Symposium Introduction

There is an iconic scene in Frank Herbert’s Dune when Stilgar leans over Duke Leto’s polished table and spits on it. Stilgar is a leader among the Fremen, the Indigenous people of planet Arrakis, where Leto has just arrived as the latest colonial overseer. Arrakis is now fief to House Atreides—of which Leto is duke—who seek alliance with the Fremen to ensure their control over the empire’s extractive economy, which hinges on the planet’s spice harvests. Leto has sent his right-hand man and swordmaster, Duncan Idaho, to live with Stilgar’s tribe and gain their trust in the hopes of forming a union between the two people. The scene is set for strained negotiation between native host and colonial interloper to determine how the settler colony will relate to Indigenous communities. Stilgar is self-possessed and assertive, qualities colonial authorities deem offensive. But, out of what appears to be a moment of political pragmatism, Leto acknowledges Fremen codes of custom, dignity, and honor. Stilgar responds by spitting on Leto’s administratively impressive desk. Witnesses erupt in outrage, but Idaho intervenes. Arrakis is a desert planet; water is the most precious substance globally. Idaho explains to the ducal cohort that sharing moisture is the deepest sign of respect on a planet that never sees rain. Idaho then approaches the table, shoulder to shoulder with Stilgar, and spits.

The scene dramatizes one of the primary ethical insights of Christiana Zenner’s revised version of Just Water: water discipline is at the heart of just human relationships. Because these relationships take place among different communities mediated by colonial power dynamics, the rationale for how to value and use water can be neither mere survival nor maintaining endlessly advancing economic profit if the goal is justice. Yet we white settler scholars cannot pretend we don’t come to the table holding the long end of the stick; water distribution is governed by white privilege. Indeed, Zenner works from within the Catholic context by which she arrives at the scene, a tradition that bears all the colonial presence and political machinations of the duke. Despite the history of structural and imperial violence, which Zenner acknowledges, her method asks: Is there a way, from within the tradition, to form just relationships through developing new disciplines? Is it possible for Catholicism to form the qualities of character we see in Idaho, characteristics shaped by practices and concepts that run counter to the values, perceptions, and habits developed in extractive economies? Can people form dual allegiances to both the dominant religious tradition that cultivated them and the Indigenous and subaltern communities whose flourishing embodies the horizon of justice? The answer to these questions depends on water.

Yet water as the focus for ethics is inherently slippery—both literally and metaphorically. Zenner’s concluding reminder to the reader is that ethics “cannot proceed except in light of plurality and contextuality, and ongoing revisability” (213). One of the primary reasons to be grateful for Zenner’s revised edition of Just Water is that it incarnates that ethical mode of revisability. On the one hand, it’s our institutional obligation to take seriously Zenner’s comment that the first edition aimed for her tenure committee’s approval. On the other hand, despite these all-too-common pressures of speedy production and faculty evaluation, Zenner acknowledges the opportunities and friendships that allowed for revision. Scholars frequently pay lip service to ethical complexities and nuances but rarely perform the unfinished nature of ethics with such appreciation. Zenner’s rationale for revision isn’t just trying to tighten up the argument against critical engagement but rather to expand the purview of justice to better articulate water as a universal right in different contexts. The elusive nature of water is captured in both the argument and approach.

What has been added to the new edition indicates not only the nature of water but also that of justice. The primary changes are: focusing on Laudato Si’—Pope Francis’s second encyclical exhorting people to “care for our common home” in light of global environmental degradation in an era of anthropogenic climate change—to develop the ground on which Catholic Social Teaching (CST) argues for water as a human right; incorporating settler colonialism and environmental racism in local instance of water injustice, and; a critical engagement with “Anthropocene” as a concept for analyzing both the unequal distribution of benefits and responsibility for harms among global human communities. All of these add complexities and openings to her original insights into water justice rather than substantiating rhetorical closures to further engagement.

Both the substance and form of revision builds on Zenner’s original work to reveal and resist. She offers a resource that gets us to simultaneously investigate things we take for granted while drawing from religious traditions to argue against economically dominated narratives of water’s value. Zenner’s contribution is using theological ethics to show both the connections water draws between human health, social location, and ecological conditions as well as the justice to which those connections should be ordered. CST constitutes the book’s primary source material but revealing these connections and idea of justice is accomplished in a way that models how it can be done in other traditions. It behooves all moral traditions, especially ones possessing inherent privilege, to investigate how universal concepts and commitments are not just manifested but also shaped and filled out in particular local contexts. Zenner exemplifies this investigation by asking, how do individual and communal social practices in specific times and places dealing with water issues simultaneously affect and expose how we understand and communicate that which all of humanity is due—clean drinking water?

Using CST to answer this question adds to both the theological ethics community as well as to economics and political studies of water. The descriptive element to the book demonstrates how the Catholic tradition might value water differently from, and thereby resist, neoliberalism. Zenner goes through the documents of her tradition to identify eight ethical insights and imperatives for water justice. Taken together, she forms a theological and ethical framework that could be seen as taking the lead among organizations addressing right-to-life issues generally and clean water specifically. Zenner makes a compelling case that the Catholic tradition—despite its institutional and moral failures—is a leader for water justice.

Take, for example, how agriculture and climate change are predominantly water issues. Uneven and declining access to adequate water for drinking and farming emerges from how instantiations of unsustainable agriculture and climate change order relationships based on economic values—or when the non-human aspects of the relationships are valued economically. When done so, the connections between humans and their non-human communities are ordered by structures of injustice, which means they require ethical remediation. Or, to take another example, witness the disproportionate burden women bear for finding clean water. Water isn’t neutral but instead conveys the politics of gendered social relationships.

