Emmy Silvius sent this commentary to me earlier last week before the controversy surrounding American sister and theologian, Elizabeth A. Johnson hit the news with John L Allen's piece in NCR [SEE: "U.S. bishops blast book by feminist theologian"]. It's more serendipity or God-incidence as the spirituality and theology of Sr Elizabeth features heavily in this commentary from Emmy. People are no longer listening to the bishops and the old patriarchal line anymore. Emmy Silvius explores some of the emerging concerns driving the search for a new way of understanding our relationship with God, with our fellow human beings and with our environment and cosmos.
Our earthly habitat is fragile...
Worldwide people have been experiencing natural disasters of enormous proportion. The looming catastrophe of the Japanese nuclear power plant has fuelled much discussion about the dangers of this particular form of energy. Perhaps now, more than ever, people are starting to accept the idea that we need to focus on environmentally friendly alternatives for our energy resources. Since the industrial age humans have used and abused our Earth for the purpose of obtaining personal wealth. When will we learn that the Earth is not an everlasting source to be preyed upon?
Our understanding of the created world and God's role in our becoming has significantly changed over the past century and a half, thanks mostly to the brilliant work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). In his published book On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin provided compelling evidence that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry and that the basic tool of evolution is based on so-called natural selection. As was to be expected, this sparked much debate amongst people in the scientific world; but even more condemnation from people who, by their faith, believed that humans descended directly from Adam and Eve.
Thankfully, most Christians have now come to terms with the fact that accepting evolution does not contradict believing that God created the world. Most people realise that the Old Testament stories were written down in a certain time and place for a certain people to help them grow in their faith and that these stories must not be taken literally. Thus creation is not a one-off event but is constantly evolving. Our God has entrusted us to be co-creators and, as such, all of us have a shared responsibility for the planet. All creation is sacred; everything that exists has emerged as an expression of God's word and is sustained by God's Spirit. The entire cosmos bears witness to God's wisdom and love. Everything everywhere has been touched by God, the Creator.
In Isaiah 6:3 we read: "All of Earth is filled with God's glory". So Earth is God's sanctuary. Earth is a sacred site in the cosmos. Not only is the Earth spiritual – filled with divine presence – but our Earth has a hidden impulse to reveal that presence to those willing to see, hear, feel, or discern it. If our spirit becomes sensitive to this Earth as God's sanctuary, we can become conscious of God's glory in the soil as well as the sunset, the fronds of a fern as well as the eyes of a lion. Earth is a sanctuary where the sacredness of ALL life is to be revered.
Four affirmations from Genesis...
Justice certainly comes into play when we look at how best to preserve our natural resources, create prosperity for our animal and plant species and secure a liveable, healthy future for many generations to come. The Book of Genesis teaches us four vital affirmations, namely:
Emmy Silvius is also the photo-grapher for the images of nature accompanying this commentary.
- That God made all people equal in dignity and rights;
- That the earth and everything in it belongs equally to everyone;
- That all human beings, equally, are co-responsible with God in helping to protect the dignity of everybody and everything; and
- That the physical earth has its own rights, and must be respected in and of itself; it is certainly not to be seen as a stage for human activity.
Thus physical nature has inherent rights that are intrinsic to itself and not simply given to it because of its relationship to humanity. It too, is a creature of God which humans may not violate.
Post-modern spirituality values not human supremacy over the earth but affective kinship with the whole community of the cosmos. Post-modern spiritual experience values not isolation but essential connectedness; not mind-body dualism but the holistic, embodied person; not patriarchy but inclusive feminism; not militarism but expenditure for the enhancement of life; not tribal nationalism but global justice.
The only way to be alert to the Creator Spirit's whisperings is to take the time to sit quietly and listen. Made in the image and likeness of God, humans are in a unique position to respond to God's Spirit with a profound understanding of what it means to be linked to all that God has brought into being. All species have their purpose – all are meant to live in communion in a world where the aspiration of each one is to help bring fulfilment to the other. We are not here on this Earth to obtain what we can from it and from one another so as to prove how much better we are than the other. No, we are here to enjoy all the earth has to offer, sharing that joy equally and only taking from the earth what is necessary for one's survival.
Further information about Sr Elizabeth A Johnson's book is available HERE.
In her 1993 Lecture titled "Women, Earth and Creator Spirit", Sr Elizabeth Johnson explores the thesis that the exploitation of the earth, which has reached crisis proportions in our day, is intimately linked to the marginalisation of women, and that both of these predicaments are intrinsically related to forgetting the Creator Spirit who pervades the world in the dance of life. The Creator Spirit is similarly ignored in western religious consciousness as a result of restricting the sacred to a transcendent, monarchical deity outside of nature.
Examples of our ongoing exploitation, abuse and injustice...
