A Hexameron for the Anthropocene – A Conversation with Kate Rigby

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?

Why are we here? What are we good for? What is our purpose?

These are the existential questions that send human beings to stories – particularly to stories of beginnings, like the creation myth in Genesis 1. Dr. Kate Rigby, a professor of environmental history at Bath Spa University who joined Dr. Norman Wirzba for the most recent Facing the Anthropocene conversation, studies the meditations that emerge from the creation myth of the Hebrew Bible. These meditations, known as hexamerons, speak to humanity’s engagement with the natural world. Rigby suggests that the Age of the Anthropocene demands a new kind of hexameron, one that reflects our current created world, damaged as it is by our own hands. She is currently writing such a hexameron herself. During the conversation, she shared some of the hexamerons unearthed in her research, stories that reflect the immensity of the damage humanity has done and point to an empathetic hope.

Rigby began by describing the theological tradition of the hexameron. Beginning in the Torah and continuing to the modern day, the hexameron appears in prose, poetry, essay, and sermon. In perhaps the most famous example, Basil of Caesarea wrote of the “universal choir of creation,” and at length on the splendor and abundance of the created world. Prior to Basil, Philo of Alexandria wrote a hexameron entitled “On the Account of the World’s Creation Given by Moses.” Milton slid a hexameron into Paradise Lost; Geoffrey Hill and James McAuley used the concept in poetry; and Ruth Valerio’s book Saying Yes to Life is a modern hexameron (and earned the commendation of Pope Francis in 2020). Rigby identified one important feature shared by all these examples: the hexameron, and the creation stories that inspire it, “imagine human beings brought into a world that was not of their own making.” They pay homage to something for which they cannot take credit.

Rigby described the pain of reading historic hexamerons now, as we face the Anthropocene, when air, earth, and water have been marred by humanity’s presence and technology. “Where these earlier commentators celebrate the incredible abundance and variety of living beings…, we look out upon depletion, diminishment, and unspeakable suffering.” Already in these early examples, theological justifications for silencing the “universal choir of creation” were emerging; humankind became “king” and the earth his “royal lodging” (Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Making of Man”). Employed in favor of mass industrialization and fossil capitalism, this language had devastating consequences. To counteract it and to engage with a world filled with environmental devastation, Rigby called for a new hexameron for the Anthropocene, one that “confront[s] this toxic legacy and advance[s] a more democratic and…decolonizing – account of the human vocation.”

Rigby argued that the key to a decolonizing account is to link experience with story, which begins with intercultural dialogue. In a particularly chilling moment, Rigby spoke of the double death amongst First Nations peoples, which stands in contradistinction to good death. Among many First Nations peoples, good death and the subsequent afterlife is dependent on one’s descendants taking good care of the land. Rigby recounted, “You can only retain your place in country after death if it is being kept open.” By contrast, “where your descendants are being removed from country and where country has been damaged…there is no place for you. You lose your afterlife.” This is double death, a death which “prevents new life from coming up.” The damage to land goes well beyond earth and soil; it disrupts generational cycles, uproots family ties, and creates fissures in timelines. In this way, a decolonial hexameron must consider the stories of those often overlooked, even if it means revealing harm that runs deeper than physical properties.

Poetry too has a place in the hexameral story. Rigby shared with the audience her interpretation of the first day of creation, when light appears though there are not stars, sun or moon. This light creates an uncertain space, where the cosmos is still emerging and is as yet unfinished. Poetry and the contemplative thinking that accompanies it cultivate uncertainty by creating unusual linkages between words that leave readers unsure of the intended meaning. This unsettling (or “unselfing” as Wirzba suggested) allows for new habits of perception and action, making poetic contemplation (thinking) a necessary counterpart to environmental activism (doing). Contemplation builds an activism that is open to others, listening to the authority of indigenous people groups and the natural order.

Rigby offered examples of such activism. She spoke of A Rocha International which serves coastal communities, Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) which works with First Nations peoples, Beautiful Burial Grounds and Living Church Yards which endeavor to make church yards a refuge for birds, insects, and small creatures, and Bees for Peace which protects pollinators. These faith-based groups are rooted in the belief that the cosmos and the people in it are capable of singing “a harmonious hymn” (to use the language of Basil’s hexameron), in symphony rather than discord. They see their vocation as one of cooperation, to promote the flourishing of life in all creation.

Listeners had an opportunity to hear part of Rigby’s hexameron when Wirzba read an excerpt from her “day three” meditation – the creation of land and plants. Rigby wrote:

“Pondering this day of creation, the day of the burgeoning of vegetable life, its primordial goodness in Elohim’s eyes and how it is being undone in our own days, has made me realize that when the outlook for what Pope Francis calls ‘our common home’ seems most bleak, it is not, in the end, hope, not even faith, but love that gets me out of bed in the morning. Love, that is, in all its colors.”

She goes on to explain that love, cosmically understood, sees all things in companionship. It is not mere abstraction but instead holds many valences, each related to the other: creaturely love, companionable love, erotic love, attentive love, empathetic love, resolute love, etc. The question in the Age of the Anthropocene is not, “How do we hope?” but, “How do we love?” If we turn to the hexameral tradition, reimagined by Rigby, we may learn a new kind of love for creation, one that tells the story of damage and healing. This kind of love – in all its colors – may be just enough to get us out of bed in the morning and to reunite us with our common home.

Join us on February 25, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the next installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Dr. Norman Wirzba will be joined by Duke Professor of Catholic Theology Janet Soskice. To register for this webinar and learn more about the series, click here.