Johnson-orthodoxy and enviromental activism

This blog series is about Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts, which  is a contemporary theological dialogue with Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of the Species. There are many theological attacks on Darwin from people who want to take the Genesis creation accounts as precise history. However, Johnson’s dialogue with Darwin has produced deep insights into orthodox Christian doctrines about the creation, the incarnation, and the resurrection and last things.

She successfully shows that Christianity and Darwin’s theory are not necessarily in conflict. In fact it is Christian heresies that adopt a spirit-body dualism which are actually in conflict with Darwin. One should note that Johnson does not stray into a loose or watered down theology. She remains an orthodox Catholic throughout. The Nicene Creed is her standard.

I have to admit that a lot of people who have come under Darwin’s influence have left the reservation as far as Christian orthodoxy is concerned. Johnson shows that is not necessary.

Where she does come off as a liberal is in her chapter on environmentalism. She sees the current situation with regard to man and nature as one of androcentric, hierarchical human sin. Now I agree with her that pollution, over harvesting of the seas and forests, and disrespect for animal life are major problems, often the result of sin. The trouble, it seems to me, is that environmentalism and feminism have fallen into an ideological straight-jacket. For instance: environmental problems are androcentric (male centered) and not gynocentric (female centered)). Really?

She seems to me to support a low or no growth economy as a solution to environmental problems. The consequences of this in human misery are already visible where growth has drastically slowed in the world. So I would have appreciated more discussion of the trade-offs involved. She claims that environmental activism and social justice are not in conflict. But she did not present much evidence. Furthermore, she does not seem to consider how there may be technological solutions apart from politics.

But the problems of human-caused species extinctions and abuse to the environment are real. It is just a pet peeve of mine that much of the talk about this comes from urban and academic environments that are out of touch with farmers, fishermen, oil drillers, and loggers–the people who actually live in and work with nature.

I have lived most of my life in what I call “pick-up truck country” where people produce the foods and materials the cities depend upon. People out here know a lot about nature and are trying to balance respect for nature with our need to feed and supply the human race. It is not all sinful greed.

Ok. Enough of that.

I have loved this book.

Last winter my wife and I fled the polar vortex and spent nearly a month on Florida’s Gulf Coast. At that time of year the manatees come into the rivers where there are warm springs. The ocean gets colder (especially this year). The manatees come up the rivers. A few years ago manatees were in real danger of extinction. But they have been turned into a tourist attraction. This has had a lot to do with saving them. In January people flee the weather up north and the manatees flee the colder oceans. They meet each other just north of Tampa.


Is this not part of evolution too? The two species give something to each other. The adorableness (a word I think I just made up) of manatees is a trait that make humans want to save them. It is a survival trait.

Maybe it is just my social circle. But I seem to be surrounded by people who are crazy about animals. The connection and interdependence between humans and the world of animals is something that will continue to evolve. Our love for animals may be the salvation of some species, at least.

There is a final chapter about the community of creation.  So I should conclude this series with one more post.

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Johnson-cosmic redemption

I am continuing to read and reflect on Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts.

When I was in seminary long ago I had to read the medieval theologian, Duns Scotus.  I had no clue what he was trying to say and pretty much faked my way through an oral presentation about him.  Maybe I should have tried harder.

Johnson sets Duns Scotus’ view of the work of Christ over against that of Anselm and most of the western tradition.  That tradition says that Christ died for our sins.  It, therefore,  excludes nature and the cosmos from redemption.  Yet there are a number of passages in the New Testament (Colossians 1:15-20, Romans 8:18-25, Ephesians 1:10, Revelation 5:13 and 21:5) that talk about “the whole creation”, “all things”, or “every creature” being redeemed.

According to Johnson, Duns Scotus did not connect redemption directly to human sin. Christ would have come even if humans had not sinned.  God’s love would still have sought union with the beloved creation.  The divine desire for union with creation would still have required the incarnation.

So saving us from sin was only one aspect of what Christ’s death was about.  The power in the death of Christ was “not in satisfaction rendered to a God whose honor has been violated, but in the presence of divine love in the flesh enacting an historical solidarity with all who suffer and die” (p. 226).

She talks about how Karl Rahner built upon this idea.  She does not mention Wolfhart Pannenberg.  But his thought about this is similar to Rahner’s.  The world’s history has already revealed its hopeful fate in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

She makes a case for the inconsistency between our love of creation, our love of plants and animals, and the idea that they are not included in the restoration and redemption of the world.  Does God love these things less than we do?

Let me mention here something that comes from pastoral experience.  When the church had a program for children that drew many children from families where the parents were unchurched, we would close the program with prayer requests.  With these children there were more prayer requests for pets and animals than for people.  Adults apparently learn that you don’t make prayer requests for animals.  But the children are more real.

