January-February 2015By Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. By Elizabeth Johnson. Bloomsbury Academic. 352 pages. $32.95.
In the spring of 2014, Gerhard Cardinal Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reproached the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) for bestowing its Outstanding Leadership Award on Sister Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. He pointed out that the U.S. bishops had recently criticized her book Quest for the Living God for its doctrinal errors. More errors are in plain view in Sr. Johnsons Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. Johnson opens with a hymn of praise for Darwin and On the Origin of Species (1859), and on this foundation she builds an evolutionary theology that, she says, is drawn from the Catholic intellectual tradition. Her books bibliography, however, is replete with the works of ecofeminists and deep ecologists. A core principle of deep ecology maintains that the living environment as a whole should be respected and regarded as having the inalienable legal right to live and flourish.
Sr. Johnson claims that Darwin believed in God at the time he wrote the Origin because he refers to the Creator in the last sentence of the second edition. Evidently, she has not read the letter Darwin sent to J.D. Hooker (March 29, 1863), in which he confesses that he felt ashamed for having truckled to public opinion by speaking, in the conclusion of the Origin, of the evolutionary process as ultimately due to the Creator. So much for his one reference to God. Johnson thinks Darwin lost his faith only later, and that the religious odyssey which led him away from Christianity has its own integrity and is to be respected. Balderdash! As Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, S.J., demonstrated in Savior of Science and The Purpose of It All, Darwin had been an atheist a militant materialist for over twenty years, since 1837. In his Early Unpublished Notebooks Darwin rejoiced that if his theory ran wild, animals and humans would be all melted together.
Sr. Johnson contends that Darwin had nothing to do with eugenics. How did it happen, then, that four of his sons were so deeply involved in this dismal business? In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin provided the scientific pretext for a racist eugenics with his placement of blacks somewhere between apes and men. He lamented, in his last conversation with Alfred Russel Wallace, that the fittest did not survive in modern civilization. One side of Darwin evidently was, in Tennysons words, red in tooth and claw. While Johnson claims that Darwin treated nature with a loving care that was religious, Fr. Jaki reports on the strange delight he used to derive from shooting, just for the fun of it, hundreds of birds on a good sporting day. Richard Weikart notes in From Darwin to Hitler how Darwin also took delight in seeing the crushing of lower nations by higher nations.
According to Sr. Johnson, there can no longer be any reasonable scientific debate about natural selection. Yet, according to Fr. Jaki, there is a scientifically most respectable minority of dissenters who object to natural selection as the mechanism for evolution. Among these is David Raup, an expert on geological catastrophes, who remarks that species appear in the sequence very suddenly, show little or no change during their existence in the record, then abruptly go out of the record. Likewise, Stephen Jay Gould admits that paleontologists have found no cases of slow and steady transformation, foot by foot up the strata of a hillslope not for horses, not for humans. Fr. Jaki comments that Darwins natural selection requires the absence of geological catastrophes over billions of years, but this is impossible due, for example, to the huge asteroids that have repeatedly hit our planet. The earth, Jaki reminds, has a biological past riddled with extinctions of life-forms on a giant scale and at a periodic rate, roughly 26 million years.
In the second half of Ask the Beasts, Sr. Johnson develops her own Darwinian-based evolutionary theology. First she attacks the Church for teaching the hierarchical dualism of spirit over matter. Then she denies that our souls are meant to rule over the recalcitrant flesh, and she rejects the belief that men are endowed by God with rational souls and are higher than other animals. She pointedly sets aside God the Father as our Creator, saying He is no longer imaginable. Why? Because the absence of direct design, the presence of genuine chance, the enormity of suffering and extinction, and the ambling character of lifes emergence over billions of years are hard to reconcile with a simple monarchical idea of the Creator at work. Note that she uses natural selection as her measure of truth. By this measure she casts aside the first article of the Nicene Creed.
Instead of God the Father, Sr. Johnson takes the spirit of Wisdom (Sophia in Greek) to be our creatress. Now, this spirit is not the Third Person of the Trinity by any means, for Johnson gives us a glimpse of Wisdoms genealogy: She was borrowed by the ancient Jews from the broad tradition of female power found in nature goddesses like Ishtar, and incorporated into Israels religion in a way that matched the religious depth and style of the goddess cult. This spirit is a perfect fit for Darwins purposeless evolution: She is very close to turbulence, cannot predict what will emerge from the cosmic soup, never tries to direct but merely accompanies the evolving world and lets it organize itself. She is the God of Love in Johnsons title because she represents the feminist idea of love complete autonomy. Unlike the God of our older order-oriented theology, Johnson finds her imaginable.
Sr. Johnson then introduces deep incarnation, by which she means an incarnation re-imagined in an ecological direction, the good news intended for all creatures, not just for one species. She contends that early Christians forged a connection between Jesus and Wisdom once they began to identify the crucified prophet from Nazareth, localized in time and place, with a divine figure associated in Jewish tradition with creating and governing the world and nurturing human beings on the path of truth and life. Notice that she considers Jesus to be only a local prophet until the early Christians connected Him to the creatress. He then emerged as personified Wisdom, which was one way of figuring the creative, revealing and saving presence of God in engagement with the world. Johnson says that Jesus, after becoming a human being, a species in which matter has become conscious of itself and deliberately purposive, was not detachable from matter and so was born again as a child of the earth, but of the transfigured, liberated earth, the earth which in him is eternally confirmed and eternally redeemed from death and futility.
Sr. Johnson complains that the Church has emphasized the cross and redemption from sin for far too long. What needs emphasis now, she says, is the resurrection of each and every single animal, not just human beings. She insists that, like the animals, we humans are simply germinated out of the depths of the evolutionary process. We are primates whose brains are so richly textured that we experience self-reflective consciousness and freedom, or in classical terms, mind and will. For Johnson, the mind and will are not beyond matter but only require new levels of explanation.
Sr. Johnson deplores the mushrooming population of mankind, calling our trespassing on the habitats of other animals a deep moral failure. She cites Pope St. John Paul IIs call to respect life, but only as it concerns animals, not the holocaust of unborn human children. Unaware that the human population is aging and will soon implode, she exhorts us five times to a conversion to the Earth, by which she means a renunciation of anthropocentrism and a deep awareness that our being is embedded in the evolutionary processes of life on Earth. This is deep ecology, materialism, sheer atheism!
Little wonder that the CDF is concerned about the LCWR lavishing honors on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.