The Re-Greening of Abraham

By Charles Foster

Some odd alliances are being forged in this strange new world,

I well remember, a few years ago, the open hostility shown by dreadlocked, shamanic, eco-warriors towards the Abrahamic monotheisms. They’d spit when they passed a church.

The rhetoric of their distaste was predictable. The very notion of a creed was anathema to a free spirit. ‘No one’s going to tell me what to think’, said one (we’ll call him Jack), the marks on his wrists still visible from where he’d been chained to a road-builder’s bulldozer. And the content of the creeds, and the promulgators-in-chief, didn’t help. ‘I’m certainly taking no lessons’, Jack went on, ‘from some patriarchal sky-god represented by a paedophilic priest.’

But it’s changed. Jack still heaves bricks through bank windows (he says), and still copulates inside stone circles, but now he’s mightily impressed with Jesus, has a Greek Orthodox icon of the resurrection next to his bong, and pictures of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on his dartboard. He’s not alone. He’s part of a widespread movement that is reclaiming and recruiting the intrinsic radicalism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the fight against Neo-Liberalism and the destruction of the planet.

It’s not just that he hates the reductionism of the New Atheists (who of course sneer at his pentacles just as they sneer at his icons), and thinks that his enemy’s enemy is his friend. Indeed, as we’ll see, the enemy of the New Atheists is not God at all. No: this is a real alliance, based on profound philosophical agreement.

There was a serious obstacle to any détente between Jack and the Abrahamic faiths. It was that the great ally of Neo-Liberalism is American White Conservative Evangelicalism (AWCE). And since the AWCEs shout more loudly than anyone else, there’s a tendency, at least in the west, to equate their slogans with Christianity – and to tar the other monotheisms with AWCE’s brush.

That obstacle has gone. Trump removed it. 86 per cent of AWCEs voted for him, making it clear beyond argument that they have not even the most tenuous connection with historic Christianity. It’s no use for AWCE apologists to say that there is plenty of Biblical precedent for evil leaders being used as instruments of divine providence. The Babylon from which Cyrus sprung the Israelites wasn’t a democracy. Where your hearts are, there shall your votes be also. We’ve seen the hearts of the AWCEs, and they’re not remotely Galilean.

So Jack now knows that Jesus is Not a Republican. He wrote excitedly to me the other day, asking if I knew that the early Christians were frank Communists, holding everything in common, and that (until the catastrophe of Constantine’s conversion), were far more deeply suspicious of the whole idea of a state than the most fiery modern anarcho-syndicalists? He quoted the splendid David Bentley Hart:: ‘…most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent.’ Perfectly at home, that is, at an Occupy demonstration, or at the top of a doomed tree as the chainsaws roar.

So if anyone doubted whose side the AWCEs were on, the advent of Trump has removed all doubts. It’s not this, though, that compelled Jack to stand shoulder to shoulder with the ancient church. That compulsion came from a far deeper solidarity, which, Trump having cleared the Evangelicals out of the Christian field, it was easier for Jack to see.

I’ll come in a moment to the grounds of that solidarity. But first it is interesting to go back to the dartboard.

Jack throws the darts for both intellectual and instinctual reasons. Both sets of reasons apply equally to the New Atheists and the Evangelicals, and he should really have photos of megachurch pastors from Tennessee up on the board too. With his distaste for humbug and (at least between pipes) his customary clarity, he cruelly but truly mocks the evasions and inconsistencies that characterise the thoughts of both. He notes, shrewdly, that the New Atheists spend their time knocking down a straw man created for them by Evangelical theology. And that the Evangelicals have created a pastiche of God, and the likes of Dawkins and Dennett gleefully, easily, and pointlessly, spend their lives pointing out that the pastiche is laughable. The Evangelicals and the New Atheists need each other. They are crucially entwined in an acrimonious symbiosis.

The result in each case is a new religion. The Evangelicals have synthesised a sort of sickly deism (where an essentially impersonal God is somehow given the attributes of a gun-slinging racist petroleum executive who makes proteins and teaches spiders how to hunt). And the New Atheists have failed to notice that science is merely a method for inquiring into the world, and instead worship it as a complete metaphysical system.

