‘Come out from behind that thing!’ – the Aboriginal elder’s voice rang out powerfully as I was about to begin the Decade to Overcome Violence launch in Alice Springs. She was objecting because I was behind a lectern: another whitefella, as it were, standing over or apart from her. As it happened, in what followed, every blackfella who spoke also headed behind the lectern. I guess therefore it was probably that elder’s own personal issue. Yet I have never forgotten it. For, in a way, following feminist pioneers, it was a lived experience of what Indigenous scholars (such as Denis Foley, Martin Nakata and Aileen Moreton-Robinson) call ‘standpoint theory’.
Standpoint theory is a postmodern method for analysing inter-subjective and ethical discourse. For a standpoint is a place from which one sees the world. It thus helps direct both what we focus on as well as what is obscured. The specific circumstances of our standpoint then determine which concepts are intelligible, which claims are heard and understood by whom, and which reasons and conclusions are understood to be relevant and forceful.
Now, like any approach, standpoint theory is not without weaknesses. It risks, for example, generalising the experience of different peoples, and it risks suggesting an overly ‘essentialist’ character of particular genders, races, or other identities. Yet it is a powerful means in which marginalised groups can challenge the status quo. Indeed, as the feminist theorist Sandra Harding put it, it helps create ‘strong objectivity’, or strong inter-subjectivity. For when the perspectives of the marginalised and/or oppressed are included, we have more objective, or deeper inter-subjective, accounts of the world. This is vital to a richer, and more life-giving, ethics.
Spiritually speaking, standpoint reflections also lead to a richer ethical and doctrinal expression of Pentecost. For, in Pentecost, the Spirit of God is embodied, enlivened, and expressed through all created voices. As God’s voice puts it, through the prophet Joel, in our first reading tonight, ‘I will pour out my spirit on all flesh’: on old and young alike, male and female, not least slaves; and, the passage goes on to say, also through the more-than-human environment, by ‘portents in the heavens and the earth.’ True Pentecostal experience, it seems, is about true inter-subjectivity. All creation’s standpoints are voiced, held together, and contribute to the whole. Pentecost is thus a basis for a holistic, fully environmental, ethics. For Pentecost is so much more than we have often made it...
Last weekend, I shared a fabulous morning with Toowoomba’s Recognise community. As part of this, we were introduced by Murri elders to the Gummingurru sacred site, near Highfields. This is the best ancient stone arrangement site within two hours of coastal Australia. Yet its true significance lies in its standpoint, in the spiritual and ethical direction and meaning it still gives to today’s first peoples of our region. Let me offer two examples…
The first is the relationship of Aboriginal people to the cosmos. Are the stone markers on the sacred site related to the stars? - almost certainly, but not as we normally relate to them. We, typically, look into the night sky and record it from our own human standpoint. For the Gummingurru Murris however, for generations they have, as it were, risen into the stars for their standpoint: seeing themselves as part of the whole cosmos, not even just of the earth itself. This is a different approach to environmental ethics. For, secondly, at Gummingurru, Murris are encouraged to read creation, but in another way. When most of us peer into the night sky we look at the stars. Toowoomba Murris have however traditionally looked at the spaces between the stars. Where, at this time of year, we look for the Southern Cross, they look for the dark shape of an emu in the sky. And, when the emu is fully in place, they then know to collect the emu’s eggs. It is another way of seeing, and of acting, in the environment. Some of us see parts and light, and act upon them. Such a standpoint sees, and acts, on the whole of things, including the darkness and the mystery beyond our immediate human comprehension. This should not replace, but it should complement, our usual ethical approaches. For it leads towards a Pentecostal ethics: to a fuller Pentecostal knowing of ourselves in relation to all other creation. To recast our second reading tonight, it is a way to living in the Spirit ecologically.
There is no perfect human standpoint for environmental ethics. Yet a loving and just environmental ethics is possible with such Pentecostal wholeness of vision and the hearing of all voices, in their own language. Our bible and tradition can help us point the way, if we use them rightly, ecologically, with due attention to the best of reason and science. This is not by using the bible as some kind of divine ethical rulebook. Yet we need to draw on its powerful witness to the intrinsic value of creation in God, wrestling with life-giving concepts such as gift, covenant, Christ-like dominion, human dependence and co-creation. Above all, we need to read bible, tradition and reason with ‘ecological eyes’: adding this to the many diverse lenses through which we see God, thereby extending our divine empathy and imagination. An eco-standpoint is not God’s only standpoint, any more than any other. Yet, as part of the Spirit language of the cosmos, it assists deeper environmental ethics.
My Wellspring Community friend, the Catholic hermit-theologian Father Eugene Stockton, calls good environmental practice an invitation to contemporary ascesis. Tending a garden; choosing food and goods that are healthy, fairly produced and traded; fasting from excess, whether in consumption, transport or resources; reflecting deeply on the web of life; acting for ecological sanity: all these, he says, are spiritual disciplines for our day. Perhaps this is also expressed in re-reading our Galatians’ passage tonight with ecological eyes. For what does it mean to ‘live in the Spirit’, ecologically? What are the ecological fruits of the Spirit? What is eco-love, eco-patience, eco-self-control, and so on?
It comes back to our standpoint. In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a notable ecumenical truth is also true of our ecological relationships: namely that we will not love one another unless we know one another, and we will not know one another unless we meet one another. In terms of eco-mission and eco-ethics, this means that we will not truly love God, and truly live in the Spirit, until we pay better attention: fuller and more generous attention to all that is, through attentive science, attentive conversation and attentive presence. For science, and sustainability, and the sacred, belong together. That is why Indigenous people begin by knowing themselves as part of creation. At Gummingurru, the stones trace the cosmos and its purpose like a great cathedral (only stretched out on the land rather than rising into the air). It includes a large stone carpet snake, pregnant with five eggs. This lies adjacent to the young men’s initiation place, the cutting circle. It is a reminder that we live to nurture other life. The carpet snake is the Toowoomba region’s symbol of creator and the eggs are understood as the future ancestors. We (you and I) are now, in this land, the future ancestors come alive. So how will we read our land, the cosmos and our sacred traditions, so that other future ancestors to come will also walk in the stars and tread the earth with humility? As the great prophet of ecological ethics, the polymath Father Thomas Berry, observed: ‘the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. If we don’t get that, then we won’t get anything.’
Let us therefore live in the interweaving, dancing standpoints of the Holy Spirit, in the name of the One who shared true dominion as a loving servant. Amen.