Economics, Ecology, Ethics

Making the Connections Theologically or Christianity for the Ecological Age
One of the most popular workshops was that given by Lloyd Geering, First Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand and author of Tomorrow's God.

The Horizons of our Oikos (or Home)

There are three words we have heard very often in the 20th century, which are all derived from a common Greek root oikos, meaning household, dwelling, home.

During this century we have become concerned with each one of these, and roughly in that order.

In the first half of this century the word "Ecumenical" became important to refer to the attempt to regain the essential unity of the whole Christian world. In the last few decades "economics" has asserted its importance as the art of managing the material affairs first of our national household and, more recently, of our global household, as in macroeconomics. The ecumenical Christianity of the first part of this century has been partly replaced by the emergence of a common economic concern. Leading church spokespeople have found themselves in a collision course with current political ideology which promises free competition, individualism and user-pays but ignores social justice and communal responsibility both nationally and internationally.

Now we are being challenged to catch up with an even wider horizon, one which particularly concerns our responsibilities to the whole planet. "Ecology", by its title, means the study of our planetary home. The word ecology was invented as recently as 1873 to refer to the study of the mutual relations which exist between all living organisms and their environment. It has led us to awareness of at least three things of vital importance.

The first is that the destiny of any living species is completely dependent on the particular environment in which it has evolved. Take away that environment, and the species dies immediately. A species and its environment have to be viewed as a living whole, a symbiotic life-field. If the environment changes too radically the species declines and becomes extinct. We humans are rapidly destroying the environment on which many forms of animal and bird life depend, and many species are already extinct.

The same ecological principle applies to the human species itself. We too can live and thrive only in an environment of a particular kind, the kind which has enabled us to evolve both biologically and culturally to be what we are. Even though the human species may possess greater powers of adaptability than many other species, our destiny still depends on a life-supportive environment. If we change our environment too radically, we too go the way of the other already extinct species.

The second important aspect of ecology is an extension of the first. Just as a species and its environment must be treated as a whole, a life-field as it were, so all life-fields are inextricably joined to one another by a complex set of mutual interrelationships. All forms of life from the virus to the human species, including the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and everything which moves on the earth, form a living whole. The biosphere, or thin layer of life enveloping the globe, is a unity. We are part of it. It is at our peril that we interfere with it in any drastic way. The nature and destiny of the human species must be seen in relation to the ecology of all life on the planet.

All this implies, thirdly, that to understand the nature and destiny of the human species we must see it in full relation with a living whole and not as something apart from it. Since the nature and destiny of the human species is what all religious traditions are concerned with, then no religious tradition remains adequate any more which does not embrace ecological concerns.

The more we understand the implications of ecology the more it becomes clear that we have entered a radically new age both for humankind and for all life on this planet. It has been called the ecological age, or even better the Ecozoic Age.

The Advent of the Ecological Age

Before we can make a theological connection with ecology, we must first acknowledge the advent of the ecological age. For people long influenced by the cosmology of the Christian West this turns out to be a great deal more difficult than it sounds.

For some two thousand years Christians have divided history into two ages - the four thousand years from creation to the advent of Christ and the period of Anno Domini since then, by which we number our years. A sizeable minority of Christians still firmly believe that the earth and the human species have existed for only six thousand years.

Almost within living memory the human understanding of the earth and of human history has undergone a quite cataclysmic change. There has emerged a story of the origin of the earth and of humankind which is entirely different from the biblical one we have been long used to. Yet one of the first to attempt to tell, in its fullness, the new story of the earth and of humankind was in fact a Christian, a Roman Catholic priest, Teilhard de Chardin, in his epoch-making book The Phenomenon of Man. In the last fifteen years this new story of the earth has greatly multiplied in its telling. I strongly recommend the book of Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, entitled The Universe Story. Swimme is a physicist and Thomas Berry a priest and student of cultural history.

