THR Web Features   /   November 4, 2021

The Wisdom Hypothesis

Why environmentalists might find Sophia more helpful than Gaia.

Matthew J. Milliner

( Gaziantep "Gaia" Mosaic. Zeugma Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Driving from Illinois to Maine through rural and urban communities in the summer of 2021, I witnessed a divided America made manifest in countless competing lawn signs and symbols along the way. The most aggressive heraldry emerged somewhere in Pennsylvania, where an American flag blended into a Confederate one, soon followed by a similar flag somewhere in Massachusetts, in which the stars and stripes faded into a rainbow. Each seemed to demand a full fusion of country with cause.

But division is not the whole story of this continent. In the same summer, driving from Illinois to northern Ontario, I came across a community whose signs betrayed—visually at least—what appeared to be perfect unanimity. What brought this rural town together was opposition to a plan to bury nuclear waste deep beneath it. Sign after yellow sign on homes and farms were emblazoned with the three-triangled nuclear symbol, offering variations on a theme: No Nukes, Stop Canada’s Nuke Dump, Not in My Aquifer, Save Our Farms, and, Is it $afe? All, I assume, were part of an attempt to elevate long-term environmental sustainability over any profit the town would gain from serving as the repository for radioactive waste. 

That nuclear energy is preferable to fossil fuels seems evident enough, and I would not suggest otherwise. But one of its costs is the problematic disposal of spent fuel, and this Canadian community (either now or perhaps in the future) seems to be have been appointed to pay that price. As urban affairs scholar Noah Toly explains in The Gardners’ Dirty Hands, the environmental movement, of which Toly counts himself a member (and which I do as well), “is not prone to exposing the tradeoffs, tensions, limitations, and instabilities at the heart of its own project. It is, rather, disposed to mask them” (10). Which is to say, nuclear energy may be superior to other forms, but its use is not without tradeoffs.11xNuclear energy “shifts the risks from the incidental to the accidental, from climate change to nuclear meltdown, from a near certainty that many will bear relatively low and diffuse costs to a possibility that some will bear relatively grave and concentrated costs associated with a meltdown or a dirty bomb created from unsecured spent fuel” (42). And here I had driven right into one of the tradeoffs. 

Whether this burial is advisable or not, I was impressed by a community that was so visibly prioritizing the environment and future generations over immediate financial gain. It made me wonder whether there might be a nearby temple to the Greek pagan goddess and personification of the earth known as Gaia. Surely these villagers were up to date on the thesis, first proposed by the English scientist James Lovelock (b. 1919), that the earth is an exceptional, self-regulating organism. Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis” has been embraced by environmentalists worldwide, but rural folk (we are told) generally don’t take to environmentalism. What, then, could possibly explain the opposition of these small town citizens to nuclear waste disposal in their backyards? Were they unexpected adepts of the cult of Gaia? I found no evidence of that. Nor did it seem that the Gaia hypothesis originator would have too much sympathy for these townsfolk anyway. In his defense of nuclear energy, Lovelock wrote, “We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. Nearly one third of us will die of cancer anyway.”

But in my bootless search for a temple to Gaia, I did come across a gorgeous church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. One of Ontario’s architectural gems, the Church of the Immaculate Conception was constructed by German immigrants a century and a half ago, and it still sits on a hillside above the town whose name, Formosa, is Latin for beautiful. Affixed to the church and overlooking the city is a statue of the Virgin, sculpted, like the church itself, from locally quarried stone. Reflecting on my discovery, I conjectured that it was Mary, not Gaia, who inspired this town’s resistance to the waste-burial plans.

I would not be alone in such conjectures. Philosopher and prolific environmental writer Roger S. Gottlieb has persuasively argued that religious adherents “are among the most committed and most persuasive activist voices on environmental issues.”22xSee also Katharine Wilkinson, Between God and Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). Similarly, in The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands, Toly notes that “religious imaginaries may prove a powerful force for a flourishing future….”(85). When grappling with complex environment dilemmas, Toly turns not to Gaia but to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s non-self-justificatory action, to the cross and to the symbol of the Virgin Mary, “the New Eve, the new ark of the covenant, a symbol of hope, new beginnings, new creation”(17). The evidence and efficacy of such traditional religious resources in service to environmental thinking was confirmed by what I found during my drive though Ontario, where the figure of the Virgin Mary—or even more precisely, the Biblical concept of Wisdom that Mary in many ways represents—seemed more splendidly present than any attestations to the influence of Gaia.

