Without Nature?: A New Condition for Theology

Without Nature?: A New Condition for Theology

David Albertson
Cabell King
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 448
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Without Nature?: A New Condition for Theology
    Book Description:

    Does naturestill exist? Common wisdom now acknowledges the malleability of nature, the complex reality that circumscribes and constitutes the human. Weather patterns, topographical contours, animal populations, and even our own genetic composition-all of which previously marked the boundary of human agency-now appear subject to our intervention. Some thinkers have suggested that nature has disappeared entirely and that we have entered a postnatural era; others note that nature is an ineradicable context for life.Christian theology, in particular, finds itself in an awkward position. Its Western traditions have long relied upon a static natureto express the dynamism of grace,making nature a foundational category within theology itself. This means that any theological inquiry into the changing face of nature must be reflexive and radically interdisciplinary. This book brings leading natural and social scientists into conversation with prominent Christian theologians and ethicists to wrestle collectively with difficult questions. Is nature undergoing fundamental change? What role does nature play in theological ethics? How might ethical deliberation proceed without naturein the future? What does the religious drive to transform human nature have to do with the technological quest to transcend human limits? Would the end of nature make grace less comprehensible?

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4866-7
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Without Nature?
    (pp. 1-14)
    David Albertson

    In 1989, the naturalist Bill McKibben observed the “end of nature,” the dissolution of the widely held perception that nature stands substantively independent of human action.² One used to consider nature to be the permanent, static backdrop to the drama of human affairs: weather patterns, topographical contours, animal populations, genetic composition. Increasingly we now reckon with the malleability of these “natural” phenomena, which previously formed a limiting network bounding human agency from without. Whereas nature may have once denoted the edge of human intervention, it is decreasingly distinct from other products of industry.

    Take mountains, for instance. Geographical formations would...

  5. The World in Order
    (pp. 15-34)
    Lorraine Daston

    This is a nature that is adamantly inhuman (the last, emphatic word of the poem), refusing us not just mercy but even sense, even the simplest ontology of nouns: “a sky by nature skyless.” This is an unsparing vision not so much of us “without nature” as of nature without us.

    Considering the themes of this volume, this vision of nature without us might come as something of a relief, despite the poet’s bleak intentions. Environmentalists dream of a pristine nature untouched by human hands, of reclaiming the wilderness lost to urban sprawl and toxic waste dumps. Ethicists are haunted...

    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 35-36)

      Perhaps in its most intuitive sense, “nature” means the natural environment, the ecosphere that provides a stage and backdrop for the drama of human culture. Although culture has always influenced how nature is understood and accessed, human beings in the present historical moment are altering nature to an unprecedented degree. As we continue to impact the natural environment surrounding us, how ought we to understand the stability of ecological “nature”? Can the extrahuman biosphere be transformed beyond recognition? Does it make sense to speak of being “without nature”?

      Or, as Peter Raven suggests, is the contrary the truth: nature would...

    • Our Common Responsibility to Nature
      (pp. 37-53)
      Peter H. Raven

      From the standpoint of our future survival, to assert that we have entered or are entering a new world without nature is both patently absurd and extremely dangerous. We evolved our distinctive characteristics in the context of a planet that is, as far as we know, unique precisely because of its biological systems, which in turn moderate and control the operation of the physical systems with which they interact. We depend on these systems for the air we breathe, the food we consume, the protection of the topsoil on which we grow our crops, most of our medicines, and every...

    • With Radical Amazement: Ecology and the Recovery of Creation
      (pp. 54-79)
      William French

      Surely humanity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has entered into a fundamentally new condition: our increased numbers and immensely expanded powers are enabling us to reshape the planet—its ecosystems and climate patterns, even ourselves as a species. The scale and tempo of planetwide ecological transformation and disruption are as remarkable as the burgeoning bioengineering capabilities that now allow the blending of genetic materials across species lines. Both developments appear to undermine the traditional understanding of nature’s stability and permanence, a vast given order standing firm against the vicissitudes, fragility, and brevity of individual human lives.

      The expansion of...

    • In the World: Henri Lefebvre and the Liturgical Production of Natural Space
      (pp. 80-98)
      Cabell King

      Ecologically we are in a time of crisis of a sort that demands the attention of religious thinkers. Still, a robust theology must not be reactionary. Further, it is rare that theology can be the source of conclusive policy recommendations. In hisTravail of Nature, H. Paul Santmire intelligently argues that “Christian thought is both promising and not promising for those who are seeking to find solid traditional foundations for a new theology of nature. Which historical tendencies within the tradition are promising and which are not, moreover, is by no means self-evident.”¹ The Christian tradition is not univocal, and...