Both, Jack saw, have made the same elementary category error. Evangelicals artlessly and ham-fistedly defend the mechanic who designed their dreary world; the New Atheists attack him. The mechanic has nothing whatever to do with the God of the monotheisms; who existed before there were any molecules to assemble; the Ground of Being; the logically inevitable pre-condition of all contingency.

It is hard to know, says Jack, which is more sad: to worship (in banal cadences, with intellectual cowardice, and in elastic-waisted trousers) the result of a category error, or to spend your life denouncing (in shrill pamphlets, and without any idea that you’re missing the point) that same result.

Plato and Aristotle, and most reflective people ever since – including Jack, and most people that I’ve met at demonstrations, folk sessions, and other outpourings of spontaneous joy, righteous anger, and compassion – held that the beginning of philosophy is wonder at the fact of existence. There is no such wonder in the choruses or tracts of the fundamentalists, whether they are religious or anti-religious fundamentalists. For them it is no surprise that they are, and that everything else is, and that this need not necessarily have been so, and indeed that nothing need have been at all. Their interest is in the machine they perceive the universe to be, and in the engineer who either made and maintains it (per the AWCEs), or who didn’t and doesn’t (per the Dawkins groupies).

For the New Atheists and the evangelicals are both creatures of the seventeenth century Enlightnement – that movement (which probably began with Descartes, in the sixteenth century, who prised apart Mind and Matter), and which saw de-souled nature as simply a mechanism. The first move was to banish Mind, along with God, to a spiritual realm. Having done that, the sceptics could observe that Mind, or God, weren’t in nature (precisely and only because they had asserted that they were not), and declare that since they weren’t in nature, and nature was everything that there is, Mind/God could not exist at all.

Following suit, and concluding that, indeed, God was not in nature, the Evangelicals could both despoil the natural world with a clean conscience, and pen their God in a tiny private space where he wouldn’t affect their ability to gorge, oppress, and exploit.

The thinking here is woefully muddled. I don’t need to highlight the errors. But it has been hugely and disastrously influential.  One of its many effects was to make the abuse of nature morally inoffensive. There’s nothing ethically dubious about smashing a piece of machinery. Add a bit of talk, unencumbered by any Biblical scholarship, about the Genesis 1 mandate to subdue the earth, and you’ve got the makings of a God-endorsed Industrial Revolution. You’ve also got, if you’re a AWCE, unschooled in systematic argument, a diabolical equation of materialism and divinity.

It doesn’t begin to follow, of course, that just because the New Atheists and the AWCEs both posit their beliefs on the existence or non-existence of an entity in whom the monoetheisms have never believed, the real God doesexist. An argument against Dawkins or against the Southern Baptist Federation is not an argument for the Ground of Being. But in fact Jack has argued his way, or at least fallen, into some sort of accord with Eastern Orthodoxy (which he sees – with good historical justification – as relatively pristine: relatively undistorted by the sort of  accommodation with secular politics that has shaped the western churches). He seems to have some sort of epiphany in a chapel on a rock looking out from the southern Peloponnese towards Crete. As he lit a candle, Terence McKenna’s quote came to mind: Science requests, ‘Give us one free miracle and we’ll explain the rest.’ And the one free miracle is the appearance of all the matter and energy in the universe and all the laws that govern it from nothing at a single instant.’ And then he caught the eye of Christus Pancrator and that, for some reason or none, was it.

He has repented of his talk about ‘sky-gods’. It is true that the public rhetoric of the monotheisms has generally tended to emphasise transcendence. But he has noted now that they have generally insisted on immanence too. The Greek Orthodox morning prayer says of the Holy Spirit: ‘present in all places and filling all things’. Mind, in other words – the same Mind that is the substance of transcendent Being – infuses rocks and trees. Christians and Animists have a lot in common.