Insofar as water discipline is both at the heart of water justice and human relationships, moral formation is as significant for addressing water issues as it is for maintaining religious traditions. Zenner’s case in point is that theological ethics—forming habits and disciplines based on religious sources—changes the value of water, which changes the vision and discourse on its proper access and consumption, which changes the nature and definition of responsibility for just distribution and use. The flip side to this formulation is that political and economic challenges to this value, vision, discourse, and responsibility are, among other things, moral challenges. Zenner makes aspects of fresh-water crises and quotidian responsibility for those crises visible, using theological and ethical resources to shape how the crises is described and should be addressed.

Victor Lam and Leila Harris question this last claim, noting that CST provides a helpful framework for what Zenner sets out to do—namely, make visible the power hidden in water and frame the discussion accordingly—but are left to wonder how does that shape interreligious, or even intra-Christian, conversations? How is CST implicated in places where different religious practitioners work side by side and where those affected most by water problems are determined by different religious commitments? They home in on Zenner’s rallying cry for the importance of context to both ask about the religious contexts of environmental issues as well as some engagement with CST’s potential limitations. Overall, they press Zenner to get more from the CST framework, which they see as underappreciated and fecund for investigating concepts of justice and responsibility in ways that could apply or be in dialogue with other environmental and social justice issues.

Jacob J. Erickson applauds Zenner’s attentiveness and memory for complexity and multiplicity of experiences in fresh-water crises, which demonstrates the potential—not just the difficulty—of water as a “slippery” topic for justice. Erickson uses the metaphor of ice as an image for problematic structures, namely, those possessing “the domineering logic of the One,” for investigating ethics of water. That kind of solidity—whether it takes the form of the Catholic tradition or the concept of the Anthropocene—prevents both fulsome analysis of slippery ethical issues as well as moral responses that adequately address complex details and uneven experiences of those issues. Erickson urges Zenner to push CST further to interrogate concepts of rights in addition to other practices and concepts that shape fresh-water crises, but also to see how those interactions and intersections impact CST-framed ethics as well. Does the framework get shaped as it shapes, or is it as frozen and unidirectional in the way Catholic universality typically gets understood?

Frederick Kirschenmann asks if there is a larger story in which these crises and experiences are placed? Is the Catholic tradition held within a larger, evolutionary narrative? Kirschenmann suggests telling the story of CST’s framing of water as Zenner outlines it within the encompassing narrative of “the great turning,” in which humans are beginning to take responsibility for the health of the planet. What happens when the health of the whole rather than right-to-life is the main plot in the narrative of water?

Duke Leto knows water discipline is important on Arrakis but for power not justice; he says, “Let us not rail about justice as long as we have arms and the freedom to use them.” Zenner’s gift to those of us advantaged enough to take water for granted, in blissful ignorance of what our unfettered access costs less privileged communities, are tools to change the orientation of our perception and practices of water from power to justice. Empire and its industries will fight tooth and nail to protect this access to fresh water and prevent us from seeing it as a human right rather than a commodity available to the highest bidder. To stand in solidarity, shoulder to shoulder, among water protectors and those with neither arms nor the freedom to use them against the powers that be is the position in which water discipline is formed. This position is not inherently opposed to institutions underwriting or being coopted by extractive economy and its apparatuses, but it does depend on re-learning “theology as action oriented to the well-being of vulnerable populations” (8).



Refreshed and Intrigued

Reflections on Just Water and the Role of Catholic Social Thought in Water Ethics

Among the frustrating things about academic debates on environmental issues is the degree and frequency with which we are often focused on the facts and the science. As such, there is insufficient attention to ethics, theology, and the broader systems of belief, faith, aspiration, and hope for the world in which we live. This is precisely why Zenner’s intervention with Just Water is so timely and welcomed.

While much scholarship has focused on water justice, with many wonderful contributions and case studies from diverse contexts, Zenner’s voice is unique in bringing fresh-water concerns together with ideas and teachings from Catholic Social Thought (CST). She offers a careful elaboration of what CST could offer in reframing the ethical contours of our possible (and much-needed) responses to pressing water-related challenges. Among other issues, she focuses on framing water as a fundamental right by tracing the development of Catholic Social Teaching in papal encyclicals and more recently in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si (connecting chapters 1 and 4). Another interesting contribution is nestled within the last chapter. A critical and reflective piece, it hints at the implications for reimagining hydro-social relations through biblical narratives (chapter 9). While all of these pathways are interesting and thought provoking, one cannot help but feel that this is only the beginning of what should be a set of significantly extended, ongoing, and rich conversations. As one of us focuses on religious dimensions of environmental politics and activism (Lam) and the other of us focuses on the human right to water, water justice, and equity dimensions of water governance (Harris), between us we felt several themes were particularly worthy of note. We also highlight several elements where we wish the conversation could go further and deeper—building on the starting points offered in Just Water.

For Catholic audiences, the discussion offers key building blocks to think through and follow up on—inviting important reflection and theological/ethical interrogation of water challenges—ranging from broad questioning related to the value of water, to more specific discussions of bottled water debates, to ongoing and emergent challenges regarding agriculture and climate change. Indeed, Zenner introduces and demonstrates the value of a CST framework (chapter 1) to support water as a fundamental right to life (chapter 4) and for the pursuit of justice as part of ongoing water activism and protection (chapter 7). Arguably, there are also as many questions raised by the text as answered. For instance, if US dioceses are supposed to be aligned on papal teachings, then it raises the question of why US Catholics are, as Zenner briefly explains, “out of line with official magisterial teaching” (79). Another example relates to the political and activist dimensions of some of these issues. Zenner cites the failure of Catholic dioceses in responding to calls to defend water protectors at Standing Rock, compared to liberal-left religious groups who are often on the front lines of such human rights concerns (162–63).

