Ecology and Religion: Ecology and Christianity

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The problem of human distortion of ecological processes, to which much attention has been given since the 1960s, was not directly considered in most of Christian history. Whereas the teaching of Jesus reflects a rural context, the early church developed largely in urban centers of the Mediterranean world, where even the issues associated with agriculture were little considered. Christian theology dealt with human relations and especially the relation of human beings to God. Christian teaching in the early church had little bearing on how the natural world was treated at the time.

Nevertheless, retrospectively, the relevance of its teaching in this regard can be seen in the habits of mind and common practices that developed in Western Christendom after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Concepts of nature that primarily dealt with the human body and its sexuality colored attitudes toward the wider natural world. Doctrines of gender designed to support patriarchy also had their influence on the treatment of the natural world. The important doctrine of creation could be read either as a strong affirmation of the value of the natural world or as dethroning its claims to sacrality and opening it to exploitation.

Biblical scholars at the dawn of the twenty-first century can show that there are rich resources for the development of an ecological theology in the Christian canon. Historians of doctrine can show that traditional formulations have positive contributions to make. But the fact is that, at least in the West, these opportunities for the development of an ecological theology were neglected. Christian teaching generally led to the study of the natural world as testimony to God's greatness and to the use and manipulation of the world to satisfy human desires. It directed people away from a sense of kinship with other creatures and from treating the earth as worthy of respect in its own right.

Throughout most of Western history, Christian teaching focused on the process of personal redemption. The understanding of this process was heavily influenced by Paul's distinction between spirit and flesh. From a modern perspective, one can rightly emphasize that the flesh is to be identified not with the body but with an orientation of the whole person away from God. But through most of the history of Western Christianity, this theological duality was closely associated with the metaphysical dualism of mind, or spirit, and matter. The material world was understood to be inferior; to cultivate the spirit was to break away from that world. This required disciplining the body and repressing its desires.

Sexuality, in particular, was viewed as a threat to spirituality. Saint Augustine taught that original sin is transmitted from generation to generation by the sexual act. From the male perspective, sexuality was associated especially with women, so that the denigration of sexuality was used to denigrate women as well. Thus, the affirmation of domination of the body by the spirit justified the domination of women by men. Because the body and its sexuality were the main place where nature appeared in this treatment of redemption, nature as a whole was perceived as an object to be controlled by human efforts.

The tendency to disparage the physical, particularly its expression in sexuality, had immense practical effects in the church. It led to the ideal of celibacy and, in the West, to the rejection of marriage for secular priests as well as for members of religious orders. The only moral justification the Western church allowed for sexual acts was their necessity for procreation. It taught that the pleasure connected with these acts was sinful. The association of the natural world with fertility and sexuality meant that nature shared in the negativity of the human body.

However, the tendency to denigrate the physical world in general was checked by two central Christian doctrines: incarnation and creation. Both of these doctrines required a defense against those who shared the Gnostic tendency to carry the hostility to the physical world through to its consistent conclusion.

The classic text for the doctrine of the incarnation of God in Jesus is in the prologue to John's gospel: "The Word (Logos) became flesh." Those who thought dualistically of the realm of spirit and the realm of flesh resisted this idea. They thought the purely spiritual God could not actually become a part of the physical reality. They argued that Jesus was not a real being of flesh and blood, but only an appearance in the physical world. This idea was called docetism. The church insisted that, on the contrary, the Word truly became "flesh."

There were repeated efforts to interpret incarnation as the replacement of some normally human function in Jesus by the divine. Against this, the creeds insisted that Jesus had all the dimensions of humanity, so that God assumed every aspect of the human. This cut against the sharp dualism of spirit and flesh and indicated that all aspects of human existence are subject to redemption. Although there were strong pressures toward the adoption of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, the church insisted on the resurrection of the body. This can connect with occasional suggestions in the New Testament (especially Romans 8:1923) that the redemption of our bodies is part of the redemption of the whole of creation.

The locus classicus for the discussion of creation is the first chapter of Genesis, which deals far more directly and extensively with the natural world than any passage in the New Testament. It has played the largest role in Christian history in shaping explicit teaching about the natural world, and while it has been read in many ways, it stands against any effort to treat the natural world as inherently unreal or evil.

