The aim of this book political theology of nature

The motivation for writing this book lies in my belief that Christian theology has an important contribution to make to the reinterpretation of the human habitat demanded by ecology and the reconfiguration of human social life demanded by the imperatives of environmental sustain-ability. Yet I am also convinced that a new type of theology of nature is now required.

In theological discussions of the environment, attention has been focused on the relation between theology and the natural sciences, on the one hand, and the 'value' of nature, on the other.1 Yet the concentration on these two areas is to construe the concerns of environmentalism too narrowly. Environmental concern is not directed to some abstraction, called Nature. Instead, such concern is directed towards the quality and character of habitation, including the habitation of humanity. Questions privileged by environmentalism include: how do life forms interact.? How might the quality oflife be improved? How can life be sustained in the long term? With these questions come certain perspectives for interpretation (global, aesthetic) and commitments to simpler, more sustainable forms oflife (recycling and decentralisation, for instance).2

Such questions, perspectives and commitments are not exhausted by inquiries in the natural sciences or into the 'value' of nature. A third area of inquiry emerges: the distortions of human sociality as enacted in the

1. These distinctions are Douglas John Hall's, as reported in James McPherson, 'Ecumenical

Discussion of the Environment 1966-1987', Modern Theology 7:4 (July 1991), 363-71 (367).

2. On the contours of environmentalism, see Max Oelschlaeger, Caringfor Creation: An

Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis (London and New Haven: Yale University Press,

relations of un/natural humanity with nature. Because environmental concerns may be traced back to a disharmony between humanity and nature, environmental strategies are founded in and directed towards the distorted sociality of humanity. Environmental strategies are thereby redirective. Such strategies seek the reconstitution of human social life towards wholeness, diversity and integrity in its transactions with its natural conditions and away from patterns offragmentation and disintegration. As we know, such patterns of fragmentation and disintegration have their own dynamics, leading to the suppression of the importance (but not the actuality) of the natural conditions of human life; our interdependence in the delicate and reciprocal interactions with nature which constitute our un/natural humanity is obscured. Competition over resources (social and natural), insecurity and distrust at all levels (international and national, racial and ethnic, gender and familial), rapid consumption of natural resources and reduction in biodiversity and the quality of agricultural land are instances of such fragmentation and breakdown.3

This book sets out some of the contours of a new theological approach, which I am calling political theology of nature. Such an approach directs theological attention not to the natural sciences nor to the 'value' of nature but instead to the interactionbetween un/natural humanity and socialised nature. The theological problematic presented here is concerned with the question: what theological specification can be given to the varied and variable relations between un/natural humanity and socialised nature in such manner that neither are lost.? More strongly, can a political theology of nature within a doctrine of creation offer a perspective in which human freedom and contingent nature might be related to secure their mutual affirmation and healing. And we should note the importance ofthe matter to the wider reaches of theology: if no satisfactory response to this last question can be given, the significance of Jesus of Nazareth is put in question. For who is Jesus Christ if not the action of God in such narrative concentration that an embodied life of human freedom and contingent nature is the saving presence ofGod.

A political theology of nature is a complex inquiry given the varied and variable relations between humanity and nature. There can be no general construal ofsuch variability; attention must be paid instead to particular

3. For a useful discussion of questions of global security, etc., see part 1 of Alan Race and

Roger Williamson (eds.), True to this Earth (Oxford: One World Publications, 1995).

issues. Yet these issues do not offer themselves in neutral descriptions. The theological task is thereby twofold. First, to offer an analysis and critique of instances of the relations between humanity and nature. Second, to offer a theology of nature which might serve as the 'prequel' to the life, cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ such that God's engagement with (and against) humanity in our relations with nature might be specified more clearly. In short, how might the practices of this society, in its relations with nature, be directed more fully towards the expansionary presence of the triune God.?

A political theology of nature is thus an exercise in theological anthropology in a liberative key. Maurice Bloch has noted that 'the very enterprise of studying man [íí'c] is always a political exercise, and that anthropology has always either challenged or legitimised the society in which it occurs'.4 One of the central claims of this study is that a political theology of nature is oppositional: it seeks the liberative transformation of nature's meanings. For what is required is both the liberation oftheology and the liberation of the world: a political theology of nature invites both the transformation of theology itself and the presentation of a theological concept of nature which affirms the reality of the natural conditions of human life in ways which foster unity and solidarity between creatures.

Naught foryour comfort: we are right to be suspicious of the concept of nature in that it has been used to defend that which is only conventional or artificial. Yet we are not convinced, rightly, that we are without nature. In my view, Christian theology is well placed to offer an oppositional reading of nature which specifies humanity in its un/naturalness. How does humanity relate to nature in the perspective of the triune God? - this is a revolutionary question. What do we know of the integrity and wholeness of un/natural humanity? How might such integrity and wholeness be enacted?

The argument of the book is thus to be found in two related ideas which, in theological perspective, form a single theme.

