Ecofaith conference presentation,

Chapel by the Sea, Bondi, NSW, 23-25 May 2014

Anne Elvey





Slide2Introduction: the Anthropocene

 Some scholars are calling our era the Anthropocene, an era characterised by the geological agency of humans, because as a species we are acting as a geological agent of mass extinction. For historian Dipesh Chakrabarty (2009) human history and “natural” history can no longer be separated, because while humans have always affected other than humans, it is now the case that as a species humans have the capacity to affect Earth itself on a geological or planetary scale, through human-induced climate change. Anthropogenic climate change, moreover, has become the paradigm for a wide range of human impacts on the entire Earth community—from the oceans to the atmosphere, from fish and other humans, to birds and their habitats, to rainforest ecosystems and arctic ice. A global phenomenon, it has, and will increasingly have, specific local impacts. It will exacerbate rich-poor divides and may shift relationships between humans and other species in particular local areas. I want to note here also that ecological effects occur in a kind of partnership (perhaps a distorted partnership, but a partnership nonetheless) between human and otherkind. The melting of a glacier, or the extinction of a species, occurs through a network of actions, some of which are human. The point is that in the Anthropocene, human action is critical.

Slide3The event and its givenness

 The Anthropocene is the event in which we are writing, speaking, acting, being. Theologian, Anne Primavesi, takes up the notion of event from John Caputo as “something that is going on in words and things, as a potency that stirs within them and makes them restless with the event (Caputo 2007: 50)” (2009: 2). Events are significant and persistent moments that are irreducible “to what we can measure, describe or define at any one time” (Primavesi 2009: 3). They “bear within them a potential for triumph or failure, for hope or despair—or rather for both at once” (Primavesi 2009: 3). Creation is the “seminal” event for Caputo. Drawing on Hannah Arendt, Primavesi describes “three major events in human history” that affect “our alienation from earth”: i) the so-called “discovery” of the Americas and the beginnings of a global European colonisation; ii) the Reformation and an accompanying “in-the-world asceticism”, with effects in human relationships to labour and property; iii) the invention of the telescope and the microscope, extending the range of human seeing, and also enabling us to see Earth as a small blue orb or jewel, as if from outside it. In addition, Primavesi refers to the five previous extinction events. With anthropogenic climate change, we are living in a new event, that is also a sixth extinction event, the fifth being the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. Who we are and how we describe this event is deeply influenced by the heritage of European colonisation, become globalisation, the relations to property and work learned post-Reformation, and the ways of seeing and understanding ourselves and our habitats as if from outside. This complex interplay of human worldviews and the ways climate, and then ice and seas and animals (including humans) respond to changing concentrations of gases in the atmosphere, and affect them in turn, are part of the givenness of our here and now, to which were are challenged to attend.

Slide4A conversion

Spiritually, psychologically and socially (at the very least in the West, and where is the West not influential?), we are unready for this event, this era of the Anthropocene. It is an era in which we are challenged, not only—as the IPCC reports attest—to act urgently to both mitigate and adapt to climate change, but also—and at the same time—to undergo a conversion (a metanoia) concerning what it is to be human. We need to understand afresh who we are in this situation, in which we are both powerful and powerless.

On January 17, 2001 in a General Audience, Pope John Paul II spoke of an “ecological conversion” as follows:

We must therefore encourage and support the ‘ecological conversion’ which in recent decades has made humanity more sensitive to the catastrophe to which it has been heading. Man is no longer the Creator’s ‘steward’, but an autonomous despot, who is finally beginning to understand that he must stop at the edge of the abyss. ‘Another welcome sign is the growing attention being paid to the quality of life and to ecology, especially in more developed societies, where people’s expectations are no longer concentrated so much on problems of survival as on the search for an overall improvement of living conditions’ (Evangelium vitae, n. 27). At stake, then, is not only a ‘physical’ ecology that is concerned to safeguard the habitat of the various living beings, but also a ‘human’ ecology which makes the existence of creatures more dignified, by protecting the fundamental good of life in all its manifestations and by preparing for future generations an environment more in conformity with the Creator’s plan.

