Routledge, 2000

ISBN 978-0415188340

Reviewed by Michael Colebrook  (abridged from the original)


As Anne Primavesi writes in her own preface, ‘the horizons of this book are uncommonly wide.’ This makes it difficult to do it justice in a brief review. It is not an easy book to read, but well worth the effort.

The German romantic writer Friedrich Schlegel said that ‘the sacred can never be seized because the mere imposition of form deforms it.’ In this book the concept of the sacred refers to the nature of creation in its relationship with the divine. It is set within the frame of a liberation theology for Gaia based on the gospels of James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis and Humberto Maturana. Theology has to adopt a wider horizon than the strictly human and reshape itself within the context of an evolving earth system in which everything is connected with everything else. Anne Primavesi quotes from a poem by Pattiann Rogers:  “Suppose I had never distinguished myself to myself from the landscape so that reaching out to touch a leaf of chickasaw plum or a spiny pondweed underwater were no different to me from putting my hand on my knee or pulling my fingers through my hair.” This highlights the paradox relating to parts and wholes. The act of supposing creates a distinction between I and the leaf, but there is also a whole within which the leaf is as much part of me as my knee.

We exist in a world that can only be ‘seized’ by complex, mul tidimensional descriptions: Anne Primavesi refers to them as ‘thick’ descriptions. And, based on the concept of landscape as the place within which things have their being and of which they are a part, she coins the terms SelfScape, SocialScape, EarthScape and PoieticScape as providing the dimensions within which descriptions may be based and which roughly correspond to our (and all beings) individual, social, biophysical and expressive (creative) experience of being in relationship.

The problem of distinctions and descriptions is particularly relevant in the evolutionary nature of the world. If all living things have evolved, as is now generally believed, from a single original organism that emerged from non-living precursors, then distinctions between different life forms have emerged as part of a continuous historical process and there are no boundaries in the dimension of time. Living things evolve together, involved in each other’s SocialScape and EarthScape in an incredibly complex coevolutionary nexus. The nature of relationships between living things and between them and the nonliving environment is such that there is no question of the system being determined by its history although it is inevitably set in the context of that history.

Anne Primavesi analyses the theological implications of these descriptions in relation to the marked anthropocentrism of mainstream Christian religion. As part of the development of a liberation theology she presents a critique of the view that biological evolution is driven almost exclusively by competitive processes and the way this has been carried over into the human SocialScape and used to justify the exploitation of humans and the natural world. She cites Maturana who emphasises the role of the non-living environment in the ‘selection’ of successful species and Margulis who highlights symbiotic and co-operative processes in the evolutionary story “The binding together of ontology and theology, of what we say we are and what we say God is, is called ontotheology.”

In the Christian tradition the predominant ontotheological model is the hierarchy. Things are ordered with respect to value in terms of their perceived nearness to God or usefulness to humans. Anne Primavesi highlights women and nature in particular as having suffered within hierarchic models. She argues that in the co-evolutionary, structurally coupled system, relationships and influences are recursive. All beings make a unique contribution to the overall scheme of things and have to be regarded as possessing intrinsic value.

We are brought finally to an attempt to ‘seize’ the sacred. Anne Primavesi claims that the sacred, ‘cannot be separated out from whatever we understand as the whole of existence’ … ‘we cannot reduce the sacred to any one manifestation of being, but must extend the concept to the whole dynamic system of relationships between God and the world.’ And the dynamics include death as well as life. She goes on, “this liberates the sacred from constraints placed on it by human logic until it encompasses the whole EarthScape“. We are pointed towards wider horizons than we can contemplate as being the only way we can ‘give God room, room to be God of the whole earth system: enchanting and terrible, giver of life and death.”