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The Holy Spirit, the voices of nature and environmental prophecy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 June 2014

Rachel Muers*
University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT,


I argue for the theological plausibility of reading contemporary environmental concern as a response to the prophetic voices of nonhuman nature, and in that sense as a movement of the Holy Spirit.

The literature on pneumatology and the environment tends to concentrate either on the Spirit's role in creation (and the continuities between creation and new creation) or on the ecclesial location of the Spirit's transformation of material reality. While these approaches are sound and necessary, neither appears fully to address the specific theological challenge of the contemporary environmental movement and of contemporary environmental stress, as a historical moment between humanity and nonhuman nature. Pneumatology needs to take account of the specific ways in which the environment becomes an issue for theology and society, and of the historical ‘discernment of spirits’ involved in Christian and theological responses to the environmental crisis.

In an attempt to address this need, I take up the now well-developed theological claim that nonhuman nature is a subject, rather than the backdrop of salvation-history, and develop it in relation to the idea that prophecy as the work of the Spirit both reveals and realises God's history with creation. I draw on Eugene Rogers’ approach to pneumatology by exploring the non-identical repetitions of pneumatology's paradigmatic narratives, but, going beyond Rogers, I trace these repetitions in nonhuman and extra-ecclesial realities – in ‘the environment’. The main paradigmatic pneumatological narratives considered in this article are those related to prophecy, and in particular to the miraculous extension of gifts of speech and hearing; rereading these narratives in the contemporary environmental crisis leads to an account of how the ‘voices’ of nonhuman nature are heard as prophetic speech that summons response. In a final section, I turn to another paradigmatic pneumatological narrative – that of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – and propose, in dialogue with Donald MacKinnon and others, that it offers a starting-point for theological responses to the experience of despair, loss and failure in the context of environmental concern.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2014 

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1 This article is based on a plenary paper given at the Society for the Study of Theology annual conference in April 2012. My thinking was also informed by ongoing conversations with the editors and other authors of Scott, Peter and Northcott, Michael (eds), Systematic Theology for a Changing Climate (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014)Google Scholar. I gratefully acknowledge the help and support of all the members of these academic communities.

2 Edwards, Denis, Breath of Life: A Theology of the Creator Spirit (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004)Google Scholar; Wallace, Mark I., Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence and the Renewal of Creation (Edinburgh: Continuum/T&T Clark, 1996)Google Scholar; Studebaker, Steven M., ‘The Spirit in Creation: A Unified Theology of Grace and Creation Care’, Zygon 43/4 (2008), pp. 936–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Nothwehr, Dawn M., ‘The Ecological Spirit and Cosmic Mutuality: Engaging the Work of Denis Edwards’, in Hinze, Bradford E. (ed.), The Spirit in the Church and the World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), pp. 167–88Google Scholar; Johnson, Elizabeth A., Women, Earth and Creator Spirit (Mahwah, NJ : Paulist, 1993)Google Scholar, especially ch. 5. See also the discussion in Jenkins, Willis, Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2008), p. 107CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and for an early proposal concerning directions for environmental pneumatology, Pannenberg, WolfhartThe Doctrine of the Spirit and the Task of a Theology of Nature’, Theology 75/1 (1972), pp. 820CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 On the former point, see most notably Moltmann, Jürgen, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM, 1992)Google Scholar; Welker, Michael, God the Spirit, trans. Hoffmeyer, John F. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994)Google Scholar. On the latter, see most recently Scott, Peter, Anti-Human Theology: Nature, Technology and the Post-Natural (London: SCM, 2010), especially ch. 9Google Scholar.

4 See Edwards, Breath of Life, e.g. in the theological summary on pp. 47–9; Welker, God the Spirit, pp. 158–82.

5 Wallace, Fragments of Redemption, is an extended example of an attempt to use pneumatology to redress the supposed environmental shortcomings of Christianity. I would concur with the judgement of those reviewers who have suggested that it is done at the price of the too-hasty rejection of too many useful conceptual and substantive features of the tradition: see Ward, Graham's review, Modern Theology 14/3 (1998), pp. 452–4Google Scholar.

6 See e.g. Bauckham, Richard's ‘Christological Eco-Narrative’, in The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2009), ch. 5Google Scholar; Deane-Drummond, Celia's trinitarian and wisdom-focused account in Creation through Wisdom: Theology and the New Biology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2003)Google Scholar.

