Ancient Christian Ecopoetics

In Ancient Christian Ecopoetics, Virginia Burrus facilitates a provocative encounter between ancient Christian theology and contemporary ecological thought.

Ancient Christian Ecopoetics
Cosmologies, Saints, Things

Virginia Burrus

2018 | 296 pages | Cloth $65.00
Religion / Classics / Gay Studies/Lesbian Studies/Queer Studies
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Table of Contents


Prelude: Anticipations of an Eco-Chorology
Dreaming Khora: Plato's Timaeus
Interlude: Fragments of an Eco-Chorology
Khroric Legacies: Readers of Timaeus and Genesis
Interlude: Beginning Again with Scripture
In/Conclusion: Khora, God, Materiality
Postlude: Beginnings, Again

Prelude: Ecocriticism as Queer Theory
Before Hagiography, Autozoography: The Life of Plotinus
Queerly Ecological: The Lives of Antony, Paul, and Mary of Egypt
Interlude: Desertification
Holy Disfigurations: The Life of Syncletica
Saint as Posthuman Assemblage: The Life of Simeon the Stylite
Interlude: Performance Art
In/Conclusion: Saints and Other Queer Creatures
Postlude: A Tough Love

III. Things and Practices: Arts of Coexistence
Prelude: Theorizing Things
Things: Relics and Icons in an Animate World
Things: Architecture, Landscape, Cosmos
: Fragments of a Material Theology of Things
Things: Rhetoric and Performativity in Basil's Hexaemeron
Desiring Things: Contemplation, Creation, and God in Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius
: Words and Things
/Conclusion: Things, Practices, Piety
: The Things That Matter
Epilogue: Worm Stories

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


We are only just beginning to think the ecological thought. Perhaps there is no end to its thinking.
—Timothy Morton
What does it mean to think the ecological thought? For Timothy Morton and a host of other ecologically minded theorists, it entails attentiveness to the interconnection and the liveliness and agency of all beings. If some of us are just beginning to think this thought, this is because we are just beginning to comprehend the consequences of the failure to do so. Having believed ourselves masters of nature, we now learn the painful lessons of dependence and vulnerability. Ecological thought comes belatedly then. It arrives only when it is too late to undo the planetary damage. Yet thinking it matters more than ever. It is also more than ever within our grasp. Indeed, crisis births revelation, and apparent end times may turn out to offer "the first glimmerings of new times."

Ecological thought propels us forward toward a future as yet barely imaginable. Paradoxically, it may also draw us back to a past only dimly recalled. What draws us, however, is not the longing for a simpler, purer time and place. Even if such existed, it would be of little help to us now. Rather, the pursuit of a usable past here evokes a context as complex and in its own way as compromised as our own—namely, the late ancient Mediterranean. The cultural artifacts of Christianity in particular claim our attention. What might they have to say to us "anthropocenes"—we who have outlived our innocence, no longer able to imagine our planet impervious to destructive human habit?

To some, this question may seem odd or forced. Why should we expect ancient Christian theologies, stories, images, or practices to speak to ecological crisis, or indeed to any of the other urgencies of our own moment? Why should we even want them to? As Christopher Schliephake notes in his introduction to a volume titled Ecocriticism, Ecology, and the Cultures of Antiquity, there is danger in hitching our historical studies so tightly to issues of acknowledged contemporary relevance that we cease to be challenged and provoked by the alien character of the past. "It is one of the (hopefully) enduring achievements of a humanistic education that the study of worlds far removed from our own has value in itself." Yet of course we always walk a fine line: an escapist history is no more alluring than an instrumentalized history. Moreover, there are many readers for whom my question will seem neither odd nor forced. Christianity has often been seen as a culprit—if not the culprit—in the history of human-induced environmental degradation. What Roman imperialism began, with its strategies of territorial conquest and exploitation, Christian monotheism finished, in the view of environmental historian Donald Hughes: monotheism "taught that God was separate from creation, and denied any inherent sacredness in nature"; moreover, "the first book of the Bible said that God had given man 'dominion' over the Earth." Less often, perhaps, Christianity has been looked to as a possible savior: "The notion that the Logos can be seen in every created thing—that the world is in some sense a living museum of divine intent—is scandalously powerful," enthuses environmental activist and journalist Bill McKibben in the foreword to a volume of essays that seeks ecological resources within the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

