New Cosmology or Theology of Re-place-ment?

Above: “Americans who tell the truth series: Wendell Berry,” by Robert Shetterly.
Artist of the month: Robert Two Bulls, Oglala Lakota Oyate tribe member, leads native Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota, and is also a brilliant visual artist. Read more about him at: and at
Musicians of the month: Le Vent du Norde is a kick-ass Qubecois band; we’ve heard live, and they just smoke. Their vocal blending is amazing, and their
instrumentation includes foot percussion and a hurdy-gurdy! Check them out at:
This continues a series on an eco-theology of “Re-Place-ment”:
Until very recently, prophetic advocacy on behalf of the land in the U.S. has been left to the environmental movement, a few rural organizers and writers, and Native Americans. It is no accident, therefore, that so many thoughtful people identify the church, indeed the entire Judeo-Christian tradition, as a root of our historic ecological crisis. It is also why many are turning to hybrid varieties of neo-paganism and the myth of “Gaia.”
These so-called “new cosmologies”—in fact they are quite ancient—present a genuine and necessary challenge to Christian theology. The questions raised by proponents of “creation spirituality” such as Matthew Fox and Thomas Berry are in many ways the right ones, and must be addressed. Rosemary Reuther took them up in her 1992 Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing: “We need to transform our inner psyches and the way we symbolize the interrelations of men and women, humans and earth, humans and the divine, the divine and the earth. Ecological healing is a theological and pyschic-spiritual process. Needless to say, spirituality or new consciousness will not transform deeply materialized relations of domination by themselves… Rather we must see the work of eco-justice and the work of spirituality as interrelated, the inner and outer aspects of one process of conversion and transformation.” Reuther thoughtfully and critically sifts through eco-feminism and the new cosmologies, affirming many of their insights while questioning some of their myths.
Creation spirituality and new cosmologies have gained significant traction in both Catholic and liberal Protestant circles, but there are two notable concerns. One is a tendency in these circles to appropriate—and in the case of some New Age gurus, commercialize—native religious traditions, drawing legitimate complaints about cultural colonialism. Christians might do better to recover their own biblical tradition’s lovesong for the land, drawing upon that deep well of place-rooted indigeneity.
A second issue is the political practice social location of this movement. If attempts to recover earth symbols and spirit for the church also inspire concrete politico-economic struggle in a defense of actual endangered places and species as well as eco-justice for the poor, then this movement can become a major component of reclamative theology. Insofar as these trends merely animate flights from the alienation of modern capitalism into nature-mysticism, however, they will prove to be nothing more or less than the contemporary equivalent of 19th century bourgeois Transcendentalism.
Whatever else may be said about creation spirituality and the new cosmology, I am not persuaded that it is helpful—or even accurate—to blame the Judeo-Christian tradition for the present global crisis, as has become so fashionable. To be sure, modern Christianity reflects the displacement of European culture as a whole, because it long ago departed from its own roots in the land- and place-based culture of the Bible. This makes the church a legitimate target, if an easy one. But is it the right culprit?
The fact is, the cosmology of capitalism demands the objectification and commodification of nature in ways that the pre-capitalist Judeo-Christian tradition would find abhorrent. While North Atlantic Christianity was profoundly complicit in the ascendancy of capitalism, biblical faith has also been one of its victims. I am not excusing the church, but arguing that we should seek to attack causes, not symptoms, of alienation.
For this reason I find the work of Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry more theologically compelling and politically cogent than that of new cosmologist Thomas Berry. The former’s critique of the mercenary character of modern capitalism is trenchant, and his call to respect the Great Economy uncompromising. In a 1987 essay entitled “Higher Education and Home Defense” he warns: “A powerful class of itinerant professional vandals is now pillaging the country and laying it waste. Their vandalism is not called by that name because of its enormous profitability (to some) and the grandeur of its scale. If one wrecks a private home, that is vandalism, but if, to build a nuclear power plant, one destroys good farmland, disrupts local community, and jeopardizes lives, home and properties within an area of several thousand square miles, that is industrial progress. The members of this prestigious class of rampaging professionals are the purest sort of careerists—‘upwardly mobile’ transients who will permit no stay or place to interrupt their personal advance. They must have no local allegiances; they must not have a local point of view. In order to be able to desecrate, endanger, or destroy a place, after all, one must be able to leave it and to forget it. One must never think of any place as one’s home; one must never think of any place as anyone else’s home.”
How do we stand against such robbery, he asks, if we who have been displaced by it have no place to stand?
The new cosmology’s discourse of “global consciousness”—employed by New Age religionists, urban environmentalists, and peace activists alike—may be a less-than-useful fiction in the struggle against capitalist technocracy. Wendell Berry admits that such a discourse rightly points “to the interdependence of places, and to the recognition, which is desirable and growing, that no place on the earth can be completely healthy until all places are. But the word planetary also refers to an abstract anxiety or an abstract passion that is desperate and useless exactly to the extent that it is abstract. How, after all, can anybody—any particular body—do anything to heal a planet? …”The question that must be addressed,” he contends, “is not how to care for the planet but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others.”
Christopher Lasch agrees in The Minimal Self (1984): “Many advocates of disarmament and environmental conservation, understandably eager to associate their cause with the survival of the planet as a whole, deplore the local associations and attachments that impede the development of a ‘planetary consciousness’ but also make it possible for people to think constructively about the future instead of lapsing into cosmic panic and futuristic desperation.”
It may be, then, that the challenge for creation spirituality is not so much one of cosmology as of geography. We need a theology of re-place-ment.