7 See for a discussion of why the traditional divine attributes do not imply God's remoteness from creation, Soskice, Janet Martin, ‘The Gift of the Name: Moses and the Burning Bush’, in Davies, Oliver and Turner, Denys (eds), Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), pp. 6175CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I have yet to be convinced that ‘classical theism’ (which, apparently, uses the divine attributes to construct something remote, dualistic, monolithic, imperialistic and generally unpleasant, not to say unbiblical) exists in any actual text, even though its spectre has been stalking Western theology for a while.

8 Of course, especially if you are a Guardian reader, you probably bemoan the religious illiteracy of the chattering classes, and resolve, if you have any sense, never to read the comments on the ‘belief’ section of the website.

9 Jenkins, Ecologies of Grace, pp. 237–41.

10 There are affinities between Jenkins’ approach and that of environmental pragmatism (on which see e.g. Light, Andrew and Katz, Eric (eds), Environmental Pragmatism (London: Routledge, 1996))Google Scholar. For Jenkins’ critical account of environmental pragmatism, see Jenkins, ‘Environmental Pragmatism, Adaptive Management and Cultural Reform’, Ethics and the Environment 16/1 (2011), pp. 51–73.

11 On the theological importance of the idea (in scientific and/or biblical context) that the nonhuman environment has history, see for recent examples from different perspectives Conradie, Ernst, An Ecological Christian Anthropology (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), pp. 2630Google Scholar; Primavesi, Anne, Gaia and Climate Change: A Theology of Gift Events (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), e.g. p. 1Google Scholar. For an intriguing older example, see Barth, Karl's small-print discussion of the theological history of nonhuman land animals in Church Dogmatics, III/1 (The Doctrine of Creation, part 1), ed. Bromiley, Geoffrey W., trans. J. W. Edwards et al. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1958), pp. 180–1Google Scholar.

12 On the contemporary importance of which, see Welker, God the Spirit, pp. 258–64.

13 Rogers, Eugene F. Jr., After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources Outside the Modern West (London: SCM, 2006), here p. 60Google Scholar.

14 Rogers, After the Spirit, pp. 57–9.

15 See on this Muers, Rachel, Living for the Future: Theological Ethics for Coming Generations (London: Continuum/T&T Clark, 2008), pp. 156–61Google Scholar.

16 As Rogers notes without much further discussion, parts of Bulgakov's work, transplanted from his rather different time and place to ours, read like a brief for Monsanto (Rogers, After the Spirit, p. 41); and Schmemann (whom Rogers quotes only approvingly), in his very rich discussion of the sacramental character of existence, makes the whole of material reality ‘one all-embracing banquet table’ for humanity: Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998), p. 11. Anthropocentrism in a nature-focused pneumatology is likewise apparent in Pannenberg, ‘Doctrine of the Spirit’, although without the narrative and sacramental focus.

17 Boff, Leonardo, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997)Google Scholar; ‘The Cry of the Earth: A Pastoral Reflection on Climate Change by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference’, 2009; World Council of Churches, ‘Climate Justice for All’, 2011, <>, accessed April 2014.

18 Earth Bible Team, ‘Guiding Ecojustice Principles’, in Habel, Norman C. (ed.), Readings from the Perspective of Earth (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pp. 3853Google Scholar. See also the discussion of the Earth Bible principles in Conradie, Ernst, ‘What on Earth is an Ecological Hermeneutics’, in Horrell, David G., Hunt, Cherryl, Southgate, Christopher and Stavrakopoulou, Francesca (eds), Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives (London: Continuum/T&T Clark, 2010), pp. 295313Google Scholar.

19 See Bauckham, Richard, ‘Joining Creation's Praise of God’, Ecotheology 7 (2000), pp. 4559Google Scholar, and the discussion of responses to Bauckham's work in Horrell, David G. and Coad, Dominic, ‘“The Stones Would Cry Out” (Luke 19:40): A Lukan Contribution to a Hermeneutics of Creation's Praise’, Scottish Journal of Theology 64/1 (2010), pp. 2945CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Hardy, Daniel W. and Ford, David F., Jubilate: Theology in Praise (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1984), p. 82Google Scholar.

