Sunday 21 June 2009

Karl Barth and paganism: toward a theology without nature

I’ll be presenting a paper on Barth and paganism at the Princeton conference tomorrow morning. Here’s a little excerpt:

“Within contemporary paganism, there are two main forms which this theologised nature-devotion may take. Nature may (this is the usual response) be celebrated as the caring, mothering womb, the source of all love and kindness. In this approach, all the emphasis falls on the sacred feminine; one reconnects with nature by dancing in a field, being kind to animals, practising vegetarianism, and so forth. Or nature may (as in some of the Nordic varieties of contemporary paganism) be revered for its dark and terrible power, its exhilarating cruelty and might. Here, the emphasis falls not on the sacred feminine but on patriarchal and hierarchical structures; one reconnects with nature by dressing in warrior raiment, by engaging in the hunt, by sacrifice, libation, carnivorous feasting. These two varieties of contemporary paganism have an uneasy relationship, since, on the surface, their attitudes and practices seem antithetical. But as Marion Bowman has documented, these very different pagan groups nevertheless band together and perceive each other to be members of a wider pagan family, united by their ritual and theological devotion to nature. For all their differences, they are sides of the same coin: a response to the theologisation of nature.

“Of course, the appropriation of paganism by contemporary Christian theologians and liturgists leans decisively towards the happy side of nature, so that everything centres on the sacred, nurturing kindness of Mother Earth; even the most progressive Christian liturgists with their flowers and their Maypoles would presumably have second thoughts about summoning the congregation to a bloody hunt in the woods as a means of reconnecting with the earth. The real problem with syncretistic pagan-Christian theologies and liturgies lies not in their benign adaptation of rural festivals, but in their uncritical adoption of this theologisation of the transcendental category of nature.”


ccollinswinn said...

A provocative title; I agree with Rory, can we hear some more?!?

Matthew Moffitt said...

Did you see this article in the Guardian?

Alex said...

Will you be mentioning the dangers of the Zeppelin in this paper?

You should probably talk to one Reverend Alison Milbank (of being John Milbank's wife) about the Maypole thing, she is very much for it.

Alex said...

This is going to appear rude, but it is partly in the spirit of fun and partly genuine criticism, but does anyone really need any more from this paper to guess what its argument is and conclusions are, considering the labels this is under 'Karl Barth, liturgy"?

1. No nature without the primacy of Christology and/or theological metaphysics.
2. A true liturgy already performs and transforms nature.
3. Extra points on the supernatural orientation of nature, pace De Lubac

Luke said...

Given that you are an Aussie (Crocodile Dundee, anyone?) and you have recently spent some time in the US (granted it was in the Maypole-ish Northeast), I would have thought that you should have a creel full of examples of the warrior Christian and liturgies of the hunt (Mossy Oak [trademarked] is such a beautiful pattern for the altar cloths!).

Unknown said...


I would be quite surprised, actually, if those were the directions in which Ben took this paper. I'd be willing to hear more just because I think he might speak against also that kind of theological response.

Halden said...

Yeah, Alex, I'm sure the last thing we'll see in this paper is Ben drawing on de Lubac.

I second the call for more, please.

Matt Jenson said...

Quick anecdote: I remember an utterly enrapt reading of Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" a couple years ago. One of the many things that struck me was her honest viz. nature. It was a beautiful thing, yes, but also a house of horrors.

Unknown said...

good start. I would like to read more.

Nicholas said...

This sounds interesting, but it always worries me when a Christian theologian writes about neo-paganism. Not that I am a neo-pagan myself or even particularly appreciate the neo-pagan position, but theologians writing about this movement often know dreadfully little about neo-paganism itself -- instead, they make quick assumptions, or repeat things the everlastingly befuddled news media presents as accurate facts.

This is similar to when Christian theologians write about popularly misunderstood sex practices, except in that case the source material is usually reruns of Law & Order.

I'm sure Ben hasn't done this (the citation from Marion Bowman is a good sign), but it always makes me wary.

Ben Myers said...

Hey Matthew, thanks for the tip about today's piece in the Guardian — I mentioned this in the lecture today.

Nicholas: good point, and I agree. If it makes you feel any better, I can assure you that my research for this paper didn't involve any episodes of Law & Order! These days, there are actually some excellent works of pagan theology (e.g. Michael York, Paul Reid-Bowan, plus heaps of good stuff in Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies); and Ronald Hutton's Triumph of the Moon is an absolutely superb history of the movement. So there are no longer any excuses for TV-based research!

