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An Argument for Christian Ecofeminism

by Cristina Traina

Cristina Traina is assistant professor of religion at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 2-9, pps. 600-603. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


BOOK REVIEW: Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing.By Rosemary Radford Ruether, HarperCollins, 310 pp., $22.00

The field of ecological ethics is fast becoming a morass of positions among which only specialists distinguish: creation spirituality, deep ecofeminism and the animal rights movement. Thus the title of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s latest volume is apt to put off both insiders, who may assume that they know the contents without reading the book, and untutored readers. The book is neither a rehearsal of obscure definitions nor a stump speech nor an ethic. Despite her commitment to "earth healing" (a healed relationship between men and women, between classes, between nations and between humans and the earth) and her suggestions of means to that end, the most important word of the title—and the project at the front of Ruether’s mind—is theology. She takes a hard, theologically inspired look at Ecofeminist assumptions (that male domination of women and male domination of nature are interconnected), and offers an equally stringent Ecofeminist critique of the Christian theological tradition.

Ruether’s many interests—liberation in general, ecumenical relations, liturgy, racism, language, ethics, history, Christology, sexism—have been evident in such earlier works as New Woman/New Earth (1975), but in Gaia and God the connections are worked out systematically. Sin, defined as wrong relationship among human beings and between them and the rest of nature, fosters not just economic and political injustice, not just racism and sexism, but the destruction of the entire created order. Therefore attempts to reconcile and transform human relationships cannot succeed unless human attitudes of domination over nonhuman creation are uprooted as well.

Ruether holds her theology accountable to an impressive number of disciplines. She begins with an analysis of three Western creation stories—Genesis, the Enuma Elish and Plato’s Timeaus—and argues that the early Christian effort to synthesize these accounts has bequeathed to us two unmanageable assumptions: that nature was originally paradisiacal and benign for human beings, and that human mortality is the product of human sin. She follows this account with scientific versions of the creation story, drawing from them a sense of the profound interdependence of atmospheric, aquatic and organic systems. This juxtaposition of religious and scientific accounts is repeated in a discussion of narratives of world destruction. Western apocalypticism, she argues, projects all evil onto one group, and hails death and destruction as the harbinger of the kingdom of God. This analysis is paired with highly quantitative accounts of the various links between population growth; hunger and poverty; pollution and atmospheric change; the extinction of species; and the effects of militarism. Ruether warns that the ecosystem can no longer absorb and recover from relentless human abuse; its destruction is not the prelude to its salvation.

Next comes an insightful critique of Christian theology in which Ruether argues that sin—the misuse of freedom in the distortion of relationships—must be distinguished from finitude, the good and created condition of human life. This sets up what is probably her most controversial chapter. Unlike many ecological ethicists and post-Christian feminists, she insists that humans did not originally live lightly on the earth in harmonious, paradisiacal groups. Further, the matricentric structure usually attributed to these rhythic societies is inherently unstable and, in fact, contains the seeds of patriarchy; it would thus be dangerous to reinstitute that structure uncritically. After exploring the development of structures of domination in Western societies, she concludes that undoing these structures requires re-establishing more manageable units of local control, ensuring just relations and the just distribution of life’s necessities, and converting a culture of competition and domination into one of compassionate solidarity. In her final section she examines two strands of Christian spirituality—covenant and sacrament—which can support these changes.

Ruether concludes with some general suggestions, ranging from the spiritual to the pedestrian, for beginning the process of earth healing. Her vagueness, although frustrating, is consistent with her emphasis upon conversion as the prerequisite for concrete, local solutions: "Only by understanding how the web of life works can we also learn to sustain it rather than destroy it. This is not simply a task of intellectual understanding, but of metanoia, in the fullest sense of the word: of conversion of our spirit and culture, of our technology and social relations, so that the human species exists within nature in a life-sustaining way."

This compressed version of the book shortchanges its bold theological elements. To begin with, Ruether makes connections between ecofeminism and other ecological spiritualities and ethics. She concurs with the ecofeminists in correlating the mental and mythical misadventures of Western thought with misogynism and destruction of the global ecosystem. Patriarchal patterns are responsible for ecological destruction, and any approach which presumes to correct one without acknowledging its profound connection to the other is doomed to fail.

Ruether attends to both Ecofeminist and deep ecologist solutions. ("Deep ecology" goes beyond ecology to explore the symbolic, psychological and ethical patterns of humans’ destructive relations with nature.) Deep ecologists want to counter Western culture’s anthropocentrism—its tendency to place humanity at the center of the universe and to reduce the nonhuman world to an instrument for human ends—with a theory of an expanded self which calls for identification with the nonhuman world. As Lois Daly has noted, some ecofeminists, while suspicious that such self-expansion perpetuates the patriarchal tendency to reduce others to tools of self-realization, still accept the patriarchal identification of man with controlling reason and transcendent deity, and of woman with physical nature and the immanent earth goddess. They simply reverse the hierarchy.

