Whether a Christian Animism

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A review of Mark I. Wallace, When God Was a Bird: Christianity, Animism, and the Re-enchantment of the World (Fordham University Press, 2018).

Re-enchanting a Disenchanted Christianity

The week I spent reading religious studies scholar Mark I. Wallace’s When God Was a Bird was a week graced by the presence of birds. Early on, I noticed the first warblers of the spring making their stop in Vancouver on their annual hemispheric pilgrimage. One afternoon, I took a break from reading and went for a hike to the high knoll lookout at Minnekhada Regional Park in Coquitlam, British Columbia. On the way back, I crossed a large beaver pond scattered with pairs of mallards and what I think were ring-necked ducks. As I rounded a bend in the trail, I turned to the left and unexpectedly made direct eye contact with a large barred owl who was perched on a Douglas fir tree branch. I let out an involuntary sound, which in turn startled the owl, who silently took flight toward the safety of another tree farther off the trail. On another morning, out for a run, a female starling flushed from under a fence and almost collided with me. On my third or fourth lap around my block, a local crow, who was nesting nearby, issued a warning cackle, swooped at me, and then darted back to a safe height. I have found a new attentiveness to my encounters with birds to be one of the fruits of reading When God Was a Bird.

Wallace joins other theologians and activists who seek to infuse Christianity with a stronger sense of God’s presence in the world, and the intrinsic sacredness of the creatures with whom we share this planet. At the core of his moral argument is what some have called the re-enchantment theory of environmental values. In 1993 scientist Stephen J. Gould wrote, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well” (45). Wallace boldly steps into an exploratory stance by seeking to bridge Christianity with animism—the anthropological category for dwelling in a world of personhood beyond the human being. Here he is partly responding to claims by historian of technology Lynn White, Jr., that Christianity is deeply anthropocentric. In addition to defending Christianity from this claim, Wallace is taking a further step by arguing against some claims in the field of critical plant studies—such as Matthew Hall’s Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany—that Christianity, despite efforts to “go green,” still encourages an understanding of the world as mere spiritual symbol at best, and economic object as worst. While much more could be written on this work, here I focus on two central claims: that Christianity is at heart animistic, and that birds—in particular, doves—are a tangible incarnation of the Christian Holy Spirit.

Reclaiming a Christian Animism 

Wallace’s first task is to embed historical Christianity within an animist world. While the term animism has a checkered past, it has in recent years been reclaimed. Anthropologist E.B. Tylor coined the term to describe the (to him) false epistemological notion among “primitive” peoples that objects of nature were occupied by spiritual powers or beings. This was the standard definition of animism as a worldview until the twentieth century, when it took on a more descriptively ontological meaning. As Graham Harvey has written, animism is the view that “recognizes that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is lived in relationship with others” (quoted on 9).

In addition to this more descriptive usage, many in the environmental movement have taken a more affirmative ethical/normative stance with respect to animism: Animism is a more appropriate view of the world, a view that could help shift Western materialist assumptions that the world is so much raw material to be converted into cash and calories. Wallace’s approach is to bridge this more normative understanding of animism with biblical Christianity. This “animo-theism” is defined as “the belief that all beings, including nonhuman animals, are imbued with the divine presence” (2).

There is clearly much to recover in the Christian tradition related to our relationship to the Earth, as many contemporary ecological theologians and activists are discovering, and as Pope Francis’s Encyclical Letter Laudato Si makes clear. However, very few in this field have attempted to claim that Christianity is animistic in its orientation toward the world. Terms such as “incarnational” or “sacramental” are more common, usually meaning that God is present to creation, but not synonymous with it.

As Wallace rightly points out, the Bible contains echoes of the animistic past in its depictions of the Israelite’s Canaanite indigenous ancestors. The God of the Hebrew Bible walks in the garden with Adam and Eve, manifests in cloud, light, and fire, and burns as a bush. God is elemental and botanical. God speaks to Moses face to face, and the ground that Moses stands on before the bush is declared holy. God creates and sustains all of creation, looking after it like a mother hen—one of many animal images of God. Rather than the aloof and invisible sky-God or the Transcendent Heavenly King of monotheistic stereotype, the God of the Hebrew Bible is wildly and vividly present in the world.