This, I think, backs up Johnson’s case.  People care about the natural world.  It is not necessarily a sentimental thing.  People who are very much involved in the cycle of life and death in the natural world love animals as much or more than others.  I am talking about people who raise animals for slaughter, who hunt and fish, and who eat meat.  I have a recently deceased uncle who did all of those.  He was a bit of a mountain man, a throw back to the pre-digital era.  But no one loved animals and the natural world more than he did.

So Western Christianity with its neglect of the notion of cosmic redemption may have made itself seem unrelated to life by leaving out of salvation a huge part of the life we care about.  And there is no good biblical or theological justification for doing so.

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Johnson-deep resurrection and some thoughts about how we know

I am reading, summarizing and commenting on Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts. Today I want to highlight two related discussions in the book.

First, she connects the resurrection of Jesus to her view of the incarnation as God joining the physical universe.  The resurrection does not undo the incarnation.  It does not extract Jesus from his human existence and solidarity with the evolving cosmos.  It does not turn him into a purely spiritual being.

This is the danger with the metaphor of transformation attached to the resurrection.  We cannot imagine the result of the transformation but we most easily imagine it as becoming something non-material.  She quotes Ambrose of Milan as saying, “In Christ’s resurrection, the earth itself arose.”  With Jesus’ resurrection the corporeal life of the evolving world was lifted right into the heart of divine being.

This is the meaning of the New Testament’s insistence that the resurrection of Jesus was not just his personal vindication but that it predicted the fate of humanity and the physical world.   It represented a down payment on something greater.  It represented the first fruits of a greater harvest.

When we just consider what happens in biology, we see that new life arises out of death over time.  But the cost in suffering, annihilation, and the extinction of whole species is high.  The story of Jesus, though, gives hope that out of the pain of life God’s Spirit bears creation forward toward a promise beyond what we can imagine or empirically verify.

The mention of verification brings up the second point.  Jesus’ resurrection has a powerful coherence with Christian experience, but it is not provable by science.  Also the claims that God created the cosmos and that he will bring it to a life-affirming end are not the results of direct observation.

Johnson says we have to base these assertions on more than hunches and fancies.  Her solution is to base the bookends of creation and last things on the insight of the community.

“Borne up by the conviction that God is faithful, the community’s understanding can then be predicated backward and forward beyond time, to where no experience can go” (p. 212).

She points out that this is what Israel did.  Through the exodus, the Israelites came to an understanding of God that enabled them to affirm that this God created the world and also that he would redeem Israel in the future.  The church’s experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit enable Christian theologians to do the same kind of thing.

“Proclaimed in word and sacrament, experienced in ordinary and extraordinary moments alike, the merciful presence of God, which grasps us at times even in the ache of its absence, gives grounds for speaking with gratitude of an original beginning and with hope of a blessed future” (p. 212).

I do not necessarily disagree with this.  It is not much use in talking to people outside the community who have no such experience, though.  There is an old metaphor about stained glass windows.  From outside the church, they look dull and dark.  But, when the sun is shining, they bathe you in glorious light inside the church.  You have to go into the church to experience this.

There are grounds for believing things beyond empirical proof.  John Henry Newman, Ian Ramsey, and the great Canadian Jesuit writer, Bernard Lonergan have all made detailed arguments for this.  Newman wrote of an “iterative sense.”  Ramsey talked about how a culmination of evidence and experience could cause the “penny to drop”.   And Lonergan wrote a massive book about insight, which is actually an important theory of consciousness.

Epistemology, however, makes my head hurt.  Like most people, I think I know what I know.  But I get all tangled up trying to explain how I know it.

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Johnson-deep incarnation

I continue my blog series about Elizabeth Johnson’s book, Ask the Beasts.

Incarnation is the Christian doctrine that, in Jesus, God became flesh (John 1:14).

Some modern translations of that verse say “the word became a human being.”  Johnson wants to go beyond this.  Flesh has a broader meaning than just human beings.  When Jesus became flesh as a human being, he joined the vast, evolving body of life in the cosmos.  He entered upon the matrix of growth and decay.  He entered upon the struggle for existence that characterizes all life.  And, she says, he joined not just with biological life, but with the soil (dust of the earth) from which it arose.  He joined the material world right down to its roots.  She adopts the term “deep incarnation”.

The theory of evolution is a gift for theology.  It helps us appreciate the scope of the incarnation.  She says:

Viewing Jesus as God-with-us in this way entails a belief not at all self-evident for monotheistic faith which Christians share with Jewish and Muslim traditions.  It affirms the radical notion that the one transcendent God who creates and empowers the world freely chooses to join this world in the flesh, so that it becomes a part of God’s own divine story forever (p. 196).

She notes that for someone who is seen as primarily a spiritual figure, Jesus actual ministry had a lot to do with physical healing, touching, and food.

