Sunday, May 11, 2014

Spirituality and the Earth - Session One: Wisdom and the Earth

Slideshow Spirituality and the Earth.pdf

Climate Crisis and Theology – a quick introduction

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, released in April 2014, bluntly informs us that climate change is no longer a prediction but a present fact. The report details current impacts including rising sea levels, ocean acidification and slowing of increases in crop yield, and provides evidence that these impacts are primarily affecting the poorest of the world’s poor. The IPCC publication warns of a 4–6 degree global temperature rise by the end of the century under the most alarming RCP8.5 ‘business as usual’ scenario. The authors note that unless effective mitigation measures are implemented globally by the end of this decade, adaptation will be virtually impossible on the basis of currently available technology[1]. The report predicts major disruption to human activity as extreme weather events become normal, fresh water reserves including deep aquifers and river systems become unusable, and crop production is rendered impossible across major parts of the globe. This is expected to cause huge uncontrolled movements of human populations over coming decades, breakdown of national and international political systems and major conflicts. Less moderate predictions by climate activists include collapse of the human population to pre-industrial levels or even total extinction of the human species.
None of these claims are new. The first scientific warning of climate change caused by combustion of fossil fuels came in 1896 from Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius[2]. Since the formation of the IPCC in 1988 the consensus message from the world’s top climate scientists has been consistent, and observable changes have by and large vindicated climate change modelling. During the same period of time, carbon mitigation schemes have been implemented in over 60 countries covering 90% of the world’s emissions[3], although there appears to be little will to enact the swingeing cuts in atmospheric carbon pollution that the IPCC is recommending.
The 2013 State of the World Report comments that the problem is not the science, which has for some time provided at least adequate justification for effective action[4]. According to this report the roadblock to effective action has now become the more basic existential issues of how human life is framed and valued, and the competing moral claims of present and future generations, human versus non-human interests, and how the lifestyle of wealthy countries is to be balanced against the basic needs of the developing world. It is thus the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life that need to be made explicit in the political struggle for implementation of measures aimed at preserving the Earth’s ability to sustain human populations and the natural environment into the future.
It is against this backdrop that Christian theology is challenged to provide discourses of hope and a language for framing the existential crisis within the overarching narrative of faith.

Spirituality and the Earth – a series outline

This evening we begin a series of three workshops which collectively are entitled ‘Spirituality and the Earth’. This session is entitled ‘Wisdom and the Earth’, and the following two sessions are ‘Apocalypse now?’, and ‘The Community of Shalom and the Future as Friend’. As a whole, I aim to provide some ways in which we can think about the current climate crisis in explicitly theological terms, but also to provide a theological framework that is practical enough to help us answer real-world questions like: ‘how shall we live as Christians’, and ‘where are we headed’? I believe passionately that the Church has a vital role to play in the current climate crisis, because as the Church we must provide answers to the moral and spiritual questions that alone can galvanise effective change. Questions like: ‘Does God care about ecology?’ Or: ‘Is the Earth a resource for our use, or do we have a moral obligation to care for it?’ Or: ‘can we even be human if we live in a way that is alienated from the Earth?’ All religious traditions deal with fundamental questions about who we are and what our place is in the context of creation, and unless we are prepared to allow the answers of capitalist economics to dictate both public and private responses then the Church must provide a compelling narrative. My aim for the series of workshops, then, is that each of us will be able to provide our own answer to these questions.
This evening’s session begins with the theme of Wisdom, which we trace through its beginnings as a subversive strand of creation theology within the dominant Hebrew story of salvation history, and as one of the Bible’s answers to the question of the meaning of the life of Jesus. We will explore the theme of Wisdom in the creation spirituality of an early Franciscan writer, St Bonaventure, and discuss the potential for Wisdom spirituality to provide a subversive praxis for Christian lovers of the earth. My aim for this session is that each of us will be able to identify an ancient tradition within the Bible that sees God as intimately involved not just in the lives of human beings, but in the lives of all living creatures and the living systems of the Earth. The aim is that we will be able to define what we mean by Wisdom spirituality and how it might differ from some other Christian spiritual traditions, and that we will be able to define some virtues for an ecological age, based on Wisdom spirituality.

Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible

We begin by teasing out the beginnings of the Wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Bible. For a start, Wisdom is not the main game – the dominant narrative through the foundational stories of the people of Israel in Exodus, the histories of conquest and the monarchy, exile and the prophet writings is the salvation history of God’s people. The ‘golden thread’, if you like, through the Old Testament with all of its competing voices and points of view is the history of the covenant that God makes with God’s people, the disastrous effects of Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant, God’s unchanging faithfulness and the promises of restoration that gradually coalesce around the promise of a messiah. The land is experienced as both gift and promise, but the focus is on covenant faithfulness. Wisdom writing is different – Wisdom focuses broadly not on history but on creation. Related points are that Wisdom writing doesn’t just focus on Israel but draws widely from the traditions across the Ancient Near East, and that Wisdom writings are occasionally referenced with suspicion in other parts of the Hebrew Bible. Wisdom, I suggest, is a good resource for subversive Christian activists who suspect that God’s agenda is very often wider than the Church’s.

Personified as an alluring, desirable woman for the benefit of the presumably all-male readership, Wisdom bursts onto the scene in Proverbs chapter eight. Some commentators believe that Hebrew Wisdom is an appropriate of the goddess traditions of surrounding cultures; some think that the Wisdom sages wanted to set up a female consort for Yahweh, though most agree the sages weren’t that literal-minded. In any case, Wisdom is described as God’s amonan ambiguous word that means either God’s darling child or God’s apprentice – in any case, she is Yahweh’s right-hand girl. Wisdom is the first of God’s creative works – Hebrew writers didn’t do metaphysics and they definitely aren’t trinitarians, so this is left unexplained except that Wisdom is like a prototype or template of everything else that God subsequently makes.
Not only that but as the skilled understudy Wisdom attends to the detailed work of creation – she puts it all together under Yahweh’s supervision, and not only are all things made by Wisdom but she provides after-sales service. Wisdom sets up her home on Earth, she attends to the needs of the Earth and all its creatures, and she also provides an ideal for human emulation. Wisdom writers give us a model for talking about this creation as the arena of God’s activity and the focus of God’s concern – this creation, and not just us. For example in Job, God points out that the rain falls even where human beings do not need it in order ‘to satisfy the waste and desolate land’ (38.26–27); that God hunts for the lion and provides prey for the raven ‘when its young ones cry to God’ (38.39–41) and that even creatures that human beings do not value or understand are part of God’s intended creation (39.13–17). Wisdom gives to the non-human creation a language, and an instructive role. Humans are exhorted to seek instruction from animals, birds, plants and fish (Job 12.7–8). Small, powerless and insignificant creatures are praised as exceedingly wise because of their ways: ants, badgers, locusts and lizards all provide instruction (Prov 30.24–28).
Woman Wisdom lures the wise – inviting passers-by to her feast - her template for human life is about moderation and integration, recognising the interconnectedness and the God-givenness of all things. She inspires the sciences and the humanities – the human enterprise of learning through close observation of the Earth is commended because in the natural world we see the imprints of Wisdom herself. The human arts reflect the beauty of divine Wisdom – in general human wisdom as an aspiration is grounded in God’s own life through the agency of divine Wisdom.
The 13th century Franciscan, St Bonaventure, expresses this in terms more suited to moderns with a built-in but unconscious bias toward Greek philosophy – in his very short book The Reduction of the Arts into Theology he develops the idea that all of the human arts and sciences are gropings towards true knowledge of God, and that close observation of the world reveals the beauty of God[5]. Theology goes one step further, because it avails itself of the revelation of God in scripture. But the point is that Wisdom makes two big claims – (1) that the natural world is intimately connected to God – and not just as a resource for humans, and (2) that science is the human pursuit of divine wisdom. Wisdom commends the scientific method, and it insists that as creation is good, and as it is the work of divine Wisdom, then it is intelligible. Again, the medieval mind interprets it for us moderns – Bonaventure describes creation as a Word of God which, if only our minds were unkinked from their self-obsession, we would be able to read.

