Interview with Dr. Celia Deane-Drummond. Part 2: Recovering the cosmic Christ

"If you show that Christ and creation are intimately linked then suddenly the pennies start to drop as to why creation is also important"

Part 1 │ Part 2 │ Part 3

We continue with the second in our three-part interview with Dr. Celia Deane-Drummond of the University of Notre Dame. Having taken a wide look in Part 1 at the global variations in eco-theology, we delve deeper into issues such as the impact of Pope Francis on Catholic ecology, how to practice what we preach, and the necessity to recover the concept of the cosmic Christ.

Catholic Ecology: I was struck by something you said earlier—that the Western Church may have lost some of its sense of wonder in the liturgy, especially as it relates to link between creation and worshiping the Creator. In Eco-Theology you note a surprising lack of connection between eco-theologies and Christology. Tell us a little more about why theologians and/or Christian ecological practitioners should keep Christ toward the center of their work?

Dr. Deane-Drummond: It’s important, first of all, to recover creation, but then to see creation through what you might call a Trinitarian lens—in a sense seeing traces of the Trinity, as Thomas Aquinas said, there in the created order, but also seeing Christ in a different kind of way. Not narrowly as just a human being, but also in a cosmic sense, to recover that cosmic Christology, which again is part of the liturgical approach of ancient writers like Maximillian the Confessor, for example, who had a clear concept of cosmic liturgy.

The reason I think that’s important is because most people can quite easily recognize that yes, Christ is important, but if you show that Christ and creation are intimately linked then suddenly the pennies start to drop as to why creation is also important—and how it’s mediated through this way of thinking about Christ.

And so yes, I agree in the importance of bringing creation to liturgy, showing where it is, and highlighting what all that means is important—but also identifying the different kinds of ways of thinking about what I would call the heart of faith, which is Christology. This is important because if [creation in the liturgy] is not connected with Christ than some people will think that it’s preliminary to the work of salvation—so you have the creation, and then you have the incarnation, and then redemption. But actually if you see it as all part of the same movement, then it becomes an integral part of who we are rather than just a background on which humans act or react.

I think that’s fundamentally important because it changes the whole shape of the significance of the created order. It’s no longer simply the background but the heartland of who we are and what we might become.

I would also like to add here that the idea of “Deep Incarnation” has really taken off since I wrote this book, which was published in 2008. The idea of Deep Incarnation is recognizing this cosmic dimension of Christ more fully. There’s a book coming out next year, published by Fortress, called Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology. Elizabeth Johnson and myself, and Denis Edwards, all have got chapters where we refer to the ecological dimensions in relation to Christology as well. One of the things I wrote about in that chapter is the importance of thinking about the first chapter in the Gospel of John—the Word made flesh—to think more about that as incarnate wisdom, and what that might mean in terms of the created world.

As I said, that sense of a lost connectivity between Christ and creation is something that Pope John Paul II tried to articulate even in one of his earliest encyclicals, Redemptor Hominis, and it comes back again in Pope Benedict XVI. But again, people don’t always notice that aspect of their teaching. It can get marginalized because we’re not expecting it to be there. But (now Saint) John Paul II had a very strong sense of this cosmic Christology, so it is not some newfangled feminist idea as some might suppose or anything like that, but it’s actually quite traditional.

And granted, Pope Francis himself has made all this thought on creation very much part of his own thinking—of bringing creation into his own self-identity as pope. Creation, peacemaking, and poverty are the three cornerstones, as it were, of why he called himself Pope Francis. And all of those three will in a way connect with Christology. Christ, as it were being a man of the poor, creation, and peacemaking—are in a way Christological concepts. I don’t think anyone’s really noticed that before.

And of course as you probably know one of the missions of St. Francis is to convert people to Christ. So he saw this idea of making peace with creation as part of that mission.

CE: You also write about “eco-praxis.” What precisely is that? And what might this mean to the average believer?

Dr. Deane-Drummond: By eco-praxis I mean of course practicing what we preach—having integrity, so we’re not just talking about it but trying to act it out.

I use this in my teaching as well. I’m teaching a course on environmental ethics and I take the whole group of students out to an organic farm. We spend half a day there walking around the farm and seeing a different style of interacting with the land. It triggers new and different ideas about our relationships with one another and the land, and so on. And I think it’s important pedagogically because it reinforces what we’re doing in a different kind of way. In a way this interacts within the agrarian tradition that we study. And so you’re learning not just by doing but also by listening—that paying attention to the natural world.

I’ve written a chapter in a book on wonder, awe and paying attention to the natural world. The idea is that we really, really pay attention to the natural world around us and experience some of the wonder—the original wonder, perhaps—that God had intended for us when creation first came into being. And in sharing that in a way gives us a deeper motivation to act because we start seeing not just Christ in all things but also the strangeness of the natural world. And you don’t have to go out to the wilderness to do it. Everywhere you go, even in the city, there are fragments of the natural world still existing and still flourishing to an extent.

And so as I see it, part of eco-praxis is paying attention and then putting into practice what we believe as well, and then changing and reshaping our own theoretical and philosophical understandings in the light of that experience. So there is a kind of cycle that goes on where we notice more of different things because of the reflection that we’ve done, but then we go back and maybe act in a different way. They all sort of feed into one another. It’s very similar to the idea of praxis in Liberation Theology where you have a cycle of praxis, which is why I refer to this as eco-praxis.

Here at the university a number of us are exploring different ways to put eco-theology into practice and what that might mean. And so there was a chemist, for example, who started to press for having a solar array and another colleague who is interested in the biodiversity and the effect of climate on species adaptation. She was also pressing to have climate considerations uppermost in the new school for international affairs. And so those are small pieces to the puzzle; but each of us needs to try to push for even small changes to the places where you live and work.

CE: We spoke earlier about Pope Francis. How is his engagement of ecology similar to or different his predecessors?

Dr. Deane-Drummond: One thing I would say is that the link that he makes between poverty and peacemaking and creation is something that was there in the work of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but it wasn’t maybe as explicit from the word go in the way it has been for Pope Francis. In fact he listed environmental issues before poverty in several of his speeches. But the way it was reported in the media often ignored that part and talked about the poverty issues, which is remarkable because if you go back to the original speech he puts environment first. I think that’s part of the blindness with people. They don’t notice it because they don’t think it’s that important. Of course, it is to him. He sees it very much as solving these three things together rather than seeing them as separate. And I think that comes from his interactions with Liberation Theology in Argentina. He was a priest and bishop in an environment where Liberation Theology was all around him. While I don’t call him an adherent of Liberation Theology, he is influenced by that and so he’s influenced by what I would call another wave of Liberation Theology now, which is to join in with eco-theology. That is a way of seeing how ecological issues most often impact the poorest of the poor and of indigenous peoples.

And so I think the name “Francis” is really significant. The fact that he called himself Pope Francis—the first Francis of any pope—is really astonishing.

CE: These are amazing times we live in.

Dr. Deane-Drummond: Yes, that’s right. And one other thing. He has come out on climate change far more than his predecessors. If you look at the writing of John Paul II and the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, they hedged their bets without saying precisely where they came out on climate change. But Francis has come out more strongly on the issue.

I was with the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, who I worked with between 2009 and 2010, while at the University of Chester. That experience shifted my own thinking quite significantly from when I wrote Eco-Theology because I became much more aware of the issues, between the link between environmental and ecological questions, and development questions, and the need really to think about sustainability far more rigorously. And so I would say that this emphasis from experience is one that we can expect more of from Pope Francis—in a sense it is building on that of his predecessors but it is taking it in a much more ecological direction. And so it’s not splitting away.

I wrote an article for the New Blackfriars called “Joining the Dance: Catholic Social Teaching and Ecology.” In it I trace the start of the environment consciousness within Catholic Social Teaching, and it’s more or less the same as everybody else. And I don’t think that’s something that’s necessarily that well known.

The interview with Dr. Deane-Drummond concludes in Part 3 with a look at how Catholics are divided about climate change, the impact to future generations from environmental manipulation, and the Christian offering of hope.

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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.