Most of all on the cross Jesus shared the physical fate of every living thing.  He died.  But his death was not the result of a natural process.  It was a violent death, a historically and politically induced death.  Of course, not every living thing faces that kind of death.  That kind of death has its own meaning.  Still, it is a fact that Jesus died like all living beings.  And the incarnation allows believers to see in that death the suffering of a God who is in solidarity with all life.

She thinks this means God is present and available in suffering and death to all creatures taking away the loneliness.

Seemingly absent, the Giver of life is silently present with all creatures in their pain and dying.  They remain connected to the living God despite what is happening (p. 206)

This is a beautiful thought.

I am going to put off most commentary until I have read what she says about the resurrection.  However, I will say that I appreciate that she preserves the incarnation as an event.  Protestant process thinkers often adopt a panentheism that implies that the incarnation is not historical but that God as the universal process is by nature incarnate in everything.  Jesus is only an illustration of this principle.  Johnson and Catholic thinkers like Karl Rahner, on whom she draws, seem to avoid this.



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Johnson-Pelican chick and theodicy


If you google Elizabeth Johnson and “Pelican chick” you will see some online articles. She uses the example of the White Pelican’s child-nurture practice as an example of the cruelty of nature and the push for survival behind it..

Typically, the Pelican mom will lay two eggs some days apart. If the first egg hatches, she will care for that chick and pretty much ignore the chick that hatches later. The second chick has about a 10% chance to survive. It is cute and would be viable if she took care of it. But she usually lets it starve. It is an insurance chick. It is born so that if something happens to the other one, then she can divert her attention and nurture to the up-to-now expendable one. It sucks to be a second-born Pelican.

This shows the impersonal drive for survival behind evolution. The same things that make nature beautiful and full of diverse life also make it a place of cruelty and death.

You could say that this situation gives us the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz). This is the way of theodicy, a philosophical attempt to justify God. She denies that her position is a theodicy. She recognizes that suffering and evil in creation is a mystery that defies rational explanation.

She also sees that to say that suffering is necessary is a problem. Christianity has long sought to assuage suffering. To just shrug and say that suffering is necessary undercuts Christian compassion. The very existence of human beings brings a moral element to this issue.

Yet it is a fact that suffering and death existed in nature long before human beings existed. We didn’t cause it. And we can’t abolish it.

She would not put it this way, but her argument sort of corresponds to my claim that most of the injustice in the world is not social injustice, but ontological injustice. It is injustice that stems from the way this world, with its cancers and tsunamis, exists.

In the Bible and theology death gets called an “enemy.” Yet death is a functional part of the way this world operates. So what is the sense of calling death illegitimate or an enemy?

To this question, Johnson brings two reflections of her own.

First, death and suffering come from below, not above. In other words, God is not a puppetmaster who exerts control over nature or people. God allows the world to work in a way that is independent of direct divine control. So things happen that we cannot call the direct will of God.

This part of her reflection reminded me of Israel Knohl’s contention that the priests who wrote Genesis 1 believed that death and evil kind of oozed up into creation from the original chaotic state of the world. This was also a way of seeing it as something from below.

Second, she says that the story of Jesus gives Christians a new source for understanding suffering. Jesus was tormented to death and cried out in Godforsakeness. But this did not annihilate the creative Spirit of God working to bring about something new. So she is able to speak of pain and death in nature as “cruciform.” They correspond somehow to the passion of Christ.

We will go into this further as I continue to write about her book, Ask the Beasts.




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Johnson-the Bible, death and deep time

Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts is our subject once again. She is a philosophically aware theologian or, perhaps, a theologically aware philosopher. My field is more biblical studies and history.

So I look out for places where the Bible impinges on her arguments. She brings up biblical passages from time to time as she moves along. She acknowledges that the biblical writers could not have been aware of evolutionary science. However, some biblical passages open a way to see the kind of God who might be behind evolution.

When she argues against a radical dualism between matter and spirit, she puts forth theologian Karl Rahner’s idea that matter transcends itself. That is, matter tends toward life and spirit. Matter is not inert, but contains within itself the capacity to emerge into life and spirit. God built this capacity into matter.

Then she brings up Genesis 1: 20: “let the waters bring forth” and Genesis 1:24: “let the earth bring forth” These passages suggest, as Augustine already noticed, the notion that secondary causes have a role in creation and that the material world contains the potential to bring forth life. Darwin’s theory just “rachets up” (p. 178) what the sea and the earth can produce.

I appreciate that she does not use this as a proof text or anything. It just shows that the seed of Rahner’s idea is compatible with the dramatic and poetic account in Genesis . Radical matter-spirit dualism is not found in Genesis 1.

