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Pacific Ecologist

The environmental crisis: a challenge to classical Christianity

LLOYD GEERING describes the way Christian teaching has influenced western culture in its wanton destruction of nature.

The ancient restraint of nature religions was removed by the Biblical call to go forth, multiply and "have dominion over every living thing." But classical Christianity is no longer adequate for "the living truth," and the environmental crisis challenges Christians to care for the earth in their own lifetimes and for future generations. All the hopes and devoted service traditionally dedicated to heaven must be transferred to the earth.

The celebrated historian Arnold Toynbee wrote in 1973: "The recklessly extravagant consumption of nature's irreplaceable treasures, and the pollution of those of them that man has not already devoured - can be traced back to a religious cause... Monotheism, as enunciated in the book of Genesis, has removed the age-old restraint that was once placed on man's greed by his awe. Man's greedy impulse to exploit nature used to be held in check by his pious worship of nature."1Toynbee was referring to the Genesis story of creation where God said: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

Christian thinkers, smarting under the attack of Toynbee and others, pointed out that the disastrous interference with nature has by no means been confined to the West. They argued, moreover, that it was also the biblical view that man is a trustee or steward for that which is not his own. In the Bible the Israelites were reminded that the land belonged to God, not to them. But nowhere does the Bible teach that humankind's relationship to the world of nature is one of stewardship; it is one which has been promoted by Christians quite recently in response to the growing awareness of the ecological crisis.

On the other hand, the idea of the domination of the earth was explicitly stated in the Bible and it has continued to play a role in Christian thought. As recently as 1952, and before the current ecological crisis had really surfaced, Protestant theologian Emil Brunner wrote: 3 "Because man, and man alone, has been created in the image of God, and for communion with the Creator, therefore he may and should make the earth subject to himself, and should have dominion over all other creatures . . . Man is only capable of realizing his divine destiny when he rises above Nature and looks at it from a distance."2

Because traditional Christian teaching has affirmed the domination of nature so clearly it left a strong deposit in our more secular western culture today, among both the churched and unchurched. It was not Christian leaders who were the primary pioneers in raising the alarm about the coming ecological crises; those who did so tended more to be secular scientists, historians, and commentators, who were on the fringe of Christianity or even outside it. Some Christians, to their credit, however, now that they are alerted to the issues, are giving increasing attention to the problems. It is among such that the concept of stewardship is being promoted as a way of acknowledging that we must exercise more responsible use of the earth's resources. A number of official statements from church leaders, including Pope John Paul II, have called for "Christian stewardship in relation to the whole of creation."

If traditional Christian teaching has been even partly responsible for the crisis, we face nothing short of a revolution in religious thought. Some theologians are already responding. The theologian Gordon Kaufman has said: "humankind has moved into a historical situation unanticipated by biblical writers or subsequent theological commentators." It is one in which Christians, theologians and believers alike: "must be prepared to enter into the most radical kind of deconstruction and reconstruction of the traditions they have inherited, including the most central and precious symbols of these traditions, God and Jesus Christ."3

But what would be involved in such a "radical kind of deconstruction and reconstruction" of the Christian tradition? At the very outset it is necessary to abandon the dualistic view of reality which has long been present in Christianity. This not only means removing all the remaining traces of the contrast between this temporal physical world and the eternal spiritual world - it means rethinking the use of the great religious symbols, such as God, in their relation to the earth.

In some respects it means that we have to re-associate the God-symbol with the earth in a way reminiscent of the ancient nature religions. Yet, as recently as the 20th century, Emil Brunner strongly opposed this. It was in the 17th century that the Jewish philosopher Spinoza (1632-77) first broke with medieval dualism and affirmed the basic unity of all reality. He obliterated the absolute separation between God and the world and chose to speak of "God or Nature," using the terms virtually as synonyms. He pioneered what is known as pantheism but he was so far ahead of his time that he was rejected by Jew and Christian alike.

Since the beginning of the 19th century many Christian thinkers, from Schleiermacher to Tillich, have found themselves being accused of pantheism as they tried to do justice to the modern intellectual climate; as a consequence they have often been harshly criticised and even deposed. Perhaps the most remarkable of these, and one who offers the clearest, non-dualist, radical reconstruction of Christian thought, one very relevant to our topic, was the Jesuit priest and scientist, Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).

In his seminal book, The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard sketched a vision of the universe, which evolves from within itself instead of having been constructed by an external Maker. The universe itself is the only ultimate reality; it is neither exclusively material nor spiritual but is both, the basic stuff of the reality being spirit-matter. Spirit-matter is dynamic, continually changing, and moving steadily from the creation point of Alpha towards the final goal of Omega. In the course of this changing process the universe forms itself into ever more complex patterns of energy. As the patterns become more complex the capacity of the universe to produce consciousness steadily becomes more manifest. After a lengthy period the universe manifested itself in living creatures and after a further period of time there emerged human thought, for which he coined the term noosphere.

