No Theology Without Ecology.

Hosea 4:1-4; Romans 8: 18-25

As we, the UK, are about to host Climate Change Conference I am motivated to write a post raising this and related issues from a Christian perspective.  The crisis the world faces, not just in Climate Change but also in Global Ecology is the result of the impact of humanity, especially in the West, and a free market which relies on continuous and infinite economic growth. Simple arithmetic tells us that this is ultimately unsustainable. Ecosystems are being damaged by greedy comfort seeking capitalism resulting in damaging climate change and tragic loss of biodiversity, which in turn ultimately impacts the global economy.

Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation reports that: Ecological Debt Day is happening earlier year on year. In 2021 it was July 29th. Sometimes called overshoot day, it marks the date when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year.  After that date until the end of the year humanity is living ecologically beyond its means.

Economy, therefore, needs to be considered as a subsidiary of Ecology; not the other way around. We need to explore alternative ways of doing business with minimal damage to the environment and global ecosystems if we are to avoid global catastrophe.

What as Christians should be our response to this?

There are two world views concerning our relationship with the natural world.

The anthropocentric view  says that the world is here for human use and enjoyment. Sustainability is simply our responsibility to provide enough for our fellow humans and for future human generations.

Christianity has often been seen as supporting this position.

But this kind of anthropocentrism owes more to Greek philosophy and renaissance humanism than to biblical traditions. For we understand that the world is ultimately for God, not for human beings. Psalm 24 states: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” Paul in Colossians 1.17 goes further in saying all things were created “by and for” Jesus Christ.

The anthropocentric view is ultimately fundamentally flawed, because:

It sees humans as above or separate from the rest of the biosphere. It places too much faith in human endeavour to find solutions to the crises we cause.  It leads directly to technocentrism – faith in the ingenuity of humanity, in the progress of science and its practical applications.

And because people who are comfortable don’t want to change!

The ecocentric view sees  humans as simply one part of an interdependent biosphere, with no greater rights than any other part. We sustain for the greater good.

The ecocentric view is profoundly attractive to post modern people, disillusioned with ‘progress’ and the empty benefits of materialism. Christianity has more in common with the eco-centric view than is often realised. Humans are part of the eco-system rather than above it, interdependent rather than independent. Genesis 2 speaks of Adam being made from adamah – the dust or soil. The majority of the Old Testament is about the inter-relationship of people and place – chosen people and promised land. The biblical narrative shows that there is, ultimately, no theology without ecology!

In practical terms, the problem with an eco-centric view of sustainability is that it quickly leads to ethical dilemmas over interventions. If humans are merely one amongst millions of species, with no inherent distinct value or role, what right have we to intervene in natural systems? This dilemma is seen particularly in the conservation world.

John Stott elegantly encapsulates the flaws respectively of the eco- and anthropocentric positions in saying: We must not treat nature obsequiously as if it were god, nor behave towards it arrogantly as if we were god. [From an address: “Caring For God’s World-the Biblical Imperative for Conservation”]

There is, however, a third model of understanding of sustainability based on biblical principles.

This is:

The theocentric view  which sees the world – human and non- human – as deriving its value from being created and sustained by God.

There are three principles upon which this understanding is built.

The first principle is simply that, ultimately sustainability is not entirely dependent on humanity, because God is both Creator and Sustainer.

The world’s faiths, despite there being varied creation myths, unite in seeing the earth as more than a product of random chance.

Judaeo-Christian Theology is not anthropo-, eco- bio- or geo- centric, but theocentric. It begins neither with human rights and responsibilities, nor with intrinsic natural values but with God.   In biblical terms, sustainability must begin with God both as Creator and also crucially as sustainer. God is the one by whom all things are made, and who holds all things together –  in whom all things live and move and have their being.

This is both disturbing and comforting. It is disturbing, because humans dislike admitting their cosmic insignificance. We are not masters nor sustainers of the Universe. It is comforting because the track record of human beings is so poor. It challenges both anthropo- and ecocentrism. In a time of environmental despair, Christian theology offers much needed hope in the promise that ultimately God is committed to sustaining and renewing the earth.

From this understanding of God’s creating and sustaining love, flow several key ethical imperatives, two of which are:

  1. If the earth is God’s not ours and, if God retains oversight and involvement, then attitudes of respect and even reverence towards natural systems ensue.

Every part of creation should be respected as having intrinsic value, because it is fashioned by the creator of all. This is critical in our thinking about sustainability – without belief in a Creator, it is very  difficult to find value in living or inanimate things apart from their instrumental value to human beings. True value lies not in measurable monetary wealth, or in usefulness to human beings, but is intrinsic in being created by God. Thus every object and every creature must be respected, not simply as resources, but as unique repositories of God’s wisdom.

  • Belief in God’s sustaining involvement also leads to an ethical attitude of restraint.

We should exercise great caution in our intervention in natural systems, respecting the natural wisdom of the Creator, and observing the ability of nature to adapt to changing circumstance without human interference.

