Christianity and Ecology:
Wholeness, Respect, Justice, Sustainability
Dieter T. Hessel
Program on Ecology, Justice, and Faith
Seven Key Themes
The first theme reexamines elements of scripture and tradition and refocuses Christian affirmations and ethics in ecologically-alert terms. All of the earth community is valuable to God, who continues to create, sustain, and redeem the whole. God relates directly to and cares for the well-being of otherkind, created to enjoy being in their own right and not only function as companions or helpers of humankind. Christians are recovering an earth-centered pneumatology that experiences God's spirit immanent in creation as the power of life-giving breath (ruah), the Wisdom (logos) continually working to transform and renew all life and the love that sustains it. Biblical images portray the Spirit as “a healing and subversive life-form—as water, light, dove, mother, fire, breath . . . wind,”2 and comforter of the suffering.
The second theme explores the complex relation between cosmology, spirituality and morality, knowing that the cosmos (and this planet) bodies forth the power, wisdom, and love of God. Christianity in the modern period lost interest in the revelatory power of the natural world and set humanity over against nature in a manipulative, polluting way of life. Contemporary cosmology rediscovers the universe and Earth's nature to be a dynamic relational system—in Thomas Berry's term, “a communion of subjects” with whom humans are to live fittingly. “Our great work,” he says, “is to support a new pattern of human presence on the planet.”
The third theme offers a deep critique and response to disastrous assumptions underlying modern philosophy, religion, technology, and politics. Christian theology played a key role in cultural and ecological malformations by giving impetus to the rational, scientific conquest of nature. Now it can contribute to achieving a sustainable human-earth relationship by utilizing the relationality paradigm of contemporary physics and ecology and connecting it effectively with the ecojustice sensibility of the biblical Sabbath and kingdom of God vision.
The fourth theme notes that in theology and praxis, sacramental sensibility and covenantal commitment3 are joined together because both are required for a sustainable community. Christianity is well-supplied with prophetic, sacramental, and wisdom traditions, as well as eschatological, process, and liberation theologies to address ecological issues with a christology that comprehends “God with us” fully in sacramental and prophetic dimensions.4 Eastern Orthodoxy's trinitarian iconography works in aesthetic and liturgical ways to foster communion with the natural world by imaging the ultimate, beautiful source of value and vitality.
The fifth theme reconstructs affirmations about God, Christ, finitude, world, soul/body relations, sin, evil, redemption, and the “end” with ecological seriousness. Also, traditional categories that are socially and ecologically inadequate need to be critically reexamined. For example, as Christian ecofeminists emphasize, the Church must discard the pattern of colonial thinking and gender hierarchy that was built into its doctrine of creation and that shaped the popular map of social relations.
The sixth theme illuminates the emergence and transformation of Christian ecological virtue ethics that lead to a praxis of frugality, humility, esteem for everykind, beneficence, and justice toward all. Also, it grapples with dilemmas of human intervention in natural processes, lifting up theological pointers and ethical imperatives for the age of high technology and genetic manipulation. In other words, show bio-responsibility for places and species (be stewards of life's continuity); respect the evolutionary wisdom and divine activity embodied in the natural world; be accountable to the common good and to future generations; foster a communal and less resource-consumptive vision of “the good life.”
The seventh theme emphasizes human obligations in every place and pursuit, that express respect and care for Earth as God's creation and life's home, while seeking justice for biodiverse otherkind as well as humankind. Ecojustice, the focus of several recent publications,5 offers a dynamic framework for thought and action that fosters ecological integrity with socioeconomic justice through constructive human responses serving both environmental health and social equity. In this spiritually-grounded moral posture, all beings on earth make up one household (oikos) which benefits from an economy (oikonomia) that takes ecological and social stewardship (oikonomos) seriously. Such Christian praxis discards religious beliefs and rituals that are solely preoccupied with human salvation and challenges expressions of grassroots environmentalism or of religious community that are indifferent to socioeconomic justice. The four basic norms of ecojustice ethics include: solidarity with other people and creatures—companions, allies, victims—in the earth community, reflecting a deep respect for creation; ecological sustainability—environmentally fitting habits of living and working that enable life to flourish and utilizes ecologically and socially appropriate technology; sufficiency as a standard of organized sharing, requiring basic floors and definite ceilings for equitable or “fair” consumption; and socially-just participation in decisions about how to obtain sustenance and to manage community life for the good of the commons.
These norms illuminate a biblically-informed imperative to pursue in reinforcing ways what is both ecologically fitting and socially just. Solidarity comprehends the full dimension of the earth community and of inter-human obligations. Sustainability gives high visibility to ecological integrity and wise behavior throughout the resource-use cycle. The third and fourth norms express the requirements of distributive and participatory justice in a world that has reached or is exceeding resource production, pollution, and population limits.6 An “Ecological Reformation” is now on the agenda of Christian theology and ethics. It intersects, rather than competes, with human rights struggles for racial, gender, and economic justice. The need for ecological reformation arises from the fundamental failures of Christian and other religious traditions: to adapt to the limiting conditions of life, to recognize the intricate and interdependent relationships between humankind and the rest of nature, and to respond with benevolence and justice to “the theological and biological fact of human kinship with all other creatures.” An ecologically-reformed Christian theology will reinterpret basic doctrinal themes in ways that integrate ecological insight and value and reconceive Christian ethics to encompass human relationships with other beings in the biosphere.7 Ecologically-attuned faith and ethics should utilize knowledge gained from contemporary biophysical sciences and foster social praxis concerned with reducing consumption and adopting habits of sustainability while encouraging the positive responsibility of government to protect the commons, preserve biodiversity, advance human environmental rights, curtail polluting technologies, and limit urban development, wants-oriented consumerism, and population growth.