Not everyone was keen on this sort of stuff. For example, the Yahwist account of the trouble in Eden, a tale of talking snakes that create mischief, is seen by some as a not-so-subtle put-down to the sages. Remember that the Hebrew Bible is not a single story but many stories, and as a result of the history of textual editing, contradictory voices often compete even within the same book. Also, Wisdom writing develops, and along the way comes into contact with Greek philosophy and gets changed by it. The later Wisdom writings, inter-testamental books like Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, equate Wisdom with the Greek Logos, the intermediary of nexus between God and creation which is linguistically and philosophically masculine. Also where Wisdom is fluid and un-pin-downable, the Logos is most definitely an entity of some sort – what early theologians called a hypostasis, kind of more solid. The later Wisdom writings also get a lot more interested in religion, unfortunately, and draw a tight connection between Wisdom and Torah, the divine Law. So later Wisdom writings lose some of their wild edge, they get just a bit institutionalised and girl-power gets taken over by the patriarchy but you might be able to see where this is heading? Later Judaism was very very interested in working out a way of talking about how God gets into the world. Sirach for example describes the desire of divine Wisdom to make a home among human beings, journeying to and fro on Earth until the Creator finds a place for her to pitch her tent, where she then invites humans to partake of her goodness (Sir 24.1–20)[6].

Jesus as a Wisdom Sage

The Gospels give us examples of Jesus talking and acting like a Wisdom teacher, and even self-identifying as a Wisdom sage – ‘Wisdom is vindicated by her children!’ he exclaims. (Lk 7.35) Jesus’ stories and his actions demonstrate that he considered the whole created world to be alive and in relationship with him. He teaches from a close observation of the natural world including lilies and weeds and the birds of the air, he ‘locates schools of fish and donkeys when needed; he borrows a coin from the mouth of a fish; he speaks to storms; he walks on water; he curses trees’[7]. Jesus’ attitude to the natural world shows that he considered it sacred, in the same way that the Wisdom writings reveal an understanding of the natural world as disclosing God’s beauty and care[8]. Jesus speaks as Wisdom herself, for example his offer of instruction (Mtt 11.28–30) that is tantamount to rest[9] echoes Wisdom’s invitation to enter her house of instruction (Sir 51.53), to take up her yoke (Sir 51.26), to receive her gift of easy labour and rest (Sir 51.27)[10]. As Wisdom invites passers-by to her banquet of bread and wine (Prov 1.24–25, Sir 6.27, Wis Sol 6.12), so Jesus cries out ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (Jn 6.34, 51)[11].

However, John and Paul go further than having Jesus speak and act like a Wisdom teacher. Each of them develops what we would call a ‘Wisdom Christology’ – or an understanding of Jesus as the Wisdom of God personified. For example the Pauline declaration that all things are created in and through Christ echoes the idea of Wisdom as the divine co-worker. Even some of the Greek words in the Wisdom writings are recycled, for example the exclamation in Col 1.17 that all things hold together in Christ borrows not just the idea from Sirach that God’s Word holds all things together, and in Wis Sol that Wisdom pervades and penetrates and renews all things – but the precise phrases as well ( Sir 43.26, Wis Sol 7.24, 27). Some commentators think the early Christian writers were building a sort of bridge of ideas to enable early Christians to see Jesus as a divine, pre-existent figure. Or perhaps the experience came first and all Paul and John were trying to do was find the words to adequately describe it – but the important point is this: that if Jesus is the embodied Wisdom of God, then the divine outpouring of suffering love must be understood as solidarity with all creation. If we also think of Jesus as a Wisdom sage or prophet, then his words take on a new meaning in the light of Hebrew Wisdom teachings.

