Reflections on Ecology, Theology and Ethics

Despite several decades of research, education programs, and advocacy, humanity continues to deplete natural resources and pollute the ecosystem of the planet at an alarming rate (Tucker and Grim, xv-xvi). The ecological problem has reached crisis proportions within the last century not because of a fundamental change in attitude toward the environment but because of an enormous change in our technical ability to manipulate our surroundings quickly.

Since the beginning of the modern human species we have manipulated the land around us to our personal gain. It has been theorized that Ice Age humans caused the extinction of many large mammalian species in North America. Furthermore, pre-conquest Native Americans often thought of as “noble savages” who did not manipulate or exploit nature, used extensive slash and burn techniques to control the populations of game species (Jacobs, 25-6; Cronon, 17-24). Human beings are manipulators and exploiters of the environment by nature. This parasitic relationship to nature is not surprising given the fact that we are animals caught up in the sometimes dirty business of survival, but unlike the beaver that damns a stream, humans are capable of damning every stream on Earth.    Unlike the changes that a predatory species can cause in its prey over thousands or millions of years, humans can (and have) drastically alter other species (i.e. domestication) very quickly. Although all species exert a certain force on all the others in comes into contact with human have, through technology and ingenuity, the ability to affect everything under the sun. Indeed, humanity has caused unknown numbers of species to simply cease to exist altogether and we continue to do so on a daily basis (World Commission on Environment and Development, 149-154). Beyond our difference from other species in the scope and rate of our impact on the rest of the ecosystem human beings are aware of their actions and can choose to do otherwise. In Biblical terms, humanity is blessed with free will and responsibility; made in the image of God.

Over the past half century much has been made of the responsibility of Christian theology and ethics for the current environmental crisis. Though now seen as a vast oversimplification, Lynn White’s famous critique of the Judeo-Christian worldview and its license to dominate the natural world cannot, ultimately, be denied (White, 48-54). Christian interpretation (largely dependent on dualistic philosophical categories inherited from the Greeks and Ancient Near Eastern religions) of the Biblical stories of creation has contributed to the understanding of the natural world as lacking in divine presence. Greek philosophical aversion to matter, co-opted by the early church lead to a mythical worldview of a material realm of sin and corruption which the Christian should strive to overcome. Within the dualistic metaphysics of spirit (or mind) versus matter Christian theologians stressed the high place afforded to humanity under heaven. In the middle ages, with the Thomistic appropriation of Aristotle in Europe, the cosmos was understood as a collection of substantial levels arranged hierarchically with matter at the bottom and mind or soul at the top. Within this worldview human beings were seen as just slightly “below” the angels, but clearly “above” and hence removed from material nature and even other living things (Bodéüs, 52-72; Brown, 251-256).

Since humanity was deemed separate from the rest of nature it became increasingly easy to view nature as a “thing” that could justly be used in any way humans wanted. Such freedom to treat the natural world as an alien other fostered the development of science and technology since one is much more comfortable studying (dissecting especially) a “thing” then someone. Eventually, the objectification of the natural world grew to include the human body (and then the mind as well), which was not an acceptable object of study until relatively recently.

Throughout the period of the rise of modern science Christian theology, with its typically diminutive view of nature, provided the justification needed for objectifying the natural world. The early scientists, for the most part, viewed their task as that of examining the handiwork of God in order to know more about “Him.” They studied the clockworks of the heavens (Galileo), the mechanisms of the physical world (Newton), along with the plumbing of the bodies of animals and plants, but nowhere in there studies did they find God within the natural order. Rather, they saw God as the transcendent architect of that order, an order that had furthermore been given over to humanity by God (Genesis 1:28). The one-sidedly transcendent view of God removed the divine from nature and thus sowed the seeds of environmental indifference and modern atheism. The sense of dominion over nature naturally grew with the power that arose from understanding better the mechanisms of the world. Technology, the application of scientific discoveries to the manipulating of the environment and fellow human beings, quickly followed the growth of scientific discovery. The laws of motion and mechanics developed by physics were soon applied to the engineering of machines, at first powered by water then by fossil fuels. All the while the Christian conception of nature as a thing continued to promote the use (and abuse) of resources to the “betterment” of humanity. Personal ethics of work, fueled by spirituality and hopes of a better lot in the next life beyond the physical world served to reinforce these views of nature until the industrial revolutions brought about the modern world economically, socially, politically, and unfortunately ecologically. With the rise of the industrial economy, based on an objectification of nature, and dependent on it for its raw materials, the human population exploded. Industrial capitalism not only contributed to more people being born and through advances in medicine living longer, it also led to far greater impacts on the environment per person as consumption of natural resources sky rocketed (Rolston, 415-416; cf. chapter 5 of VanDeVeer and Pierce “Economics, Ethics and Ecology”).