In its briefest possible form that story may be reduced to four phases, each successive phase being shorter in length of time:

  1. The evolution of the galaxies and the simpler chemical elements.
  2. The evolution of the heavier elements and the formation of the solar system, including the planet earth.
  3. The evolution of planetary life in all its variety.
  4. The evolution of consciousness and human culture.

Thomas Berry wrote, "Never before has the human community had such a profound understanding of the universe in its origin and development over the centuries. While this account is scientific, it is also mythic as a coherent presentation of the universe....This scientific account of the universe is the greatest religious, moral and spiritual event which has taken place in these centuries...For the first time the peoples of the entire world are being educated within this story of origins".(1)

It is within this fourth phase, which covers only a tiny portion of the story of the universe that we can further discern various ages. First, Old Stone Age in which human existence depended on hunting and food gathering. Then, about ten thousand years ago, came the Neolithic Age; it was a more sedentary life brought about by the dependence upon crops. The Industrial Age began less than 300 years ago. And now we are entering the ecological age. Each new age has been progressively shorter than the previous one.

This new story of the earth, with its various stages, is in basic conflict with the traditional Christian story. Berry concedes that the Christian story was a stupendous story but something was missing. The natural world was desacralized and was no longer permeated by the sacred dimension. The first promoters of that stupendous story were the Israelite prophets. They were the ones who weaned their people from the traditional gods of nature to promote the faith in Yahweh, which became orthodox monotheism. This is where the radical transformation must begin.

Our problem is this, says Berry, "We are in between stories. The old story of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story...and the traditional story has become dysfunctional."(2)

How does Christianity relate to the Ecological Age?

Some believe that Christianity is not only too often unaware of the ecological age but is actually an enemy of it, being the chief cause of the coming ecological crisis.

In a now-famous article in Science, March 1967, Lynn White, professor of history at the University of California, wrote:

Christianity in absolute contrast to ancient paganism, and Asia's religions, has not only established a dualism of man and nature, but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends....Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt for the human attitude that we are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim...We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.

In similar vein, Arnold Toynbee asserted in 1973 that some of the major maladies of the modern world, such as the recklessly extravagant consumption of nature's irreplaceable treasures, could be traced back to a religious cause: the rise of monotheism. This removed the age-old restraint on human greed to exploit nature, which used to be held in check by the pious worship of nature.

Many will think these attacks on traditional Christianity unfair. They are not wholly unfair. For among Christians already responding to the ecological challenge and urging responsible stewardship of the earth's resources is Tim Cooper, himself an evangelical Christian. It is he who wrote:

Most Christians still envisage leaving the earth when they die and going "up" to heaven. This 'otherworldly' strand in Christian teaching leads many to understand salvation in terms of deliverance from the physical, material, bodily world. To them the Earth is like a huge airport terminal where we spend what seems to be an unduly lengthy period, overcrowded and a little bored, waiting for the plane to heaven to take us away.(2)

Traditional Christianity has been more concerned with saving human souls than with saving the planet. The very first Christians expected the earth to be destroyed and replaced by a new earth. Later Christians believed their ultimate destiny to be far away from this planet. What is more, the biblical story led humans to see themselves called to have dominion over the earth and all living things upon it. Such a policy of failing to care for this earth is now endangering the future of those who will succeed us, and may be judged very self-centred. Thus the "other-worldly" hopes, so treasured in the traditional Christian world, are now becoming a threat to our planetary future.

Thomas Berry wrote, "The time has come for the most significant change that Christian spirituality has yet experienced. But this change is itself part of a much more comprehensive change in human consciousness brought about by the evolutionary process. Discovery of this unfolding process of the universe can be considered a moment of supreme significance not only for the human community, but also for the universe itself, especially in its expression on the earth as the only biospiritual planet that we know".(3)

If we interpret this discovery as the moment in which the universe, through us, becomes aware of itself in origin and process, then it is a moment of supreme revelation. Moreover it is one which completely eclipses in importance the illumination experienced by the Buddha or the divine revelation in which Christians have long rejoiced.

