The closets are getting crowded as uncertainty mounts about which season will greet you when you walk out the door tomorrow. You’re not alone. Why reclaim the winter coats living in summer storage? Better to hesitate before stashing the summer clothes as you wonder whether they might be just what you wish you could put your hands on next week or tomorrow as you hear the weather persons’ refrain, “by Wednesday the December temperatures will be more like June.”
So who do you listen to? Let me make a suggestion. Consider looking for a clue as to how to puzzle through the eccentricities of recent weather patterns – and other apparent aberrations of nature’s established patterns – by reading the work of a brilliant woman who is arguably among the most respected theologians of our era.
So what is the connection of professor, author, lecturer Elizabeth Johnson to the surprising imbalance of the death rates of humans versus animals in reports of tsunamis? It turns out that animals have much keener awareness of the coming disaster and somehow know to take themselves to the high ground and so, to safety. Their escape routes are not based on measurements from sophisticated meteorological instruments or timely reading of weather forecasts. That is one of the insights explored in Johnson’s masterful Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.
One key to the intention of her book is this exhortation from the book of Job.
But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you.
Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish in the sea inform you
Speaking about her book shortly after its 2014 publication, Professor Johnson posited that we are meant to be involved in the world of continuing creation. She cautioned us to begin by abandoning the oversimplification that God had played in the mud for six days and then called the world complete. Creation, she said was not just an overture.
The alternative, she said, was to embrace partnering between creatures and the planet we share. Relate to both, we were urged, not as superiors who “know better” how each is to be employed. Instead, adopt an ethic acknowledging that one cannot really consider him or herself to be a believer unless and until the person gives a central place in moral life to reverent care for ecological awareness and sensitivity.
There is a larger world of concerns that flows out of creation as the opera flows out of the overture. An interplay of forces. One, characterized by Darwin’s Origin of the Species looks at our world through a lens of reason as evolving over millennia in an interplay of law and chance. The other focuses on an overarching act of love. It is the dialogue of these two that Professor Johnson proposes as a fruitful one that deemphasizes the dominant and opens the eyes to the inherent value and importance of all aspects of our world and all the creatures that inhabit and influence it.
A sobering observation at the time of the book’s publication calls attention to “the crisis of biodiversity in our day, when species going extinct at more than 1,000 times the natural rate, render this question acutely important.” The preview of what the reader will find in this powerful book ends with this exhortation: “Standard perspectives need to be realigned; theology needs to look out of the window, so to speak as well as in the mirror.”
Being neither scholar nor theologian I find that I have seen remarkable affirmation of the practical wisdom of Elizabeth Johnson’s plea to “Ask the Beasts” in my neighbors’ realization that their beloved pets have so very much to teach them. It happens when the owner/owned formula is replaced and they stop to listen and to respect and to wonder.