Theorizing Modernities article

Theology and the Environmental Humanities

Bluff trail through the grass off the coast of California. Photo courtesy of Evan Berry.

As the climate crisis worsens, socially and economically privileged groups are increasingly faced with the fact that planetary ecological devastation stems from cultural dysfunctions in wealthy societies. People who are concerned about climate change can generally agree that there are deeply rooted cultural ills that disrupt rightful forms of relationship between human beings and the natural world, even if it is hard to come to consensus about the particular source of or cure for these ills. Broadly speaking, the key terms of the environmental humanities—the Anthropocene, relational ontologies, decolonial ecologies, extractivism, etc.—have become a means for diagnosing how out of sync with the Earth’s ecological systems human beings have become. Often, the concepts that ground contemporary scholarly conversations about the cultural roots of the climate crisis are saturated with theological questions.

For example, how do human beings fit within larger systems of material and energetic exchange? What kinds of powers and agencies populate the world we inhabit and how do these powers shape human life? What role do human beings play in shaping a future that is not only about human being, but about life itself? How should culturally particular ethical systems inform matters of global concern? What places, creatures, stories, ecosystems are inviolable, even sacred? What if we take seriously these theological characteristics? Might we see the ways that environmental humanists theorize cultural dysfunctions in a different light? For those interested in “theories of land,” one of the most salient questions is whether land—places, mountains, forests, rivers, deserts—can be said to be alive. These questions are theological not because they touch on any particular religious tradition, but because they grapple with human understandings of the transcendent.

Defining the Anthropocene

The term “Anthropocene” has gained tremendous currency in earth systems sciences, as well as both public and scholarly conversations about sustainability. To speak of the Anthropocene is to speak about what kinds of societal patterns are unsustainable, about what kinds of cultural formations are ecologically grotesque. The Anthropocene echoes other critiques of modernity in that it frames the present as a rupture with the past, historicizing the modern era as a morally and politically problematic departure from the rightful ways of being in the world practiced by those who came before. Because Anthropocene discourse is at its core concerned with human pridefulness, hubris, and even sin, it can be seen as a theological category as much as a geological one. Periodizing the modern era as a kind of mass alienation from the forms of land relation that make human life sustainable is a prophetic move, a move that names and points beyond the transgressions that have brought ecosystems around the world to the very brink of collapse. It is both a call to judgement and an effort at moral renewal.

Because Anthropocene discourse is at its core concerned with human pridefulness, hubris, and even sin, it can be seen as a theological category as much as a geological one.

But the term “Anthropocene” has many critics, primarily those who find it an unsatisfactory way to talk about ecological crisis because it lumps together all humans, regardless of their cultures or carbon emissions, as a morally undifferentiated planetary culprit. To focus the blame more clearly on the specific forms of harmful relationship between human beings and the creatures and places with whom we share this planet, such critics have offered alternative terms, like “Capitalocene,” “Plantationocene,” or “Chuthulucene”. Elaborating on the term “Anthropocene” with specifically Marxist, anticolonial, and feminist emphases, these descriptors aim to diagnose the social bases of the climate crisis more exactly. Although the planetary ecological crisis can be named in many ways, environmental humanists share a basic theoretical aim: to identify and disrupt the dysfunctions in modern life that have produced so much ecological harm.

The Anthropocene in the Ontological Turn

If Anthropocene discourse (and its alternatives) is intended to name the social and political sources of ecological harm, then the forms of scholarly reflection broadly referred to as the “ontological turn” can be seen as efforts to resituate and reconnect human beings within the complex fabric of nature, or, to be more specific, to mend the dysfunctional relationships that industrialized, extractive, settler colonial societies have with the natural world. Ontological in this sense refers to reality, the different ways of encountering and knowing reality in different societies, and how such knowledge systems interact with western, colonial knowledges. The ontological turn is a scholarly intervention that aspires to improve human relationships with land. There are many ways to draw out the theological assumptions and implications of scholarship in the ontological turn, but one underappreciated tension pervasive in environmental humanities literature concerns the agency of land. Is land a kind of material surface on top of which the ecological drama of living organisms plays out? Or is the land we inhabit alive? This distinction turns on a metaphysical dichotomy, a dichotomy that posits human beings as moving through time and space as the lone agential beings on the planet. This is the metaphysical legacy of Christian theologies which have over the centuries been calibrated to the project of colonial domination.

The ontological turn only infrequently engages with theological sources and generally relies on conceptual frameworks that are understood as secular. The ontological turn is premised on the need for dominant societies (i.e., settler, capitalistic, heteropatriarchal, racist) to remake themselves in intimate relationship with other-than-human beings. Scholarship in this area foregrounds the diverse ways that people relate to places, objects, other-than-human animals, etc. as living, agential beings. Anthropological consideration of ontological difference is a critique of the (dualistic, Platonic, Cartesian) metaphysics that alienate dominant societies from the land. It is also a search for alternatives to the racial and ecological violence on which global capitalism is founded.

The ontological turn only infrequently engages with theological sources and generally relies on conceptual frameworks that are understood as secular.

The work of reimagining human relationships in conversation with (continental) theoretical traditions is fraught. Because Anthropocene discourse and ontological turn scholarship invoke manifestly theological questions, scholarship in the environmental humanities often bumps up against latent and unresolved tensions of enlightenment secularism that continue to reverberate in critical theory. The ontological turn wouldn’t be a “turn” at all if it weren’t based on a move away from particular ideas and concepts, namely scientific materialism, rigid separation of religion and science, theological anthropologies grounded in human exceptionalism, etc. Indeed, the ontological turn names a widespread tendency in the environmental humanities (and social sciences) to affirm that other-than-human beings, including animals, but also plants and land itself, cannot be understood merely as inert matter. The ontological turn postulates a world teaming with agency, embodied not just in animals but in plants, places, substances, weather patterns, etc. These are worthy efforts, but theorists cannot, of course, resolve the secular contradictions of the modern academy by fiat.

