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Toward A Deep Christian Ecology

Stanley P. Saunders

Associate Professor of New Testament
Columbia Theological Seminary
Decatur, GA

Every day the news is filled with more stories about melting ice caps and glaciers, rising seas and receding fresh water supplies, drought and mega-storms, or greenhouse gases and climate change. As the scientific studies mount, so does the stridency of the conflict about what it all means for humans and the world. “Apocalyptic doomsdayers” line up against “Pollyannas and nay-sayers.” As with so many other “issues of the day,” members of churches find themselves once again taking up sides and unable to talk to one another. Many decide to bow out of the conversation altogether, on the premise that it deals with earthly rather than spiritual concerns, and so should not be a concern of the church at all. Some believe that scientists will one day find solutions anyway.

Like it or not, however, the church necessarily has a stake in the current conversations about the changing world, not least because the Christian tradition itself has frequently been held to be a significant part of the problem. The classic statement of this critique is Lynn White, Jr.’s 1967 article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” (Science 155, pp. 1203-1207). White, prominent medieval historian and Presbyterian layperson, argued that the Christian tradition was responsible for much of the environmentally destructive behaviors that first came to expression during the industrial revolution. He held that human approaches to the natural order are inextricably tied to religious beliefs and worldviews. Christians in the modern west have read the Bible as showing that God is separate from nature (dualism), that humans are the only figures in creation made in the image of God (anthropocentrism), and that creation exists ultimately for human sake (human chauvinism). These perspectives have led to indifference, at best, and sometimes even hostility toward nature.

While many have challenged elements of White’s argument, I think his appraisal of popular Christian readings of the Bible on creation in modern, western, and especially Protestant versions of Christianity was essentially accurate. Nearly all of the elements of White’s critique of Christian views of nature have found their way into current discussions of religion, philosophy, and the environment, especially in the philosophical movement called “deep ecology.” Like White, the deep ecologists contend that scientists alone will not be able to offer real and lasting solutions to our environmental problems, for science and technology are themselves too deeply intertwined in the fabric of modern, Judeo-Christian worldviews. Deep ecologists thus are not content to look for technological fixes for pollution or resource depletion, for example, when these “solutions” still aim to preserve the affluent life-styles and well-being of people in the “developed” world. They call this “shallow ecology.” Like White, the deep ecologists associate western materialism, consumption, and environmental degradation with spiritual/material dualism, anthropocentrism, and human chauvinism, and trace these back to the Bible and the Christian tradition. No abiding environmental transformation is possible, they rightly contend, without transformation of our imaginative sense of who we are and how we live within the fabric of creation.

Lynn White, Jr., concluded his article by saying that we either need to find a new religion or rethink the old one. My preference is for the latter alternative, but I would state it a little differently: we need to rediscover the old religion. For the work of transforming imagination, there is no better resource than the Bible. The problem, however, is that conventional wisdom concerning Biblical views of the creation has indeed yielded perspectives more at home with “shallow ecology.” From Genesis, generations of Bible readers have learned that humankind is to “subdue” the earth and exercise “dominion” over all of the creatures of earth (Gen. 1:26-30). And many Christians today believe that someday God will destroy the earth, but not before rescuing the saints from it and granting them eternal life in heaven. Because of such readings, many Christians—even members of mainline congregations and even those who are positively inclined toward environmental care—presume that the Bible offers scant resources for dealing positively with creation.

Terence Fretheim’s “Creation in Community” offers us an alternative reading of the Biblical account of creation and with it a significant step toward a viable, Christian version of deep ecology, that is, toward a transformed sense of who we are and how we might live in the fabric of creation.  By challenging the notion that God created the world alone, with exclusive control, and within a model of sovereignty as complete power over others, Professor Fretheim debunks the stereotypical ways we understand God, the creation process, and the created world in which we are parts. If the God of the creation story is indeed a tyrant, then God’s human deputies will surely act out their derived dominion in similarly tyrannical ways. But Fretheim invites us to read the very act of deputizing humankind as a clue to the fact that this God is no tyrant. This God chooses to share power in relationship.  This God invites ongoing participation of humankind and the rest of the created world in perpetually continuous acts of creation. This God exercises dominion by inviting others into cooperative relationships of mutual interdependence.  The process of creation itself, in fact, apparently requires that God exercise not only power but restraint, or “divine self limitation,” in order that the created world might continue to participate in its own creation.

