Christian lenses on the environment

by Gloria L. Schaab


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In a well-known 1967 essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” published in Science, historian Lynn White Jr. sharply criticized Christianity for having a negative impact on the environment and on ecology. He insisted that Christianity had produced a split between humans and the natural world that gave humanity the right to exploit nature for our own end.

As the environmental crisis has grown over the past 50 years, these and other similar critiques have led some to ask if the Christian tradition has anything positive to contribute to the preservation of the environment.

To answer this question, we must take off the lenses that are often used by Christians to look at the environment and substitute new ones to form a revised Christian vision on the environment that clearly promotes the flourishing of Earth and its creatures. Three new lenses on the environment – the relational, sacramental and incarnational – see human beings as members of the one community of life with a unique responsibility for its wellbeing.

A Clouded Vision

The split between humans and the natural world arises from three biblical viewpoints or lenses on our relationship to nature. One is the divine command in Genesis to exercise dominion, the second is the emphasis on humanity's unique creation as imago Dei, and the third is a focus on the world to come instead of on the one we have.

The vision of dominion comes from the first chapter of Genesis in which God blessed Adam and Eve with the words, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over . . . all the living things that move on the earth.” Taken literally, it sets up a view of the environment as having instrumental, not intrinsic value. Too often distorted into domination and abuse rather than conservation of the environment, this command has led to overconsumption and to overpopulation; to pollution and exploitation; to ozone depletion and to global warming; to species extinction and to human starvation.

The vision of imago Dei also comes from Genesis 1. After all of the other creatures are created, God says, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness." Clearly, humans are not like the rest of creation. They alone are created in the imago Dei, in the image and likeness of God. This results in an anthropocentrism that makes the priorities of humans the central principle which controls the rest of creation and its creatures.

Some have attempted to reinterpret these passages in a more positive light. They point out that because human beings are in the image of God, they share God’s love and responsibility to preserve and protect the planet. This has been termed stewardship for creation. However, the steward is still the one who manages and directs the use of the goods of the household. Therefore, even stewardship implies a utilitarian relationship to creation that easily slips into dominion in the face of human desire.

Finally the vision of the world to come seldom encourages the flourishing of the material world, but flight from it. It does not promote the splendor of the world we have, but the glory of the next. This often influences persons to deny the goodness of the natural world, misuse it and to even look toward its destruction in favor of a new heaven and a new earth for those who are faithful.

Each of these visions has the potential to produce a positive vision of the environment, but they have been clouded over the years by narrow interpretations. Clearly, this does not bode well for the preservation and flourishing of the environment.

A Clearer Vision

So, is the tradition redeemable? Does Christianity have any good news for the environment? Indeed, it is redeemable and it does have good news from the viewpoints of the relational, the sacramental, and the incarnational visions.

Relational lens

The relational vision of the environment is as traditional as Thomas Aquinas and as contemporary as the dialogue between theology and evolutionary science. Instead of thinking of creation as a single act in the distant past, the relational view sees creativity as the fundamental relationship between God and the world. God is always creating – in the birth of new creatures, in the appearance of new species, and in the cycle of life that is renewed each day.

Since all creation has its common source in God, a profound interdependence exists among all of creation. We are but a single part of a vast and interconnected community of creation in relationship to God and each part is valuable in itself. When we value the environment in this way we choose life for the environment and its creatures.

Sacramental lens

The sacramental vision reinforces this. From the writings of St. Paul in his epistles and the reflections of St. Augustine through the scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas to the investigations of Karl Rahner, we are reminded that everything is full of sacred presence; everything has the capacity to reveal the Living God. This means that all of creation is a sacrament, a living sign of its Creator.

What is important about this is that God is not opposed to nature, but present and active within it. This is the basis of the entire sacramental tradition because, “The essence of a sacrament is [its] capacity to reveal . . . God, by being what it is . . . [by] being thoroughly itself.” *

When humans exploit the natural world, they tend to obscure its power to reveal God. Thomas Berry bemoaned the fact that “losing the richness of life around us will impoverish our sense of the God whose being is symbolically revealed to us through the extravagant diversity and beauty of nature.” Keeping an awareness of the sacramentality of nature can inspire us to appreciate and revitalize the environment through ecologically wise choices.

Incarnational lens

Finally, the incarnational vision of the environment invites us to imagine the world as an analogy of the Word made flesh in Jesus. This does not imply that the world is divine but challenges us to understand that the world is the result of God’s self-expression. It is a reflection of the Word-made-flesh whose good news for the poor, oppressed and ravaged includes Earth itself. In the incarnational model, therefore, our bond with the natural world is rooted not only in our common creation story and the common stuff of our material existence but also in the presence and action of the Living God within and for the world. This way of thinking about incarnation rejects the idea that the universe is centered on humanity, and it motivates us to live in right relationship with the world of which we are a part. It urges us to protect and restore Earth’s ecological systems with the understanding that the teaching of Jesus in the gospel applies not only to people but also to the environment as well: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40)

Making it Practical

A revised vision of the environment has practical implications. In her essay called “God’s Beloved Creation,” Sister of Saint Joseph Elizabeth A. Johnson gives three practical responses to the environmental crisis that pair nicely with our new vision: the contemplative, ascetic and prophetic responses.

A contemplative response invites us to view the world lovingly and to be awed by its mystery. Like the sacramental vision, this response sees God’s presence in simple, earthy things.

The ascetic response links with the relational vision of the environment. It encourages us to practice discipline in using Earth’s resources and to make ecologically and environmentally responsible choices.

Finally, the prophetic response reflects the incarnational vision. This response sees the destruction of the environment as a sign of human sinfulness and challenges us to take action for justice on behalf of the earth. As Johnson powerfully insists, “A flourishing humanity on a thriving earth, in an evolving universe, all together filled with the glory of God: such is the theological vision needed in this critical age of Earth’s distress.”

[Gloria L. Schaab, a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia, Penn., is Associate Professor of systematic theology and Director of Graduate Programs in Theology and Ministry at Barry University, in Miami Shores, Fla.]

Referred to:

Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (1967), pp. 1203-7.

* Michael J. Himes and Kenneth R. Himes, “The Sacrament of Creation: Toward an Environmental Theology,” Commonweal 117 (1990): pp. 42-9.

Thomas Berry in John Haught, “Ecology and Eschatology,” in And God Saw That It Was Good, ed. Drew Christiansen and Walter Grazer (Washington, DC: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1996): pp. 47-64 at p. 55.

Elizabeth A. Johnson, “God’s Beloved Creation,” America 184, no. 13 (2001): 8-12.

Editor's note: Schaab offers a fuller development of these ideas in her essays "Environment, Ecology, and Creation Theology," Liturgical Ministry (Spring 2011); in "Beyond Dominion and Stewardship" Resonances: Soundings from Law and Theology Toward an Earth-Centered Jurisprudence (2009); and in Exploring Wild Law: The Philosophy of Earth Jurisprudence (Wakefield Press, 2011).