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An Ecotheological Exploration of the Thought of Arthur Peacocke

  • Deborah Guess

Abstract

Against a background of increasing concern over climate change and other instances of ecological degradation, this paper aims to explore two ideas in the thought of Anglican theologian and biochemist Arthur Peacocke in relation to their ecotheological promise. First, Peacocke’s understanding of ‘emergence’ affirms the diversity of the created world and makes possible the understanding of Jesus Christ as the emergence of a new reality; these concepts resonate with the value given to biodiversity in ecological thought. Second, the idea that God expresses Godself through the material world in the process of creation, together with an emphasis on the biophysical composition of Jesus Christ, allows a high claim to be made for matter which resonates with an ecological affirmation of the value of the natural world. By asserting the prevalence of diversity and the value of matter, Peacocke’s thought provides a theological framework which coheres with an ecological ethos.

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1.

Dr Deborah Guess is a Research Associate at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity, Australia.

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2. The main themes of this paper were discussed in D.J. Guess, ‘God So Loved the Cosmos: An Ecotheological Discussion of the Incarnation, with Reference to the Thought of Norman Pittenger and Arthur Peacocke’, PhD thesis, University of Divinity, 2014.

3. The term ‘ecology’ (and its derivatives) is used in this paper in preference to ‘environment’ (and its derivatives). ‘Environment’ can suggest an overly sharp disconnection between humankind and the ‘surrounding’ natural world which can sanction attitudes and practices which over-use and abuse the biophysical world. ‘Ecology,’ on the other hand, suggests more readily the idea that humankind is one component within a natural system, rather than existing over and against the natural world. Although at a popular level the term ‘ecology’ and especially its contraction (‘eco-’) has been used both excessively and trivially, it remains the best available term.

4. I refer to the extremely influential 1967 essay by White, Lynn, ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis’, republished in Roger S. Gottlieb (ed.), This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 184193 .

5. Peacocke, Arthur, From DNA to Dean: Reflections and Explorations of a Priest-Scientist (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1996), p. 9 .

6. Peacocke, From DNA to Dean, 25, 52. Peacocke, Arthur, The Palace of Glory: God’s World and Science (Fu Jen Series; Hindmarsh, SA: ATF, 2005), p. 37 .

7. The work dedicated to Peacocke is Deane-Drummond, Celia, Christ and Evolution: Wonder and Wisdom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009). Peacocke is cited in Conradie, Ernst M., An Ecological Christian Anthropology: At Home on Earth? (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), p. 96 , and often by Denis Edwards, for example in Edwards, Denis, How God Acts: Creation, Redemption and Special Divine Action (Hindmarsh, SA: ATF, 2010), pp. 2 , 5, 52-54, 61; Jesus and the Cosmos (Mahwah, NJ: St Paul Publications, 1991), p. 101; Ecology at the Heart of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006), p. 79.

8. An exception is Chapter VII in Arthur Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science: The Re-Shaping of Belief (paperback with supplementary notes edn; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979, 2004).

9. This paper deals with the ‘emergentist’ aspect of emergentist monism, not with ‘monism’ itself, which is less ecotheologically significant. However, it is to be noted that by ‘monism’ Peacocke does not mean that reality is ‘all of one kind’ but that everything in nature can ‘be broken down into whatever physicists deem to constitute matter/energy’. Peacocke, Arthur, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith for the Twenty-First Century: An Essay in Interpretation’, in Philip Clayton (ed.), All That Is: A Naturalistic Faith for the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), pp. 358 (14).

10. ‘Emergence’ is understood variously by different thinkers in the science-religion discussion. For discussion of some of these see Philip Clayton, ‘Panentheism in Metaphysical and Scientific Perspective’, in Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke (eds.), In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 73-91 (84-89). This article only discusses Peacocke’s own understanding of emergence.

11. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 13.

12. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 13.

13. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, pp. 26-28.

14. Although his thought often seems quite congruous with process ideas, Peacocke does not claim to be a process thinker. He is rather ambivalent about the value of process thought, arguing against some aspects of it while acknowledging its importance: Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, pp. 140-41. Peacocke also acknowledges that he has been influenced by it: Peacocke, A.R., Science and the Christian Experiment (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. vii.

15. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, p. 80.

16. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 20.

17. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 20. Here, and in all future quotations, the italics are Peacocke’s own.

18. ‘The effects of the Enlightenment are, quite rightly, irreversible, and no sacred writings and no sacred tradition can ever again be self-authenticating in the sense of itself validating its own claims to truth.’ Peacocke, Arthur, Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming – Natural, Divine and Human (2nd and enlarged edn; London: SCM Press, 1993), p. 10 .

