ASK THE BEASTS: Darwin and the God of Love
This series of discussions encourages a fruitful dialogue between science and faith, discussing themes presented by Elizabeth Johnson in her newest work, ASK THE BEASTS. Dr. Johnson outlines Darwin’s theory of evolution in a way that non-scientists can understand, and then builds a theological foundation for a Christianity that can work with – not against – science. For a taste of Johnson’s book, read the Preface, below:
From the Preface to ASK the BEASTS:
In an artful essay on the history of the universe, Holmes Rolston proposes that there have been not one but three Big Bangs. ‘Big Bang’ is used here as a metaphor for a singular, explosive event with radical consequences for generating novelty. (1)
The first Big Bang was the primordial hot explosion that started the universe approximately 13.7 billion years ago. Generating an expanding magnitude of matter-energy, it initiated the process that has produced stars, galaxies, and everything else in the cosmos, a dynamic phenomenon that is still going on.
Ten billion years later, using materials produced in the first Big Bang, the second one hatched life on Earth. Here began the evolutionary process that now covers our planet with beautiful, complex creatures interacting in life-sustaining ecosystems.
More than three billion years later still, a third singular event shaped up on the shoulders of the first and second. This is the emergence of human beings, Homo sapiens, mammals with minds and wills who think symbolically and act with deliberate, free intent. There is no question but that many other living creatures experience emotion, enjoy sophisticated levels of knowing and communicating, and act with a certain purpose. In this regard humans belong on a spectrum with others in the community of life.
The appearance of the human species is rightly considered a third moment of intense novelty, however, because of the qualitative prowess of the species as a whole. With extraordinary ability we (I write as one such mammal) have populated the globe with a restless inventiveness that creates, accumulates, and transmits ideas and technologies across generations. Evolution now proceeds by way of culture as well as biology. From matter to life to mind; from physical matter to biological life to linguistic consciousness; from galaxies to living species to human persons: though connected, these explosions form no simple, predictable unfolding but a fascinating, unexpected story.
This book pours out attention on the second big bang. It asks a specific question about a sphere that is still making its way into religious consciousness: What is the theological meaning of the natural world of life? This world evolved in all its splendor without human help. It was the context in which the human species itself evolved, and daily provides irreplaceable nourishment for human bodies and spirits. In our day its future is in jeopardy due to human action and inaction, destructive behavior shot through with a disastrous failure of our vaunted intelligence and virtue. As a work of theology this book explores the Christian tradition, seeking to illuminate the religious meaning of the ecological world of species. It charts one way to see that far from being simply ‘nature’ in a neutral sense, and far from being made only for human use, these living species have an intrinsic value in their own right. Once one understands that the evolving community of life on Earth is God’s beloved creation and its ruination an unspeakable sin, then deep affection shown in action on behalf of ecojustice becomes an indivisible part of one’s life.
In this work I will not attempt to do justice to the vibrant contributions being made by scholars working out of religious traditions besides Christianity, nor to the advances being made in ecumenical and interreligious activity. Virtually all major religions, whether indigenous, formed in the classic axial period, or of more recent vintage, include the natural world within the scope of their vision of the Sacred. They teach a way of life that emphasizes virtues such as humility, gratitude, and compassion, and warn against vices such as pride and greed, all of which has clear implications for human behavior toward the natural world. One excellent resource for this knowledge took shape throughout the 1990s when the Forum on Religion and the Environment, led by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, sponsored ten conferences at Harvard University, one for each of ten traditions: Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Daoism, Hinduism, Islam, Indigenous traditions, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto. The resulting books, named simply Buddhism and Ecology, Islam and Ecology, etc. are a goldmine of insights regarding the resources different religions bring to interpreting the natural world and promoting its flourishing. (2) Instructed and heartened by this wisdom, my own effort here remains focused on the Christian tradition with its strong belief in a creating, saving God of blessing, inherited from the Jewish tradition and now shared also with the Islamic tradition.
