21 December 2007

Must-read for those interested in an ecologically sound theology

Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing
Rosemary Radford Ruether
HarperOne, 1994

Professor Ruether's dense and challenging book is a must-read for progressive Christians (and other disciples of Jesus) interested in developing an ecologically sound theology. As she makes abundantly clear in the final section of the book, "there is no ready-made ecological spirituality and ethic in past traditions. The ecological crisis is new to human experience...The radical nature of this new ecological devastation means that all past human traditions are inadequate in the face of it. Whatever useful elements may exist...must be reinterpreted to make them usable in the face of both new scientific knowledge and the destructive power of the technology it has made possible" (p. 206). The clarity of her argumentation, the quality of her prose, and the urgency of our current environmental and theological situation make what could be a daunting read into a fair approximation of a page turner.

The book itself is divided into four sections---Creation, Destruction, Domination and Deceit, and Healing---and in each section Ruether sketches the different lines of myth and metaphor that have shaped and continue to shape our relationships with one another and with the living earth as a whole.

"Creation" begins with the Babylonian, Jewish, and Platonic Greek creation stories, in which nature and the feminine are conceived of as the threatening "Other" in need of suppression by a transcendent (male) ego. This section concludes with the post-Newtonian perspectives of quantum mechanics, ecology, and other contemporary scientific cosmologies that seem to imply a re-integration of the observer ("man") with the observed ("nature"). Ruether feels that this latter "creation myth" needs to become the new basis for our theologies. "We need scientist-poets who can retell the story I have alluded to in this chapter, the story of the cosmos and the earth's history, in a way that can call us to wonder, to reverence for life, and to the vision of humanity living in community with all its sister and brother beings" (p. 58). This language is hardly that of traditional Christian theology, and yet the need for a language of wonder and reverence that is not inextricably connected with 2,000-year old myths and legends is, to me, self-evident.

"Destruction" explores and interrogates Jewish and Christian themes of the End Times, and then examines the converging contemporary catastrophes facing humanity and the entire global biosphere. Are these myths and realities related, and if so, how? In the traditional views, good and evil tend to be understood in tribal terms, and so the response to "evil" often takes the place of total, absolute enmity towards different genders, religions, ethnicities, races, etc. "The impulse to apocalyptic thus becomes genocidal, the extermination of those people who are seen as 'Satan's people.'...Massacres of the enemy through military weapons, ranging from the sword to nuclear bombs, are fantasized by apocalypticists as instruments of righteousness" (p. 83). If the entire natural world is understood as the primal Other which needs to be subdued or subjugated, then it isn't hard to see the connection between these worldviews and our contemporary ecological crises.

The third section, "Domination and Deceit," traces the connections between Judeo-Christian understandings of evil and patriarchal patterns of exploitation and abuse that have characterized much of the history of civilization. Lest the reader come this far only to think that the Judeo-Christian worldview is untenable and irredeemable from an ecological perspective, Ruether provides two lines of theological insight that might provide an ecologically sound basis for a Christian theology of "Healing"---the covenantal and the sacramental. In her final chapter, Ruether outlines how these different theological elements can come into play in our efforts to heal ourselves, one another, and the living world on which we all depend for our existence. It helps also to keep in mind that Ruether is not looking

In short, essential reading for Green Christians and other spiritually and ecologically minded types.

(This review was originally written on April 9, 2007.)

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