Closer consideration, including citing further empirical studies, would add enormous value to shed light on both the disparities between belief and action in addition to the more general discussion on the effectiveness and influence of papal teachings as ethical guidance for tackling fresh-water issues. Also, if we are to understand and work with the potential of CST for offering novel insights and pathways for water ethics moving forward, understanding these political considerations and disconnects seems to be an important point to explore and seek to understand more fully. In other words, why are Catholics not on the front lines in these efforts to support and defend water rights? Why is it that Unitarians and other Christian denominations appear to be better represented in some of these discussions and movements and what does that imply for the potential of CST to engage with these debates, politics, and the Christian tradition more broadly? A historical perspective, focusing on the role of different religious traditions in civil rights and environmental justice movements, also seems very important to contextualize some of these issues—how have some of these ideas shifted over time and how have recent discussions of CST and related water ethics evolved in relation to earlier civil rights and environmental justice movements? Or relatedly, what is the relationship between CST and other Christian or different religious traditions (Islamic, Judaism, among others)? Attention to these issues would do a lot to round out and embed these discussions within the broader context of ethics and theology, allowing us also to think through thoroughly the limitations and potential of CST with respect to some of these considerations.

While the perspectives offered by Zenner are sorely needed in the water domain, it is also worth asking to what degree the insights detailed above are unique to water, or to what degree they are potentially applicable for a range of environmental and ethical challenges. Related to this, while some of the details on the global water crisis are surely of interest to a general audience and those less familiar with the water situation, the book also covers terrain that is well worn in the water literature. As such, it strikes us as most important, and critical, to push further on the points and openings that the book offers with respect to theology, ethics, and CST—questions and concerns that are certainly underexplored in the water debate, environmental studies, and politics more broadly. In addition to wanting the book to go deeper on some of the conversations that are opened up at this interface (as noted above), we are left with several additional questions for Zenner and for allied scholars, activists, and theologians. Of course, these are not all things that Zenner herself needs to engage with, but we find that they are openings offered by Just Water that deserve reflection and attention.

Among these openings are questions such as: what are the key concepts and theories of justice that are most helpful for rethinking key questions of water ethics and water justice from the perspective of religious teaching (or CST in particular)? What are the points of intersection, and divergence, with other approaches to justice (whether they be from philosophers, such as Rawls, or contemporary environmental justice scholars)? How do we understand the potential of CST to reorient and guide our ethical responsibilities to water and each other, while also thinking through some of the earlier insights regarding the role of Christianity in socio-environmental movements from thinkers such as Carolyn Merchant or Lynn White? Can we think through these multiple, contradictory, and complex strands of how Christian theology and practice relate to our hydro-social worlds? Perhaps attention to these tensions would also allow us to think more carefully through the disconnects between thought and practice, or between papal encyclicals and commitments of parishioners, as noted above. Situating this discussion in relation to these other issues would also help to enrich the terrain of engagement for readers to be able to better appreciate the insights from this work and put them into conversation with other contributions that have highlighted the difficulties regarding the interface between Christian social teachings and complex socio-ecological challenges.

We also wonder what conceptual and ethical force CST gives to notions such as the human right to water that really deepen, enrich, or reorient the concept from its standard deployments in policy debates or academic circles? Given the focus of chapter 4 on the right to water as a right-to-life issue, it would be useful to dig deeper on what the implications are for the “right-to-life” issues that are often foregrounded by religious audiences (e.g., anti-abortion in the United States)? Related considerations could include greater attention to the implications of these debates and policies, especially for the Global South, where a majority of the Catholic population now resides.1 These are fundamental issues of importance for those of us who work on water governance and environmental politics, where learning from key interlocutors such as Zenner and associated experts in allied fields would be invaluable.

Another question we find ourselves puzzling over relates to the implications of work and teaching of this type for those who are not specialists in religious studies, or theology, as well as for those outside of the community of believers or those who might not identify with a specific denomination. What can we learn from and draw from as outsiders who seek to better understand various perspectives and lines of argument related to our relationship to each other and the natural world? As such, another concern of interest relates to how and whether these ideas connect with discussions from other religious traditions or ontologies. For instance, how might these discussions articulate with the rich and established discussions of water, and water ethics, from Islam, Buddhism, or recent discussions of Indigenous water ontologies?2 Again, while we need not rely exclusively on Zenner for insights along these lines, it seems especially of interest to bring insights related to water principles and practices together with those from other religious traditions into conversation in a book volume, workshop, or other form of public engagement. Such efforts could greatly improve accessibility and dialogue for outsiders and adherents alike to continue thinking through the mutual imbrication and responsibilities related to water ethics. Again, particularly as the interface with theology and ethics is what makes contributions such as Just Water so unique and valuable, situating this conversation within this broader set of offerings would be invaluable to more fully contextualize the discussion on CST.

To close, it is worth reiterating that among the elements of Just Water that we are most excited by, but also the dimensions where we are left wanting even more, are the general questions that emerge at the interstices of Catholic social thought and practice, particularly as openings to think through the broader points of connection between religion, ethics, and the environment. We applaud and accept Zenner’s invitation to think through these questions. We also realize that there is much more to explore concerning these debates, including how to give voice to the options and contradictions that emerge through these important lenses. The good news is that Zenner’s work will undoubtedly inspire many others to follow up along these lines, and as such, we can be hopeful that there will be a growing community of scholars to engage with these complex and difficult issues.

  1. “Latest Numbers Confirm Global South as New Catholic Center of Gravity,” Crux, October 22, 2017,

  2. N. Wilson and J. Inkster, “Respecting Water: Indigenous Water Governance, Ontologies, and the Politics of Kinship on the Ground,” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0.0 (2018) 1–23.

Jacob J. Erickson


Divine Hydrophilia

I cherish childhood memories of icy waters. The dust of frost on prairie, with an occasional clod of dirt poking through, glistens back stories of weather and history. Attentive to the frozen drama of a nearby pond, I would often walk out onto winter ice and sweep the snow away to find trails of captured bubbles and grass in the sheets, where muskrats swam their yearly routines underneath. Nestled in the farm, my father and grandfather and brother and I would go out with picks and drills to break up frozen watering holes, letting upwellings of fresh water through so that the cows might drink. Reader, the herd ran to us with a joyful trumpet only bovine passion might bring.