This book’s title, taken from the biblical book of Job, reveals my starting point and operative approach.
Ask the beasts and they will teach you;
speak to the birds of the air, the plants of the earth,
and the fish of the sea and they will instruct you. (Job 12:7)
On the face of it, this seems a simple thing to do: consult the creatures of the earth and listen to the religious wisdom they impart. Given theology’s longstanding preoccupation with the human drama, however – and we are a fascinating lot – the invitation to consult the plants and animals harbors the demand for a subtle change of method. It entails stepping outside the usual theological conversation with its presumption of human superiority in order to place a different ‘other’ at the center of attention. The effort to approach other species with concentrated attention to their story in all its struggle and delight creates an important shift in perspective. The result changes not just what one may think about the creatures themselves, but sets up a challenging dynamic that reconfigures all of theological interpretation so that it honors their lives. All contextual, liberation, feminist, and post-colonial theologies proceed with the realization that while dominant theologies may include ‘the other’ in some beneficial manner, the center of their intellectual and ethical interest remains the advantaged group, which does less than justice to those on the margins. The focus has to shift to those who have been silenced, so that their voices are heard and they are seen as of central importance in themselves. In a similar manner, the nascent field of ecological theology asks that we give careful consideration to the natural world in its own right as an irreplaceable element in the theological project.
ASK the BEASTS explores this subject by conducting a dialogue between Charles Darwin’s account of the origin of species and the Christian story of the ineffable God of mercy and love recounted in the Nicene creed. Given the enormous quantity of literature in both science and theology, it seemed wise to focus on one entry from each field. Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species gives full play to life’s natural character by charting its emergence through the interplay of law and chance over millions of years and thousands of miles. The Nicene Creed witnesses to the gracious God who creates, redeems, and vivifies these same evolving species, grounding hope for their ultimate future. One scientific account, one religious testimony: my wager is that the dialogue between both sources, one in the realm of reason, the other of faith, can engender a theology that supports an ecological ethic of love for Earth’s community of life.
The plan of this book proceeds as follows. After an initial chapter describes this project in more detail, the early chapters (2-4) focus on the evolution of species. These present background on how Darwin’s extraordinary book On the Origin of Species came to be written; walk through its thesis in detail; and update its theory in the light of contemporary advances, lest we be dialoguing with an anachronism. A telling exchange with my colleague Terry Tilley pinpoints the importance of these chapters. He said, “You think everyone knows what evolution is, and you are bringing theological reflection to bear to connect it with faith.” My heartfelt response was no, I do not think everyone knows what evolution is. I myself did not realize its ramifications before reading Darwin. For theology to have traction, we need to get the story straight. There is a parallel here, I think, with an experience common among human beings. Other persons are normally a mystery to us. Getting to know someone’s story in some detail opens an avenue to greater understanding. It can move us toward appreciating, perhaps forgiving, and even loving them. In a similar manner, listening to the evolutionary story Darwin tells brings the magnificence, tragedy, and promise of the natural world into sharp relief in a way that renders it real and engaging.
With the scientific partner at the table, the middle chapters (5-8) bring the Christian story into play as this is condensed in the Nicene creed. It is a hallmark of this testimony that it professes faith in no abstract, distant deity but in its own way unspools a narrative of the living God intensely engaged with the world. Starting with the one God’s creation of the world, it lingers over divine involvement with the world in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and culminates with the vivifying Spirit who gives life and prepares a resplendent future for the whole creation. Each aspect of the story places the natural world in a different framework, all embraced by the living God. In a back and forth dialogue with Darwin’s grand view of life, these chapters explore the relationship between the evolving world and one triune God.
