At the Maryknoll Mission Center on Sunday (appropriately the feast of St. Francis of Assisi), theologian Elizabeth Johnson spoke to an audience of about 200 priests, brothers, sisters, and laypeople on whether “God’s charity is broad enough for bears.”
The question comes from a story about the American explorer John Muir. One day Muir came across a dead bear, still bleeding, in the middle of the woods in Yosemite National Park. That night in his journal he wrote a biting criticism against religious folks he knew who made 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"—that is, do humans think they are the only ones with souls?
“Theology,” Johnson began her address “calls the natural world 'creation' because of its relationship to God… and it’s under threat now.” We stand sickened at the deadly damage being done to the world. We know about it through headlines: ice caps melting, air and water being polluted, species becoming extinct by the tens of thousands per year. We know now that our planet has become “unfit for life,” and we know that ecological damage leads to social damage: poor people suffer the most from environmental destruction.
Although she has written theology about ecology and eco-justice for years, Johnson has never had the degree of papal support for her theology that she does now. She called Laudato Si'' “the most important encyclical written in the history of the Catholic church,” because of its broad scope—economic, political, social, scientific, psychological, spiritual, theological, and ethical—because it is corrective to past failures of church teaching, and because it ends on a note of joy, that we can be introduced to a new way of being human that will strengthen all parts of creation with diminishing any.
In Laudato sí, Francis calls for a conversion to this new way of being human—and conversions are usually met with resistance. Yes, we may resist converting to a more ecologically sustainable way of living because of hard-to-break habits of consumption, waste, and greed—especially those of us who live in powerful, wealthy, and developed nations like the United States. But Johnson focused her talk on a deeper problem: the theological resistance to conversion toward the earth, present in Christianity. John Muir’s story “crystallizes” this problem because Muir, in criticizing his religious friends, criticizes their God. And rightly so. Johnson says that we need to ask ourselves: “Is the God I believe in madly in love with bears?” And trees, and dandelions, and river currents, worms, and sparrows? How can we weave the natural world into our religious preaching in ways that will promote its flourishing? How can we foster a spirituality that makes love of nature an intrinsic part of faith in God, and not just an add-on to it?
According to Johnson the two greatest obstacles to answering these questions are long-standing ideas held by the church: the belief that human beings have a God-given right to dominion over other creatures, and the belief that Jesus is the redeemer of only human beings, and not all of creation.
In taking up the idea of domination, Johnson quoted Pope Francis, who put it quite forcefully:
An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about.
Of course, before Laudato si', scholars had tried to figure out why we came to believe that humans were first before the rest of creation, and who's responsible for misleading us. Johnson names Greek philosophy, which early Christianity employed when it encountered the Hellenistic world, as one of the culprits. This philosophy understood the world in strict binary terms: matter and spirit, privileging spirit over matter. In this understanding of the world, to be holy was to ascend, turning away from body and earth, toward a spiritual realm. Johnson bemoaned the clear prejudice against matter then, “as if God didn’t create matter and love it.”
A second culprit was the 16th century imperialist interpretation of Genesis 1:26 in which God gives Adam “dominion” over all creatures. When a king gives dominion to a lord, Johnson explained, it is the lord’s duty to enact the will of the king in his region. In this case, God’s will was for Adam to care for creation, as a lord of the earth, not destroy it. But theology from Europe in the sixteenth century interpreted dominion to mean domination and used Genesis 1:26 to justify conquering other lands, exploiting natural resources, and domesticating or killing animals. Even enslaving darker indigenous peoples became understood as part of God’s will for the lords of the earth.