Those who most strongly opposed the affirmation of the physical world argued that the God who created this world is an inferior god. It cannot, they thought, have been the Father of Jesus Christ. The most important advocate of this view was Marcion, who wanted to cut Christianity off from its Jewish roots. The church stood firm against him, insisting that the Father of Jesus Christ was the creator of the physical world, and that the Jewish scriptures are part of the Christian canon.

Nevertheless, in much of Western Christian history the chief lesson drawn from the Genesis creation story has been that human beings are the crown of creation. They differ from all other creatures in that they alone are in the image of God, and God has given all the other creatures to human beings to control and use. People are commanded both to subdue the earth and to increase in number. Hence, although the goodness of the world is recognized in this view, that goodness is understood to be a matter of its usefulness to human beings. A nature that resists subjugation to human control may still be viewed in a very negative light. Anthropocentrism and dualism both gain support from this reading.

This reading of Genesis provides the background for the dominant Western understanding of the story of the fall, in which the image of God in human beings is radically corrupted. From this it might be concluded that the difference between humans and other creatures is greatly diminished and the authorization to subdue them no longer valid. But the typical reading has been quite different. The emphasis has been, instead, that the good nature created by God for human enjoyment, depicted in the Garden of Eden, was also drastically corrupted by human disobedience to God. The earth is, therefore, no longer a friendly context for human life. This accents the need for human beings to dominate and manage the natural world.

A far less anthropocentric and dualistic reading of the creation story is possible. One may emphasize that God sees that creation is good before and apart from human beings. This suggests that the value of other creatures cannot be simply their usefulness to human beings. In most respects, God treats human beings like other animals. The dominion they are given in relation to other animals does not extend to eating them, and like other animals, humans are given only vegetation to eat. The sovereignty of human beings within the created order consists in representing God's rule. God's rule is for the sake of the ruled, not their exploitation. Today, lessons of this sort are drawn frequently from the story. But this was rare in the tradition.

One of the most famous and beloved Christians did draw conclusions from the Scriptures that have led to thinking of him as the patron saint of ecologists. Actually, he might better be thought of as the patron saint of animal lovers. The deep sensitivity of Saint Francis to the natural world was focused on animals. In this relationship he emphasized kinship instead of the dualism that justified exploitation.

Saint Francis was not alone in the medieval period in opposing dualism, however. Many people thought in terms of a great chain of being with many links and stages, rather than in terms of the dualistic either/or. There were many stories, especially from Irish Christianity, of saints who related positively to animals.

At the practical level, there was also some moderation of dualism. In contrast to the Desert Fathers in the East, Western monasticism balanced spiritual disciplines with physical labor in the fields. In contrast with much classical thought, it affirmed the dignity of such work and its worthiness as a form of service to God. Of course, this work was also a matter of manipulation and use.

Sacramental practice could give nature a deeper meaning. It tied spirit to nature in ways that are in tension with dualism. Bread and wine were held to be transmuted into the body and blood of Jesus so as to work salvifically for the believer. Participation in Jesus was attained by the physical act of eating and drinking. Sacramental thinking could extend this to the idea that spirit is found everywhere in nature. Nature is not thereby deified, but it testifies to the divine and communicates it to us.

Instead of advancing from medieval Christianity in an ecological direction, modernity hardened the dualism already well established in Christian teaching and practice. The Christian dualism of the premodern era was more practical than theoretical. God's concern was generally understood to be the redemption of human beings, not of all creatures; and humans were authorized to use other creatures as they saw fit. The church had resisted an ontological dualism that would have declared human beings to be of a different substance from other creatures or spirit to be a different substance from the physical world.

At the dawn of the modern era that resistance was ended in secular philosophy. Descartes affirmed the ontologically different character of mind and matter and set the task of modern philosophy. Many Christians, especially Protestants, followed his lead, only a little checked by their commitment to biblical interpretation. The influence of Saint Thomas on Catholic thought moderated its tendencies to dualism during the modern period.

