Daniel P. Castillo

In teaching Christian environmental ethics to undergraduates, I begin each semester by surfacing several of the dimensions of the planet’s contemporary eco-social emergency: climate change, the erasure of biodiversity, ocean acidification, social and economic inequity, environmental racism.[1] Further, I note that the stresses these dimensions of the emergency inflict upon the biosphere are likely to continue to intensify in the coming decades. The collapse of the dominant global politico-ecological ordering of the planet is plausible, if not unavoidable.

The foremost task of contemporary Christian environmental ethics, I suggest to my students, is to discern how to live responsibly before God, neighbor, and earth, within and in response to the context of the planetary emergency. While this discernment requires empirical analysis and practical judgments, it is also a labor of the utopian imagination: the work of conceiving a new world and new ways of living in relation to the world.

With this last point in view, I have developed the practice of taking my ethics students into the Catholic chapel on campus during one class session each semester. The students walk around the building’s interior worship space and reflect upon its architecture and design. Specifically, I invite the participants to consider what the structure of this space might indicate about the relationship between the Christian imagination and the concerns of environmental ethics.

Consistently, students in these class sessions observe that there are no windows at eye level within the space of worship. Instead, the apertures are elevated some twenty feet above the ground, requiring the worshiper to incline her eyes away from the earth and toward the heavens in order to get any sense of the world outside of the liturgical space. Moreover, these windows are adorned with stained glass images depicting the visages of various saints from the Roman Catholic tradition. As such, the windowpanes refract the light that passes through them so that even one’s vision of the heavens is obscured.

Within the worship space, as the students observe, the community of faith is cut off from the outside world. Affirming the observations of my students, I suggest that the building is designed to facilitate the experience of fuga mundi, a flight from the world.

For the discourse of environmental ethics, building designs like that of my university’s chapel raise a number of concerns. Indeed, it is fairly obvious how the architecture of the chapel can present itself as evidence for the validity of the various environmentally-minded critiques commonly leveled against Christian thought. The space of worship appears to degrade the value of creation, directing the attention of the worshipping community away from the world and toward a spiritualized and other-worldly object of faith. In the same way, the building’s design can be interpreted as implicitly endorsing a pernicious form of anthropocentrism, one that would place the human person over and against the rest of the created world. It appears, then, that the design of the chapel can encourage ways of seeing and acting in the world that would exacerbate rather than temper or remediate the onslaught of the planetary emergency.

There is, however, another way to understand the sensory break that the chapel’s design creates.

Consider that the fuga mundi of liturgical space, at its best, is not meant to function as an escape from creation. After all, it is amidst some of the Christian faith’s earliest controversies that Christian doctrine rejected the creation-degrading tenets of Manichean and Valentinian thought.[2] Instead, properly understood, the liturgical space’s fuga mundi is meant to create a break from the sin of the world. More precisely, the spaces and practices of liturgy are meant to construct a matrix of liminal space where the worshiper can discern, amongst other things, the ways in which their own desires, logics, and patterns of life have conformed to the sinfully destructive ways of the world.

Consider, for example, that the contemporary neoliberal political economy, a world-system that appears to be on the verge of buckling under the weight of its own contradictions, is organized through what Pope Francis has described as “the technocratic paradigm.”[3] This paradigm operates according to an instrumental logic that reduces complex patterns of eco-systemic life to the commodity of “land” so that the wealth of the land can be readily extracted and accumulated by powerful human and corporate actors. This same logic is also applied to complex cultural patterns of human life, working to reduce the value of human life to the commodity of labor. The rise of this paradigm, which has culminated in the establishment of a globalized market society, has had catastrophically damaging effects upon the health and functioning of the biosphere.[4]

Moreover, as the technocratic paradigm arose within the history of modernity, it melded with the anti-Black racist imaginaries produced by Western colonialism. This ideological amalgamation has resulted in the standardization of patterns of environment racism throughout the world. In other words, as the technocratic paradigm optimized the exploitation of the soil and all that comes from the soil in the service of profit, the paradigm simultaneously concentrated the costs of ecological degradation in Black and Indigenous communities of color. Thus, as James Cone presciently saw two decades ago, “The logic that led to slavery and segregation in the Americas, colonization and Apartheid in Africa, and the rule of white supremacy throughout the world” likewise produces the destruction of the earth and biotic life. “It is a mechanistic and instrumental logic that defines everything and everybody in terms of their contribution to the development and defense of white world supremacy.”[5] The logic that Cone describes exercises inordinate influence in shaping the world today.