By taking endlessly from the earth we are abusing its resources. In a similar fashion women are abused when they are undervalued at home, in the workplace or even in the sports world. Just about every day there is some kind of news in relation to the undermining of women. Recall, for example, the protests in Canberra recently against the proposed carbon tax. The placards used during the demonstration would not have been of such vulgar nature, I am sure, if our Prime Minister were a man. Likewise the treatment of women by some sports figures stretches beyond comprehension – there appears to be a mentality of: "I am invincible, I have a right to take what I want, I deserve this". In the workplace, too, women are often overlooked and it is common knowledge that they are paid much less than their male counterparts whilst doing the same kind of work. Of course, within the Church women are not given their rightful place, let alone equal opportunities as men. Despite bringing their unique gifts to the table they are pushed aside, overlooked, even at times trampled on. This too is a form of abuse. Strangely enough, this type of behaviour is so embedded in our culture that many women are compliant with this treatment. They accept this to be normal behaviour and conform to what is being expected of them. 
There is a major interconnectedness between the following three relationships: human beings to the earth, among each other, and to God. The way one is cast affects the other two. In the heritage of western thought, of which theology is a part, all three have been conceived primarily according to the values of patriarchy. Thus, for a flourishing human community on a thriving earth to come about, all three must be rethought together in a new vision of wholeness that begins with lifting up what has been ridiculed. Elizabeth Johnson argues that our intelligence and our hearts need to be converted to the circle of the earth. She points out that this is not just one more concern among many other worthy causes but the most basic one of all. If there is no more living earth, what else is possible? This is a question charged with ethical and religious significance for ourselves and future generations.
Rebirth after the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires.
Photo by Emmy Silvius
The call to be prophetic...
Our Christian faith calls us to be prophetic. A prophet's job is to courageously speak the truth about things that matter; prophets help us to see who we really are; a prophet must be a realist as well as a dreamer; but above all, a prophet has to be in touch with their own heart and their own motivation so that they are projecting light rather than darkness. This latter requires a contemplative spirit. Through contemplation the religious spirit grows in the realisation of how deeply humanity is embedded in the earth. Contemplation will bring us to the point where we will feel in the depths of our being that we are part of the living cosmos.
Prophets concerned with the environment today are people like Denis Edwards, Elizabeth Johnson, Thomas Berry, Ilia Delio, Neil Ormerod, Tim Flannery and many others who bravely point out our responsibility in nurturing our planet. Creatures of this earth are disappearing at a phenomenal rate. Thousands of species are already extinct and it is estimated that 10,000 species a year continue to be destroyed. Of course, extinction is part of the evolutionary pattern on earth, but there have also been a number of catastrophic extinctions in the 3.7 billion-year history of life on earth. Each of these plant and animal species has taken millions of years to evolve and were lovingly created by God. Each one is "a word of God, a book about God". Each is important for the life of this planet. We can never bring them back. And they will not evolve this way again. "We have trod the face of the Moon, touched the nethermost pit of the sea, and can link minds instantaneously across vast distances. But for all this, it's not so much our technology, but what we believe, that will determine our fate."
Let us keep in mind that all of creation is a gift from God and a sacramental expression of God. As such, everything that exists in creation is family. Elizabeth Johnson points out that the damage done through thoughtless or wilful harm to the living earth can only begin to heal if we allow ourselves to be converted – meant here in the biblical sense of metanoia, a turning around. If we are to achieve a viable future, we desperately need a religious spirit that converts us to the earth. "All of us, women and men alike, need to fall in love with the earth as an inherently valuable, living community in which we participate, and be creatively faithful to it."
Emmy Silvius 28Mar2011
The BBC Planet Earth DVD series can be purchased in the Catholica Spiritual Marketplace. Click image to enlarge & for LINK.
 Ronald Rolheiser OMI, Seeking Spirituality – Guidelines for a Christian Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1998), p 165.
 Elizabeth A Johnson, The Search for the Living God, John M Kelly Lecture of 1994, University of St Michael's College, Toronto, printed edition, p 7. Johnson goes on to say that she sees four developments within Christian theology and spirituality that hold promise for the future: 1. Suffering-based theology; 2. Feminist theology; 3. Interreligious dialogue; and 4. The new dialogue between science and religion.
 Elizabeth A Johnson, Women, Earth and Creator Spirit, Madeleva Lecture of 1993, (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), Preface.
 A more balanced and mutually respectful and responsible relationship between the genders ultimately benefits men as much as women. It has the potential to create domestic and social solidarity and prosperity and to liberate both genders from roles that are toxic and demeaning. Gemma Simmonds CJ "Mary Ward: then and now" in Thinking Faith, 22 Jan 2010 - www.thinkingfaith.org
 Johnson, Women, Earth and Creator Spirit, 7.
 Denis Edwards, How God Acts – Creation, Redemption and Special Divine Action, (Hindmarsh SA: ATF Ltd 2010), 13.
 Cited in Michael Dowd, Earthspirit: A Handbook for Nurturing an Ecological Christianity (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Pub., 1991) 54.
 Tim Flannery, Here on Earth – An Argument for Hope, (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2010), Foreword.
 Johnson, Women, Earth and Creator Spirit, 62.
Emmy Silvius has a Degree in Theology (Melbourne College of Divinity), is a founding member of Catholics for Renewal, and has a passion for social justice.
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