A single tree grows on a wilderness hillside in Northern California. Its name is presidio manzanita. Its world population is one. When I stood before a photograph of this tree in an exhibit of endangered species recently, I felt its enormous fragility. Should it die without reproducing itself, presidio manzanita will go the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon.
Scientists estimate 30 million species now exist in the world. We do not know for sure; there could be twice that many. So far we have only named about one and a half million. We have studied fewer than 100,000 of those in any detail. We know very little about the amazing heterogeneity of our worldits untold mysteries of being and unimagined combinations of DNA. We are like Job when God questions him about species after species and he is left speechless, confessing he knows nothing about a world that utterly amazes him.
Scientists also tell us we are now in a profoundly significant period of mass extinction. Species are dying off at the rate of one per day (some estimates are much higher). We kill these species out of greed and overuse or inadvertently by destroying their habitats. The resultant spiraling loss is not only an ecological crisis, but also a failure of human beings to celebrate what God has made. It diminishes our capacity to show forth the luster of the Holy Trinity. The threat to biodiversity is a theological, even liturgical problem, reducing our potential as an interrelated family of species to give glory to God.
We log and burn rain forests to create farmland for more cattle so that first-world people can buy 69-cent hamburgers at fast-food restaurants. Every year the rain forests of the world are reduced by an area nearly half the size of Florida. The runoff of fertilizers and pesticides from farms along the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a dead zone the size of New Jersey. Huge algae blooms rob oxygen from the water, killing off the sea life.
No place is safe from humans. In Song for the Blue Ocean, the marine biologist Carl Safina tells of observing one of the world’s great colonies of albatross on Midway Atoll in the remote North Pacific. These are huge, beautiful birds with a seven-foot wingspan. An albatross mother flies hundreds of miles on a single trip to gather food for her chicks. Safina watched as one returned. The chicks gathered around and waited for her to regurgitate what she had found. She arched her neck and threw up a supply of fish eggs and squid. But the chicks were still hungry so she tried again, struggling to get up something she’d swallowed.
Safina watched in horror as a green plastic toothbrush began to emerge from her gullet. She tried several times to disgorge it, but could not, so she swallowed it again and walked away with the toothbrush still caught inside. Things like this are happening in remote places all over the world.
In saltwater marshlands on Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast, I have seen huge flocks of white ibises, wonderful birds with long, curved orange beaks that reach into the holes fiddler crabs have dug in the sand. When first born, the baby ibises have not yet developed the salt-processing glands their parents haveopenings above their beaks where salt water is drained out, extracted from the bird’s systems by these glands. If this did not happen, the salt from the fiddler crabs would poison them.
But the glands are not developed in the babies until they are 14 days old. So their parents have to fly inland 15 to 20 miles to freshwater wetlands every day to catch crayfish to feed their young. Suddenly, after 14 days of travel, the adults know they can stop feeding the young birds freshwater food. The glands are now working and the babies eat fiddler crabs like the grown-ups. It is a compelling example of how important interconnecting ecosystems are to creatures like this. Freshwater and saltwater wetlands (in close proximity to each other) are absolutely necessary to the lives of white ibises. Habitat is crucial to the survival of species.
Species diversity sustains human beings too. We have learned, for example, how dangerous the mono-cropping of plants can be. When we cut down ancient forests and reseed them with a single species of yellow pine (good for lumber), we find that a sudden disease comes along to which they are all susceptible, and they are wiped out. That happened with the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840’s and again in the 1970’s, when a corn blight taught American farmers how disastrous it can be to plant a single species that lacks resistance to a new blight. Even genetically engineered corn with built-in resistance to all known diseases and insects carries no guarantee against threats that may yet develop.
Plant breeders often turn to wild relatives, therefore, when looking for new genes that will be resistant to diseases or able to grow under severe weather conditions. These wild relatives, usually found in a remote rain forest, are essential to agriculture as we know it. Human beings feed on a very narrow range of life-forms. The biogeographer Chris Park tells us there are 75,000 edible plants in the world, but only 20 of them are used widely as a food source by humans. Only 10 species of birds and wild animals provide the basic genetic material on which 98 percent of all livestock production in the world is based. Maintaining species diversity and widening our use of resources are increasingly necessary for our survival.
Yet we assume that many species are worthless, even as we pay lip-service to the doctrine of creation. Americans have an inordinate fear of insects, for example, and our excessive use of poisons to eradicate them is destroying all of us. E. O. Wilson at Harvard University insists that insects are the cornerstone of life on Earth. We could lose wolves and bears and hawks and still survive, he says, but we would not make it if we lost the insects. Yet we kill every bug we can, having been taught to hate them by our parents and by almost every science-fiction movie we’ve seen.
