Noah, climate change, and “assisted migration”

In Celia Deane-Drummond and David Clough’s Creaturely Theology, Christopher Southgate expands on an idea he discussed briefly in his recent book The Groaning of Creation (see my posts here). Southgate points out that, due to human-caused climate change, we’re looking at a massive die off of animal life in the near future (what has been called the sixth great extinction). Naturally, when we debate climate change and what, if anything, we should do about it, we focus primarily on the costs and benefits to us. Occasionally, if we’re feeling expansive, we might briefly consider the effects that rising temperatures and sea levels may have on millions desperately poor people around the world, but it would be a huge stretch to say that those people’s interests are given anything like the appropriate weight in our debates. How much less, then, are we taking into consideration the interests of the billions of non-human animals that will be affected?

Extinction, Southgate says, is a sui generis event. It’s not just a harm inflicted on numerous individual creatures, but the final disappearance of an entire way of being in the world. The seriousness of such an event, much less many such events, and the near-certainty of at least some degree of significant climate change should lead us, he argues, to consider whether we have responsibilities, Noah-like, to ensure the continued existence of threatened species.

Southgate argues that traditional environmentalist and animal-rights philosophies are ill-equipped to deal with this scenario. Environmentalists have tended to urge human beings to leave wild nature be–our responsibilities toward non-human creatures are couched in terms of restricting our impact on them. Meanwhile, animal rights proponents have been concerned primarily with the plight of animals already within the sphere of domestication and, hence, human society to some extent. But what Southgate urges us to recognize is that we’re rapidly approaching–if we haven’t already reached it–the point where human action is inescapably changing the conditions for all life on earth. (What Bill McKibben called “the end of nature.”) We can’t simply abdicate our responsibility for that influence by taking refuge in the comforting illusion that we can shrink our impact to nothing. The damage is done, or is inevitably being done, so we have some responsibility for mitigating it.

Given the limitations of existing environmentalist and animal rights frameworks, Southgate proposes turning to the Bible for some ethical principles. The OT teaches us that God cares for everything she has created, and the NT, while short on pro-ecology passages, upholds a normative ideal of concern for the other and servant-hood. Southgate here echoes Andrew Linzey’s idea that human beings are the “servant species,” the one kind of creature capable of taking an interest in the needs of others, even at great cost to itself. Moreover, Christian theology inculcates a moral preference for the most vulnerable, the voiceless, those who are unable to stand up for their own interests. Finally, Southgate appeals to a Pauline notion of community as mutual giving and receiving, suitably expanded to include non-human creatures. The interdependence of the entire ecosystem drives home the point that not only can non-humans be the beneficiaries of our gifts, but we also constantly receive from them.

With these principles in hand, Southgate proposes that we need to seriously consider costly programs of assisted migration for species threatened by habitat loss due to climate change. This could take two forms: the first would be the creation of “corridors” allowing animals safe passage from their old, increasingly unsuitable habitats to more hospitable ones; the second would be actually physically transplanting a viable population from one habitat to another. (Southgate offers a thought experiment of relocating polar bears to Antarctica.) Such measures would not be easy or cheap, but there may be cases where a daring and sacrificial use of resources would be called for. At a more practical level, merely making people aware of such seemingly far-fetched possibilities might drive home the need to make preventative changes now.

Southgate warns that we’re not in a position to save all the creatures as Noah was, but

the profoundly difficult and risky exercise of moving animals from one locus to another should reinforce the point that the earth is our only ark, and the great preponderance of our current current creativity and ingenuity must be towards prayerfully and humbly ensuring the continued health of the “vessel,” such that it is no longer necessary to keep displacing its inhabitants. (pp. 264-5).

This is a radically different notion of “dominion” or even “stewardship” than the one we’re used to: it calls upon humans to take active steps to foster the continued flourishing of the rest of creation, even if it requires significant sacrifice on our part. Southgate distinguishes between an anthropocentric and an anthropomonist ethic: we must recognize the central place that humans, inescapably, play in caring for creation, but without elevating our own interests to the sole, or even most important, criterion for how we exercise that care.

Addendum to previous post

Something funky happened to that last post, and part of it got cut out. But in the version I originally wrote, I included on my list H. Richard Niebuhr’s Radical Monotheism and Western Culture. I posted a bit about it here.

