The Goodness of Creation – A Conversation with Janet Soskice

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?

Dr. Janet Soskice, professor of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity, was the sixth guest for the Facing the Anthropocene series. Her talk and subsequent conversation with Dr. Norman Wirzba helped draw together the problems facing the Anthropocene and the disciplines and perspectives of the series’ speakers. Her own theological work on creation, she said, has implications that stretch far beyond the religious sphere; it links to an anthropology of creation, economic discussions of “nature’s gifts,” damaging technological structures, and creation myths – themes addressed previously in the series. Soskice argued that because the divine is near to creation and creatures in holy love, the world is “fundamentally good” and thus worthy of attention and protection.

She began by describing the rise of the Enlightenment concept of nature as opposed to creation. Nature, according to Soskice, hinges on a deistic view of God as clockmaker and the world as a clock. With this analogy in mind, thinkers like Isaac Newton could, after devoting enough time to scientific discoveries, “see into the very heart of nature and manipulate it.” The “doctrine of nature” distances God from the natural order; human beings rise in significance as a creator God declines. In contrast, a doctrine of creation implies a creator, in the same way that a gift implies a giver. Tim Ingold, the first speaker in the series, noted that God is central to the creation process; indeed, God makes existence itself.

This distinction has profound implications for human beings. Soskice noted that the shift from creation to nature led to “the subsequent loss of the human place in the world,” resulting from an over-confidence in “human capacities and wisdom.” When we attempt to place ourselves on the side of God, in opposition to nature, Soskice argued that “we soon find ourselves orphans… inhabiting a disenchanted universe, without meaning or purpose.” This loss of place contributed to the controversy Darwin’s theories of evolution stirred up: according to Darwin and contrary to Newton’s deism, the human being is not in fact on the side of God, but on the side of nature, the latest development in a chain of ever-evolving animals. In an adaption of a popular line from Augustine’s Confessions, Soskice stated: “We have begun to be a problem to ourselves.” We have created a cosmology that has no place in it for us.

Soskice moved from the Darwinian worldview to the doctrine of creation, in which “God made everything that is” ex nihilo, out of nothing. This doctrine has three important implications for the place of humanity in the created world. First, because God creates what is visible and invisible, we must reject any dualism between matter and spirit. Soskice said simply, “Angels and the human soul are no less creatures than kangaroos and kumquats.” Second, God is intimately near to all creatures, indeed there is no place or time where God is not. Again, Soskice emphasized that this involves all creatures. “It is true of all creatures that God is present in this intimacy to them…to rodents and fungi and even to oceans.” Finally, “God is creating now,” and never leaves the “clock” to tick independently. God is continually giving being to all creation, both sentient and not. Thus, as creatures evolving from and intimately intertwined with the created world, human beings cannot stand at a distance from creation or from God. Instead, according to Soskice, we are all held in the being and love of God, fungi and kumquats and humanity together.

During the conversation, Wirzba asked why the doctrine of creation is often relegated to minority status amongst doctrines of eschatology (of end times, last things) or soteriology (of salvation). Soskice did not see these doctrines as independent of one another: how one thinks about the end of one’s life or one’s justification in view of the divine reflects back on one’s view of creation and vice versa. For example, if the church moved away from a doctrine of salvation focused on damnation and instead leaned on the idea that salvation is health (as we find in Thomas Aquinas), one can easily integrate salvation with creation. Salvation becomes “all things naturally seek[ing] the good,” like a sunflower following the sun, and creation is part of that good. Similarly, if eschatology moved from a form of escapism to a kind of continuity, we would begin to understand that we are presently growing toward an ultimate flourishing life with creation. Soskice said, “Coming into the fullness of life doesn’t just happen when you die…This joy, this life that I know here, is constant, everlasting… and it will continue.” She likens it, in the words of Gregory of Nyssa, with going from glory to glory.

Both Wirzba and Soskice noted that “going from glory to glory” requires one to have eyes to see glory and goodness in creation. For Soskice, this can happen in very simple ways, like watching a daffodil bloom in one’s window. The desire to pay attention to the daffodil begins with something even more basic: creation must be regarded as “fundamentally good.” Only with this assumption can creation’s goodness on a microlevel teach us about a creature’s goodness on an interpersonal, inter-societal, and even international level. The act of recognizing the goodness of the daffodil primes us to pay attention to the goodness of other creatures.

Attending to the goodness of a daffodil leads ultimately to a greater awareness of love as the hinge on which all creation hangs. Soskice noted that “God being the source of being is totally active and generating, [which means] we are active too, continually generating new ways of love.” Quoting from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur,” Soskice noted that although creation “is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,” we need not despair, for still “The Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods,” not leaving this damaged world alone. Perhaps, Soskice concluded, the world is beyond repair – seared, bleared, and smeared – but we are, as created beings, still speaking of it, still tending to it, still brooding along with Holy Love.

Join us on March 4, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the next installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Dr. Norman Wirzba will be joined by Reader in Literature and the Geohumanities in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University, Robert Macfarlane. To register for this webinar and learn more about the series, click here.