Plastic and Reconciliation by Faith Glavey Pawl

Jonathan Rutledge
Tuesday 30 July 2019

The other night some seabird got into my rubbish bin. All my dirty trash, all my single-use plastic, spilled into our garden, on display for the neighbors to see.  Now they know I am chief among plastic sinners.  At this moment in time, such exposure is especially embarrassing. We are awash with news of the fake.  By that I mean real news of all of the fake stuff we’ve let escape from our private lives and into the seas around us.  For a variety of reasons (Sir David Attenborough and his team surely get credit here), the world is suddenly animated around the problem of plastic pollution.  I’ve thought more about plastic in the last six months than I have in the rest of my life.

There are over 150 metric tonnes of plastic trash in the oceans now.  According to some speculations, the amount of plastic trash in the sea might outweigh fish by the year 2050.  It is difficult to let those estimates sink in.  Shocked by images of choking sea creatures and beaches plastered with waste, the public is disgusted with plastic, especially in single-use form.  Though there is plenty of disagreement about how to rectify the problem, we are in an odd moment of broad cultural agreement that something has gone very wrong, at least with what we’ve done with our plastic.

In his address to the 2019 Logos conference on the topic ‘Reconciliation, Divine and Human,” Jurgen Moltmann suggested that the conference theme was in need of expansion. Not only should Christians concern themselves with being reconciled with God and with fellow humans, but with the natural world as well.  Moltmann and his commentator at the conference, Richard Bauckham, argued that Christian theologians can no longer ignore ecological concerns.  The global environmental crises we face call out not only for action but for concentrated theological and philosophical attention.  Right now.

Consider two poles of reaction to the alarm these luminaries rang.  On the one hand, the claim that Christians are called to enter into the work of reconciliation with the natural world might strike some as an obvious platitude.  On the other extreme, the suggestion (and the urgency with which it was offered) might sound like the misguided appropriation of a secular cause du jour, peripheral to the concerns of mainstream theology and philosophy of religion.   I don’t know if anyone actually affirms either of these extremes as true (most attempts to characterize ‘sides’ in these kinds of culturally complicated issues just trade in caricatures).  Both poles are problematic.

To treat the need for reconciliation with the natural world as a theme peripheral to mainstream theology is to ignore the biblical witness to the scope of God’s work of reconciliation in salvation history.   Reflecting on that witness in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict says,

Nature speaks to us of the Creator (cf. Rom 1:20) and his love for humanity. It is destined to be “recapitulated in Christ at the end of time (cf. Eph 1:9-10; Col 1:19-20). Thus it too is a “vocation.” Nature is at our disposal not as “a heap of scattered refuse,” but as a gift fo the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order, enabling man to draw from it the principles needed in order “to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15).[1]

The recapitulation of which Benedict speaks, laid out in the opening of Ephesians and Colossians, is the unification of all things under heaven and on earth in Christ.  Whatever priority should be assigned to reconciliation with God, fellow humans, and the natural world (and I’m happy to say it’s in that order), we have good reason to think all three kinds are part of the Christian vocation.

But think of the other pole. If, on the other hand, we treat the claim that Christians ought to concern themselves with reconciliation with the natural world as obviously true, we leave out the important question of what on earth it actually means to be reconciled with the natural world.   I mean, it sounds good, but what exactly are we saying? Reconciliation is (at least) something to be achieved between parties, a kind of restoration to or enactment of right relationship.  Typically, we take the parties involved to be agents—beings or collectives capable of acting in ways that aid or impede movement toward a reconciled state.  It’s interpersonal.  We can begin to get some sense of how reconciliation extends past the human boundary when we consider that the world is teeming with non-human animals with whom we can reconcile.  But speaking of reconciliation with the natural world at large, what does it mean to be reconciled with something non-agential?

The answer depends in part on what we take our relationship with the natural world to be.  Are we simply talking about attitudes and dispositions to act in certain ways toward the natural world? Do we mean our place in the causal nexus linking us to all of creation, our particular nodes in an ecological web? Perhaps we mean some covenantal or otherwise normative office we inhabit in relation to nature. What is it, exactly, we are trying to repair?

One easy answer is that the call to repair our relationship with the natural world is just a call to repair the world—to clean up the messes we have made.   I suspect the call to be reconciled with the natural world goes much deeper than simply fixing the bad consequences of our missteps and sins (though, of course, it will also require such repair).  Reconciliation has to do not just with treating symptoms but addressing underlying causes. The kind of consciousness-raising Moltmann and Bauckham are calling for is a charge to reimagine what it actually means to relate to the natural world in the first place.  This is a deeply theological and philosophical question.

