Tuesday, March 12, 2013

An ecological Christian theology: a story with three parts

At the recent multi-faith Spirit of the Environment conference hosted by Inner Space in Oxford I was asked in a few minutes to offer a Christian theology of the environment. In such a short space of time this was no mean feat! But what follows is based on that theological sketch, offered by someone from within the Anglican Church. Naturally I cannot claim to speak for every Christian, and the particular language I use may not be what other Christians would choose to use. Nevertheless in broad outline many Christians would probably recognize what follows.


Christianity can be understood as a great story. Like all narratives it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. For Christianity these three parts are the 'myth of creation' (the beginning), 'the myth of salvation' (the middle), and the 'myth of the eschaton' (from the Greek for 'final' or 'ultimate' things: the end). Naturally with over two billion people currently inhabiting this story, there are potentially significant ecological repercussions if we talk about these three myths in ways that devalue matter, the 'stuff' of life.

The Myth of Creation

The Christian 'myth of creation' draws, among other things, on the book of Genesis. In historical context those ancient Hebrew narratives were once very good news. The standard Babylonian account of the creation of the world, the Enuma Elish, was based on the story of the murder of the goddess Tiamat. Earth and sky were made by ripping her body apart. Humans were created from the blood of her murdered husband to serve as slaves. Insignificant and occasionally irksome, they are at the mercy of the gods.

By contrast the magisterial Hebrew account of creation over six 'days' puts humans at the apex of a stately series of divine creative acts, lovingly fashioned by a benign God. At a deep level Genesis says matter is 'good' and that human life has value and dignity. Seen in that context the old Judeo-Christian creation myth looks very habitable.

Unfortunately we rarely read the Genesis account now against its original background. Instead it is easier to slip into reading it in terms of humans being given 'dominion' over the Earth, and from an environmental point of view this can sound pretty bad news. Without care this can give the impression that humans are essentially created to be separate from the planet.

In the better tellings of that kind of dominion-story humans emerge with a kind of benign museum-curator role, looking after a world entrusted to them. In the worst ways of telling it, humans can come to appear to possess a license to abuse the Earth in whatever way they wish since in the end (and this view sometimes goes hand-in-hand) there is a belief that humans are all going to 'heaven' anyway and that the Earth is of no ultimate value.

There are though other ways to tell this first part of the Christian story. These draw on the wider biblical store of images, from the poetry of Job and the Psalms, to the theology of Paul, to emphasize creation as a continuous process.

To speak of creation is thus not merely to say what happened at the chronological start; it is to talk about what is always going on: we're always being created. The source of that creation is God; God is the one who is creating life. And further, to speak of humans being 'in the image of God' is to say something about us, as material beings, being invited to participate in the act of creation from within the world, as co-creators (as it were), sharing that awesome power and responsibility. We are participant-actors, rooted within the environment, and yet also with a mysterious capacity to see beyond it.

The Myth of Salvation

The middle of Christian story concerns salvation and what Christians call 'the incarnation'. It deals with how we talk about Jesus and what we think his importance is. This too can be spoken of poorly from an environmental perspective.

We could talk about Jesus in effect merely being a human container for divinity: a sort of space-suit christology which in the early Church was known as 'gnosticism'. His humanness in those tellings was purely accidental, an inessential part of his being. This though would be to take a highly demeaning view of matter.

We would be on safer ground environmentally to talk about Christ as being the image of a fully divinized human being. His divinity is the way he does his humanity.  What is God like? Christians answer that God is like this particular flesh-and-blood person and the life he led with others.

Lurking behind the 'space-suit' Jesus is a hidden anthropology, namely an idea that 'I am a material thing that has a soul', that my own body is merely a container for something more precious (a space-suit anthropology!). This seems a poor way to talk about a human being. Should we not rather say 'I am a soul'? The way I do my being, is my 'soul'-ness (so to speak). My body and its connection to the Earth is not an insignificant adjunct to me, it is me.