For Teilhard, the traditional Christian dualism has completely gone, except in so far as it remains potentially present in spirit-matter, the basic stuff of the universe. Gone is the dualism of God and creation, and of humankind over the earth. The divine reality permeates everything. It is to be found in the atom, the earth, living creatures and humankind. We humans ourselves are of the earth, yet more than all other creatures we manifest the divine process. We humans, as a species, experience the self-consciousness of the planet earth.

When Teilhard was writing there was very little awareness of the environmental problems we humans were creating on the earth even though they had already begun. Teilhard was primarily motivated by the passionate desire to heal the tragic split which had developed between religion and science. He felt this very deeply because he was equally committed to both science and his spiritual heritage (which in his case was Catholicism). In finding a way to heal the split he also pioneered a way of reconstructing the Christian path of faith. But it was a reconstruction so revolutionary that the devotion he once gave to the God above he now found himself redirecting to the very earth itself, as the following confession so strikingly portrays:

    "If, as the result of some interior revolution, I were to lose in succession my faith in Christ, my faith in a personal God, and my faith in spirit, I feel that I should continue to believe invincibly in the world. The world (its value, its infallibility and its goodness) - that, when all is said and done, is the first, the last and the only thing in which I believe. It is by this faith that I live. And it is to this faith, I feel, that at the moment of death, rising above all doubts, I shall surrender myself."4

What Teilhard did, among other things, was to enlarge the Christian symbols of God and Christ in order to incorporate all that the sciences had taught him about the world, nature, and human origins. There is nothing new about such a process of enlargement of religious symbols and notions. The ancient Israelite prophets extended their notion of the God who (they believed) had led them out of Egypt so as to incorporate their understanding of cosmic origins and their knowledge of other cultures.

Similarly, the first generations of Christians extended their understanding of God to incorporate all the significance they saw in the life and death of Jesus. The understanding of God which they had inherited from the Jewish path of faith had become too inadequate, too restrictive. The living truth as they had come to experience it had broken out of the restrictions of the categories of thought they had inherited from ancient Israel. In particular they had come to sense the divine presence in the human condition itself through the words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. In wrestling with this new experience and in the freedom for new thought provided by the insights of Greek philosophy they painfully hammered out and constructed the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity.

What has happened in the modern world is that new human knowledge and experience (mainly arising out of empirical science) has mushroomed at tremendous speed. The living truth is now breaking out of the restrictions of the classical Christian doctrines. The latter have now become inadequate and are no longer sufficient to express the truth. As the first Christians retained the Jewish heritage but called it the Old Testament, so in our day it is as if the whole of classical Christianity is in a similar way becoming our "Old Testament." Like the first Christians we find ourselves in a religiously fluid, challenging and open-ended situation. We face a dilemma very similar to those of the first century Christians. EITHER, we allow ourselves to be chained to images from the past which have become outmoded and which, if retained, become idols and fetishes. OR, we move forward in faith and reconstruct the symbols of God and Christ to match our new knowledge about ourselves, the planet we live on and the damage we are doing to it.

Teilhard was a man of breath-taking vision and faith. He refused in his thinking to be bound by what had become the idolatrous restrictions of the past, even though in his priestly profession he remained obedient to his superiors to the end of his life. Teilhard fastened on to the way in which even the New Testament had already transformed the historical person of Jesus into the cosmic Christ. He simply continued the process. Teilhard's description of the cosmic Christ far outstripped anything envisaged in classical Christianity. It is so far removed from the simple Jewish teacher of Galilee as to be almost unrecognizable. The evolving universe from Alpha to Omega and the cosmic Christ became for him two ways of speaking of the same reality.

Teilhard's vision was a great deal more in keeping with the developing nature of the Christian tradition than has usually been appreciated. He was taking to its logical and almost infinite conclusion the doctrine of the Incarnation.

What the doctrine of the incarnation basically asserts is this. The great gulf between God and humankind has been bridged. In the man Jesus of Nazareth, God and humanity have become one. In the only Gospel that uses the term incarnation we find Jesus saying: "I and the Father are one." This was a thought too great to be fully appreciated. Step by step classical Christianity retreated from this daring affirmation that God could be enfleshed in the human condition and Jesus ascended to heaven as a wholly divine figure.

What radical Christian thought of the modern era is doing is reviving the central Christian doctrine of the incarnation. It may now be seen as having vaster consequences than traditionally thought. It is not just in one human person, Jesus of Nazareth, that "God" is becoming incarnate, but in the human species as a whole. The Johannine Christ may be interpreted as speaking not of himself as a unique individual but of himself as embodying humanity, when he said, "I and the divine Father are one."