Berry goes on to speak of "a vast change of consciousness [which] seems to be sweeping over the entire human community".(4) "What is happening is something of a far greater magnitude than some change in the educational system. It is a radical change in our mode of consciousness. We are challenged to create a new language, even a new sense of what it is to be human. It is to transcend not only national limitations, but even our species isolation, to enter into the larger community of living species. This brings about a completely new sense of reality and value".

Thus one of the historical roles now being assigned to our generation is the role of creating, in its main outlines, the forms of spirituality appropriate to the new story. But since no spirituality emerges out of nothing but only out of what has preceded, our task in the West is to see how an ecological spirituality can emerge out of our own cultural past, which is a Judeo-Christian past. Indeed to the extent that it is true that the Christian West has largely, however unintentionally, caused the coming ecological crisis, it behoves the Christian West to see in what ways its spiritual heritage can be used to meet it.

How can Christianity change to become ecological?

We must first learn to appreciate that Christianity is not the fixed and unchangeable set of absolute truths - the fundamentals - which its staunchest defenders often claim it to be. If it were, there would be no point in talking about ecological Christianity, for Christianity could never be anything else than what it is. Now here we may see the value of ecumenical Christianity as a prior, and perhaps necessary, stage for the emergence of ecological Christianity. Prior to the rise of ecumenism Christianity existed not only in a great variety of forms but each Christian group was strongly convinced that it alone was the truest form of Christianity. What ecumenism did first of all was to deliver Christians from the evil of idolising their own form of Christianity and to appreciate the fact that Christianity is not a fixed and unchangeable thing. It is a growing, living tradition of spirituality which can assume many forms. Moreover, it has a history during which it has already changed and developed, in some cases out of all recognition from what it was in some times past.

If we are to meet the current challenges of the ecological age we can no longer be chiefly concerned with preserving our particular form of Christianity, or even the Christian tradition itself at the expense of nonChristian cultures. Rather we are concerned to find the way of developing a spirituality adequate to the ecological age. Ecumenism went so far in this direction but only so far. Now it must explore much more radical changes in Christian thought and practice.

The Traditional Dualities must be Replaced

Toynbee and Lynn White both asserted that Judeo-Christian monotheism had promoted a negative view of the natural world because it evolved a dualistic view of reality. What resulted eventually, and particularly in Christian orthodoxy, was a connected series of dualities:

As a result of this, religion came to be confined to things spiritual, while material issues became regarded as secular or non-religious.

All these are in conflict with the new story of origins.

Thus before we create the new spirituality for the ecological age we must first abandon the false dualities of the past.

What is required today is a radically new form of spirituality.

"We must move beyond a spirituality focused simply on the divine and the human to a spirituality concerned with the survival of the natural world in its full splendour, its fertility, and its integral well-being as the larger spiritual community to which we belong."(5)

The consequences of abandoning these dualities

A. What happens to God the Creator?

If the first step towards the new spirituality consists of learning how to re-unite heaven and earth, how to re-unite the spiritual and the material, how to re-discover within the earth the creativity and sacredness long associated too exclusively with the heavens, where does this leave God the Creator?

The first to abandon the duality of God over against the creation was the Jewish philosopher Spinoza, who began to speak of "God or Nature" as two alternative names for the same reality. Spinoza was too far ahead of his time and his pantheism was rejected by Jew and Christian alike. It resurfaced in the early nineteenth century in such people as Hegel, Schelling and Feuerbach. Schelling saw Nature as an infinite, unified, self-developing super-organism which comes to self-realisation in finite matter without ever becoming exhausted. It is this which comes to consciousness in and through human consciousness. This for him was God, though he preferred the term "world-soul". When Schelling found himself accused of pantheism he observed that even St. Paul was happy to speak of God as "the one in whom we live and move and have our being".

