor, will survive in any recognizable form the onslaught of this new religion.” (15) 

In exchange for a deeply grounded identity and a place in the ecological whole of the planet, we receive the consumer frills of a culture burning all the world’s candles at both ends. This “plenty” for which we endlessly labor is, supposedly, heaven. Or at least a third-rate knock off. Because perhaps, in the end, this is the heaven we’ve been imagining since Dante—divorced from the world that we know, from rocks, trees, lions and lambs. The (unreachable, but always “close”) heaven of the Market is that insipid climate-controlled cloud where nothing interesting ever happens because we’ve finally isolated ourselves from all of nature’s unpredictability (btw, there’s harp music for $2, if that’s your thing). 

“Market capitalism began as, and may still be understood as, a form of salvation religion: dissatisfied with the world as it is and seeking to inject a new promise into it, motivated (and justifying itself) by faith in the grace of profit and concerned to perpetuate that grace, with a missionary zeal to expand and reorder (rationalize) the economic system [where its ‘good news’ has not yet reached].” (19)

The myth of “secularity” is that a society can exist without some fundamentally orienting value distinctions (even a plurality), without some basic ordering of perception, and interaction with, the world. As it turns out, it cannot—the basic order appears implicitly and unacknowledged rather than consciously. When the free market is understood as the source of these fundamental value distinctions, even though it is supposedly “secular,” one recognizes its religious function in our lives. One corollary of this is that the “Separation of Church and State” is revealed to be a myth—without even entering into a debate about evolution or prayer in schools. Our “State” has a deeply vested interest in the national Establishment faith, the progress of the market. 

“Until the last few centuries there has been little genuine distinction between church and state, between sacred authority and secular power, and that cozy relationship continues today: far from maintaining an effective regulatory or even neutral position, the U.S. government has become the most powerful proponent of the religion of market capitalism as the way to live, and indeed it may have little choice insofar as it is now a pimp dependent upon skimming the cream of market profits.” (21) 

The most pressing theological tasks of the present include “publicly” exposing the (invisibly) idolatrous invasions of the market into the life and well-being of the planet; and narrating a tradition with a strong sense of identity rooted in a deep and complex history—a community with open boundaries and a promiscuous invitation.

 

__________________

All quotes from:

Loy, David. “The Religion of the Market.” In Visions of a New Earth: Religious Perspectives on Population, Consumption, and Ecology, 15-28 Ed. Harold Coward and Daniel Maguire. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

looking to write a book? :: orthodox eco-theology

Whenever theology and ecology come to the same table for a chat, inevitably, Eastern Orthodoxy comes up as a church that has “gotten it right.” Someone will say that they’ve never divorced flesh and spirit the way we have in the West; laud the Eastern understanding of the sacramentality of all creation; talk about the Theophany and the blessing of all waters; or connect the dots between the Incarnation, icons and the sanctity of all matter. His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is known as the “green” Patriarch for his work advocating for ecological responsibility from a deeply Christian standpoint. 

So where is the book on ecological theology from an Eastern perspective? 

No one has written it. 

There are bits and pieces here and there—articles, chapters, and allusions—but when you go looking for something more, there is, well, not much more. I’m calling the bluff: Given the deep resources within the Orthodox tradition for ecological thinking, I’d like to see someone synthesize all this iconography and liturgy into something more explicit, more direct. Heck, in my library, there are already eight shelves full of eco-conscious Protestants and Catholics selling books on the subject!  

And if you’re willing to take me up on it, would you mind writing this before my term paper is due?

your mouth and creation’s praise :: Leontius of Cyprus

Some wisdom from the 7th century: 

Through heaven and earth and sea, through wood and stone, through relics and Church buildings and the Cross, through angels and people, through all creation visible and invisible, I offer veneration and honor to the Creator and Master and Maker of all things, and to him alone. For the creation does not venerate the Maker directly and by itself, but it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God, through me the moon worships God, through me the stars glorify him, through me the water and showers of rain, the dew and all creation, venerate God and give him glory. 

Doctrine, Ecology, and Justice (part 3 of 3)

[Back to part 2]

In this vein, we can now move from Christology toward ecclesiology in order to think about the sort of community that inculcates the vision of dominion-as-service. The church, marked by the anointing of the Holy Spirit through its baptism, is the point of continuity between the old creation and the creation of a new heavens and a new earth.[5] The “body of Christ” is the hint of the new in the midst of the old, the kernel of wheat, which having fallen to the ground, may soon sprout with a manifold harvest. As such, the ecclesial community is where the dominion of God breaks in on the corrupted exercise of an idolatrous and demonic dominion. The church’s calling to follow the Lord entails a radical reorientation of the old creation toward the new through repentance and obedience. The community gathered in Jesus Christ interprets the present world in a new light, the light of the coming dominion of God; in that light, the church community discerns the virtues that mark the harmonious life of that dominion and inculcates them in its members in the present. The individual people of the church find their own particular role within the mission of the whole body while that common mission joins disparate lives together by instilling the virtues that are necessary for a common enterprise.

