It’s hard to look at what’s happening to the Earth and all the animals as being part of a divine plan. As mass extinction wipes out hundreds of species every day, most religions offer little more than bland resolutions about “stewardship” and ecology. Others even say that what’s happening doesn’t matter because they’re “saved” and after they’ve wrecked this world they all get to go to a new one.
In her new book Ask the Beasts – Darwin and the God of Love, Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson calls such disrespect for life “the cardinal sin”. In fact, Ask the Beasts might just be the best book ever written when it comes to bringing together natural science with the realm of faith and religion, and with the clear mission of protecting life on Earth from the havoc that our species is wreaking upon it.
The first half of Ask the Beasts lays out the theory of evolution as Charles Darwin came to understand it in his travels around the world: how tiny, random genetic mutations take hold when they promote the life and development of a species, and how, over millions of years, this brings about a living world as breathtaking as Planet Earth.
Darwin’s Origin of Species isn’t just a great work of science; it is, Johnson tells us, an amazing work of literature and quite the opposite of what many people imagine to be some dusty, wordy, unintelligible tome. If you haven’t read it (I hadn’t either), you may well find yourself putting it on your book list when you’ve finished Ask the Beasts.
Johnson loves the Bible, too. Not as a book of science, but as reaching into matters that go beyond the natural sciences. I first came across her work when she was giving a talk called “An Ecological Inquiry – Jesus and the Cosmos.” That talk, available on video, begins with the story of a penguin washing up on the beach in Rio de Janeiro, way off course, after a 2,000-mile journey, most likely as a result of climate change.
The Word becoming flesh is the story of the universe coming into being – the whole evolution of nature.From there, Johnson takes us to the Gospel of John in the New Testament, whose opening words describe how “the Word became flesh.” John doesn’t say that the Word was made human (the Greek would be ‘anthropos’) or that “the Word became a man” (the Greek ‘aner’), but that it became flesh (the Greek word ‘sarx’). The Word becomes material; it becomes the cosmos itself. 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 creation of the elements to the birth of life as we know it, to the penguin who washed up on the beach, and to animals “with brains so complex that we experience self-conscious intelligence and freedom.”
Increasingly over the centuries, however, and especially in Christianity, the physical world has come to be seen as separate from, opposite to, and even inimical to the world of the spirit. (Sects like the Gnostics saw the physical world as the work of the devil.) But these notions are a human invention, and one that engenders precisely the kind of disrespect for nature that’s led to the great extinction that’s now underway. And that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
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.
With such an understanding, who can willfully go on violating nature?
Ask the Beasts expands on this theme. Johnson is appalled by the mass extinction that’s taking place as more than 200 species disappear forever every day. Death cuts off life, she writes, but extinction cuts off birth.
The appropriate analogy is murder. Similar to the violent killing of human beings in their youth or prime, species that should be alive are being slammed into permanent disappearance by a disastrous failure of human wisdom and will. Rather than allowing their death to come naturally in old age after millions of years of evolution, human action is prematurely shutting species down. We should be holding funerals.
Evoking the Biblical story of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, where the disciples doze off as Jesus contemplates crucifixion, she writes:
It is as if Earth were undergoing its agony in the garden, about to be crucified, and we, the disciples of Jesus, are curled up fast asleep.
Johnson rejects many of the standard doctrines of how we humans are supposed to relate to the other animals – like, for example, that we should be “stewards” of the Earth.
Even at its best, [stewardship] envisions human beings independent from the rest of creation and external to its functioning.
She also dismisses other doctrines, like the notion that suffering is divine punishment for sin, explaining, for example, that the Book of Job (from which the title “Ask the Beasts” is taken) explicitly rejects the entire notion of suffering as punishment for sin. Death cuts off life, but extinction cuts off birth.
How, then, should we understand suffering and death? Johnson draws a difference between pain and death as being natural parts of the process of evolution (by which everything in the universe gives way to new and richer forms of life); and, on the other hand, the totally egregious destruction that humans are visiting upon the Earth, thus cutting off, rather than enhancing, the natural processes of life:
The march of vast numbers of species toward extinction is theologically idolatrous, brought about by policies that place lesser goods, and in particular the gods of money and comfort, above the God of life. Bowing down to false gods, we are letting loose the forces of nonbeing with unprecedented viciousness and magnitude.
For Johnson, it all comes down to the way we humans have tried to separate ourselves from the natural world. Indeed, through the centuries, Christian theology has led the way in telling us that we are separate from nature – superior, exceptional, spiritual.
The spirituality typically associated with this thought pattern was propelled by the metaphor of ascent: to be holy a person must flee the material world and rise to the spiritual sphere where the light of divinity dwells. One must turn away from nature in order to have communion with God.
The more we try to separate ourselves from nature, the more we end up separating ourselves from life and the source of life.How, then, do we start bridging the chasm we’ve created? First, she says, we need to understand ourselves as being part of all “sarx” – the “flesh” that is the natural world. The more we try to separate ourselves from nature, the more we end up separating ourselves from life and the source of life. Inevitably, we end up feeling more alone and more afraid of our own personal mortality. And to allay this fear, we try to buttress ourselves up with even more talk of human exceptionalism and superiority. (This is happening not only in the religious world, of course, but in science, medicine, politics, economics, entertainment, and every other sphere of human activity.)
All of which inevitably leads to yet greater disrespect of all other living beings – and yet more destruction.
How will it all end? The author is too intelligent to suggest a happy ending just around the corner – a deus ex machina dropping out of the skies at the last moment to save the day and make everything OK. Offering no predictions, she ends simply with a passionate call to the defense of life:
A flourishing humanity on a thriving planet rich in species in an evolving universe, all together filled with the glory of God: such is the vision that must guide us at this critical time of Earth’s distress, to practical and critical effect.
Ignoring this view keeps people of faith and their churches locked into irrelevance while a terrible drama of life and death is being played out in the real world. By contrast, living the ecological vocation in the power of the Spirit sets us off on a great adventure of mind and heart, expanding the repertoire of our love.
The beasts ask of us no less.
“Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love” is available in hardcover, Kindle, and Audible formats.