A better telling of the middle of the Christian story would thus to be wary of absolute dualisms of matter and spirit and instead to tell a story about how flesh-and-blood human lives, bound up with their social and natural environments, are being transformed. The 'spiritual' is not what happens 'inside' us as individuals, it concerns how we do the whole of our living.

In some of the most startling poetry of the New Testament the opening of St John's Gospel speaks of Jesus as the 'Word becoming flesh', and the rest of the Gospel shows the ways in which flesh-and-blood humans choose to participate in being transformed (or, indeed, choose not).

Alongside this we may find we need to expand the range of metaphors we use to unpack the concept of 'salvation'. The Greek verb behind this (sozein) can be translated as 'to save', 'to make whole', 'to heal'. Often when Christians tell the middle part of the story they talk about being saved from something (from sin, for example). But perhaps in an environmental context we ought to broaden this range of meanings to include the idea of being 'made safe', in the same context as we speak of an explosive device being 'made safe'. We humans are powerful - as our continuous creation myth tells us - and potentially destructive. The middle of the story is about how we are being made safe for one another, and for the planet.

The Myth of the Eschaton

Finally what is the 'end' of the Christian story? Where does it lead us? Again in an environmental context there are some poorer ways of telling the end of the story. Often we fall into the trap of focusing on an individualised post-mortem heaven. The 'end' of the story collapses down into an account of what happens when we die, and the danger with this is that it sees the Earth as merely a precursor, a kind of second best.

Curiously Jesus rarely spoke about heaven in that sense. In Matthew's Gospel he talks most of all about the 'kingdom of heaven'. But we need to recall that Matthew, being a pious Jewish-Christian, used the word 'heaven' as a circumlocution for 'God'. Luke's Gospel simply has 'kingdom of God' throughout. Jesus actually taught mostly about the coming of the kingdom of God which he explored by telling stories (the parables).

We might unpack the metaphor by speaking of the 'kingship' of God, or the 'community' of God, or to choose another political term the 'administration' of God.

To talk about the end of the Christian story as the 'coming of the kingdom' is therefore not to talk about what happens to that little spiritual bit inside me after I die. It is actually to talk about how we are invited to participate in the coming of a new way of being fully alive that starts here and now. Yes, Christians say that this doesn't stop when we die, but this statement is only a part of the end of the story, not the whole of the end of the story.

The final book of the Bible, that strange visionary text we call Revelation, speaks of a 'new heaven and a new Earth', but this doesn't seem to be a vision of the replacement of matter by something better, so much as of the transformation - the renewal - of life itself.


How Christians speak about their beginning (their creation myth), their middle (their salvation myth), and their end (their eschatology) matters deeply, for it informs and reinforces the attitudes Christians take towards God, others, their own bodies, and their environment. If we tell the story in ways that demean material life it is possible that this will overflow into a failure to value, or even a license to abuse it.

To tell the story more carefully encourages us to think about dynamic transformation, about our calling to participate in what St Paul imagined was a world 'groaning in childbirth', always in the process of bringing forth new life: painful, uncertain, risky and yet with the ultimate promise of joy.

Further reading

I have drawn on the ideas of many writers (and some of my own!). But here are some suggestions for further reading.

The liberation theologian Walter Wink builds on the contrast between the Babylonian and Hebrew creation stories, and in the New Testament on Jesus's and Paul's teaching about the kingdom, to articulate a political and social activism than rejects models of domination. A summary of his ideas can be found in his The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (1998) and here.

Marcus Borg in various volumes writes about Jesus and his teaching about the kingdom, for example: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (1995), and see here.

Paula Gooder, Heaven (2011) explores the kind of biblical idea of heaven I've tried to express. And here.

There are lots of books on ecological Christian theology. Here's a recent provocative collection of essays blending ecology, theology, activism and economics: Darby Katheen Ray (ed.), Theology That Matters: Ecology, Economy, and God (2006).

Practical initiatives for churches: For Creed and Creation view online here.


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