Contemporaneous with the rise of a hierarchical worldview was the systemic and systematic subordination of humans deemed closer to the material (non-sacred) world. Chief among these people have been women. From the earliest days of human civilization the earth, fertility and the feminine have been associated (Ruether, 97-112). The biologically inaccurate, yet intuitively plausible, view of women as in some sense similar to the fertile earth likely arose from reflection on the mystery of child birth. The observable connection between the lunar month and the menstrual cycle added further “evidence” that women were more “natural” than men.

While the evidence does not support the view that men and women ever lived together in complete equality the advent of dualism between nature and the rational and the divine typified by the replacement of female deities with a single male God modeled on a monarch in the religion of ancient Israel (Johnson, 3-11. A similar process can be seen in the advent of ruling male deities in Egypt and Greece). It would seem to be no coincidence that the same period which saw the subjugation of the material world and women also saw the rise of slavery and the military state as a male form of government to maintain and reinforce the power structure (which is the social correlate of hierarchical structures in the cosmos) naturally found their way into Christian theology and culture despite the Biblical and ancient Hebraic view of the unity of the social and the natural (to say nothing of God’s proclamation that the world is “His” good creation, cf. Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).

In the preceding discussion of the origins of the current ecological crisis it became clear that Christian theology and ethics has played a role (though not an unambiguous one) in the objectification of the natural world as well as women and other groups thought to be less human by a typically male Caucasian dominate culture in the West. Christianity’s one-sided allegiance to the transcendence of God versus a more immanent view was central (if not determinative) in this process. Fortunately, while prominent features in the Christian tradition have contributed to the abuse of nature there are other strands of Christian thought which can be brought to bear on the situation.

Traditional Christian theology has four major ways to approach the ecological crisis. These are the doctrines of creation, incarnation, and God as well as God’s explicit commandment to respect and care for the Earth. Each of these angles on the issue potentially contributes to a more balanced understanding of the relationship between God and creation including us humans. Rather than a simply one-sidedly transcendent or immanent view, these traditional Christian resources offer a way toward a more balanced theology.

Prominent among Christian theological ideas used by the current wave of ecotheologians is the doctrine of creation. Creation fell largely out of favor around five hundred years ago in the West with the dawn of both the heliocentric solar system and the turn toward the human subject in philosophy and religion. Elizabeth Johnson notes that during the first 1500 years of Western Christian thought nature was viewed as a locus of God’s salvific and revelatory action. Nature was therefore implicitly sacramental (Johnson, 5-7). Consistent with the majority of Biblical passages, early and medieval theologians viewed nature as intimately tied up with human and divine affairs and not merely the location for salvation history (Johnson, 5-8). This relatively eco-friendly understanding of nature as revealing of God’s will, intensions and even presence (Cf. St. Francis) eventually gave way to the modern scientific objectified view of nature. In Roman Catholic circles the heliocentric universe of Galileo and others shook confidence in the entire cosmology so integral to early Renaissance faith (Johnson, 8-9). In Protestant circles obsession with the question of personal salvation and an aversion to “works or righteousness” lead to an increased focus on the human person and history as the locus of divine activity (taken to extremes by Hegel who substituted history for God) (Johnson, 9-11). The result in each case was the relative dismissal of the natural world as important for theology, and therefore for God. Though Johnson does note the influence of Greek philosophical dualism and the hierarchical universe which resulted from it she largely underestimates its significance for Christian attitudes toward nature (Johnson, 7). Although theologians from Augustine through Aquinas saw the natural world as revealing of God’s purposes and nature they nonetheless did not see God as present in nature. Such a view would have been dismissed as pantheistic heresy no doubt, and so was avoided by all but a few daring mystics (mystics are, however, always on the fringe of the religious establishment). Human beings, furthermore, were always seen as different from, and “higher” than, the natural world. Aristotle’s levels of being, capped by God, were given levels for the various heavenly hosts, angels, and other beings above humanity. Human beings, however, were placed squarely at the top of the chain of being within the everyday visible realm. Humanity was therefore cut off from nature well before the intensification at the dawn of the modern period which Johnson rightly places such high stock in for the present ecological crisis. The point is this, the deeply rooted attitude toward nature that made science, technology, and our environmental problems of today arose well before the start of the scientific and industrial revolutions.

Johnson and others have made the case that in Western theology a return to natural theology with its reflection on the environment as revelatory is needed in order to combat the ecological crisis (Johnson, 17-18). While a repeal of the modern developments within Catholicism (away from science and therefore nature until Vatican II at least) and Protestantism (away from nature toward humanity and linear history) which helped bring about the unprecedented growth of an objectified utilitarian view of nature does seem to be in order, such a move would not go far enough. As Johnson herself notes in the conclusion to her essay “Losing and Finding Creation in the Christian Tradition,” “the reality and well-being of the actual world needs to become the context, the overarching vision, within which all topics are approached, as well as a substantive partner in theological interpretation and a subject of ethical action” (18). It is therefore the unqualified transcendence of the divine (and hence the good) which needs to be overcome in Christian reflection if theology is to have a constructive place in the efforts to maintain balance in the natural world. Additionally, it would seem of paramount importance to recognize human beings as merely different in degree and not in kind from the rest of creation. Such a view would be consistent with the centrally important but often marginalized component of the doctrine of creation that God’s world is good and that God delights in and cares for all of it, including humans.

