We inhabit a world slowly coming to grips with the increasingly urgent challenge of climate change. In this time of ecological crisis, daring to believe that God’s love extends to all creation, not just humanity, and that the value of the surrounding world doesn’t depend wholly on its usefulness to us, is a costly yet necessary risk. It’s a time for remembering that we are part of a vast, complex, and remarkably interconnected world.
This is the sort of perspective offered up by the agrarian writer Wendell Berry. In one of his essays, he writes, “All, ultimately, are of a kind, belonging together… in this world,” adding that, “From the point of view of Genesis 1 or of the 104th Psalm, we would say that all are of one kind, one kinship… because all are creatures” (2015, p.96).
In his 2016 book, Agape Ethics, William Greenway echoes this affirmation and gives it deeper philosophical justification by drawing on the works of 20th century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (p.39). Both the substance and even language style of Greenway’s writing reflect the deep imprint of Levinas on him. Throughout the book, he seeks to nudge readers towards coming alive to “having been seized by love for every creature,” without, of course, overlooking the pain and suffering that is also present throughout creation (pp.4-7).
Being Seized by Agape
Greenway is pushing against a view of reality where humanity, rather than living as part of a larger creation, is understood to be essentially above and apart from nature, a view of reality where things are valuable only insofar as they are useful to humanity, (pp.14, 24). It comes as no great surprise to see that this framework doesn’t lend itself easily to viewing nonhuman creatures as having much intrinsic worth.
In contrast to this view, he is convinced that “love, love in the sense of altruism or agape, lies at the heart of moral reality, and agape opens us to the most profound and meaningful dimensions of reality” (pp.3-4). It seems to me that his perspective here is quite near to the way Frederick Buechner puts it at one point in Secrets in the Dark, where he writes that the good news announced and brought to life by Jesus leads us to discover that “the power that holds all things in existence from the sparrow’s eye to the farthest star, is above all else a loving power” (2006, p.161). Though Buechner uses more explicitly christocentric language for it, I think this is similar to the primordial reality of agape that Greenway wants his readers to be seized by as they go about their daily lives.
It’s in his detailed discussion of what it means to be seized by love for other creatures that Greenway sets his attention most thoroughly on the insights of Levinas (p.39). Commenting on Levinas’s “Face” language, Greenway writes:
The Face [in the Levinasian sense] is not the physical or historical face of any other, but that by which people are seized with concern… One might feel this most dramatically in moments of crisis. You are the first on scene at an accident and a child is injured and weeping. You watch the news and see stunned and suffering survivors of the tsunami… you do not react to an idea that you should help, you do not decide to be concerned. You find yourself immediately seized by the Face of the child, by the Faces of all those wounded suffering, pleading faces. (p.39)
In such a moment, Greenway makes clear, we are faced with a spiritual challenge: will we deny and resist or acknowledge and act in response to our having been seized?” (p.43). As the nature of his question makes clear, he believes our relationship to agape is responsive. We don’t create it. Rather, it’s something we respond to and receive as a gift (p.143). I think that’s why he insists on using the potentially clumsy-seeming phrase “having been seized by” so much. Whereas Levinas restricted his ascription of “the Face” to fellow humans, Greenway makes his most distinctive move in this book by expanding the concept of “the Face” to include all creatures—not just men and women, but also cats, dogs, and pine trees (pp.41-43).