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 99-100)

      With this section, our discussion shifts from the outside world to the natures of things in themselves. In what respect does it make sense to speak of the natural integrity of things, especially of living beings? Without discounting the distinctions of individuals or the malleability of species over time, we are concerned here to interrogate the notion of biological natures or constitutive essences and to ask how these natures are impacted by human activity, most dramatically in cases of genetic manipulation. The contributors to this section primarily discuss biological nature and genetics, but by their proximity to the previous section...

    • Renatured Biology: Getting Past Postmodernism in the Life Sciences
      (pp. 101-135)
      Stuart A. Newman

      Charles Darwin was a “naturalist,” as were the other post-Enlightenment founders of modern biology: Carl Linnaeus, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Gregor Mendel, Matthias Schleiden, and Theodor Schwann, to name only a few. The term was still a job description less than a century ago, when the collected works and a brief biography of William Bateson, the British scientist who introduced Mendel’s ideas to the English-speaking world and coined the term “genetics,” were published under the titleWilliam Bateson, Naturalist.¹ These days, however, there are few notions more derided by contemporary gene-centered biology and its commercial offshoots than “nature” and...

    • Synthetic Biology: Theological Questions about Biological Engineering
      (pp. 136-151)
      Ronald Cole-Turner

      The disappearance of nature as a normative framework for human thought and action is nowhere more tangibly felt than in the context of contemporary biological engineering. Biological engineering, or “synthetic biology,” as it is often called to distinguish it from genetic engineering, functions precisely on the boundary between natural and artificial, living and nonliving, organic and synthetic. On the one hand, like any technology, synthetic biology must work in and with nature. It operates entirely within the sphere of living nature: biological systems from metabolic pathways to ecosystems. But the whole point of synthetic biology is to synthesize nature, to...

    • Nature as Given, Nature as Guide, Nature as Natural Kinds: Return to Nature in the Ethics of Human Biotechnology
      (pp. 152-178)
      Gerald McKenny

      A familiar passage in Descartes’Discourse on the Methodis often cited as the paradigmatic expression of a new stance toward nature that emerged in the seventeenth century and, many believe, remains with us today. This stance is best characterized as a project to attain mastery over nature, but to treat this project simply as an assertion of the human will over nature, as is often done, is to fail to grasp the reason for its continuing appeal long after the initial mechanistic philosophy to which Descartes wedded it has been superseded. From the beginning this project was infused with...

    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 179-180)

      Nature’s relationship to the disciplines of ecology and genetics is perhaps more immediately grasped than its relationship to geography. Geographer Edward Soja explains that the “spatial turn” driving new geographical studies has engaged nature from the beginning. Rather than from the study of rural “nature,” the new geography emerged in the last decades from the study of urban space, that is, “second nature.” Soja makes the provocative proposal that in terms of human history as well as social theory, the “second nature” of the built environment precedes the “first nature” of the biosphere: the space of the city precedes unmediated...

    • Seeing Nature Spatially
      (pp. 181-202)
      Edward W. Soja

      The last decade of the twentieth century has seen a remarkable change in the ways we look at the spatial aspects of human existence and how space affects society, behavior, politics, culture, and economic development. Twenty years ago, thinking critically about the spatiality of human life was largely confined to such fields as geography, architecture, and urban and regional studies. Today, spatial perspectives have entered a much wider variety of disciplines and discourses. In anthropology, economics, and art history, where spatial approaches had been developed to some degree in the past, there has been a significant renaissance. Spatial thinking has...

    • The Decline of Nature: Natural Theology, Theology of Nature, and the Built Environment
      (pp. 203-220)
      Timothy J. Gorringe

      As I write, a meeting called by the Brazilian government is considering the impact of persistent drought in the Amazon. Scientists attending the meeting predict that quite apart from the clearance of areas of forest the size of Belgium each year, the Amazon could be destroyed this century.¹ The polar ice caps are melting at a record rate. Both of these changes are due to global warming and have potentially devastating effects. Should the Gulf Stream go into reverse, the implications for world food security will be colossal. To those who argue that debates about ecoscarcity, natural limits, overpopulation, and...

    • The Body of the World: Our Body, Ourselves
      (pp. 221-238)
      Sallie McFague

      The title of these collected essays,Without Nature?, is an oxymoron. It is not possible to be “without nature.” Whatisnature? Langdon Gilkey, theologian of nature, says nature has two meanings: “On the one hand, nature is represented in both archaic religion and modern science as the all-encompassing source or ground of all there is in concrete experience: the entities, inorganic and organic; the system of nature; ourselves; and even historical communities are products of nature.”¹ In other words, there is nothing “outside” nature. But it is the second meaning Gilkey gives that raises the possibility of being “without...