Professor Fretheim’s insights have the potential to foundationally alter our assumptions about the nature of the relationships between God, humankind, and creation. The creator Fretheim shows us in Genesis is not a CEO, delegating authority to human managers, who then function in authoritarian modes under divine command (anthropocentrism). Nor is the God of Genesis the clockmaker of deism, who sets the machinery of nature running and then leaves, granting to humans the right to remold creation for the sake of human interests (human chauvinism). In Fretheim’s reading, God is the prime mover in ongoing processes of creation generated by and oriented around acts of divine hospitality.  The strikingly fresh element for me in Fretheim’s description of creation is the notion of “divine self-limitation.” In order for the creation to become what it is, God not only must exercise power, but must also step back, granting created beings a stake in the world coming into being. God makes room for humans and for the rest of creation to be active co-creators. The whole of creation, in other words, proceeds from the principle of hospitality—making room for others. Making room for others requires giving up some of one’s own space and power, as God does in the creation stories. Real relationship is impossible without sharing space. And real sharing cannot take place without self-limitation. The God of Genesis is the author of a world created for the sake and by means of relationships of mutuality and sharing.

If creation itself requires divine self-limitation in order to make space for the ongoing work of creation, we may presuppose that the human dimensions of the ongoing work of creation will necessarily follow the same principle. Grace-filled hospitality, in other words, is the fundamental principle around which creation is ordered and by which creation is sustained and nurtured. Without ongoing acts of mutual hospitality, creativity, and self-limitation, none of the relationships God has brought into being can be sustained, and the ongoing process of creation itself is imperiled. We can see this same principle throughout the New Testament as well. Divine, grace-filled hospitality is both the means and the goal of Jesus’ manifestation of divine power in the New Testament. Jesus’ ministry of healing and exorcism, proclamation of God’s rule, and finally crucifixion and resurrection all have to do with restoration of relationship between God and the creation, making possible a new creation (2 Cor 5:17) and new ways of being human. The first Adam’s story is transformed in the story of Christ, the new Adam. The most powerful expression of this principle of hospitality, is the cross itself, which manifests both divine power and divine self-limitation. God’s power displayed in the cross looks to humans like weakness.

Paul makes clear in Romans 8 that God’s grace-filled hospitality revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the concern not of humans alone, but of the whole creation, which he describes as having been subjected to futility, against its own will, and as “awaiting eagerly the revealing of God’s children” (Rom 8:19-20). For Paul, the “futility” experienced by creation is tied directly to the human fall from grace, just as the redemption of creation is tied directly to the redemption of humankind through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Paul’s thinking, mistreatment of the created order is symptomatic of human idolatry and the consequent fall to sin, violence, and death. Humanity and creation share in “groaning” and in hope. They have a common story and common fate, either the story of violence, alienation (anti-hospitality) and death or the story of grace and redemption. In the new creation, God makes room for both humanity and creation once again to live in freedom from “bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21). Paul thus does not envision human salvation apart from the salvation of the rest of creation; they are for him integrally related.

Many Christians suppose that the book of Revelation as the primary source of images of the violent destruction of this world, but, as in Paul’s thought, the violence suffered by the earth in Revelation comes about, in fact, because of the idolatrous, imperial machinations of human beings (Rev 6:8, 7:2, 8:5-7, 11:6, 12:12). When humans suffer violence, so does the earth, and vice-versa. In Revelation God does not judge and destroy the earth itself, but the corrupt and violent world of human imperial administration (Rev. 17-18).  The final visions of Revelation focus on the transformation of the “first heaven and the first earth” into a “new heaven and new earth”—that is, the first heaven and first earth regenerated, made new, restored, and made whole. Humans are not “raptured” off a soon-to-be-destroyed earth in these visions; rather God comes to dwell among them (21:1-4). The new dwelling place is both a city, that is, a human space, and a garden, where a river flows and the tree of life provides fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations (22:1-3). The Bible thus begins and ends with visions of God, humans, and the world of nature sharing space, making room for one another and together realizing the purposes of creation. The Bible begins and ends, in other words, with the vision of mutual relationship and hospitality.

How might we dwell differently with the rest of creation if our primary form of engagement were hospitality, self-restraint for the sake of the other, sharing, and mutuality? In a world created by means of hospitality, can we tolerate the destruction of other species? Can we rapaciously consume the earth’s resources in a creation brought into being through self-limitation? Can we exercise wanton power over the other members of creation, when our own power comes from One who gave up life for us?

Questions for Reflection

1. What human actions would reflect an attitude of grace-filled hospitality toward the earth? How might congregations model such attitudes and practices?

2. How does the cross embody both the redemption of humans and of all of creation? How might these be contrasted? How does the Lordship of Christ extend to all of creation? In what ways may it also be particular to humans?

3. How is sustaining the earth tied to justice for all people? How are justice and hospitality related?

4. How does popular Christian theology reflect Western tendencies to divide reality between material and spiritual realms (dualism)? How do popular understandings of the world among Christians enable and support human self-centeredness and indifference toward the rest of creation?

5. What would it mean for Christians once again to embrace the natural world as part of the economy of creation and salvation?