Ice is alive, moving, and memory. Glaciers dance back and forth with our climate in time. Bodies of mammoths and other extinct creatures are long hidden and revealed. The dynamic world of permafrost underneath haunts our polar extremes. Geology, ecological relations, and flows of water bear glimpses of past interactive planetary life, sedimenting certain patterns and performing newness from moment to moment. Ice cores taken with scientific care, preserve memories and history of the atmospheric composition of earth. As theorist Karen Barad observes in a different context, “Memory – the pattern of sedimented enfoldings of iterative intra-activity – is written into the fabric of the world.”1 Ice, in its own way—like many things of earth—is elemental memory to divine.

Water in all of its elemental states and styles—from fresh to saline, ice to vapor—is religious and theological memory as well. Sacred waters gush in religious imaginations, from the mythic to sites of supposed events. Sacred wells and springs abound. Sacramental Christians are urged to remember their baptisms with everyday encounters with water. Divinity hovers over the face of the deep. Encounters and memories of this water shape the landscapes of identities in their wake, just as wild waters local and oceanic shape the textures of earth. Thirst is for bodies parched, physically and spiritually.

In the present moment, those icy memories are undone. Funerals are being held for glaciers in Iceland. Drinking water in Flint and areas around the world is rendered toxic through systemic racism and climate injustice. Island nations are disappearing under colonial waves. Back in North Dakota, drought in 2021 made drinking water for animals scarce and led to reshaping agricultural landscapes and utilities. And the living memories of Water Protectors in Standing Rock still bears witness.

Here, in the complex memory and shifting elementality of water, Christiana Zenner offers much-needed perspective. And this revised edition of Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and Fresh Water Crises is such a welcome contribution to environmental ethics and ecological theology for its approach through such a forgotten yet fundamental reality of planetary life. Amidst the aquatic memory that, in fact, the planet is, human creatures forget to love the very element that performs itself as animal bodies. In that, Zenner’s proposal “to render water visible in complex, nuanced ways” is a vital task when so much of our water systems are hidden from view, where ground water is surfaced for consumption, where water hides as ice, and where our water bodies are rarely remembered as such (xiii).

As such, I want to think alongside Zenner’s writing about an eco-theo-ethical desire—a thirst for a manifold ecological ethics—that runs throughout this book. Attending to that hydrophilia present in Zenner’s work, I would argue, is the most transformative current in Just Water, and might radically ask us to transform our theology as well. To dive into this desire, I’d argue that Zenner first powerfully thaws a frozen take in theological ethics, and secondly invites us to think through the steamy fog of the Anthropocene by divining—making Divine and conjuring—the inherent slipperiness of water as a living sacred.

Ontological Ice, Thawing Tradition

In her remarkable Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity, Laurel Schneider observes that “somewhere along the long road of its intellectual history Christian metaphysics got stuck in the ontological ice of monotheism and has not been able to thaw itself out sufficiently to re-enter the world and make sense to everyday people.”2 Schneider calls this ontological ice the “logic of the One”—the totalizing logic that demonizes relational multiplicity for the sake of a sovereign vision. As scholarly turns to multiplicity in reflections on sovereignty in political theology over the last decade show, the sacralised logic of the One can lead to forms of colonization, totalitarian thinking, and enact real violence towards and violation of any difference that does not bear fidelity to the One. And the One—whether it be a political sovereign, a transcendental God who escapes the material flesh of the earth, or a vision of human dominion over the biodiversity of planetary life—can often sanction forms of perduring environmental destruction.

But Schneider notes something important about that ontological ice. She writes, “Ice is water—the solution necessary for life—a richly malleable substance, infinitely shape-shifty . . .”3 Sometimes metaphysical worldviews, ethical traditions, and perspectives on Divinity need unsettling playfulness. We might see the manifold diversity that makes up those traditions, alternative pathways, and incarnations. We might recreate and reshape the memory of these traditions for theological possibility in ways that cherish the diversity of human experience of the Divine, and, indeed, planetary life.

Just Water, as I read it, is a book dedicated to the thawing of the ontological ice of how one might approach ethics, through the multiplicity of earthly water. Zenner’s water, too, is “infinitely shape-shifty,” when she notes that “water as a verb—or an entity that shape-shifts between noun and verb—is dynamic and, far from inert; it is a source of life and site of economic and social control, an occasion for activism, and an enduring if shape-shifting substance that refracts multiple notions of morality and the sacred” (213). Zenner conjures the noun and verb in a variety of ways, but the very act of rendering the being and act of water visible in its theological and material flows begins to make a way beyond traditional notions of ecological ethics. The verb instigates an act of remembering water and desiring an attentiveness to just and unjust flows of water.

Earth, in its living, interacting congregations, is water-dependent and interdependent. Social justice and basic human health depend on access to clean drinking water. Creatures inhabit aquatic habitats. Atmospheric compositions and weather are saturated with water cycles. Opening the multiplicity of water further, Zenner emphatically argues that “there is no such thing as a global fresh water crisis in the singular. Fresh water crises are always plural: that is, there are multiple causes and effects” (31, her emphases). Ecological theologies and ethics so become accustomed to loving a singular crisis, or the singularity of the charismatic megafauna or landscape that such perspectives freeze over time. These visions bury minute multiple interactions and remain blissfully unaware of the radical, if perceptively slowed, transformations happening always.

