Augustine and the Environment

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John Doody, Kim Paffenroth, Mark Smillie
Augustine in Conversation: Tradition and Innovation
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , September
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Augustine may not be the first author in the history of Christianity to come to mind when we go looking for precursors to 21st century environmentalism. A quick perusal of publications on Augustine does reveal that the ancient Bishop of Hippo had much to say about the finer details of creation, ranging from the numerological significance of the hexaemeron to the precise consequences of the Fall. Yet attempts at rapprochement between Augustine and environmental studies remain somewhat rare. In J.M. Coetzee’s Tanner Lectures (“The Lives of Animals,” 1997, 120, 164; later retrofitted into the novel Elizabeth Costello), Augustine is even pressed onto an undesirable list of human exceptionalists who manipulate reason to subjugate animal nature’s claim to moral equality with homo sapiens. The collected volume under review here, on the contrary, aims to push back against any reading that positions an antiquated Augustine against an enlightened embrace of the environment.

From the introductory chapter onward, it is clear that the editors of this volume realize they are going against the grain. It is not the case, they acknowledge, that to read Augustine is to encounter a thinker deeply concerned with ecological issues. In his interpretation of created nature in Genesis, for instance, Augustine’s “concern is to refute Manichaean dualism, not promote stewardship or care for the environment” (2). If anything, the usual approach to Augustine takes the interior road rather than treading any path through the wilderness. The question that this volume must answer, then, is this: what does the master of interiority have to tell us about our relationship to the exterior world?

Various entries aim to tackle this question from a range of diverse perspectives. Some authors, like Rosemary Radford Ruether (25-32), seek to set Augustine’s theology of creation against Manichaean views of nature. Other contributors, including Joseph Kelley (53-74), try to carve out a space for the fresher field of Augustinian ecology. Still others, especially David Vincent Meconi (89-104), approach Augustine through the lens of animal studies. (Coetzee may not have been pleased by that approach.) Taken as a whole, the volume avoids methodological myopia. Any collection that begins with a reflection on Augustine and Facebook, as this one does, thanks to Sallie McFague (9-24), should be lauded for its openness to innovation.

The strongest contribution might be John J. O’Keefe’s meditation on Augustinian eco-theology (105-124). In O’Keefe’s view, it is less than desirable to fit Augustine into a 21st century environmentalist’s expectations of what eco-theology could be. Instead, the goal should be to let Augustine stand as a challenge to our contemporary worldview, not so that we turn against environmentalism, but rather so that we can work toward concrete solutions to seemingly intractable ecological crises. Central to this eco-theology would be an acceptance of what O’Keefe terms, in the spirit of Charles Mathewes, a reinvigorated version of “worldly Augustinianism” (105). This would be a kind of realism—too often reduced to pessimism—about the status of the world in which we find ourselves. As O’Keefe pithily puts it: “We want a world that we don’t have” (106). While some measure of ecological utopianism would be integral to any soundly environmentalist worldview, there remains something compelling about this reminder of the skewed state of a world sweltering in its own sin.

Yet O’Keefe is no more a pessimist than was Augustine. He simply wants to remind us that humility has a role to play in conditioning our response to environmental crises. “The world and God are bigger than us,” he writes, and so are the extinction-level problems that face us (119). In order to face the challenge of the Anthropocene—that era in which humankind capitalizes upon its reshaping of the world in its own image and to its own detriment—we need to become less anthropocentric, not more. That means “we should expel anthropocentric concepts from our ecological thinking” (120). A dose of eschatological realism could succeed in displacing humankind from the center of the story of Creation. Such displacement, in turn, may be necessary in order to make clear the way for the coming of the “new creation,” the eschatological renewal of both heaven and earth (122).

In addition to O’Keefe’s contribution, the volume displays a commitment to an engagement between Augustinian ecology and the environmental concerns of Christian communities today. The introduction begins with a reference to Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s eco-theological intervention (1-2). The chapter by Daniel R. Smith does well to situate Francis’s remarks within an ecumenical conversation drawing upon Jürgen Moltmann, John Zizoulas, and Sergei Bulgakov (165-80). In his own prolepsis of the “new creation” (176), Smith invites us to “affirm theology as a basis for hope for the future, even in the face of scientific data that is truly frightening” (174). Still he walks a fine line, conceding likewise that “in some matters, doctrinal purity must take a back seat to urgent ethical matters” (175). Theology can sketch out the possibility for hope, in other words, even as hard decisions are made in light of our shared ecological situation.

The volume concludes with Mark Wiebe’s call for a “Green Augustine” (181-95). In his view, Augustinian theology should be read as implying “an extension of moral obligation toward nonhuman creation,” despite Coetzee’s concerns to the contrary (192). Only a misreading of Augustine’s distinction between uti (use) and frui (enjoyment) could suggest otherwise, says Wiebe. Interpreted properly, the injunction to love non-human others “in God” is in no way to instrumentalize their existence. By Wiebe’s lights, this referring-upward of our relationship with nature to our all-encompassing relationship with God actually leads to a more ecologically inclusive form of love (193). When James R. Peters says earlier in the volume that, in the Confessions, Augustine “ascends to his Creator not as a solitary philosophical sage, but through a magnificent colloquy with the natural world,” he seems to be suggesting much the same (137). In the end, while Augustine may not turn out to be the most obvious choice for “patron saint of the environment” (125), this volume has succeeded in at least making a case for his consideration.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sean Hannan is Assistant Professor in the Humanities Department at MacEwan University.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Doody is professor of philosophy and Robert M. Birmingham Chair in Humanities at Villanova University.

Kim Paffenroth is professor of religious studies and the Director of the Honors Program at Iona College. 

Mark Smillie is professor of philosophy at Carroll College.



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