Feuerbach embraced the thought of Spinoza even more enthusiastically, calling him the new Moses for our time. Feuerbach in his book The Essence of Christianity overcame the dualism in one fell sweep by attempting to show that all theology is really anthropology, the study of humans, their aspirations and their destiny. He too was too far ahead of his time to be appreciated; indeed his book brought to a speedy end to his promising career in both church and university. He is being rediscovered in the latter part of this century. I shall return to him presently.

Perhaps the chief fault one may today find in Feuerbach is that, in turning the idealist philosophy of Hegel upside down, he erred too much on the side of materialism. This could not be said of Teilhard, who following the lead of Spinoza, Hegel and his French teacher Bergson, replaced the dualism of a divine creator over against that which is created, with a view of the cosmos as one, mysterious, awe-inspiring creative process, one he could call physico-spiritual. For Teilhard the whole evolutionary process from beginning to end, from Alpha to Omega, was itself the divine creative process. It was to be found just as much in the way atoms coalesce to become molecules as it has been in the emergence of living forms out of non-living forms and as it subsequently manifested itself in the emergence of conscious thought.

Berry, following Teilhard in turn, puts it this way: "This universe itself, but especially the planet Earth, needs to be experienced as the primary mode of the divine presence, just as it is the primary educator, primary healer, primary commercial establishment, and primary lawgiver for all that exists within this life community. The basic spirituality communicated by the natural world can also be considered as normative for the future ecological age".(6)

"The ecological age fosters the deep awareness of the sacred presence within each reality of the universe. There is an awe and reverence due to the stars in the heavens, the sun and the heavenly bodies; to the seas and the continents; to all living forms of trees and flowers; to the myriad expressions of life in the sea; to the animals of the forest and the birds of the air. To wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice".(7)

All this means that if we wish to continue to use God-language we must learn to speak of God in radically new ways. God can no longer be construed as the name of an objective spiritual being, as it has been in the past. Even Berry, you may have noticed, finds it easier to talk about the divine and the sacred than about God, That is, the traditional language about God communicates more readily when expressed in adjectives rather than in nouns. As a noun, God implies some degree of objectivity. Further, the adjective more readily implies and acknowledges the subjective component in religious language, It refers to what we experience and value as divine.

Now this move away from attributing objectivity to the God is something which traditional Christianity strongly resists. There are many who insist that Christian is forever wedded to what is called "belief in a personal God". Yet the new way of talking about God is not as much in conflict with the Judeo-Christian tradition as it may be at first thought. Right at the beginning of the rise of monotheism was the absolute rejection of idolatry. The reason why the early Israelites were so scathing about the primal gods of nature was that these had been visibly portrayed as objects in wood and stone - graven images they were called.

In the days of Hosea, when the battle between the gods of nature and emerging monotheism was still at its height, Hosea portrayed the God of Israel as saying: "These people of mine who keep going back to the worship of the Baalim - the gods of nature - do not seem to know it was I who gave them their grain and wine and oil. their wool and their linen flax, and who gave them their silver and gold".

It was not the association of the divine with the natural world and the resources of the earth that the prophets decried but the objectifying of the divine. So built into the Ten Commandments, and at the very beginning, were the words:

I am the one who brought you out of Egypt: I am the one you encounter in history. You are to worship no other gods but me. You are not to bow down before any graven images you make for yourselves. You are not to worship any thing which is in heaven above or in the earth below.

Note that—not any thing! In the course of time, however, as human culture and language has become more sophisticated, and John Robinson pointed out, the very objections which the prophets raised against metal images, applies equally well against mental images. In today's cultural climate, any insistence that God is the proper name for a supernatural being, that God is a personal reality, is to turn God into an object and to worship an object, in a way that is inconsistent with the Ten Commandments. Even in the medieval world Aquinas asserted that God has no body. That is another way of saying that God is not an objective being.