The first modern theologian to restore to centrality the true spirit of the doctrine of the incarnation was Feuerbach in his The Essence of Christianity, 1843. As he expounded it, it does not mean that each human individual is an incarnation of God but that the human species as a whole is in the process of becoming the fleshly manifestation of God. That is, the creativity and potential for goodness and purposive action, which is symbolized by the word God is, so far as this planet is concerned, increasingly becoming enfleshed in humanity.

Process theology, probably more than any other current Christian theology, is consciously synthesizing theology and ecology. A good example is the book jointly written by John Cobb and Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life, appropriately dedicated to Charles Hartshorne. This book, following the example of Whitehead (whose philosophy was the starting point of process theology) tends to avoid the word God and prefers the word Life (with a capital L) to the word God, partly because it is less ambiguous in today's intellectual climate. The book rightly points out that since the Bible itself clearly witnesses to a changing understanding of God among the Israelite and Jewish people and since early Christian thought still further developed a different understanding of God, so we should not be afraid to do so today. "Merely to repeat biblical ideals in the context of a quite different world view would not be faithful to the spiritual dynamic manifest in the Bible." We are challenged to have faith in Life. And faith in Life means caring deeply about what happens on the earth both in our lifetime and thereafter. The future of life on this planet depends very much on how people in this present generation respond to its crises and challenges. We are called to respond to Life here and now so that life on this planet may be liberated from the forces of death that now threaten it.

And what are these forces of death? We can immediately think of many of them. Self-centred humans who think only of themselves and not of others. Vested interests in industry, commerce and trade who are more concerned with the profits and economic viability than the longer term harm they may be causing the planet And just the sheer amount of small-minded ignorance, perversity and wickedness there is the human condition.

Cobb and Birch concede that their book Liberation of Life is not an optimistic book: "because it does not underestimate the power of death in established patterns of thought." Christians are in no position to point the finger at the powerful vested interests in industry, trade, economics, and politics if they are not alert to their own vested interests in preserving established patterns of thought in the ecclesiastical structures and doctrines of the past. A Christianity which is backward looking and not forward-looking, rigid and not open, may turn out to be on the side of death instead of the side of life in the great challenges which lie ahead.

Jay McDaniel has written a book, Earth, Sky, Gods and Mortals, in which he attempts to articulate: "an ecological Christianity that is open to all horizons of human life, open to other religions, and infused with a desire to affirm our inseparability from the natural world." 5. But he concedes near the end: "In all honesty, we must acknowledge that the church is a very long way from becoming a genuine stimulus for ecological thinking and feeling . . . I do not find the church an easy place to live out an ecological spirituality."

The chief reasons for this are two-fold. In what was once called the Christian West the church is still more concerned with what it is pleased to call spiritual matters than with earthly matters, and it appears to be more concerned in saving itself than in saving the planet. It would be a tragic irony if the church, which in the past was motivated by the goal of saving human kind and which long encouraged the individual to take up the cross and be prepared to die that others may live, should itself be more concerned about its own survival than the survival of humankind and the totality of life on this planet.

As I wrote in Tomorrow's God: "The meaning of human existence will increasingly become one of caring for the earth. Care for the earth entails caring for all life on earth and caring for one another. All the hopes, values, goals and devoted service traditionally associated with heavenly places must be transferred to the earth. The whole earth must become re-sanctified in our eyes; the holy colour must change from heavenly #321464 to earthly green. This imperative to care must take precedence over lesser loyalties and over all differences of race, nationality, gender and personal beliefs. This calls for the kind of self-sacrificing love which has long been affirmed in the Christian tradition and symbolised as the way of the cross."6

This article is abridged from a talk given by Professor Geering at Waikato Cathedral in 1999. Professor Lloyd Geering, (CBE), Emeritus and founding Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University, Wellington; ordained Minister of Presbyterian Church. His publications include: God in the New World (1968); Resurrection - A Symbol of Hope; Faith's New Age; The World of Relation; In the World Today; Tomorrow's God; The World to Come (1999).


[1]"The Genesis of Pollution," Horizon (New York: American Heritage) Summer, 1997 p.7

[2]The Christian doctrine of Creation and Redemption, Lutterworth Press, 1952, pp. 67-8.

[3]Theology for Nuclear Age, Manchester University Press, 1985, p. 13.

[4]From "How I believe" in Christianity and Evolution, Collins, 1971, p.99

[5]Earth, Sky, Gods and Mortals, Twenty-third publications, 1990, p. ix

[6]Tomorrow's God by Lloyd Geering, published by Bridget Williams books 1994.

Because traditional Christian teaching has affirmed the domination of nature so clearly, it left a strong deposit in our more secular western culture today . . .

Teilhard sketched a vision of the universe, which evolves from within itself instead of having been constructed by an external Maker

The whole earth must become re-sanctified in our eyes


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