Leaf Litter: thinking the divine from the perspective of Earth

This paper was given in 1999 at a one day conference “What’s God Got to do with it?” on August 2nd 1999, Sydney University and subsequently appeared in the conference proceedings as: “Leaf litter: Thinking the divine from the perspective of Earth.” In What’s God Got to do with it?: Essays from a one day conference exploring the challenges facing feminism, theology, and the conceptions of women and the divine in the new millennium,” August 2nd 1999, Sydney University, ed. Kathleen McPhillips, 59–68, UWS Hawkesbury: Humanities Transdisciplinary Research group, University of Western Sydney, 2001.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Eora people on whose land we are gathered. And in another way, although I am not sure of the protocol, to honour the Wurundjeri people, on whose land I live in Melbourne, a land which makes space for my family and me, and for the thinking I am doing in this paper . . .

It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. The very holy mountains are keeping mum. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. Did the wind use to cry, and the hills shout forth praise? Now speech has perished from among the lifeless things of earth, and living things say very little to very few (Dillard, 1996:33).

About a year and a half ago, I spent a weekend in Gippsland, Victoria with a group of eco-philosophers. On the Saturday afternoon several of us drove into a nearby forest, parked and walked in to see a very large Mountain Ash, which had been named the Ada Tree after an early European inhabitant. Three images stand out for me from that walk: the quality of the dappled light through the leaves of the forest; the Ada Tree itself, to which we walked and from which we returned; lastly, the leaf litter on the winding path we took. The first two images, of light and tree (especially as tree of life), fall easily into a Western iconography of the sacred – although they are not only found there. The last less so, at least in a traditional sense. On a forest path with virtually no traces of marsupial life, that is no scats, the leaf litter — dead leaves which cushioned our walk — lay as a trace of the fecundity of earth life, of death as compost for plant life, and as food and shelter for insect and microbial life. Leaf litter as floor covering for humans entering a forest, forms the ‘roof’ of the world for many non-human others. Leaf litter? Could this work as metaphor for the divine? Or is it another kind of trace?

I have been working for the past three and a half years on a reading of the Gospel of Luke which pays attention in a particular way to a forgetting and remembering of the maternal. As that reading has taken on an ecological as well as a feminist character, I have needed to consider three questions concerning the practice of reading. If Earth is afforded a priority as subject or as a plurality of interconnected subjects, then first, what are the implications for our thinking of the divine? Second, what does this mean for the status of the biblical text? Third, what method/s of reading the biblical text are consonant with, and accountable to such a focus on the subjecthood of Earth? This paper represents an attempt to consider the first of these questions. I suspect there are several points of tension between what I will suggest and feminisms and although I will not have time to raise these directly in the paper, I would be happy to consider them in question time if they arise.

Within feminist discourses, experience and subjectivity have become contested in at least two ways. On the one hand, many of us as women, whose experience has not been the focus of, or basis for mainstream institutions, structures and narratives, have come to claim ourselves as subjects rather than objects of history, politics, economics, and education. In addition, we have claimed our experience as a defining feature of our subjectivity.[1] On the other hand, especially as the thought of postmodern theorists has taken hold, experience and subjectivity have come to be seen as unreliable. The notion of a fixed knowable subject has been called into question by the insight that individuals are not only different from others, but different within themselves, and different in different contexts. Notions of performing the self or various selves has challenged notions of individual subjectivity.[2] At some points, these two considerations intersect. I am thinking in particular of the way in which as a Western feminist my subject position has been challenged by women whose subjectivities are complicated by oppressions or determinations on the basis of class, race, sexuality, difference in ability, or chronic illness.

One challenge has been for me to acknowledge the complexities of my own subject positions and to stay with an unsettling of my subjectivity — more particularly to acknowledge, as Val Plumwood (1993:67) indicates, my position as both colonised and coloniser and never simply one or the other. At the same time, in ecological discourses, the emergence of Earth as subject, or as a plurality of subjects, calls human subjectivity into question in particular ways. In rethinking human beings as part of nature, a predominantly Western logic of separation between human and other-than-human nature is put into question by a sense of the human species as one among many. A difference which might be thought as typical of the human as species can be understood as a difference within the continuity of Earth being before it is a difference from other Earth beings.[3]