Wisdom spirituality as subversive praxis

So Wisdom gives us a language to talk about God’s delight in creation, and God’s desire that human beings should be patient observers and learners, and follow Wisdom’s ways of caring for the Earth. But is there such a thing as Wisdom spirituality? There is, and the Franciscans get there ahead of us.
St Bonaventure was an academic theologian who became Minister-General of the Franciscan Order 33 years after the death of St Francis. Lucky for him, because during Francis’s lifetime he forbade his friars from studying because it took them away from the ideals of simplicity and poverty. Francis had the only book he needed, which was the Book of Creation. Bonaventure, when he became Minister-General, spent some time meditating on Mt Alverna, where Francis received his vision of the Crucified Christ, and the gift of the stigmata, two years before he died – and there Bonaventure wrote his most famous book – ‘The Soul’s Journey into God’, as a handbook for spirituality based on Francis’s life[12]. A lot of contradictory things have been written about Bonaventure’s spiritual theology, but I think this is the key – the centrality of Christ in creation, and the model of Francis’s life which actually was a lived sermon – Francis intentionally lived the Sermon on the Mount[13].

As might be expected, he begins with creation. For Francis, every created thing was a sign that leads back to God, and a little Word, or self-expression that reflected the beauty of God. Bonaventure recommends the way of meditating on creation, and the importance of this for a wisdom spirituality is huge. The way to God depends on first falling in love with the Earth. How different that is to some Christian traditions of spirituality that seem to think the world is bad, or a distraction to real holiness. Bonaventure says every created thing is either an image – or a likeness or a similitude – of God. And every created thing shines at its core with God’s beauty. Wisdom spirituality depends on a new appreciation of the physical. We are materialists in the true sense. Holiness depends not on resisting the world, the flesh and the devil but on loving what God loves – and first and foremost that means loving the world, the cosmos that God has made. We need to love and to take delight in created things, in the beauty of creation – in rocks, as Teilhard de Chardin taught us, that are diaphanous with Spirit[14].

But there are three Franciscan teachings that inform our delight in creation. The virtues Francis insisted on among his friars, poverty and chastity and humility. These don’t get such a wide following, unfortunately, and it seems to me a good idea to widen our understanding of them. Francis took the ideal of poverty so rigidly and seriously that it it probably hastened his death. If your own body is part of God’s creation, and your own mind is created and delighted in by God, then you might want to love and delight in yourself just a bit also. But poverty as a virtue really means leaving some for other people, doesn’t it? Not taking what isn’t really yours, remembering that the things of creation belong only to God and to themselves. Poverty means balancing your needs with the needs of others, remembering the claim that others have on even the money and the time that you think are yours. Poverty means not puffing yourself up with an exaggerated sense of importance. Sallie McFague develops this idea very well when she talks about an ecological sense of self – the self that is necessarily held in a web of sustaining relationships with others – other people, other species, with the living systems of the Earth[15]. Living the ideal of poverty means making room for other people, making room for other species, not plundering the goodness of the Earth. Putting ourselves into the perspective that God has when God looks at the whole of creation. And God, of course, puts human beings into the garden of creation to ebed – to serve and to nurture (Gen 2.15).

Then there’s chastity. Francis had a hard time with this one, also. But again we need a wider view. Sex, after all, is holy and beautiful, and we shouldn’t give God’s gifts a bad rap. But chastity means not treating other people as objects to be used, but as beloved sons and daughters of God. Chastity means respecting the integrity and the value of others, and recognising that our treatment of others carries moral agency and purpose. Above all it means recognising others as persons – as bearers of dignity and as bearers of the imprint of God’s Spirit. Just as we no longer recognise the possibility of enslaving another human being who bears God’s image, so we take the attitude that God’s creation has integrity and value in and of itself. So although we live within and are dependent on the resources of creation, we recognise that it is not ours to colonise or possess. My dog is not my possession, but she graciously consents to be my companion, and she takes her responsibilities to me seriously in protecting our home. At the same time she has a sense of reciprocity, and tactfully informs me if I am not living up to my side of the bargain, for example by taking her for her evening walk. Chastity is respect and non-exploitation between sentient creatures[16].

And humility. Remembering that we are dust, that we are humus, and placing our own lives into the cosmic perspective of all that is and all that will be.

