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Nature by Rubem Porto Jr CC BY-NC 2.0
The Brink

Christianity, History, Nature: Responsible Ways to Address Environmental Concerns

Both books evoke a sense of nature that likewise challenges and transcends conventional notions of creation as a passive, static object of divine activity. They do so by having nature engage with and even touching on the divine, or at least creating the conditions that allow such a touch to happen.

It may not quite be ‘comme il faut’ for an author to mention their own recent book when discussing those of others, but I hope it can be allowed in service of the thematic at hand: how to deal with nature responsibly in the current environmental crisis? Insofar as my Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking: From Eriugena to Emerson (Stanford, 2020) is a resource for that question, it is so largely indirectly. Rather than putting crisis front and center, I wanted to approach nature’s long religious arc as embedded it in the “longue durée” of Western history in which Christianity and nature find themselves entangled. Of the available options I was for a long time interested in the debate between science and religion. Why I eventually cast it aside was out of fear that it would be a largely one-sided debate to which religion scholars would feel attracted but from which scientists would keep their distance. The approach I settled on instead was to arrange a group of Platonic authors around the common goal of ‘thinking nature’, that is, of encountering nature in thought, which I contrasted with ‘thinking about nature’, that is, instrumentalizing nature as the object of calculative reasoning. My idea was that the Platonic and religious sensitivity of my chosen authors had probably also uniquely sensitized them to nature. Key voices in my selected group were the ninth century Irish author John Scottus Eriugena and the nineteenth century North American Ralph Waldo Emerson, with the added provision that I read Eriugena through Emerson, both for ease of reading and to cement the continuity between premodern and modern authors.

I consider Mark Wallace’s When God Was a Bird: Christianity, Animism, and the Re-Enchantment of the World (New York, 2019) and Michael Marder’s Green Mass: The Ecological Theology of St. Hildegard of Bingen (Stanford, 2021) projects closely aligned with mine and their authors allies in important respects. Both books evoke a sense of nature that likewise challenges and transcends conventional notions of creation as a passive, static object of divine activity. They do so by having nature engage with and even touching on the divine, or at least creating the conditions that allow such a touch to happen. Incidentally, that may make their books more poetic or mystical than mine, shaped as mine is by the recursive discipline of “thinking nature.” In their own constructive way both books also cross the divide between premodernity and modernity/postmodernity. This may also explain why both authors seem less interested in terminological quibbles about the death of nature, as advocated recently by both Bruno Latour and Tim Morton, than in making nature–from the wood thrush in Wallace to Hildegard’s greenest branch in Marder–speak to our current environmental situation, if not crisis, in which we are all thrown together. On that latter point both books truly excel, striking tones that are quite different, and in many ways far more effective, than my own work, which ought perhaps to be seen as a preamble to theirs!

In Wallace, I am exceedingly impressed by how he personalizes the Christian and the environmental story. Note that he is not bringing them together seamlessly, but arranges the seams of his narrative such that they show us precisely where our human choices and responsibilities lie vis-à-vis nature. In Marder, I am attracted to the shameless way, whereby I take “shameless” here in the positive sense of “forthrightness without the weight of undue emotional baggage,” in which he is able to break through but not destroy the thick crust of historical scholarship to foreground Hildegard as a salient ecological mind, his persuasive powers and her evocative resonance jointly bolstered by the musical motifs that hold together his chapters. Both these works have striking connections with political theology in one or more of their aspects. I will comment on each book in turn and end with a comment related to political theology and gender that emerged from my own indirect approach.

Wallace’s When God Was a Bird explains and illustrates that religion is essentially situated in nature. Wallace uses any openings to transcendence he finds as a wedge to engage in religious and theological analysis. Thus, he holds “that God in biblical times was encountered as a bird-God—and that this encounter opens up the possibility that all things today are filled with God and thereby deserving of our reverence and care” (31-32). The stories Wallace tells us about animals and birds in the Bible are riveting and taught me to be much more mindful of the role of nature inside scripture, i.e., that God speaks to us in scripture also in and through animals. Wallace describes Jesus as a shaman of sorts (88-90) and describes his goal as therapeutic and curative (89). This brings up the problem of incarnation, which Wallace explains as indicative not only of Christ’s human enfleshment, but also more broadly of God taking on sentient and animal beings. Wallace uses the example of the dove representing the Holy Spirit, which bolsters his case for continuity with the pre-Christian tradition of an avian divinity. This is his key religious claim. It is made all the more accessible when we learn that the dove landing on Jesus’ shoulder at his baptism was more like a pigeon than the overused white dove (28). Through the dove-connection it is the Spirit that gets the most play in the book’s trinitarian-incarnational spirituality.

Since the book opens with the song of the wood thrush I quote the final stanza from Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush.” Picturing a dark, wintery scene, it sounds a note of hope:

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

As in Hardy’s poem, Wallace’s sense of Christian animism or Christianimism conveys that there is in nature a hope but also a lament that birds sound, while humans are unaware. The key distance to be bridged may thus well be that between nature and humanity, whereby ecology needs to do its work, much of it political, but theology urges us to adopt a particular task as well. That task is to become attuned to the flight of the dove/pigeon/Spirit and the call of the wood thrush, different manifestations of avian divinity as the religious root metaphor to which Wallace alerts us that serve as timely calls to action.