In the New Testament, Jesus’s parables and his very life are filled with elemental, wild, and bucolic characters and imagery. Jesus shamanistically heals with spit and clay, wanders in the desert, communes with creatures and angels, and affirms the intrinsic value of the fox, the lily, and the sparrow in his folksy parables. Wallace’s writings are filled with imagery that reminds us just how out-of-doors the Bible really is.

So, if Wallace is claiming that the Bible expresses a definition of animism that shows “all beings are imbued with the divine presence,” then he has succeeded. However, if we define animism along its more ethnographically typical definition of a world filled with autonomous personhoods, only some of which are human, then I am not sure he can claim the same level of success.

By this I mean that most animistic peoples do not necessarily assume, like Christians, that there is a single creator God who manifests through creation. Rather, the world is populated by various peoples: bear people, eagle people, mountain people, and plant people. Ancestors, gods, and spirit beings are among them, to be sure; but a unifying ground of being is not always common, except in cases of syncretism with monotheistic traditions. Each people or entity of the world then requires a specific sociality and reciprocity. This ethnographic categorization seems distinct from Wallace’s definition of an animo-theism, which feels closer to a sort of panentheistic sacramentalism.

Additionally, a troubling tendency I have noticed in the “New” Animism, and something that I didn’t hear addressed in Wallace’s book, is that there is a dark side of living in a world alive with various personhoods. Generally speaking, indigenous societies strongly emphasize reciprocity with the personhoods of the world—not out of a constructed intrinsic value system, but out of the very real prospect that if one does not interact properly with one’s neighbors, they could kill you, make you ill, cause you to be sterile, or at the very least make you go hungry. Animism is not just a proper or primordial ecological value, but a practical and essential social value. For example, in Julie Cruikshank’s ethnography of the Tlingit and Athabascan peoples in Alaska, glaciers are imagined as sentient creatures. But they are not warm and fuzzy glacier people who all must treat with holy reverence, they are monsters that will try to kill you if you cook with grease near them or use foul language.[1]

This is not to say that I find a Christian animism impossible, but simply that there are more issues and questions to be worked out if we are to engage in dialogue with animism in its broader cultural context as we search for normative applications in a distinct theo-anthropological setting.

The Holy Spirit as Bird

Wallace’s second core argument, referenced in the title of his book, is that a Christian animism can look to the avian manifestation of the Holy Spirit as the animal face of God. Whereas God took the form of a human being in Jesus of Nazareth, God also took the form of a bird in at least two instances: first, at the creation, when the spirit of God hovered over the primordial waters; and second, when the spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove after the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Wallace writes, “The heart of my argument is that God in biblical times was encountered as a bird-God” (31).

In the first words of the Hebrew creation story, the spirit (veruah) hovers (merahefet) over the watery chaos. The Hebrew word merahefet can be used to mean flutter, hover, tremble, or shake. For Wallace this is a clear reference to a kind of primordial Holy Spirit-bird, who manifests at the beginning of the creative act. The world awakens to the flutter of God as bird. I found this to be a very powerful image.

Next, Wallace argues that the reference to the Holy Spirit as a dove in all four Gospels of the New Testament reveals a primitive Christian belief that God was a bird. Wallace chides Christians for a merely symbolic reading of the Gospel accounts, which variously state that the Holy Spirit descended from Heaven as, or in the form of, a dove. The Greek hosei can mean “as” or “like,” so there is some wiggle room in the literal interpretation. However, Wallace points out that the Gospel of Luke uses the term “in bodily form as a dove,” which offers a stronger linguistic case for his claim that the dove is an incarnation of the Holy Spirit.

I appreciate Wallace’s fresh reading of these two critical scenes from the Bible. They do much to bring to the fore the earthiness of the Biblical texts. However, within a Trinitarian reading, to concretize the Holy Spirit as the animal face of God feels a bit awkward. After all, are humans not animals? Is Jesus of Nazareth not the human-animal face of God? Does the cosmic dimension of Christ not account for the animistic view of the world in which God becomes matter?