Alex: I'm happy to say that all three of your three points are wrong: I don't say this boastfully, but only with enormous, grateful relief. It would have shattered all my confidence if you had managed to predict the whole argument!

So anyway, here's a quick point-form summary of the paper (it ended up being 12,000 words, so this is a very sketchy summary!):

* The centrality of "nature" in contemporary pagan theologies
* The pagan influence on contemporary Christian theology
* A brief genealogy of "nature" (showing that the word's complex theological history has rendered the term problematic, if not completely incoherent)
* A critique of the pagan concept of "nature", based on a historical analysis of paganism's roots in 18th and 19th-century Romanticism
* Barth's doctrine of creation makes it possible to un-imagine nature; for Barth, the world is "creation" rather than "nature" (also a section here on the "shadow side" of creation: an idea in Barth that I really love)
* Barth's ethics in III/4 points the way to an ecology without nature; this ecology is based on the irreducible distinction between humans and other creatures, and on "dominion" interpreted as a kind of "worlding of the world" (I focused here on Barth's wonderful section on animal ethics)
* An ecology like this should understand cities, institutions, etc, as part of "creation". The idea of "nature" is the biggest obstacle for contemporary ecology (cf. Timothy Morton). If there's no nature, we can take more seriously the centrality of the city for ecological ethics.

Okay, that's a rushed summary, but I hope it helps. Thanks for all the interest! (And unfortunately, I'm now also going to write an additional section, based on a fantastic question which someone asked after the paper.)

Darren said...

I can say unqualified that Ben's paper handily "won" the day today! It was compelling, well researched, fairly handled, and excellently delivered. Ben was, in fact, praised for giving neo-paganism a solid and accurate description before bringing KB into the mix.

I'll be blogging some of my notes from Day 1 of the conference soon. Nice job, Ben!

Alex said...

I stand corrected! Though I was going to mention some kind of geneology...

bruce hamill said...

Do you say anything about sacrifice Ben?

Anthony Paul Smith said...


I think you go off the rails a bit by tying yourself to closely to Morton (and Zizek who cribs from him). It simply isn't true to say "The idea of "nature" is the biggest obstacle for contemporary ecology (cf. Timothy Morton)" and Morton's "ecology without nature" tends, in my view, to be more of an "environmental writing without nature". In other words, it has very little to do with the way scientific ecology thinks about nature.

That is what really bothers me about this attempt to engage with "ecology" here. You aren't actually considering ecology (its practices or its findings), but making pronouncements from outside as if they were ground breaking for the science. You're essentially working with a caricature of 1970's ecology, when contemporary ecologists have made great pains to talk about the city as an ecosystem, to critique the influence nostalgic nature writing has had on policy, and even going so far as to reject the idea of wilderness (or, more clearly, they reject the notion that humanity is outside of nature). Now, I'm not sure ecology needs neo-paganism if your summary of these movements is correct, but I fail to see how it really needs Barth or Christian-thought as such either. Urban ecologists are well aware of the fact that the city is an ecological place, but they are in a much better position to tell us if that place is "central" (an entirely unecological concept) for any kind of ecological ethic. (I suspect I agree with you here, but frankly I don't trust your attempt at the pseudo-Zizek counter-intuitive ethics so I'm hesitant to say I agree without further information.) I also don't see how Barth's "wonderful" animal ethics is any different from Heidegger's and Heidegger has dominated most of the interesting environmental ethics for some time now. Presumably, except for his divine inerrancy, Barth is subject to the same critiques leveled against Heidegger here.

I realize you may find this to be pretty snarky, but this is my research area so you'll have to forgive me. I find the "dark" position of Morton that you are drawing on here to be really myopic. For what it is worth, I don't think "creation" gets us out of the problems with transcendental category of "nature" that you rightly recognize. In my dissertation I show how replacing nature with creation is already being used as a kind of apophaticism of nature in Aquinas, but that this leads to all sorts of problems that have not been solved by philosophies/theologies of nature, but (in my view) shows that simply getting rid of the concept of nature in favour of something confessional like creation gets us nowhere ecologically.

Dave Belcher said...

I know that Ben is still busy at the conference today and probably for another bit here, but I do hope that someone will offer a response to Anthony's comment here, which was -- at least in my mind -- quite insightful and well-put. I know that it's not Ben's modus operandi to ignore arguments that are really challenging to his own position, but I just want to make sure that this doesn't fall by the wayside...sort of, conveniently...and there are many in the comments box here that have agreed with Ben's take, so...any response? I'm not calling anyone out, just saying, give Anthony a hearing here.

