The politics of theology politicalideological interpretation of nature

A political theology specifies the liberation of the concept of nature towards the affirmation of un/natural humanity. To close this chapter, I offer more detail on the theological style of interpretation that I am calling political-ideological interpretation of nature. Such a theological style departs from the style most commonly found in the area of ecological theology which, in its focus on the significance of Christian symbols in the framing of a vision towards consciousness raising (which may also include the reinterpretation of these symbols themselves), is best described as 'symbolic-hermeneutic'.63

The influential work of Sallie McFague is a good example of such an approach: 'the world as God's body' is offered as the guiding idea and model for reconceiving the identity of God and human ethical responsibility towards nature. Especially in Models of God, McFague stresses that to speak of the world as the body of God is a heuristic strategy offering a 'picture' of the relation between the world and God in order to respond to an

62. No significance can be ascribed, on these non-theological premises, to the imago Dei. See McFague, The Body of God, p. 103: 'The first step in theological anthropology for our time is not to follow the clues from the Christic paradigm or even from the model of the universe as God's body, but to step backward and ask, Who are we in the scheme of things as pictured by contemporary science?'

63. Peter C. Hodgson, Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology (London: SCM Press, 1994), p. 43.

ecological sensibility.64 The term 'picture' is also to be found in the sequel, The Body of God: 'My project', McFague writes, 'is to embody the picture of reality from postmodern science in a model that will help us to internalise its new sensibility in a way not just compatible with but enriched by Christian faith'.65 The theological task is thereby the development of appropriate symbols, consonant with the dominant view ofreality in the natural sciences, towards the acknowledgement ofthe 'organic' reality of nature.

Such a concentration on symbols is, I believe, a difficulty: theological attention is devoted to a new future yet how this future comes to us and how it might already be present is less clear. The theological construction seems close to a projection in that it is not firmly related to the political-ideological dynamics of our situation. In this book, I am interested in a political theology of nature rather than a theology of transcendent symbols.

Why.? Because the articulation of a new vision informed by transcendent symbols may only serve to redouble the alienation ofhumanity from nature. As Norman Gottwald stresses in his account of biblical hermeneu-tics, 'The religious symbolism for such a project [drawing on the Jewish and Christian past] will have to grow out of an accurate scientific understanding of the material conditions we face.' Otherwise the projected freedom remains disconnected from contemporary circumstance (and the original liberating message). Furthermore, contributions in the area of practice and belief 'will be judged by whether they clarify the range and contours of exercisable freedom within the context of the unfolding social process'.66 Thus any 'symbolic-hermeneutic' interpretation must begin from political-ideological analysis in order to explore, in this instance, the varied and variable relations between humanity and nature. The distinction between humanity and nature is not operative only in the realm of discourse. It has material dimensions also. The distinction between humanity and nature is not a mere idea; it supports, and is supported by, material processes.67

I would not wish to overstress the contrast between these two styles: holding to a different future is important. Yet I am arguing that the transformation of social relations will only be secured by way of political-ideological analysis. Theologically, such transformation can only be

64. McFague, Models of God,p. 78. 65. McFague, The Body ofGod,p. 83.

66. Norman Gottwald, The Tribes ofYahweh, cited in Oelschlaeger, Caringfor Creation, p. 90.

67. See my Theology, Ideology and Liberation, esp. chs. 1 and 2.

secured by thinking through the relation of humanity-nature and God. Peter Berger captures part of the matter in the following comment on the institutional dimension of the ecological crisis:

most of the threats to the planetary ecosystem are the results of habitual human ways of relating to the physical world, ways dictated by institutional arrangements. Inversely, our relations with nature -the way we have used land, materials, and other species - both reveal and shape the institutions through which we deal with each other.68

Yet these exchanges between humanity and 'nature' are not only institutional. Other processes are involved, which incorporate institutions. As fundamental as the concept of'institution' to the study of society are those structures and relations which form political, social and economic processes. Hence, the task is to address those theoretical constructions which support the material basis of the distinction between humanity and nature. This is the task of the following chapters.