Detail of Icon of Saint Sophia, the Wisdom of God. c. 1700. Cathedral of Saint Sophia, Kiev, Ukraine. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, the entire Niagara escarpment, known sometimes as the “Giant’s Rib,” is dotted with so many magnificent shrines like the one in Formosa that it seems as if the giant is Wisdom herself. However farfetched that might sound, I would propose that Wisdom offers all of the benefits of the Gaia hypothesis but none of its shortcomings. In the Bible, to begin with, Wisdom is not herself divine. She is “the beginning of God’s work” (Proverbs 8:22) without being herself God. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams calls Wisdom a sort of “eternal feedback” in the Godhead (80). She preserves God’s transcendence while also animating the world with interconnected purpose. Represented both as the feminine Binah and masculine Chokmah in Jewish mysticism of the kabbalah, and in a variety of ways in Christianity (whether the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit, or Christ himself), Wisdom offers a monotheistic alternative, or at least complement, to the Gaia hypothesis. But to make that case, I need to explain how Gaia hypothesis first took shape.

The Gaia Hypothesis

That story begins back in 1965, when the British chemist James Lovelock was observing the planet Mars at a NASA site in California and trying to determine whether there was evidence of life on that planet. Comparing the red planet to his own in such a sustained way primed Lovelock to “look on the earth as an organism, or if not an organism, as a self-regulating system”(5). Lovelock and his colleague Lynn Margulis turned to pagan antiquity for a metaphor to make this point. They learned that the ancient Greeks referred to Gaia as the “great communal being” made of “all creatures on the earth, animals and plants, including man.” So they decided to name this self-regulating organism “Gaia”(13).

The reaction of the scientific community to the Gaia hypothesis, with Richard Dawkins leading the pack, was skeptical, even hostile. For many, it smacked of theism. As one critic asked, “Will tomorrow bring hordes of militant Gaia activist enforcing some pseudoscientific idiocy on the community, crying ‘There is no God but Gaia and Lovelock is her prophet’?”(33). Nevertheless, the general public embraced the concept, some no doubt finding it a respectable proxy for the mysterious workings of God in nature; others, a suitable rebranding of the Romantic ideal of Nature or of the holistic visions of Anthroposophy.33xThe influence of Anthroposophy on Lovelock, through his neighbor the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies) was profound. In this acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Godling praised “our earth, our mother, Gaia Mater, let like a jewel in space… we are children of that great blue white jewel” (185). Lovelock flatly denied such mystical associations. And even though he described his childhood as “marinated in Christian belief [which] still unconsciously guides my thinking and behaviour”(181), he insisted that his thesis “sort of precludes religion almost. It’s the atheist’s dream in a way.” Nevertheless, Lovelock considered the theory a way to fill the “moral vacuum” that science left behind: “Gaia,” he declared, “is important because it gave us something to which we were accountable.” Lovelock even went so far as to say that his hypothesis “begins to veer into that area previously occupied by religion”(182).

Eventually, mainstream science softened its take on the hypothesis. Summarizing the shift, Michael Ruse wrote that there was “something wholesome about nature that the hard-line Darwinian misses” (118). Even the famous Oxford evolutionary biologist William Hamilton, the thinker behind Dawkins’s “selfish gene” thesis, seemed to come around (162–169). When increasing scientific openness to the Gaia hypothesis merged with a vocal (if still numerically small) neo-pagan community, Gaia grew even stronger. If not fully accepted (for how can science rule on theological matters anyway), the Gaia hypothesis has certainly graduated from the realm of pseudoscience (218).44xUltimately, Ruse shows how science is incapable of even ruling on questions that entail extra-scientific judgments such as determining which deities among historic pantheon’s are appropriate: “[M]odern science, shorn of teleology and value, simply will not allow this kind of vision within its borders” (218).

