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Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love
by Elizabeth Johnson
New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014
323 pages
Reviewed by Jacqueline Leksen

In her new book Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Elizabeth Johnson’s urgent and compelling words leap off the pages when she issues a stirring and eloquent call to care for the earth in this time of grave ecological peril. Johnson, a Catholic theologian, leading academic, and best-selling author, articulates here a conversation between Darwin’s signature Origin of Species, written in 1859, and the God of love portrayed in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. She speaks from her Christian tradition, “with its strong belief in a creating, saving God of blessing, inherited from the Jewish tradition and now shared also with the Islamic tradition” (xv), drawing from a wide range of theologians, including Julian of Norwich, Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Rahner, and from philosophers and scientists. Her title comes from the Book of Job: “Ask the beasts and they will teach you” (12:7).

Johnson makes her case so clearly that I can envision the beautiful, singing world Darwin was describing and can hear the lament of creation in our time as she describes how “from about 1.7 million species of plants and animals currently alive on the planet ... the number is diminishing rapidly due to the current wave of extinctions: already gone in the twenty-first century are species such as the Baiji dolphin, the West African black rhino, the golden Monteverde toad, and the Hawaiian crow” (60). “Once species disappear, they never return” (100). She urges us to keep in our minds the “entangled bank,” a phrase from Darwin describing a place filled with lush plants, singing birds, insects, and worms, all interdependent on one another for their survival.

Darwin’s language in concert with the author’s vividly descriptive words fairly sing in these pages, in beautiful phrases describing creation and its creatures as “endless forms most beautiful” (45). Johnson utilizes words from scripture to make the case that all of creation is infused with the Spirit of God, sacramental and revelatory, a place of continuous creation, and that it is, as Job says, “the dwelling place of God ... fecund and exuberantly alive” (122). Johnson uses biblical images to describe the active presence of the Spirit: blowing wind, flowing water, blazing fire; the bird, flying free; holy Wisdom, the Creator’s active presence (134–36). Creation is “free and empowered” (154), a place where “all organic beings, living and dead, are related to one another, historically and biologically” (64–65).

In Ask the beasts, Johnson calls us to no less than “conversion to the Earth, or not ... conversion to God: to love in tune with God’s abundant love so that all may have life” (285). Spiritual directors, whose work is to notice, to listen, to pay attention, will find this book to be a rich resource for paying attention to our earth in this time of her great distress. 

Jacqueline Leksen provides spiritual accompaniment in Seattle and Lynnwood, Washington, USA, where she companions people from a wide variety of spiritual traditions, including those who struggle with homelessness. She completed a master’s degree in transforming spirituality at Seattle University.

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