Toward a non-anthropocentric theology

Jeremy asked if I’d recommend any books on moving away from an anthropocentric theology. This is a question at the intersection of some perennial ATR themes, so I thought I’d post the answer here. The following list makes no pretense to be either authoritative or exhaustive, but these are some books (in no particular order) that I’ve found helpful:

Bill McKibben, The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation

H. Paul Santmire, Nature Reborn

Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology

Denis Edwards, Ecology at the Heart of Faith

Jay McDaniel, Of God and Pelicans

James M. Gustafson, An Examined Faith

Ian Bradley, God Is Green

Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation

Of course, a lot depends here on what we mean by “moving away from anthropocentrism.” But, at a minimum, I think it’s any theology which recognizes that the rest of creation does not exist solely for the sake of human beings and that God’s purposes encompass more than human salvation. The books above range from fairly orthodox to fairly heterodox, and I wouldn’t endorse everything in all of them, but all provide stimulating food for thought. The list doesn’t include any classic sources, which isn’t to deny that there are resources in the tradition for a less anthropocentric theology (Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Wesley and others contain material that might be richly mined, it seems to me); neither does the list include much in the way of biblical studies, but that also seems like an important area for thought on this topic.

p.s. Other recommendations are welcome!

Cognitive ethology, the Left, faith, and dominion

A long but worthwhile essay that to some extent recapitulates the argument made by John Gray in Straw Dogs. Gray’s contention was that the secular Left has largely jettisoned the metaphysics of Christianity but held on to its anthropocentric outlook and belief in a progressive history. Echoing Nietzsche, Gray argues that the scientific, secular outlook undermines, instead of underwriting, humanism.

The author of this essay, Steve Best, maintains that the Left, even while taking pride in its progressive, enlightened, science-informed views, still has largely ignored the “animal question,” i.e., the fact that science increasingly reveals a continuity between human and non-human animals. Instead, progressives still largely hold on to the old, discredited humanism that posits an unbridgeable chasm between us and the rest of creation.

As a Christian who’s also interested in moving beyond a strictly anthropocentric theology, I come at this from a slightly different angle. On the one hand, the Bible (not to mention simple observation) reveals that we have at least a de facto dominion over the rest of nature: what we do disproportionately affects the rest of the world whether we like it or not. On the other hand, historical Christianity has largely adopted an anthropocentrism that is at odds with the Bible, at least on some readings. For instance, in a brief but interesting book, German theologian Michael Welker argues that a close reading of the opening chapters of Genesis describes a human dominion that privileges human interests but also demands a care for the rest of creation:

The mandate of dominion aims at nothing less than preserving creation while recognizing and giving pride of place to the interests of human beings. In all the recognizing and privileging of the interests of human beings, the central issue is the preservation of creation in its complex structures of interdependence. The expansion of the human race upon the earth is inseparable from the preservation of the community of solidarity with animals in particular, and inseparable from the caretaking preservation of the community of solidarity with all creatures in general. God judges human beings worthy of this preservation of creation. They are to exercise dominion over creatures by protecting them. Human beings acquire their power and their worth precisely in the process of caretaking. The mandate of dominion according to Genesis 1 means nothing more and nothing less. (Creation and Reality, p. 73, emphasis added)

Traditionally–and perhaps understandably given humanity’s limited ability to affect the non-human world in the past–Christianity has adopted the view that the rest of the world exists for our sake. There have been debates about whether this is an authentically biblical view or one imported from elsewhere (e.g., classical philosophy). Either way, I believe Christianity has the resources to adapt to new understandings of our place in creation without jettisoning the biblical tradition and the essential tenets of Christian theology.

Creation’s travail

To hear some anti-green conservatives tell it, you’d think that nature-worship and radical environmentalism were making major inroads into our society. Of course, the opposite is much closer to the truth: the general attitude toward the natural world that underlies most of our daily activities is one that regards nature as little more than a vast storehouse of resources to be used and a vast sink in which to deposit our waste.

Still, it’s true that Christians, at any rate, shouldn’t idealize nature in either its benign aspects or its wilder and more threatening ones. There is a strain of deep green thinking that is anti-human and anti-civilization. But Christians should be a bit ambivalent about nature.

I don’t like to talk about nature as fallen, because that implies that there was a time when it was unfallen. I don’t think modern science permits us to think that, and I don’t think the Bible requires it. Instead, I’d prefer to talk about the created world as being “in travail” (cf. Romans, chapter 8). This implies that nature is good, but is on its way to being consummated by the power and grace of God. Nature doesn’t provide the standard of good and evil, but neither is it to be disregarded for the sake of human interests.

This view, not incidentally, provides a more solid grounding for compassion and justice for animals than either nature-mysticism or a purely utilitarian attitude toward the natural world. We don’t have to ignore the “red in tooth and claw” aspects of nature in order to recognize that our fellow creatures are caught in a world order that is indifferent to their suffering.

