Christian Eco-Theology: First Steps

By Noel Moules

 

The global ecological crisis is first and foremost a spiritual crisis. We will not see the deep long-term transformations which are necessary unless we see spirituality as foundational. Spirituality is the essence of every expression of life- giving shape and significance to each relationship. It is expressed in love, justice, beauty, and all other life-giving values. For many (not all) it is sourced in the divine.[1] This is certainly true for Christians, who see it uniquely incarnated in the person of Jesus.

Ecology is central to our mission and our Christian discipleship. Jesus instructed us to “Proclaim the good news to the whole of creation”.[2] Ours should be a distinctive voice at the centre of the global conversation on eco-spirituality. Eco-Theology puts forward a biblical understanding of what a Jesus-centered response to the environment ought to be. Ecological issues are of course numerous, but an initial Christian theological response can focus on just two.

Challenging dualism, living by shalom.

Dualism is the concept of dividing an understanding of the world into two opposed or contrasting aspects, e.g. spirit and matter; humans and nature; body and soul; heaven and earth. It has no real biblical basis, yet has influenced Christian thinking (especially eco-thinking) for more than 1500 years.[3] Christian dualism argues that: heaven is the sole dwelling place of God; our ultimate destiny is heaven; this earth and cosmos will be destroyed by fire; and there will be a new heaven and earth. Interest in this environment is therefore meaningless: the earth is to be exploited.[4]

Challenging this, the central biblical concept of reality is summed up in a single word: shalom. Usually translated as ‘peace’, but more accurately, ‘wholeness, integration, completeness, everything moving together in dynamic harmony’, shalom is the message of Jesus (identical to the ‘kingdom of God’); and it should be our message too.[5]  Shalom is about all relationships, and proclaims creation’s destiny. We will all be part of a renewed creation, not somewhere else but here.[6] Shalom works for the physical wellbeing of all things without exception, challenging injustice in all its forms. Shalom is the Christian’s ecological mandate.

Challenging dominion, living by ‘meekness’.

The single most eco-destructive biblical idea has been the belief that God gave humans ‘dominion over the earth’.[7] The traditional interpretation is wrong. The Hebrew phrase v’yirdu can mean ‘dominion with’, but never ‘over’.[8] We are mean to ‘image God’[9] by ‘living with creation in shalom’. We are called to companionship with creation.[10] Here the word ‘with’ is one of the most significant words, from an ecological viewpoint, in the whole of scripture.[11]

Jesus interprets dominion using the concept of meekness (‘strength under perfect control’). He says, “The meek shall inherit the earth’.[12] A biblical understanding of meekness holds together in a single concept, three seemingly incompatible ideas: [13]

Selfless anger and rage against injustice
Serene poise of deep and strong self-control  
Simple gentleness energised by love and compassion

Jesus continually demonstrates these: by stilling the storm; riding a wild donkey-foal into Jerusalem; and using flowers and birds as examples of God’s character and love.[14]

So, beginning with two foundational ideas, Christian eco-theology enables us to focus our thinking and understanding, setting the faith in action agenda with regard to ecology and the environment.

 

Noel is a teacher, author and activist for peace and deep ecology. He is the author of 'Fingerprints of Fire, Footprints of Peace: a spiritual manifesto from a Jesus perspective' and his new project is www.christiananimism.com

 

For Further Reading

 

References:

[1] Humanists, though atheists, frequently speak of ‘spirituality’ as ‘that which lifts the spirit, touches the higher elements of the mind, connects with the need to be part of something much larger than ourselves’.

[2] Mk 16:15

[3] For example the phrase ‘heaven and earth’ is a merism, a biblical way of speaking about their totality and completeness, the complete opposite of setting them against each other or even contrasting them.

[4] They misinterpret passages like Jn14:2; Lk 23:43; 2Pt 3:7,12-13 and many more

[5] See Isa 9:7; Lk 10:5, 11; Acts 10:36; Eph 2:17 et al

[6] Peace / shalom on earth (Isa 11:6-9; Lk 2:14), New Jerusalem comes down to earth (Rev 21:2)

[7] Gen 1:26,28

[8] See Douglas-Klotz N. 2003, The Genesis Meditations: a shared practice of peace for Christians, Jews and Muslims, Quest Books; 266

[9] Gen 1:26

[10] Gen 2:18-19

[11] See the significance of the word ‘with’ (implying close relationship) in Mk 1:13; Job 5:23; Hos 1:18 et al

[12] Mat 5:5 quoting Ps 37:11; see also Zec 9:9-10 where the words ‘dominion’. ‘meekness’ and ‘shalom’ are all used together.

[13] See F Hauck and S Schulz article ‘Praus’ in Kittel G and Friedrich G (eds). 1968, ‘Theological Dictionary of the New Testament’, Eerdmans; 645-651 and Barclay W. 1956, ‘Gospel of Matthew (Vol 1) The Daily Study Bible, St Andrew Press, Edinburgh; 91-93

[14] See Mk 4:35-41; 11:1-11; Lk 12:24,27 et al