Jack was particularly troubled by the hounding of the shamans. The monotheisms have often burned the wise women who really knew about the immanence of spirit in the wild world, and the consequent interconnectedness of all that there is. But that wasn’t because the priests didn’t believe that witchcraft was real. On the contrary, it was because they knew that it was. They simply believed that it was in competition with their own franchise. This fear of competition is probably best explained as a matter of ecclesiastical and gender politics rather than as a deep-seated theological conviction. The witches and the bishops believed more or less the same things about the weave of the world.

Even the patriarchy of the Abrahamic monotheisms doesn’t worry Jack now. He has seen that feminine adjectives (and indeed plural nouns) are used to describe God, and (though he prefers to talk about Goethe’s Eternal Feminine, or the Womb of the World) is thinking of buying an icon of Mary to stand on the other side of the bong.

Abraham’s greener than I thought’, said he.

 

 

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12 Responses to The Re-Greening of Abraham

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    I well remember, a few years ago, the open hostility shown by dreadlocked, shamanic, eco-warriors towards socialism.

    The very notion of a political party creed was anathema to a free spirit. ‘No one’s going to tell me what to think’, said one (we’ll call her Jill).
    But it’s changed. Jill still heaves bricks through bank windows (she says), and still copulates inside stone circles, but now she’s mightily impressed with Trotsky and has a new-found admiration for Che, Social Realism icons of insurrection next to her bong, and she has put pictures of the covers of 1984 & Darkness at Noon on her dartboard. She’s not alone. She’s part of a widespread movement that is reclaiming and recruiting the intrinsic radicalism of socialism in the fight against Neo-Liberalism and the destruction of the planet.

    There was a serious obstacle to any détente between Jill and the socialistic faiths. It was that the great ally of Neo-socialism was Stalinism, and since they shouted more loudly than anyone else, there was a tendency, at least in the west, to equate their slogans with socialism – and to tar them with Stalin’s brush.
    ……
    Gosh, is it already April 1st ? ;>)

  • Charles Foster says:

    Thank you, Anthony.
    (a) There has been no such detente between socialism and anarchy.
    (b) If there had, it would have been nothing like as surprising as the detente I describe.

    • Anthony Drinkwater says:

      Thank you, Charles.
      Not sure where you find your evidence that there is no detente between socialism and anarchy. But, « snap », I don’t find evidence of your detente between Jack and monotheism. (Yes, of course, it’s hard to prove a negative..). Simply, just as you have Jack, I have Jill as example….
      However, whilst agreeing that perhaps wonder at the world is at the root of philosophy, and agreeing further that tracts (and indeed, .isms of any kind) rarely show it, I don’t join you in seeing this as a springboard into religion.
      Incidentally, I’m pretty sure that there is a lot of evidence that monotheisms of all kinds should have plenty more than burnt witches on their consciences. And, equally incidentally, a rough straw man count gives me a high-scoring draw between you and your opponents. But a hard-fought game, in danger of going into prolonged extra time : sorry.

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    Dear Charles–

    I’m trying to figure out just what it is that has you foaming at the mouth out of distaste for Jack, the erstwhile “dreadlocked, shamanic, eco-warrior.” You and he both (at least I think this is what you’re saying) seem to have finally climbed up out of the stultifying (and not at all experiential) conception of nature as mechanical clockwork, but then he still seems to be making one fatal error, in your opinion–or at least this seems to be the crux of what you find problematic–that, now, for Jack, “mind infuses rocks and trees”–“the same Mind that is the substance of transcendent Being.”

    Now, one tack that I could take is to ask you to please define “transcendent Being,” and to tell me why I should believe in the existence of something like this (perhaps I would, if I could get my head around it).

    But the other is, could you please tell me precisely where you would cut off that to which your definition of “mind” applies? I would not try to make the case for rocks at all, although trees quite likely have their own sorts of awareness and purposiveness (e.g., https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en), and I find Evan Thompson quite persuasive on Mind and Life being coextensive (http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674057517); I reason that, in order to maintain themselves as living beings, all organisms must have some ways of sensing what’s on the outside of themselves and responding to it–differences among us arise from how many connections lie between input and output. Humans, by the way, just have what is called “a linearly scaled-up primate brain” ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2776484/), while elephants’ brains have three times the mass and three times the neurons ( https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnana.2014.00046/full).

