Christianity and Ecology
Heather Eaton, St. Paul University
See also Ernst Conradie’s article on Christianity and ecology in the Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology
Christians have been grappling with the ecological crisis for several decades, in many ways and in distinct contexts and traditions. Ecological issues have seeped into all aspects of Christian theologies, church leadership and practices, noting that Christianity must always be understood as diverse, with multiple historical and existing cultural traditions and challenges. The overall aims are to orient Christianity towards ecological sustainability, and to transform the traditions and practices. An ecological influence on Christian traditions is now worldwide and growing and is considered here under the rubric of ecotheology. There are countless people developing ecotheology across traditions and theological disciplines. A few will be mentioned throughout, noting there are many more.
Ecotheology is prominent in theological studies, seminaries, workshops, conferences and parishes. This work represents a significant range of perspectives, traditions and topics, as well as differing emphases on interpretation, ethics, leadership, ritual and social practices. Ecotheology, while confessional, provides critiques of Christianity as well as comprehensive reforms, generating constructive and creative transformations. These include assessments of biblical and other texts and teachings, and revisions of meaning on such themes as creation, revelation, redemption and soteriology. There are three prevalent methods: retrieval, such as the Earth Bible Project, (Norman Habel, Elaine Wainright, Vicky Balabanski); reinterpretation, such as expanding the precept of a ‘preferential option for the poor’ to include the Earth (Ivone Gebara, Leonardo Boff), and; reconstruction, such as with Process theology (John Cobb, Catherine Keller), ecological sin (Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople) and the renewal of creation theologies (Sallie MdFague, Jürgen Moltmann, John Haught, Elizabeth Johnson, Celia Deane-Drummond). There are deliberations on ecological hermeneutics (Ernst Conradie, Kim Yong Bok), ethics (James Nash, Larry Rasmussen, Sigurd Bergmann) ecojustice (Dieter Hessel, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Mary Grey, John Hart) and ecofeminism (Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gebara, Heather Eaton). Rituals, symbols, and spiritual practices are being revised (Paul Santmire, Denis Edwards, Nancy Wright). There are reflections on cosmology, science and worldviews (Thomas Berry, Ian Barbour, Charles Birch, Anne Primavesi, Ilia Delio), as well as religiously motivated activism against local ecological deterioration. Ecotheology crosses into systematics, ethics, history, biblical studies, rituals and liturgies, and spirituality, and spans the diversity of Christianities. Ecotheology is a fertile field of study in theology and Process thought, feminist analyses, Black, Mujerista and Ecowomanist theologies, postcolonial and animal studies, and other topics and approaches. Ecotheology is vast in scope and includes revitalizations of all these aspects, and often has an emphasis on justice, and social, political and ecological ethics.
Ecotheologies may accentuate either the ecological or theological aspects, and unites around goals of connecting Christianity with nature, promoting constructive human-Earth relations, and resisting ecological decline. As a whole ecotheology represents significant developments in, and renewal of, Christian thought, worldviews, and practices. The consequences are both comprehensive reforms of Christianity, as well as new expressions, noting that experiences and interpretations of adherents vary widely as does the variance between beliefs and actions, and principles and practices. Distinct approaches have been developed in Catholic, Anglican, Reformed, United, Evangelical, Eastern and Greek Orthodox, Methodist, Lutheran and more, and these are further differentiated in countries and contexts. In fact, within the spectrum of Christianity all the major ecclesial traditions are involved. In addition, there is a range of traditionalist, reformist, progressive and radical. Regardless of the diversity, from the 1970’s to the present, the force and flourishing of ecotheology is astounding.
Challenges and contributions
Several challenges and contributions occur at the intersection of Christianity and ecology. These can be internal to theology, on how theology engages with other religions and disciplines, or how to relate to global diversity, or respond to the complexity of ecological issues. Examples of each are given, noting that work in ecotheology is extensive, and is making contributions to all of these topics.
Early publications stressed an urgency to respond to ecological issues as well as to address prevalent, albeit simplistic, claims against Christianity, such as the in infamous essay by Lynn White suggesting that Christianity’s devaluation of nature is a cause of the ecological crisis.[i] Of course, there is no direct cause and effect between Christianity and ecological disregard. Also, many other factors, such as economics and capitalism, and the lack of ecological literacy, have created the cultural conditions for ecological crises to develop. Nonetheless, ecotheologians reexamined the worldview and basic values ingrained in Eurowestern consciousness and Christian theological presuppositions. They engaged in extensive ideological excavation of the ideals and theories embedded in the worldview(s) that have led to pervasive and unfettered ecological decline in Christian-influenced cultures. For example, they had to address the historical, and contemporary, Christian anthropocentrism, an emphasis on humanity’s transcendence over the natural world, and the claims nature was void of divine presence. Throughout much of Christian history is the idea that the natural world is fallen, corrupt, imperfect or irrelevant. The result is death. Humans must then be saved, redeemed or restored from nature, with a promise of eternal life. Although each religious worldview has some perception that life does not end with death, the Christian tradition has potent otherworldly imagery that has both depreciated Earth life and supported notions that salvation means from this world. This led ecotheologians to criticize otherworldly interpretations of redemption, salvation, and resurrection. Dualist imagery, which was operative across all Christian traditions - heaven/earth, spirit/matter, culture/nature, mind/body, men/women, divine/demonic – was excavated and exposed, and assessed as neither accurate nor informative. Christian worldviews were rethought at a foundational level.