In the classical formulation of the Blessed Trinity, God the Father eternally begets God the Son. The Holy Spirit is imagined as the love between Father and Son. They are three persons of one substance. It is through the Holy Spirit that God dwells in us, and in creation. Thus, in the Bible and throughout various Christian spiritualities, the Holy Spirit seems to have a stronger affinity with elemental nature than with animal nature. Ruach, Spiritus, and Pneuma each mean breath; the Holy Spirit is Holy Breath, air. During Pentecost, the Holy Spirit manifests as “tongues of fire,” and the disciples are moved to speak in tongues. The “spirit body’s” forth, as Wallace says, in many forms and in many manifestations. Rather than being a concrete incarnation as the Son, the Spirit is the force of love that binds creations to Creator, the inscape of each precious individual where Creator and creature touch.

Wallace uses a wonderful phrase to refer to God’s presence in the world: promiscuous incarnation. He writes, “God in Jesus and the Spirit embraces the fleshly reality of all interrelated organisms” (14). I agree with this statement wholeheartedly, but I would propose that the theology of the incarnation already does much of this theological work. The niche of the Holy Spirit in the spiritual ecology of the Trinity seems better understood as the open space in the dynamic relationship between Father and Son, Creator and creature.

Whither Christian Animism? 

There is much more that could be said—and much more that I hope will be said—about the prospects of a Christian animism. One perennial question for those of us interested in a theology of ecology is the issue of theodicy: If God is so immanently present to the world, why all the suffering and pain? Wallace’s insistence that the Earth become cruciform only refers to the ecocidal mania of global capitalism, rather than more existential questions about how a loving God can be present to such deep suffering in the natural world. Or, what might be the eschatological and soteriological view of a Christian animist? Do all dogs go to heaven? What fate might all of the created order be headed toward through the cosmic Christ?

In addition, I thought that Wallace’s later chapters missed some opportunities to strengthen his argument. For example, I found Chapter 3 to be somewhat scattered. It attempts to lump Jesus the Shaman, St. Augustine, and Hildegard of Bingen together without a strong enough throughput. Additionally, I didn’t find these voices strong advocates for a Christian animism, when there are other resources within the Christian cannon that could have been tapped. For example, why St. Augustine and not the Cappadocian fathers’ cosmic Christology of the logoi, or St. Francis of Assisi’s kinship with creatures? Or, in Chapter 4, why spend so much time reclaiming John Muir as a Christian animist and not mention more contemporary voices such as Teilhard de Chardin’s “Mass on the World” or Thomas Berry’s anthropocosmic vision? Or contemporary developments in process or open theology? And while I enjoyed reading about Wallace’s time spent in Costa Rica or walking the Camino de Santiago, I think a focus on liturgical projects such as the Wild Church Network or the Seminary of the Wild would have given greater specificity to how an authentic Christian animism is being lived today.[2]

Lastly, in future conversations about a Christian animism, I would like to discuss the merit of using Thomas Merton’s claims in The New Seeds of Contemplation that all creatures are saints. Referring to the Thisness (Haecceity) of John Duns Scotus and the inscape of Gerard Manly Hopkins, Merton claims that everything that is, is Holy. Thus the Christian concept of the Communion of Saints, affirmed in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds, seems like fertile ground for further discussion about a more robust incarnational, panentheistic Christian animism.[3]

I am grateful for the time I spent with this book. These are the kinds of conversations I want to be having with fellow Christians and non-Christians alike. I am dedicated to the same project as Wallace: reclaiming an ecological depth to Christianity. I hope this conversation will continue, and Christians everywhere are willing to explore the ecological dimensions of their own faith—a faith where God and the world are inextricably wrapped in loving embrace.

[1] J. Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (Vancouver, BC, Canada: UBC Press, 2007). 

[2] These projects can be found at: The Wild Church Network, https://www.wildchurchnetwork.com/; The Seminary of the Wild, https://www.seminaryofthewild.com/.

[3] T. Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 2007).

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  • Jason Brown

    Jason M. Brown, PhD, studied anthropology as an undergraduate. He has joint Master's degrees from Yale in forestry and theology. His PhD is in Resource, Environment and Sustainability from The Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. He is a Lecturer in Humanities and Resources and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver British Columbia.

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