In light of this dialogue about the beasts, birds, plants, and fish, the final chapters (9-10) turn to the human species in the grand panoply of evolution. In our day this entails facing the reality that for all our many abilities, Homo sapiens is ravaging the world of life. Although some still prefer to remain blind with denial, the fact is we have crossed a threshold into a new moment of human history dangerous to the well-being of the diversity of life on this planet. The novelty is captured by Aldo Leopold’s awful comment, “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. “ (3)
Today thoughtful humans do mourn the disappearance of thousands of species which will never be seen again. Ruination of the earth is a deeply moral issue, as statements by official leaders of religious bodies, increasingly plentiful, make clear. Their teaching that the human vocation is to praise the Creator and care for the natural world rather than destroy it is aimed at moving their members toward what some call stewardship, or what by any name is a stance of responsibility for life on Earth. (4) Working in its own field, which may be characterized as the study of God and all things in the light of God, theology has a vital contribution to make. By uncovering the importance of plants and animals and their ecosystems in their own relationship to God, such study can invigorate ethical behavior that cares for them with a passion integral to faith’s passion for the living God. In the process, human beings find their own identity reimagined as vital members of the community of creation rather than as a species divorced from the rest, and step up to protect Earth’s creatures as neighbors whom they love. Ask the Beasts ends with this possibility as a hope, an obligation, and a prayer.
While writing this book I was somewhat daunted to discover that Karl Rahner, whose turn to the subject in theological method has greatly influenced my own thought, once declared, “The whole of Christian theology should, in the right sense of the word, be ‘subjective.’ It cannot speak of objects that are situated beyond the spiritual, personal, free human reality. We cannot make a theological statement about a ladybug.” (5) But that is precisely what this book aims to do. It reflects on the ladybug and all its kin in the world of species beyond the human, finding them to be an intensely important if overlooked subject of religious value.
To borrow a colorful metaphor proposed by Sallie McFague, in our day theology needs to sew a quilted square of its own design which, when joined to panels of other scholarly disciplines and civic activities, will be able to cover the earth with a blanket of planetary care. (6) There are many ways this can be done. The theological contribution itself will rightly be pieced together with patches constructed from diverse methods, sources, and lines of discourse. Drawing largely from the Catholic intellectual tradition, this books offers one patch for the theological square.
The last paragraph of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species opens with a beautiful image well-known to him from many walks in the English countryside:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. (7)
Note the ecological richness of his vision, with the entangled bank’s plants and animals “dependent on each other in so complex a manner” and equally reliant on the soil and water of the damp bank they inhabit. I invite you, the interested reader, to keep before your mind’s eye your own version of an entangled bank, whether it be an ocean beach, an urban park, a lake front or riverbank or wetland, a farm or woods, a block of city trees, a prairie or mountain range, the side of a highway or an open field, a nature reserve, a coral reef, a public garden, plantings on a campus or in a backyard garden, or even a window box on the sill – any place where land or water with their plants or animals, domestic or wild, has drawn your attention, refreshed your spirit, even lifted your mind and heart to God. Let this place function in your imagination as a touchstone for sifting through the ideas that lie ahead. We are embarked on a dialogue. The goal: to discover that love of the natural world is an intrinsic part of faith in God, to practical and critical effect.
from Chapter 1: BEASTS AND ENTANGLED BANK: A DIALOGUE
When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.
CREATION IN AND OUT OF FOCUS
A beautiful passage in the book of Job guides this theological exploration like the North Star that mariners steer by. The text appears when, in debate with his misguided friends, that suffering man in the land of Uz challenges them to abandon their rigid certitude about how the world works and look to another source of wisdom:
Ask the beasts and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing,
and the breath of every human being.
If you interrogate the flora and fauna of land, air, and sea, the text suggests, their response will lead your mind and heart to the living God, generous source and sustaining power of their life. In their beauty, their variety, their interacting, their corning to be and passing away, they witness to the overflowing goodness of their Creator. They even teach something about human beings, that these members of the community of life also receive their every breath as a gift from the same immensely immeasurable Giver of life.
