Calling human destruction of other species “profoundly wrong” and “sinful,” a prominent Fordham theologian argued on Sept. 24 for a new Christian embrace of the value of the natural world in order to stop its continuing ruination.
“Our attention must widen beyond humanity alone and recenter vigorous moral consideration on the whole community of life,” said Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., Distinguished Professor of Theology, during a public lecture. “Recognizing that we are kin to every other creature, we stop to preserve and protect all of it, not just because it is useful to us, but because it has its own intrinsic value.”
“Evolution and Creation: A Dialogue toward Ethics” was the title of the John C. and Jeanette D. Walton Lecture in Science, Philosophy, and Religion, which Johnson delivered at the Corrigan Conference Center on the Lincoln Center campus.
Sister Johnson is the author of many bestselling books; her latest–Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Bloomsbury, 2014)–asserts that love of nature is intrinsic to faith in God and not, as she put it in her lecture, “an add-on.”
She described the pollution, overconsumption, and human overpopulation that are ruining habitats and killing off species while also disproportionately afflicting the poor. Thousands of species are disappearing every year, compared to the normal “background” extinction rate of one annually, she said.
“The current destruction of life on earth by human action has the character of deep failure,” she said. “To speak scientifically, we are wiping out the fruit of millions of years of evolution on earth, and we are shutting down its future. To speak philosophically, this is a moral failure, and ethicists have coined new worlds to name the violence—biocide, ecocide, geocide, the killing of these things. To speak theologically, this destruction, to use religious language, is profoundly sinful, contradicting the word of the creator whose beloved creation this is. Sacrilege and desecration are not too strong a designation.”
She spoke of an ancient belief in Creation’s direct relationship to the creator, a belief that “has largely disappeared from the teaching of the churches, from their preaching and their rituals, and thus from the religious imagination of ordinary folk.”
Reasons include the medieval distinction between the natural and the supernatural; the Reformation emphasis on human sinfulness that “eclipsed the value of creation”; and the “aggressive entrepreneurial culture” of the colonial era, based on an imperialistic interpretation of the “dominion over the rest of life” given to Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis, she said.
But, noting St. Thomas Aquinas’s conception of God existing in all things, she said “the inner secret of ecological communities of plants and animals is the dwelling of the spirit of God within them.”
“They are profoundly related to God on their own, apart from human mediation,” Sister Johnson said. “Instead of being distant from what is holy, then, the evolving world of life bears the mark of the sacred, being itself imbued with a spiritual radiance.” While this world of life is not divine, she said, it is “pervaded, vivified, and encompassed by the spirit of God. This means that the natural world is sacramental … and communicates the gracious presence of God.”
This religiously significant relationship existed long before humans did, she said. “Ask yourself, What was God doing for three-and-a-half billion years before we evolved—waiting for us to evolve in sin so he could come and redeem us? I don’t think so. It’s not all about us.”
Solutions to the current ecological crisis include awareness of nature’s value, she said: “Knowing about the evolution of our kin can awaken wonder and stir us to action to stop its wasting.”
“This is a critical moment that needs all hands on deck,” she said.