Here Johnson paused. “It is daunting to me how deeply engrained is this view of humans as dominators of nature.” It has erased creation from faith experience, and thereby ethical concern for it. It has opened the door to massive exploitation of land, animals, and people with “barely an ecclesial whisper against it.” Until now. Quoting Laudato Si' again, she points out that Pope Francis is doing something new:
Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world
Returning to the scriptures, Johnson points out that "dominion” isn’t the paradigm of the first chapter of the book of Genesis. The word is used only in one place (Psalm 8:6) other than the 1:26 call from God to Adam. Rather, the Genesis story takes a “circular, community view” that places humans in the world with God at the center. We are all creatures of God. We all breathe the same breath, that of the creator spirit. We have more in common with other species than differences. We have responsibility for our part in creation, but not all of creation. Creatures have value in God’s eyes apart from their usefulness to humans.
The Book of Job really drives this point home—particularly chapters 38-41, when God, the voice in the whirlwind, speaks to Job out of the storm asking “where were you when I laid the foundations for the earth?” putting Job in his rightful place, as part of creation, not the center of it. After a 130-verse divine scolding, in which God lists animals, plants, seas, and all the natural workings of the world God created and is responsible for, Job’s horizon is expanded beyond human rules of retribution, into the peace of cosmic reality and his place in it. In the absence of any sort of “dominion mandate,” as Johnson put it, Job is able to see the mystery of the natural world without having any control over it. Creation is not about us.
Johnson emphasized over and over again how difficult it will be for Christians, and humans in general, to imagine a world in which nature isn't about us. The second major obstacle to a conversion away from this view is another long-standing Christian belief, Jesus Christ. "So central to our faith is Jesus," she said "and yet we tell Jesus's story with such silence on nature." This silence, too, has been misleading.
For one, we believe in the incarnation—that is, God chooses to save the world by joining Word to flesh. In the famous opening words of John's gospel that proclaims this, the original Greek word used for "flesh" meant literally flesh, matter, "of both man and beasts." And because gospel of John was written at a time when Hellenistic philosophy dominated, flesh also denoted a mere earthly nature apart from divine influence, prone to sin and opposed to God.
Jesus, of course, was in fact a human man. But we know now that humans as a species come from a long line of interconnected DNA. Johnson quoted Darwin:
What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions?
Parsing from Danish theologian Neils Gregersen's concept of "deep incarnation" Johnson insisted that God radically became human, into tissue and biological matter. God came not just into the biological world, but into the material which the biological world is made of. Like all creatures, Jesus was a moment in the biological history of this planet. "Deep incarnation" understands the evangelist John to be saying that what the Word became (sarx) connects Jesus with the matrix of the material universe down to its very roots. As John Paul II said at the World Day of Peace in 1999, “the incarnation is a cosmic event and it affects the entire universe.” And as "they" say, we're all made of stardust.
Consider, too, the historical life of Jesus. “For someone considered a spiritual savior, he was very concerned with his body,” Johnson pointed out. He used spittle and touched people with his hands to communicate healing. He fed people, and was attuned to their physical needs. He lived in an agrarian society, and so his preaching reflects this, as he frequently uses natural metaphors like seeds, birds, and fields. "Not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it," he says in Matthew 10:29.
Jesus’s whole ministry is centered on the coming kingdom of God, and knowing the kind of king God is, that means the flourishing of all creation as well as all of humanity. At the end of Jesus’s life, the Word of God suffers in a love that conquers death. The logic of “deep incarnation” gives strong warrant for extending love of cross to all creatures. Christ on the cross is in solidarity with all creatures in their dying.
Johnson wrapped up her talk liturgically. "When we say Alleluia we rejoice in Jesus’s blessed destiny because it opens up something for all creation to rejoice in. We do this in the biggest way on Easter. “Right?” she looks at us to see if we’re all paying attention. “We aren’t just happy for him.” Once a year, in the liturgy of the Easter vigil a hymn, The Exsultet, is sung to mark the official start of the liturgical calendar. Before we mention any "peoples," first we sing
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
And so "on the most important night in the liturgical year, the Church is singing to all creation and not just to people," Johnson concludes. Hope for salvation becomes a cosmic hope, beyond mortal hope.
In closing, like good Christians, we all prayed the prayer "in union of creation" with which Francis closes Laudato si', antiphonally. It begins "Father, we praise you with (not through or for or in spite of) all your creatures."