Elizabeth A. Johnson: Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Bloomsbury 2014) is a work by a Catholic feminist theologian and was recommended to me by a member of a prayer group I go to. The book explores the question of the theological meaning of the natural world by examining The Origin of Species and the Nicene Creed, taking its title from Job 12:7-10.
For millennia the natural world of plants and animals has received little attention as a subject of Christian theology and ethics in its own right. Focused on the human dilemma of sin and redemptive grace, theology has considered the doctrine of Creation an overture to the main drama of human beings’ relationship to God. Theology needs to look out of the window as well as in the mirror. Johnson concludes that love of the natural world is an intrinsic element of faith in God and that far from being an add-on, ecological care is at the centre of moral life. She refers to the Holy Spirit, the third element in the Trinity, as calling us to attend to the presence of the Giver of life within and around the evolving circle of life. Johnson quotes the elegant question from the arch-atheist Stephen Hawking, what is it that breaths fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? Johnson’s answer is that the Spirit of God awakens and enlivens all things. She would have us re sacralize the natural world through our modern understanding of it and our inter-connectedness with it. Johnson’s book is a hymn to science as worship.
It is good to see a Christian feminist writer upholding the positive connection between theology and science but, while I admire Johnson’s book, I actually would not recommend it to the general reader, because it is largely aimed at the student of Catholic theology. Far more to be recommended is the book to which it is, to an extent, an homage. I picked up a copy of Origin of Species in a local Oxfam shop and, following my predilection for counter-counter-cultural practices, browsed it in the nearby McDonalds over a quarter-pounder meal with coffee. I immediately grasped Johnson’s enthusiasm for this book. Far from being a cold assault on religious passion, Darwin’s work prompts in the reader two strong feelings. The first is astonishment at the complexity of Creation. The second, even stronger feeling, is astonishment at the power of the human mind to engage with this complexity and make some sense of it. There are political and philosophical lessons in his theory and method: diversity and variety are strengths, in societies as much as in species; change is the only constant and is necessary for survival; you can’t buck the system; you’ve got to keep an open mind. I particularly like Darwin’s discussion of the old Latin phrase Natura non facit saltum, which means that nature does not proceed by jumps. The necessity and wisdom of gradual rather than revolutionary change is something that should not be lost on politicians