The term ecotheology came into prominence in the late twentieth century, mainly in Christian circles, in association with the emergent scientific field of ecology. Ecotheology describes theological discourse that highlights the whole "household" of God's creation, especially the world of nature, as an interrelated system (eco is from the Greek word for household, oikos ). Ecotheology arose in response to the widespread acknowledgment that an environmental crisis of immense proportions was threatening the future of human life on the earth. Ecotheology also arose in response to what has been called "the ecological complaint" against Christianity.
The ecological complaint
Some scholars and critics maintain that the Christian faith helped set the stage for the global environmental crisis by instructing generations of believers that God transcends nature, that humans likewise transcend nature, and that nature therefore has meaning in the Christian schema only as an instrument for God's purposes with humans.
The signature Christian teaching in this respect was the theology of human dominion over nature (also called stewardship ), a theology that encouraged manipulation, even exploitation, of nature for the sake of human purposes. According to these scholars and critics, Christianity is unavoidably anthropocentric, no longer relevant to the ecological world, and even, in a sense, spiritually dangerous.
The historical truth, however, is more complex, as a review of Christian theology since 1500 will show. While the emergence of ecotheology is relatively recent, its historic roots in the Christian theology of nature are deep. Christians have held a variety of views about nature, all of them rooted in widely divergent socioeconomic and cultural situations. A nuanced understanding of Christian attitudes to nature must address those differing contexts as well as the explicit theological teachings themselves.
A critical case is the Christian understanding of human dominion over nature. The meanings of this teaching varied substantially from one period to another. From about 1500 to 1750, human dominion was understood in terms of survival in the midst of a threatening world. Much economic life in those times was carried on at a subsistence level, highly dependent on the precarious cycles of small-scale agriculture. Except for the most wealthy, the vast majority of the people had to struggle, with minimal aid from technology and with pervasive dependence on farm animals, such as oxen, in order to hack out agricultural spaces from the primeval forests, where threatening predators, such as wolves, roamed freely, and where a sustainable level of agricultural productivity was highly uncertain. Moreover, although many people lived in the same buildings with their farm animals, which were part of their domestic world, their attitudes toward wild animals tended to be negative, especially within the ranks of the wealthy, who sometimes fostered a hunting culture predicated on delight in killing.
In this socioeconomic context, the biblical idea of human dominion over the earth would have been read and enacted in terms of a life-and-death struggle with the vicissitudes of nature. After the mid eighteenth century, towns and cities emerged in significant numbers in Europe, and human dominion over nature was no longer interpreted in the context of an agricultural struggle for survival, but more in terms of an increasingly crowded urbanized world that was predicated on the exploitation of nature, a world that sometimes prompted a romantic nostalgia for the remembered beauties and purities of life in the country. Human dominion over nature came to be viewed by some believers as a problem, rather than as a self-evident mandate in the quest for survival.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, trends of massive urbanization and industrialization, constantly expanding applications of earthshaking technologies, especially in mining and agriculture, and concomitant pollution of the land, sea, and air in virtually every region of the planet had increased to the breaking point. Issues of human survival on the earth began to emerge, heightened by a growing awareness of the related problems of global poverty, exhaustion of nonrenewable natural resources, and enormous population growth. This global crisis, in turn, posed unprecedented questions to Christian communities around the world. The Christian teaching of human dominion over the earth came under attack, both by believers and by critics hostile to the Christian tradition, because it seemed to symbolize much that was wrong with the way humans had chosen to live on the earth. By the end of the twentieth century, the theme of human dominion over nature had become, in the eyes of many, a scandal. On the other hand, the same theme continued to be affirmed by a few leading Christian theologians and by numerous prominent Christian public policy-makers, who wrote and acted as if the world needed nothing more than business-as-usual.
Such were the major socioeconomic contexts to which Christian theologians responded, consciously or unconsciously. Significantly, these trends were made possible by the burgeoning natural sciences, above all by the mechanistic science championed by Isaac Newton at the turn of the eighteenth century and by the evolutionary science advocated by Charles Darwin during the nineteenth century. Theology was buffeted by these cultural forces, too, especially by Darwinism, which sent tidal waves of anti-religious sentiment coursing through the intellectual world of the times. On the other hand, many theologians thought of their work not as responding to questions raised by socioeconomic or cultural trends, but as a creative exposition of the whole body of traditional Christian teachings, according to the tradition's own norms.