Smuggled Monotheism

But if the Gaia hypothesis has become somewhat more acceptable scientifically, or at least more fashionable, scholars in the humanities should be quicker to detect an ill-suited match of method to metaphor. Even defenders of the idea today such as Bruno Latour admit that Gaia in the original Greek context is “a figure of violence, genesis, and trickery, a figure that is always antecedent and contradictory”(83). Pagan goddesses, it does not take a lot of reading to discover, are frequently fickle and vindictive. Overall, their cults were created by men to support male-centered societies. It should therefore come as no surprise than many modern women, whether traditionally religious or progressively feminist, prefer not to be associated with them. “Merely replacing a male transcendent deity with an immanent female one,” explains Rosemary Ruether in Gaia and God, “is an insufficient answer to the ‘god-problem’”(4).55xMore recently, Ruether concludes her extended study by suggesting that, with exception of the cult of Demeter, “concepts of goddesses bear the clear marks of classist and, indeed, royal ideology. Creating these goddesses was the work of men and women of the royal and priestly classes, reflecting their interests and validating their roles. Once cannot ascertain a decisive difference between the imagining of men and women in these classes.” Ruether, Goddesses and the Divine Feminine (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 301. Moreover, if original sources show Gaia to be an arbitrary force, why should we not assume—as many in fact do—that she is set to shake humans from the planet like so many noxious lice?66xLovelock once suggested as much, but has lately softened this stance, claiming that the earth may be correcting itself. “[H]e now sharply criticizes prophets of doom, agreeing that while global warming is occurring, it is not happening as rapidly as [propagators of “green drivel”] say. Organisms fight back” (221).

But if one believes in the possibility of human-driven environmental change—anthropogenic global warming, for example—polytheistic possibilities are really not very helpful at all. Although slapdash caricatures may pin the blame for environmental catastrophe on the Bible, more careful scholarship reverses this understanding. The University of Chicago historian Tikva Frymer-Kensky explains:

The statement in Genesis that God created humanity to rule the earth has often been taken as a license for human beings to do whatever they want with nature. In the Bible, it clearly does not mean that. On the contrary, all of nature is seen as dependent upon the actions of humankind (105).

Most of us, whether we are Jewish or Christian or neither, now take such responsibility for stewardship of the earth for granted, agreeing that human pollution actually makes a difference and that we should be held accountable for it. But ancient thought before the Bible was entirely different.

For example, in the poems of Ennheduanna (23rd century BC), En-priestess of the moon-god Nannna at Ur, the goddess Inanna was depicted as a ferocious, rage-drunk warrior who devastated the lands who would not worship her, without offering any explanation at all, let alone any warning (64-65). But in Biblical thought, humanity mediates between God and nature. Accordingly, Frymer-Kensky writes, “the ultimate responsibility for what happens to the natural world rests on the behaviour of human beings towards nature, towards God, and towards each other” (105). Insofar as self-declared pagan environmentalists think human change can thwart environmental catastrophe, they are drawing (often unknowingly) on funds from the Biblical account.

The Greek goddess Gaia may have softened her predecessor Inanna’s violence somewhat, but only slightly. “What is certain is that she is not a figure of harmony,” explains Latour. “There is nothing maternal about her,” if we have in our minds anything resembling maternal love (82). Her defenders today rejoice that she is “totally secular”(82). Perhaps they imagine that, as she inspired the Titans to castrate their father Uranus (37), she will do so for the big oil companies, and not (an equally plausible outcome) turn upon environmentalists as well. But if the world at large is growing more religious, an appeal to a figure that excludes the far more numerous monotheistic adherents, and which is perceived as hostile to them, is unlikely to galvanize anyone but academics, neo-pagans and Nones. Moreover, Gaia is a demonstrably exclusive term in other ways as well. An invention of the Greeks, she is—to put it flatly—Eurocentric.

From Gaia to Wisdom

Lovelock may already have realized this deficiency. He is no longer embarrassed by theological language. “It is time,” he writes, “that theologians shared with scientists their wonderful word, ‘ineffable’; a word that expresses the thought that God is immanent but unknowable”(222). But theologians, it turns out, have a far better word than that: Wisdom, who is so often connected to the Virgin Mary. There is even an image in Byzantine art in which Gaia, emerging from the earth, appears to pass on the baton to the garden-dwelling Virgin, who bears her earth-centered devotion far more successfully (see 271 or fol. 147r). In such images, rich with reverence for nature, Mary incorporates all that Gaia offers, but does so within the matrix of monotheistic love.