In order to consider what subjectivity might mean in this context, I want to make a brief detour by way of Emmanuel Levinas, whose work it must be noted has been criticised from both feminist and ecological perspectives.[4] It is beyond the scope of this paper to engage directly with these criticisms, other than to note Levinas’ focus on the human other. For Levinas (1996b), the relationship of responsibility for or to the other has an ethical direction.  In what could be read as a reversal of the downward thrust, of the making other of the not me which characterises binary systems, the other calls to the I as if from a height (Levinas, 1996b:19). The character of height refers primarily to the priority of the other over the I. In contrast Luce Irigaray’s (1993a: 185,217) others as lovers meet in the space of an embrace in which the upward and downward directions of ‘power over’ and ‘submission or obedience to’ are put into question. The call to responsibility associated in environmental ethics with nature as ‘other’ could be figured ethically as having the character of height. But prior to responsibility to or for this other is a continuous interchange, closer to the exchange of lovers. This interchange, between the other and the same, can be exemplified by the passage of air and carbon dioxide from the exterior to the interior to the exterior and so forth in the human body.[5]

Levinas (1991b:114) himself invokes the metaphor of respiration to describe the process by which, through putting into question the I, the other infects without alienating the same. Because of the priority of the other with respect to the self, the oneself arrives (different from the supposed self) in obedience to the other.[6] A sociality — which describes the relationship of responsibility that already connects me to the other — marks this arrival (cf. Hart, 1999: 57). In contrast, a sociality with non-human nature, which characterises human being as part of nature, stands prior to responsibility to nature as other. Nevertheless, in a way both similar to and different from the vocation to the (human) other in Levinas, the sociality with other-than-human nature puts into question the subjectivity of the I.

From a feminist perspective, the subjectivities of women — and as a consequence those also of men — are already in question. Embedding her discourse of equality within a communal vision, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (1993: 353-72) describes a logic of democracy, which unsettles the notion of individual subjectivity. She does this by denoting a participatory subject accountable within a discipleship of equals or women-church, a community of self-identified women and women identified men (Schüssler Fiorenza, 1984:1-22; 1992:150-63; Welch, 1997: 42).

From another perspective and in tension with Schüssler Fiorenza, Luce Irigaray addresses the problem of subjectivity for women.[7] Without appealing to a singular recoverable subjectivity for women, Irigaray’s feminism orients itself toward an unknown and (im)possible — some would say utopian — subjectivity for women. What is necessary for woman to find herself as subject has not yet appeared, but requires, instead of the language and symbols of patriarchy, a feminine imaginary in which women can see themselves reflected for themselves, not through the eyes of the patriarch (Irigaray, 1993b: 64). For Irigaray (1993b: 55-72) this includes the necessity of a re-imagining of the divine as Divine Women.[8] Irigaray (1993b: 71-72) imagines a space in which women reach their fullness in achieving or embodying their divinity, that is, in ‘becoming divine.’ Images of such a female embodiment of the divine are necessary if women are to become subjects (Irigaray, 1993b: 69-72).

For Irigaray (1993b:66) this is figured as a construction and inhabitation of ‘our airy space.’

Once we have left the waters of the womb, we have to construct a space for ourselves in the air … It is the space of bodily autonomy, of free breath, free speech and song, of performing on the stage of life (Irigaray, 1993b: 66).

That such a space has not yet appeared implies that the discourses and practices of ‘return to the goddess’ are from Irigaray’s perspective insufficient for woman’s realisation of her divinity.

As I read Irigaray, the yearning for Divine Women, which might be thought of as an impulse to realise the unrealisable, first describes a situation in which the subjectivity of women is compromised not only by their oppression within patriarchal systems and structures, but more particularly, by the very phallocentric language and symbols, which maintain and are disseminated within those systems and structures. Second, this yearning suggests a possibility beyond phallocentrism which can only be gestured toward, but not described, because phallocentric discourse is inadequate to the task. What is important is the imagining of a possibility, as a gesturing toward another place, which we might recognise when we get there.

For Val Plumwood (1993:67), however — and I think Schüssler Fiorenza would share her critique — the question of women’s subjectivity resolves around ‘the need to replace the concept of phallo-centrism as the basis of the affirmation of difference by the more complex concept of the master identity.’ In terms of a thinking of the divine, the constitution of a god or goddess –even a divinising focus on Earth — threatens to reinscribe the logic of the master identity by effectively privileging centre over margins (Plumwood,1993: 126-28). At stake in this centripetal movement is a forgetting of the diversity and particularity of Earth beings which are ‘capable of their own autonomy, agency and ecological or spiritual meaning’(1993: 128). Plumwood argues for ‘an account of the individuals themselves’ as they are intricately interconnected. This account will forestall the need for a deity (1993: 128). I prefer to keep the question of the divine more open.

