Review by Daniel Perett
I cannot be the only tired congregant who has occasionally wondered what the story of the Creation in Genesis is for. Many of us are taught that the spiritual meaning of the text is obvious, and we often read through it with careless familiarity. One Easter Vigil, though, a parishioner at my church rose by candlelight and recounted each day of the Creation as a true storyteller would, pausing in wonder before phrases like “He also made the stars.” The sense of awed delight that she shared has remained with me ever since. But what place is there for wonder at all creation in our daily lives as Christians? In For the Love of All Creatures, William Greenway offers a moving reflection on the devotion that we ought to embrace toward all creatures, a devotion simultaneously idealistic and realistic, that encounters both joy and sorrow as it lives with grace in a fallen world.
Greenway describes his book as a meditation, and that is how it should be read. He is writing for all people, Christian or not, who are “seized by love for all creatures.” Leaving aside any questions of scientific accuracy or scriptural authority, he invites readers to be informed by the love they feel for each creature as they enter into the first nine chapters of Genesis. This allows him to explore many Christian teachings with imagination and emotion, avoiding theological debate. In God’s unilateral promise not to repeat the flood, for example, Greenway finds a proclamation of unshakable grace and its role in our world. As he proceeds through the beginning of Genesis, Greenway slowly builds a picture of the most basic reality in which we live, one that he never demands we accept as true, but which becomes increasingly compelling.
Greenway’s focus on creation is especially important because, as he reminds us, we all hold beliefs about the ultimate nature of existence. These beliefs, whether literally accepted or not, have an effect on our other ideas and on how we feel and live. Contrasting Genesis with the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish and with Hobbes’s Leviathan, Greenway shows us not only what is unique in Scripture’s portrayal of our existence, but also what has resulted from an acceptance of Hobbesian materialism. For example, he argues that while the identity that is based on loving relationship in Genesis leads to a sense of connection with all of creation, the influence of Hobbes has led to an ever-increasing sense of loneliness as identity became isolated from relationship in Western thought.
The role of human beings is, naturally, central in many readings of Genesis. Taking care to avoid anthropocentrism, Greenway explores what it means for human beings to imitate the God of creation. Since God takes delight in his creation, Greenway says, we too ought to approach every creature with delight and love. More broadly, we may choose either death in self-centered domination of nature or life in caring dominion with all of God’s creatures.
Greenway’s portrayal of a life full of love for all creatures may seem impossibly idealistic. He freely grants that it is idealistic, but not naively so. Noting that the Creation narratives reached their final form in the shadow of the Babylonian captivity, while the flood in Genesis unleashed horrifying devastation, Greenway identifies the beginning of Genesis as simultaneously idealistic and realistic. He then turns from the story to the experience of anyone who is truly seized by love for all creatures, who will feel deeper joy but also deeper sorrow.
For the Love of All Creatures raises questions for further thought. First, Greenway is remarkably careful not to tell the reader what to do. Instead of asserting, “We love,” he says, “We awaken to being seized by love.” Throughout his meditation he speaks of passive blessings that come upon us. A sympathetic reader may often be tempted to respond, “But what should I do?” Second, Christian readers will need to consider how to incorporate this love for all creatures in their spiritual lives because Greenway makes one very great omission: he does not talk about love for God. A love for all creatures, beautiful as it may be, seems to suffer a great emptiness if it is not taken up in love for the Creator. Nonetheless, it is no criticism of a moving meditation to note that it raises more questions than it can answer. Greenway’s reading of Genesis invites us to meet all of the world with wonder and love, seeking grace even in times of sorrow, and to become more fully alive and more authentically human than we had ever been before.
Daniel Perett is a scholar of late classical and early Christian rhetoric and received his doctorate in medieval studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2013.