Thus my question about the possible relevance of ancient Christianity to current ecological thought has a larger context and a longer history. One starting point is medieval historian Lynn White's 1967 essay "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." Invoking the histories of technology, science, politics, culture, and religion, White's claims in this five-page manifesto are bold and multifaceted. Three in particular have incited discussion and debate in the half-century since the article was published, as Todd LeVasseur and Anna Peterson observe in a volume dedicated to reflection on that fifty-year marker. First, White proposes that how humans behave in relation to the world around us "is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny—that is, by religion." Second, he singles out Christianity—especially "Western" Christianity—as particularly implicated in the current ecological crisis owing to its strident anthropocentrism and its consequent tendency to devalue the nonhuman world, attitudes conveyed by a creation narrative that insinuates that humans are uniquely formed in the image of a god who grants them dominion over a cosmos existing only to serve them. Third, White suggests that "since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not." Pursuing such a remedy, he turns to Saint Francis for "an alternative Christian view of nature and man's relation to it," noting that Francis "tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man's limitless rule of creation."

All three of these claims have been vigorously contested, yet none has been simply discarded. First, how people think about the world around them—whether we call it worldview, cosmology, theology, or ideology—is not the only factor affecting their behavior toward that more-than-human universe, most would agree. It may not even be the most important factor much of the time. As Willis Jenkins points out, "The ethicist might entertain the converse to White's thesis: why not hold that cosmology ('what they think about themselves in relation to the things around them') is produced by social practice ('what people do about their ecology')? If that were the case, it would shift the ethical task away from transforming cosmology and toward transforming social practices." Affect theory in particular has illumined the extent to which humans, like other animals, are largely moved by embodied histories, forces, and relations that emerge "before language, before cosmology, even before 'thought,'" as Donovan Schaefer argues. Yet thought is not always merely "a way of converting a situation into an explanation," as Schaefer suggests. Thought may also shift, mute, or intensify affects; it may reshape practices. In other words, how humans imagine, explain, narrate, or represent their wider worlds matters in and for those worlds, whether confirming or challenging what are often deep-seated habits of behavior and relation; thus it matters too that we reflect critically on such practices of imagination, explanation, narration, or representation. "If we want a good reality—say, for instance, nonviolent coexistence between all beings—we might need to figure out what kinds of attitude are conducive to such a reality," as Morton puts it.

Second, White's view of Christianity strikes many as troublingly monolithic and essentializing. At the same time, his critique of a "Western" Christianity crystallized in the European Middle Ages may seem too narrowly targeted, and his consequent idealizing of Eastern Christianity and Asian religions has opened him to the charge of a romanticizing orientalism. Nonetheless, his particular criticisms of Christianity, however much painted in broad strokes, have largely stuck. Christianity's anthropocentrism, its eschatologically refracted dualism, and its theology of dominion have often hindered rather than enhanced ecologically sensitive thought and action.

Third, few would agree that there is a single remedy for our "trouble," much less that the remedies will always be "religious" in any sense, much less still that they are or should be distinctly Christian, as White may seem to imply. At the same time, the field of Christian ecotheology has burgeoned in the years since White's essay appeared, as scholars and activists have responded with both creativity and passion to the call to render theology more ecologically resonant, in part by drawing on marginal or overlooked strands of their own tradition. Feminist theologians, such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sallie McFague, and Ivone Gebara (to name only some of the earliest and most influential voices), have made particularly incisive contributions, at once critical and constructive. In recent years, ecotheology may seem to have become virtually mainstream: Bartholemew, ecumenical patriarch since 1991, has consistently championed ecological concerns, and Pope Francis has now joined his voice to the ecologically minded chorus with the papal encyclical "Laudato Si" of 2013. Among Christian ecotheological works especially germane to this present study is Douglas Christie's The Blue Sapphire of the Mind, which turns to late ancient monastic traditions to articulate a "contemplative ecology." Meanwhile, the conversation has also become much more religiously pluralistic, as perhaps evidenced most concretely by the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, directed by John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Even an ecocritic working well outside the field of religion is ready to detect hints of hope in "the new eco-religions."

