Interview with Dr. Celia Deane-Drummond. Part 1: Global variations in eco-theology

First of a three-part interview with Professor Celia Deane-Drummond of the University of Notre Dame

Part 1 │ Part 2Part 3

We’re fortunate to begin a three-part interview with Professor Celia Deane-Drummond, a full Professor in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. The conversation opens with a look at global variations in the theological perspective of ecology, and then moves on to the contributions of Pope Francis, the necessity for believers to keep Christ at the heart of ecological discussions, and much, much more.

Dr. Deane-Drummond’s unique appointment at the University of Notre Dame is concurrent between the Department of Theology in the College of Arts and Letters and the College of Science. She was elected Fellow of the Eck Institute for Global Health at the University of Notre Dame in September 2011.

From 2000 to 2011 she held a professorial chair in theology and the biological sciences at the University of Chester, and was Director of the Centre for Religion and the Biosciences that was launched in 2002. In May 2011 she was elected Chair of the European Forum for the Study of Religion and Environment.

Since 1992 she has published as a single author or as an editor twenty two books, as well as thirty three contributions to books and forty three articles in areas relating to theology or ethics. We begin this interview with her 2008 book Eco-Theology (DLT/Novalis/St Mary’s Press, 2008).

For more biographical information and credentials, visit Dr. Deane-Drummond’s home page at the University of Notre Dame.

Catholic Ecology: In Eco-Theology you sketch various ways that ecology and theology can blend through worldview classifications of North, South, East, and West—which I found very helpful. What are the successes and failures on the environmental-protection front for each of these theological strands? And what can we take away from those lessons?

Dr. Deane-Drummond: Thank you. Eco-Theology originally emerged as a book for students, so I had them in mind when I was writing this. And so the North, South, East, West is really a way of both emphasizing the global aspects of eco-theology but also as a way to maybe help them situate themselves between these different strands and realize that these different traditions have something interesting to say to all of us.

And so from the North—which is a perspective that I’ve become much more familiar with since I’ve moved to the States—highlights the agrarian tradition, that of Aldo Leopold and also Wendell Berry and John Muir, and others who were able to work out the agrarian tradition from the ground up. These were very influential writers—the whole body of literature around this agrarian tradition is one that literature scholars are interested in as well—and this movement has resulted in practical steps that are being taken here in the Midwest and throughout the States. For instance, having local farmers’ markets, a focus on the source of food and where it comes from, a sense awareness of transport, but most particularly in how we think of the local area, the local context and in a sense the impacts of our actions in the local scenery.

I mention in this chapter Deep Ecology as well, which is a much more political platform. While agrarianism is more about our individual lifestyle, Deep Ecology takes the critique to more the political and policy making level, and compliments the literature of agrarianism in an interesting way. Deep Ecology is a secular movement but it’s also influenced by Eastern spirituality, Buddhism and Confucianism and so on. And so as I was writing this chapter I wondered if there were any Christian spiritualities that could fill this gap that Deep Ecology has seemed to have noticed. And yes, indeed, there are. There’s Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, and others.

Of course you can criticize some of these authors for the extent to which they lean rather too close to pantheism, an identification of God with the natural world, but I think Teilhard in particular wasn’t guilty of that.

The South is also rooted in local context. This time it’s a context of suffering, the suffering of the poorest of the poor, and the challenge of their life often being suppressed by market forces coming from elsewhere—from a very strong global economy that seems to dominate the world stage to the disadvantage to those in the developing world.

The language of development itself is often quite offensive to people from this tradition in that it seems to presuppose a certain trajectory of movement of growth based on GNP (Gross National Product), and what that entails in terms of economics. Here Liberation Theology prefers to use the language of “liberation” rather than “development.” It means something slightly different from development because it means becoming one’s own agent of one’s own destiny. Alongside this there are the issues of indigenous peoples and tribes, which share this perspective even if they are living not just in the South but are living in, say, North America.

As for the East, the inspiration for this chapter is the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I could have used other Eastern traditions but because this is a book on eco-theology and I understood theology to refer primarily to Christian theology in that context, my focus was the Eastern Orthodox liturgical approach. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, Bartholomew I, has been extremely active in this area and has conducted a number of practical steps, bringing people to conferences and such, to encourage proper action. Although the Orthodox tradition doesn’t have a specific ethic—it more tries to create an ethos, so they resist trying to come up with a well-reasoned, worked-out ethic. What they seek is an ethos that comes from celebrating the liturgy in the right kind of way. And always they will include creation in the liturgy with a sense of wonder in that liturgy in a way that we’ve perhaps lost in the Western Church.

And alongside that kind of celebrating you also have ascetic traditions which are extremely important in terms of practical outcomes. And so asceticism means you will, as it were, deprive yourself for the sake of the greater good of the other. This is done obviously enough to satisfy one’s basic needs, but also deliberately and self-consciously saying that we are going to be in solidarity with those, say, in the South who are genuinely suffering in terms of their survival needs. That sort of asceticism is a good reminder and a good way of linking the South and the North if we’re coming from those traditions ourselves.

The West is another dimension which I think is extremely important. Here we get into the socio-political analysis and the global frame that started to be hinted at by Deep Ecology, although often Deep Ecology is about local politics rather than global. I used genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as a case study because that was an area where I used to research myself as a biologist—not in GMOs, but I was a botanist and I knew about the development of these particular crops. It was the ethical issues arising out of GMOs that was one of the reasons I left science, and so I thought I could write about them very easily. But there is a whole host of other examples that I could have used.

Each of these four are dimensions of eco-theology as well as coming from particular geographical locations. They’re meant to epitomize local-global dimensions of eco-theology and the importance of perhaps trying to think of these different frames at the same time—which isn’t easy. But I think it’s important not to get too stuck on one particular narrow field—although I think sometimes it becomes psychologically almost impossible to keep these all in mind. And so people prefer to just, say, stay concentrated on food ethics, for example.

I think that’s very understandable but the challenge of looking at sustainability on a practical level is where you do have to try to think what in balance is going to be the best course of action given all these different factors and considering them simultaneously. And so how should we act in a way that’s informed by the environmental and climate science while also factoring in the various moral issues and socio-political issues.

CE: It’s a big task.

Dr. Deane-Drummond: It’s a huge task. I’ve started a sustainability reading group here at Notre Dame with different faculty and different departments and after three years we’ve only just scratched the surface. At one level this is disappointing and on another level we recognized that even identifying the questions was a first step.

Part 2 of the interview looks at the influence of Pope Francis, recovering the cosmic Christ, and much more. Part 3 concludes with the Christian notion of justice, hope, and ecology's place in "the heart of faith."

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.