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H. Paul Santmire's The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology

Santmire's primary intent in this work is to assess the widely varying attitudes toward nature found in Christian theology's long history. Santmire’s goal is to "understand the travail of nature in Western Christian thought. . . To comprehend the ambiguous ecological promise of Christian theology." Santmire stresses this ambiguity by claiming that "Christian thought is both promising and not promising for those who are seeking to find solid traditional foundations for a new theology of nature. Which historical tendencies within the tradition are promising and which are not, moreover, is by no means self-evident." Regardless of Santmire's own rightful reluctance, Lynn White, Jr. himself had the following to say of Santmire's book: "Anyone, agnostic or religious, who wants to understand public attitudes toward ecology and how the very considerable force of religion in America may continue to shape them will enjoy and profit by this unusual book."

In his survey of the Christian tradition and its diverse attitudes towards nature, Santmire examines the thought of a number of key Christian theologians, including Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Dante, St. Francis of Assisi, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Teilhard de Chardin. As a result of his analysis, Santmire identifies two opposing theological motifs that are interwoven like brightly colored thread through the historical tapestry of Christian thought. He describes these two motifs as the "spiritual motif" and the "ecological motif." These two motifs themselves arise out of what Santmire calls three “root metaphors”: 1) the metaphor of "ascent," 2) the metaphor of "fecundity," and 3) the metaphor of "migration to a good land." For Santmire, root metaphors "arise from the hidden imaginative background of all theological thinking and then remain influential at the discursive level of analysis and self-conscious argument."Santmire, 15.These metaphors thus form the unspoken assumptions and beliefs structuring the ecological and spiritual theological motifs.

According to Santmire, the spiritual motif expresses a religious worldview that, if not outright hostile to the natural world, is at the very least unconcerned with its state of existence. This motif is "predicated on a vision of the human spirit rising above nature in order to ascend to a supramundane communion with God . . ."Santmire, H. Paul, The Travail of Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 9.Characteristic of this motif is the belief that God is a being separate from - or transcendent to - the world, who chooses to intervene in its affairs at will. Furthermore, this motif expresses a fundamental theological bias towards only those beings considered rational, spiritual, or moral. This bias thus excludes nonhuman life and the material world from its purview of concern. Santmire quotes a well-known phrase from Augustine's Soliloquies as a basic expression of this motif: "I desire to have knowledge of God and the soul. Of nothing else? No, of nothing else whatsoever."Augustine Soliloquies 1.2.7.Ultimately, nature is affirmed as a "good" only in its ability to embody spirit, which is the final measure and end of all theological inquiry for the spiritual motif.

In contrast to the spiritual motif, the ecological motif expresses "the human spirit's rootedness in the world of nature and on the desire of self-consciously embodied selves to celebrate God's presence in, with, and under the whole biophysical order . . ."Santmire, 9.Thus, unlike the spiritual motif's emphasis on God as a being separate from humanity and the natural world, the ecological motif stresses the immanence of God as the power of life itself, which is a presence in nature, humanity, and the rest of the cosmos. As Santmire states, the term "ecological" in ecological motif is meant to express the systemic interrelationships between God, humanity, and the natural world. The key modern theological exponent of such an understanding is Paul Tillich, who, in speaking symbolically, posits God as the creative ground of being and the self-transcendent source of life's meaning.Interestingly, even though Tillich's conception of God is the most consonant with the ecological motif of all the theologians Santmire considers, he excludes Tillich from his book. In a footnote toward...In the end, the ecological motif shows that our religious worldviews and conceptions of God have major impacts on our relationships not only with other humans, but with the natural world as well. In other words, to think hierarchically with God perceived as above us means acting hierarchically with nature perceived as below us.

As already noted above, the spiritual and ecological motifs arise out of three root metaphors that form the foundational assumptions and beliefs for the motifs. According to Santmire, two of these metaphors - the metaphors of ascent and fecundity - seem to depend on a primary experience in human history, which he calls the "experience of the overwhelming mountain." The third metaphor, of migration to a good land, Santmire claims is not so universal, but is chiefly expressed in the history of Hebraic and post-Hebraic peoples.

Using the archetypal image of an "overwhelming mountain," Santmire asserts the metaphor of ascent as the metaphor that is most inherently anti-ecological. The goal in this metaphor is to rise above the earthly world toward the ethereal, supernatural realm of pure spirit. It is when the metaphor of ascent is continuously manifested in Western theology that it forms the spiritual motif. Key theological exemplars of this metaphor are Gnosticism, the early Augustine, Origen, Dante, and Aquinas. The metaphor of fecundity also arises from an experience of the overwhelming mountain, but this metaphor is inherently ecological. Someone may indeed seek greater religious consciousness and communion with the divine through ascent of the mountain, but when this consciousness is informed also by the metaphor of fecundity it becomes part of the ecological motif. St. Francis is one illustration of someone ascending the mountain in order to look back through glorious vistas at the precious gifts of earthly life: "[H]e climbed the holy mountain of God and then turned back to embrace in joy and love the whole material world below."Jeremy Yunt, "Reverencing Life in its Multidimensionality: Implications in the Thought of Paul Tillich for a Deep Environmental Ethic," unpublished Master's thesis, Pacific School of Religion...In the end, the distinction between the metaphors of ascent and fecundity centers on where one's gaze is fixed. In the ascent metaphor, it is upwards toward the landless, nonmaterial realm of spirit. Whereas in the fecundity metaphor, it is from such heights that one surveys all directions, seeing one's own soul in every dimension of the material world below.

Santmire sees the metaphors of fecundity and migration to a good land as often clustering to form the ecological motif. As we saw, the metaphor of fecundity infuses one's awareness with life's beauty, wonder, and awe, causing one not to seek to rise above or leave the land, but rather, to commune with it in new ways. Similarly, the metaphor of migration to a good land is always rooted in an individual's or community's identity with a particular land experience. Santmire uses the Hebrew people and God's promise to them of deliverance as a primary expression of this metaphor. Out of this example, he stresses this metaphor's theological importance: "In this context . . .to be removed from the land is finally to have no identity whatsoever: to be no one."Jeremy Yunt, "Reverencing Life in its Multidimensionality: Implications in the Thought of Paul Tillich for a Deep Environmental Ethic," unpublished Master's thesis, Pacific School of Religion...In this metaphor, one's life in general, and spiritual life in particular, is always necessarily rooted in a primary experience of the nonhuman world. Thus, unlike the metaphor of ascent, in this metaphor one's spiritual experience will be "located not apart from nature, but in the midst of nature, surrounded by the creatures of the earth." However inherently ecological this metaphor may seem, Santmire does point out that what is crucial is the ethical relationship to the land one chooses to embrace, for, as we know, there are many.

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H. Paul Santmire's The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology

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Richard Randolph and Jeremy Yunt

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