Hildegard of Bingen is regularly associated with nature in medieval scholarship, as in Sara Ritchey’s recent Holy Matter. Changing Perceptions of the Material World in Late Medieval Christianity (Cornell, 2014). Wallace engages in a brief discussion of her visionary pneumatology marked by greenness (99-107), but she is front and center in Michael Marder’s Green Mass. Theoretical in approach though sparse in outside references, Marder’s book situates Hildegard only minimally in her medieval monastic milieu, transplanting her instead to the contemporary arena of ecological discourse. But in contrast to Ritchey’s study, he does not hold up female asceticism as the distinctive mark of her identity and self-confidence. Instead, Hildegard’s visions speak to us directly, losing none of their impact even if they are not presented in their religio-historical embeddedness. In terms of theo-ecological sensitivity, Marder echoes Wallace’s idea that incarnation is more capacious than human enfleshment but widens the circle from the animal to the plant world: “If the Word accompanying viriditas is clothed with flesh in the Virgin, then that flesh is not just theandric, but phytotheandric: vegetal-divine-human” (73). The image of an avian divinity in Wallace is here replaced by a phytophonic soundscape in conformity with the book’s clarion call to “listen to freshness” (vii; 11). The book’s organization in musical chapters with such titles as “prelude” (3-8), “missives” (73-85) “ardencies” (89-114) and “kisses” (135-46), which relate to musical phytophonies by the late composer Peter Schuback, bring a crisp structure to Marder’s narrative. For example, “missives’ deals with Hildegard’s correspondence to situate her prevalent theme of “viriditas” or greenness as something that is sent out into the world. The fact that Hildegard’s visions can be turned into soundscapes, projecting different incarnations of her inspiration as it were, is in line with her talents as a formidable polymath. Fittingly, the title Green Mass refers to liturgy as well as to the biomass of plants.

If Wallace turns on occasion to Eliade and Ricoeur, though also Heidegger, Marder is attuned to Heidegger with a touch of the messianic of Agamben, seeing every soul as a messiah (84). But if they are, it is as part of a larger whole, as “…Hildegard’s theanthropocentrism is fresh and refreshing, strengthening the transmission lines that run from life to life, suffused with the greening green. It launches us into the world, where ecology and humanity are the missions, far in excess of religious missionary activity, of helping the world become world, developing the relations out of which it is quilted, and allowing the human to become human as a result” (84). The notion of viriditas not just as greenness but as the forceful “greening green” also aligns with a Deleuzian rhizomatic scheme, though it is more directly the product of Marder’s own approach to Western thought as “plant thinking.”

Having moved from Wallace’s avian divinity to Marder’s phytophonic soundscape, we find ourselves in Hildegard not only in the plant world, but in a state of moral and ontological flux between aridity and viridity, with an ecological duty and divine command to move the dial from aridity to viridity. These Hildegardian concepts are helpful ecological pointers to push us towards a more balanced and respectful approach to nature. Hildegard sees the incarnation as a refreshing of nature’s original viridity, and in its retinue considers sin not so much a moral lack as a case of ecological dryness. Especially today it is important for humanity, which in the Hildegardian universe is a part but not the center of the universe, to realize that God fashioned Adam from the earth, the very soil in which humans are rooted with the plants and as if plants themselves that need to be greened to properly grow.

I conclude with a note on environmental justice and gender. Although Marder does not focus much on Hildegard’s female authorship in relation to her ecological awareness, he points to subversive comments in Hildegard’s theology, in which Mary is the greenest branch and the incarnate Christ its flower (15; 38; 93). This seems a reversal of traditional gender imagery, to which Hildegard socially otherwise conforms herself but which her theological-ecological thoughts powerfully decry. In not dissimilar fashion I have found Eriugena to be a more capacious thinker on gender than his forebear Maximus the Confessor. Maximus’ view is that a sexually undivided human being predated the physical Adam and Eve, their division only overcome in Christ’s resurrection, which prompts a subsequent reliance on prayers of especially male monks to continue the effect of this cosmic Christology. Eriugena in the end does not hold on to this myth of anthropological origin and its implicit privileging of male asceticism. One of my surprising takeaways of my study of nature in the Christian theological tradition has thus been its ramifications for gender and the position of women.

Given our current political predicament with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, it seems more attention needs to go to the analysis of traditional natural theology. Its categories, quite different from the evocative idea of nature advanced in the studies discussed here but widely embraced by a majority on the Supreme Court, domesticate and instrumentalize nature in ways that undermine women’s agency and control over their bodies. This is another reason to turn to Hildegard and make a revised theological ecology, or ecological theology, of aridity versus viridity rather than sterility versus fertility, our norm.

New Theologies of Nature

Symposium Essays

Christianity, History, Nature: Responsible Ways to Address Environmental Concerns

Both books evoke a sense of nature that likewise challenges and transcends conventional notions of creation as a passive, static object of divine activity. They do so by having nature engage with and even touching on the divine, or at least creating the conditions that allow such a touch to happen.

For Another Theology of Nature

While, convinced that the thinking of nature reached its apogee in nineteenth-century German Naturphilosophie, philosophers and scholars in the humanities abandon it for being historically limited and treat it with disdain as an anachronistic remnant of hierarchical reasoning projected onto the world at large, new studies in theology show that nature is anything but an outdated concept. On the contrary, it breathes with the promise of a future, notably the future or the futures of the past, of what nature will have been.

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