When God Was a Bird

Christianity, Animism, and the Re-Enchantment of the World

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Mark I. Wallace
Groundworks: Ecological Issues in Philosophy and Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , November
     2018.
     224 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780823281312.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Christian scripture and iconography, the Holy Spirit is commonly depicted not in human form but as an element or entity of the other-than-human natural world. Consider these familiar examples. On the day of Pentecost, as told in Acts 2, the Spirit came upon the people as a violent wind and as “tongues, as of fire.” In all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism by John (Matthew 3; Mark 1; Luke 3; John 1), as Jesus rises from the waters of the River Jordan, the Spirit descends upon him as a dove. In Christian iconography as well, the dove is the preeminent symbol of the Spirit.

In When God Was a Bird, Mark Wallace invites Christians to reconsider the significance of creaturely depictions of the Spirit. He argues that Christianity arose as an enfleshed and enfeathered religion, characterized by a double incarnation into both the human form (Jesus) and the more-than-human natural world (the Spirit). The subsequent disenchantment of the natural world that has resulted in a Christianity centered solely on a transcendent sky-god has had grave consequences both for human well-being and for the broader ecologies within which—echoing Acts 17:28—all creation lives, moves, and has its being.

This book is an extended argument for Christian animism. By recognizing a form of consciousness that pervades all that exists, even the planet itself, animism counters the prevailing modern view of the world as merely material. Writings from the 19th and early 20th centuries that shaped both theology and the academic study of religion followed a settler-colonialist logic and mischaracterized the animism of indigenous peoples as “primitive,” seeking to contrast it with a more “civilized” Christianity. In recent decades, the scholarship of David Haberman, Graham Harvey, David Abram, and George Tinker has unmasked the colonial elitism of such racist ideologies and opened a space to reconsider the merits of animism as a way of perceiving and relating to the natural world. Animism is—and has always been—widespread, but Wallace focuses specifically on Christian animism. He argues that the presence of God in the more-than-human natural world is evident in Christian scriptures, the thought of Christian adherents throughout history, and contemporary Christian practice.

Framing this analysis and these claims are environmental concerns. Wallace asks not only whether early followers of the Christian tradition might have recognized God’s immanence in both human and more-than-human forms, but also whether an affirmative answer to that query might motivate more sustainable ways of living on a planet currently threatened by climate collapse, species extinctions, and innumerable other ecological woes. He begins his argument by considering scriptural evidence for the divine presence in natural elements and entities, drawing the reader’s attention to stories such as the burning bush of Exodus 3 and the whirlwind of Job 38–41. Wallace gives particular attention to avian representations, especially the Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1 and the appearance of the dove (or pigeon) in all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism.

Having established scripture’s portrayal of the presence of God in the more-than-human natural world, Wallace extends his argument for the spiritual powers inherent in nature by drawing on root metaphors defined by two scholars: Martin Heidegger’s distinction between setting-upon and bringing-forth and Paul Santmire’s distinction between the metaphor of ascent and the metaphor of fecundity. While Heidegger’s setting-upon indicates a coercive, exploitative interaction with nature, his bringing-forth describes a participatory, co-creative activity with a natural world suffused with divine presence and power. Wallace illustrates bringing-forth with the story of Jesus healing a man’s blindness by mixing his spittle with dirt to form mud that he applied to the man’s eyes (John 9). While a metaphor of ascent portrays the earth as irrelevant or inimical to human salvation, Santmire’s metaphor of fecundity points to a this-worldly focus on the goodness of creation. Wallace traces this theme from the time of Jesus, through antiquity, and into the medieval period, demonstrating that Jesus, Augustine of Hippo, and Hildegard of Bingen all emphasized the goodness of creation.

In the concluding chapters, Wallace circles back to the environmental concerns that motivate this book. In a climate-changed world characterized by widespread environmental degradation and heartbreaking species extinctions, what might it mean for Christians to recognize the presence of the divine in animal form? Wallace presents environmental pioneer John Muir as embodying and enacting a form of animistic Christianity in modern times. Muir, whose language reflects a life deeply grounded in the Christian tradition, recognized the divine permeating the natural world and drew extensively on religious rhetoric as he pressed for protection of wild landscapes.

Turning to our own times, Wallace writes of our current ecological crisis and the ongoing suffering of creation as deicide. These are despairing times, but Christians who opt to view the creation through the promiscuous incarnation of Wallace’s animistic vision will see a feral pigeon and be reminded of the Spirit’s abiding presence throughout the natural world. Wallace is right in suggesting that the repeated pigeon-induced reminder of divine accompaniment can engender hope and a renewed commitment to environmental activism.

In the end, Wallace’s argument seeks less to persuade than to invite. This is a compelling strength of his book. He acknowledges that his argument will be unconvincing to skeptics, to those who are “not inclined to embracing animism” (60). For Wallace, to see the world as spirit filled rather than merely material is an orientation toward rather than a proof about the world. “I regard animism,” he writes, “as an incantatory gesture toward the natural order: by opening myself to the possibility of animating spirit within all things, I subsist in the fragile hope that I can summon the presence of numinous realities within the everyday” (60, emphasis original). By reenchanting nature, Wallace shifts the root metaphor by which he interprets the other-than-human ecological world. Rather than seeing nature as a resource to be managed, exploited, and used, he sees it as a sacred gift to be reverenced, protected, and partnered with to enhance human and more-than-human well-being.

When God Was a Bird combines personal stories, nature writing, biblical interpretations, historical theology, and Continental philosophy. As such, a wide range of readers will find it interesting and accessible. It is also beautifully written. The book not only is a provocative treatment of the subject matter but also displays the unflagging generosity with which Wallace treats his students, his colleagues, his scholarly sources, and his readers. Wallace demonstrates not only how to treat the natural world but also how to treat one another.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nancy Menning is a visiting scholar in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College.

Date of Review: 
March 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark I. Wallace is professor of religion and environmental studies at Swarthmore College and core faculty for the US State Department’s Institutes on Religious Pluralism at Temple University. His books include Green Christianity: Five Ways to a Sustainable Future and Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature.

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