Writing as Inquiry: A Journey into Christian/Environmental Cultures
My curiosity was originally piqued by the climate activist clergy members I kept meeting on marches: those who talked about activism as an integral expression of Christian faith; those whose spirituality seemed political, embodied, gritty and serene all at the same time.
So how was it that I ended up describing the one experience I most hoped no-one on the OESE course would find out about? Perhaps I took Turner-Vesselago’s (2017) advice to “go fearward” (p. 28) a little too literally.
I decided to interrogate the relationship between the ‘Christian’ and the ‘environmental’ in the Christian/environmental cultures that I had experienced, such as Christian environmental activist groups. Where did the two sides challenge, contradict or support one another?
I wanted to “work from insider knowledge” to “create nuanced … descriptions of cultural experience” (Jones et al. , 2013, p. 33), so I chose autoethnography:
- ‘auto’: foregrounding personal experiences;
- ‘ethno’: the culture or community that these experiences emerge from and reflect;
- ‘graphy’: the “craft of representation” (Adams et al., 2021, p. 3), in my case writing prose and poetry.
In particular, I used writing as a method of inquiry (Richardson, 1994), rather than simply writing about an inquiry. This, as I learned, is not a process to be underestimated. Every new insight I gained led to more questions that led to further insights and further questions which pushed the original ‘new insight’ into the background. It was a thread that pulled me in, alarmingly with no promise of ever leading to completion.
The Universe as ‘The Body of God’ (McFague, 1993)
I began by writing parallel narratives about my childhood ‘conversions’ to God and to the Earth, similar to those of eco-theologian Sallie McFague (2013) who then questioned their separation within a Christian framework.
McFague (1993) argues that since “no human words can describe God” (p. 23), then all “descriptions” of God are not to be taken literally, but are actually metaphors. She asks, “What if we dared to think of our planet and indeed the entire universe as the body of God?” (p. 19). This metaphor “insists on the most radical transcendence and the most radical immanence” (McFague, 2013, p. 19) simultaneously, that is, both the ‘everywhere-and-above-everything’-ness of God and the ‘right-here-right-now’-ness of God, present even in the leaf that I am holding.
This is an inherently non-dualistic perspective, requiring “both-and” thinking (Rohr, 2013), in which spirituality and physicality are inseparably intwined to the point of being (part of?) one another.
So that required a dive into…
One benefit of a metaphor that prioritises non-dualistic thinking is its capacity to move beyond hierarchical dualisms. In her book ‘Feminism and the Mastery of Nature’, Eco-feminist Val Plumwood (1993) proposes that hierarchical dualisms are societal and thought structures mapped onto a male-female dualism in which two aspects are held as opposites and then placed in a hierarchy, such as mind/body, master/slave (p. 43). This structure, she argues, inherently includes one side dominating and the other undergoing oppression (p. 3). Yet imagining God as both spirit and body takes us beyond domination and oppression as an organising pattern of life. Instead everything is physical-spiritual; all human and more-than-human bodies are made of Earth, that is, made of divinity.
And yet … I couldn’t get far in ecofeminism without being confronted by critiques of Christianity, specifically regarding colonial-missionary practices which have destroyed cultures, people and more-than-human beings, playing a significant part in bringing about the current ecological crises. Within an autoethnographic methodology, I needed to inquire: where does this critique meet my own experiences?
So it was that I found myself writing about the one episode of my past that I would most like to hide from an environmentally-engaged audience: my partaking in a Christian overseas mission trip that aimed to convert an Indigenous people group to Christianity.
“We must be honest,” (p. 265) writes Black feminist scholar Cynthia Dillard (2014) whose work I drew on throughout my dissertation. “We must tell the truth as we understand it. We must learn to listen to multiple truths, even if they … implicate us in the process” (p. 265). This was the challenge I took up in my writing, leading me to theorise the movement from ecological grief through honesty towards reparative action in terms of the religious concept of ‘repentance’. I still have so many questions, for example…
Whose grief do I pay attention to? And, how do we actually repair the harm we cause when we are so embedded in destructive systems?
The relationship I found between the ‘Christian’ and the ‘environmental’ in my experiences of Christian/environmental cultures was complex, and as Dillard suggested, required paying attention to multiple truths. Still I came away from the writing with a deeper understanding of, and commitment to, both of the component parts of the Christian/environmental cultures I was studying.
In the four months since finishing this dissertation, I’ve had opportunities to teach both non-environmentally-engaged Christian groups and Christian/environmental groups, based on my research.
The writing to inquire still draws me on.
Will it ever end?
Adams, T. E., Holman Jones, S., & Ellis, C. (2021). Handbook of autoethnography. Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429431760
Dillard, C. B. (2014). (Re)Membering the grandmothers: Theorizing poetry to (re)think the purposes of Black education and research. In N. K. Denzin & M. D. Giardina (Eds.), Qualitative inquiry outside the academy (pp. 253-267). Taylor & Francis Group.
Jones, S. H., Adams, T. E., & Ellis, C. (2013). Introduction: Coming to know autoethnography as more than a method. In S. H. Jones, T. E. Adams & C. Ellis (Eds.), Handbook of autoethnography (pp. 17–47). https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315427812
McFague, S. (1993). The body of God: An ecological theology. SCM Press.
McFague, S. (2013). Blessed are the consumers: Climate change and the practice of restraint. Fortress Press.
Plumwood, V. (1993). Feminism and the mastery of nature. Routledge.
Richardson, L. (1994). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (1st ed., pp. 516–529). Sage Publications.
Rohr, R. (2013). Falling upward: A spirituality for the two halves of life. SPCK Publishing.
Turner-Vesselago, B. (2017). Writing without a parachute: The art of freefall. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
About the author
Alice Codner graduated from the Outdoor Environmental and Sustainability Education MSc programme. She previously worked as a primary school teacher and outdoor learning leader in an area of high deprivation in London, where she started a school farm. She now continues her work in outdoor learning with school groups across Gloucestershire. In her spare time, she enjoys climbing trees, writing, swimming and discussions with friends.
Contact Alice for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org