Christian thought derives fresh insights from rereading the Bible with an ecological awareness and interpreting it contextually in light of contemporary science, archeological findings, as well as sociological and literary methods of interpretation to uncover its hidden treasure. This cuts through an overlay of modern anthropocentric interpretation, exposing how much scripture has to offer as a guiding resource for life with the rest of nature. For example, the Psalms celebrate nature and link creation with redemption. The Revelation vision of a New Jerusalem on Earth concluding the New Testament pictures a city of justice and well-being with springs of living water flowing from God's throne. There, trade in luxury goods will be supplanted by an economy that provides essentials of life “without payment” (Rev 21:6, 22:17).8 Ecologically-aware biblical studies may also examine canonically-submerged passages to show independent or contrary meanings of texts that would otherwise be trumped again by reasserters of tradition, or cheerleaders for destructive development. For example, the “J” or Yahwist account of primal humans in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2 and following) contrasts sharply with emphases of the “P” or Priestly creation liturgy (Genesis 1). Given the disastrous ecological and social results of modern human dominion, the second creation saga's emphasis on humans as earthly creatures—adama, from the soil, sharing the same Creator's breath as do other animals—deserves more attention and emphasis.9
Urgent environmental problems are receiving disciplined reflection among Christian ethicists who find their and other world religions to be accountable for failing to address environmental racism and injustice, human-induced climate change, unsustainable development and resource use, sacralized marketism, and the realities of the population-consumption explosion.10 In response, the churches are beginning to foster earthkeeping habits or ecologically just patterns of ecclesial and social praxis—encompassing liturgy, lifestyle, work, leisure and politics—to meet the deepening environmental challenge.
About this Author
Dieter Hessel holds a Ph.D. in Social Ethics and resides in Princeton, NJ, where he is a member of the Center of Theological Inquiry, Director of the Ecumenical Program on Ecology, Justice, and Faith, and Codirector of Theological Education to Meet the Environmental Challenge (TEMEC). From 1965–1990 he was the Social Education Coordinator and Social Policy Director of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Recent books include: Theology for Earth Community: A Field Guide (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1996); The Church's Public Role: Retrospect and Prospect (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993); After Nature’s Revolt: Eco-Justice and Theology (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1992); and Social Ministry (Louisville, Ky.: W/JK, 1992).
1 See the overview essay and annotations of Peter Bakken, Joan Gibb Engel, and J. Ronald Engel, “Ecology, Justice and Christian Faith” (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995); and chapters on state-of-the-art scholarship in Dieter T. Hessel, ed., Theology for Earth Community: A Field Guide (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1996).
2 See Mark Wallace, “The Wounded Spirit as the Basis for Hope in an Age of Radical Ecology,” in Christianity and Ecology, eds., Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard/CSWR, 2000), 51–72.
3 See Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 205–53.
4 See Sallie McFague, “Ecological Christology: Does Christianity Have It?” in Christianity and Ecology, eds., Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard/CSWR, 2000), 29–45.
5 See Dieter T. Hessel, ed., After Nature's Revolt: Eco-Justice and Theology (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1992); Charles Pinches and Jay B. McDaniel, eds., Good News for Animals? Christian Approaches to Animal Well-Being (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1993); Viggo Mortensen, ed., “Concern for Creation: Voices on the Theology of Creation,” in Tro and Tanke (The Lutheran World Federation,  5); Drew Christiansen and Walter Grazer, eds., “And God Saw that it was Good,” in Catholic Theology and the Environment (Washington, D.C.: US Catholic Conference, 1996); Jerome A. Stone, ed., “Eco-Justice and the Environment,” in the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, 18, no. 1 (January 1997); and Stephen Bede Scharper, Redeeming the Time: A Political Theology of the Environment (New York: Continuum, 1997).
6 See Dieter T. Hessel, “Ecumenical Ethics for Earth Community,” Theology and Public Policy, VIII, no.1, 2 (1996).
7 See James A. Nash, “Toward the Ecological Reformation of Christianity,” Interpretation, 50, no.1 (January, 1996).
8 See Barbara Rossing, “River of Life in God's New Jerusalem: An Eschatological Vision for Earth's Future,” in Christianity and Ecology, eds., Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard/CSWR, 2000), 205–24.
9 Ted Hiebert, “The Human Vocation: Origins and Transformations in Christian Traditions,” in Christianity and Ecology eds., Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard/CSWR, 2000), 135–54.
10 See the discussion of economism versus oikonomia, and the “Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare” in Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future, Rev. Ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).