International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

A Feminist Cosmology: Ecology, Solidarity and Metaphysics

by Nancy Howell

Introductory Essay by Ann Pederson

In A Feminist Cosmology: Ecology, Solidarity, and Metaphysics, Nancy Howell uses a feminist methodology and a process-relational framework to explain the interlocking relationships between the human, God, and the created order (cosmos). Howell is a feminist-process theologian and philosopher whose leadership in the dialogue between religion and science challenges traditional Enlightenment notions of the human’s place in the cosmos. Instead of humans taking center stage, she sees them as one actor among many in a many-layered, ongoing drama. Within the broader discourse between science and religion, Howell places concerns about gender, class, race, and religious pluralism at the center of her work.

She draws upon process thought, a philosophical framework relying on the ideas of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, to shape her feminist world view which is primarily ecological and relational. As a feminist, Howell challenges patriarchal and sexist worldviews which are often embedded in both the scientific and theological ways of examining and knowing the world. Feminist and process thought share several characteristics: an emphasis on experience as a primary category for developing worldviews, the inherent value of nature, a critique of classical theism, the theory of internal relationships which may provide metaphors of relationships. An example of this would be human friendship. She also welcomes the critiques of white feminism from other kinds of feminist discourse, particularly those of womanist scholars.

Cosmology, for Howell, is the web of relationships that transforms the many (diversity) into the one (unity). Similar to the world view (metaphysics) of Whitehead and Hartshorne, she sees the metaphysical movement of the universe as creative advance – novelty emerges out of the relationship between past and present. Finally, a theory of relationships is the root-metaphor for the development of her construction theological ideas. She draws upon Sallie McFague’s use of Jesus as a root-metaphor for understanding God and God’s love for the world.

What does it mean for human self-identification and understanding to be situated in this vast cosmos, this web of inter-related relationships? First, it means that the cosmos is home for humans. This planet on which we live is situated within a much bigger domain and thus shapes the existential and ethical rights and responsibilities of humans to the rest of the world. An ecological framework must shape contemporary understandings of God and God’s relationship to the world. Nature has value of its own and is not simply the stage upon which humans act.

Howell points out that neither Whiteheadian nor feminist systems are closed, but are open for new thought and development. The humility that characterizes Howell’s constructive work is apparent in her use of both feminist and Whiteheadian ideas. Her proposal opens doors to other religions besides Christianity, other philosophical perspectives, and other liberationist practices. For Howell, feminist cosmology is a dialogical process and model that attends to all the details of the universe without imposing structures that exclude. Howell’s self-critical and dialogical methodologies take the religion and science dialogue in directions that challenge its participants and create new platforms for constructive engagement.