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By 
Dan Lioy
 on August 19, 2016

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Book Review)

Because life on earth has theological meaning and value, people must not ravage it to satiate their temporal, self-serving appetites.

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INTRO: In Job 12, Job tells Zophar (who made a lofty speech in chapter 11) that he doesn’t have a corner on wisdom. Job says,

But ask the animals what they think—let them teach you; 
Let the birds tell you what’s going on.
Put your ear to the earth—learn the basics.
Listen—the fish in the ocean will tell you their stories.
Isn’t it clear that they all know and agree
That God is sovereign, that he holds all things in his hand— 
Every living soul, yes,
Every breathing creature? (Job 12:7-11, Message translation)

Elizabeth Johnson writes her book, Ask the Beasts, as a corrective to the anthropocentric perspectives in which all that matters among the created order is human beings and their interests. BioLogos holds to the uniqueness of human beings and the image of God, but agrees that God loves all of creation. Thanks to Prof. Dan Lioy for this review. Here’s how you can get involved in reviewing books for BioLogos. -Jim

Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014). 323 pages. $15.28.

Elizabeth A. Johnson is a distinguished professor of theology at Fordham University (New York), a long-time member of the religious order, Sisters of St. Joseph (Brentwood, New York), and the author of numerous scholarly and popular publications. She wrote Ask the Beasts as a plea for ecojustice, appealing to Job 12:7 as the basis: “But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you” (NASB). Her underlying premise is that Homo sapiens are ravaging the planet, including its non-human life forms. A corresponding claim is that since God loves the world he created, it is a travesty of justice to give in to humankind’s decimation of Earth.

Beasts addresses the preceding issue by fostering a nuanced conversation between Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the Nicene Creed. This is followed by a lively exchange involving humankind and their non-human counterparts. The goal is to reorient the thinking of believers so they will embrace the cause of ecojustice.

What is the book about?

The preface to Ask the Beasts establishes the context, goal, and motivation of Johnson’s work. With respect to the context, the author uses the metaphor of the “Big Bang” (xiii) to refer to a triad of “singular, explosive” episodes that have led to “radical consequences.” These three epoch-shaping “events” are as follows:

  1. The first Big Bang: a “primordial hot explosion” occurring about “13.7 billion years ago” that gave rise to the “universe.”
  2. The second Big Bang: about “ten million years later,” this phenomenon used “materials” birthed in the first episode (such as “stars, galaxies,” and so on) to foster “life on Earth.”
  3. The third Big Bang: after another “three billion years,” an “evolutionary process” (from which spring “beautiful, complex creatures interacting in life-sustaining ecosystems”) brought about the “emergence of human beings” (otherwise known as Homo sapiens).

Johnson’s goal is not to spotlight the first and third epoch-shaping events above. Instead, it is to direct readers’ attention to the “second big bang” (xiv). The author does so by addressing the following question: “what is the theological meaning of the natural world of life?” The underlying premise is that some sort of divinely intended, metaphysical import can be discerned in the temporal realm.

Concerning the interplay between studying the “natural world” (xiv) and articulating a “vision of the Sacred,” Johnson affirms the “vibrant contributions” made by specialists affiliated with religious traditions other than Christianity. That said, the author explores the topic through the prism of the Christian tradition (xv). This especially includes a “strong belief in a creating, saving God of blessing.” The preceding mindset is “inherited from the Jewish tradition” and finds advocates within the Islamic tradition.

The motivation for Ask the Beasts is summed in one word: “ecojustice” (xiv). On the one hand, Johnson sees the “evolving community of life” on the planet as “God’s beloved creation.” On the other hand, the author regards the ruination of life on earth to be an “unspeakable sin.” Put another way, the preceding is a travesty of justice that deserves to be addressed in an objective, informed manner.

Johnson maintains that taking into account the Christian tradition”(xiv) helps to “illuminate the religious meaning of the ecological world of species.” This mindset serves as a corrective to those who view nature in a purely “neutral sense,” along with others who think the planet is “made only for human use.” The author reasons that since non-human “living species have an intrinsic value in their own right,” it is a moral outrage to exploit and ravage these entities to satiate humanity’s temporal, self-serving appetites.

What is the book’s distinctive perspective?