When an ecological understanding of the dominion of God and the life of the church community are brought together, two things happen: First, the anthropologically unrealistic and ecologically destructive erosion of communities under the auspices of market capitalism is arrested and countered. In order to sustain perpetual growth (the ideological bottom line of market capitalism), the units of ownership and identity must be continually broken down to smaller and more homogenous levels. The limit of this trajectory is the society in which common ownership, or sharing, is reduced to a minimum. A few examples: Every American family seems to have its own lawnmower, but how often are all of them in use at once? Cell phones undoubtedly bring a gain in personal convenience, but the phone companies are the greater beneficiaries when a family no longer shares a single phone, but every member carries his or her own (not to mention old multi-family “party-lines”). In the past, music was primarily shared in public performance (whether in an opera hall or in a tavern), but has become increasingly commodified in formats where individuals purchase songs that are subsequently “illegal” to share. In terms of identity, the free market desires that society in which every individual (and persons are emphatically conceptualized as individuals) actively constructs and expresses his or her own identity by means of purchases and fashionably-up-to-date status markers. Identity is less and less expressed in stable social terms (family, religion, heritage) and is increasingly expressed by material possessions and interchangeable voluntary associations. To express identity in terms of ecological relationships would be incomprehensible—despite the undeniable fact that our lives are inseparable from the ecosystems we inhabit (even if only remotely). Still, “I live in a wetland with fox and ducks and reeds,” is not a culturally viable answer to the question “Who are you?”

In contrast, in a robust church community identity is held in common, the gift of Christ’s name and the transformative work of the Spirit. The fellowship of the church is an ideal venue for shared ownership and mutual assistance. Furthermore, in a church community which has not reconciled itself to the cultural influence of capitalism, (as a non-binding voluntary association of individuals looking for some product—“religion”—to consume), a counter-vision of human society and humanity’s place in the planetary ecosystem can take root. A community that expects to see the old creation transformed into the new creation in the dominion of God becomes conscious of the foolishness of a sense of material entitlement, of self-centered human exceptionalism, and of individualist constructions of identity. All we living creatures, after all, come from the same dirt!

Second, as a geographically and temporally extended community with some integrity the church is a venue for the inculcation of virtue. The work of Alasdair MacIntyre has demonstrated that virtues can only be generated within communities where action, purpose, and identity are mutually intelligible on the basis of shared interpretations of experience.[6] The church is just such a community where virtues may arise and find mutual reinforcement in the shared lives of the members. In terms of ecological ethics, many people have recognized that a virtue-based approach is crucial.[7] Rights and obligations are helpful, but only insofar as they delineate boundaries that should not be crossed; they are legislative rather than formative. Thus, while Nash’s preference for rights language leads him toward helpful suggestions for legal action (a necessary step to be sure), the fundamental problems are more deeply rooted than a re-conception of ecological “rights and responsibilities” can address.[8] The scope of the ecological crisis requires more than rearranging the boundaries and limits, a little tightening of our belts. The frequency with which the word “conversion” appears—even in adamantly secular venues—testifies that a deeper re-orientation is needed. Not only to we need to back off from the line marking just how much degradation our planet can sustain before it collapses, but we need to begin living in such a way that we contribute to the health of the planet as a whole. Limits and boundaries have pragmatic value, but must be seen as secondary to the virtues that sustain a moral orientation and guide thought and action at a deeper level. Ethics is a matter of identity, and only subsequently a matter of actions.[9]

For that reason, the scope of the church’s vision—stretching from the gift of creation to the hope of new heavens and a new earth—is precisely the sort of ecologically-grounded identity which can sustain the human community’s effort to address the ecological crisis it has perpetrated, and inculcate the virtues necessary to address it with some measure of success. The church community is already familiar with the language and practice of conversion; it must now understand in greater detail the ecological dimension of salvation. In the dominion of God, human beings are set free to be creative agents of healing and restoration; they are released from the compulsion to consume the world that sustains our fellow creatures—the very beings we are here to serve.

___________________________________
[5] James Nash, Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1991), 135-36.

[6] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

[7] Nash, Loving Nature, 64-67. See also Steven Bouma-Prediger. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 138-160.

