Some Themes in Contemporary Christian Eco-Theology and Bible Scholarship
In response to the deepening ecological crisis, theologians and Bible scholars have been developing new interpretations of Christianity and of the scriptures in order to counter the accusation that the Judeo-Christian tradition inevitably devalues the physical world and justifies human exploitation of the creation. This paper sets out some of the themes emerging from this work. We will look at a diverse range of voices that reflect aspects of current thinking.
B. LISTENING TO A NUMBER OF CONTEMPORARY VOICES
1. Richard Bauckham – The Bible, Ecology and the Hubris of Humanity
Richard Bauckham is an English Anglican theologian and Bible scholar. His book Bible and Ecology: Recovering the Community of Creation (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2010) explores how the Bible portrays the relationship between humanity and the rest of the creation. Here are a number of key points.
· God’s Creation is ‘Very Good’ - The scriptures make it clear that the creation belongs to God, rather than to humans, and that God regards the creation as ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31).
· Creation Account (Genesis 2) - If the justification of human dominion and control over creation has focussed on the Genesis 1 account, then this has been at the expense of Genesis 2, which gives a very different emphasis. In Genesis 2, God forms humans from the dust of the soil and they are given the task of tending the garden.
· The Fall (Genesis 3) - The implications of the Fall for human dominion have often been neglected. The dominion offered to humanity in Genesis 1 is inextricably linked to the human capacity to reveal the divine image. This wisdom is lost or at least obscured in the narrative of the fall. As a result of the fall, humans become a disorderly influence in the world, disrupting its harmony and natural rhythms. Fallen human action supports the forces of chaos and destruction against the order of God (Bauckham 2010, p.18 & p.60). Humanity acting as if it controls the creation is a significant aspect of the fallen state, since it reflects the delusional belief that humans are gods, rather than mere creatures.
· The Book Job – Humbling Humanity - We need to recognise that human humility is a much-needed ecological virtue. There are a number of passages in scripture where God humbles people by revealing their absolute limitations; humans are creatures, not gods. A good example of this is the Book of Job. In chapter 38, God shows Job the vast panorama of the cosmos to make him realise his limited knowledge, power and understanding. The cosmos has order, but Job has limited understanding and is forced to accept humility before the immensity and mystery of creation. In chapters 40 and 42, God further undermines Job’s pride by reminding him that he is incapable of controlling the cosmos. Only God can subdue the forces of chaos and bring order (Bauckham 2010, pp.38-46 & pp.56-60).
· Human Morality and the Land - The Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms and Isaiah) indicate that the health and productivity of the land is closely linked to human morality and obedience to God. This is also reflected in the Torah sabbatical institutions, which seek to impose strict limits on the human use of the land (Bauckham 2010, pp.26-27).
· The Community of Creation - The Bible describes the creation as good, beautiful and fruitful, existing in a state of community, based on interrelationships and interdependence. In this sense, humans cannot simply regard the earth as a commodity to be bought and sold. For example, Genesis 9:12 makes clear that God’s covenant is made with all living things, not just with humans. Humans are one creature among others and must respect the God-given order of creation (Bauckham 2010, p. 34).
2. Sallie McFague – Creation is the Body of God
Sallie McFague is an American Feminist theologian whose writings have made a significant contribution to the development of Christian eco-theology. We will look at some key themes in her book The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (SCM Press, 1993).
· Embodiment - The Body of God - MacFague argues that the creation is the body of God. The Divine Spirit is embodied in the physical world (McFague 1993, p.vii). The whole universe is ‘the Word made flesh’ because God’s Spirit is the breath of life in all life-forms (McFague 1993, pp.131 & 137). If the world is God’s body, then nothing happens to the world that does not also happen to God (McFague 1993, p.197). Humanity needs to recognise and reconnect with its embodied nature. Embodied human experience connects us in a web of universal experience, enabling us to feel empathy for other creatures (McFague 1993, p.86). The view from the body is always a view from somewhere specific, situated and embodied. We should therefore accept our limitations and resist the temptation to universalise our perceptions and assumptions in an arrogant way (McFague 1993, p.95).
· A Common Origin - McFague asserts that eco-theology needs to be consistent with recent developments in post-modern science. In particular, she points to the theory that the vast diversity of the universe has a common origin (McFague 1993, p.39) and quotes the theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne who suggest “we are all made of the ashes of dead stars” (McFague 1993, p.43). Recognising that all things are intimately interconnected and have a common origin must have implications for our world view. For example, who is our neighbour from an ecological and cosmic perspective (McFague 1993, p.103)? Should we regard this earth as our permanent home or as merely a short-stay hotel (McFague 1993, p.60)?
