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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Challenge of "Us" in Ecological Times


What comes to mind when the pronoun “us” is used in conversation? On February 28th, Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J. asked this question, exposing the assumption that “us” often refers only to the human community. Johnson delivered the Boisi Center’s 18th Annual Prophetic Voices Lecture to an audience of students, professors, and community members on the the topic of anthropocentric theology and its relationship to our current ecological crisis. A distinguished professor emerita of theology at Fordham University and author of, most recently, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (2015) and Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril (2019), Johnson delivered a lecture that challenged a redefining of “us” to include the entire community of life on earth, expositing the theological reasons behind a call for such a cosmological shift.

Johnson began by discussing how the pronoun “us,” with its common reference to a community comprised solely of people, must change in the face of our current ecological crisis. Relying on language originating in the arguments for the Catholic “preferential option for the poor,” Johnson stated that the expansion of “us” to include all life on earth is, at its core, a theocentric option; it will teach us more about who God is. She unpacked the the reasons behind this revamp of anthropology in three parts.

Johnson first elaborated on the crisis of the natural world. The earth is our “common, shared, and only home.” The increasing rate of species extinctions signals the “death of birth itself.” Johnson relied on Pope Francis’ Laudato si’ as she argued each extinction should feel like a “personal disfigurement.” Changing our understanding of the word “us” to include kinship with other species shifts our view of the world we live in, providing “a new way of being human.”

Johnson then posited theological arguments for the kinship between all species. Challenging the traditional hierarchy of being, she highlighted that all of creation shares one creator, and one end, in God. Encouraged by scripture which emphasizes this kinship, Johnson argues we must “climb down from our perch” and see ourselves as simply members in the community of life. Johnson challenged that we shift our understanding from the common picture of a pyramid of species with humans at the top towards a more accurate image of the circle of life. The Genesis command to “have dominion” can, in this way, be more accurately understood as a call to be a representative for God in his love for all creation.

Diving deeper on previous points, Johnson concluded with the ways we can see direct God-animal relations. She noted that Laudato si’ changed centuries of teaching by stating that animals have a value of their own, not just an instrumental value to humans. She argued, backed by scripture, that we can see a direct relationship between God and all animals, and that animals praise God by their very existence: they cry to God for food, intelligently utilize their environments, and carry out the vocation to multiply and be fruitful. We should see this praise in a critical realist sense, recalling Aquinas’ old adage that things know -- and love -- according to how they are able.

Before closing with a brief Q&A, Johnson ended with one summarizing point: redrafting our sense of identity -- our theological anthropology -- awakens us to our “embeddedness with all creation.” Changing how we think of “us” changes not just our view of the world, but also how we pray and live.