In light of Cone’s observation, it appears that fuga mundi, far from being an obstacle to developing a responsible lived Christian environmental (and social) ethic, is a necessary element of the process of beginning to imagine ways of serving and caring for the soil and all that comes from it. Human persons and communities must create critical distance from the structures, logics, and aesthetics of the “modern world-system.”[6]

Thus, the liminality that liturgy and the architecture of sacred spaces can produce, when set against the necropolitics that organize the political ecology of the world, functions as an offer to choose life. This liminality is an invitation to affirm the mystery and dignity of human life, to affirm the sacramentality, beauty, and gift-character of the whole of creation, and to identify and denounce the milieu of anti-Black racism and environmental racism as sinful and evil. The flight from the sin of the world is, in short, an opportunity to re-imagine our relationship to the world, so that we might go forth and, however partially, incarnate those imaginings by working to transform our swords and spears of domination into plowshares and pruning hooks of service and care (Is. 2:4).

To be clear, the break from the world that is potentially created by liturgy and liturgical space does not necessarily produce a more healthful ecological, social, or political imagination. The space and practices of Christian worship always contain problems and contradictions. As H. Paul Santmire observes, despite its early rejections of Gnostic thought, the Christian tradition’s ecological promise is best characterized as ambiguous.[7] More recently, Willie James Jennings has shown that within modernity the Western Christian imagination developed into a “diseased social imagination”—a social imagination that itself produced and reinforced notions of anti-Black racism and desacralized understandings of place.[8] In light of Jennings’s argument, one can question whether liturgy and liturgical space create much of a break at all from the sin of the world. Indeed, given the diseased character of the Western modern Christian imagination, it should be presumed that this sickness, at least in part, is also present and at work in the spaces and rituals of (especially White Western bourgeois) Christian worship.

Like salvation itself, then, Christian worship is both a gift and a task. With respect to the latter, liturgy and liturgical space require the continual cultivation of the prophetic vocation bestowed to all communities of faith. Within these spaces, it is vital that the people of God learn to name sin rightly, articulating both formally and concretely the ways in which evil distorts and disrupts the human person’s intimate communion with God, neighbor, and earth. The task of rightly naming grace is likewise integral to the prophetic vocation so that communities of faith can more fully recognize how they might cooperate with the salvific movement of the Spirit in history, as God continues to labor to restore communion among God, neighbor, and earth. It is through the practice of the prophetic vocation within the space of worship – the denunciation of the sin of the world and the proclamation of the healing that has occurred and is to come – that the liturgical space can realize its potential to become a fuga mundi in the healthiest sense of the term.

In closing, I return to my observation regarding the stained-glass figures adorning the windows of my campus’s chapel. In an obvious manner, as I noted above, these figures obscure the outside world. In a more profound sense, however, the light that passes through these icons is meant to unveil the deepest truth of the outside world. It does so by illuminating images that bear witness to God and God’s creating and liberating relationship to the world. At their best, then, the stained-glass images that adorn the chapel do not obscure creation. Rather, they transfigure creation, thereby illuminating its truest character.

The function of the stained glass, then, provides a key insight into the task of liturgy today. In this time of planetary emergency, liturgical space and prayer – through their structure, proclamation, song, ritual, and sacrament – ought to facilitate the transfiguration of the imaginations of persons and communities of faith. Indeed, in this moment of pending and realized catastrophe, the transfiguration of the Christian imagination is vital so that communities of faith might better perceive the things of this world that must be confronted, denounced, and mourned, and likewise discern all of that which is to be cherished, protected, celebrated, and proclaimed.

In short, the task of the liturgical fuga mundi is to produce a new way of seeing, so that when persons and communities of faith return to the world, they might more fully take up the work of healing and repair, not only in faith but also in hope and love.

Valarie Lee James

Daniel P. Castillo is Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola University Maryland. His teaching and research explore the intersection of liberation theology and environmental ethics. He is the author of An Ecological Theology of Liberation: Salvation and Political Ecology (Orbis Books, 2019), which received College Theology Society’s “Best Book” Award for 2020. He is currently working on a second monograph, tentatively entitled Confronting the Age of Cain: Christian Faith in the “Anthropocene.

[1] For an overview of several of these environmental factors, see Will Steffen, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney, and Cornelia Ludwig, “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration” The Anthropocene Review 2 (2015): 81–98.

[2] See for example, Francis Watson, “In the Beginning: Irenaeus, Creation and the Environment,” in Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives, eds. David G. Horrell, et al (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 127–139.

[3] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, esp. Ch. 3. http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

[4] For a brief discussion of the relationship between the technocratic paradigm, market society, and Western colonialism, see Daniel P. Castillo, An Ecological Theology of Liberation: Salvation and Political Ecology (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2019), 141–161.

[5] James Cone, “Whose Earth Is It Anyway?” Cross Currents 50 (Spring/Summer 2000): 36.

[6] Of course, persons and communities that are marginalized by the structural dynamics of this system often maintain a keen critical awareness of the system by virtue of their own experiences. On this point, see Sandra Harding, “Standpoint Epistemology (a Feminist Version): How Social Disadvantage Creates Epistemic Advantage” in Social Theory & Sociology: The Classics and Beyond, ed. Stephen P. Turner (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), 146-160.

[7] H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature : The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1985).

[8] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 9.