In The Voice of the Infinite in the Small, Joanne Lauck speaks of Americans’ phobic reaction to cockroaches. The oldest insect in the world is not nearly as dirty or disease-carrying as people think. Actually they do a lot of preening. Roaches are constantly cleaning themselvesespecially after they have come into contact with humans. Yet we spend $240 million a year trying to kill them with poisons that pollute the whole environment.
Or take maggots. During the Civil War, doctors learned that wounded soldiers coming in from battlefields with maggots in their open, decaying wounds often fared better than soldiers without them. The maggots ate only the decayed flesh and never harmed what was good; this prevented gangrene. They even excreted substances that were later found to accelerate healing. The diversity of insect life we find so horrifying in our mythic life actually contributes far more to our benefit than to our discomfort.
Utilitarian considerations alone make it to our advantage to learn to live with and preserve as many species as we can. None of them are worthless. Each one was created by the same hand of God that made us. Yet we often perceive God’s apparent delight in the diversity of species as a matter of needless excess. If we require, as humans, only 10 species of animals and 20 species of plants as our food source, why worry about losing a few superfluous species of beetles and bacteria? After all, entomologists have identified over 350,000 different species of beetles alone. What do we need them for?
The biologist J. B. S. Haldane, who devoted his life to the study of insects, was asked what a scientist like himself could infer about the Creator from the study of creation. He responded, a bit tongue-in-cheek, that God must have an inordinate fondness for beetles. Why else would God populate the world with more of them than any other creature, since beetles make up two-thirds of the total number of insect species?
What we respond to with indifference (if not fear and loathing), seeing the process of evolution as recklessly, even dangerously exuberant at times, may be theologically viewed as an example of God’s own multiplicity of desire. How do we recognize diversity, not as something threatening, but as an opportunity for loving all that God loves? How can we celebrate species diversity as a natural consequence of our perception of God as Trinity, an overflow of God’s desire into ever-increasing possibilities for relationship?
Trinitarian thinking has been at the forefront of theological research in recent years. Theologians influenced by liberation theology, feminist thought and ecological concerns have retrieved themes in the Christian tradition that stress the distinctive interrelationship of the three persons of the Trinity and the communion they share together.
Recent Trinitarian thought speaks of God less in terms of divine substance (defining God’s distinctive essence) and more in terms of relationship (a reciprocal interconnectedness that characterizes the divine presence). Talk about God, in fact, sounds remarkably similar to the language of quantum physics. In the foundation of matter at its sub-atomic level, we cannot get at the essence of things as we once thought we could. The tiniest particles do not seem to function as particles at all. We know them only by their traces, by the impact they leave on other things. At its deepest level the world is a matter of endless interdependence and unpredictability. We grasp things only in their relation to everything else. Similarly, God’s being cannot be sought in a rudimentary divine stuff of some sort, but rather in the hunger for relationship to which the doctrine of the Trinity witnesses.
Theologians like Leonardo Boff, Elizabeth Johnson and Jürgen Moltmann reach beyond the static (and patriarchal) patterns to which Trinitarian theology has lent itself in the past. They ask how the doctrine of the Trinity can maintain a creative tension between two principlesthe validation of difference (honored in the separate integrity of the Trinity’s members) and the realization of interconnecting unity (joining them in a love that spontaneously seeks ever new things to love). Learning to respect a diversity of species within the wholeness of a larger system, therefore, becomes aTrinitarianas well as an ecological question.
God is not self-absorbed in the solitude of a dominant, eternal One (cut off from relationship). Nor is God contained even in the narcissism of two figures ever facing each other (Father and Son, locked together in love, ignoring everything else). God is rather, as Boff suggests, the eternal spilling-over into a third person, the Spirit who forces the other two to turn their gaze from themselves in another direction, into an outpouring of love and relatedness that cannot be stopped. God is a community of differentness bound together in unity. The Trinity continually seeks new webs of interconnectedness, while at the same time remaining separately and wholly itself. God is Wisdom/Sophiacreating, liberating and gracing the world as Mother, Child and Spirit.
Precise language about the nature of the Trinity is impossible. Who can presume to recount the inner workings of the divine being? Even Augustine had to admit, I can experience far more than I can understand about the Trinity. God’s innermost being is not the conceptual, solitary and nonrelational entity that Arius wanted to affirm back in the fourth century (when the Trinity was first defined), but is much more like a dance of desire. Hence the Eastern Church used the word perichoresis to describe the interpenetration of the members of the Trinity. God’s deepest essence is a shared exchange of love (a chore-ography, a dancing around) welling up from the center of God’s hidden life, an expression of God’s excess and exuberance of joy. As Meister Eckhart put it, when the Father laughs to the Son, and the Son laughs back to the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, the pleasure gives joy, the joy gives love, and love gives itself forth in the Holy Spirit, ever finding new things to love. An impulse to shared joy and mutual attractiveness springs naturally from the divine being. The more things there are to love, the happier God is. Diversity, exorbitance and surplus of beauty are the natural expressions of a Trinitarian God.