Yes, trying to intervene in the predator-prey relationship will usually cause more suffering than it alleviates, but we can at least recognize that it does cause innocent suffering and will (please God) be abolished–or at least radically transformed–in the eschaton. How much more, then, does a recognition of nature’s travail provide grounds for not adding to the suffering of God’s innocent creatures by imprisoning them in our institutionalized systems of food production and scientific experimentation?

The ecological promise of an orthodox theology

I was flipping through H. Paul Santmire’s excellent book Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology, and discovered that he takes Matthew Fox’s (no, not that one) “creation spirituality” to task on many of the same grounds that I criticized J. Philip Newell. Like Newell, Fox embraces a form of nature mysticism, disdains talk of original sin in favor of “original blessing,” and embraces a “Christus exemplar” account of the atonement, wherein the “Cosmic Christ” reveals to each of us that we are already one with the divine.

Santmire has some sharp words for Fox’s view:

His approach resonates all too disquietingly with the anti-urban, romantic individualism of the Thoreauvian tradition. When all is said and done, Fox leaves us in the sweat lodge. His thought is not fundamentally at home in urban America. We can see this deficiency from the vantage point of any inner-city neighborhood. (p. 21)

Santmire goes on to consider, as an example, an inner-city neighborhood called Asylum Hill in Hartford, Connecticut and wonders what Foxian creation spirituality would have to say to a welfare mother, a pregnant teenage girl, or an unemployed veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The message of Fox may speak to an elite, largely affluent few. What does it have to say to the impoverished urban masses around the globe, who must struggle every day for their sustenance, often against overwhelming odds? What does it say to a global society that is increasingly urban, for better or for worse? (p. 21)

He points out that the vast majority of people in the world are well aware of the reality of radical evil–a reality that Fox downplays; what they need is a message of hope and liberation. And the “Christian masses” throughout the ages have been quite aware of their own bondage to sin and evil, which is the experiential ground of the power of other atonement images: the Christus victor and Christus victim motifs. Christ the victor defeats the powers of darkness and death; Christ the victim reconciles us to God:

…the faithful in the Asylum Hills of this world are all too aware of their own mortality and their own sinfulness to make any sense at all out of the claim that they themselves, not just the Christ of their salvation, are somehow divine. They do not want to be told that they are divine. They do want to hear that they have been delivered and that they have been forgiven, so that they can then engage in the struggles for justice in this world, liberated from hopelessness and freed from the burdens of their own alienation. (p. 23)

Santmire agrees with Fox that “Cosmic Christology must be an urgent theme for contemporary theology” (p. 23), but “creation spirituality” glosses over the profoundly ambiguous nature of the created world and fails to do justice to Christian eschatological hope. The vision of the Bible is not a protological one, calling for the return to some primeval paradisical state, but an eschatological one, looking toward a future consummation and redemption:

Original blessing is not the ending, but the beginning for the Bible. Eschatology as a yet-to-be-fully realized dawning of a New Heaven and a New Earth, in the midst of which the New Jerusalem is to be situated–this is the driving biblical vision. But there is always what Ernst Käsemann called the “eschatological reservation,” the witness to the “crucified God” (Jurgen Moltmann), as the sign of “God with us” in our struggle to hope and to love in the midst of this oppressed and alienated world God creates and blesses as good. (p. 24)

In a neat turnabout, Santmire argues that it’s actually the often-demonized Augustine who can provide some resources for an adequate theology of nature and creation. The mature Augustine, he maintains, abandoned his Manichean roots and attendant distrust of the material world, and situated his narrative of fall and redemption within the context of a story of an unfolding and yet-to-be-consummated creation. For Augustine, creation is good and overflowing with blessings from its Creator, and yet the cosmos waits for its fulfillment in the end times. Within this process, human beings act out the drama of alienation from and reconciliation with God, the latter achieved by the incarnate Son. Augustine provides resources for a theology that does more justice to the goodness and ambiguity of both creation and humanity than Fox’s creation spirituality or the popularizers of an idealized Celtic spirituality.

Also, be sure to check out Marvin’s posts on the topic of Celtic Christianity and Pelagianism (this one and an older one here.)

Salvation as re-creation

A while back I wrote about Keith Ward’s understanding of how God acts in the world, as explained in his book Divine Action. Later in the book he devotes a chapter to the incarnation and offers an interpretation of the atonement.

Ward argues that Jesus is properly seen as the enfleshment or embodiment of God’s love in the world: “We could then say that Jesus does not only tell us about God’s love or even act out a living parable for the distinctly existing love of God. Rather, what he enacts is the very love of God itself, as embodied in this human world and for us human beings” (p. 215).