    That’s arguing on the basis of empiricism, of course, not something doctrinal. Empiricism doesn’t have to mean reductionistic anymore; it recognizes continuity, and some sort of inwardness in all of us who are alive. And I find it still gives the better picture of the reality we inhabit. A better basis on which to found moral judgments, too.

    • Many thanks, Ronnie.
      You mistake me. Jack’s not making an error at all. He quotes that Greek Orthodox prayer, remember – which is (though one has to be careful about not confusing creation with creator) a statement that ‘mind infuses rocks and trees’. Historic Christianity has always insisted that divinity is both transcendent and immanent. Of course transcendence has historically been emphasised – but that is politics, not theology. It is easier to control people if one says that God is transcendent, and the priests of a purely transcendent deity will tend to enjoy higher status. But Jack finally saw through the political and clerical misrepresentations, and discovered the ancient and entirely orthodox notion of immanence.

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    So, Jack returned to the fold, and the fold is not so anthropocentric after all? I’m so glad to hear this!

    Unfortunately, I’m currently trying to get my head around the statistic that the estimated total biomass of all the remaining wild terrestrial mammals—the lions and tigers and bears, the elephants and giraffes and zebras and all the other wild creatures that still figure in our imaginations—is equal to only about 5% of the total biomass of all of us 7.6 billion humans, and is less than 2% of the combined total of us plus our livestock (www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1711842115). We’ve known for some time that over 90% of the big fish in the oceans are gone, and now there’s a steep worldwide decline in insects and other invertebrates too. Living on what was once a forested tropical hillside, and is now simply another human-dominated rural landscape, I can see and feel the mounting loss—the living world is slipping away, day by day.

    As a human being, I find these figures absolutely shocking. It is appalling what we as a species have done to our fellow animals, whether we understand them as our evolutionary kin or as magnificent creations of the God that brought the entire Biosphere into being. Of course, what it says about our reality-testing as a species that prides itself on its collective intelligence is pretty shocking too, since it should be so obvious that “we can’t do that”—we humans can’t get away with killing off so much other Life on the planet and then just continue along on our merry way, as if it won’t affect us in the least, oh no no no. But I’m almost of a mind that extinguishing our own species is going to be just a matter of our getting our due, for being so oblivious to what we’ve been doing all this time, especially its escalation in recent years, while we’ve had no excuse for looking the other way. It is the ethics of the interspecies imbalance—or all of the interpecies relationships, plural, that have led up to it, since the retreat of the wild has happened day by day, acre by acre, animal by animal, and human decision by human decision—that has me staggering.

    So I’m wondering, do you think that finally seeing through all the misrepresentations and grasping what you call immanence will have any effect on the way Jack experiences and engages with nonhuman forms of life? Or, more ambitiously, do you think it might lead him into actions intended to somehow have the effect of reversing these trends and starting the process of rectifying the situation?

    In the context of expressing my concerns about these issues to global leaders (https://secure.avaaz.org/campaign/en/heroes_of_nature_poc/?aOZlfbb), moreover, I’ve recently been trying to compose a letter to Pope Francis, and taking a close look at his remarkable Laudato Si. I have been interested to discover that he also has criticisms of our self-enclosed anthropocentrism, and although he still must uphold the sharp value disparity between humans and other lifeforms—the core of what I and most people mean when using the world “anthropocentrism”—I find myself agreeing with his most pointed criticism of what he sees as its central meaning. He quotes his predecessor, Benedict XVI, elaborating on this problem: “when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves,” that is where “the misuse of creation begins” (paragraph #6 of the Laudato Si), and he himself later adds, “we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot (#75).