We can now see that God-talk is a language; it is the language of meaning, created to express the human quest for meaning. God-talk is not meaningless but neither is it descriptive of the cosmos in the way science and history are. In God-talk we refer to the way we understand, experience and respond to the reality we call the universe. So Gordon Kaufman writes, "To believe in God, thus, is to commit oneself to a particular way of ordering one's life and action: it is to devote working toward a fully humane world within the ecological restraints here on planet Earth, while standing in piety and awe before the profound mysteries of existence."(8)

B. What happens to the Christ and the doctrine of salvation?

Can these basic Christian concepts be for use in ecological Christianity?

Much has been made in Christianity of the concept of "incarnation", or "God in human flesh". The Fourth Evangelist uttered a very daring thought when he wrote, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us". It was certainly too much for orthodox Jews and Muslims to accept. Now we have to ask whether or not it was too much for Christians also. Orthodox Christianity could not take the daring thought of the Evangelist to its logical conclusions. In their battle against the Gnostics who wanted to reject the human and fleshly Jesus, believing all physical reality to be evil, the Christians affirmed the true humanity of Jesus. Nevertheless they severely restricted the doctrine of the incarnation. It happened only once and in one man. Thus Jesus was no longer seen to represent the new and redeemed human species. He remained the mediator and saviour. Eventually even he was believed to have left the flesh behind and be raised into heaven to sit at the right hand of God as a spiritual being. This process of thought, which took place in the evolving imagination of Christians could be described as excarnation, rather than incarnation. That is, Christian orthodoxy eventually reversed the evangelist's daring thought. The divine presence which supposedly had enfleshed itself in humanity, did so only for the relatively short time of one person's lifetime, and had now returned to heaven, the proper dwelling place for divinity. This led to the monastic movement, the withdrawal from the world and the association of sexuality with the very worst forms of evil. Fleshly things were now the very last area where the divine could be found. The Christ figure became the spiritual saviour leading people to a spiritual world. The humanity of Jesus and the real significance of the incarnation doctrine became largely lost.

That is why, when with the advent of modern biblical scholarship the humanity of the historical Jesus was increasingly uncovered there was considerable resistance on the part of traditional Christianity.

Yet it is the very humanity of Jesus and the doctrine of the incarnation which can be of great assistance in making the theological connection with ecology. Here it is worth noting that back in 1843 Feuerbach fastened on the incarnation as the central essence of Christianity, that which most distinguished it from all other religions and which was the chief theme of his book. A summary of his 300-page dissertation in a few sentences, and in words he might have used if he had been living today are as follows:

What the incarnation means is this. The divine has enfleshed itself in the human condition, not just in one man but in the human species itself, since the New Testament refers to him as the New Adam, The supposed throne in heaven is now empty. God (as traditionally understood) and humankind, are being reconciled. They have become one and the same. And what is the divine? What is the Word that is said to have become flesh? It is the very creativity which has been present in the world from the beginning and which continues through aeons of time. Thus the Christian doctrine of the incarnation illumines for us what is happening on the surface of our planet. Here, from this point onwards, the creativity and the responsibility, which our forebears observed within the world and which they attributed to their imaginary and other-worldly gods, is to be found chiefly within, and exercised by, humankind.

Thus the doctrine of the incarnation, long thought to be central to the Christian tradition, may well provide a way forward by which the broader Chrisian tradition can overcome the problem of its dualities and make substantial contribution to ecological spirituality.

C. What happens to the hope of personal immortality?

There is a kind of immortality to be prized. It is not the immortality of the individual but of the species and not only of the human species, but of all living species, and not only of the species, but of the living earth itself. This is the kind of immortality which ecology is concerned with. Thus immortality is something appropriate to the species rather than to the individual and particularly it belongs to the planet. It is our role to play a creative part in the transmitting process.