· Ecological Sin - McFague suggests that ‘sin’ is essentially a relational notion. It is acting contrary to right relations (McFague 1993, p.114). In particular, ecological sin might be understood in terms of an unwillingness of humans to stay in our proper place in the scheme of things. This is an example of living a lie (McFague 1993, p.110). There are power relations at play here, too, because ecological sin involves the refusal of the powerful to share space and land with those who have little or no power (McFague 1993, p.117). Humans need to realise that we have the right to our place, but not all places. We need space but cannot have the whole space (McFague 1993, p.128).
· Incarnation – McFague states that Christianity is the incarnational religion par excellence (McFague 1993, p.207). The Incarnation implies the fusing of God and creation, heaven and earth (McFague 1993, p.xi). The Incarnation event was specific, embodied and situated. In Jesus, the Incarnation reveals God’s inclusive love for all creation, especially for the oppressed and needy. It signals a move towards the liberation, healing, well-being and fulfilment of all bodies (McFague 1993, p.160).
· Salvation as the Liberation of Creation– McFague asks whether individual salvation can have any meaning from an ecological perspective (McFague 1993, p.109). Is salvation liberation from the physical or liberation of the physical (McFague 1993, p.31)? As an eco-theologian, she asserts that salvation must be a process of liberating the physical world from all that frustrates its flourishing and well-being. It is a liberation of oppressed bodies, which includes animals and the rest of the physical creation (McFague 1993, 68). The natural world needs to be liberated and healed. Humans have enslaved it and made it sick (McFague 1993, p.166).
3. Karen Baker-Fletcher – Womanist Perspectives on Eco-Racism and Liberation
Karen Baker-Fletcher is an American Womanist theologian. Womanist Theology is a form of Black Liberation Theology exploring the interconnections of class, race and gender from the perspective of Black women. Here we will look at some key themes from Baker-Fletcher’s book Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit: Womanist Wordings on God and Creation (Fortress Press, 1998).
· Liberation – Baker-Fletcher asserts that the destructive human relationship with the rest of creation is one part of a complex interlocking set of power-relations that make life a hell on earth for so many people and other creatures. Eco-theology is therefore about the liberation of people, other animals and the whole creation from multiple forms of oppression and injustice (Baker-Fletcher 1998, p.6).
· Environmental Racism – Such multiple forms of injustice are inevitably interconnected. Baker-Fletcher gives the example of environmental racism, where toxic waste is commonly dumped close to communities of colour. Such action reflects the combined impact of class, race and ecological oppression (Baker-Fletcher 1998, p.4).
· People of Dust and Spirit – Humans need to recognise that we all belong to one Spirit. We are not our own (Baker-Fletcher 1998, p.131). Humans are dust (adam) creatures into which God breathes (nephesh) life (Baker-Fletcher 1998, p.8). If we forget that we are people of the land who belong to God, we lose connection to our own spirits and to God as the life-force of creation (Baker-Fletcher 1998, p.58).
· The Dance of Creation – The spiritual and the physical, heaven and earth are not separate realities. They are intimately interconnected. Baker-Fletcher asserts that creation is born out of a loving, creative dance between Spirit and all the elements of the cosmos (Baker-Fletcher 1998, p.27).
· The Incarnation – The Incarnation was a world-changing example of the interconnection of Spirit and matter. In Jesus, the dust and the Spirit were fully united (Baker-Fletcher 1998, p.19). Baker-Fletcher asks us to consider what it means to claim that Jesus Christ was the embodiment of the Spirit of God (Baker-Fletcher 1998, p.7). What does Jesus tell us about right relationship within creation?
· Loving God and Neighbour – Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments are that we should love God and our neighbour as ourselves. We are called to love God as the one who creates and sustains nature. We are called to love nature because we too are nature. Nature is our neighbour, our brother and our sister (Baker-Fletcher 1998, p.69).
· The Life-Giving Spirit – Baker-Fletcher emphasises the creative, sustaining and liberating power of the Holy Spirit. She describes the Spirit as ‘the all-encompassing, inclusive force in which God as creator and all creation are inextricably enwombed’ (Baker-Fletcher 1998, p.110). What matters is to be connected to this creative, life-giving source of all that is. Hence we need to give serious attention to what disconnects us from this Spirit (Baker-Fletcher 1998, p.124).
