Elizabeth A. JOHNSON, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014. pp. 323. $32.95 hb. ISBN 978-1-4729-0373-0; $22.99 EPUB eBook (extent 256). ISBN 9781472903747. Reviewed by Jill RAITT, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65201

           Have you an ecological vocation? If not, you probably will by the end of Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.  An ecological vocation nests naturally in any of the more usual calls to God’s service: contemplative, active, or mixed; religious, married, or single. Johnson’s title is taken from Job 12:7: “Ask the beasts and they will teach you; the birds of the air and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of every human being.” This passage guides Johnson’s theological exploration “like the North Star that mariners steer by.” (1)

            Lucid, sometimes wry, often poetic, Johnson’s newest book takes the reader on a journey through three chapters that beautifully explain Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, up-dated appropriately “lest we be dialoguing with an anachronism” (xvi), four chapters that “explore the relationship between the evolving world and one triune God.” (xvi), and two chapters that introduce the evolution of humans that at this point became a matter not only of genetic variation and natural selection, but also of cultures, that is, “shared world views, patterns of behavior and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization” (239-40).  

From the industrial revolution on, human interaction with the natural world became more and more destructive and the “entangled bank,” described by Darwin and used as a metaphor for the evolving natural world, began to lose its developing complexity. The slow rate of natural or occasionally cataclysmic deaths of species before the nineteenth century has increased at an alarming rate.  The variety and numbers of recently extinct species cannot be replaced by the slow generation of new species over millennia.

Johnson’s theology is firmly grounded in Scripture, particularly the books of Wisdom and Psalms, and in tradition: the Creed, Trinitarian theology, and the philosophy of Neo-Thomism, although her references are frequently to Aquinas directly, particularly in the key theological terms, creatio originalis, creatio continua, creatio nova, (123) and the philosophical discussions in chapter 5 on participation, and in 6 on ultimate and proximate causality. Johnson recalls for her readers the powerful doctrine of participation that is rooted in Plato and developed analogically.  Thus God is Being; all else has being by participation in Being itself. Summing up this section Johnson writes:

Participation secures the insight that for the world to be created at all, it does not suffice that it be “caused” by a transcendent God who remains, so to speak, at a distance. . . . Rather, in its robust naturalness the world exists due to a continuous act of love on the part of the Creator Spirit who shares the gift of being in an ongoing way indwelling creation, sustaining its life, [creatio continua] . . . The category of participation provides but one technical way to render the theological claim that the natural world is the dwelling place God intelligible and, hopefully, unforgettable. (150)
This reviewer asked Elizabeth Johnson years ago if her next big work would be on the Holy Spirit. She was non-committal.  But that’s what this book is; a theology of the Holy Spirit, the Love that creates and enlivens all that lives. From Genesis through the psalms, the Holy Spirit breathes and in the New Testament inspires, calls, guides, but never constrains or compels. Thus God as ultimate or first cause works through secondary causes according to their natures, the natures that God creates and sustains but never compels. Introducing chapter 6, Johnson explains that chapter 6 works by
. . . charting a path from the activity of that same Spirit who is love to the correlative insight that the evolving world, operating without compulsion according to its own dynamics, works freely with the incomprehensible God in bringing forth the fullness of its own creation. (160)

After reviewing the major contemporary theological theories of causality, Johnson lays out her own (168) and then proceeds to the contentious duo, law and chance (169-180). She concludes that “a pneumatological interpretation of continuous creation, drawn from biblical and theological tradition is one way to respect the discoveries of evolutionary theory while showing that belief in the God who creates is still seriously imaginable.” (179)

The very recent evolution of homo sapiens from one of multiple branches of hominids is celebrated by Johnson as cognitively unique and yet genetically related to the denizens of the “entangled bank” (239-40). Since the industrial revolution, however, humans have accelerated the domination and degradation of their biological home and of the alarming rate of extinction of the species that inhabit it. Johnson calls for a “deep spiritual conversion to the earth” that is intellectual, emotional, and ethical. The last chapter provides an alternative to the paradigm of dominion that for too long has dominated the interpretation of Genesis 1-2. “When interpreted as a whole, the Bible situates the function of dominion within a broader vision of a community of all living creatures centered on God. (262) The psalms sing of the glory of God in this community of creation while the prophets lament human infidelity and its consequences “Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing. (Hos. 4:1-3 cited on p. 279) But they also promise redemption and a new earth. The book ends with a call to all to acknowledge an ecological vocation. John-Paul II declared that the “respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation.” (“Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all Creation”, World Day of Peace, 1990. Cited on p. 281) Johnson invites us to “A flourishing humanity on a thriving planet rich in species in an evolving universe, all together filled with the glory of God.”