    • [PART FOUR Introduction]
      (pp. 239-240)

      Media reports in 2008 spoke frequently of the “human catastrophe” of flooding in the Midwestern states. Presumably this designated the tragic impacts of exceptional ecological events for families and communities in the affected areas. The banal phrase, however, conceals a provocative juxtaposition reminiscent of suggestions by Edward Soja and Michael Fischer: a “natural catastrophe” is made catastrophic by its social appropriation, that is, precisely by its human origins and effects. In this more radical sense, every natural catastrophe is a human catastrophe, not only in terms of its painful consequences for individuals but as a social product. Where does the...

    • Emergent Forms of Un/Natural Life
      (pp. 241-281)
      Michael M. J. Fischer

      Natureis an ambivalent term meaning both what is other to us and what is essentially ourselves. Even as our selves (our characters, our bodies, our selfhoods), nature is often “other,” that from which we attempt to separate ourselves and upon which we are dependent, which we attempt to control but which always escapes our reach.

      Four kinds of nature defining self and other seem to have risen to the top of political, philosophical, and moral agendas in the past quarter century: (1) so-called “natural” catastrophes and the problems traditionally associated with the “control of nature” (ecological nature); (2) “industrial”...

    • Nature, Change, and Justice
      (pp. 282-303)
      Lisa Sowle Cahill

      The title of this collection is “Without Nature? A New Condition for Theology.” This theme captures a premise: that theology up until now has assumed a concept and reality of nature that has vanished. More specifically, a formerly clear and certain concept of nature has been dislodged by a few decades’-worth of technological innovation, for example and especially in human and agricultural genetics, and by the ability to replace or supplant human parts and functions with artifacts of technology. The boundaries of the species are in doubt, as are the lines drawn between nature and artifice and between natural beings...

    • Technological Worlds and the Birth of Nature: On Human Creation and Its Theological Resonance in Heidegger and Serres
      (pp. 304-320)
      Thomas A. Carlson

      If the category of nature seems to grow questionable today, it does so largely in relation to a late-modern or postmodern humanity that devises and exercises technological and scientific powers that appear threatening, both existentially and conceptually, not only to “nature” but also to the “human,” and perhaps above all to the human in whatever we might count asitsdistinctive nature. Appeals, then, to “save” our human nature grow more energetic in the measure that emerging technoscience promises to reshape categories long held to define securely or locate clearly the human in its nature. In this direction, nearly everything...

    • [PART FIVE Introduction]
      (pp. 321-322)

      The title of this volume is posed with a question mark as a provocation to encourage reflection. Ultimately, many of the contributions from different disciplinary fields resist the suggestion that contemporary ethics is “without nature.” Since nature is the indispensable substrate of human life, and since the relationship to nature is always mediated by “second nature,” one cannot become divested of nature, as nature was never unambiguously owned. Each of the three papers in this section suggests that we are not “without nature” because the relationship to nature has always been more hermeneutically complex than mere possession or dispossession would...

    • Should We Reverence Life? Reflections at the Intersection of Ecology, Religion, and Ethics
      (pp. 323-341)
      William Schweiker

      On many accounts we live in an age in which human and nonhuman life is endangered through environmental crisis, genetic manipulation, genocide, disease, and on and on. In this time, how ought one to think about theworthof life? This question is in many ways at the heart of the most heated debates in the United States and around the world. For many people it is obvious that morally and religiously sensitive individuals will endorse the belief that life is “sacred” and thus worthy of reverence, especially human life. For these people, we ought not to alter human life...

    • The End of Nature and the Last Human? Thinking Theologically about “Nature” in a Postnatural Condition
      (pp. 342-362)
      Peter Manley Scott

      In this essay I propose that we find ourselves in a postnatural condition. Stressing thepostin postnatural indicates that in following after nature, the human is mixed up with nature; the separation of humanity and nature cannot be maintained. Emphasizing thenaturalin postnatural indicates that nature has not disappeared; nature still exceeds and encompasses the human. We are not “without” nature but we are “after.” Furthermore, we must speak of what I call the “haveability” of nature, yet not in ways that separate the human from nature or in ways that suggest that the human can master the...

    • Grace without Nature
      (pp. 363-376)
      Kathryn Tanner

      Must Christian theology have an interest in a stable, fixed, and clearly demarcated human nature, the sort of nature that biogenetics calls into question? If Christian theology can follow the lead of biogenetics in this regard, how would grace—the idea of a free gift of God beyond our natural created endowments—need to be reconceptualized, absent any reference to such a nature? By exploring a commonly overlooked and underdeveloped understanding of the way humans are created in the image of God, I try to show that Christian theology need not assume a human nature of the sort called in...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 377-452)
  12. List of Contributors
    (pp. 453-456)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 457-470)