A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Word Made Flesh


If the new pope is looking for a chief theologian, I’d like to recommend Elizabeth Johnson. She’s not only one of those American Catholic women the Vatican loves to hate; she makes the case for why we humans need to stop trying to separate ourselves from the other animals and nature.

In Christian terms, our very “salvation”, she suggests, depends on it.

I first saw her on TV two years ago, giving a talk called “An Ecological Inquiry – Jesus and the Cosmos.” Her talk begins with the story of a small penguin being washed up, exhausted, on the beach of Rio de Janeiro one morning. As a man on the beach that morning describes it:

“The penguin fell to its side. It had swum 2,000 miles, its normal pursuit of anchovies possibly confused by shifting ocean currents and temperatures. It would not survive on the hot sand. Joggers arrived, the firemen were called, and finally the animal was rescued.

Relieved, I was nonetheless discomfited by the sense that something troubling had happened … In fact, more than 1,000 Magellanic penguins have washed up on those shores in recent years. … That frail, helpless, displaced being had made me suddenly understand our human impact on the planet.”

So, what does this story have to do with religion, specifically Christianity? For thousands of years, religious leaders have tried to tell us that our life on Earth is but a stepping stone to something much greater and eternal, that how we treat the Earth and its nonhuman inhabitants is of little importance, and that we should do everything possible to raise ourselves above the “natural” order of things.

Johnson, however, doesn’t just dispute this; nor does she simply throw a bone to the ecology, as many of her peers do today with talk of “good stewardship” and the like; she turns the whole notion of our being above or beyond nature upside down.

A Christian person, she says, cannot truly love Jesus without loving nature.

galaxy-1-040413When the John Gospel tells us that “the Word was made flesh,” John is telling us that the divine becomes material. It’s the story of the universe coming into being – the whole evolution of nature, from the Big Bang to the birth of galaxies to the explosion of first-generation stars and the creation of the elements essential to life like carbon and oxygen. And on then to the formation of solar systems like our own, the birth of life as we know it, and then to animals “with brains so complex that we experience self-conscious intelligence and freedom.”

Bacteria, worms, pine trees, blueberries, horses, the great gray whales–we are all genetic kin in the great community of life.

… The flesh that the Word became thus reaches beyond Jesus and other human beings to encompass the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which we are composed.

… Rather than being a barrier that distances us from the divine, this material world becomes a sacrament that can reveal divine presence. In place of spiritual contempt for the world, we ally ourselves with the living God by loving the whole natural world, part of the flesh that the Word became.

In the gospels, she reminds us, Jesus spends much of his time catering to the physical needs of people – feeding them in numbers large and small, and healing them with his own spittle and words of comfort.

And then, like all of nature, he dies.

No exception to perhaps the only ironclad rule in all of nature, Jesus died, his life bleeding out in a spasm of state violence.

Even the story of his resurrection is not one of the “soul” moving on to another sphere of existence, but the story of the “transformation of our whole relational body-person-self-dust and breath together.”

Ecological awareness of our earthly and cosmic history impels us to extend this hope [of redemption] beyond its human scope to include a future for the whole natural world.

Johnson has little time for theologies that suggest that only humans have a future beyond this life.

Once when the famous U.S. naturalist John Muir came across a dead bear in Yosemite, he wrote a biting criticism in his journal against religious folk who make no room in heaven for such noble creatures: “Not content with taking all of Earth, they also claim the celestial country as the only ones who possess the kinds of souls for which that imponderable empire was planned.”

To the contrary, Muir believed, God’s “charity is broad enough for bears.”

Love for the Earth, she says, is at the core of any hope of salvation.

We need to shape our lives in the knowledge that nature is grounded in the sacred. Salvation encompasses not just human life but all life and the whole cosmos itself.

… Human action that aborts nature’s possibilities by wreaking harm to ecosystems and other creatures is nothing less than a profoundly sinful violation against life. It shortchanges nature’s promise, killing off what might yet be. In so doing, it frustrates God’s own creative vision for the future of this universe.

Indeed, if we humans are to be part of the future of the cosmos, rather than an evolutionary dead end that goes extinct after having caused so much damage to the rest of nature, it’s time to lay aside outdated notions of being separate from the other animals and superior to nature.

Only when we embrace nature and respect all other living creatures are we able to embrace and respect ourselves. In religious terminology, that would be salvation, redemption and rebirth for our very wayward species.

Here’s the 60-minute video of Elizabeth Johnson’s talk. (And a shorter article by her on the same subject is here.)