Thus this book situates itself in the trajectory of a now wide-ranging engagement of the fields of religion and ecology that can be seen, at least with hindsight, to have begun with Lynn White's essay. As Whitney Bauman argues, the story could also be told differently: "The White narrative can stand side by side with other narratives that connect that planet in a whole field of intersectional discourses that are working toward a different, more ecologically sound and just planetary future." If I nonetheless begin with "the White narrative," it is so as to begin again—to renew and complicate this particular Christian-centered starting point. Ecological critiques of Christian tradition are enormously important but are also by now well established; these will not be my primary focus. Nor am I interested either in defending the "mainstream" tradition (as some of White's critics have done) or in turning to "marginal" ones for leverage against it (as White himself advocated). I want to resist the temptation to look for either a culprit or a savior in Christianity, in other words.

What then am I looking for when I turn back to early Christianity in an effort "to think the ecological thought"? My aims are constructive, but they are neither apologetic nor prescriptive. My discourse is theological, but most of my conversation partners are not theologians; many are not even engaged in the study of religion per se. Bringing current questions, concerns, and theories into dialogue with late ancient Mediterranean ones, I hope to facilitate a provocative encounter with difference, and one that takes poetic form in the broadest sense. As Scott Knickerbocker notes, "A poet crafts language that, if successful, inspires, startles, or coaxes us into knowing the world with revivified senses." "Sensuous poiesis," as Knickerbocker names it, effects an "immediate, embodied experience of nonhuman nature," pointing in the direction of an "ecopoetics" that is undergirded by "the assumption that the same imaginative and intellectual muscles we exercise in our deep consideration of poetry are needed in meaningfully relating to nature and responding to environmental dilemmas—and vice versa." What is true for poetry in the narrow sense is also true for poetry writ large, that is, for all of the ways that human creativity both participates in and reflects upon what ancient Christians would have thought of as divine creativity or creation. Theology is a kind of poetry, or "making," as advocates of "theopoetics" have long suggested; so too is hagiography or pictorial art. These forms of poiesis both do and do not stand apart from the sacred poiesis that we might, for better or worse, also call nature. Here I am not appealing to a notion of the divine inspiration of theology, literature, or art, nor do I mean to align such human creativity with the transcendently "natural." Rather, I want to suggest, with David L. Miller, that theology, literature, and art may "refer to strategies of human signification in the absence of fixed and ultimate meanings accessible to knowledge or faith." Such creaturely poiesis is productive and performative rather than referential, representational, or propositional; in this, it joins the ongoing processes of becoming that constitute the very universe, while also drawing our attention to those processes through its distinctive reflexivity. Ecopoetics both reflects on and takes part in "the emergence of new forms of life," as Jonathan Skinner puts it.

Ancient Christianity continues to be deemed normative or authoritative for Christians worldwide, and thus many tend to discover their own image in its thought, literature, and art. It may therefore seem an unlikely place to discover the emergence of the new. Yet the world of the so-called Church Fathers is surely far stranger than we tend to imagine. I want to explore the strangeness of ancient Christianity, allowing myself to be inspired, startled, or coaxed by its alien character. Here at the beginning, let me name a few basic facets of that strangeness, as I perceive it.

First, the boundaries between Christianity and what we ourselves might think of as its religious "others" were not always as evident to denizens of the ancient Mediterranean as they are to us. This ancient ecopoetics is all the more Christian because it is also Jewish and Platonic and polytheistic.

Second, ancient Christianity did not yet know itself as Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, or even as Western or Eastern. Its differentiations—its competing orthodoxies and heresies—were less trenchantly institutionalized and acculturated, more fluid and dynamic (if often no less violent) in their ongoing negotiations than such labels might imply. This ancient ecopoetics leaves the definition of what is properly Christian open.

Third, ancient Mediterranean Christians did not oppose science to belief, reason to faith. Their cosmologies were creative exercises of intellect and imagination, at once scriptural and philosophical, pushing the boundaries of what thought could think. This ancient ecopoetics resorts to dogma only in the root sense of exploratory opinion, to doctrine only in the root sense of teaching.

Fourth, ancient Mediterranean Christians were drawn to excess and transgression, in search of transformation. Pushing against the limits of their very humanity, they eschewed conventional social, sexual, and gender roles and relations, or fantasized about others who did so. This ancient ecopoetics is both queer and posthuman—which is also to say prehumanistic.

Fifth, ancient Mediterranean Christians experienced humans as coexisting with a wide range of other lively, relational beings, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, angelic or demonic, divine or creaturely, large or small. This ancient ecopoetics is both materialist and animistic.