In terms of thinking the divine in the context of the complex many-in-one subjectivities of Earth, Irigaray’s (1986) approach in ‘Divine Women’ is illuminating. In the context of the endangerment of human life ‘by dehumanisation, exploitation and extinction’, Schüssler Fiorenza (1996: 50) writes of a shift in emphasis from an interest in the possibility of belief in g-d to a question of what kind of g-d. Irigaray (1986) does not answer ‘what kind of g-d?’ — rather she describes a kind of relation to the divine for women, in which women might find themselves reflected in ways that valorise and make possible their subjectivities.[9]

The style of Irigaray’s (1986) discourse on ‘Divine Women’ fits the problem of Earth subjectivity well. Those of us in the West are not at a point in which the subjectivity of Earth is transparent to us as part of our everyday context. By transparent to us, I do not mean that we would know the Earth as Earth, but that the belief that the subjectivities of Earth precede, shape, and encompass our own subjectivities and would in a sustained sense inform the everyday practice of our social, economic and religious institutions and symbols. In general, the contrary is the case. But we can imagine the opposite and not simply by positing a return to or appropriation of the symbols and practices of first peoples or of ancient societies, although such might inform our imaginations. Rather, as Irigaray’s (1986) ‘Divine Women’ does for the subjectivity of women, we need to posit a space of divine/human relationship in which the subjecthood of Earth as a plurality of others — within which the human species is before its differentiation as species — is valorised and made transparent to Western discourses in particular and the systems they inform.

In taking Irigaray’s (1986) ‘Divine Women’ as a catalyst for rethinking an ecotheological space of divine/human relationship, I do not however want to posit a Divine Earth, nor even a plurality of Divine Earth beings, although this has attractive possibilities.[10] What is both urgently necessary and not yet is a radical openness to Earth which allows the divine to come in its own time.[11]

John Millbank (1997: 257-58) criticises an eco-theological approach, which emphasises obedience to Earth, as being in debt either to a scientific utilitarianism or to an unsupported expectation of (natural) revelation. In either case, obedience to Earth is complicit with an implied sacralisation of natural law (Milbank, 1997: 258). My emphasis on attentiveness to Earth could be figured as an obedience to Earth, but an obedience which refers not to a law to be obeyed, but to an other and a plurality of others to be heeded. The question is less one of outcomes, although these are critical, than of orientation and openness. Such an openness will credit the Earth with subjectivity characterised by a plurality in which we participate. This very participation, this being within will limit our horizon, our possibility of knowing, but it will also give space, both geographic and conceptual, to what we know of Earth. I want to shift very slightly from the question of what kind of g-d to a stance of unknowing with respect to g-d, which takes as its starting point the claim of Earth on our attention. While leaving open the question of what it might mean to attend to Earth as sacred, this is not to valorise it as divine. Rather, in contrast to a tradition of natural theology which affirms a divine immanence in nature, my approach bears an affinity to a negative theology, a way of unknowing, which trusts in this case that attention to Earth is not at odds with attention to the divine.[12]

This is not, I hope to affect a divinisation of Earth. Describing Levinas’ ethics in relation to the divine, Kevin Hart (1999: 57) writes: ‘when we go toward the other person we walk in the trace of God.’ I hope to affirm that, in turning toward a plurality of Earth others, we might in another sense ‘walk in the trace of the divine.’ But in a world where forests are diminished as we speak, we will indeed be fortunate if leaves litter the paths we walk.


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Berry, P. (1992) ‘Woman and Space according to Kristeva and Irigaray’ in Berry, P. and Wernick, A. (eds) Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion, London/ New York: Routledge,  250-64.

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, New York and London: Routledge.

—. (1995) ‘Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of “Postmodernism”’ in Benhabib, S., Butler, J., Cornell, D. and Fraser, N. (eds) Feminist Contentions, London and New York: Routledge, 35-57.

Daggers, J. (1997) ‘Luce Irigaray and ‘Divine Women’: A Resource for Postmodern Feminist Theology?’ Feminist Theology 14, January, 35-50.

Deane-Drummond, C. (1997) ‘Sophia: The Feminine Face of God as a Metaphor for an Ecotheology’ Feminist Theology 16 (Sept.), 11-31.

Dillard, A. (1996) ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’ in Gottlieb, R. S. (ed) This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, New York and London: Routledge,  32-36.