Ruether takes both Ecofeminist and deep ecologist criticism of Christian thought with utmost seriousness, acknowledging and describing Christianity’s historic culpability for many unjust, world-destroying practices and attitudes. In the process she discovers contradictions—like the tendency to regard finitude as sin and death as evil—which have both hobbled Christian theological reflection and encouraged Christians to pursue ultimately sinful and destructive relationships with one another and their surroundings. But here the resemblance between Ruether and the others ends. For many ecofeminists and deep ecologists, such a critique of Christianity is a prelude to its rejection; it is a signal to create new religious systems, opt for non-Western ones, or return to the beliefs and practices of an era preceding the fall of Western civilization into a world- and woman-denying dualism.

Ruether refuses to allow post-Christian visions the last word. In particular, she rejects the argument that women’s experiences and relationships infallibly refute the patriarchal tradition. No alternative to patriarchy lies dormant in women, waiting to be unleashed. Both women and men require transformation. Gaia and God continues Ruether’s pattern of critical reverence for the Christian tradition: she bets that Christianity, while not inherently superior to other religious traditions, contains fragments that can, in concert with new insights, subvert and transform Christianity’s patriarchal theologies and practices.

Ingrained in Ruether’s argument are solutions to two problems which have long plagued not only ecological ethics but feminist thought and Roman Catholic natural law ethics. First, there is the tension between Western notions of human reason—nature-controlling, deductive and scientific—and a more embodied, feeling, experiential approach which draws on biological and psychological processes. If the rationalist approach is the cause of the environmental crisis, should it be discarded in favor of the second? If not, how can the two coexist? Second, environmental ethicists have trouble balancing the needs of an interdependent system against the rights of its individual elements. This difficulty also dogs feminist and natural law thinkers. Ruether’s solutions to these problems evoke natural law understandings of nature and reason, and of the common good. The connections are implicit, not explicit—she neither employs standard natural law terms nor accepts the tradition uncritically—but they are profound reminders of the Catholic roots of her thought.

The most familiar example of the first problem mentioned above is probably the natural law tradition’s struggle over nature and reason. The writings of Thomas Aquinas and the authors who inspired and succeeded him are ambiguous on the question: Are human beings to be defined by the characteristics which they share with other creatures or by the features which set them apart? Does biological givenness (the law of nature) dictate the structure of human action, or does the equally God-given human ability to reason (confusingly called "natural law" by Aquinas and Roman Catholic tradition) direct human beings to establish sometimes quite novel goals and discern new ways of achieving them?

Feminists, despite a general agreement that both biological and rational nature are to some degree socially constructed, often feel compelled to take sides: either human nature is biological and driven by the laws of nature, or nature is rational and driven by the laws of reason. Many have argued for the second option: nature, or createdness, is a limitation to be overcome. For these feminists, reliance on nature is code language for women’s subjugation. Whenever women’s capacity to bear and nurse children has been recognized as natural to them, this view has been used to derive a moral prescription for womanhood. These feminists would emphasize women’s common human characteristics of rationality and transcendence of nature. Advocates of women’s suffrage and women’s ordination fall into this camp, as do Beverly Wildung Harrison (in some of her work), Shulamith Firestone and others who argue not just for the transcendence of gender roles but for technological and social means of neutralizing sexual difference.

Yet the choice is not so obvious. For other feminists, including ecofeminists, reason is the enemy. They argue that deductive, scientific rationality is a product of the male, body-denying mind. The Christian erasure of gender distinctions in Christ generally implies, they argue, the assimilation of women to masculinity, the shedding of female forms of bodiliness and attachment. As a result, women’s natural, healthy, earthy moral sensibility is discredited and women’s proverbial "irrationality" dooms them to continued subjugation. Rather than sweeping women’s peculiar moral perspective—which is intimately tied to their reproductive capacity—under the rug, these feminists celebrate it as an equally valid or even superior kind of rationality. Natural law thinkers, too, take this position at times: the special structures of the body not only indicate their appropriate use but dispose people to act in particular ways. Women, for instance, are thought of as "naturally" nurturant. Feminist adherents of this position include Susan Griffin, Mary Daly and Naomi Goldenberg.