Morally though, too, Zenner offers us a thawing of the ontological ice of ethical traditioning in the form of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). Perhaps surprising in a book about fresh-water ethics is the foregrounding of CST. Zenner is aware of this friction, noting that “it is innaccurate to depict Catholic magisterial tradition before 1990 as self-consciously or consistently concerned with matters ecological” (11). Furthermore, “like many secular and religious institutions, the Catholic Church is patriarchal” (69). But the book presses into dispelling the monolithic caricature of these traditions, recognizing that the homogeneity of religious tradition is mythic itself. The writing here suggests that the diversity of religious passions within larger social teachings of a patriarchal and heterosexist institution still might provide a desire for a reconstitution, or at least a redirection, of oppressive form.

Zenner links CST to an embodied, “contextual epistemology” from ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara to make this redirection of theo-ethical desire possible. CST’s magisterial turn to ecological passions (Pope Francis, for one) entangles with Liberation Theology’s passionate justice for the poor, oppressed, and vulnerable. That contextuality and attentiveness to manifold forms of justice opens the tradition further to think alongside the possibilities of what matters in ethical language.

Most striking in this opening of contextual epistemology, however, is Zenner’s redeployment in the same breath of CST’s language of “right to life,” so often popularly invoked (violently in my opinion) in abortion debates. She asks, “Where, then, is Catholic advocacy for fresh water to be found?” (71). Water, where Zenner makes it visible in Catholic social teaching, is about supporting the interdependence of life, the interrelatedness of living creatures, and preferential options for the living poor or marginalized to access fresh water. Her delineated insights on CST life ethics in chapter 4 serve as a constructive and effective set of ecological values. Descriptively, this making visible of water ethics in CST is helpful in that it opens the multiplicity of a tradition that in politicized times is so often reduced to one perspective of the teaching, yet another patriarchal “logic of the One.”

Zenner notes that “finding wisdom in CST does not require assent to Catholic dogma or teachings on other issues” (85). And this book does indeed find an invitational orientation of wisdom to approach the manifold interrelations of fresh water ethics; the book makes porous the entries into CST for Catholics of all kinds and others alike. My worry here is that the power of the dominant logic of “right to life” as a certain oppressive heteropatriarchal reproductive politics still centers its own dominance with a sinkhole of political energy. At the very least, I’d argue that ecological ethics needs to interrogate a bit further what the concept of “life” is here in Christian ethics, what ethical work life does in our political economies in implicit ways, and reconstruct that concept.4 We need, then, to make the flux of life as visible and complex as water. Zenner surely opens up powerful possibilities in the stasis of that kind of ethics, and begins that reconstruction here. Still, “life” will conceptually demand to be continuously troubled first by ecological loss and “perpetual perishing,” as we Whiteheadeans would have it. Sometimes, in more real time, ecological management, from whatever position of power, means choosing to let the living go. Zenner’s offered an entry route to reimagining the ethics of CST, and I hope others follow in the desire for new entries to wisdom that Just Water begins to reveal.

Anthropocene Vapors, Thirsting after Divinity

Just Water’s challenge to the Oneness of a theo-ethical tradition, on one hand, and reconstituting the inherent multiplicity of tradition, on the other, lures us to enter the difficult challenges of the industrial steam of the Anthropocene with wise direction. Zenner’s ethics, with embodied and manifold liberation epistemology, uncovers a desire and passion for preservation and access to fresh water, a hydrophilia flowing to the margins of society. Where one follows flows or shortages of fresh water one finds the pulses of systemic racism, classism, and sexism to confront.

Indeed, the importance of the second edition of this book is its expansion of reflection into the concept of the Anthropocene as it bears unjust material memories. Especially important is the book’s consideration of the Anthropocene concept and CST alongside the witness of Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Zenner recognizes the importance of challenging histories of colonialism in water ethics, where the lives of Native peoples are viewed as disposable or resources for extraction by the proliferation of settler cultural imaginaries, history and policy.

Much is being written on the adequacy of the concept of the Anthropocene in this regard, interrogating whether that concept, too, falls too easily into a logic of the One.5 There are days when the concept of the Anthropocene feels as magisterial as CST itself. Does the Anthropocene freeze-frame climatological imaginations too quickly by smoothing out power relations and histories of racism and colonialism into a generic “humanity”? Zenner answers here by unsettling the recent conceptual tradition of the Anthropocene through her liberation epistemological orientation, asking back, “Given the anthropogenic amplifications of global climate change, the particular forms of socially stratified privilege that have caused it, and the disproportionate burdens allocated to the world’s poor as a result, what ought to be done—as individuals, as communities, as societies, as nations?” (131). Every dimension of the Anthropocene, when viewed through Zenner’s ethical frame, takes on ethical urgency to address inequalities of power.

Zenner opens the multiplicity of Anthropocene water ethics by asking how one cultivates solidarity with Indigenous peoples and epistemologies in a way that “rejects any reinscription of historical or epistemic harms, and is wary of blithe appeals to ‘inclusion’ without actual praxis” (158).6 She finds possibilities for hegemonic CST to open itself to being transformed in just solidarity with Indigenous ways of knowing, and thus, the reality of acknowledging that “water is life”—mni wiconi—alongside Water Protectors might, just might, flow back and fundamentally challenge what CST means when it says “right to life.” If “water is sacred,” I might suggest, one might have to define life through water first, and not in any number of anthropocentric ways. And I emphasize “might” here, given the structural hegemonies that so route this work of justice. Such work requires a solidarity of listening and praxis that Zenner desires as well. If water is memory, she later asks, reflecting on the histories of the Jordan River, “Whose memories are honored, whose stories heard?” (190). Honoring and hearing these memories further disrupts our ontological ice.

The thawing of the ice of CST and the Anthropocene is urgent, and yet the metaphor perhaps runs counterintuitive as real ice and glaciers melt in the wake of global warming. Or, maybe not quite, as we thaw these great traditions for the sake of preserving the very multiplicity of the states of water—ice, liquid, and vapor—a trinity of the manifold of creation. Still, Zenner’s attentiveness to, her divining of the flux of water—in tradition and new challenges, in metaphor and matter—makes possible her refreshing of the manifold ethics of creation.