20 In some of the best-known examples, the whole of creation – ending with humanity – praises God in Ps 148; the heavens declare God's glory in Ps 19:1–4, 89:5; the heavens, earth, sea and trees express rejoicing before God in Ps 96:11–12; the mountains, hills and trees rejoice at the liberation of Israel in Isa 55:12.

21 Examples include the mourning land in Jer 4:28 and 12:4, Hos 4:3, Joel 1:10, and the lament of the wild animals in Joel 1:18, 20.

22 See e.g. the stones’ cry against those who ‘build a town by bloodshed’ in Habbakuk 2:11–12, and the discussion of this passage in Horrell and Coad, ‘Stones Would Cry Out’, pp. 33–4. For reflections on the ecological implications of the trees’ celebration of Assyria's fall in Isa 14:8, see Brueggemann, Walter, Isaiah 1–39 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998), p. 127Google Scholar; Northcott, Michael, A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007), p. 106Google Scholar. Note also that nature's rejoicing in Ps 96:11–12 is linked closely to God's execution of justice (see for a discussion of this Wink, Walter, Unmasking the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1986), p. 163)Google Scholar.

23 It is not part of the remit of this article to resolve debates over the validity or otherwise of ‘ecological’ interpretations of Rom 8 – for recent accounts of which, see Brendan Byrne, ‘An Ecological Reading of Romans 8:19–22: Problems and Possibilities’, in Horrell et al., Ecological Hermeneutics, pp. 83–93; Hunt, Cherryl, Horrell, David G. and Southgate, Christopher, ‘An Environmental Mantra? Ecological Interest in Romans 8.19–23 and a Modest Proposal for its Narrative Interpretation’, Journal of Theological Studies 59/2 (2008), pp. 546–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 A particularly clear example is Ps 96:11–12. Bauckham describes many of the ‘nature speaking’ texts as eschatological in character – see e.g. his discussion of Ps 148, Bible and Ecology, p. 82.

25 One example being the shouting stones in Habbakuk and Luke – see n. 19 above.

26 Although Ruskin (referring to Isa 14:8 and 55:12) excuses the biblical writers for their pathetic fallacy because of the overwhelming experience of the ‘presence of Deity’. Ruskin, John, ‘Of the Pathetic Fallacy’, in Modern Painters, part III (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1856), pp. 157–72, §14Google Scholar.

27 Horrell and Coad, ‘Stones Would Cry Out’, p. 43.

28 Indeed, as Susannah Ticciati has argued following John Deely, Augustine's account of signification in nature ‘transcend[s] the divide between nature and culture’ such that signification – centrally, the triadic relation between sign, observer and the thing signified – ‘pervades the universe’. Ticciati, Susannah, ‘The Apophatic Potential of Augustine's De doctrina christiana: Creatures as Signs of God’, in Nelstrop, Louise and Podmore, Simon (eds), Christian Mysticism and Incarnational Theology: Between Transcendence and Immanence (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013), pp. 165–76Google Scholar. See Deely, John, Augustine and Poinsot: The Protosemiotic Development (Scranton, PA, and London: University of Scranton Press, 2009)Google Scholar. I am grateful to Dr Ticciati for discussions of these issues. For a comparable account of the pervasiveness of semiosis in nature, in this case following Charles Sanders Peirce, see Robinson, Andrew, God and the World of Signs: Trinity, Evolution and the Metaphysical Semiotics of C. S. Peirce (Leiden: Brill, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 I am grateful to the late Christopher Jones for a discussion of this point. Clearly there are risks in the analogy between the ‘book of nature’ and the ‘book of scripture’; historically, it has tended to presume in each case a fixed text which, while subject to different interpretations, was itself essentially unchanging. In the case of nonhuman nature, this is clearly not a tenable approach. However, it is also possible that shifts of emphasis in biblical scholarship, and in the theological work that enters into dialogue with it, might enable a changing book of scripture (as it is received and read in the communities for which it operates as scripture) to be drawn into new comparisons with a changing natural environment.

30 See e.g. the impressive and sobering assembly of witnesses, from both the global South and the global North, in Northcott, Moral Climate, ch. 1. For an example of intercultural dialogue in response to climate change, see Deane-Drummond, Celia, ‘A Case for Collective Conscience: Climategate, COP-15 and Climate Justice’, Studies in Christian Ethics 24/1 (2011), pp. 522CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 See the extended discussion of this and similar passages in Welker, God the Spirit, pp. 108–24, which helpfully emphasises the concrete instantiation, in particular contexts, of the righteousness proclaimed by the one who bears the Spirit.