A more pivotal use of scripture comes when she tries to deal with the problem that death is integral to the theory of evolution. Evolution depends on the death of some and the survival of others. This is a problem because the love of God is at the foundation of evolution in her argument. How is the love of God related to the bloody and violent reality of evolution? This is one of the questions I have been holding in reserve.

She cites this passage:

For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:19-26 NET Bible).

The “whole creation groans and suffers”. This is the reality of life. However, this passage clearly puts the groaning and suffering in the story of what God is doing in history. Something is emerging. God is bringing about something new. The image of groaning and suffering comes from childbirth. In the natural world pain and blood precede the coming of new life. Yet, even in the midst of the pain, the creation “eagerly waits” for new life.

In its context in Romans, this passage is about the hope that arises because the Spirit of God has acted in the death and resurrection of Christ.

She talks about how pain is the shadow side of pleasure. It has its purpose in life and evolution. So also with death. Evolution requires generations to arise and pass away. So massive death is essential to the working of evolution. There was never, she says, a paradise where pain and death did not exist. Genesis 2 and 3 are mythic or poetic. They do not mark an era in natural history.

This runs counter to theological positions that see death as the result of human sin or as a providential means of accomplishing personal growth. Rather, death operates in the natural world of predator and prey in an entirely impersonal way.

Since Johnson relates evolution to the love of God, there is obviously need for further reflection. Her placing of Romans 8 at the early stage of this discussion, though, shows that she wants to ultimately see pain, suffering and death as part of God’s working out of a loving design. But the eras are long. God works in what she calls “deep time”.

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Johnson-the way the ball bounces


This is part of a blog series on Elizabeth Johnson’s book, Ask the Beasts.

Charles Darwin, right at the end of Origin, used the term “entangled bank” to describe a slope on which plants and bushes are full of birds and insects while earthworms do their work underground. This became a metaphor for the interrelated beauty of the dynamic world of life that he saw.

Johnson asked how we can envision the work of God’s Spirit in light of what Darwin discovered about the entangled bank. It will no longer work to think of God as a king issuing decrees from above. Rather, he must somehow be working from below and from within. Her thesis is that God’s creative power works through his Spirit to make a world that can “evolve by the operation of its own natural powers, making it a partner in its own creation (p. 155).

She denies that this is deism. Deism would say that God gave the world a push and then left it to work according to natural laws. But the presence of God is not a factor in Deism. The presence of God is a big factor, though, in Johnson’s view.

She brings in what the New Testament says about God’s love. Admittedly this comes from the perspective of redemption rather than creation. But the idea that God works to draw rather than coerce cooperation applies to continuing creation as well,she says. So rather than think of God as a monarch ruling by orders and decrees, she wants to think of God as a lover changing the beloved by drawing out her best qualities. A human parent, friend, teacher, husband or wife seeks to call forth the best of what is already potential with those they love. So she conceives it to be with God and creation.

She give thumbnail sketches of several contemporary attempts to reconcile the independent development of the universe with God’s activity in creation. Rather than give my own thumbnail sketches of her thumbnail sketches, I will just name these theories.

There is single action theory (Gordon Kaufman, Shubert Ogden, Maurice Wiles), top-down causality (Arthur Peacocke), causal joint theory (Nancey Murphy, Robert Russell, George Ellis, John Polkinghorne), the organic model (Sallie McFague, Grace Jantzen), the kenotic position (John Hick, Kieth Ward, Paul Fiddes, John Haught), process thought (Charles Hartshorne, John B. Cobb, Ian Barbour, and David Griffin).

Johnson appreciates insights from all these. She, however, opts for a return to a classic philosophy. She thinks what is needed to understand the action of God and the independence of the universe, is already there in Thomas Aquinas. Thomas did not know about evolution. He worked with a static world-view. But, Johnson speculates, if he had known about the idea of evolution, he would have loved it. And it would have fit well within his philosophy about divine causes.

So Johnson develops a primary-secondary cause theory. Thomas saw God as first cause, but also saw God involved in secondary causes in a way that did not impair the autonomy of creatures. With the gift of existence, God also gave creation the power to participate in its own continuing development.

Johnson envisions this working by the interplay of law and chance. Iron clad laws, like the law of gravity, are part of creation. On the other hand, a great deal of randomness exists in creation. Law prevents the world from evolving in a chaotic way. Chance introduced a dynamic potential for continued creativity.

I have enjoyed this heavy chapter, but I also have several questions. Again I am going to defer raising them until I have read more.

From memory, I am thinking about an episode of MASH where someone asks Father Mulcahy about the problem of evil. He says there was a wise teacher at seminary who said “that’s the way the ball bounces”. I like the idea of giving chance a role in God’s universe. Does Calvinism have any allowance for this? Some evolutionists discount it too. Survival of the fittest is actually sometimes the survival of the luckiest. Ecclesiastes 9:11 talks about how “time and chance” happen to us all.


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