The final question for me, then, emerges precisely along theological lines as one considers this book as an ethics of creation. If the multiplicity of ethical tradition is celebrated, if the just multiplicity of voices in the Anthropocene are remembered, what might this mean for a constructive theology? If the One of tradition is challenged, and if the sacred multiplicity of water is revealed, might that contextual multiplicity also challenge the domineering logic of the One that Schneider so rightly identifies?

Through these moves, I think the unspoken theological implication is that Zenner’s hydrophilic ethics lures us into an image of Divinity that acts less like a blunt rock or consuming fire, and more like a liquid incarnation of Divinity, empowering by luring attentiveness to transformations and movement. I confess that this implication emerges more strongly as it entangles with my process and panentheistic inclinations. If one seeks living water and instigations to justice in a sacredness that flows through porous bodies of earth, perhaps we might be more willing to see Divinity flowing in the manifold planetarity of the earth itself. I’ve been calling this manifold interactivity a “theopoetics of the earth,” but I might also call it here a “theopoetics of water,” a kind of polyamorous love for the multiplicity of water and Divinity.

Attentiveness to the changeability of Divine Water might help remind us of Divine solidarity with marginalized materiality. Perhaps we might see, as Marjorie Suchocki presciently puts it, that “God is like water, flowing throughout the universe, like an ocean touching innumerable shores. The action of those waves is sometimes like a chaotic clash of elements, whose terrible dynamism reshapes what is and brings new things to emergence.”7 Zenner’s writing, I think, serves as an emergent thirst for an elemental Divinity for our new planetary era.

  1. Karen Barad, “Nature’s Queer Performativity,” Kvinder, Køn og forskning / Women, Gender and Research 1–2 (Copenhagen, 2012): 44.

  2. Laurel C. Schneider, Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity (New York: Routledge, 2008), 91.

  3. Schneider, Beyond Monotheism, 91.

  4. I think, philosophically, a good place to start here is Eugene Thacker’s fascinating study After Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). Because of my own passions for the theology of Eriugena, this study stands out, but more theological work needs to be done on life. One might also think of some interesting theological perspectives such as that from Jay McDaniel’s or Christopher Southgate’s attentions to predation.

  5. See especially Kathryn Yusoff’s important book, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018). Yusoff’s work is vital here because it questions both the homogeneity of the concept and the very act of genealogy that replicates extractive thinking.

  6. I think Zenner’s work here precisely aligns with Yusoff’s own concerns.

  7. Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer (St. Louis: Chalice, 1996), 125.

Frederick Kirschenmann


The Great Turning

This second edition of Christiana’s Just Water is a truly important work and provides us with a comprehensive perspective regarding “water,” but it also places our water into a context that is inspiring. So, I can only offer a few suggestions that I hope may further enhance this perspective.

To begin, I think it would further enhance the inspiration of this important work if it were placed into the context of the new “era” that our world is about to enter. Numerous authors have now reminded us that we are now at an important, critical juncture which is increasingly leading us to choose among three “stories” by which we respond to our current challenges.

The three “stories” are “business as usual,” “the great unraveling” and “the great turning” (see, for example, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s Active Hope, 13–33). The point is that we are now entering a new “era” on our planet, an era that includes “climate change,” the depletion of natural, nonrenewable resources, and a significant increase in the human population. And, of course, these are only a few of the many other challenges we will face. Consequently, as Christiana points out, the “story” we choose to address water justice, in this moment in our history, is a “moral” issue. In other words, the issue of how we relate to water will be determined, in large part, by our ethical orientation our “inner-hold,” which largely determines the actions we choose.

Christiana also points out that this leaves us with some “thorny problems.” Among them is our need to transition from our culture of dominating nature to a culture that nurtures an “ecological conscience.” I think it is fair to suggest that the majority of us still operate by the inner-hold “story” of business as usual. We seem to believe that if we just enhance our technologies and develop more efficient, and effective, management strategies, we can solve all our problems.

Meanwhile some of us believe the consequences of our future world are so dire that there is simply nothing we can do about it, and so we choose the great unraveling option. All the world is going to hell and there is nothing we can do about it, so we simply have to learn how to cope with it. I think it is the third story, the great turning, which has begun to capture the attention of a small number of us, however that number is increasing—especially among the millennial generation. This is the new “inner hold” that, I think, can be further adopted as a result of reading Just Water.

There are, from my perspective, numerous issues which are called to our attention when we transition to this third, the great turning, “story” as a way to guide our actions. First, adopting the great turning story as a new way to respond to our emerging challenges makes this an ethical issue. We need to decide to take on this challenge in the interest of the health of the planet. Furthermore, that commitment is rooted in numerous ethical perceptions that have been proposed for some time. Aldo Leopold, for example, suggested this clearly in the early 1940s:

A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such. (Sand County Almanac, 204)

Leopold also stressed that we needed to attend to the “health of the whole” rather than focusing on some isolated objectives, and he further emphasized the fact that land health was the land’s capacity for “self-renewal.” So how do we participate in our world as “plain members and citizens” in a manner that fosters the self-renewing capacity of the “land community”?

Furthermore the “health of the whole” stresses the fact that all this is not just about the well-being of humans but the health of the entire biotic community, of which we are simply “plain members and citizens.” Christiana alludes to this by referring us to the Vatican’s description of this as “a truly right-to­life issue” (78), and one could certainly assume that this means all of life. However, she then goes on to stress the fact that “fresh water” is a “fundamental human right” and that “fresh water” is “meant for the benefit of all people across time and space.” All of which is true, but it might lead some of us to believe that the right-to-life issue is simply a human right rather than a “health of the whole” issue. In that regard, I think it is important for all of us to also note the emphasis on the “stewards of creation” concept, which is also strongly endorsed as part of the ethical foundation of Just Water. The concept reminds us how we should live on planet earth, which again emphasizes that this is a “health of the whole” issue, rather than just the health of humans.