Other challenges concerning beliefs around Christologies, a closed canon, biblical inerrancy, and Christian imperialism and colonialism also had to be addressed. It became clear that Christianity, as with all religious views, must remain fluid, attentive to presuppositions, values, orientation and impact. Religions should be supple, receptive to new insights, and able to abandon out-dated or unworkable beliefs, interpretations and dogmas in order to be relevant to the exigences of the era.
All this work is part of the critique and internal reformation of aspects of the Christian traditions. It sparked intense re-evaluations of Christian thought, with different emphases according to the tradition, context and operative beliefs. These intro- and retrospections have resulted in the retrieval of texts and teachings that connect the natural world to divine presence, and in multiple ways. Revising elements of Christianity, and encouraging Christians to participate, should be seen as a rapid yet deep and ongoing transformation, in response to increasing and complex ecological issues.
Developments in Christian ethics also represents both challenges and contributions. The challenges are how to include ecological concerns in customary approaches to ethics, and/or to expand approaches to ethics to be responsive. For example, feminist ethics became influenced by ecofeminism, and social justice discourses were transformed by global efforts in ecojustice, environmental racism, climate justice and ecological activism. Issues and analyses of inequality, discriminations, economic exploitation, structural violence and systemic domination were expanded to include ecological aspects, and in turn influenced a range of Christian ethics and appeals for ecological and social justice.
It is important to note that Christian ecotheology is developing as other disciplines are being pressured to be ecologically relevant. New knowledge from sciences, reports about climate instability, the state of ocean life, deforestations, extinctions, water quality, plastics, and myriad ecological deteriorations is emerging constantly, and requiring responses. Christianity, among other disciplines and religions, had to undergo an ecological conversion.
Other challenges and contributions come from collaborations with the emerging field of religion and ecology, which is occurring in tandem with Christian ecotheology. Today, the alliance of religion and ecology is a multifaceted global agenda, and countless programs. The Forum on Religion and Ecology has been a leader and supporter of many initiatives. Most religions have engaged in similar reconstructions as has Christianity. The collaborative efforts across religious traditions evokes questions about the nature of religion, religious epistemologies, sensibilities, orientation and sources, and the importance of theories of lived and critical religions. Challenges exist, at times, when ecotheologians enter the field of religion and ecology, as theology tends to overlook other religions, including the histories, diversities and complexities. In general, theology operates with deficient theories of religion and epistemology. Thus, at times there is an uneasy placement of ecotheology within academic spheres of religion and ecology. However, while some streams of eco-Christianity remain in traditional boundaries, others venture into the field of religion and ecology and embrace new questions and insights. The dialogues between ecotheology and the field of religion and ecology are important, albeit distinct depending on competence, experience and interest in these more comprehensive frameworks.
For example, every religion and culture present a creation or origin story which provides meaning and orientation to human life and fulfills the need to grapple with the perennial questions of time, space, origins and destiny. Such stories are usually longstanding and may have lost their relevance or effectiveness in the face of new knowledge, global exchanges, or the plurality of viewpoints. Christianity has examined the biblical origin story and reflected on various meanings of the role of humanity as ecological steward, gardener, or Earth-keeper rather than as having dominion. Religious traditions have been challenged by discoveries from sciences about Earth origins, biospheric development, and the evolution of life, as well as the processes of the universe out of which emerged the solar system and planet Earth. Some Christian traditions have integrated evolutionary biology and cosmology into a new understanding of ‘origins’.
There are several other noteworthy challenges that pertain to religions engaging on ecological issues. One is the radical diversity and plurality of cultures, views, values and beliefs. How do we assess these? For example, the social construction of nature is contested. Is a forest a sacred grove, an ecosystem, animal habitat, lumber, real estate, or an eco-tourism destination? Is the natural world a set of resources with instrumental value or a living community with intrinsic value? A great deal depends on the answer, and yet an ecological sustainable vision is imperative. However, which vision? In whose interests? How can a community decide which vision to embrace? What vision will inspire? There are diverse and competing visions, and the processes of change from one to another are not straightforward. It is crucial to embrace radical diversity and plurality and unity: an ecological vision with agreed values, ethical principles and cooperative actions.
