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.