In the following paragraph he says:

In this rediscovered harmony with nature and with one another, men and women are once again walking in the garden of creation, seeking to make the goods of the earth available to all and not just to a privileged few, as the biblical jubilee suggests (cf. Lv 25: 8-13, 23). Among those marvels we find the Creator’s voice, transmitted by heaven and earth, by night and day:  a language ‘with no speech nor words; whose voice is not heard’ and which can cross all boundaries (cf. Ps 19 [18]: 2-5).

The Book of Wisdom, echoed by Paul, celebrates God’s presence in the world, recalling that ‘from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator’ (Wis 13:5; cf. Rom 1:20).


Like many other Christians before and since, Pope John Paul II simultaneously affirmed what he identified as “an ecological conversion” and argued that biblical religion supports such a conversion.

Slide5Being human: being kin

At the heart of such a conversion is a model of more than human kinship. Australian ecotheologian, Denis Edwards writes:

The model of human beings as kin to other creatures within a community of creation is based on the biblical notion that there is one God who continually creates all the diverse things that exist, delighting in their goodness (Gen 1:31) and embracing them in covenant love (Gen 9:12-16). (Edwards 2006: 22)

Edwards refers to Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure as models, but suggests that “contemporary Christians” also “have much to learn about kinship from the traditional cultures of indigenous peoples”. Contemporary science, he adds, “also offers support to a kinship model”. “Theologically”, writes Edwards, “I would propose that this kinship brings into play what I have identified as the image of God in the human, the personal. It involves humans as persons, personally connecting with other creatures, respecting and loving them in all their differences from ourselves. It does not make other creatures into human persons but engages with them as they are.” (Edwards 2006: 23-24)

Slide6Theo-centrism: domination or kinship?

While over the past forty or so years there have been spates of critical and apologetic readings of biblical literature, as Norman Habel and the Earth Bible Team have argued since the late nineties, most accessibly in Habel’s An Inconvenient Text—playing off Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth—biblical religion is at best an ambiguous resource for dealing with the contemporary environmental crisis. This is not only because ancient ecological concerns were in many cases different, but because biblical theologies only take us so far in thinking through what it means to be human in the Anthropocene.


Slide7One passage sometimes adduced as eco-friendly is Luke 12:22-34 where we find a picture of divine providence not only for humans but for otherkind, exemplified in the reference to ravens and lilies. That the passage is juxtaposed with one in which a wealthy man stores up excess goods for himself, and that the text plays with these notions of storing and treasuring, adds to its qualifications as eco-friendly. But humans, or specifically disciples, take pride of place in the story. The “how much more so” argument, while part of Hebrew rhetoric, suggests nonetheless a hierarchy of humans over otherkind. Should we eschew such hierarchy? Or should we understand it as an expression of the capacity to have effects in a certain way, even to becoming (to some extent unwitting) agents on a geological scale? And so as an expression of a peculiar responsibility?

There is another problem with the passage, however, one infusing much of Christian spirituality, and that is the notion of “treasure in heaven”. Without discussing what “heaven” might have meant in terms of the materiality of ancient cosmic imagery, the inheritance such imagery leaves us is an otherworldliness where “heaven” is the true home, the place where the real “treasure” is. This is what Habel calls “heavenism”.

Slide8As the upcoming panel on domination suggests, Christianity and the biblical images on which it draws have in part at least supported patterns of domination and alienation, that have allowed humans to exercise power over both humans and other than humans without regard for the consequences of our actions. Many will see this as a distortion of Christianity, a raising of humans to “God”-like status. Some propose wisely a turn to a new incarnational theocentrism as a way of finding ourselves as humans not ego- or species-centrically but more humbly as creatures among creatures. Such an incarnational approach needs to be understood through the lens of what some, following Niels Gregersen (2001), call “deep incarnation”, an enmattering, where God in Jesus becomes creature, becomes matter, where discipleship involves a more than human kinship.

Edwards comments that a kinship model:

 … challenges the model of domination and exploitation … and [as such] demands a form of conversion. It involves [as others such as Sallie McFague have also argued] a new way of seeing and acting. It involves extending the love of neighbour to embrace creatures of other species. It involves extending the love of enemy to involve creatures that confront us as other and inspire fear in us. It involves loving and valuing others as God loves and values them. Ultimately, it is a God-centered (theo-centric) view of an interconnected community of creatures that have their own intrinsic value. (Edwards 2006: 24-25).


