Merton and Ruether: Toward a Contemplative-Prophetic Ecotheological Anthropology

James Robinson, Fordham University


The impulse to critique anthropocentrism has been at the center of the field of ecological theology for decades, especially due to the influence of Lynn White Jr.’s 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” This dissertation begins by decisively decentering this impulse, driven by the insight that critiques of anthropocentrism can have problematic implications, and can function as inadequate means for identifying the roots of our eco-social crisis. It identifies and grapples with alternative roots of the eco-social crisis, a crisis that manifests in broken relationships among human beings, between human and more-than-human beings, and between human beings and the divine. In order to identify and grapple with these roots, this dissertation undertakes a close study of two key thinkers: Thomas Merton and Rosemary Radford Ruether. The move to place their bodies of work into conversation builds on their own conversation, which unfolded within the wider matrix of relations known as the “Catholic Left,” and through the nearly 40 letters that they exchanged from August 12, 1966 through February 18, 1968. This dissertation argues that Merton and Ruether aid us in tracing the eco-social crisis to both the inner depths of human beings (through Merton’s concept of the “false self”) and to the social systems within which human beings are embedded (through Ruether’s concept of “systems of domination”). Merton uniquely aids us in envisioning a transformation of the false self through contemplative surrender to God, and contemplative enmeshment in God’s good creation, and Ruether uniquely aids us in envisioning a transformation of systems of domination through prophetic resistance. This dissertation contends that these interlacing transformations are most potently pursued in concrete communities that actively incarnate ecotheologial ideals. To this end, it culminates in an analysis of Agape Community, a lay Catholic community in Hardwick, MA. Agape forms and is formed by people who blend contemplative practice with prophetic action in order to transform both the interior and the structural roots of the eco-social crisis.

Subject Area

Theology|Environmental Studies|Religious history

Recommended Citation

Robinson, James, "Merton and Ruether: Toward a Contemplative-Prophetic Ecotheological Anthropology" (2020). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI27959448.