Ben Myers said...

Dave, thanks for the reminder. And Anthony, thank you very much for your very substantial comments. I've been thinking about your comments a lot, even though I've been slow to reply!

Basically Anthony, I don't feel confident to disagree with anything you've said here, since you obviously know this stuff a LOT better than I do! (This was my first attempt to dabble in any of these questions; and I've admittedly leaned pretty heavily on Timothy Morton.) You're definitely right to note that I'm not really talking about scientific ecology — perhaps I'd be better to describe what I'm doing as "environmental ethics"? And it sounds like I'll definitely have to read some more urban ecology, etc.

Of course, your comment on Aquinas is especially challenging, since this goes right to the heart of the theological side of my paper. Again, I'll have to think a lot more about this...

Are you writing a dissertation on this topic? If so, I don't suppose you'd be able to send me some of your own work in this area? Or at least some good reading suggestions that might help to clarify things for me...? I'd really be grateful for any help or advice!

Anthony Paul Smith said...

Well this is less fun than being snarky at each other for our differing sympathies for pagan liturgies, but probably more productive. Damn you.

You are right to that some of my disagreement here has to do with the language you are employing and if you're a noob in this area it sort of makes sense that you haven't quite figured out your own technical vocabulary. Sorry for jumping on that. Seeing as you develop all of this from Barth what you develop from here may still clash with my arguments but I would make a few suggestions that would strengthen your case. I would switch to calling it something like "political ecology" or "environmental ethics" instead of ecology. Couch your polemic against pagan/nostalgic nature (i.e. those notions of nature that separate out humanity and human culture and artefacts like cities) as a polemic against another ethical or political story about nature and not scientific ecology. You may still hold to the idea of creational/dominion ecology at the end of all that, but I think it'll be slightly more humble and focused.

I can't say for sure without reading your piece, of course, but I'll take a guess at a few questions that may still linger if you stay with Barth. Mainly concerning the irreducible distinction and the way one participates in creation (and not nature).

Drop me an email, and please include the conference paper, at anthonypaul[dot]smith[at]gmail[dot]com and I'll send you a reasonable bibliography and some drafts of things I've written that you may find helpful.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks Anthony, this is extremely kind of you, I'll just finish tidying up my draft a little, and email you a copy tomorrow.

I really appreciate this!

a. steward said...

I definitely second Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as a poignant depiction of the brutalities of nature.

Also, have you heard mewithoutyou's new album? It is the most strongly Sufic of all their stuff, and thus the most nature-focused. I think an interesting theme there is that we cannot learn from nature untill we have forgiven it for how violent it is.

insidium said...

Hi Ben,

Have you considered any of Wendell Berry's theology/poetry in your view of nature/creation? I think he expressess the way our sense of nature is a shadow of creation itself, but in it, something is to be found that reflects the harmonies/vicissitudes/vastitude of the love between Jesus, The Spirit, and The Father/Mother/Creator. However, that is not to say it is not fallen with us.

"To sit and look at light-filled leaves
May let us see or seem to see,
Far backward as through clearer eyes
To what unsighted hope believes:
The blessed conviviality
That sang Creation's seventh sunrise.

The warmth has come.
The doors have opened.
Flower and song
Embroider ground and air, lead me
Beside the healing field that waits;
Growth, death and a restoring form
Of human use will make it well.
But I go on, beyond, higher.
In the hill's fold, forget the time.
I come from and go to, recall
This grove left out of all account
A place enclosed in song." (Wendell Berry).


Tara Ariel said...

I don't think science is neutral to the argument, or correct. Science is people looking through lenses of their philosophy and religion at nature. Science is not truth but mostly theory. How could you define ecology free of opinion of some entity? The question is what angle or lens is the correct or closest to the proper view of "ecology". I think a creational/dominion approach is a good place to start.

This is a good example of the fickleness of science is in global warming.

Unknown said...

Nate, I think you are outlining one kind of science. I refer to this kind as a "Philosophic" science that depends less on the "Scientific Method" and relies more heavily on Philosophy (as you point out).

As a trained engineer, I would also suggest there is another kind of science that does not shift with philosophy. For example, the Laws of Thermodynamics don't shift with worldview. The laws of physics (gravity, fluid flow, aerodynamics, acoustics, etc...) do not depend on Philosophy or religion.

If you are interested, I give some more specifics in this post, "Creation is Not Science."

Unknown said...

BTW Nate, I am in agrement with you on the global warming issue.


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