19. Willem B. Drees acknowledges that Peacocke’s work could be read as beginning with science, but this would be to misunderstand Peacocke: ‘… for Peacocke, the trip does not begin with science but with the Christian heritage …’. Drees, Willem B., ‘Some Words in Favour of Reductionism, Pantheism, Theism, and More’, in Philip Clayton (ed.), All that Is: A Naturalistic Faith for the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007), pp. 7080 (71).

20. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, p. 79.

21. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, p. 78.

22. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, p. 78.

23. Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God, pp. 72-73.

24. Arthur Peacocke, ‘Exploration towards God in a Scientific Age’, The St George’s Cathedral Lectures, Perth, no. 8 (2002), p. 2.

25. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, p. 59.

26. Sponsel, Leslie E., ‘Biodiversity’, in Bron R. Taylor (ed.), The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Nature (London: Continuum, 2005), p. 179 .

27. To some degree, species extinction is a normal process with, over eons, one to three species per year becoming extinct, but in the twentieth century the extinction rate is estimated to have been 40 times the background rate for mammals and 1000 times for birds. McNeill, John, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), pp. 262263 .

28. ‘Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’, available at: http://ipbes.net/index.php/about-ipbes (accessed 23 December 2015).

29. Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962).

30. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith for the Twenty-First Century’, p. 25.

31. Edwards, Denis, ‘The Diversity of Life and the Trinity’, in Denis Edwards and Mark Worthing (eds.), Biodiversity and Ecology: An Interdisciplinary Challenge (Adelaide: ATF Press, 2004), pp. 94100 (95).

32. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 36.

33. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, p. 249.

34. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 37.

35. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 37.

36. Peacocke, From DNA to Dean, p. 104. This strong claim, whose trajectory can be traced to Teilhard, is modified somewhat in Peacocke’s last book where there is a greater emphasis on describing the Incarnation in terms of the concept ‘information input’ rather than as evolutionary summit.

37. Peacocke uses the hybrid scientific-theological term ‘trans-mutation’ in preference to the biological term ‘mutation’, emphasizing that the potential for human transformation occurs not biologically in DNA but within the whole being of the person: Peacocke, Science and the Christian Experiment, p. 165.

38. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, p. 237.

39. In his final work Peacocke condensed his thought in an essay which identified emergentist monism, theistic naturalism and panentheism (‘ENP’) as the main foundations of his theology: Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’.

40. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 17.

41. David Griffin, cited by Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 8.

42. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 9.

43. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 22.

44. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, pp. 22-23.

45. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 19. This is not a pantheist view: the processes which sustain life are not themselves God but are the creative action of God who is always in the process of creating. Peacocke, The Palace of Glory, p. 13.

46. Peacocke, The Palace of Glory, p. 13.

47. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, p. 295.

48. St John of Damascus, On the Divine Images: Three Apologies against Those Who Attack the Divine Images (trans. David Anderson; Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), p. 23.

49. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, p. 290.

50. Norman Habel and the Earth Bible Team, ‘Guiding Ecojustice Principles’, in Norman C. Habel (ed.), Readings from the Perspective of Earth (The Earth Bible, 1; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pp. 38-53 (42-44).

51. Peacocke, Arthur, God and the New Biology (London: J.M. Dent, 1986), p. 120 .

52. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, pp. 244-45.

53. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, pp. 37-38.

54. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 40.

55. For example, see Deane-Drummond, Celia, ‘What Are the Resources for Building a Christian Ethos in a Time of Ecological Devastation?’, in Ernst M. Conradie, Segurd Bergmann, Celia Deane-Drummond and Denis Edwards (eds.), Christian Faith and the Earth: Current Paths and Emerging Horizons in Ecotheology (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), pp. 157176 (158-59).

56. Peacocke, Arthur, Paths from Science Towards God: The End of All our Exploring (Oxford: One World, 2001), pp. 7273 .

57. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 38.

58. Teilhard saw the Christian Logos as the final goal of the evolutionary process (the Omega Point) in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1955). Deep Incarnation was initiated by Niels Gregersen (see for example Niels Henrik Gregersen, ‘Christology’, in Michael S. Northcott and Peter M. Scott (eds.), Systematic Theology and Climate Change: Ecumenical Perspectives [London: Routledge, 2014], pp. 33-50) and developed by, for example, Johnson, Elizabeth, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014), pp. 223227 .

59. McFague, Sallie, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), p. 14 .

60. Peacocke, ‘A Naturalistic Christian Faith’, p. 4.

1. Dr Deborah Guess is a Research Associate at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity, Australia.

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