The religious congregations that dot Ontario—whether Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant or Jewish—will all be familiar with the following passage from the Book of Proverbs:

The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His Way,
Before His works of old.
I have been established from everlasting.
From the beginning, before there was ever an earth [i.e. Gaia].
When there were no depth, I was brought forth. (Proverbs 8:22-24)

This passage offers the precise balance of immanence and transcendence that Lovelock is after. The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon goes ever further toward describing the holism that the Gaia hypothesis (less successfully) evokes.

She is the mobility of all movement;
She is the transparent nothing that pervades all things
She is the breath of God,
A clear emanation of Divine Glory….
She does all things.
Without leaving Herself
She renews all things.
Generation after generation She slips into holy souls,
Making them friends of God and prophets (Wisdom of Solomon 7:24–27).

What is happily absent in Wisdom is the arbitrary cruelty. The fact that the Wisdom texts were composed partly in response to the cult of Isis in ancient Alexandria makes it even more fitting that she be reintroduced to take on the role we have rather too thoughtlessly assigned to Gaia today.

Unfortunately, some Gaia enthusiasts display an amusing inability to grapple with the sophisticated and extended history of Jewish and Christian contributions to science. Perhaps fearful that they might actually have to alter their convictions, they limit their attacks to young earth creationists—a modern and largely reactionary movement. But Wisdom beautifully represents the millennia-long tradition of monotheistic scientific engagement. As many scholars have pointed out, there is a reason the scientific revolution happened in Christianized Europe first.77xTo choose just one example, see Edward Grant, God and Reason in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

That is not to say that the notion of Wisdom is religiously partisan. She was in existence from the beginning of all creation, long before Judaism or Christianity gave her a name. Wisdom (like parallel concepts such as the Logos or the Tao) is necessarily global and finds expression in all religions, including Graeco-Roman religion. The Sophianic dimension of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism are embraced, not repudiated, by a robust Biblical account of Wisdom (317–365).

Which is to say, while Gaia never had the chance to absorb the wider monotheistic traditions, monotheistic Wisdom certainly has room for Gaia.88x[T]he creaturely Sophia, the Spirit…is that life giving principle which pious paganism, without knowing Him, worshipped as the “Great Pan,” as the Mother of the gods, Isis and Gaia. This Spirit is that which the impious paganism of our own day confess as living and life-giving matter in the blindness of its “hylozoism,” or attempts to capture in a test tube as the “life force.” Sergius Bulgakov, Boris Jakim, translator, The Comforter (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 199. I am in debt to Austin Holmes’s wonderful paper “A Proposal for Bulgakovian Ecology” at the recent Bulgakov Conference, “Building the House of Wisdom” (September 3, 2021), for directing me to this passage.

And then there are the Indigenous communities. After all, it is the First Nations, specifically the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, who have galvanized resistance to the burial of nuclear waste in Ontario, with (currently) 85 percent of them resisting the move. We might think that Gaia would be a fit for such cultures. But Graeco-Roman paganism does not have the four-hundred-year-old tradition of interaction with the First Nations of North America that Christianity does. As a result, the Indigenous churches and galleries of Ontario brim with imagery personifying the Biblical notion of Wisdom.99xFor a rich history of Ojibwe interactions with Christianity, see Christopher Vecsey, Paths of Kateri’s Kin (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1999), 207–239.

Small Marian sites like the one I saw in Formosa, Ontario are already multiplied the world over, often preceding civilizational encroachment. These countless shrines are one answer to Bruno Latour’s dated charge that “the Christian religion has made the created world contemptible”(201). There is no need reason to refute Latour, however, because he refutes himself, citing Pope Francis’s “virtually providential” encyclical in a footnote on the very same page that he makes this assertion. What one scholar calls “green Mariology” teaches that “to set oneself at war with nature is to fight against one’s own being, its sacred origins in God, and God dwelling within it”(ix; 134). Mary as Wisdom represents a cosmology, addressing “modernity’s atrophied ability to think symbolically with the subtlety and holism of religious consciousness in past times” (101). It is Wisdom, far more than Gaia, who speaks through the residents of towns like Formosa, and who speaks for future generations that do not yet have a voice. For “wisdom opened the mouths of those who were mute, and made the tongues of infants speak clearly” (Wisdom of Solomon 10:21).