So that’s the spirituality of creation, the love of the Earth, and then Bonaventure balances that with the journey within. The mind and soul formed in the image of God, and formed by the revelation of scripture. I’m cutting corners, but in the language of old-time Christian spirituality the journey within is sometimes called apophasis, or the way of negation. It is held to be the opposite of the way of the senses, or of immersion in creation that is called cataphasis. But the key to Bonaventure’s logic and his system of theology is what he calls the coincidence of opposites – the Incarnation of divine love, the crucifixion by which holiness is extinguished by hatred and the resurrection which is the dawning of a new creation all demonstrate the divine habit of joining together or reconciling opposites – so Bonaventure is more of a both-and man than an either-or. Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind into God traces the opposites of creation and uncreation – apophasis or the sleep of the soul in the tomb of the crucified Christ on Holy Saturday – only to reconcile what seem to be opposites with the new logic and the new creation of Easter Day. We will talk more about this on week three, but for now the point is this – that where the love of nature without the love of Spirit degenerates into sentimentality, and the love of God without the love of creation collapses into alienation, then the love of creation as the art of God and the body of God retraces the journey of divine Wisdom by imagining the world as it appears to its creator.


Bonaventure. Itinerarium Mentis in Deum. Edited by Stephen Brown. Translated by Philotheus Boehner. Vol. 2. Works of Saint Bonaventure, Translation from the Latin Text of the Quaracchi Ed. Saint Bonaventure University: The Franciscan Institute, 1998.
Bonaventure, Saint Cardinal. On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology. Translated by Zachary Hayes. Vol. 1. Works of Saint Bonaventure, Translation from the Latin Text of the Quaracchi Ed. St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1996.
Brahic, Catherine. “We’ll Have a Global Climate Treaty in 2015.” New Scientist, March 22, 2014.
Edwards, Denis. Jesus the Wisdom of God: An Ecological Theology. New York: Orbis Books, 1995.
Hobgood-Oster, Laura. The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals. Kindle. Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2010.
Maloney, George A. The Cosmic Christ: From Paul to Teilhard. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968.
Maslin, Mark. Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2008.
McFague, Sallie. A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
Ratzinger, Joseph. The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure. Translated by Zachary Hayes. Chicago, Ill. Franciscan Herald Press 1971, 1971.
Stocker, T. F., D. Qin, G. K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S. K. Allen, and J. Boschung. IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, March 2014.
Woodley, Randy. Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision. Kindle Edition. Prophetic Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2012.
Worldwatch Institute. State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? Edited by Linda Starke, Erik Assadourian, and Thomas Prugh. Kindle Edition. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2013.


  1. T. F. Stocker et al., IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, March 2014 See Fig. SPM7(a), page 21.
  2. Mark Maslin, Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008).
  3. Interview with Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in Catherine Brahic, “We’ll Have a Global Climate Treaty in 2015,” New Scientist, March 22, 2014.
  4. Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, ed. Linda Starke, Erik Assadourian, and Thomas Prugh, Kindle Edition (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2013).
  5. Bonaventure, On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, trans. Zachary Hayes, vol. 1, Works of Saint Bonaventure, Translation from the Latin Text of the Quaracchi Ed. (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1996).
  6. Denis Edwards, Jesus the Wisdom of God: An Ecological Theology (New York: Orbis Books, 1995), 69.
  7. Randy Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, Kindle Edition, Prophetic Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2012), loc. 761 of 2513.
  8. Ibid., loc. 767–790 of 2513.
  9. ’Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and to learn from me; for I am gentle and humble and heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (NRSV)
  10. Edwards, Jesus the Wisdom of God, 40, 41, citing Sirach 51.26, 27, 53.
  11. Ibid., 42.
  12. Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, ed. Stephen Brown, trans. Philotheus Boehner, vol. 2, Works of Saint Bonaventure, Translation from the Latin Text of the Quaracchi Ed. (Saint Bonaventure University: The Franciscan Institute, 1998), See the Preface, and Bonaventure’s dedication to Francis.
  13. Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure. Translated by Zachary Hayes (Chicago, Ill. Franciscan Herald Press 1971, 1971), 71ff.
  14. George A. Maloney, The Cosmic Christ: From Paul to Teilhard (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968), 185.
  15. Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).
  16. Laura Hobgood-Oster, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals, Kindle (Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2010).

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