The world of nature and Protestantism
Self-conscious theological reflection about the world of nature was most prominently launched by the two major Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century—Martin Luther and John Calvin—who gave voice to a rich theology of nature. "In every part of the world, in heaven and on earth," Calvin wrote in his Institutes, God "has written and as it were engraven the glory of his power, goodness, wisdom and eternity . . . For the little singing birds sang of God, the animals acclaimed him, the elements feared and the mountains resounded with him, the river and springs threw glances toward him, the grasses and the flowers smiled." Calvin even suggested that when humans contemplate the wonders of God in nature "we should not merely run them over cursorily, and, so to speak, with the fleeting glance, but we should ponder them at length, turn them over in our mind seriously and faithfully, and recollect them repeatedly."
Luther had a similar view of the glories of God in the whole creation and of creation's marvels. "If you truly understood a grain of wheat," he once wrote, "you would die of wonder." In his commentary on Genesis, Luther imagined Adam and Eve before the fall enjoying a common table with the animals. In the same spirit, both reformers thought theocentrically about human interactions with nature: God and his righteousness will set very real limits for the reaches of human pride and arrogance. The created world belonged first and foremost to the Creator and humans were mandated by God to exercise dominion over the earth. But that dominion was understood to be a restoration of Adam's and Eve's lives as caretakers or gardeners, not as a license for exploitation.
Further, both Calvin and Luther affirmed the immediacy of God in nature. For them, God was not detached from the world, far above in some spiritualized heaven. On the contrary, as Luther often said, God is "in, with, and under" the whole created world. This view of nature as divinely given and divinely charged came to its completion in their the reformers' teachings about "last things" (eschatology). Both theologians strongly emphasized the traditional Christian teaching about the resurrection of the body. Both also projected a view of the end of the world as a cosmic consummation, the coming of the "new heavens and new earth" announced in biblical traditions. Nature itself would be "saved" and consummated at the very end.
Fatefully, however, the issues that preoccupied Luther and Calvin had to do not with God and nature, but with God and human salvation. Their theologies, accordingly, took on an anthropocentric character. "Justification by grace through faith alone" was the theological teaching that most occupied their attention. Furthermore, Calvin accented the responsibility of Christians to change the world for the better, teaching that the world was the arena for righteous work and faith-driven social transformation.
The theological heirs of Luther and Calvin, especially in the nineteenth century and thereafter, took the reformers' measured anthropocentrism as a given, but tended to leave behind the reformers' rich teaching about God and the natural world. As a result, Christian theology became more exclusively anthropocentric. There were many reasons for this marked shift of emphasis, not the least of them being the rise of Newtonian mechanistic science and Darwinian evolutionary science, and the need by these post-Reformation theologians to root religious faith in the intangible human spirit or human subjectivity, so as to leave the objective world of nature to natural scientists, and also to protect faith from the attacks of some scientists and scientifically informed philosophers. This anthropocentric dynamic also made it easy for both theologians and Christian lay people to be swept along by the dynamics of industrial society, which were predicated on the exploitations of the earth for the sake of human progress.
Accordingly, many theologians in the first half of the twentieth century, like Emil Brunner and Karl Barth, self-consciously refused to project theologies of nature. Their theologies focused on God and humankind alone. When they did talk about nature, it was typically in highly anthropocentric terms. Both Brunner and Barth affirmed, for example, that the purpose for which God created the world was to have a redemptive history with humankind. Brunner called nature merely "the scenery" for the divine-human drama.
Catholic theologians had to deal with the same socioeconomic and cultural trends, but the officially sanctioned teachings of the Catholic Church tended to be mainly reactive to the expanding claims of the natural sciences, until well into the twentieth century. Traditional Catholic teachings about God's creation of the world and human dominion over the earth were simply affirmed against the advances in science represented by Newton and Darwin. Thus the work of twentieth–century Catholic paleontologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who claimed evolution as a theological theme, were banned by the Papacy until the middle of the twentieth century.