Fraser, N. (1995) ‘False Antitheses: A Response to Seyla Benhabib and Judith Butler’ in Benhabib, S., Butler, J., Cornell, D. and Fraser, N. (eds) Feminist Contentions, London and New York: Routledge, 59-74.

Gray, F. (1995) ‘but she said, but she did not say… : Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Ekklesia and Difference’ in Hassall, K. (ed) Dangerous Memory: feminist theology through story, Fourth National Feminist Theology Conference. Canberra, September 1995, 80-97.

Grey, M. (1999) ‘‘Expelled again from Eden’: Facing Difference through Connection’ Feminist Theology 21, May, 8-20.

Grosz, E. (1993) ‘Irigaray and the Divine’ in Kim, C. W. M., St. Ville, S. M. and Simonaitis, S. M.(eds) Transfigurations: Theology and the French Feminists, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 199-214.

Habel, N. C. (1996) ‘The Crucified Land: Towards our Reconciliation with the Earth’ Colloquium (The Australian and New Zealand Theological Review), 28, 2 November, 3-18.

—. (1998/1999) ‘Key Ecojustice Principles: A Theologica Crucis Perspective’ Ecotheology 5 and 6 (double issue, July 1998/Jan. 1999), 114-25.

Hart, K. (1989) The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology and Philosophy, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

—. (1999) ‘Forgotten Sociality’ under the theme ‘Personal Well-being and Social Conscience’ in Brennan, F. (ed) Discerning the Australian Social Conscience: from the Jesuit Lenten Series, Richmond, Vic.: Jesuit Publications, 53-71.

Hogan, L. (1996) ‘The Kill Hole’ in Gottlieb, R. S. (ed) This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, New York and London: Routledge, 37-40.

Irigaray, L. (1986) Divine Women, trans. S. Muecke, Local Consumption Paper 8. Sydney: Local Consumption.

—. (1989) ‘Equal to Whom?’ Differences 1, 59-76.

—. (1993a) An Ethics of Sexual Difference (Fre. 1984), trans. C. Burke and G. C. Gill, Ithaca. NY: Cornell University Press.

—. (1993b) Sexes and Genealogies (Fre. 1987), trans. G. C. Gill, New York: Columbia University Press.

Johnson, E. A. (1993) Women, Earth and Creator Spirit, New York: Mahwah Paulist.

Joy, M. (1990) ‘Equality or Divinity: A False Dichotomy?’ Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 6, 1, 9-24.

Levinas, E. (1989) ‘Time and the Other’ (Fre. 1946-7), trans. R. Cohen, in Hand, S. (Ed) The Levinas Reader, Oxford: Blackwell, 37-58.

—. (1991a) Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Fre. 1961), trans. A.

Lingis, Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

—. (1991b) Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (Fre. 1974), trans. A. Lingis, Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers .

—. (1996a) ‘Is Ontology Fundamental?’ (Fre. 1951) in Peperzak, A. T. et al (eds) Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1-10.

—. (1996b) ‘Transcendence and Height’ (Fre. 1962) in Peperzak, A. T. et al (eds) Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 11-31.

—. (1996c) Meaning and Sense. (Fre. 1964) in Peperzak, A. T. et al (eds) Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 33-64.

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© Anne Elvey 2000

[1] A typical effect of this focus on the subjectivity of the forgotten or silenced Other is an emphasis on finding, having, developing a voice and of valorising ways of knowing different from those of the white male subject of Western history and thought; see, for example, Belenky et al (1997).

[2] On the notion of performativity, see Parker and Sedgwick (1995) and Butler (1993:esp. 1-23). For a consideration of the tensions between feminist and postmodern understandings of subjectivity, see Benhabib (1995); Butler (1995); Fraser (1995).

[3] Linda Hogan (1996:38-39) writes, ‘One by one, in our lifetimes, our convictions about ourselves and our place within the world have been overturned. Once the use of tools was considered to be strictly a human ability. Then it was found that primates and other species make use of tools. Then altruism was said to be what distinguished us from other species, until it was learned that elephants try to help their sick, staying long hours beside their own dying ones, caressing and comforting them… Still wanting a place of our own, a place set aside from the rest of creation, now it is being ventured that maybe our ability to make fire separates us, or perhaps the desire to seek revenge. But no matter what direction the quest for separation might take, there has been a narrowing down of the difference between species, and we are forced to ask ourselves once again: what is our rightful place in the world, our responsibility to the other lives on the planet?’