The secularism that modernity encouraged also rigidified inherited anthropocentrism. This was checked in Christianity by belief in God. Christianity was, in principle, theocentric rather than anthropocentric. The door was open to thinking of the relation of God to the natural world as separate from that of humans to this world. The tendency to anthropocentrism resulted from the belief that God cares primarily for human beings and that the rest of creation was provided to serve and be used by humans. Thus it was derived from theocentrism. But modern secular thought eroded this check on human pretensions. God came to function only as needed by the human thinker, and finally disappeared from consideration altogether. The human world became self-contained.

Most Protestant thinkers have held back from this total atheism. But in many instances in the past two centuries, they have placed anthropology in the center of their work. For many modern Protestants, God seems to be an embarrassment. The anthropocentrism of these theologies goes far beyond that of the tradition.

After Descartes, the most important philosophical influence on Protestant theology has been Immanuel Kant. His dualism is even more extreme than that of Descartes, and his anthropocentrism is thoroughgoing. Whereas Descartes assigned a metaphysical status to nature different from that assigned to mind, Kant argued that nature is a construct of the human mind. It has no separate existence.

Most progressive Protestant theology on the continent of Europe followed Kant's lead in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this way it was free to ignore the challenge of the natural sciences to traditional Christian teaching. The natural world simply disappeared from this theology. Gerhard von Rad, perhaps the greatest Old Testament scholar of the twentieth century, emphasized that Judaism focused on history, not nature. Its basic faith centered on the Exodus story of liberation from bondage in Egypt. The idea of creation was an extension of God's lordship over history. The clear implication is that this extension is dispensable.

Rudolf Bultmann (18841976), the greatest New Testament scholar of the twentieth century, taught that the true message of the Bible was to be found in existential interpretation of the texts. People are to ask of each text what it means in their personal existence. The idea of creation, from this point of view, speaks of a radical personal dependence on God. It says nothing about the natural world. This outcome of the long trajectory of Christian anthropocentrism and dualism highlights, by contrast, that these tendencies were by no means controlling in earlier periods.

Western Christianity was awakened from its dogmatic slumbers primarily by the famous 1967 essay of Lynn White Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis." White wrote as a historian of science and technology. He showed that Western Christianity had, from an early point, a peculiarly strong tendency to dominate its environment. He traced this to the influence of the Western reading of the Bible, and especially the creation story. This attitude provided the context for the development of technology in the West even at a time when it was somewhat backward culturally. Later it provided the context for the rise of modern science. When science and technology came together in the chemical revolution, and later in the nuclear one, the mastery over nature that was called for in the Western reading of Genesis was dramatically realized. The result, however, is to endanger the future of life on the planet. Unless the goal of mastery is checked by other attitudes toward the natural world, the human venture, now led by the West, is likely to end in catastrophe.

Since the 1970s, Christians have scrambled, somewhat successfully, to contribute to the ecological worldview that is now so urgently needed. This has been done chiefly by highlighting aspects of the scriptures and tradition that had been progressively obscured. Official church teaching had already freed itself from the general denigration of sexuality and the human body that played so large a role in shaping its negativity toward nature. In the twentieth century it recognized that this view of sexuality is not biblical and has been profoundly harmful. This repentance for deeply entrenched teachings paved the way for the recovery of the positive affirmations of the natural world in the doctrines of creation and incarnation and the Pauline understanding of salvation (see Rom. 8:1923).

Meanwhile, Eastern Orthodox thought has found new vitality in addressing ecological issues. It had never gone as far as the West in viewing human beings or nature as fallen, it rejected Augustine's understanding of original sin as transmitted through the sexual act, and it was not influenced by Cartesian dualism and Kantian idealism. Accordingly, it has never been as anthropocentric or dualistic as the West. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has given strong leadership in the Christian world in bringing the church's thought to bear on ecological issues in a positive way.

The Roman Catholic Church has also spoken powerfully through letters from the pope and from the bishops. Among Protestants, the World Council of Churches has done especially creative work since 1972 when it introduced sustainability into its vision of healthy societies. Later it called for respect for the "integrity of nature." Many member churches have developed their own statements. There is also a movement among evangelicals to develop an ecological theory influenced by the Bible.