To take a stab at the question, I want to return to the problem of plastic pollution.  I do not wish to reduce the issue to a theological metaphor that dilutes the call to practical action.  But what I want to do is to reuse the idea of plastic, or perhaps recycle it, as a way to frame an important question: when we consider what it means for humans to be reconciled to the created world, what difference do Christian theological commitments make to how we think about the plasticity of creation?  It’s clear that we cannot treat the matter around us as a “heap of scattered refuse.”  But just how should we think about what we can and cannot do with the natural world?

Plastic is not evil (it saves lives and is tremendously useful for keeping us safe and sanitary).   But plastic is weird.  We take naturally occurring substances, heat and mix and stretch them (or something) and come out with new stuff that is radically different in form.  I think the word is actually ‘polymerize,’ but I don’t know what that means. Naïvely, I think of the manufacture of these synthetic goods as an attempt at creation ex nihilo.  Maybe there isn’t anything wrong with that aspiration in itself.  The trouble really seems to be that what we make then outlasts us by hundreds of years, and when we let it slip out of our grasp, we do not have control over what is going to happen with it, for a very long time. The story is very old, actually.  We take something good and make it as malleable as we can so it will better suit our purposes. But we take things too far, or don’t think about what the long-range consequences will be, and things then snowball.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t be manufacturing material things that will long outlast us.  I’m very grateful for the legacies of art, architecture, and infrastructure left to us by our forebears all over the world.  But those were things left behind for our good use. In mismanaging the production and disposal of plastics, we are leaving behind bits of creation that we have rendered effectively useless.

Humans have always made waste, and our choices about how we transform natural resources into useful goods have always had an impact stretching beyond our immediate reach.  The environmental issues we face today are so much more complicated though, and so much more consequential, because of what environmental philosopher Dale Jamison describes as our high density, high technology society.[2] Our private acts of consumption, individually innocent enough, now collectively have a kind causal reach our forebears could have never imagined.  Humans and animals will suffer tremendously because of lots of small causal contributions to problems like plastic pollution and global warming.  As Jamieson notes, this makes it hard for us to hold on to the ways we have traditionally conceived of individual and collective moral responsibility for the impact of our consumptive behavior.  What this calls for, he argues, is a reexamination of our fundamental values, and a commitment to the development of the virtues required for us to navigate the new crises we face.

I think Jamieson is right.  The current environmental crises present us with an opportunity to reexamine how we relate to the natural world and to be open to seeing the ways that relationship is distorted.  Just considering one swath of material reality—the sheer volume of plastic waste that’s escaped our attempts at containment—can help us think twice about what we are doing with the goodness of creation.  Have we stretched matter too far in order to suit our needs? When we take from the earth, are we putting anything back in?  Are we attentive to what Benedict calls the “inbuilt order, enabling man to draw from [nature] the principles needed in order ‘to till it and keep it’”?  If we are to be reconciled with the natural world, we must ask ourselves these questions.

There isn’t a lot of analytic practical theology, which is something I hope will change in the near future.  In particular, analytic theologians should start considering the kinds of ontological and ethical questions about our relationship to the natural world that too often get pushed outside the purview of ‘mainstream’ theology.  The questions are interesting in their own right and intimately connected with doctrines of creation, sin, reconciliation, and last things. There is plenty of great eco-theology out there from which we have much to learn, and to which we could contribute the characteristic advantages of the analytic approach. Given the current climate of popular interest in the environment, it would be a shame to let this moment go to waste.   Behind the waves of anxiety and activism propelling young people to fight for the planet are many philosophical and theological questions we might be uniquely suited to answer.  Perhaps we could get Attenborough to narrate it.


Dr Faith Glavey Pawl has been teaching philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, since 2008, where she primarily teaches Ethics.  She received her PhD from Saint Louis University in 2014, where she wrote a dissertation under Eleonore Stump on animal suffering as part of the problem of evil. Her current researches ask questions about animals and the environment in the light of Christian philosophical theology   She also writes about resources in medieval philosophy, especially in Aquinas, for addressing questions about environmental values.  She is a member of the Executive committee of the Society of Christian Philosophers.

[1] Pope Benedict, Caritas in Veritate, 2009

[2] Dale Jamison, “Ethics, Public Policy, and Global Warming,” Science, Technology, and Human Values. Vol 17 (2) Spring 1992, 139-153.


Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash

Grid Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

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