[4] There is a feminist uneasiness with Levinas expressed strongly by Gayatri Spivak (1993:166-67). While there are problems with the male-identification of Levinas’ work, I choose to take seriously his philosophical engagement with the other. Despite also the anthropocentrism of his work, the implications of his argument for the priority of the summons of/from/by the other against the Heiddegerian priority of being are substantial, especially for what has been a colonising Western consciousness. Irigaray’s (1993a: 185-217) re-reading of Levinas’ eros for the other/Other opens a space for a thinking of desire for the other from a non-androcentric perspective. Mary Grey (1999:16-20), referring to Wendy Farley’s reading of Levinas, appeals to a ‘compassionate eros for the Other’ as a making connections that have ecological as well as feminist theological affinities. For a consideration of some tensions from an ecological perspective, see Kevin Hart (1999).

[5] This interrelationship with the other can also be expressed in terms of human relationship with other animals. As Paul Shepard (1996: 11) writes, ‘Our species and our best observers emerged in watching the Others, participating in their world by eating and being eaten by them, suffering them as parasites, wearing their feathers and skins, making tools of their bones and antlers, and communicating their significance by dancing, sculpting, performing, imaging, narrating, and thinking them. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was not simply a warning against wide-spread pesticide use but against the deafened self, against emptiness. We must understand what to make of our encounter with the animals. Because as we ourselves prosper in unseemly numbers they vanish, and in the end our prosperity may amount to nothing without them.’

[6] Levinas (1991b: 114) writes of this ‘oneself’: ‘The oneself has to be conceived outside of all substantial coinciding of self with self.’

[7] In a review of Schüssler Fiorenza’s (1983) groundbreaking work In Memory of Her, Irigaray (1989) expressed disappointment that where she sought divinity, she found sociology. She also expressed the desire for Divine Women which finds fuller expression in her essay of the same name (Irigaray, 1986 and 1993b: 55-72). For discussion of Irigaray’s reading of Schüssler Fiorenza see Joy (1990) and Gray (1995).

[8] For further engagement with Irigaray’s ‘Divine Women’ from a variety of perspectives, see Daggers (1997); Grosz (1993); Gray (1995); Oppel (1994).

[9] While some women may claim that various reimagings of the divine as female, for example, as Sophia within the Christian tradition or as various manifestations of the Goddess, or as Gaia, do in fact valorise and support their subjectivity, I want to emphasise that this is not quite what Irigaray (1986) means. This is not to dispute the experience of such women, including myself; rather it is to claim another space, which might turn out to intersect with the space of ‘the return of the goddess’, which calls forth an openness to what is both not yet and urgently necessary for women.

[10] In relation to the latter possibility, see Kate Rigby (1998) on genii loci as spirits of place. For Rigby (1998), the notion of ‘spirit of place’ is significant as an expression of and opening for human attunement to other-than-human nature, as experienced in relation to the specificities of place. Rigby (1998) describes three understandings of ‘spirit of place’: the mythic mode of ancient genii loci, a secular modernist mode of cultural inscription of place, and a mode of attunement in which spirit of place is understood as ‘embodied co-presence’. This last mode understands ‘spirit of place’ (now spiritus loci) to arise ‘in the in-between of atmosphere — neither in the rock, objectively, nor in the head, subjectively, nor in language, discursively, but in the coupling of physical manifestation and sensuous perception’ (Rigby 1998: 180-81).

[11] Contemporary ecotheologies invoke a variety of images of the divine, from Elizabeth Johnson’s (1993) description of the Creative Spirit, Sallie McFague’s (1993) sustained metaphor of the Body of God, and Celia Deane-Drummond’s (1997) work on Sophia to Norman Habel’s (1996; 1998/99) expositions of an eco-theology of the cross. In the contexts of the many-in-one subjectivities of Earth and of human subjects who participate in this many-in-oneness, I consider such ecotheologies to be like ‘the return of the goddess’ for feminism. The kind of relationship between the human and the divine which is not yet but urgently necessary might turn out to intersect with these ecotheologies, but in what ways it will do so we cannot know in advance.

[12] In relation to negative theology, Kevin Hart (1989: 268) comments that ‘mystical experience is a matter of both veiling and unveiling’. Hart (1989: 268-69) argues that a negative theology must not only leave room for g-d, it must also affirm g-d. But in what ways the orientation toward Earth I am suggesting here will affirm g-d remains to be seen.

© Anne Elvey 2000