· Heaven on Earth – Baker-Fletcher describes heaven as the realisation of the reign of God as empowered Spirit in all aspects of life, both concrete and spiritual (Baker-Fletcher 1998, p.126). Humans have a part to play in this process. By the Spirit, we are called to help realise the apocalyptic vision of a new heaven and a new earth (Baker-Fletcher 1998, p.128).
4. Mark I Wallace – Embodied Spirit, Suffering Spirit
Mark I Wallace is an American Theologian who teaches at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Here is an overview of key points he makes in his book Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature (Fortress Press, 2005).
· Eco-cidal Bondage – Wallace sees human sin in terms of a destructive bondage of the will, which he terms ‘eco-cidal addiction’ (Wallace 2005, p.30). How can we be liberated from enslavement to a way of being and a way of living that is so destructive to other humans, other animals and the rest of the natural world?
· The Disembodied Sky God – For Wallace, a key problem is the way in which Western culture has been shaped by a dualistic form of Christianity that neglects the significance of the material world in favour of a focus on heaven as a spiritual reality quite separate from the creation. In particular, our view of the divine has been dominated by the transcendent, disembodied, and immaterial sky God (Wallace 2005, p.9).
· The Enfleshed Spirit – In responding to the dominance of the transcendent, disembodied, and immaterial sky God, Wallace notes that Christianity was founded on Incarnation, on the Word of God becoming flesh (Wallace 2005, p.23). He argues that one of the central features of biblical teaching is that the Holy Spirit is God’s abiding and animating presence in the world (Wallace 2005, p.x). In scripture, the Spirit is portrayed as a wholly enfleshed life-form who engenders healing and renewal (Wallace 2005, p.9). In view of this, Christian eco-theology needs to retrieve the vision of the Holy Spirit as the earth God of the Bible, who infuses all things with her sensual presence (Wallace 2005, p.82).
· Alive with Spirit – Wallace suggests that, if the Spirit is a creator which breathes life into all things and unifies the earth community (Wallace 2005, p.44), nothing is dead and matter is not inert because all things are charged with the sacred power of the Spirit (Wallace 2005, p.16). All life is sacred because the earth is a natural system alive with God’s presence that supports the well-being of all created things (Wallace 2005, p.153). The Spirit labours to lead all creation into a healthy and robust relationship with herself (Wallace 2005, p.20). God as Spirit is the gift of life to all creation, and where life is birthed and cared for, there God is present, and there God is to be celebrated (Wallace 2005, p.153).
· The Wounded Spirit – Wallace argues that while Jesus, as the Word made flesh, suffered the sins of the world on the cross, the Spirit suffers the despoilment of the earth (Wallace 2005, p.124). In this sense, the Spirit who enfleshes divine presence in nature is both the source of healing and reconciliation and the ‘wounded Spirit’ suffering at the hands of human sin (Wallace 2005, p.133).
· A Community in Spirit – If the whole of creation constitutes a single community, enlivened, upheld and bound together by the Holy Spirit, then, Wallace argues, this has implications for human ethics and action. There is a need to extend the circle of moral concern beyond ‘me and mine’ to include the well-being of Mother Earth’s entire family (Wallace 2005, p.94). To understand oneself as a member of the Spirit-earth community should entail a commitment to social justice for all creation (Wallace 2005, p.58).
· Belonging to the Life-Web Family – Wallace suggests that Christian eco-theology can offer a distinctive vision of an interdependent world charged with the healing power of the Holy Spirit that dwells within all things (Wallace 2005, p.120). We are part of an interdependent system of ecological relationships (Wallace 2005, p.92) and need to regain our primordial sense of belonging to this unified life-web. Without the healthy functioning of this web of life, our lives are not viable (Wallace 2005, p.28). Wallace has stated that his vision might be regarded as a form of Christian Animism (Wallace 2010, pp.1-10).