    Yes—this does indeed seem to be the case. But what, for those of us who do not accept the “word” over and above the senses, could occupy, if not “the place of God” (hey, I could never get into this patriarchal stuff about “worshiping” anyway), the position of something that is a “higher instance than ourselves”—what, if not all of Life on Earth, or on a more “ecocentric” definition, the Biosphere? We’re included within it, sure, but it’s much bigger than “we” are, bigger than our single species, among what may be 9 million or so species on the planet. I do find myself more concerned about just how far our human activities are going to knock down Life on Earth—will there be some sort of vertebrate life left to carry on, or will we go all the way down to invertebrates or microorganisms? More concerned, like I say, than about just saving our species, let alone “human civilization” in its current form, which brought on all this ecocide to begin with. The more we learn about all the amazing complexity of the Life that flourishes—or at least once flourished—all around us, the more I think it appropriate to use words like “respect” and “reverence,” if not “worship.”

    There was one passage in particular that I found in the Laudato Si that still resonates with me, moreover. Yes, I know Pope Francis had to reject “Biocentrism” for its refusal to recognize our “human uniqueness,” but he is much to be applauded for, like Jack, explicitly recognizing the purposiveness of all living beings—unlike so many of the Neo-Darwinians and other reductionists who tie themselves in knots trying to avoid recognizing any sort of life-force that might smack of the much-reviled “vitalism” of yesteryear. And, in paragraph #77, Francis says, “God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things.” Now, I’ve never quite seen the need to postulate something immaterial that is “behind” or “responsible for creating” the immanent Reality, but if one is to try to bring these two metaphysical worlds in contact with one another, the identification of “God’s Love = the LIFE Force” seems to be a reasonable move to make—say, “for God so loved the world as to bring Life into it.” A much less anthropocentric reading, but perhaps a powerful idea, nonetheless.

  • Charles Foster says:

    Many thanks, Ronnie.
    Yes, I’m confident that Jack will engage much more deeply with non-humans, and that the experience will propel him into ecological activism that will make his previous efforts look anaemic.

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    I will look forward to his efforts–may they pay off for all of us!

  • Dave Frame says:

    The article is trafficking in some pretty coarse caricatures. Given that the intention is to make a fairly subtle point I’m not sure the caricatures help. The idea that AWCEs have a “petroleum-exec” idea of God in mind seems to me pretty insulting to scientists such as Sir John Houghton, Katharine Hayhoe who combine an embrace of evangelical Christianity and a very strong ethic of environmental stewardship, and to the great many theologians who do this as well. (Oxford grad Katharine Wilkinson wrote a good thesis and book on the topic of evangelicals and climate change.) In any case, one of the beauties of religious texts is that different bits can be emphasised and de-emphasised in support of a range of different outlooks concerning nature (inter alia). But it would be silly and unfair to suggest, as Charles does, that only the hippy wing of Christianity accepts duties to nature as arising from biblical injunctions to exercise stewardship.

    Also, it’s a misdiagnosis to suggest that “neoliberalism” is the thing behind environmental stress. “Neoliberalism” (to the extent it’s actually a thing – it’s not a term economists use) may be associated with increased globalisation and increased economic growth, but it is not the sole, or even the main, source of environmental pressure. The main one is people – the global population has increased about four-fold since 1920. The next one is that all those people want stuff. Market-based policies are more efficient than the known alternatives for providing that stuff. But blaming market-based and cosmopolitan policies for being efficient is like blaming the grease for the activities of the wheel. It’s true we could make things less efficient by adopting other policies; but people will still want more stuff and/or more and more children. And it is those desires, rather than suites of policies, that place stress on the environment.

  • Charles Foster says:

    Many thanks, Dave.
    Of course there are many informed and concerned evangelicals – people who see Genesis 1 as imposing an onerous obligation of stewardship, rather than giving a licence to exploit. You mention two: there are millions of others. In particular it is worth mentioning the (US) Evangelical Environmental Network, the (US) Evangelical Climate Initiative, and the UK organisation A Rocha. But I’d have thought that it is pretty uncontroversial to say that if you’re amongst the 86%, you’ve lost the theological and the ecological plot.
    It is surprising that you regard the Greek Orthodox Church as the ‘hippy wing of Christianity’. My point was, of course, that it is not any ‘wing’ of Christianity that shares Jack’s environmental concerns: it is the mainstream – which the 86% of AWCEs have left.
    Yes, ‘neo-liberalism’ is an efficient way of providing ‘stuff’ for which people have an appetite. One might say that we should lay the blame for the destruction of heroin addicts’ lives on their appetites rather than on the activities of heroin dealers. But I myself find it hard to say that the dealers are blameless.