However, the incarnation isn’t merely a lesson for us about God’s love. Or, as Ward says, “Jesus is not primarily an educator, who comes to bring salvation through knowledge, achieved in meditation and stilling of the individual mind” (p. 221). The human predicament is more radical than that; “liberal” views of the atonement sometimes suggest that we merely need to see or learn what is right in order to do it, reducing Jesus to an example:

[God] cannot simply forgive us, while we are unable to turn from our sin — that would be to say that it does not really matter; that somehow we can love God while at the same time continuing to hate him! He cannot compel us to love him, without depriving us of the very freedom that has cost so much to give us. He cannot leave us in sin; for then his purpose in creation would be wholly frustrated. (p. 222)

What Ward suggests instead is that the atonement is God re-creating human nature in the life of Jesus. In his life, obedience, suffering, passion, and death, Jesus re-enacts the drama of human life, but in a way that maintains its complete fidelity to God. He thus overcomes sin and the powers of evil to which we are subject. “He takes human nature through the valley of the shadow of death, and in him alone that nature is not corrupted. He is the one victor over evil; he has experienced the worst it can do, and he has overcome it” (p. 223).

In Jesus, human nature is made anew, the way God intends for it to be. But how can this help us? Aren’t we still stuck in our sins? Ward contends that Christ can help us because he “has remade human nature in an uncorrupted form” (p. 223), and we can participate in that nature, or have it implanted in us through faith in Christ. As St. Paul puts it, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17).

The nature that we receive from God is a human nature that has triumphed over evil, that has entered into its heart and remained uncorrupted. It is not that God simply creates a new nature in us when we ask; but that he takes human nature to himself, shows what it truly is and what its destiny is and shows that it cannot be conquered by sin and death. That is the nature he places within us, making us sons by adoption, taken into the life of the Son.

This view seems to have more affinities with the Eastern Christian emphasis on theosis than certain substitutionary or retributive models of the atonement promulgated in the West, particularly since the Reformation.

The idea of incarnation and atonement as “new creation” also, it can be argued, fits better with an evolutionary view of the development of human nature. As I’ve argued before, evolution seems to require that we relinquish the supposition that humans existed in a state of perfect righteousness prior to a historical fall. Instead, we might propose that early human beings were immature and undeveloped and that God intended them to develop along a certain path. Instead, however, humanity has taken the wrong road, preferring self-seeking, greed, and violence to altruism, justice and peace. Atonement, then, consists of setting us back on the right road.

A view very much like this has been developed by George L. Murphy, a physicist and Lutheran pastor, in two interesting articles: “Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin” and “Chiasmic Cosmology and Atonement.” Regarding atonement as re-creation, Murphy writes:

Atonement comes about because God in Christ actually does something to change the status of people who “were dead through the trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). To be effective, the work of Christ must overcome the nothingness toward which sinful humanity is headed, a nothingness which through its terror of death, guilt, and meaninglessness, it already experiences. If humanity and (as we shall note later) the rest of creation with it, is on the way to nothingness, God must re-create from nothing. Atonement parallels in a precise way the divine creatio ex nihilo.

One benefit of this view of salvation is that it puts humanity back in its proper place as part of creation. As Lutheran “eco” theologian H. Paul Santmire says:

The Incarnation of the Word is thus a response to the human condition of alienation from God and rebellion against God, as well as a divine cosmic unfolding intended to move the whole of cosmic history into its final stage. United with the Word made flesh, human creatures are restored to their proper place in the unfolding history of God with the cosmos. Thus united, they are free to live in peace with one another and with all other creatures, according to the imperfect canon’s of creation’s goodness. Now they may live as an exemplary human community, as a city set upon a hill, whose light cannot be hidden. (Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology, p. 60)

I think this provides one fruitful way for thinking about salvation that avoids some of the pitfalls of both a forensic and merely exemplarist view and has a certain consonance with an evolutionary picture of the world.

2008: The year in book blogging

I’m not going to provide a best books of the year list, but here’s a sampling of those that got their hooks into me enough to generate some more or less in-depth blogging (needless to say, most of these weren’t published in 2008):

Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power

“Empire of dysfunction”

Evelyn Pluhar, Beyond Prejudice

Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4

Jay McDaniel, Of God and Pelicans

“Creation and omnipotence: a process perspective”
“More thoughts on omnipotence and creation”

Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation

Index of posts here.

John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation

“Initial thoughts on Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation”

S.F. Sapontzis, Morals, Reason, and Animals

“What kind of equality?”