It is therefore much too simple to say, as Lynn White does, that, 'What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to the things about them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny - that is, by religion.'69 What is required is the theological criticism of those constructions which support the distinction in order to get to the material basis of the society (its politics, economics and technology). For what we think about ecology is shaped by the actual social transactions between humanity and nature which determine, and are determined by, our religious outlooks. In such fashion, Berger's correct emphasis on the centrality of human social life to the interpretation of the crisis in human relations with nature may be addressed theologically.

Such political-ideological interpretation finds the categories of 'environment' and 'ecology' to be central to a theology of nature. 'Environment', referring to that which needs to be conserved or preserved, is a recent usage and has, in its turn, been supplanted by 'ecology'. Thus ecology is now the more common word as the (technical and nontechnical) description for the relations between social humanity and the physical world; it is the task of ecology to name these physical conditions. In this sense, environmental science is replaced by ecological science.

68. Peter Berger, The Good Society, cited in Oelschlaeger, Caringfor Creation, p. 191.

69. White, 'The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis', 1205.

Part of the reason for this development lies in the history of the term, environment. From the early nineteenth century, 'environment' signified the conditions of the setting of human action, both social and natural; thus human action was understood, as in naturalism, to be conditioned by its environment. Deliberately excluded were accounts of context in terms of agents and resources understood to be 'extra-environmental', for example, God. This earlier sense also implies the notion of critique: the salient features of the environment must be accounted for and, implicitly at least, their worth judged.

Thus environmental features were not to be occluded by reference to God or the spiritual. Precisely this sense of critique re-emerges in the 1950s and 1960s when environmentalism involves the criticism of the dominant world view and its will-to-exploitation of nature. (Environment, in this sense, cannot be studied without reference to wider cultural and political aspects.) Such an understanding of environmental critique has been taken over by ecology. Yet, 'environment' is a useful word in that it retains something of its earlier scientific sense by drawing attention to the locality in which an entity is placed; to specify an environment is not, except by implication, to specify the whole of nature. Further, the human environment is partly natural, partly social. Such reciprocal, dialectical interaction is specified nicely by the concept of environment.70

'Ecology' has the etymological sense of'rigorous study of the household'. That is the sense in which I shall be using the term rather than the sense of the life-science academic discipline. The 'mission creep' of what C. S. Lewis calls the 'methodological idiom' is evident here: ecology has come to mean, 'that which is studied in the discipline called ecology'. Yet this is not its only meaning. I shall here hold to a rather more general reading: the sense of interconnection or interrelation between humanity and the natural order at all levels: interpretative, ontological, epistemological and ethical.71

To paraphrase Bonhoeffer: human life is now disunion with self, neighbour, world and God.72 For a critical, political theology of nature the attempt to overcome such disunion resides in an analysis of human-nature

70. For 'environment', see Cupitt, 'Nature and Culture', pp. 33-45 (pp. 33-6); Donald Worster, Nature's Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2nd pbk edn 1994).

71. For 'ecology', see Carolyn Merchant, Radical Ecology (New York and London: Routledge, 1992); Carolyn Merchant (ed.), Ecology: Key Concepts in Critical Theory (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1994); Williams, Keywords, pp. 110-11; Joseph Sittler, TheEcology of Faith (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961).

72. Bonhoeffer,Ethics,p. 5.

interactions in political-ideological interpretation. Our principal players are in place: God, nature and humanity. The theological task is the analysis, criticism and reconstruction of humanity-nature relations which obscure the visibility of the environment as the common realm of God, nature and humanity. A theological reading of un/natural humanity - the nature of social humanity, its natural and cultured relations to nature, its use of nature - is our aim. In this task, the liberation of nature, the liberation of humanity and the liberation of the promeity of God are at stake.

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