5. Noel Moules – Christian Animism
Noel Moules is a British-based thinker, teacher and activist rooted in the Anabaptist tradition. He believes that, properly understood, the Christian faith is an earth-based, creation-focused, Jesus-centered spirituality. He argues that the understanding that God’s living presence is found within all matter, making it both sacred and alive, is to be found in the Hebrew biblical texts, the life and teaching of Jesus, and among the earliest Christian communities. Moule’s vision of Christian Animism is founded upon six essential assertions about the nature of God’s creation:
· Everything is alive
· Everything is sacred
· Everything is connected
· Everything is person
· Everything is nurtured
· Everything is respected
Moules argues that today’s ecological crisis is first and foremost a spiritual crisis. Therefore, effective solutions will depend on finding fresh spiritual perspectives and resources, expressed in new ways of thinking, behaving and living. He suggests that Christian Animism offers this and that Christians need to re-discover their animist roots to re-orientate their faith towards its true direction, to be an authentic example and voice in the current ecological struggle and to offer life-giving options to those looking for a path ahead. Moules is currently writing a book on this subject and has made a website available (see references and also Moules 2012, pp.79-100).
6. Mark Bredin – The Ecology of the New Testament
Mark Bredin is a New Testament scholar, a care-giver and a Quaker from Kings Lynn in the UK. We will look at some key themes within his book The Ecology of the New Testament: Creation, Re-Creation, and the Environment (Inter Varsity press, 2010).
· The Fall and Human Sin – Bredin points out that in the biblical narrative (Genesis 4:8-16, 6:5-7 and 11:1-9), a key implication of the human fall out of Eden is that people begin to regard themselves as over and above the rest of creation (Bredin 2010, p.10). He notes that sin can be defined, therefore, as humans acting as if they were distinct from the rest of creation and as if they were gods (Bredin 2010, p.154). The fall leads to the development of an alienated, violent and unjust human culture which causes the suffering of people and the despoiling of the natural world. The ‘ways of the world’ and the dominant worldly powers are fundamentally destructive. For example, in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 6, 8:6-9, 11:15-18), Rome is depicted as a power that brings plagues and pollution upon the non-human creation (Bredin 2010, p.121). This should prompt us to examine ourselves and our loyalties. Are we following the way of God or the values of Egypt and Pharaoh, Rome and Caesar (Bredin 2010, p.184)? Bredin suggests that we should all pray that our addiction to material wealth, comfort and success becomes less powerful.
· God as Care-Giver – Bredin argues that the Bible reveals God to be the one who cares for creation. Because God created it, we are called to show our love for creation by serving God and caring for what God has made (Bredin 2010, p.10). Humans have failed to see the world and ourselves as God sees us. This prevents us from visualising ourselves as carers for God’s creation. However, it is possible for us to share in God’s image by becoming care-givers to one another and to the whole creation (Bredin 2010, p186.).
· Salvation as Cosmic Justice – There are real implications associated with an overly spiritualised understanding of salvation. If the natural world is excluded from the salvific process, then how can it be the object of our ethical concern (Bredin 2010, p.7)? Bredin notes that in the Old Testament, ‘shalom justice’ clearly equates to social and ecological justice (Bredin 2010, p.21). He therefore argues that salvation is intimately connected with release and healing from social, economic and personal sin (Bredin 2010, p.92). In turn, Jesus calls his disciples to act for cosmic justice without concern for the consequences (Bredin 2010, p.82). Good news for the poor and the oppressed is also good news for the land and the rest of creation. It is good news when the wealthy and powerful repent of their personal, social and ecological sins. (Bredin 2010, p.59).
· Greed versus Abundance – the Bible warns us time and time again about the dangers posed by the desire for wealth and power. Jesus demonstrates that the world is filled with abundance. If bread is shared, there is enough for all (Bredin 2010, p.115). However, greed leads to oppression and the suffering of others as well as to environmental devastation (Bredin 2010, p.82).
· Wilderness as a Place of Learning – If human culture has become associated with violence, injustice, oppression and destruction, then, in the search for liberation, we may need to seek out places away from this dominant culture. The wilderness represents a place beyond human control and culture. In the Bible, it was a place of learning for both Israel and Jesus (Bredin 2010, p.30).
· New Creation – Bredin argues that the biblical vision of the New Creation is not that of a spiritual heaven free from the limitations of the physical world. He notes that, for Paul, in the New Creation, all things are brought into an appropriate relationship to God (Bredin 2010, p.139) and that, in the vision of the Book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21-22) is a redeemed physical creation in which justice is known, because God dwells there (Bredin 2010, p.173).