Johnson’s intent in “asking the beasts” is to shift the theological conversation about ecojustice from the “presumption of human superiority” to that of other non-human species. In brief, Johnson gives “concerted attention” to the plants and animals inhabiting Earth, particularly their story, with “all its struggle and delight.”

I concur with the author that the above approach “creates an important shift in perspective” (xv). Rather than having Homo sapiens occupy the spotlight in the unfolding drama of life on the planet, Johnson allows other creatures to take center stage. By modifying the narrative in this way, the author strives to reconfigure all of theological interpretation in order to honor the “lives” of earth’s other entities.

Johnson further motivates her distinctive perspective by calling attention to the tendency of various “dominant theologies” (xv) to privilege an “advantaged group” by making it the center of “intellectual and ethical interest.” These approaches, in turn, do “less than justice” to non-human species that exist “on the margins” because the latter have been unfairly silenced. Presumably, far too many people use such a calloused mindset to justify the ravaging of the earth and its life forms to gratify humanity’s whims and ambitions.

There is a sense in which, as Johnson acknowledges, she is articulating an “ecological theology” (xv). The author defines theology (xvii) as the “study of God,” along with “all things in light of God.” Because ecological theology (xv) is a “nascent field” of inquiry, the author has put forward an intriguing contribution. Johnson goes further by emphasizing what she sees as a moral imperative, namely, to give voice to marginalized non-human creatures and, thereby, enable them to be “seen as of central importance in themselves.” Expressed differently, the “natural world in its own right” deserves “careful consideration” as an “irreplaceable element” within ongoing theological discourse (italics are the author’s).

Johnson adopts a novel approach to facilitate what she describes as a “dialogue” (xv) between Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the Nicene Creed. The former is a seminal, objective articulation of evolutionary biology, while the latter signifies a foundational expression of belief adopted by the Christian Church in the fourth century of the modern era. On one level, Johnson’s decision is pragmatic, in light of the “enormous quantity of literature in both science and theology.” On another level, though, the author’s choice of representative works signifies an imaginative way to provide one avenue (among many) to make a compelling case for ecojustice.

To take the above analysis further, Johnson refers to Darwin’s Origins as a “scientific account” (xvi). In contrast, the Nicene Creed is said to be a “religious testimony.” Johnson ventures that the interplay between one conversation partner operating within the “realm of reason” and another within the sphere of faith can give rise to a theology that sanctions an “ecological ethic of love” for the “community of life” found across the globe.

What emerges from this conversation is a “back and forth dialogue” (xvi) involving the “beasts, birds, plants, and fish” (xviii) of the Earth that examines the “relationship between the evolving world and one triune God.” Johnson summons readers to an “ecological vocation” (281). This entails replacing an “arrogant, utilitarian stare” (282) at the world with an affectionate gaze. Together, “scientific literacy” and “religious contemplation” enable readers to “appreciate nature’s accomplishments” as “God’s handiwork,” as well as to take a proactive stance against its harm.

What are the book’s strengths and weaknesses?

Johnson has identified a genuine area of concern, namely, humankind’s despoiling of earth and its nonhuman inhabitants. The author is correct in labeling the latter as a moral travesty, especially since God has set his affection on the planet and the life forms he created.

Johnson has adopted a unique descriptive-analytical approach in establishing a dialogue between science and faith and using this exchange to convince readers to take up the cause of ecojustice. The author’s prose is lively, well researched, and engaging, being geared toward both specialist and nonspecialist readers.

Johnson addresses her topic from a Roman Catholic, feminist perspective. Admittedly, readers who operate from different vantage points may not agree with some of the author’s assumptions, claims, and conclusions. For example, consider Johnson’s tendency to downplay the theological significance of the imago Dei within people. The consensus of Church tradition has been that because God made people in his image, they are the pinnacle of his creation. The assertion that the latter results in an overly narrow, distorted reading of the biblical text is open to challenge.

A case can be made that, rather than disparaging the above biblical teaching, it can be strategically enlisted in the cause of ecojustice. After all, God summons his vice-regents to be faithful stewards of the planet they inhabit. Arguably, no other creatures are as divinely equipped to champion the cause of earth’s non-human entities.

Ultimately, it remains with readers to determine whether Johnson has achieved her goal. This reviewer thinks that, when the book’s relative strengths and weaknesses are objectively assessed, the author has made a credible case for the necessity of ecojustice.

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