I also think that a few additional comments might be helpful regarding the feeding the world “in perpetuity” notion (102). From my perspective, the ethical issue with respect to feeding the world is not just about the need to produce more food—it also needs to address the issue of food waste and the issue of human population growth. I realize that population growth is not a popular issue, but since we humans are indeed “simply plain members and citizens” of the biotic community, we need to acknowledge that nature always abhors the density of any species and that creation is designed as an interdependent community of all of life on the planet, which begs us to pay more attention to the ethical aspects of how we can be part of land health as “plain members and citizens” of a “land community.” That is, in fact, another issue that Leopold called to our attention decades ago:

The trend of animal ecology shows, with increasing clarity, that all animal behavior-patterns, as well as most environmental and social relationships, are conditioned and controlled by density. It seems improbable that man is any exception to this rule. (Almanac, 225)

I also think that the importance of “wildness,” in regard to the health of the whole, could be added to our consideration in all of this. As E. O. Wilson has concluded—based on a lifetime of ecological studies—we cannot expect to achieve any of our goals of regarding the health of the whole unless we keep at least “half of earth” in wildness (see Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life). This is another important ethical principle that we have largely ignored, and I think we could all weave it into the great scenario of Just Water.

Since water is an integral component of the “land community,” I think placing the important insights of Just Water into the ethical context of the self-renewing “health of the whole” adds an important dimension to this incredibly important work. And in that regard, I think it is also important to include a perspective to our thinking provided by Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker in another great work, Journey of the Universe. As they point out so eloquently, it is important for us humans, who live on our tiny planet earth, to recognize that our little earth (which is part of our small universe) is actually part of a much, much more expansive “cosmos” that has been evolving for “14 billion years,” and so our planet will almost certainly continue to evolve with the cosmos. Consequently, if we humans still think that we are in control we are truly kidding ourselves. Therefore, part of our ethical challenge is to recognize and adapt to our evolving community of life, which is part of the much larger evolving cosmos, and to recognize that we are all simply part of this incredible “journey of the universe.”

Let me be clear, that all of my comments here are not intended as any kind of criticism of Christiana’s great work; they are simply intended to enhance it and to provide some additional ideas to stimulate more of us to join in on the “great turning,” which may contribute to the health of the whole—of which we are simply “plain members and citizens.” Just Water, and especially this second edition, should be on everyone’s reading list!

Christiana Zenner


Reply to the Panelists

“Water is important to people who do not have it, and the same is true of control,” wrote Joan Didion of California’s water flows and deterministic infrastructure in her characteristically terse and vivid essay “Holy Water” (1979). The years since 2020 have brought topics of flow, infrastructure, and lack of control squarely to mind—in the realms of waters, the mutating coronavirus, and the social and political climates of the United States.

In the past two years in New York City, water and the coronavirus have, in their own ways, been both ubiquitous and discriminatory. Denizens of the pulsing city, which was shuttered in March 2020, both staffed and saw hospitals where people died in huge numbers from the Covid-19 virus, about which medical experts and governments knew little. In April and May of 2020, lacking morgue space, the overflow of bodies yet to be buried amassed in freezer trucks on New York City’s numbered streets. Many residents of the city died at home, with the uptick in such home deaths eventually but slowly identified as coronavirus-caused. Many survivors continue to carry bodily damage and debilitation in ways still not understood and under-acknowledged in a society clamoring to pretend that there is a “normal” to return to. To paraphrase a different Didion insight, we tell ourselves the stories we need in order to live.

The stories that matter to me are about such flows of bodily dependence and societal attention, and particularly flows of water: physical, social, cultural, narrative, poetic, hydrogeological, distributive, contorted and siphoned, gushing and unloosed. So there was a grim parallelism between the viral flows, their bodily impacts, and the deluge of Hurricane Ida in 2021. Hurricane-strength, Ida hit and devastated the ever-scapegoated climate sacrifice zone of the Gulf Coast and especially coastal Louisiana, a recursive trauma, landing as it did on the exact anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (2005). As the storm blustered north and attenuated, media attention soon focused on New York City as Tropical Storm Ida felled trees, shut down power grids, flooded subways and streets for days, and caused multiple deaths. New York City once again stopped, sirens ubiquitous. Eleven residents of NYC died in flooded city basements. Where many coastal Louisianans had evacuated or, if that was financially impossible, hovered precariously without power or water for nearly a month. For tri-state residents in the greater NYC area, power returned quickly even as homeowners’ flood recovery took considerable time. The media moved on.

Yet in Louisiana, many people have remained unhoused and food insecure after Ida; rebuilding is slow and uneven. Victim-blaming seems ongoing, with a blithe and unmoored op-ed in the Washington Post suggesting that “the people of New Orleans should be given one-way tickets to Detroit.”1 As if relocation is solely a matter of choice. As if people are pawns of consultancies and ecomodernist whims. As if climate refugees weren’t already a readily-evident reality worldwide. Flows of water, attention, recovery, and blame have always been radically unequal.

* * *

The idea for this symposium on Just Water initially took shape in 2019, and then, well, the timing of 2020 hardly needs explication at this point. Now it is 3:30 a.m. on the first day of December 2021, as I write this essay several years after the symposium was first proposed. Academic readers of this text surely know what those years have been like, pedagogically and psychologically, for instructors and students. During this time, I have also been a department administrator (a director of undergraduate studies), a role I started in January 2020. It has been, to use the operative phrase, a deluge. That first-person experience is a different essay, but it is also important context, and I cannot pretend dissociation from these realities in trying to write (at all) about things (like water) that determine life’s possibilities.