The first idea holds to the view that: 'The origins of the contingencies which are overwhelming us today lie in social contexts, and no longer

4. Maurice Bloch, Marxism and Anthropology (Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 131. In fact, 'challenge' does not quite cover the range of possible interactions of resistance. See my reinterpretation of the account of alternative, oppositional and specialising modes of resistance in the work of Raymond Williams in Peter Scott, Theology, Ideology and Liberation (Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 36f.

directly in nature.'5 The balance of this statement is important: I do not hold to the view that nature is socially constructed simpliciter; the structures and processes of nature are real and 'excess to thought'. The engagement with that nature, through our socially formed discourses, is by a range of social practices in our habitation: knowledge of nature is always thereby perspectival and emerges in particular praxes.6 Which means that the way in which social and political theory understands the natural conditions oflife is central to this book. 'Economics, politics and social theory are reinterpreted [in ecology] from a central concern with human relations to the physical world as the necessary basis for social and economic policy.'7 A political theology of nature offers such reinterpretation in theology concentrating upon human relations to the physical world in the politics of human habitation as construed by political ecology.

This book explores the issue of the presence of the triune God to political-ideological forms: how the core doctrines of Christian faith may be situated in the material processes of politics and ecology. It examines the 'symbolics of nature' as these inhibit or encourage views of material production, that is, the relations between the physical world and social humanity. The ecological claim of the centrality of human relations to the physical world is here privileged.8 My account of nature is therefore an account of ecological nature as grasped within social and political theory. My concern is not with the scientific - natural or life - dimensions of nature, but instead with human relations to the physical world. What follows acknowledges that too often nature is interpreted as an abstract singular - my writing is an attempt in theology to make plural the singular.9

5. Jürgen Habermas, TheNew Conservatism (Cambridge: Polity Press pbk. edn, 1994), p. 204.

6. Of the four epistemologies identified by David Demeritt as 'constructivist' (David Demeritt, 'Science, Social Constructivism and Nature', in Bruce Braun and Noel Castree (eds.), RemakingReality: Nature at the Millennium (London and New York: Routledge, 1998, PP. 173-93), my 'philosophical' position is closest to 'artefactual constructivism'.

7. Raymond Williams, Keywords (London: Fontana, 1976), p. 111.

8. In what follows, it will become clearer that I am less concerned with the institutional bases of these accounts of nature. Drawing on a distinction made by Perry Anderson, I am focusing not on the institutions which support such inquiries into nature (principally, academies) but rather on the issue of democratic extension: in what senses do these accounts of nature encourage greater participation by members of the polis in shaping the social and natural conditions of their lives? See Perry Anderson, English Questions (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), pp. 242-3. Cf. Oelschlaeger, Caringfor Creation, p. 23: 'Religious discourse ...is one possible way a democratic people might achieve solidarity - that is, create the political will to elect leaders who in turn would create public policies that lead toward sustainability.'

9. For the claim that theology has, by the construal of the natural order in relation to a single cause, tended to simplify nature, see Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980), pp. 69-70.

The second idea which governs this book is that the mediation of nature by social contexts is graspable as concrete, not abstract, in theological interpretation. Reality is the sacrament of command, writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer.10 The difficulty, as Bonhoeffer well knew, is breaking through in thought to reality. The central theological claim here, analogous formally to the Christological claim that in the career of Jesus of Nazareth we have God in concretion, is that through the operations of the triune God in creation we encounter the dynamics of the interaction of humanity and nature in concreto. In such concretion the distorted sociality of humanity-in-nature will appear on the interpretative horizon thereby allowing the issue of wholeness and integrity of un/natural humanity to be adequately considered. The theological issue is to hold to the presence of God as interwoven with the natural conditions of humanity as these emerge in human social life. What may we discern of this presence.? How might the humanity-nature relationship be rethought and reconfigured towards being in the truth of the triune God.

Concrete, specific and particular are thus, for theological reasons, related to abstract, general and universal: it is no surprise that the core ofthe book is taken up with analyses ofhuman-nature interaction. What follows focuses not on general issues in the interpretation of humanity and nature but instead on particular issues in political ecology to show their concretely liberative or restrictive character in and through their relations to the concept and actuality of the triune God.

Against the tendency to construe the ecological crisis as the context for theology or to respond to complaints of Christian collusion in the ecological crisis, I consider that attention mustbe paid to the way in which the concept ofnature is present in theological theory in the context ofthe distorted sociality of humanity. As a contribution to this task, the next section seeks to locate the emergence of the modern meanings of nature in order to frame the present inquiry. It is not sufficient, in my view, to take the ecological crisis as evidence of the objectification of nature by humanity without attention to historical shifts of meaning. Nature, the most elusive term in our language, requires such circumspection.

Following that I give an account of some of the theological issues raised for a political theology of nature which serves also to locate my own work. Attention then moves to the relations between the terms,

10. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 'A Theological Basis for the World Alliance', in John de Gruchy (ed.), Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (London: Collins, 1988), pp. 98-110 (p. 103).

'creation' and 'nature'. Finally, I contend that Christian theology - in the form of the political-ideological interpretation of nature - is well placed to engage with its own history and contemporary debate towards the liberation of un/natural humanity in nature.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Self Help Affirmations

Self Help Affirmations

The big book of affirmations from personal development authors. An affirmation is something you say to yourself. Everybody uses them on purpose or accidentally. You get up in the morning, leap out of bed and proclaim,

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment