The book asks a question that, as Johnson notes, is still making its way into the consciousness of theologians: "What is the theological meaning of the natural world of life?" (xiv). To address this question, Johnson brings two texts into seemingly unlikely conversation - Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species and "the Christian story of the ineffable God of mercy and love recounted in the Nicene creed" (xv).
Ask the Beasts emerged from a faculty seminar at Fordham University that celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species by reading and discussing the text, and Johnson's deep admiration for the beauty both of Darwin's prose and his insights into the natural world is evident in the first four chapters. Bringing a theologian's eye to the text, she here carefully summarizes the key tenets of Darwin's theory, discussing as well the contributions and clarifications to the theory in the years since his death (A brief excursus here: As Johnson notes on pp. 12-14, a scientific "theory" does not mean that it is simply "an untested hunch or a guess without supporting evidence." It means, rather, that it is a "well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, crafted by pulling together observed facts and known laws and interpreting them with an insightful hypothesis." I mention this only to emphasize that Johnson fully accepts Darwin's theory as the best scientific explanation we currently possess regarding the development of life. She has no truck with denials of evolution, and will not say "I believe in evolution" as if it were up for debate. Rather, "it would be more in keeping with the nature of evolution as a scientific theory to say only that one accepts it as demonstrated, and to reserve language about belief for precious human relationships and ultimately only for God.") Johnson methodically lays bear the complexity of his theory as well as its explanatory power, but also brings out the beauty of Darwin's thought. His vision highlights the explosive fecundity and creative possibilities of living things in a way that gives one a sense of wonder at the grandeur of life. Moreover, Johnson focuses on the relational and communal dimensions of evolutionary life as Darwin describes it:
Evolution is a relational process. The sound of mutual relationship is so pervasively present in [The Origin of Species] one might easily miss it. The beat goes steadily on, until the book closes with its vision of the entangled bank, its elaborate form of plants, birds, insects, and worms 'so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner'. Darwin's view of life is bent on community. The struggle for life is contextual, each species taking from and benefiting others. There would be no evolution without species constantly interrelating with each other in their particular environment (120).
Her account of human destruction of creation in chapters 9 and 10 is also compelling, and more than a little convicting. She challenges the paradigms of 'dominion' and 'stewardship' that dominate theological interpretations of human relatedness to the created order, predominantly because these paradigms place humanity above the created order in a way that continues to lead to exploitation; Johnson outlines the sheer scale of human destructiveness in startlingly stark terms. She instead argues that humanity needs to understand its interdependence with all living things, and on the basis both of Darwin's thought and the biblical witness, Johnson argues for a 'community of creation' paradigm wherein "each member of [creation] gives and receives, being significant for one another in different ways but all grounded in absolute, universal reliance on the living God for the very breath of life" (268). The distinctiveness of humanity isn't denied but re-envisioned so as to emphasize community and mutuality rather than domination:
[C]ommitment to ecological wholeness in partnership with a more just social order is the vocation which best corresponds to God's own loving intent for our corner of creation. We all share the status of creaturehood; we are all kin in the evolving community of life now under siege; our vision must be one of flourishing for all (285).Elizabeth Johnson is, to my mind, a theological poet whose insights rarely fail to inspire me, and her foray into ecological theology with Ask the Beasts is timely and convicting. In a masterful way she brings the best insights of classical theology to play in an exploration of Darwin's theory of evolution, and the result is radical call to live out our mutuality with the created order, a call that is deeply grounded scientifically and theologically. I almost want to create a new class just to find an excuse to teach it.