Journeying with students into the woods to dive deep into our spiritual connections with nature, I would invoke these words from Carol Christ: “There are no hierarchies among beings on earth. We are different from the swallows who fly in spring, from the many-faceted stones on the beach, from the redwood tree in the forest. We may have more capacity to shape our lives than other beings, but you and I will never fly with the grace of a swallow, live as long as a redwood tree, nor endure the endless tossing of the sea like a stone. Each being has its own intrinsic beauty and value….”[i] How can one listen to these words and not be changed? Taking in the meaning of these words, paradigm shift happens. Herein lies the gift of Carol Christ to ecofeminism.
Ecofeminism posits that the oppression and domination of women, nature, and colonized others are inextricably linked. This is largely due to two aspects of the Western cultural paradigm: 1) mind/body value dualism, and 2) what ecofeminist Karen Warren has called “the logic of domination.” Mind/body value dualism is the creation of an artificial binary of opposites which values everything associated with the mind — spirit, transcendent, men, humans, white-bodied peoples, over everything associated with the body – earth, immanent, women, nature, colonized Others. The “logic of domination” is the use of this supposed inherent superiority of those associated with the mind to justify their domination of everything associated with the body. As Western culture has spread throughout the world, this value system is now found practically every on earth.
Christ unearthed the root issue of the Western paradigm — that mind/body value dualism is grounded in a theology that separates the divine from the earth and everything associated with it. In The Laughter of Aphrodite, she showed how Platonic dualism, the denial of finitude and death, and the vision of the Good as transcendent of the earth have shaped this paradigm, and became the basis of a transcendent Christian God and a theology in which earth and body are regarded as impediments to the spiritual. Everything associated with body and earth – women, people of color, nature, immanence — came to be seen as barriers to the more valued white, male, transcendent, God, justifying the conquest and domination of women, colonized others, and the earth. Paradigm shift must begin with uprooting this spiritual core.
As Christ argued, religion and its symbology live deep within our psyches, affecting even the unreligious in unconscious ways. Rejecting a symbol system is not sufficient. If not replaced, the mind will fall back into familiar patterns. Similarly, the ecofeminist paradigm must be grounded in a new spiritual foundation, not a transcendent God, but rather an immanental divine, dwelling within all beings.
The divinity of all beings upends mind/body value dualism. As Christ so boldly stated, “There are no hierarchies among beings on earth.” Such a simple statement, and yet so revolutionary. Christ deftly disrupted the entrenched belief that humans are the pinnacle of creation by illustrating ways each being is unique. She moved us to grasp in our depths that every being has value not as a resource for humanity, but simply and profoundly in and of itself. This, she said, is the supreme relativizing, to know that humans are no more valuable to the life of the universe — and no less; that the life force cares no more for “human creativity . . . than it cares about the ability of Bermuda grass to spread or moss to form on the side of a tree.”[ii] It is stunning in its dissolution of hierarchy, its profound egalitarianism, its deepest respect of all beings. This spiritual core is fundamental to ecofeminist paradigm shift.
The ethic it implies has motivated and guided ecofeminism. It is an ethic based on respect and reverence for all of life, that recognizes our interdependence in the web of life, and that our actions on this earth are limited by the value inherent in all beings. It enlists our love and deep sense of connection to act to enhance the life possibilities of all beings, for once one knows that love, one cannot simply stand by. One must act.
Christ’s words “the knowledge we could destroy this earth weighs heavily on me,”[iii] seem more pressing than ever. She warned of the political and ecological consequences of valuing transcendence over immanence, of prioritizing everlasting life in some transcendent realm over life on earth. In denying the finitude of life, a theology that accords ultimate value to a life beyond this one, justifies, even encourages, the destruction of the planet. She pointed to the rise of “apocalypticism” as raising the frightening possibility that those who contemplate total destruction of life on earth imagine that it is the will of God. Attention to this now seems even more urgent. As life becomes increasingly apocalyptic – fires, floods, drought, pandemics, racial conflict, wars and insurgencies – I hear an almost gleeful pronouncement that these are signs foretelling the coming of the Rapture – that this is the end of life on earth and that it is God’s will. In this moment, this theology, and the political choices it inspires, is perhaps the most dangerous belief on earth.
In its stead, Christ expounded and urged a thealogy that recognizes our finitude as part of the cycle of life and death, and calls on us to live, love, and act for love of this life. As she said, “Our task is here,” not in some life beyond this one. Christ eloquently argues that we must act to stop the impending destruction – simply for love of this life: “What can stop us is that we love this life, this earth, the joy we know in ourselves and other beings enough to find the thought of the end of the earth intolerable.”[iv]
Christ’s contribution to ecofeminism is inestimable, providing a profoundly egalitarian, respectful, and loving thealogy upon which to ground an ecofeminist paradigm and ethic to motivate and guide our actions in the world.
Christ, Carol. 1987. The laughter of Aphrodite: Reflections on a journey to the goddess. New York: Harper & Row.
Christ, Carol. 1989. Rethinking theology and nature. In Weaving the visions: New patterns in feminist spirituality. ed. Judith Plaskow & Carol P. Christ. New York: HarperOne.
Warren, Karen. The power and the promise of ecological feminism. Environmental Ethics. 12 (2): 126-146.
[i] Christ, 1989, 321.
[ii] Ibid., 323.
[iii] Christ, 1987, 213.
[iv] Christ, 1989, 323.
Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.