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The Brink

New Theologies of Nature

This symposium brings together three thinkers on the ideas of nature, animals, God, and the relationship between all of them.

This symposium brings two authors together to discuss three recent works on “nature.” Willemien Otten (University of Chicago Divinity School) and Michael Marder (University of the Basque Country, Spain) discuss their recent works in conversation with Mark Wallace (Swarthmore College), who regretfully could not join the discussion. Each book is featured below with its excerpt from the publisher’s page.

Thinking Nature and the Nature of Thinking: From Eriugena to Emerson by Willemien Otten “puts medieval Irish theologian John Scottus Eriugena (810–877) into conversation with American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). Challenging the biblical stewardship model of nature and histories of nature and religion that pit orthodoxy against the heresy of pantheism, Willemien Otten reveals a line of thought that has long made room for nature’s agency as the coworker of God. Embracing in this more elusive idea of nature in a world beset by environmental crisis, she suggests, will allow us to see nature not as a victim but as an ally in a common quest for re-attunement to the divine. Putting its protagonists into further dialogue with such classic authors as Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and William James, her study deconstructs the idea of pantheism and paves the way for a new natural theology.”

Green Mass: The Ecological Theology of St. Hildegard of Bingen by Michael Marder “is a meditation on—and with—twelfth-century Christian mystic and polymath Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Attending to Hildegard’s vegetal vision, which greens theological tradition and imbues plant life with spirit, philosopher Michael Marder uncovers a verdant mode of thinking. The book stages a fresh encounter between present-day and premodern concerns, ecology and theology, philosophy and mysticism, the material and the spiritual, in word and sound.

Hildegard’s lush notion of viriditas, the vegetal power of creation, is emblematic of her deeply entwined understanding of physical reality and spiritual elevation. From blossoming flora to burning desert, Marder plays with the symphonic multiplicity of meanings in her thought, listening to the resonances between the ardency of holy fire and the aridity of a world aflame. Across Hildegard’s cosmos, we hear the anarchic proliferation of her ecological theology, in which both God and greening are circular, without beginning or end.”

When God Was a Bird: Christianity, Animism and the Re-Enchantment of the World by Mark I. Wallace recovers “the bird-God of the Bible signals a deep grounding of faith in the natural world. The moral implications of nature-based Christianity are profound. All life is deserving of humans’ care and protection insofar as the world is envisioned as alive with sacred animals, plants, and landscapes. From the perspective of Christian animism, the Earth is the holy place that God made and that humankind is enjoined to watch over and cherish in like manner. Saving the environment, then, is not a political issue on the left or the right of the ideological spectrum, but, rather, an innermost passion shared by all people of faith and good will in a world damaged by anthropogenic warming, massive species extinction, and the loss of arable land, potable water, and breathable air. To Wallace, this passion is inviolable and flows directly from the heart of Christian teaching that God is a carnal, fleshy reality who is promiscuously incarnated within all things, making the whole world a sacred embodiment of God’s presence, and worthy of our affectionate concern.”

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.