In the West, most of the progress in formulating a more ecological theology has come from distinguishing Christian teaching from the Greek and modern philosophies that have so greatly influenced it. In the East, on the other hand, the philosophical theology of Gregory of Nyssa has been reemphasized for its positive value. In the West, process theology has called for a new connection with philosophy, this time with one that has systematically developed some of the biblical themes that are most useful for ecological purposes.

For example, the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (18611947) was developed to counteract the dualism and anthropocentrism of modern thought. By identifying process as basic, instead of substance, it connects more closely with the biblical emphasis on event and story. By affirming the intrinsic reality and value of all things, it picks up the teaching of Genesis 1. By showing how creaturely diversity contributes not only to the creatures but also to God, the biblical account of God's creation and the preservation of such diversity are underscored.

Perhaps most important, Whitehead stresses Paul's insight that Christ is in us and we are in Christ and that we are "members of one another" (Eph. 4:25). Nothing is more important to the ecological vision than the deep interconnectedness of all things. Whitehead shows that the entities that make up the world participate in the constitution of other entities as well as in the life of God, and that God participates in the constitution of all creatures. What humans do to other creatures, especially, in New Testament language, "to the least of these" (Matt. 25:40), they do to themselves and to God.

There is, of course, opposition to this view. Some conservative Christians suppose that any strong affirmation of the earth revives paganism and amounts to idolatry. The connection between feminism and much of the best work on ecological theology has added to this opposition, which is directed as much, or more, against feminist theology as against any supposed tendency to deify the natural world.

But by far the larger problem is the difficulty of changing basic attitudes even when the need for change is recognized. Earth Day is widely observed every year, but emphasis on the integrity of creation is still rare during the rest of the year. Christian habits direct attention to war and injustice, but not easily to ecological decline. This remains an afterthought. Even those who oppose anthropocentrism and dualism in theory find it difficult to incorporate a truly different way of viewing the world. When viewed in relation to the depth of change that is needed, what has been accomplished is disappointing. When viewed in relation to where the church was in the 1960s, the change appears remarkable and profoundly hopeful.


Cobb, John B. Jr. Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology. Rev. ed., Denton, Tex., 1995. An early theological response to the recognition of Christian responsibility for the ecological crisis. Originally published in 1972.

Daly, Herman E., and John B. Cobb Jr. For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future. 2d ed. Boston, 1994.

DeWitt, Calvin B. Caring for Creation: Responsible Stewardship of God's Handiwork. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1998. An evangelical perspective on human responsibility toward nature.

Hessel, Dieter T., ed. After Nature's Revolt: Eco-Justice and Theology. Minneapolis, 1992. A carefully integrated collection of papers from American Protestants assessing the Christian legacy and dealing with such special concerns as global warming and economics.

Hessel, Dieter T., and Rosemary Radford Ruether, eds. Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans. Cambridge, Mass., 2000. The largest and most varied collection of papers on the topic, derived from a major international conference. The book also contains an extended bibliography. This is the best place to start to get a sense of where Christians concerned about this topic now are.

McDaniel, Jay B. Earth, Sky, Gods, and Mortals: Developing an Ecological Spirituality. Mystic, Conn., 1990.

McFague, Sallie. Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature. Minneapolis, 1997. An ecofeminist perspective that emphasizes the need for changing economic understanding and practice.

Nash, James A. Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility. Nashville, 1991. A careful study from the broadly neo-orthodox perspective.

Rasmussen, Larry L. Earth Community, Earth Ethics. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1996. A richly theological Lutheran perspective.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. San Francisco, 1992. A Catholic feminist perspective that emphasizes the sacramental vision as supporting a healthy relation to the natural world.

Santmire, H. Paul. The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology. Philadelphia, 1985. Santmire has done the most thorough study of major figures in the Christian tradition to examine their treatment of nature. He identifies promising themes as well as noting the obstacles their teachings pose to the development of an ecological theology.

White, Lynn, Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis." Science 155 (March 1967): 12031207. White's essay was a challenge to the scientific community to recognize the influence of theology on its work and to the Christian community to revise its theology.

John B. Cobb, Jr. (2005)