Curiously enough this simply reasserts the view of human destiny we find throughout the whole of the Old Testament and even permeating the New Testament. Christians have often pitied the people of ancient Israel for having no hope in an after-life. The truth is that, at a time when people of all cultures had some belief in spirit or soul survival, the Israelites were the first to accept human mortality and learn to live with it. They urged us "to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom". The parallel in the New Testament states: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, that they may rest from their labours, for their works continue after them".

In ecological spirituality our human mortality as individuals must be fully accepted. The hope of personal immortality promoted in traditional Christianity now appears to have been an aberration, a concession to personal self-centredness, at a time when early Christianity was being influenced by the salvation cults.

So Berry writes: " Much of our trouble during these past centuries has been caused by our limited, our microphase, modes of thought. We centred ourselves on the individual, on personal aggrandisement, on a competitive way of life, ...A sense of the planet Earth never entered into our minds....Now we begin to recognise that what is good in its microphase reality can be deadly in its macrophase development". (9)

Ecological immortality calls for a much greater degree of selflessness than did the traditional Christian form of immortality, which at its worst became very self-centred. The evangelist who first spoke of the theme of incarnation also placed in the mouth of Jesus these words: "Greater love has no person than this, that a person lay down one's life for one's friends". We human individuals live and die. It is our great privilege to have been born into this awe-inspiring evolution of life and to have inherited the evolving human culture created by our forbears. And it is our responsibility to transmit this and the earth itself in the best possible state for our descendants. For this, there is a great deal in the Christian inheritance which we may find both useful and inspiring. And in nothing more so than in the theme we now turn to.

D. What happens to the theme of the Resurrection?

The need to take human mortality seriously is no more clearly illustrated than it is in the central symbol of Christianity—the cross. Jesus really died. His life came to an end. If Jesus had only appeared to die, very shortly later to be revived, it would be a mockery of the whole Christian message. What accompanied the proclamation of the death of Jesus on the cross was a celebration of resurrection or perpetual renewal of life. Thus the theme of death, followed by the renewal of life, is the essential message of Easter. It becomes more relevant than ever in the ecological age and forms an essential part of ecological Christianity. It provides us and all people with the source of our hope for a worthwhile future on this planet. We can take heart from the fact that the creative forces within the universe itself and within us (forces traditionally referred to as God) are of such a kind, that a new earth can yet be resurrected out of the death with which we humans currently threaten it.

That is the eternal message of Easter. It is too often forgotten that this theme of resurrection did not begin with Jesus. It arose out of human observation of the resurrection of life which takes place each spring. lt was this theme which was later applied to the Christian hope which followed the death of Jesus. The Christian theme of Easter and the ancient spring goddess Easter have much more in common than just a bit of etymology. That is something to give us heart in an ecological age and is essential to ecological Christianity. Just as our own bodies show a remarkable capacity to recover after illness and disease, so the earth has a remarkable capacity to recover, to regain its stability, to renew itself. Thus what has long been central to the Christian tradition, provided it has adequately understood and re-interpreted, can remain central to ecological Christianity and provide the symbols to motivate us.

This then, quite briefly, is how I see the Christian tradition making the theological connection with ecology in such a way that the Christian past is not rejected but recast to become what may be called ecological Christianity. An ecologically viable form of the Christian tradition will lead to a transformed set of ethical imperatives, which will include the care of the earth and a deep concern for the future of all species, including the human species. These ethical imperatives, in turn, will call for a programme of macroeconomics, which will be very different from the one widely adopted in the Western world today. But it all starts from a theology of ecology, such as I have outlined. This theology has already been called ecohumanism. If we take the tradition of incarnation to its conclusion, eco-theology and eco-humanism are one and the same.


1. The Dream of the Earth, p.98

2. Op.cit., pp. l23-4

3. Op.cit., p.117

4. Op. cit., p.viii

5. Jay B. McDaniel, Earth, Sky, Gods and Mortals, Twenty-third Publications, 1990,

6. Op. cit. p.l20

7. Op. cit., p.46

8. In Face of Mystery, p.437

9. Op. cit., p. 44

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