The ecological turn
It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that Christian theology began to take an ecological turn. Teilhard himself had led the way by incorporating evolutionary thought into the corpus of his theology, although Teilhard's theology remained anthropocentric in many ways. The mid-century Protestant thinker Paul Tillich was also a prophetic voice, eschewing the anthropocentrism of theologians like Brunner and Barth, radically criticizing the destructive power of modern "technical reason," and richly reaffirming and reinterpreting Luther's theology of nature in terms of Tillich's own doctrine of God as "the Ground of Being." The era of ecotheology fully emerged, however, only in the 1960s. It was first announced publicly by the pioneering Protestant ecotheologian Joseph Sittler. Drawing on Paul's Letter to the Colossians, Sittler called for a new theology of grace that included rather than excluded nature. Sittler was the first to give the term ecology public prominence as a theological construct and also took the lead in establishing conversations with ecologists like Aldo Leopold and reconsidering Christian poets of ecological consciousness such as Gerard Manly Hopkins.
Perhaps the single most important advocate of ecotheology toward the end of the twentieth century was the ecumenically oriented Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann. Drawing on the theologies of the reformers, the fruits of twentieth century studies of biblical eschatology, and immanentalist insights from the traditions of Jewish mysticism, Moltmann projected a theology of hope for the whole cosmos, giving a holistic, ecological shape to Christian teaching, including an impressive response to issues of global poverty, so much a part of the emergent global environmental crisis. The Protestant theologian John Cobb also made substantial contributions to Christian thought about nature, especially by his explorations of the resources offered to ecotheology by process thought, associated with the work of the twentieth century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.
Ecotheological ethics emerged, too, as a theological field in its own right through the labors of scholars like the Protestant theologian James Nash, who argued that "loving nature" must be an essential theme for Christian theology. Catholic thinkers, such as Thomas Berry and Denis Edwards, made significant contributions to ecotheology drawing respectively on the findings of twentieth-century scientific cosmology and on the wisdom theology of the Bible. In addition, a number of Christian ecofeminists, most prominent among them Rosemary Radford Ruether and Sallie McFague, offered a range of fresh theological methodologies and insights, often reading between the lines of traditional texts to discern how the experience of women and the theological appreciation of nature had been suppressed by normative patriarchal theologians. In addition, the testimony of Eastern Orthodox theology, voiced by thinkers such as Paulos Gregorios, was heard in ecumenical circles emerging from centuries of affirmation of nature by many Orthodox communities. Toward the end of the twentieth century, a growing number of biblical scholars moved away from the anthropocentric assumptions of the previous generation to new and often highly suggestive understandings of the biblical theology of creation.
Vision of ecotheology
All these thinkers presented visions of nature much more consonant with the theologies of Luther and Calvin—although often departing from the reformers' thought in significant ways—than with later anthropocentric trajectories of Christian thought. Viewed as a theological movement, these late twentieth-century ecotheologians can be said to have shared a single vision, rooted in early modern theologies of nature. Characteristically, they championed:
- the idea of divine immanence in the whole cosmos;
- a relational, ecological rather than a hierarchical understanding of God, humans, and the created world;
- a radically reinterpreted view of human dominion over nature in terms of partnership with nature; and
- a commitment to justice for all creatures, not just humans, highlighting the needs of the impoverished masses and endangered species around the globe.
Their theological labors, along with the work of numerous other theologians, reflected theological concerns that emerged from the grass roots in churches around the world. These concerns came to public expression in the second half of the twentieth century in the form of a number of prophetic teachings promulgated by denominational and ecumenical bodies in order to address the global environment crisis. By the year 2002, Christian ecotheology had emerged as a theological movement that had begun to speak with a new and powerful voice on behalf of the whole creation "groaning in travail" (Rom. 8:22).
See also Animal Rights; Anthropocentrism; Deep Ecology; Ecofeminism; Ecology; Ecology, Ethics of; Ecology, Religious and Philosophical Aspects; Ecology, Science of; Gaia Hypothesis; Feminisms and Science; Feminist Cosmology; Feminist Theology; Process Thought; Whitehead, Alfred North; Womanist Theology
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h. paul santmire