Opinion: The Challenge of “Us” in Ecological Times

by Justin Schnebelen

 

On February 28, the 18th Annual Prophetic Voices Lecture featured Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J.,’s “The Challenge of ‘Us’ in Ecological Times” but lecture it was not, for it felt more like prophecy. Johnson’s “spiritual vision” she put forth was an active retrieval of the human identity.

            

Fulton 511 was full and the air dense with the expectation that Johnson would stretch the audience’s conception of God in new, healthy ways, and do it all with a sort of Christ-like no-prophet-is-accepted-in-her-hometown tinge.

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Johnson began by proposing an “anthropology revamped” and a “new solidarity” in other words, she suggested an enhanced way of being in direct opposition to the “elite human” mentality, elucidating instead a greater kinship between all living things.

            

Citing the thinning biosphere where 1,000 species are dying every year, nearly all due to human activity, Johnson described the reality as increasingly dire. In other words, as she said, “thousands of species […] will no longer give glory to God by their existence.” The statement, and her position as a whole, was steeped in Ignatius’ mantra of “finding God in all things”—and if one really believed the power and sheer challenge of its claim, Johnson’s words seemed a simple translation.

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Simple too was the theological basis for her claims: the sacred relationship of everything “to the one God who created all things.” As she went deeper into the practical manifestation of her words, she hoped to dismantle the anthropology of the dominant human. She explained, “In no way am I implying humans aren’t distinct [from the rest of Creation],” though she outrightly denounced Aquinas’s ordering of Creation with humans at the top. She argued that this conception of man considers the rest of Creation merely for its “instrumental dignity,” which is to say its worth derived from our determination of its momentary usefulness, and not its fundamental, intrinsic value.

            

Addressing head-on the obvious counterpoint that opponents quickly fly, Johnson asserted that the “dominion” of Genesis 1 which God bestows on man is neither supremacy nor license for exploitation, but rather a “responsibility to care.” This responsibility was the crux of Johnson’s argument which who insisted that humans must be considered first in the totality of all Creation, and, as Pope Francis states in Laudato Si, “one splendid universal communion.”

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Johnson mourned the “ripped pages” which have been lost from the Book of Life, a mourning straight from the “faith claim” which proclaims all living things are, in some mysterious way, “participants in the work of Creation.” It’s the sort of view that places everything—the rich and poor, the snake and the lion, and even one minute pebble—in the sacred bond of interconnectedness, because they all by their existence give praise to Him. That, as she says, must deserve the utmost respect.

           

Practically speaking, Johnson encouraged those involved in the Church to engage in liturgical reforms which infuses the sacredness of all things into the liturgy, comparable to the assertion of Psalm 50, which reads, “for every animal of the forest is mine.”

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