Of course, what is strange to me may seem familiar to you, just as you may find my familiar things strange. I describe the alien past as I encounter it. I hope to hold onto a sense of its strangeness while at the same time rendering it more intimately familiar—and, yes, more relevant as well. Perhaps it is inevitable that I too will in the end simply have discovered in ancient Christianity the image of my own fears and hopes. But will it be exactly the same image with which I began?


Cosmology. Saints. Things. This book unfolds in three parts, each of which is composed of a series of fragments of varying lengths. Each part is introduced by a theoretical "Prelude," while a penultimate section, labeled "In/Conclusion," draws together the themes and arguments of the whole. Other fragments—"Interludes" and "Postludes"—are both briefer and more experimental in voice and style. The reader can engage each of the parts and to an extent each of the fragments within the parts either as separate units or as components of a larger, if still fragmentary, collectivity. She can also read the parts in different orders. Rather than progressing in a strict sequence, the argument accumulates; it gains resonance, or so I hope, as the reader discovers or creates connections among the fragments. Here form follows content, partly disrupting both linearity and closure: ecopoiesis, as Skinner describes it, "remain[s] open to the incompleteness of its own organization."

Part I considers cosmology under the sign of the Platonic khora—the mysterious "third kind" that eludes both intellect and senses, variously dubbed "space," "receptacle," "nurse," or "mother" of the universe. Taking philosopher John Sallis as my initial guide, I begin with a reading of Plato's Timaeus, where the figure of khora first appears, and proceed with readings of the cosmological writings of Philo, Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, and the rabbinic commentary Genesis Rabbah. Here I am searching for traces of a "forgotten legacy" (as Sallis puts it), one that is both Platonic and biblical yet crucially neither metaphysical nor theological in the usual positivist senses. I am feeling my way toward a "dark cosmology" that can also be conceived as an "eco-chorology." The doctrine of creation ex nihilo lies at the heart of its articulation, somewhat surprisingly. This eco-chorology acknowledges khora as the very possibility of possibility; as flow, mutability, unpredictable change; as radical receptivity; as contention, disorder, disintegration; as the ultimate elusiveness of all things—their spooky mystery. It also acknowledges logos as khora's necessary double—actualizing, differentiating, initiating, ordering, manifesting. Throughout this first part of the book, the question of whether, how, and why to think theologically—to think the ecological thought by also thinking god—recurs.

Part II considers the Lives of Saints at the juncture of ecocriticism and queer theory; disability theory and animal studies quickly join the conversation. Taking ecocritic Timothy Morton as my initial guide, I explore how hagiographical literature queers notions of nature or norm, putting the very category of the human into question in part by foregrounding the saint's animality, in part by writing the saint into the landscape. I am also interested in the Saint's Life as a kind of performance art that disrupts conventional notions of propriety and beauty, making way for new ones; here the literary Life may participate in larger assemblages of texts, objects, and rituals that produce the saint as such. Readings of the Lives of Plotinus, Antony, Paul, Mary of Egypt, Syncletica, and Simeon the Stylite focus on queerings of time, place, and desire and on the performance of the body as both resilient and corruptible, beautiful and broken, but never simply static or whole.

Part III considers material objects from the perspective of thing theory, guided by political theorist Jane Bennett's new materialism. I am interested in the things themselves and in the practices by which ancient Christians cultivate relationships to them as animate beings, at once powerful and vulnerable, protective and in need of protection, lovable and loving. Some of the objects are mobile and relatively small in scale—portable relics and icons, such as Macrina's ring or the bit of the wood of the cross that Paulinus sends his friend Sulpicius. Others take on larger lives as parts of the assemblage of a church or a more extensive built complex, whether in present-day Italy or Jordan or elsewhere. The buildings themselves in turn enter into an often intricate relationship with the surrounding landscape, pointing toward the world as an open mesh of far-flung connection. Here Part III intersects very directly with Part II, as it is in large part the cult of saints that allows the value and agency of things—fragments of wood, metal, clay, blood, oil, wax, stone, bone, glass—to shine forth so intensely on both small and large scales. It intersects as well with Part I, attending not only to things in their barest materiality but also to things invoked in the poetic performance of liturgies of wonder and praise, whether embodied in Basil's hexameral sermons or in Augustine's and Pseudo-Dionysius's cosmic hymns.

The smallest things lead back to the largest things, the largest to the smallest. Viewed through the shifting lenses of an ancient ecopoetics, we humans sometimes loom large—our great aspirations! our great failings! And sometimes we are too small to see at all, absorbed in the dazzle of other lively, active things.