Seeing the Faces of all Creatures
To help demonstrate the truth of this assertion, he asks readers consider how they would respond to a series of situations. First, he asks if we would have any problem breaking an old stick on the ground if he handed it to us. “You may give me an odd look, but unless you’re a particularly disagreeable person, I imagine you’d break the stick to humor me” (p.41). But what if, instead of a stick, he handed you a small cat? That’s a completely different matter. Why? Greenway suggests it’s because, “You have been seized by the sacredness of the life of the cat” (p.42). Hence, you see that to harm it is a violation, an act of violence that hurts a fellow creature and also diminishes one’s self. On the next page, Greenway brings up one more hypothetical situation:
Imagine not a stick and not a cat, but a young tree, perhaps a maple sapling. I take you over to the sapling… and I say, “rip it out of the ground so it cannot possibly recover.” My hunch is that few people would do this to humor me. The sense of violation is not nearly so great as in the case of the cat, but nonetheless there is a sense of violation, and one would need more of a reason than simply to humor me to destroy that sapling. One has been seized by the Face of the sapling. (p.43)
Cultivating a sensitivity to the Faces of all the creatures we live alongside is clearly no easy task. Many of us struggle just to survive our busy weeks, which makes working to develop such an awareness seem out of the realm of possibility. Nevertheless, Greenway argues that:
We are called to the struggle whether or not success is ensured or even possible. Our inability to be perfect is no excuse for not being as good and loving as possible, no excuse for not walking on earth as lovingly as possible. (p.48)
For me, the kind of attentiveness Greenway speaks of is a spiritual discipline one settles into over the seasons of life, seeking to grow into it as a way of being in the world rather than viewing it as a set of tasks to get out of the way. In terms of challenges to Greenway’s Levinas-inspired agape ethic, some worry that his affirmation of the moral worth of all creatures threatens the distinctiveness of humanity, while others voice misgivings about the spiritual challenge involved in recognizing even more suffering in the world, which seems to unavoidably come with awakening to love for the rest of creation.
In response to the first concern, he asserts that love for marginalized people and nonhuman creatures grows out of the same place: “It is not the case that love, concern, and respect for other animals competes with love, concern, and respect for humans. To the contrary, it is the same love and concern and respect that one has, or not, for all life” (p.33). He also makes a distinction between the moral and the ethical, asserting that while all of creation is of inestimable moral value, that doesn’t sweep aside the task of ethical reflection, which involves the messy task of ethical judgment. He argues that if forced to choose between saving the life of a boy or cat, we should both decide to save the boy and fully mourn the painful loss of the cat (pp.127, 130-31). Indeed, one of the final sections of the book more fully addresses this challenge of working through these thorny issues.
The second concern, about struggling to affirm life while becoming aware of even greater depths of pain in creation, is real and understandable. While Greenway delves into this challenge some in Agape Ethics, he addresses it in a bit more depth in another book he published in 2016, The Challenge of Evil: Grace and the Problem of Suffering. That being said, the thrust of Greenway’s perspective on the matter in Agape Ethics is that while turning away from the suffering and evil in creation may at first seem like a good option, it isn’t sustainable in the long run, and such a denial also entails closing oneself off from meaningful dimensions of reality, which is an unhealthy spiritual path (pp.3-5).
Rather than trying to suppress awareness of evil and suffering, Greenway thinks it better to remain awake to the painful dimensions of existence, accepting that being seized by love for all creatures entails both joy and sorrow. He judges such a way of life more meaningful and in-touch with reality. In support of this, he cites the voice of Albert Schweitzer, who observed that while reverencing all life makes living more difficult in many ways, it also means that existence will be “richer, more beautiful, and happier. It will become, instead of mere living, a real experience of life” (1933, p.268).
Agape Ethics is a passionate, timely, and thought-provoking piece of philosophical spirituality that defends the significance of joining in God’s love for all creation. Greenway’s extensive engagement with Emmanuel Levinas gives the book a distinctive approach to the issue of how humans can relate to the rest of creation with love and gratitude and without looking away from deep suffering. Even for those who disagree with some aspects of his proposal, Greenway makes for an uncommonly creative and passionate conversation partner. If there was more time, it would be intriguing to widen the horizon and consider Greenway’s agape ethic in relation to the Franciscan tradition and even Martin Buber.
Now more than ever, it’s worth recognizing the importance of caring for all of creation. For those persuaded of this like myself, Agape Ethics is a welcome source of encouragement. I’m glad I read it.
Other Works Cited
Berry, Wendell. Our Only World: Ten Essays. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2015.
Buechner, Frederick. Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006.
Schweitzer, Albert. Out of My Life and Thought. New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1933.