Thanks again to Bo and Tripp for providing space for me to pursue these reflections, and to readers of my earlier post, many of whom offered thoughtful and encouraging comments. – by Justin D. Klassen
I’d like to follow up on the claim of Žižek and others that the God revealed in Jesus is not a God of tidy prose logic but a God who celebrates reality’s “loose ends.” Last time I suggested that this lesson of so-called “Christian atheism” should dispossess us of the proverb that “everything happens for a reason,” a proverb that turns out to be more evasive of suffering than it is truly consoling.
This time I’d like to suggest that the appeal to a God of “reasons” is at work not only in common Christian responses to grief, but also in contemporary Christian objections to environmental ethics. One of the guiding questions here, then, is whether a shift away from the idea of a God who secures life’s “logic” can open us up to a properly ethical embrace of non-human nature.
Recently the Cornwall Alliance, a conservative Christian group, produced a DVD series urging their fellow Christians to object mightily to any agenda remotely smacking of environmentalism. Earth care, they argue in the videos, is fundamentally opposed to the Gospel of Christ, and the promotion of such care is a most insidious threat to our children, whose supple minds are especially susceptible to the temptations of idols. Not surprisingly, the Cornwall Alliance titled its series “Resisting the Green Dragon.”
Similar sentiments to those expressed in this series surfaced in a more broadly palatable form during Rick Santorum‘s recent campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. One of the things that made Santorum so attractive to evangelical Christians was the character of his opposition to government-enforced environmental protections. All the candidates shared this opposition, of course, but what Santorum added to the requisite I’ll-cut-all-government-agencies pitch was a theological justification. Barack Obama’s environmental policies, Santorum said, are not only fiscally unsound and politically overreaching, they are based on a “phony theology.”
Immediately Santorum came under fire for intimating that Obama is not really a Christian, and thus appearing to support those unfounded but still-popular claims that he is a secret Muslim. This, Santorum assured us, was far from his intention, whether such a suggestion played well with his base or not (it did). What he really meant, as he told CBS News the next morning, was that Obama doesn’t seem to have a Biblical understanding of human beings’ unique status in the universe. He meant that Obama’s policies don’t appear to respect the Biblical idea that human beings have “dominion” over the rest of creation.
What dominion means, Santorum stated confidently, is that human beings ought never to be “subservient” to non-human nature. In other words, in the (commonplace) event of a conflict between human economic goals and the continued thriving of non-human ecosystems (read: Alberta tar sands), the Bible says human considerations always hold the trump card. On this understanding, to “care” for the environment apart from the weighing of potential human costs and benefits is to subscribe to a “phony theology.”
On the surface, the shared concern in these examples of Christian resistance to environmentalism is that of avoiding idolatry (worshipping the creature instead of the creator). Yet their common effect is the aggrandizement of the human, to the point where their appeals to “dominion” seem out of step with any lordship discernibly modeled on Christ, who was among us “as one who serves.” What is at the root of this need to be so emphatic about human dominion that one all but ignores concrete Biblical models of authority? Is it possible that we try to assert a monarchical dominion over non-human nature because we have discovered something true but also troubling about creation? Have we perhaps discovered that creation is less tidily explicable than the human need for reasons can handle? By extension, do we dominate the non-human other because it’s our Biblically-justified, “God-given right,” or because we don’t like the idea that meeting God in his good creation might require developing a love for wilderness of all kinds?
Consider what Annie Dillard writes, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, about what the “second book” of revelation (nature) reveals about its maker:
The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn’t, particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz. (139)
The question is, do we love pizzazz? Is the world’s wild freedom, its extravagant perpetuation of the new, is all this given to us that we might “master” it? Does living up to our dominion mean straightening nature’s tangles, turning an apparently personal, albeit wild, power into something humanly profitable?
Francis Bacon certainly thought so. He justified the violence of his new scientific method by appealing to his contemporaries’ interest in dominion, rooted in fear of nature’s extravagance and “femininity” (which for patriarchy amount to the same thing):
For like as a man’s disposition is never well known or proved till he be crossed, nor Proteus ever changed shapes till he was straitened and held fast, so nature exhibits herself more clearly under the trials and vexations of art than when left to herself. (Bacon, “De Dignitate,” Works vol. 4, 298.)
In other words, if you want to relate to non-human nature in the way God intended, you cannot respect its (chaotic) agency, but must transform it, even violently, into an instrument of the human will. Thus do boreal forests become “oil reserves.”
Is there a warranted Christian response to the discovery that non-human nature is characterized more by extravagance than by efficiency which is not so Baconian? In other words, does Christianity encourage us toward a more sympathetic relationship with nature’s wildness than the fear which leads to oppressive dominion?
In Ecology at the Heart of Faith, Catholic theologian Denis Edwards offers a helpful summary of how Christian conceptions of the Holy Spirit have always pushed in the direction of hospitality toward creation’s extravagance, instead of fear of the same. The Spirit of God is depicted in the Bible as the life-giving breath which animates all creatures. Thus Edwards suggests that in the ongoing process of creation, the Spirit is the agent of the radical newness (the baffling pizzazz) that we can see all around us in an emergent universe. God as Trinity so loves communion among differences that in the person of the Spirit he creates ever more surprising differences to mediate in what amounts to a wildly extravagant love.
It seems appropriate, then, that in the Bible the Spirit is not given a human face: “the Biblical images for the Spirit tend to come from the natural world. . . . These images preserve the otherness of the Spirit of God and resist the human tendency to domesticate the Spirit” (45). And yet, Edwards goes on, this refusal of domestication, this critique of anthropocentrism, does not make God as Spirit remote, for “it points to the otherness of nonhuman creatures as a place of God.” The breath of God in the world is a wild wind, and yet this ought not to lead us to fearful tactics of domination, but instead “to a new respect for what is wild and beyond human domestication” (46).
The imperative resulting from this view seems to be this: don’t imagine you can love or serve only where you see a human face, or that you forsake your properly human role when you transgress that boundary. For the Trinitarian God’s creative love does not wish to establish you as a static sovereign, safe within your border as “human” against the “non-human.” Instead, the Spirit’s love seeks to form you according to the model of “ecstatic” personhood that is the very life of God. To prefer self-possessed anthropocentrism is to reject the personhood/life at the core of reality. If we seek our true dominion, if we seek to model the only truly “authoritative” form of life in the universe, then we must seek to be initiated into this way of personhood; we must seek to be inspired to hospitality rather than fear by the excesses of creaturely difference. This would not mean inviting tigers into our homes, but it should mean resisting political decisions whose preservation of human “benefits” at the expense of non-human nature is really to our detriment as persons being formed by the wildly hospitable Spirit.
Justin D. Klassen is Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the
author of the recent book, The Paradox of Hope: Theology and the Problem of Nihilism (Cascade, 2011), and co-editor of a forthcoming volume on Charles Taylor’s account of modern secularity. He lives in Louisville with his wife, Melissa, their two daughters, Clara and Gracie, and their dog, Eloise.