  • Dave Frame says:

    Hi Charles, Thanks for replying. It’s always fun chatting. Actually I dispute this bit: “it is pretty uncontroversial to say that if you’re amongst the 86%, you’ve lost the theological and the ecological plot.” That depends on who you think the alternative candidate is, and what they represent. It’s common to like neither candidate, but to wind up voting for the one whom you think poses a less grave long-term threat to your interests. [Britain is glaringly stuck in this mode, where no one likes any of the Brexit deals but the expected thing (no confidence, govt falls) doesn’t happen because the actual electoral alternative – Jeremy Corbyn and his band of loons – is even less electorally palatable.] I’m pretty sure a lot of AWCEs felt this way about Clinton – they would have voted for any of a very long list of sinners, heretics, and apostates before voting for someone who they perceived as being so opposed to their interests. A vote is a blunt instrument, and it’s not always a great idea to infer actual policy support from something that turns as much on personality, charisma, etc as a presidential vote. [I have Republican friends who didn’t vote because much as they loathe Trump, they simply couldn’t bring themselves to vote Hillary. Even though she’s the best-qualified candidate in history, and even though they agreed with more of her platform than his. The thing is – the bits they didn’t like were show-stoppers. The environment isn’t, for most people, a show-stopper.]

    As for your analogy about neoliberalism – alternatives would just deal different drugs. People would still want stuff. It’s not just heroin people want. Much of what they want is reasonable (long lives, clean water, material security, full bellies, conditions where love and people might flourish). Markets are efficient ways of delivering that stuff, and I don’t blame the eudaimonia dealers for being on time, with good stuff, and high reliability. I do blame them (and their customers) for the environmental externalities that arise along the way. But in that case, address the externalities, don’t shut down the eudaimonia trade. In other words, it’s pollution, not markets, that are the problem here.

  • Ronnie Hawkins says:

    On this general topic, I would like to announce that the just-released issue of The Trumpeter has a focus on Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, if there is any interest here in viewing it: http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/index.php/trumpet/issue/view/123.

    However, I see that I neglected to mention, in my comments above, the glaring lacuna that exists within Pope Francis’ thought, and that to some extent is allowed to persist in the “ecocentric” (as opposed to “biocentric”) position that some of these commentators find in the Pope’s expressed viewpoint. Pope Francis repeatedly introduces the notion of LIMITS when he speaks of our human responsibility toward nature, e.g., “The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes” (# 116; see also #78, #105). But, in his profound elevation of the value of the human form of life over all others, he seemingly can accept no limits on our own human reproduction, including modern birth control (perhaps persuaded by the absurd recent insistence of some that even with pharmacological methods of preventing ovulation there might be a very slight chance that ovulation might occur anyway, followed by a union of sperm and egg that could be prevented from implanting in the uterus–hence better to bring a lot more unwanted human beings into the world than to risk the terrible sin of “abortion”). The fact that so much more of the God-given Creation will be destroyed by efforts to give all these additional people who will be with us by 2050 what they need, let alone all the stuff they might simply want, seems to count for little in the face of this, as does the likelihood that they will add to the mounting human suffering we can expect from the ecological disturbances our numbers + actions have already generated.

    I have long had the sense that many of those who choose to speak in terms of “ecocentrism” rather than “biocentrism”–taking the latter to mean recognizing value in ALL LIFE in its different forms, without putting human life above all the others–do so to emphasize the “ecosystem services” that we humans depend upon without having to consider nonhuman lives on a one-to-one basis, or, say, to consider making a change in their own diets as a way of reducing animal suffering. The hypocrisy of those who claim the label “Pro-Life” for themselves, when it means more and more and more human usurpation of the planet, I find quite sickening. The true “Pro-Life” position would be one in favor of all life–Life in Balance on the Earth!

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