My sense is that this ecospiritual, ecotheological Christian stance while necessary may be insufficient. What may be needed is to hold our Christian faith story loosely, not necessarily to turn away from it, but to be open to a mode of attentiveness to Earth and its atmosphere, to turn toward Earth as part of an ecological spirituality attuned to the community of more than human others with which we are intimately interconnected and interdependent. I am not suggesting a kind of “feel-good”, sentimental spirituality. Rather, our embeddedness means we are already not only interconnected through the effects of our actions, but feel in our bodies the ecological destruction we as a species are bringing about (though on the whole the wealthier we are the more we are shielded, for now, from its worst effects).

So, how are we to talk about God, if at all? If we refer to God as Creator, does this implicitly make Earth and cosmos, as created, secondary to God? If we refer to God as Provident, does Earth implicitly become God’s gift to us to do with as we choose? If we refer to God as Saviour, where do we locate salvation? There is often much human-centredness bound up in such God-talk.

US poet Ellen Bass, published a poem “If There Is No God” in Women’s Studies Quarterly in 2001 (194-95):

If There Is No God

Then we’re on our own.
Like children, when their parents have left.
We have to heat the soup and put ourselves to bed.
There’s no one to cherish us, but each other.

No one to love us indiscriminately,
to twirl our planet like a globe, to keep the sap—
the xylem and phloem—gliding up and down like the slide
of a trombone or the cells breathing through their teeming mitochondria,
slurping rain, eating sunlight.

The jawless lamprey clamps its round
mouth on the flank of a fish, rasping and sucking blood.
The hinged-jaw python ingests a velvet-cloaked gazelle.

Spider silk, the polypeptide chain folded
back and forth, pleated sheets stronger than steel.
They stretch and coil, responding like a lover.
Who will notice? Who will watch
while the articulate legs wrap the dragonfly
round and round, huge wings whirring?

Who will crouch beside the lichen as it wheedles into rock,
mark its single millimeter’s growth like a father pencilling tracks
up the back of the door? And when it dies—
a thousand, two thousand years old, this modest
leaf-like, shrub-like creature, poisoned,
who will mourn? Who will chant its elegy?

The polar ice caps are cracking up.
The people of whole continents are collapsing—viruses bud
continuously from the graceful, convoluted surfaces of T cells,
gathering and heaping in their intricate curls and valleys.
We cannot find a single ivory-billed woodpecker or Tasmanian wolf.
Radioactive fallout circles the planet like a man without a country.

If there is no God, there is no
God to save us. There must be
something you love. Something
you love enough to watch over:

The cherry trees on Storrow Drive bursting into bloom as you pass,
each tree releasing its pale buds like fireworks.
Or driving back from Poipu Beach, the babies slumped against you,
the moon flashing through the thousand palms.

When finches go crazy gorging and singing
in the last of the November pears, when Pavarotti sings,
or a mother sings to her baby, I can’t give you anything but love,
walking the stained carpet of the hallway.
When she falls back into bed and her new lover gathers
her up like honeycomb and sucks, someone
must pay attention. Open your window.
Listen, listen to them, and behold.

( “If There Is No God” © Ellen Bass 2002, from Mules of Love [BOA Editions, 2002]; reproduced with permission of the author.)

Slide10The poem plays on this problem with God-talk, suggesting both a need for God to make sense of this time, and the need not to talk of God, not to expect salvation. The version of this poem which appears in Bass’s collection Mules of Love published in 2002 differs slightly but significantly from the above, omitting the reference to a saving God entirely, as if the question ought not be raised. Nonetheless, in both poems the state of things, not only their intricately entwined lives and deaths, but this:

The polar ice caps are cracking up.
The people of whole continents are collapsing—viruses bud
continuously from the graceful, convoluted surfaces of T cells,
gathering and heaping in their intricate curls and valleys.
We cannot find a single ivory-billed woodpecker or Tasmanian wolf.
Radioactive fallout circles the planet.

(from Ellen Bass, “If There Is No God”)

calls for love: “There must be something you love”.


Anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose has a blog dedicated to “Life at the Edge of Extinction” ( which is geared toward this call for love in the Anthropocene, the call to respond to otherkind as kin, to listen and perhaps give voice to stories and lives that are not human, to do this humbly, knowing that what we say is not enough, to mourn, as Jordie Albiston (2013) does in her Lamentations after the 2009 firestorms that swept through Kinglake. Jordie’s adopting of the alphabetic anachrostic form for her poem and modelling its cadences on the biblical book of Lamentation is an example of creative ways we can engage afresh with biblical material, in what Kate Rigby (2009) describes as an “ecoprophetic witness”.

“There must be something you love”. We can extend notions of “neighbour love” so that all creatures and Earth and its atmosphere are our neighbours. But that is not enough. We can train ourselves again and again, as often as it takes, to understand that not only are we giving neighbourly love (if we are, when we are) to otherkind, but we are recipients of all the interconnected and interdependent agencies that make this (our individual interdependent, always social) life possible: here, now. While we must change how we act individually, as households, as streets and cities, as states and nations, at the same time we must change our worldview, our culture. The two go together. And we might find ourselves both praying old prayers for grace for each day, for grace to meet the challenges to change our behaviour, and letting go of all our imaginings of God, to allow a culture to emerge from Earth and atmosphere, from engagement with country and its traditional owners, from activism, from resistance to the greed and indifference we are also called to everyday by the consumerist culture that shapes our desires.

Slide11Part of this shift of culture is learning a broader empathy. A recent editorial in the journal America comments:

 According to reports, Pope Francis plans to address the state of the environment in his next encyclical. Perhaps his unique ability to challenge people in a disarming way will mobilize more people to act. The pope has spoken eloquently of the “globalization of indifference,” and here is an issue, surely, where indifference is our besetting sin. “The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people,” the pope said at Lampedusa. How much more difficult it is to imagine the cries of people who will suffer 50 or 100 years from now. To address the challenge of climate change will require an extraordinary feat of empathy, to think not only of ourselves but of all God’s children, in this generation and in generations to come. (12 May 2014;

The article focuses on empathy for other (future) humans, but as Rose’s blog on love and extinction demonstrates, the children referred to in the editorial need to be understood as more than human. And we need to get away from the idea of extending empathy from humans to otherkind. We need a culture in which otherkind call forth our love and empathy in their own right, not as an extension of our human-human interrelationality.

Part of this shift of culture is allowing ourselves to think the barely thinkable. Without sentimentality to look for the ways other beings express qualities we thought were only human, to be brave enough to imagine a future without humans where love persists, as Australian poet Bonny Cassidy does toward the end of her sequence Final Theory. As I read her poem, Cassidy’s sequence is addressed to a beloved, a lover, partner, and this human love—the depths of it—gives poignancy to the rising of oceans, and all that comes in the wake of ecological destruction in the Anthropocene. In Part One we hear:

 Sleepless piff—
we wake to cars shaving
        the coast road.

Lumpen contractions grasp the cliffs,
the acid sea balloons.
Your earth waves, waves bristle into a straight red streak

like distant resolutions
to the surface,
magma sponge.

If there’s land it bubbles. Its subtle lip, its slumping bowl.
Water furies the pores. Ah lahar.

Whatever might, has been.


I ask if you remember—
before our specks clumped in the sky’s roaring gaps—
        in that other age of loneliness
        when we spread like rafts of seed

just flecks of pace
pinching together. Ink without words.
When we started to think, so much
that we cooled ourselves stiff.

And turned to tell our twins and twins of twins, but their faces were only
drafts bruised with life, cast in chill

and we turned, edges furred,
became a disc of beach hammered black and blue.

Can you think, away round that orbit,
to when we gutter and wisp, and spit?

“We’ll drive ’til this land swims,”
you say. “My camera might sink

but we’ll be safe inside it:
fat and rich and pink.”

Some pages later, the sequence closes:

If we lay
beneath that rubble
we’d see how we were built for ruin
like sand for glass.

For now, you are a still.

And in some future ocean our beloved proteins will
roll, perhaps finding one another, linked
by a theoretical wave
like voices sent through cans and string.

(© Bonny Cassidy 2014, from Final Theory [Giramondo, forthcoming], reproduced with permission of the author.)

Slide12Can we practice empathy toward the otherkind of a future in which “our beloved proteins will/roll, perhaps finding one another”? A kind of ecoprophetic witness that enables a shift of behaviour and culture now.

