Transcendence, Immanence, and the Sixth Great Extinction by Carol P. Christ

carol christIn my recent blog “The Flourishing of Life and Feminist Theology” I discussed Grace Jantzen’s view that theology should focus on “natality” or birth and life, rather than life after death or life apart from this world. This week Tikkun magazine published its summer issue with a feature called “Thinking Anew about God.” In it two male thinkers, one Buddhist and one Christian, argue for a similar turn toward the world in their traditions. Their calls for religions to focus on this world were published the same week scientists warned that the world stands on the brink of the sixth great extinction.

I have come to believe that any religion espousing cosmological dualism (devaluing this world in favor of a superior reality such as heaven) and individual salvation (the idea that what ultimately happens to me is disconnected from what ultimately happens to you) is contributing to our world’s problems rather than offering a solution. … [Religions should] stop emphasizing the hereafter and focus instead on how to overcome the illusion that we are separate from this precious, endangered earth. –David Loy, Buddhist, writing in Tikkun Summer 2014

My aim in this regard is to reawaken in each of us an emotionally felt and primordial sense of spiritual belonging within the wider natural world. In turn, my hope is that this deep sense of belonging to the earth — to God’s body, as it were — will en-flame our hearts and empower our wills to commit us to healing and saving the earth.—Mark I. Wallace, Christian, writing in Tikkun Summer 2014

David Loy writes that the Buddhist insight that there is no distinction between the self and the world which is called nondualism has been interpreted in two different ways by Buddhists. Some have denied the body and sought to escape the world in order to connect to an ultimate reality outside of the flesh and beyond the physical world. Other Buddhists, especially those in the Zen traditions, have interpreted the insight of nondualism differently. For them, understanding that the ego is not separate from the world leads to a non-egotistical immersion in the changing reality of the physical world. Loy suggests that this second view is the one that is needed in our time if we are to stop destroying the “precious endangered earth.”

Mark I. Wallace begins his essay describing the delicate beauty of the song of the wood thrush he hears singing in summertime in the woods near his house in Pennsylvania. He then meditates on images of God as a bird in the Bible, from the image of God hovering over the waters in Genesis to the image of the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove during the baptism of Jesus. Wallace argues that these and similar images could inform a “Christian animism” which views divinity as incarnate in the whole of the physical world. He too rejects theologies that have focused on another world in favor of this one and argues that recognizing divinity in the world can inspire love for the world. In turn love for the world can motivate us to save it. (While I agree with him about the need to love the world, I couldn’t help wondering if Wallace knew that the Bird Goddess is one of the main symbols of the Neolithic religions of Old Europe.)

These and other essays in the Tikkun issue suggest that it is not only feminists who are arguing for an immanental turn toward the world in theology. Feminists may have been motivated originally to rethink the relation of the body and nature to divinity because theological traditions focusing on transcendence viewed women and nature as antithetical to transcendent spirit. Today ecological crisis and the impending sixth mass extinction of life on earth are provoking a wide range of progressive religious thinkers to make the flourishing of life on this earth a theological priority. In various ways they are rejecting the strands within their traditions that have turned human attention away from the body and the physical world in the name of “transcendence.”

It became clear in the discussion of my blog on the flourishing of life that the word “transcendence” has more than one meaning. The meaning of transcendence that Jantzen is contesting is the notion that God “exists” outside and apart from this world and all other worlds. Loy speaks of this view as “cosmological dualism” in which “this world” is devalued in favor of a “superior reality” such as heaven. Rather than inspiring love for the body and the physical world, this view of transcendence inspires (at worst) hatred of or (at best) indifference to the body and the world.

Rejecting cosmological dualism does not mean rejecting other meanings of transcendence. Some speak of self-transcendence as the ability to escape being determined by the past in acts of creative freedom. From the point of view of process philosophy we “transcend” our past in a new “creative synthesis” at every moment. Process philosophy also speaks of Goddess as being transcendent of the world in one aspect–as always loving and good even when the world is not. We can also speak of moments when a person senses her connection to the whole web of life or to a divine power within the world as “transcendent moments”—moments in which larger meaning is revealed.

The only one of these meanings I would urge us to question is the first. I agree with Loy, Wallace, Jantzen and many others that religions or strands of religions that focus on uniting with a reality or divinity that exists outside of the physical world will not help us to focus on taking steps to preserve the world from the sixth great extinction.

As Loy and Wallace show us, it is possible to criticize strands within religious traditions that turn us away from the world, while calling attention to strands within those same traditions that can turn us towards the world and inspire us to promote its flourishing. Thus criticizing dualistic notions of transcendence does not require us to reject Christianity, Buddhism, or any other religious tradition.

The contrast between religions that focus on this life and those that focus on life after death provokes questions about whether or not belief in some form of life after death is consistent with promoting the flourishing of life.

For me, it is enough to hope that life will continue to flourish. I am happy for others to take my place after I die, and I feel no inclination or need to go on in another life. I also hope that the memory of the good things I have done and written will continue to influence the world for a time and that the not so good things I have done will not influence the world, even though they probably will.