A connected challenge is that some problems cannot be grappled with contextually, as they are global in scope and/or the administrators are trans or multinational. Some pertinent concerns are climate change, international land grabs, corporate rights on fresh water sources or icebergs, energy (transnational pipelines), mining privileges, food insecurities, corporate ownership of food, environmental refugees (who surpass political refugees), environmental illnesses, and more. These issues require several disciplines to understand and cross many contexts. They are global, local and contextual realities. The term ‘global issues’ is too vague, and contextual is inaccurate, resulting in additional challenges for a robust ecotheology to address.
The last challenge to be mentioned is that a correlation between Christian-influenced cultures and ecological exploitation, extractive economies, extreme consumption, and climate emissions is evident. In tandem, Christian bodies have done little to restrain deforestation, species extinction, water contamination, and so on. There are tensions between ecotheology from the global South, where poverty, ecological decline, and often political instability are intense, and that of the affluent post-industrialized, high consumer and waste production regions. Questions arise as to the key priorities, and the fundamental global inequities around ecological resources, access, ownership and decline. These cultural, denominational and theological divergences can be a call to greater equality and justice and cooperation, and/or a distraction to an overall agreement that Christians need to address ecological issues locally, nationally and internationally. Planetary solidarity is becoming a prophetic call.
Countless contributions around Christianity and ecology are effective and active in their communities. At the local levels there are innumerable contributions of conferences, workshops, retreat centres, and church groups addressing everything from the range of ecotheology topics to public policy on waste, water, transportation, and climate activism. At the national level, many denominations and theological organizations have incorporated forms of Earth ministries, Earth-keeping, stewardship, climate justice and more into their national policies.
Internationally, The World Council of Churches and their initiative of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC), has provided leadership and sustained programs in many Christian traditions, countless contexts and on multiple issues for decades. The importance of connecting Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation has been recognized worldwide, and has opened possibilities of working locally, with Indigenous peoples for example, of opening national offices, and devising international campaigns on climate justice, nonviolence, and poverty. Another important contribution is the document, Laudato Si: On Care of Our Common Home, from the Catholic Institutional church, released in 2015, as part of the Catholic social teaching encyclicals. It is a comprehensive overview of the need to connect integral ecology to peace, justice, education and governance, as well as to understand the mechanisms that create poverty, ecological ruin and social injustices. This document has resonance around the world, within multiple Christian traditions and with other religions. These speak to the need for programs and visions that are sufficiently clear yet open-ended to encourage creativity, participation and action. There are multiple robust efforts addressing religion and ecology from diverse organizations, such as The Earth Charter, Alliance of Religion and Conservation, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, The Parliament of Religions of the World, United Nations Environment Program, World Wildlife Fund, Earth Democracy, Global Peace Initiative of Women, and more, and each encourages collaboration.
There is no doubt that the field of Christianity and ecology, representing efforts of all kinds, is a much-needed response to the ecological challenges of this era and for the future. The internal challenges to Christianity have been somewhat replaced with an engagement with ecological issues. This means that Christianity - adherents, churches, theological schools, retreat centres, national offices – has many options, and places of transformation. While some issues are local, others relate to ecosystems and bioregions, or are planetary, such as climate instability. This supports the need to collaborate across regions, religions and disciplines. Christianity is a religion: a worldview offering meaning and orientation, as well as a political, economic and ethical force. Christian themes of revelation, liberation and solidarity are compelling for ecological concerns. Human experiences of wonder, humility, grace and gratitude are of utmost importance, as are the ethics of equality, resistance and sacrifice. The commitments of justice, flourishing, equality, preferential option for the Earth, and the goodness of creation can be integrated deeply, and be a transformative power. It can take the form of ritual, education, persuasion, policymaking, activism and resistance. Prophetic voices are needed. The conviction of the centrality of love, hope, faith, and an ever-renewing spirit provide energy and inspiration, and at times consolation.
Some consider this era to be a new religious moment. Not only is the ecological crisis provoking concern, new thinking, social engagement and cross-sector collaboration. It is evident that there is a need for global commitments to ecologically sustainable communities, and ones that will preserve the elegance and beauty of the whole Earth community. Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest and historian of religions, addressed the question of vision. Much of his work was an inquiry into what could be an adequate, ecological, and spiritual vision. For Berry, it must comprise a sufficiently broad horizon commensurate with scientific knowledge of the emergent universe, of time, space and Earth dynamics, incorporate a suitable grasp of the histories and complexities of religions, be ecologically literate, and deeply inspiring. Such a vision must give humanity a way to live within the rhythms and limits of the natural world, and as a member of this Earth community. The insights about the origins and developments of the universe, the emergence and dynamics of evolution, and Earth’s integrated and entangled processes reveal how embedded humans are in what Christians can refer to as the deep incarnation. For some this knowledge, perspective and vision offers the most power and promise for an overall orientation for a viable future.
Lynn White,(1967), The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” Science (155: 1203-1207.