32 John Calvin, Commentary on Acts on 2:4. The reading of Pentecost as miracle of hearing is, of course, extremely controversial in the context of current debates about glossolalia and xenolalia. If we step back from these debates, however, it can perhaps be agreed that the narrative of Pentecost is not new speech on its own, but transformed speaking and hearing giving rise to new possibilities of shared existence – the concluding narrative of repentance and common life in Acts 2:37–47.

33 Welker, God the Spirit, pp. 232, 233.

34 There are intriguing interpretative possibilities in Joel 2:28ff. – particularly significant of course because of its association with Pentecost – where the pouring out of the Spirit on ‘all flesh’ (which elsewhere can mean all living beings, even though in this context its most obvious reference is to humans; see on this Barton, John, Joel and Obadiah (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001), p. 96)Google Scholar is linked both to the unprecedented extension of prophetic speech and to natural and cosmic phenomena. Along the lines of my earlier comments – trees cannot really prophesy, but then, in Joel's context, neither could maidservants. Disappointingly but unsurprisingly, the scholarly consensus is decisively against the commentator who proposed that in Joel 2:28 the Spirit of God is being poured out on locusts: Karl August Credner, Der Prophet Joel (Halle, 1831).

35 See the discussion in Rogers, After the Spirit, pp. 163–8, of MacKinnon's reflections on the temptations and failure of Jesus in ‘The Relation of the Doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity’, in Themes in Theology: The Three-Fold Cord: Essays in Philosophy, Politics and Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987), pp. 145–67, here pp.154, 162–3. Rogers, departing from his practice in the rest of the book, does not say anything about the non-identical repetition of this narrative (the Spirit ‘driving’ Jesus into the wilderness) in history. I suspect that the ‘much further treatment’ of the pneumatological and trinitarian implications of this text, for which MacKinnon called (‘Incarnation and Trinity’, p. 154), has not yet been completed.

36 MacKinnon, ‘Incarnation and Trinity’, p. 154.

37 Looking simply at material evidence concerning the future of the global environment, it is widely acknowledged e.g. that an unusually rapid and irreversible loss of species – labelled the ‘sixth mass extinction’ – is already occurring and is linked in numerous ways to human-made changes to the environment. See Anthony D. Barnosky et al., ‘Has Earth's Sixth Mass Extinction Event Already Arrived?’, Nature 471 (March 2011), pp. 51–7. Predictions about the possible, likely or inevitable scale of planetary warming vary enormously, but reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change consistently point with a high level of confidence to significant disruptions in global weather patterns in the twenty-first century – even if large-scale action is taken now to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. See IPCC Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R. K. and Reisinger, A. (eds), Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Geneva: IPCC, 2007)Google Scholar.

38 Kingsnorth, Paul and Hine, Dougald, Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto ( Scholar. In the UK, the Dark Mountain project – whose manifesto continues ‘All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it’ – has been one of several recent foci for debates about the environmental movement's confrontation with the prospect of environmental disaster. See the response to the manifesto by George Monbiot, ‘I share their despair, but I’m not quite ready to climb the Dark Mountain’, Guardian, 10 May 2010.

39 Skrimshire, Stefan, ’What are we Waiting for? Climate Change and the Narrative of Apocalypse’, in Bergmann, Sigurd and Gerden, Dieter (eds), Religion and Dangerous Environmental Change (Berlin: Li-Verlag, 2009), pp. 205–26, here p. 221Google Scholar.

40 On presenting an earlier version of this article I was questioned about the expression of divine election in the Noahide covenant (Gen 9:8–17) and its implications for the limits of environmental destruction. An adequate response would, I think, have to combine a proper openness to the surprising future outworkings of God's history with the world, on the one hand, with the recognition on the other hand that election – understood through a christological lens – can be election to failure and death.

41 Bauckham, Richard, ‘Jesus and the Wild Animals (Mark 1:13): A Christological Image for an Ecological Age’, in Green, Joel B. and Turner, Mark (eds), Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ. Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 321Google Scholar. I am grateful to Matthew Barton for discussions of this.

42 John Bradbury's as-yet-unpublished christological reflections on the death of the church have helped to shape this discussion – see (accessed April 2014).

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