What theologians and environmentalists can learn from Sufjan Stevens
Theology is at once about everything and nothing. In the search to speak rightly about the divine, one can touch on any subject under the sun. Generally, this ability can be a source of great joy. Yet speaking only for myself, there are few topics so disheartening, depressing and humbling as ecological theology. Disheartening because the scope of the ecological degradation caused by humans is truly overwhelming. Depressing because we, the species who create this destruction, are so often ignorant of even the most basic knowledge of the planet. Humbling because, as Elizabeth Johnson notes, the world and the cosmos are so wonderfully vast, complex and ancient.
The texture and variety of Stevens's new album creates liminal spaces between the sacred and the profane.
To borrow from Carl Sagan, our all-consuming concerns fall away when the speck of our planet is seen against the vastness of the cosmos and we realize that the fate of Earth rests upon us as a species working together. No one alone can fix it. From this vantage point, salvation, the eternal union of creation with the divine, seems incredibly far off.
These realities were at the center of this month’s annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Albuquerque, N.M., where I gathered with 340 other theologians to unpack the relationship between ecology and theology. David Hollenbach, S.J., the president of this year’s convention, suggested that President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States’ commitment to the Paris climate accord can be seen as objectively sinful because “it undermines the shared trust that keeps other nations committed to the accord, with potentially devastating consequences for the entire planet.” While so much more was said, this one quote from Father Hollenbach seems to offer a sum total of the relationship humanity has to the Earth. The Earth suffers because of our failure to recognize humanity’s collective responsibility for creation.
The same weekend, the independent record label 4AD released “Planetarium,” a collaboration between singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, composer Nico Muhly, The National guitarist Bryce Dessner and percussionist James McAlister. While the conceit of the 17 tracks is a meditation on the major celestial bodies of the solar system, the album is very much about humanity. The cosmos is treated not so much as a natural wonder as a source for myths that serve the drama of the human search for meaning. From the title of the album (Planetarium, a human-made structure) to the sweeping interplay of classical instrumentation and mechanized sound, the listener encounters the majesty of space through human filters. The texture and variety of the album’s soundscape creates liminal spaces between the sacred and the profane, the mundane and the cosmic, prompting us to consider how we finite creatures want to live in the face of the infinite.
As a theologian, whatever transcendent decentering the music accomplishes, I am most interested in Stevens’s poetic lyrics, which fans have long admired for their rich layering of Christian, Greek and Roman mythic imagery over the writer’s narrative storytelling and autobiography. In the final three-song sequence, the story of humanity is refracted through the light of our Anthropocene era. The instrumental “In the Beginning” leads into “Earth,” the penultimate, 15-minute track at the heart of album’s narrative arc. For all the meaning we cast onto the heavens, for all our “hallelujahs,” Earth is where “living things refuse to offer/ Explanations of their worth/ We in turn avenge the Author/ With paranoia and prediction/ Exploration, competition/ Ceremony, inner anguish/ Lord, I pray for us.” Humankind launches head first into labor and industry only to see too late the beauty of the Earth.
In the end, with “Mercury,” the final track, people are as quicksilver as the Roman god. There is no set answer, no known future for the many crises of our own design. But we are reminded that each person is a “Carrier, friend” of our divine and earthly histories, so “Where do you run?”
Like any effective work of art, “Planetarium” recasts the work we have before us, especially in these difficult times confronting the Earth. Maybe it would be better if more of us saw the project of theology itself as a planetarium in the cosmology of salvation. Then we might stand a greater chance of remembering, for the sake of creation, not to make too much of ourselves in the face of the infinite.