Myser lecturer Elizabeth Johnson urges for ecological conversion

Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, gave the 2015 Myser lecture, urging an ecological conversion. Photo by Ashley de los Reyes '15

Sister Elizabeth explains, “Ecological conversion means falling in love with the earth as an inherently valuable living community.” Photo by Ashley de los Reyes '15

The 2015 Myser Lecture

“We haven't a moment to lose,” Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, told an enthusiastic audience at this year's Myser lecture, urging an ecological conversion. Weaving together stories of a dead bear and pelican chicks with Pope Francis's Laudato si encyclical, she gave a resounding yes to the lecture's title question: “Is God’s Charity Broad Enough for Bears?”

An alternate title, Sister Elizabeth suggested, might be “Muir's Dead Bear and the Cross.” She wove together stories of suffering and death in the evolutionary world, drawing on texts ranging from John Muir and Charles Darwin to Julian of Norwich and Pope Francis. She described Jesus in saving solidarity with the whole community of life, a vision of deep incarnation that makes a “radical reach across species lines.”

The story begins with gradual evolution of today's array of natural life over hundreds of millions of years. Through divergence and extinction, different species evolve over time. Sister Elizabeth described divergence as the tendency of species to split and spread into several new species, rather than simply moving in a direct line from one species to a successor. For example, the duck and hawk diverged from a common ancestor, with their descendants drawing from different food sources in the same environment. Evolutionary extinction occurs as species that have adapted better to changing circumstances survive while others, failing to adapt, die.

“Every tree on this campus, every squirrel, every bug,” and all of us are the product of branching, divergence and extinction in the evolutionary tree of life, Sister Elizabeth said. “When Pope Francis writes, 'We are all part of one splendid community,' that is not just poetry, that is biology!”

One splendid community

As in human experience, life in the “one splendid community” poses the theological challenge of suffering and death. Sister Elizabeth chose the plight of the second pelican chick to illustrate that challenge. Pelicans usually lay two eggs, several days apart. If the first chick to hatch meets with an accident, the second serves as a back-up, carrying on the species that has survived for 30 million years. But if the first chick is strong and healthy, the second may be neglected, nudged out of the nest, and starved to death.

“Let the pelican chick stand for all the creatures who have suffered and died,” over the course of the world's evolution, said Sister Elizabeth. As theology cannot ignore the suffering of humans, it also cannot ignore the suffering and death, the agony and loss of the evolving world over millions of years.

The “most fundamental theological move” affirms the presence of God, Sister Elizabeth said. “Christians hold to the radical notion that the one transcendent God freely chooses to save the world not as a kindly onlooker from afar, but by personally joining this world in the flesh.” In the prologue to John's Gospel, the Word did not become human (anthropos) but rather became flesh (sarx). This deep incarnation, she said, understands the Gospel to be saying that the sarx or flesh connects Jesus not only with human beings but with "the whole world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which they are composed.”

Although the pelican chick dies, “Jesus's solidarity with all creatures in death, in the flesh, means that at some deep level, suffering and dying creatures are being accompanied by a love beyond measure.” Like each of us, the pelican chick does not die alone.
Colossians I calls Christ not only the firstborn from the dead, but also the firstborn of all creation. That, said Sister Elizabeth, means that “Christ is the firstborn of all the dead of Darwin's tree of life.”

Deep incarnation gives reasons to believe that love of God, incarnate in Jesus, is for all who are present in the flesh, for the whole community of life in the world. In Laudato si, Pope Francis wrote that, “we are called to recognize that other living beings have a value of their own in God’s eyes.”

The urgency of ecological conversion

"Ecological conversion,” said Sister Elizabeth, “means falling in love with the earth as an inherently valuable living community in which we participate and bending every effort to be faithful to its well being.” One marker of the urgency of ecological conversion is the way that human action in the world has accelerated extinction from the pre-human evolutionary rate of a few species each year to a mind-boggling 23,000 species annually.

Ecological conversion will be intellectual, moving from a human centered view of the world to a wider, God-centered view that encompasses other species. As in Julian of Norwich's vision of a hazel nut, we are assured that all that is made “lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.”

That conversion will also be emotional, moving from isolation to connection, encompassing sadness at melting glaciers, fear of climate change, anger at “rapacious corporate practices that devastate the earth and the lives of poor people.” The emotional connection will mean that Francis of Assisi's Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Wolf and Sister Bird are “more than poetic images, but are also felt truths.”

Finally, the conversion will be practical, considering the whole community of life as we make decisions on how to spend money, heat homes, run businesses, vote and take “a host of other good and prophetic actions.”

When we see the natural world “drenched in the love of God,” we experience conversion and know not only that God's love is broad enough for bears but also that action on behalf of justice — for human beings and for the world of which we are a part — is an inseparable part of religious living.


More about the Myser Initiative

The Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity annually brings professionals who exemplify in their life and work the values and principles inherent in the Catholic Identity of St. Catherine University. The initiative infuses Catholic perspectives and understandings more deeply into the curriculum and daily life on campus. Workshops and discussion groups promote greater depth of thought, inquiry, sharing, listening, dialog and understanding about the Catholic faith and understanding the great spiritual resources alive and accessible in every religion.

By Mary Turck