Ruether resists both extremes by showing the dilemma to be false. Human nature—which means, minimally, the body and its needs and limitations—shapes human reason and reason shapes what we take to be human nature. This much feminists have already shown. Ruether’s argument is more radical. Biological nature gains a normative foothold in her thought, but for a new reason. Human parallels to animal instincts (to eat, procreate, etc.) do not exhaust the information which nature provides to moral reason. Rather, ethics must arise from the sophisticated comprehension of how all of nature works. We must understand not only the apparent conditions of human flourishing but also the conditions of global flourishing (on which human well-being depends). Nature does establish limits which cannot be transgressed: "the laws of Gaia, which regulate what kinds of changes in ‘nature’ are sustainable in the life system of which we are an inextricable part." These limits are morally binding not because they are tests of obedience to a dictatorial God or because they are encoded in our bodies, but because they convey truths about global flourishing. If we do not observe these limits, the global ecology upon which we depend for life will suffer. Yet to understand these "natural" systems and to decide how to transform or conform to them requires peculiarly human reason. Moral reason is of nature, in the most inclusive and interdependent sense of the word "nature." Ruether has thus made important progress toward solving the nature-versus-reason dilemma in ecofeminism, and, if she is heard, in natural law thought as well.

Ecological and feminist thought has also been troubled by the tension between the good of the individual and that of the interdependent system. This tension shows up in discussions of animal rights, species rights and abortion, for example. As in the previous discussion, natural law offers an illustration. The common good is a social, relational good. Security, prosperity, health and culture can be had only through human cooperation in a smoothly functioning, interdependent social order. As it is understood in this century, the common good can be achieved only through a delicate balance of foresight, self-sacrifice, self-actualization and justice. It requires that all be permitted to contribute their gifts to the common enterprise, but that all balance their wants against the needs of the whole. Demanding too much for oneself harms the common good; demanding so little that one lacks the strength, freedom or education to make one’s full contribution compromises the common enterprise as well. The meeting of basic human needs has increasingly been recognized as both a universal prerequisite of individual contribution to the common good and a basic human right. A just provision of the basic requirements for life is now an explicit element of the doctrine.

Feminists have rightly been wary, however, of the common-good tradition’s harsh edge: its ingrained hierarchalism and paternalism. Some few, wise, privileged males have made decisions while others quietly have contributed their particular God-given talents to the social and economic whole, but have had very little power to change it or to alter their assigned roles. This hierarchical vision relegated the nonhuman to the bottom of the organizational pyramid: it was the "stuff’ which humans employed in their pursuit of the common, human good. The result of this sort of anthropocentrism, as Ruether and ecological writers note, is a tendency for human beings—like any species—to "maximize [their] own existence and hence to proliferate in a cancerous way that destroys [their] own biotic support." The traditional interpretation of the common good, in other words, fatally undermines itself by underestimating both the interdependence of human and global well-being and the claim of nonhuman life upon the common good.

But again, rather than throwing away the apple, Ruether cuts out the bruise and makes a pie: the true common good is not, as the natural law tradition claimed, the good of human interrelationship but of global—even cosmic—cooperation. The nonhuman world is not a tool; it is part of the community that contributes to and benefits from the common good. Its ability to make that contribution must be preserved and respected. The result is an expanded vision of the common good which both respects humans’ differences from other creatures and forbids humans to "pull rank" over them. Like John Cobb, Ruether argues that humans’ special ability to view the whole web of life grants them profound responsibilities for other creatures but no privileges over them.

Now that the seemingly inexhaustible earth has grown small, Ruether tells us, this interdependence is especially evident. Moral rules and concepts are authoritative because they are true in a very literal sense. If we keep the covenant—preserve the global common good—we will flourish; if we do not, we and the world will perish.

Ruether’s suggestions for advancing this larger common good are many: eat less meat; design towns and cities in which residences, jobs and necessary goods and services are within walking distance; develop self-sufficient regional industries and agriculture; and abandon patriarchy and become committed to earth healing. Her prescriptions are important and powerfully presented. They are also not unique. Moreover, the impressive breadth of Ruether’s argument makes her susceptible to criticism from a variety of quarters: biblical scholars may disagree with her interpretation of Paul; environmental scientists, with her figures on atmospheric carbon dioxide content; and agricultural and nutritional experts, with her recipe for relying on consumption of seasonal, locally produced foods.

Though Ruether’s Christian ecofeminism may stand on shifting ground and yield no new strategies, this book presents her theology at its most ambitious. She makes an urgent and convincing case for extending the liberation paradigm to all creation, and proves that in the proper hands the movement for earth renewal is not a threat to genuine Christianity but a comprehensive tool for a necessary overhaul of Western theology.


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