The contributors to this symposium are stunning scholars and practitioners in their fields, and it is a profound honor to receive their generosities of reading and responding to the revised version of Just Water (Orbis, 2018). The first edition of Just Water was published in 2014 with the attempt and intent of interdisciplinarity, accountable to several different fields of knowledge simultaneously. I also aimed for accessibility, both to my tenure committee, which, in a department of theology, may have wondered what a book on water had to do with my current professional emplacement, as well as to those many folks who may have wondered what, if anything, Catholic ethical traditions have to offer to fresh-water ethics. The gambit has been somewhat successful, even as there is far more to be said about particular ways that a more formalized fresh-water ethic might be articulated. I have my own critiques of the book: it is US-centric, a decision based on my emplacement in this particular nation-state, with hopes that resonant strands could be taken up and modified as appropriate to wider contexts. The book also raises, but does not systematically deal with, realities of settler colonialism and the colonial, abusive history and ongoing legacies of the Catholic Church as they inform the belated turn to ecological matters (this is part of a different project, in process). Other reviewers in scholarly journals have pointed out that the book is not a systematic ethic, and draws on a range of ethical approaches, ranging from virtue ethics to deontology to consequentialism. To this I simply say, indeed: Waters do not cleave to the parameters of a singular ethical approach.

I received tenure in 2017, and many guest lectures and conversations since the publication of Just Water suggest that some of the approaches have resonated. Just Water has been taught in part or full in places as various as the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University and the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. The 2018 revised edition was intended to incorporate developments in these interdisciplinary terrains—in light of both the developments of water commitments in Pope Francis’s work (given that the predictions I made turned out to be right) as well as the vital ontologies of water foregrounded by Indigenous Water Protectors and intersectional resistance to extractivism at Standing Rock.

How well these aims succeeded has been nowhere more tested than in the remarkable range of expertise and skills that these colleagues bring to this Syndicate symposium. Admired scholars and practitioners all, this symposium is a test of what was said well, and what was not, in Just Water.

I will say at the outset of my substantive response that I agree with all of the critiques and constructive criticisms. As Victor Lam and Leila Harris (at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, Canada) point out, I was less attentive to developments and theoretical nuances in water ethics and water justice as an emerging field and discourse; more could have been said to those audiences, particularly with respect to the theoretical content of ideas of justice. The revision, then, is best oriented toward theological audiences or those in religious studies who are endeavoring to do science-engaged work (whether natural or social sciences). There is more to be said, so I concur with Lam and Harris that “this is only the beginning of what should be a set of significantly extended, ongoing, and rich conversations.” I particularly love the suggestion of “bring[ing] insights related to water principles and practices together with those from other religious traditions into conversation in a book volume, workshop, or other forms of public engagement.” The diversities of understandings of fresh waters’ ontologies in cultural formations—not just classically understood religious ones—deserve ongoing attention.

Jacob J. Erickson (School of Religion, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland) offers an eco-theo-poetic response that enriches my characteristically apophatic theologizing in Just Water. His evocative treatment of “an eco-theo-ethical desire—a thirst for a manifold ethics” is a poetic invitation to delve into the vitalities of process thought and hydrophilic materialities. To read his suggestion that Just Water foregrounds “the inherent slipperiness of water as a living sacred” made me feel more of a theologian than I have ever understood myself to be! And, when linked to Laurel Schneiders’s (Drew Theological School, New Jersay, United States) beautiful phrase about the pursuit of multiplicities despite the totalizing “ontological ice of monotheism,” I recognize indeed my own pursuit of “the multiplicity of earthly water[s]” along with the commitment to unearthing “the pulses of systemic racism, classism, and sexism.” Erickson’s further invitation, as a constructive process theologian, to be lured toward “a liquid incarnation of Divinity” is well worth the task for those who might choose to take it up.

Anthropocenic planetarity, divinity, and materiality emerges with both seriousness and joviality in Erickson’s essay. In a different way, Fred Kirschenmann (Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University, United States), wants to use the frame of a “new era” to consider the stories “by which we respond to our current challenges.” A longstanding commentator on agricultural practices and ecological mindsets, as well as a proponent of regenerative agriculture, Kirschenmann rebuts a “business as usual” approach to political economy—which I take to mean extraction, exploitation, and economic hegemony in a neoliberal frame. Instead, he endorses “the great turning” toward land-based awareness and ethics, in the Leopoldian sense. He rightly notes that there is good reason to consider more fully the practical realities of food waste and population growth, specifically in the chapter on agriculture and water. However, I am less sure how E. O. Wilson’s “half-Earth” proposals and the return to (problematized) notions of “wildness” would function; I am, frankly, skeptical that such a turn can avoid reinscribing colonial myopias, exclusions, and displacements or dispossessions, even as I grant that the “half-Earth” imaginative power seems compelling to a group of theorists. Indeed, the half-Earth idea has even been written into climate fiction in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020), which envisions not only cross-continent wildlife corridors but also the reclamation-for-wildlife of Midwestern monoculture megafarms—those vast tracts from which humans and other multispecies communities have been evicted or eliminated for the best part of a century. But whether such fictions of reclamation as half-Earth are fantastical or realistic remains to be seen. As with waters, so too with futures: the stories we tell ourselves tend to reveal what is considered valuable and worth protecting.

I extend my intellectual and heartfelt gratitude to each of the contributors to this forum: for your perspectives on Just Water and for your own vital work.

  1. The offending line was later redacted to convey a gentler idealism that people might simply choose to relocate once they realize the scope of storms, and that governments might incentivize this. Note that, like so many culpabilities, the retractive edit is not noted anywhere on the webpage. For preservation of the original (now disappeared) quote and immediate response by Louisianians, including scholars of ecology and critical theory who rightly critique the racist and neo-colonial assumptions of this piece, see