A Primer in Ecotheology with Celia Deane-Drummond

This post is the first in a series based on reading I’m doing this winter in the literature of ecotheology.

I’m not exactly sure where the eucalyptus branches came from, but there they were at the front of the sanctuary on the altar. The woman who put them there said they were to remind the congregation of Australia, eucalyptus being a common tree in that country and that particular Sunday being about the time we learned that hundreds of millions of animals had died in the fires there. In the midst of the service I found myself praying for those animals. I had never prayed such a prayer from the pulpit before.

Though praying for the wellbeing of marsupials was new to me, the confluence of the ecological and the theological is not new at all. This literature even has its own name–ecotheology. This is theology concerned for the world’s ecosystems and theology shaped by our growing knowledge of these ecosystems. In this first blog post on this body of literature I will engage a new introductory volume written on the subject written by Celia Deane-Drummond. It’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified to write such a book than her.

Celia Deane-Drummond holds PhDs in both theology and biology. She taught for number of years at the University of Notre Dame and more recently was named the Director of a new entity, the Laudato Si Research Institute. That institute is a Jesuit project at Campion Hall in Oxford University. Deane-Drummond’s book bears the title A Primer in Ecotheology: Theology for a Fragile World. The volume manages both scholarly balance and measured polemic with surprising ease. Given the fragility of the world, the eucalyptus aflame, such balance and ease seem almost inappropriate. Passions run high around these subjects.

Deane-Drummond dedicates A Primer in Ecotheology not to a person, but, more fittingly perhaps, to her family’s dog. The human niche, she tells us in one of the book’s later chapters, is linked with that of other creatures. Coevolution has made this so. And coevolution means that it may be our primordial ancestors’ response to creaturely others that prepared us to recognize God as one distinct from ourselves. Human lives are richly and unavoidably enmeshed in the lives of other creatures. We are learning that this is true not just historically or emotionally or with respect to the food we eat. We are learning that we are not who we are without the myriad of bacteria and other microbiota in our gut and skin. We are not who we are without other creatures.

The heart of Christian theology, in classical mode at least, is Christology. What then of Jesus and of the incarnation in the conversations at this juncture? Central to the story that Christian’s tell is the claim that God took on flesh in the person of Jesus, and yet in doing so did not cease to be God. Is this incarnation, then, only about God and humans, or is it also about the whole of creation? Near the end of her book, Deane-Drummond introduces readers to a term (coined by Niels Gregersen) that appears as the text’s theological apotheosis. The term is “deep incarnation.”  Deane-Drummond writes with approval, “Creation, then, is not so much the backdrop against which human history is played out, but the first act in the overall drama, that eventually comes to expression in the incarnation of the Word (or Wisdom) made Flesh (85).” The force of this is that the incarnation deals not only with sin, a moral category limited to humans, but also with suffering. God takes on flesh to deal with suffering. Non-human creatures do not sin, but they do suffer. Deep incarnation is the assertion that when God takes on flesh in the person of Jesus, this is a development that involves the entire created order. God does not only share in the suffering of human creatures, but also that of the koala lost in the smoke. To follow Jesus, Deane-Drummond tells us, is to enter into solidarity with suffering creatures.

Here readers are caught, along with the ecotheologians Deane-Drummond introduces, against the rails of a question: Do we love and approve of nature as it is, suffering included, or do we love it as something to be transformed by the incarnation, something free of suffering? Is nature something we only love after we have taken out our theological tools and constructed it to our liking? Forest fires are a natural part of forest ecosystems. Such ecosystems run on the death and discomfort of living creatures. Is this a blight to be tolerated or a beauty to be celebrated? A Primer in Ecotheology suggests that the literature has no ready answer.

Deane-Drummond tells us that Christian ecotheology, as a focused and self-conscious discourse, got its start in the 1970s and early 1980s. However, its roots can be traced as far back as any historian might care to explore. Ecotheologians find inspiration in a variety of ancient sources: the Bible itself and the work of a number of early Christian leaders (e.g. Maximus the Confessor and Irenaeus).

Contemporary Catholic thinkers often see ecotheology as an extension of the Catholic Social Teaching that began with Rerum Novarum in 1891. Over the past 50 or so years ago the ecotheology literature has unfurled in a variety of directions: from relatively traditional projects that seek to find green strands within the Bible, to more radical revisions that attempt to generate entirely new “creation stories” by focusing on the cosmos instead of humanity, and to ecofeminist approaches that link environmental degradation with patriarchy and the dualistic thinking they observe driving both.

At the center of much of this literature is the grappling with the Bible that constitutes the theological enterprise. Ever since Lynn White’s famous essay from 1967, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crises,” Christian theologians and biblical scholars have been keen to show that the Bible encourages care for the earth. Ecotheologians engaged in this sort of work see such hermeneutic approaches as being in line with the way readers of the Bible have always been influenced by the particular concerns of their own context. On the more revisionist end of the hermeneutical spectrum are a diverse set of what Deane-Drummond calls “ecotheologies of liberation.” These theologians follow the lead of Latin American voices arguing that God is on the side of those who are oppressed.  Leonardo Boff is one theologian who sees care for the poor and care for the environment to be of a piece. Feminist thinkers like Grace Jantzen and Sallie McFague take a similar approach in outline a link between the marginalization of women and nature.

The hero in Deane-Drummond’s survey of ecotheology is Pope Francis, who she describes as an “icon for the Anthropocene.” Deane-Drummond is not uncritical of the Pope’s theology. For instance, she notes that he fails to see the gendered aspect of ecological harm. However, she says that it was Francis who “put ecotheology firmly on the map of Christian theology and official Catholic discourse” (55). In his encyclical letter Laudato si’ Francis takes various scientific disciplines seriously and knits them together with not just theology, but also Christian practices and forms of Catholic piety. Francis shows how traditional theological themes—love, humility, glory and peace–each have significant ecological implications (66-69).

In my own view the significance of the Laudato si’ shows itself in the way it bridges concerns held by various factions of the global church, some of which make their presence known in A Primer in Ecotheology. In addition, and as Deane-Drummond notes, Francis’s encyclical offers something unique to Christian ecological ethics: it is a text credibly addressed to the global church dealing with a global problem. Put differently, in a world where bush fires are given horrendous power by anthropogenic climate change, the context within which we read the Bible must itself be global. Local hermeneutics will not due.

If there is one aspect of Deane-Drummond’s book that is strained, it is her critique of the practice of governments applying monetary values to environmental goods. It’s true that this sort of valuation fails to capture the true meaning or worth of nature. However, when the destiny of a bioregion is determined by a central government, whether in one fell swoop or in many small cuts, some way of comparing relative values is necessary. Where Deane-Drummond’s prescription is powerfully on-target is in her twofold claim that the way forward for Christian communities will be marked, not only by a new sense of responsibility, but also by the development of “environmentally sensitive practices” and “ecological conversion.”

We often say that one aspect of prayer is how it shapes those of us who practice it. In bringing the things that weigh heavy on our heart to God we learn to care about the things God cares about. From that perspective praying against the needless end of creaturely life a world away is not so very strange. Celia Deane-Drummond’s primer helps us see a variety of ways the ecological and the theological are similarly connected.

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