7. Howard Snyder – Salvation Means Creation Healed
Howard Snyder is a North American Wesleyan theologian and Bible scholar. In his book Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace (Cascade Books, 2011) he argues that the radical separation between spirit and matter, heaven and earth in Western Christianity is not supported by the biblical narrative. Instead, the Bible tells us that salvation means the whole creation healed.
· The Great Divorce - A key problem within Western Christian theology has been the way in which it has promoted a divorce between heaven and earth, leading to an over-spiritualised understanding of salvation (Snyder 2011, p.xvi). This has produced a preoccupation with individual salvation and a neglect of the need for healing and transformation in this world (Snyder 2011, p.34). This obsession with getting to heaven, understood as an entirely spiritual reality, has leads Snyder to claim that, to a surprising degree, contemporary Christians are modern-day Gnostics (Snyder 2011, p.61). Gnosticism has tended to be radically dualistic, regarding the physical creation as inferior and corrupted compare to a superior and pure spiritual realm. Believers needed to obtain special knowledge (gnosis) in order to escape the physical world and enter the spiritual realm.
· The Good Creation – Snyder points out that Biblical theology does not begin with human sin. It begins with creation and god’s goodness (Snyder 2011, p.55). God’s goodness is revealed in the goodness of the creation. He also notes that God’s first ‘everlasting’ covenant (Genesis 9) was made with all humans and every living thing (Snyder 2011, p.118). Clearly, God’s care extends beyond humanity to the whole of creation.
· Human Sin – Snyder asserts that the essence of human sin is the desire to exalt oneself and prefer oneself over another (Snyder 2011, p.101). This leads humans to care only for themselves and their place in heaven. So, it was sin that caused the divorce between heaven and earth (Snyder 2011, p.65).
· Modernity – Although Snyder is extremely critical of the creation-denying aspects of Western Christianity, he does note that the development of modern Capitalist industrialism and its technocratic culture has been associated with a massive increase in the human capacity to use and abuse the physical world. This has occurred during a period in which the influence of traditional religion has been on the decline. The Enlightenment and industrialism has had the effect of emptying the earth of its divine significance (Snyder 2011, p.34).
· Incarnation – Like others, Snyder argues that, with the Incarnation, heaven and earth were joined together with an unbreakable bond (Snyder 2011, p.48). He asks why Jesus would rise physically in order to save us only in a spiritual sense (Snyder 2011, p.226). The Incarnation suggests that the Gospel is primarily about healing the disease of sin and the healing of all creation through the Incarnation of Jesus, and by the power of the Holy Spirit (Snyder 2011, p.65).
· Shalom – Snyder suggests that the biblical vision of shalom is a deeply ecological concept, involving the harmonious interdependence of people within their social and physical context (Snyder 2011, p.150). True shalom is characterised by peaceful and fruitful harmony between God, all people and the land (Snyder 2011, p.126).
· The Great Reconciliation – Snyder asserts that the biblical narrative describes a journey or pilgrimage that is directed toward the union of matter and spirit, heaven and earth (Snyder 2011, pp.ix-x). Therefore, our goal is not to reach heaven, but to have full fellowship with God and one another now and in the final New Creation (Snyder 2011, p.227). Ultimately, salvation means the marriage of heaven and earth in the New Creation (Snyder 2011, p.3). This can be seen throughout the New Testament. For example, the apostle Paul places personal salvation within a picture of cosmic transformation and the main message of the Book of Revelation is the harmonious uniting of all things under the Lordship of Christ, as all evil and discord is destroyed (Snyder 2011, pp.99-100).
(2008) The Green Bible – NRSV (Collins)
Baker-Fletcher, Karen (1998) Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit: Womanist Wordings on God and Creation (Fortress Press)
Bauckham, Richard (2010) Bible and Ecology: Recovering the Community of Creation (Darton, Longman & Todd)
Bredin, Mark (2010) The Ecology of the New Testament: Creation, Re-Creation, and the Environment (Inter Varsity press)
McFague, Sallie (1993) The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (SCM Press)
Moules, Noel (2012) Fingerprints of Fire…Footprints of Peace: A Spiritual Manifesto from a Jesus Perspective
Moules, Noel - http://www.christiananimism.com/
Snyder, Howard A. and Scandrett, Joel (2011) Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace (Cascade Books)
Wallace, Mark I. (2005) Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature (Fortress Press)
Wallace, Mark I. (2010) Green Christianity: Five Ways to a Sustainable Future (Fortress Press)