[8] The argument for a rights-based ecological ethic can be found in Nash, 169-70, 173-76.

[9] The lurking question in my mind with regard to a virtue-based ethic is whether the community that coherently sustains virtue in its members can do so without recourse to a system of honor and shame. 

 

Doctrine, Ecology, and Justice (Part 2 of 3)

[Back to part 1]

The remainder of this essay seeks connections between Christian doctrine and ecological sensitivity as an ethical imperative relative to our fellow creatures (in addition to the more obvious, but anthropocentric connection to social justice within human relations). That doctrine provides spiritual orientation, rational augmentation, and virtue-based motivation for the ethical imperative to care for creation. James Nash’s Loving Nature and the chapter by Christine F. Hinze may provide sounding boards for the discussion as it progresses. From an ecological perspective, one may advance the strong thesis that Christian doctrine provides a more realistic picture of ecosystemic relationships than the theories of either the secular nation state or economic market capitalism.

The Latin word for “Lord” is “dominus.” One of the first honorific titles ascribed to Jesus is “Lord.” Jesus’ disciple Thomas, for instance, exclaims “my Lord and my God” when he recognizes the resurrected Christ.[3] The same Latin root, however, is often employed in the English translation of the Hebrew word kabash from Genesis 1:26-28 and rendered as “dominion.” The notion of human dominion within creation has been used as justification for exploitative overuse of creation’s resources and the abuse of its creatures; it is a notorious concept in environmentalist circles, and has been dealt with at length by a number of ecologically sensitive biblical scholars and theologians. Clearly, for good or for ill, here is a connection between doctrine and ecology! My present concern with the concept is not a systematic doctrinal treatment, exposition of its historical impact, or an exegetical study that might open up earth-friendly dimensions of the text in Genesis. Rather in line with the etymology above, I want to suggest a Christological re-reading of the notion of dominion that ecologically re-orients its practice through fresh moral and spiritual concerns.

The difference between human beings and other creatures on the planet is clear, if not in terms of rational and emotional faculties, then at least in the scope and perversity of destruction wrought. Dominion is an empirical reality even if (as many argue) it should not be a theological imperative. Within the planetary community, most everyone is subject to the will and whims of human beings for better or worse. Of course, hairless bipeds cannot conquer everything, and death, disease, and depravity are still universal—though most humans labor to circumvent at least two out of the three. The most pressing question then, is not, “Should human beings exercise dominion?” but rather, “How should human beings exercise the dominion they have already seized?”

The heart of Jesus’ ministry, most biblical scholars agree, was the announcement of the “kingdom of God.” The semantic range of the Hebrew kabash (“dominion”) and the Greek basileia (“kingdom”) do not entirely correspond, but there is sufficient overlap that we could arguably speak of Jesus’ inauguration of the “dominion of God.” The Lord (dominus) brings anticipatory signs of God’s dominion. This connection presents a very fruitful twist! For Christians, Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection become the functional model for human dominion. In the pattern of Jesus’ dominion, human dominion must become a kenotic enterprise of service to other creatures. If Jesus gave his life in the course of announcing the favorable day of the Lord in which sight is restored to the blind, freedom given to the captives, good news delivered to the poor (later to be vindicated in his resurrection), then on that pattern human dominion must entail a concern for the well-being of all creatures and the integrity of their natural homes—especially where they are damaged or threatened. The violent connotations of the word kabash (“stomping, subduing”) can be seen in Jesus’ forceful response to demons and diseases; in his direct confrontation of self-righteousness, idolatry, and abuse of power; and in his driving out of the temple merchants. Yet, all of his stomping around and subduing of death and sin was quite clearly in service to the human beings involved and for the sake of their liberation. Jesus’ violence (if it can be so-called) is not exploitative or self-serving. So too human dominion, if it is to participate in the dominion of God must eschew self-serving exploitation to bring life and wholeness wherever it is exercised.[4] God’s place in the human community through Jesus Christ becomes the foundational model for the place of human beings in the planetary community with regard to the function of authority and difference.

__________________________________

[3] John 20:28.

[4] I find this way of thinking to be tremendously helpful and appropriately subversive of the typical misuse of the dominion concept. Nevertheless, several important questions remain (and unfortunately remain beyond the scope of this paper to resolve. How can humans think about taking the life of a creature for food in this mode of dominion? Does this ordering require a (problematic) notion of analogical hierarchy (as God is to humanity, humanity is to creation)? Does this pattern reinforce the essentialized false distinction between “humanity” and “nature” that already pervades our thought? 

[On to part 3]