So, the first principle of a Christian theology of sustainability is that God is Creator and sustainer. At this point some, including Christians, may argue: “If  God is the sustainer, does that not let human beings off the hook? Does it not encourage the idea that if God is in charge, we can do what we like – exploit, destroy, live unsustainably – knowing that God will sort it all out in the end?”

Good question – poor theology! Because:

The second Principle is that of Biblical covenantal stewardship.

Biblical stewardship understands that the earth is God’s, not ours – removing any ‘rights’ to use its resources without constraint. It also contains the vital notions of responsibility and accountability – stewards have to answer to the owner. Biblical stewardship is a contractual and binding agreement between God, people and the land. The creation covenant of Genesis 9, with the sign of the rainbow, conveys God’s commitment to the whole earth and every living creature within it – a commitment not to destroy the earth again, no matter how bad things get, and thus a commitment to sustaining creation.

The human responsibility to rule over creation, given in Genesis 1:26-28, belongs within this covenantal context. The world is God’s – by creation, ownership and sustenance. Humans are given the sacred trust of being God’s stewards – or tenant trustees. Summarised in Genesis 2:15, the invitation to ‘work and take care of the garden’ [‘to work the ground and keep it in order’ The Message] is at the heart of the practical Christian understanding of sustainable stewardship.  

It is about restraint and respect, never taking from natural systems beyond their capacity to renew and replace. There should never be an unsustainable ecological debt day. It is about conservation, seeking to maximise fruitfulness – both in terms of yield and biodiversity, always in such a way as to leave enough for other species and for future generations.

Covenantal stewardship implies responsibility and delegated rule.

The Old Testament can be seen primarily as a story of the three way relationship between people, God and the land – or natural environment. One of many examples of this comes in Deuteronomy 22: 6-7, where the people of Israel are told what to do if they find a ground nesting bird in the field. They are permitted to eat the eggs or chicks, but commanded to leave the mother bird – so she may of course nest again. It is a brilliantly simple example of sustainable use of the natural world.

Alongside the pillar of covenantal stewardship – with the power and responsibility that it gives to human beings, is the

Third Principle – which can be described as the creation – fall – redemption  paradigm.

The concept of sustainability has arisen at a time when the world is under great threat from human carelessness and abuse. As Hosea 4: 13, implies we have lost our way with God, there is much unrepented sin. And because of all this, the very land itself weeps and all within it is grief stricken.

At its simplest an analysis of both the human condition and the state of the planet can be summarised in three short statements –

  1. God made a good world, therefore, the world is worth sustaining – it has value and goodness.
  2. Human moral failure (sin) causes a breakdown in relationships between God, people and all creation, therefore, humanity has spoiled its good home, threatening our very future.
  3. God in Christ provides hope for humanity and for the whole material creation, therefore, it is worth doing something about this – a sustainable future is achievable.

How can we put right what has gone wrong – with ourselves and the world around us? Christianity’s radical claim – and that which differentiates it from other world faiths – is that we cannot do this ourselves – no amount of rebuilding can ever put Humpty Dumpty together again. We are thrown instead on the mercy of God, a God who in Christ enters the created material world and through His death and resurrection enables all that is broken to be restored

In the first 9 chapters of Genesis – a world that God declares good, a perfect garden inhabited by innocent people are all spoiled through human selfishness. The result is a breakdown in relationships between God, people and planet – the earth itself is cursed in Genesis 3 as a

result. However, the Noahic story of  Genesis 6-9 brings God’s rescue and restoration not just of people but of every living creature upon the earth. Similarly in the New Testament, the death and resurrection of Christ are also clearly put within a cosmic context of reconciliation and restoration. Passages such as we have read in Romans 8 and also from Colossians 1 amply demonstrate this.

The ethical and practical implications of all this for our thinking on sustainability are immense.

We live at a time of crisis in the global environmental movement.

It is more than anything a crisis of hope.

Sustainability is dependent on HOPE. Without it, there is no point in struggling to sustain the unsustainable. The Christian message of a world redeemed by God in Christ, offers a hope that is wider than human activity, but also compels humans, especially Christians, to respond in hopeful action.

Because of Christ we have hope for the world, and can live and act hopefully.

Today’s global environmental crisis is caused by one species – Homo sapiens. People are the problem, but they also – under God – hold the key to the solution. A theocentric view of sustainability is characterised by a humble acceptance of the human privilege and duty to act as caretakers of God’s world. With Christian hope, we can humbly and confidently take on this mandate. We trust not in ourselves, but in God for the ultimate future, and we must work now to live in the light of that future and act to create signs that point to it.

Let us, therefore, adopt an attitude of repentance for the damage done to the earth and seek reconciliation with nature, with our fellow human beings and with God.

Let us repent of our complacency and work towards becoming the greenest and most conservation minded people on the planet; and be an example to others in the actions we take towards that end.