Many of the key terms and ideas in the environmental humanities remain closely linked with Christian metaphysics and ontology (e.g., “nature,” “natural,” or “wilderness”). Ironically, it is through various ostensibly secular traditions of thought that environmental humanists have remained wedded to ontologies of human exceptionalism and to materialist accounts of other-than-human being. The pantheon of social and political philosophers, from Locke and Rousseau to Hegel and Marx, construct their ideas about justice, democracy, and history by positing human being as something enacted upon nature. Indeed, the decidedly Christian ontological distinction between “man” and “nature” developed systematically in Hegel and reified in Marx has carried forward into contemporary Anthropocene discourse.

A carving of the Virgin of Guadalupe into a tree in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Evan Berry.

The scholarly vocabularies used in the closing decades of the 20th century to describe and critique the reduction of living ecosystems to mere raw materials were often Marxist in their orientation, articulating environmental devastation as the inevitable byproduct of capitalist accumulation. It is true that too few people hold power over global systems of land use, and it is true that environmental politics need to be made more democratic and egalitarian. But these important ethical insights risk reducing the question of planetary ecological crisis to a matter of wise use of resources. To speak, with whatever degree of socialist fervor, about environmental crises simply as failures in wealth distribution or poor resource management is to concede that land, including the plants and animals that inhabit it, is but mere material at our disposal.

The idea that land is an inert thing available for human use is constitutive not just of capitalist extractivism, but, as Max Liboiron writes, “Marxism, socialism, anticapitalism, capitalism, and other economic systems.” These systems  “can, though certainly don’t have to, enact colonial relations to Land as a usable Resource that produces value for settler and colonizer goals, regardless of how and by whom that value is produced” (14). Whether they are connected to underlying ideas about property, resources, history, or landscapes, anthropocentric concepts of land are tucked into many corners of the environmental humanities. Identifying and overcoming the cultural dysfunctions at the root of the climate crisis involves complex questions about human uniqueness and about whether and which forms of land management remain linked to Christian ontologies. Insofar as it complicates materialist accounts of nature, the ontological turn is theology-adjacent.

Returning to the Theology of Land

As a critical response to the problematic ontologies so deeply embedded in exploitative cultures, environmental humanists have championed diverse ways of knowing and being on land, the moral possibilities suggested by relational ontologies. This area of inquiry began with Indigenous scholars, with many of the most widely known contributions coming from cultural anthropology. Such scholarly endeavors have brought into academic circulation ideas about land intended to resist the crises produced by global capitalist ecocide, but interventions of this kind cannot always easily jettison the metaphysical and ontological baggage inherited from both secular and religious traditions.

The ontological differences among cultures—that is, not just different ways of thinking about the world, but ways of living in irreducibly different worlds—inform conversations about how the colonial, extractive, fossil-fuel addicted societies of the global north can and should be reimagined. Scholarship on place, landscape, or equitable control over resource governance often tacitly accepts that land is inert. This distinction is significant because from it follow fundamental ethical and political commitments and sharply divergent visions of how human life should be organized in relationship to land. For example, Nicolas Howe’s Landscapes of the Secular examines how sacred space functions within the narrow limits set by the prevailing conditions of Protestant hegemony in American law and politics. He writes that “law can…be used to enchant the material world, to imbue mundane ‘things’ with sacred and profane powers” (55). Despite the fact that Howe’s aim is to reveal how deeply Protestant norms have come to shape the ways Americans think about and interact with space and place, his insistence on the centrality of law and politics in generating the spatial realities in which our everyday lives take shape is itself a kind of Christian idealism, one where human institutions establish meaning in the vacuum that is the other-than-human world.

How can attention to the theological aspects of the environmental humanities help address these tensions? To begin with, scholars like Howe can help us see how the “Protestant secular” has closed modern societies to the ability to recognize land as agential. It is important to recognize that, like the Anthropocene, the ontological turn is the recognition of a deep cultural dysfunction, an ontological flattening of the world. But it is equally important to acknowledge where efforts to position privileged groups in rightful relationship with land can be a form of cultural appropriation. If the ontological turn can be summarized, its lesson is that relationships with land are culturally and geographically specific. Appreciating the diverse ways people relate to land does not of itself repair the dysfunctions that have so alienated dominant societies from the Land. If we are to take seriously the work of repair, those of us in the environmental humanities who wish to pursue ethically desirable futures would do well to attend to the theological challenges that entails. Thinking theologically does not necessarily involved explicit engagement with religious source materials, but is rather one possible, hopefully helpful methodology for identifying how particular kinds of interventions in the environmental humanities are linked with fundamental claims about human being and its relationship to the transcendent. Being more reflective and honest about the theological character of environmental humanities scholarship is theoretically and methodologically useful, not only because it helps clarify what is at stake morally in this field of study, but also because it offers a more honest appraisal of the sources of and responses to the ecological dysfunctions of dominant societies.

Evan Berry
Evan Berry is Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. He previously taught at American University and Lewis and Clark College. His research examines the relationship between religion and the public sphere in contemporary societies, with special attention to the way religious ideas and organizations are mobilized in response to climate change and other global environmental challenges. Berry is the author of Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism (University of California Press, 2015) and editor of Climate Politics and the Power of Religion (Indiana University Press, 2022).

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