I am convinced by Hartshorne’s argument that the notion that “I” could exist in another body-mind doesn’t make sense, given that the great distance between the “I” who was once 5 years old and the “I” I am now. They are connected through sharing the same body-mind; when my body-mind dies, I believe “I” will also die. I understand out-of-body experiences, past life memories, and conversations with ancestors as elements of the experience of embodied individuals and do not take them as proof that “I” existed before my birth or will exist after my body dies.

David Loy offers a distinction that may be helpful when he criticizes religions that “focus on” individual salvation. This introduces the idea that it might not be harmful to believe in some form of life after death, as long as life after death is not the main point of the spiritual quest.

The central religious or spiritual focus in our time must be stopping human beings from destroying the conditions of life for future generations of human beings and bringing about the sixth great extinction of species. This is why I have argued and will continue to argue that it is important to criticize theologies that focus on transcendence of this world, individual salvation, and life after death and to create theologies that turn us to the world and inspire us to promote the flourishing of life.

Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow also contributed an essay to Tikkun’s “Thinking Anew about God.”

Carol is looking forward to the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute.   Space available–$150 discount for a limited time http://www.goddessariadne.org.  Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine,Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women.  Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.

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Categories: Buddhism, Christianity, Embodiment, environment, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, Goddess Movement

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10 replies

  1. Yes! This is how I feel too Carol. Hartsthorne’s theories on the body-mind connection and the afterlife resonate with me also. My life, here, now and the legacy humanity leaves is my concern. Great read, thank you x

  2. Thanks Carol. I agree there is a long Biblical history of divorcing nature from religion, via the Garden of Eden, etc. In modern eco-spirituality, however, the very nature of Nature includes both immanence and transcendence — they are no longer in competition — transcendence is simply a fact of nature and thus an integral part of our everyday existence. On transcendence also as love of nature, Emily Dickinson says:

    Will there really be a “Morning”?
    Is there such a thing as “Day”?
    Could I see it from the mountains
    If I were as tall as they?

    Has it feet like Water lilies?
    Has it feathers like a Bird?
    Is it brought from famous countries
    Of which I have never heard?

    Oh some Scholar! Oh some Sailor!
    Oh some Wise Men from the skies!
    Please to tell a little Pilgrim
    Where the place called “Morning” lies!

    • I do not claim to be a scholar or even an afficianata of Dickenson. However, I read this as a rant against abstractions of the mind in favor of the concrete–therefore as a paen to immanence.

  3. Thank you, Carol. Excellent piece. I’ve long since “given up” my church (or any other place of worship) attendance, but recently went to a local church to hear my friend preach. He used Alice Walker’s work, THE COLOR PURPLE, as he developed the theme, “beholding the likeness of God.” Celie ultimately rids herself of that “old, white, bearded man in the sky” image of God, finding God in the beauty of this world–air, trees, birds, the love of a woman, and the color purple. And yet…the liturgy used in the service focused on “our sins and wickedness which we most grievously have committed against Almighty God who did give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption.” No doubt one could read the liturgy in multiple ways, however, my sense was “cognitive dissonance.”

  4. I like the idea of embodiment: the earth is an embodied goddess (who has many names) or the goddess is the embodied earth. Either way, the planet is alive and sentient and because we’re her children, we should take care of her. I remember some Christian churches using the term “stewardship” a few years ago. They called themselves “stewards of the earth.” Does anybody know if this term and the philosophy behind it are still in use in any of the standard-brand religions?

    • Yes it is used by ecological Christians. The traditional notion of stewardship is that “man” who stands b/w God and nature “takes care of” rather than simply “uses” nature. This is positive esp. in relation to modern science’s idea of dead nature to be used by man, though some argue that it leaves the “Great Chain [and hierarchy] of Being” intact–ie leaves intact the idea that man is inherently more valuable than the rest of nature.

      • I’ve often wondered how differently we may have structured civilization if that Bible verse had been translated, “gave stewardship over” rather than “gave dominion over.”

    • They are still being used, although the interpretation of “stewardship” varies.

  5. Wonderful news that many religions are embracing the nuture of the Earth as their primary focus. I was struck by the distinction between “destroying THE earth” and “destroying MY earth”. “THE earth” has never been destroyed, at least not for millions of millenia. It has evolved. Countless numbers of species have disappeared. countless more have been created. Our species has existed for but a blink of time. But “MY earth” has been destroyed before, and is on the brink of desecration again. “MY earth” includes our species and all the beloved creatures, sights, smells and breezes that we know. Like other species, we have a survival instinct that leads us to protect our species; sadly, our survival instinct isn’t very well evolved or we wouldn’t be in this mess. I have long believed that our species is far too “me me me” focused, ignoring the future of the species as a whole, and of the earth as a whole. We were created in the image of the Goddess to love Her and nuture Her and all Her children. May She guide us now.

  6. Thanks for the thoughts. I agree completely. Also I’ve been hearing quite a bit about the sixth great extinction and how possible it is if we don’t change the way we relate to our Mother Earth. It’s very scary. This Earth is so very beautiful and we could create such an abundant and loving reality if only we would.

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