The evolutionary biologist Adolf Portmann observes an ostentatious display of beauty in plant and animal life that is often more than functionalmore than what is needed to attract a mate or astound an enemy. Ten miles deep in the ocean’s abyss are strange blind creatures illuminated with some of the most lustrous colors imaginable. And for what purpose? They cannot even see one another. It is almost as if their glory were created for its own sake! As if the universe had its own compulsion to celebrate, to make a spectacle of itself even when no one is watching.
Marvelous shades of color are found inside the shells of abalones. The feathers in the tail of a peacock display an incredible surplus of beauty, a wanton exaggeration (certainly more than is needed to arouse the interest of the average pea hen). It witnesses, said Alphonso Lingis, to the sheer overabundance of nature itself.
If scientists recognize this excess of beauty as a mystery, Christians might ask, What is this but a testimony to God’s endless and overwhelming exuberance? The mysteries of creation, in their own outrageous way, give praise along with us to the wonder of God’s glory. The Trinity delights in all its varied communications of itself, seeing its beauty replicated in every species. Each one turns God’s longing back onto its source, sharing in the dance of desire from which everything comes.
All this summons us to the celebration of genetic diversity in a world that thrives (and a God that thrives) on dissimilarity and difference. If the world suffers at our hands, yearning with us for a restored creation given to multiplied splendor, the doctrine of the Trinity demands an ethical practice that honors difference within the lively exchange of a loving community.
It requires that we protect species diversity by preserving endangered habitats, by supporting free access to seed banks and the extension of the Endangered Species Act, and by confronting the threat of terminator seeds genetically manipulated to be sterile (making farmers around the world dependent upon agribusiness conglomerates).
We can think our way into the future by remembering the seed martyrs of Leningrad. When the Germans invaded Russia in 1942, they put the city of Leningrad under siege. Over 600,000 people starved as enemy troops cut off supplies. Inside the city’s Vavilov Institute, the best Russian geneticists had spent years collecting heirloom seeds from all over the world. They had preserved seeds from primitive varieties of wheat in Afghanistan and Ethiopia, bags of rice from species that had long ago died out in China. The Russian scientists stayed at the Institute throughout the siege, guarding the seeds from rats and destruction. Fourteen of them died of starvation, surrounded by small bags of rice they could have eaten. These scientists felt an enormous responsibility to preserve their seeds for future generations. Species diversity was a truth they died for, and because they did, we have strains of wheat and rice that can carry us into the new millennium.
What do we honor in our efforts to maintain all the marvelous diversity we can? Can we see diversity as a longing deep within God’s own heart? The world of God’s design is rich in dissimilarity. Yet it functions as a vast homeostatic system, balanced and interlocking, a play of overlapping and unified fields (from quantum physics to biology). We inescapably live in a web of interconnectedness that mirrors the Trinitarian mystery.
The Australian ecologist Bill Mollison uses the word permaculture to describe the necessary integration of human life into the natural world. He searches for human habitats and food production systems that mimic the patterns found in nature. If waste were handled with an eye to the operation of the entire system, he argues, the refuse of one part could become the food or habitat of another. This is how the biosphere itself recycles its materials without generating waste.
An example is the Khanya model of community development found in South Africa today. It organizes village life around a point where three intersecting circles overlap that represent worship, agriculture and animal life. One circle encloses a church without walls, the second a garden and the third a cattle corral. The altar stands at the center where the three converge. In this Trinitarian pattern, each sphere is joined to the others. Cow manure fertilizes the garden. Mulch feeds the cows. Rain water from the roof over the church fills a tank that supplies cattle, garden and people alike with water for drinking, farming and baptisms. Everything is connected.
Even more impressive are examples of the same principle operating on an urban/industrial level. The ethicist Larry Rasmussen describes an experiment in Kalundborg, Denmark, on the North Sea, where a coal-fired power plant used to empty its spent steam into the bay nearby. But after a communitywide effort inquiring into how waste could be recycled, the steam is now redirected to an oil refinery nearby (to help with cleaning), to several greenhouses (to warm the plants), to a fish farm (where the fish grow more rapidly in warm water) and to 3,500 town residents, who no longer have to run oil-burning heating systems. At every turn, what once was waste is now recycled in multiple ways.
These examples of ecological thinking follow the pattern of food webs in nature itselfinterrelating everything, feeding waste and excess back into the health of the larger system. They model the dance, the perichoresis, of the Holy Trinity. If we will survive as a family of species in this bio-sphere, the patterns of ecological behaviorthe house-rules by which we live together in the oikos (the home) of this worldwill have to imitate the exchange of love and the reciprocity that characterize God’s own innermost being. This is what the Holy Trinity can teach us best.