To make theology adaptively, with the capacity to empower our actions to mitigate with some urgency the rise in global temperature, we may need to listen also to poets and writers, to attend to sculptors and painters, to let our spirits and psyches be converted with our minds and hearts, to find a humanity that is embedded and humble, and having the courage to act and to learn, and to unlearn and to learn, as often as it takes, and, if we want also to be Christian, to explore what a discipleship of partnership with otherkind might be.


Selected bibliography

Albiston, Jordie. 2013. XIII Poems. Melbourne: Rabbit Poets Series.

Bass, Ellen. 2001. “If There Is No God.” Women’s Studies Quarterly XXIX, nos 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer): 194–95.

———. 2002. Mules of Love. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions.

Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.

Caputo, John D. 2007. “Spectral Hermeneutics: On the Weakness of God and the Theology of the Event.” In John D. Caputo and Gianni Vattimo, After the Death of God, edited by Jeffrey W. Robbins, 47-86. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cassidy, Bonny. 2011. “from Final Theory.” In Young Poets: An Australian Anthology, edited by John Leonard, 33–44. St Kilda: John Leonard Press.

———. 2014 (forthcoming). Final Theory. Artamon, NSW: Giramondo.

Cavanaugh, William T. 2008. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35 (2): 197–222.

Chryssavgis, John. 2000. “The World of the Icon and Creation: An Orthodox Perspective on Ecology and Pneumatology.” In Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-being of Earth and Humans, edited by Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether, 83–96. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Darragh, Neil. 2000. At Home in the Earth: Seeking an Earth-centred Spirituality. Ponsonby, Auckland: Accent Publications.

Edwards, Denis. 2004. Breath of Life: A Theology of the Creator Spirit. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

———. 2006. Ecology at the Heart of Faith: The Change of Heart That Leads to a New Way of Living on Earth. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Elvey, Anne. 2008. “Material Elements: The Matter of Women, the Matter of Earth, the Matter of God.” In Post-Christian Feminisms: A Critical Approach, edited by Lisa Isherwood and Kathleen McPhillips, 53–69. Aldershot: Ashgate.

———. 2009. “Ashes and Dust: On (not) Speaking About God Ecologically.” Concilium, no. 3:33–42.

———. 2013. “Rethinking Neighbour Love: A Conversation between Political Theology and Ecological Ethics.” In ‘Where the Wild Ox Roams’: Biblical Essays in Honour of Norman C. Habel, edited by Alan H. Cadwallader and Peter L. Trudinger, 58–75. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix.

Elvey, Anne and David Gormley O’Brien (eds). 2013. Climate Change—Cultural Change: Religious Responses and Responsibilities. Preston: Mosaic Press.

Gregersen, Niels Henrik. 2001. “The Cross of Christ in an Evolutionary World. ” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 40, no. 3: 192-207.

Hessel, Dieter T., and Rosemary Radford Ruether (eds). 2000. Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hiebert, Theodore. 2000. “The Human Vocation: Origins and Transformations in Christian Traditions.” In Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans, edited by Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether, 135–54. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. 2000. “Losing and Finding Creation in the Christian Tradition.” In Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans, edited by Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether, 3–21. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kearns, Laurel, and Catherine Keller (eds). 2007. Ecospirit : Religions and Philosophies for the Earth. First Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquia. New York: Fordham University Press.

Mathews, Freya. 2003. For Love of Matter : a Contemporary Panpsychism. SUNY Series in Environmental Philosophy and Ethics. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 2005. Reinhabiting Reality : Towards a Recovery of Culture. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

McFague, Sallie. 1997. Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature. London: SCM Press.

———. 2001. Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

———. 2008. A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press.

Plumwood, Val. 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Edited by Teresa Brennan. Feminism for Today. London and New York: Routledge.

———. 2002. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. London: Routledge.

Pope John Paul II. 2001. “General Audience.” January 17, 2001.

Primavesi, Anne. 2009. Gaia and Climate Change: A Theology of Gift Events. London: Routledge.

Rigby, Kate. 2009. “Writing in the Anthropocene: Idle Chatter or Ecoprophetic Witness?” Australian Humanities Review 47 (Ecological Humanities) (November):

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. 1992. Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. San Francisco: HarperCollins.