Theology, which seeks to understand faith more deeply in order to live more vibrantly, has work to do here. For in truth it has seldom asked the beasts anything. At first glance, this omission seems odd. The idea that God creates this world, not just human beings but the whole universe, is a central pillar of Christian belief. The Bible itself opens with a magnificent mythic hymn detailing how God utters the world into being with all its various habitats and fecund creatures, delighting in it on the sabbath day; and the Bible closes with a vision of a transformed heaven and earth, awash in the glory of God. In less picturesque fashion all the creeds of the church include the natural world in their confession of faith. Among them, the Nicene Creed confesses the church’s belief in ‘one God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible’; and in Jesus Christ, ‘through whom all things were made’; who became part of creation through incarnation and lived all the way through to suffering and death; and ‘in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life’ who awakens hope for ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. There is not a catechism that does not make the doctrine of creation a central teaching. A key corollary is the intrinsically worthy quality of what has been created: and God saw that it was good (Gen. 1.10).
However, over the centuries for a variety of reasons which we will examine, theology narrowed its interests to focus on human beings almost exclusively. Our special identity, capacities, roles, sinfulness, and need for salvation became the all-consuming interest. The result was a powerful anthropocentric paradigm in theology that shaped every aspect of endeavor. It cast Christology, for example, in its mold; the good news of the gospel flowing from the death and resurrection of Christ offered hope to human beings while the great biblical theme of cosmic redemption flew by in silence. Every area of theology can be charted making similar restrictive moves. Even the theology of creation, once it gave due play to the appropriate truths, receded to become a backdrop for the human drama. The natural world was simply there as something God created for human use. Theology lost touch with the universe.
This sketch is incomplete because there were always exceptions. In an influential study, The Travail of Nature, Paul Santmire uncovers how Irenaeus and the mature Augustine, among some few others, included the natural world in their understanding of the history of salvation. (1) Other historical studies find the ecological motif showing up in some of the early desert Fathers and Mothers, first-millennium Celtic saints like Bridget and Ciaran, and medieval thinkers such as Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, and Julian of Norwich. It appeared around the edges of medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure and the reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin; surfaced in the sensitivities of John and Charles Wesley and Teilhard de Chardin; and has blossomed in Eastern
Orthodox theologies. By every account Francis of Assisi stands out for his loving sense of connection and blessing of fellow creatures. This subterranean stream of creation theology is a resource that shows Christianity is not an inherently anti-ecological faith. Yet in the overall voice of theology heard in churches, universities, seminaries, and pulpits until the latter part of the twentieth century, the natural world as a subject of religious interest had largely slipped from view.
Without losing valuable insights into the grandeur, misery, and salvation of the human condition, theology in our ecological era needs to broaden its anthropocentric focus for its own adequacy. It needs to reclaim the natural world as an essential element both theoretically and in practice, or risk missing one of the most critical religious issues of our age which will affect all foreseeable ages to come. It is not a matter of either-or, of either human importance or the value of all other life. The ecological crisis makes clear that the human species and the natural world will flourish or collapse together. Given the long eclipse of interest in species other than human, however, the mandate now is to bring the buzzing, blooming world of life back into theological focus. We need to ‘ASK the BEASTS’.
To order your own copy of ASK THE BEASTS, go to
• Your local bookstore, or to
• Amazon.com through St. Benedict’s website, stbenslososos.org/shopping.html
• This book is also available as an e-book
Footnotes (to the Preface)
1 Holmes Rolston III, Three Big Bangs, p. xi
2 Forum on Religion and the Environment (published by Harvard University Press)
3 Aldo Leopold, A Sand Country Almanac, p. 110
4 The website greenfaith.org carries statements
from leaders of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches,
plus Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist, and Jewish faiths.
5 Karl Rahner, Theological Reflections, Vol 23, p. 165
6 Sallie McFague, “An Earthly Theological Agenda,”
in Ecofeminism and the Sacred, p. 84-98
7 Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, p. 489
Footnotes (to Chapter 1)
1 Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature:
The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology, chs 3-4