Ruether on the Western Scientific Narrative

Yesterday, I shared Rosemary Ruether’s critique of three creation accounts: Enuma Elish, Genesis 1, and Plato’s Timaeus.  In this post, I will share Ruether’s problems in Gaia and God with Western scientific accounts, or popular renditions of them.

First, Ruether does not like “the popular presentation of ‘wild’ nature, particularly under the influence of social Darwinist views of evolution, [which] has tended to present nature as ‘red in tooth and claw,’ the world of carnivore animals killing other animals” (page 55).  According to Ruether, such a picture promotes “might makes right,” and the notion that “the strong have a right to prevail over the weak” (page 55).  Ruether has a problem with narratives that support aggression, and that includes the popular Darwinian narrative.

But Ruether doesn’t just dislike this narrative because it promotes aggression.  She also thinks that it presents a rather skewed picture of reality.  She says that it “greatly exaggerates the place of meat-eating in nature, in relation to the total food chain of nature, where most food is provided by plants” (page 55).  For Ruether, it is not the case that the strong carnivores are the “king[s] of the forest.”  Rather, “all the diverse animal and plant populations in an ecosystem are kept in healthy and life-giving balance by interdependancy” (page 55).  A herbivore cannot eat all of the plants, for example, for then he will starve.  Small animals have an ability to “elude their predators”, which keeps in check “the numbers of large carnivores” (page 56).  Different plants and animals have evolved ways to protect themselves—as some plants have evolved “unpleasant tastes, thorns, and nettles,” and there are animals who can camouflage themselves (page 56).  All plants and animals depend on “humble fungi and bacteria, who break down dead plants and animal bodies and recycle the nutrients into the soil, allowing for the renewal of food production from its primary producers, the plants” (page 56).  Even the humblest in nature play a crucial role.

And, while nature indeed has competition, there is also cooperation.  Ruether notes that a “particular bird may be allowed to ride on the back  of a large bison because it picks off and eats the insects that plague this animal”, and that “Animal groups form families of mutual care that help the young, protect, and share food with each other” (page 56).  Why should we depict nature as an arena of ruthless competition—and use that picture to justify our own ruthlessness—when, even in nature, unchecked ruthlessness leads to self-destruction? As Ruether astutely states, “the human cultural concept of ‘competition’…imagines the other side as an ‘enemy’ to be ‘annihilated,’ rather than an essential component of an interrelationship upon which it itself depends” (page 56). Ruether would probably agree with Mufafsa in The Lion King: there is a “circle of life.”

Second, Ruether dislikes the mechanistic picture of the Big Bang and ecology.  For Ruether, “mechanistic thought…reduces the complex and living interconnection of nature to its component parts [and] prefers nonliving parts to living and dynamic wholes” (page 57).  Ruether continues to say, “This bias disposes scientists to describe the extraordinary mystery of life’s origins as the Big Bang, a term that suggests a loud explosion, rather than choosing a term, such as the ‘cosmic egg’ or the ‘superabundant nucleus,’ that might put us in touch with the wonder of the very story that they themselves have uncovered” (page 57).  Ruether believes that there is a “masculinist bias” in the Big Bang narrative, in its “choice of a metaphor of destructive violence, rather than of gestation and birth” (page 57). Regarding ecology, Paul Ehrlich calls it the “machinery of nature.”

Ruether does not care for this lifeless conceptualization of nature, and she says that “We need scientist-poets who can retell the story…of the cosmos and the earth’s history, in a way that can call us to wonder, to reverence for life, and to the vision of humanity living in community with all its sister and brother beings” (page 58).  Ruether especially likes a term for earth that she uses in the title of this book, “Gaia,” which was used by biologists Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock.  Gaia, according to Ruether, is “a living organism of complex interdependencies and biofeedback, linking biota and its ‘environment’ of soil, air, and water” (page 56).

I like this chapter because it helps me to identify more with some feminist and post-modernist criticisms of science: that even science can be sullied by societal bias.  Ruether does not appear to take that to mean that there is no accurate or objective account of reality, however, and I don’t go that far, either.  She just thinks that how that reality is described can be influenced by society’s biases and prejudices.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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