Asking the Beasts



Like all other academics I know, I have a shelf full of “to-read” theology books—some of which have been there an embarrassingly long time.  I get to them when I can—in between other pressing books that relate directly to current courses I am teaching, or current writing projects.  It’s an aspirational shelf to which I continue to add monthly, even as space grows ever slimmer.

One of the books that had been sitting there for a few months was Elizabeth Johnson’s new book (out in 2014) Ask the Beasts:  Darwin and the God of Love.  (I love Johnson’s work, so don’t ask me why I hadn’t gotten to it before now—I don’t have a good excuse.)  In any case, I finally cracked the spine a few days ago, and, I’m while I’m very sorry I didn’t get to it earlier, I’m so happy to finally have read it, because it’s outstanding.  Better late than never, I suppose.

In any case, the book is outstanding, and gives me a great jumping-off point to talk about issues of ecology, justice and theology from the place where I am most passionate—animal welfare, and our relationship with other non-human animals.  The title of the book comes from a verse in Job:  “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you” [Job 12:7-8].  Johnson interprets this command as follows:  “…consult the creatures of the earth and listen to the religious wisdom they impart” [xv].  It seems straightforward, but as she acknowledges, with very few exceptions Christian theologians not only have failed to “ask the beasts” anything, they have treated animals as though they have no inherent value at all—and certainly no religious value.  I would say it even more strongly:  Christian theology has provided religious grounds for exploiting animals, abusing them horribly for human use and amusement, and decimating their populations for the flimsiest of excuses.

In short, we have a centuries-old, deeply entrenched mindset that only now in recent decades are Christian theologians confronting on a larger scale.  Finally, isolated individual voices that have been speaking out about these issues for a while now are joining together to form a choir.

Johnson, is, of course one of those voices, and, just to continue the metaphor, she’s a valued soloist as well.  In this particular book, she puts Darwin’s Origin of Species in conversation with the Nicene Creed, in order to demonstrate “the relationship between the evolving world and one triune God” [xvi].  Through this conversation, she hopes to inspire a renewed ethical impetus toward “a stance of responsibility for life on Earth,” and also to remind theologians of the critical contribution we can make in this project.  She writes, “By uncovering the importance of plants and animals and their ecosystems in their own relationship to God, such study can invigorate ethical behavior that cares for them with a passion integral to faith’s passion for the living God.  In the process, human beings find their own identity reimagined as vital members of the community of creation rather than as a species divorced from the rest, and step up to protect Earth’s creatures as neighbors whom they love” [xvii].

I can’t really imagine saying it any better than that.  For me, what is key to her argument here is the point that it is the same passion, the same love we have for God that we have for our non-human brothers and sisters—in loving them, we incarnate our love for God; and the more we love God, the more we love them.  And, even more strongly, we cannot be the people God created us to be without them; to know our own humanity, we need to know them, in all their “animality”—their “bat-ness,” “panda-ness,” and “tree lobster-ness” [I just listened to a story about the Lord Howe Island stick insect—also called “tree lobsters”—this morning on NPR:  the wonders of creation never cease to amaze me!].  We are not better than they are—just different; and we need them as much as they need us.

The last chapter advocates for the “community of creation” paradigm, rather than the “dominion” paradigm that has dominated Christian theology.  She writes, “If evolutionary science has established any great insight it is that all life on this planet forms one community.  Historically, all life results from the same biological process; genetically, living beings share elements of the same basic code; functionally species interact without ceasing” [267].  The point?  “….human beings are not simply rulers of the life-world but dependent upon it at the most fundamental level” [267].  This vision invites us—no, compels us—to live differently, to see the world differently, and understand humanity differently.  We cannot wait; the time is now, and everything is at stake. 


But, what I love about Johnson and her writing is that it is not the terrible threat of what could be—catastrophically, apocalyptically—but rather the beautiful vision of what could be that she finds most compelling, and describes with such grace and love.  She writes, “A flourishing humanity on a thriving planet rich in species in an evolving universe, all together filled with the glory of God:  such is the vision that must guide us at this critical time of Earth’s distress, to practical and critical effect….….living the ecological vocation in the power of the Spirit sets us off on a great adventure of mind and heart, expanding the repertoire of our love” [286].  Flourishing together, filled with the glory of God:  oaks, okapis, roses, ravens, squid and sequoias--and yes, humans.  This is the vision of Scripture, the hope of the incarnation, the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.

You don't have to be a theologian to read, understand and appreciate this book.  I highly recommend it.