In addition to God’s concern for creation Christian theology has a tradition of affirming God’s actual presence within creation in the incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ. John tells us that God “so loved the world” that God sent the Son into it (John 3:16). At the heart, therefore, of Christology is the idea, expressed also in the doctrine of creation, that God is concerned with the world and humanity. There are however two distinct ways to interpret incarnational Christology. First one can see God’s descent into the human person of Jesus (or his ascent) as incarnation into human life within linear history for the purposes of personal human salvation. Second one can see God’s descent into the person of Jesus (or his ascent) as incarnation into creation itself for the purposes of restoring all of it to communion with God and harmony with itself. Process theologians, such as John Cobb, have made this second incarnational point (Wildman, 217-237). The first view of incarnation has long held sway in the West and seems to support the objectification and relative insignificance of nature. The second view, that of a more general incarnation of God in the world, on the other hand, might lead to the recognition of the sacramental character of creation, thus prompting respect for and wise use of the environment.   

Intimately related to the doctrines of creation and incarnation (ways God relates to the world and humanity) is the nature of God itself. John Macquarrie has pointed out that throughout Western Christian history the transcendence of God has been emphasized to the neglect of God’s immanence (Macquarrie, 30-42). In basic terms, God is typically understood as “beyond,” “above,” and otherwise removed from creation. Such an emphasis on God’s otherworldliness guards against pantheism (the identification of creation with God and vice versa). Transcendence also leads to a tendency to concern ones self with the “next life,” or the world beyond or after this one (heaven and/or the eschaton). Such a tendency has deep implications for ecology. It promotes the view that the material world is less real then the spiritual (Aristotle, Aquinas). This view in turn provides the basic justification for objectifying nature (and women) and therefore thinking of it in utilitarian and exploitative ways. Spirit/matter dualism also contributes to anthropocentric views of nature, with humanity “above” the rest of creation, and the oppression of non-elite humans as somehow less spiritually pure and more material (especially victimized in this regard have been women and non-whites).

In order to counter act the effects of one-sided transcendence Macquarrie has proposed a kind of balanced approach to God which he calls dialectical theism. Closely related (if not identical to) panentheism, dialectical theism seeks to balance transcendence with immanence. God is both the transcendent “whence” from which all things have come and the immanent sustaining and caring force which binds the world together with God and unites God’s self (Macquarrie, 171-184, 212-224). Such a view avoids both the theologically untenable position of pantheism while also avoiding the objectifying effects of a purely transcendent God concept.

As has been briefly demonstrated Christian tradition has at its disposal several theological tools in order to combat the human mindset responsible for the ecological crisis in the first place. By balancing the tendency to think in terms of spirit versus matter the doctrines of creation, incarnation and a dialectical doctrine of God provide a strong basis for reflection on the environment which can inform the behavior of Christians and others. It can be hoped that through the re-appropriation of creation, incarnation and the reframing of “God”, Christianity can lead the way toward a new vision, a holistic worldview conceived for the environment because it is a “right and good and joyful thing” to do so (Book of Common Prayer, 367 and passim). If, however, such a re-envisioning of theological ideas cannot be made there may still be hope for a responsible Christian response to the environment.

If creation, incarnation, and dialectical God are untenable or ineffective the Christian concerned for the welfare of the natural world may also point quite simply to the decree of God as recorded in scripture. Throughout the Hebrew Bible the people of Israel experience God as deeply concerned for both them as well as the Earth. Repeatedly the prophets speak of famine, draught etc. as the result of human sin (Isaiah 24:7, Amos 5 etc.). In perhaps the most profound statements in the Bible (though often misused by anti-abortionists and others) God says to the people of Israel that “He” calls heaven and earth to witness against humanity that “He” has set before us life and death, blessing and the curse (Deuteronomy 30:19). These words apply equally to the behavior of a nomadic people thousands of years ago as they do to us today.

We truly are faced with a choice. We can choose to continue to treat the planet we inhabit as a thing to be used and abused or we can choose to live in harmony with it. We can choose to continue to violate the integrity of creation or we can choose to honor and respect our fellow creatures under God. We can choose to transcend and dismiss nature or we can choose to embrace it and accept our place within it. We are faced with a choice between life and death, blessing and curse, and the Earth has witnessed against us with its dirty air and polluted streams, its missing plants and animals, and it’s unleashing of diseases on humanity. Will we choose life or death? The choice is ours to make, as beings graced with freedom and made in the image of God. But the Holy One, the God of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Hagar, Moses and Miriam, Mary and Joseph, calls on us to choose life. For ourselves and our children, and, now more than ever, for all life everywhere.

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