James Alison, On Being Liked

“An end to sacrifices”

John Gray, Straw Dogs

“John Gray contra humanism”

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

“Against the globalized food chain”
“Pollan on the ethics of meat eating”
“More on Pollan and vegetarianism”

November/December reading notes

Also known as the lazy man’s book review, or capsule reflections on books I might not get around to posting on at greater length:

Ecology at the Heart of Faith by Denis Edwards and Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology by H. Paul Santmire

A Catholic (Edwards) and a Lutheran (Santmire) offer nicely complementary re-tellings of the Christian story that emphasize the cosmic and ecological context of God’s presence with us.

Religion and Human Fulfillment
by Keith Ward

Ward looks at controversial moral issues through the lens of various religious traditions (Christianity and sexuality, Islam and just war, Buddhism and beginning- and end-of-life issues, Judaism and religious vs. secular law); he defends a version of “transcendent personalism,” which holds that reason can discern right and wrong, but that belief in a transcendent source of being and goodness provides an extra impetus for the moral life.

God, Religion, and Reality
by Stephen R.L. Clark

A clever and idiosyncratic defense of traditional/classic theism, taking the view–unfashionable in both philosophical and theological circles–that reason can demonstrate the existence and attributes of God.

Rawls and Religion: A Defense of Political Liberalism by Daniel Dombrowski

The noted process philosopher/theologian argues for the essential compatibility of Rawlsian liberalism with robust religious commitment. He also addresses weaknesses in Rawls’ view regarding such issues as war and peace, abortion, and animal rights.

Loving Jesus by Mark Allan Powell

Powell, a Lutheran seminary professor and self-proclaimed “Jesus freak,” offers a “post-critical” piety that engages heart and head in “loving Jesus in a complicated world.” Very helpful reflections on prayer, personal devotions, stewardship, and spiritual growth that are neither overly abstract nor simplistic.

On deck:

Liberty: Rethinking an Imperiled Ideal by Glenn Tinder

The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel by Craig Koester

Creation and omnipotence: a process perspective

As a follow-up of sorts to my reading of Christopher Southgate’s The Groaning of Creation, I picked up Jay McDaniel’s Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence for Life, which Southgate refers to a number of times in his book.

McDaniel is a process theologian who has also been influenced by feminist theology, as well as Zen Buddhism. His goal is to develop–as the subtitle suggests–a “biocentric” theology and ethic for what he calls a “postpatriarchal” Christianity.

Like Southgate, one of the issues that concerns McDaniel is the problem of animal suffering. However, McDaniel goes further in revising the concept of God than Southgate would. Along with several other process theologians, McDaniel questions the traditional notion of creation ex nihilo (or creation out of nothing).

Instead McDaniel suggests that, alongside God, there existed at the time of creation a “primordial chaos” out of which God forms patterns of order and complexity, ultimately giving rise to the world as we know it. The chaos has its own internal principle of energy and spontaneity, which also sets limits to what God can do in creating the world.

…for [process theologians], God did not create the world out of nothing. Rather he–or, better, she–created the world out of a chaos of energy events present at the beginning of our cosmic epoch. […] At that stage the chaos was within her as part of her body, and while it was devoid of order and novelty, it was nevertheless possessive of its own ability to actualize possibilities, its own creativity. By availing the chaos of possibilities for order and novelty, god gave birth to the universe within herself, and the birth process continues. (p. 36)*

Thus the world should be seen as at least partly independent of God and outside of strict divine control. Indeed, God’s power is conceived by McDaniel not as determining events unilaterally but as presenting possibilities that are creatively actualized (or not) by finite beings. Drawing on quantum theory he contends that, even at the subatomic level, “pulses of energy” may go in more than one possible direction and are not strictly predictable or determined. And as matter becomes more complex, and eventually gives rise to living beings, this principle of creativity and unpredictability becomes ever more pronounced.

This explains, according to McDaniel, why the creation proceeds along paths that seem inimical to the will of an all-loving God. God can creatively respond to what happens in creation and try to “lure” it along more life-giving paths, but cannot strictly determine what happens. Hence creation tends toward ever more complex forms of life, but also contains a great deal of apparently pointless suffering.

McDaniel argues that, even though it departs from tradition, his approach is justified because it takes God’s love, rather than power, as its starting point. While much traditional theology has understood God’s power as the ability to unilaterally determine events, many have had trouble reconciling this kind of power with the love that Christians attribute to God. If God is love, does it make sense to attribute a unilateral determining power to him, or do our notions of power need to be re-thought in light of the kind of self-giving love we see in Jesus?

More thoughts on this in the next post…
*McDaniel writes, “I use the feminine pronoun purposefully, though I do not mean to imply that masculine language cannot also be helpful. Within contemporary Christian communities, different images can and should be used to indicate the all-loving God of Christian faith, female as well as male” (p. 36).