Encountering Earth

Thinking Theologically with a More-Than-Human World

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Editor(s): 
Trevor Bechtel, Matt Eaton, Tim Harvie
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , May
     2018.
     276 pages.
     $33.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498297844.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Animals rarely get time in Christian theology. Despite the emergence of serious ecotheology, creaturely kin too often becomes relegated to the realms of abstract ethical speculation or biology. Rarely is it acknowledged that human animals make theology with other animals, inspired by other animals, and that theological work impacts in unruly ways upon animals living and dying. Such theology emerges not in anthropomorphic projections of creativity, but in the very embodied and intersubjective flow of creaturely experience. Animals aren’t cute, novel fads of an unserious theology. They make all theology, and make all theology what it becomes, ultimately. Without animals, no theology.

Trevor Bechtel, Matthew Eaton, and Timothy Harvie’s Encountering Earth: Thinking Theologically With a More-Than-Human World rightly turns theological attention to the creaturely encounter amidst “emerging theologies focused on specific other-than-human animals” (3). Rather than applying abstract doctrinal formulation to animal ethics or creaturely life, the fifteen essays collected here take specific, real animals with—forgive the human awkwardness of the phrase—personality and concrete earthly encounters as the vital sites for theological response and construction.

As Christopher Carter writes in his excellent preface, “Abstract theological ideas such as sin, faith, and hope reflect the moral strivings we project onto Divine character when they are explicated in ways that dismiss our encounters with others, including the Earth” (xxi). When theology begins in earth, dismissal becomes impossible at best and violently sacrificial at worst. This volume’s editors recognize they would be remiss to gloss over these moments for the sake of systematic shenanigans.

The contributors to this volume, then, “place such narratives of encounter front and center” of their theological work (6). Unique animal others in the lives of these writers burst into theological significance and resonance: cats like Tiamat and Fargo and Morris, dogs named Max and Bones, horses and snakes and living waters engender theological creativity in ways uniquely accountable to each critter. Ethics, eschatology, and divinity all emerge in creaturely events and diverse cultural contexts.

In its focus on the peculiar and the particular, this volume follows Jacques Derrida’s call to attend to the infinite differences of animal life in the titular essay of The Animal That Therefore I Am (Fordham University Press, 2008). Even the concept of “animal” itself is an abstraction that glosses over and cages the distinctiveness of particular creatures. A number of essays (the editors’ introduction, Matthew Eaton’s, Kimberly Carfore’s) invoke Derrida’s work explicitly to think through the more-than-human world. Here, one could imagine the essays in this volume becoming companion to teaching Derrida’s work alongside the similarly inspired essays of Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology edited by Stephen D. Moore (Fordham University Press, 2014).

And yet, the editors note, “While there are differing approaches to the particularity of the non-human other, this volume builds upon the idea of intersubjectivity to explore how concrete encounters with the more-than-human world manifest the embodied affect which arises from our own animality and finally erupts in religious reflection” (4). If particularity drives theological reflection, that orientation is not centered on intellectual or older forms of logocentric reversion. Instead—and herein lies the strength of this volume—contributors return, time and time again, to the fuzzy, intersubjective sites of affect. The writers dwell in the places of “tactile encounter” (30), “feeling body” (51), “tactile liturgy” (69), sensual spirituality (81), rewilding Christian spirituality (153), “attentiveness and intimacy” (178), “exterior and interior quest” (244), and more. The ambiguous and sometimes messy spaces of affect open up theological reflection in profound and complex ways in these pages—in the curve of cat’s claws (Matthew Eaton), in the interspecies proximity of horses (Celia Deane-Drummond), in dismay for lab rats (Laura Hobgood), or in lush Christian animistic visions of rock doves entangled with Divinity (Mark Wallace).

A second strength of the volume is its division of sections into various kinds of affective proximities: “Family and Home,” “Farm and Lab,” “Wilderness and Wild,” and “Cosmos and Earth.” Each of these sections expands and loops thinking alongside the more-than-human, moving from spaces which might be considered closest to spaces both intimate and cosmic. These imaginative regions make for provocative thinking in and of themselves, even if this structure is also where the volume feels a bit uneven.

Alongside the introduction, the five essays of the “Family and Home” section makes up nearly one third of the book and focus predominantly on dog and cat kin. While such focus can reflect the preponderance of domesticized animality in the present, one wonders what other kinds of biodiversities might fall by the wayside by giving them so much weight in a volume dedicated to expanding intimacies. Still, the essays in this initial section provoke promising conversations, from the editors’ own work to Grace Y. Kao’s articulation of Mary Hunt’s theology of friendship as generative for considering particular animal relations.

The “Wilderness and Wild” section of the book is particularly compelling, and I can imagine teaching Carfore’s or Lisa E. Dahill’s essays in my undergraduate classes. Carfore’s “Doing Theology with Snakes” is a brilliant reflection on divinity, wilderness, and the affectively negotiated site of danger. Carfore stumbles into a copperhead snake in the wild, and confrontation mingled with tragedy ensues. What emerges for Carfore is “God as the ethically compelling trace that runs through all beings, insisting on justice” (148). Dahill’s essay traces her kayaking “these actual waters, these living waters” to make a case for rewilding Christian spirituality in elemental fashion. Baptism becomes an immersion not just into the body of Christ, but into “experiential kinship with creatures in the watershed of every phylum and kind, with local humans of diverse cultures and religions, and with natural forces and elements, all expressions of the wild Logos” (158, emphasis original). Such a piece raises the important question of how a theology of encounter might take into account ecological societies, herds, swarms, or ecosystems not defined by distinct creaturely entities.

In its reveling in experiential kinship of all kinds, this volume is a solid collection of essays in a species of animal and earthen ecotheology. These essays embody a quality of writing attuned to the particular, affective, and imaginative in ways that instigate new forms of cosmological attentiveness. More, I think, the essays inside serve as a good invitation that might inspire a successful undergraduate or personal essay: What would a theology or ethics focused on a particular creaturely encounter look like for each reader? One might be able to imagine numerous animal faces demanding attention—past, present and future. To think about these creatures and collaborate alongside them in new ways is the challenge. This challenge will require all of the creativity and ecojustice we can muster together.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jacob J. Erickson is Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Trinity College Dublin.

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Trevor George Hunsberger Bechtel is Associate Professor of Religion at Bluffton University. An ordained Mennonite theologian, he also serves as Creative Director of the Anabaptist Bestiary Project (anabaptistbestiaryproject.com).

Matthew Eaton is Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Fordham University in New York.

Timothy Harvie is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University in Calgary, Canada.

Keywords: 

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