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What is the relationship between religion and the current ecological crisis according to the ideas of ecotheology?

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The relationship between religion and the current ecological crisis is expressed by Christian and ecumenical ecotheologians in terms of the theology of the earliest Protestant theologians--specifically Martin Luther and John Calvin--whose theology preceded the anthropocentricization of the religion/nature relationship of later theologians and whose theology stressed farming and gardening, which is nurturing, rather than dominion as in domination, which is exploitative, not nurturing, and whose theology of nature stressed immanence (i.e., monotheistic presence of the divine in, undergirding and manifest in nature) rather than transcendence (i.e., the divine not manifest in nature but confined to existing beyond nature). Thus, according to ecotheology, the relationship between religion and the current ecological crisis is one of nurturing, participation, justice, and relational partnerships for the "whole creation 'groaning in travail' [Rom. 8:22]" (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion on Gale Cengage). 

Ecotheology is a term that emerged in the late twentieth century as a response to the theological problem presented by Christian anthropocentricism and the deterioration of ecological environments along with the escalation of ecologically triggered population devastation through droughts, famines and changing climate conditions. The Encyclopedia of Science and Religion (Gale Cengage) explains it this way:

Ecotheology arose in response to the widespread acknowledgment that an environmental crisis of immense proportions was threatening the future of human life on the earth. Ecotheology also arose in response to what has been called "the ecological complaint" against Christianity.

The "ecological complaint" against Christianity arose from the accusation against Christian doctrine that argued that since God transcends nature--according to anthropocentric theology--humans also transcend nature, therefore the relationship between humans and nature is one in which nature is restricted to serving human needs while humans have full authority to dominate nature [dominate: "to control, rule, or govern (someone or something) (Collins Dictionary)]. The accusation arising from this doctrinal position is that Christian theology has been a major contributing factor in the development of the ecological crisis that is deteriorating ecoenvironments and catalyzing the overreaching of ecological capital creating ecological impoverishment resulting in the suffering and loss of species in all ecological levels.

Ecotheologians attack this "dominion" or "stewardship" doctrine, which is anthropocentric [anthropocentric: "regarding man as the center," 1863, from anthropo- + -centric; regarding the human being as the central fact of the universe; assuming human beings to be the final aim and end of the universe (Etyoline; Collins)], on the basis that ecological realities, previously invisible because the ecological stress was not of the present magnitude, prove this doctrine to be irrelevant and spiritually dangerous (i.e., if humans don't have unrestrained privilege to exploit the ecoenvironment to the present magnitude, true moral guilt attaches to us for which we will be spiritually accountable at a future day of reckoning, thus the doctrine is spiritually dangerous). An arguable tenet of the criticism is that Christianity is unavoidably anthropocentric thus is itself irrelevant to the modern world and is itself spiritually dangerous. 

An examination of the history of Christian theology since the 1500s reveals that doctrinal anthropocentricity entered Christian theology at a much later date growing strongest during the 1800s. The critical point of the case against Christian doctrine of anthropocentricity and the relationship between religion and nature is the point of human dominion over nature, the meaning and understanding of which has changed through the changing socio-cultural ages. Beginning with the threatening ecoenvironment of 1500-1750 based as it was on hunting and farming societies, survival was dependent upon dominion over the life-and-death dangers of nature. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to the breaking point of ecosystem health because anthropocentric dominion came to be expressed as the accumulation of massive pressures of urbanization and industrialization and literally earthshaking technologies (e.g., mining, agricultural pesticides, genetic modification of food) with equally massive, or concomitant, pollution of earth, sea and sky in every location on the planet. Since this meaning of anthropocentric dominion (i.e., human right of exploitation of resources to advance the desired ends of humans whether or not "progress" meant destruction in the guise of religious doctrine) was actively upheld by twenty-first century conservative religious leaders and theologians, the doctrine of dominion over nature as defined according to a growingly distorted idea of anthropocentricity became, to many, a religious scandal. In response to this scandal and in an effort to redirect the relationship between religion and ecology toward the original one of nurturing, not domination, ecotheology posited a shared single vision rooted in early modern theologies of nature, which advocates:

  • the idea of divine immanence in the whole cosmos;
  • a relational, ecological rather than a hierarchical understanding of God, humans, and the created world;
  • a radically reinterpreted view of human dominion over nature in terms of partnership with nature;
  • a commitment to justice for all creatures, not just humans, highlighting the needs of the impoverished masses and endangered species around the globe (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion on Gale Cengage).

Source: Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, Gale Cengage, 2003.

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Ecotheology claims that the current ecological crisis is caused by a misuse, or at least a distortion, of the biblical position outlined in Genesis 1:26.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”  [NIV]

The King James Version uses the word “dominion” instead of “rule,” and this is the point of contention for ecotheologists.

There is an argument that Christians have been the primary cause of the ecological problems because of the “dominion” idea, the concept that men have a God-given right to control, use up and even exploit every created thing. In this world view, the emphasis is placed on man’s rights to assert his dominion over the land God gave him in order to prosper his own life.

This position was first outlined by a professor of History at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). In his 1967 article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Lynn White, Jr. made exactly that case: Christians have destroyed the earth simply because God gave them permission to do so. Of course, this is a simplistic view, at best, and many scientific scholars and religious theologians have since debated the issue.

We have been given "dominion" over the rest of Creation, and we do not understand that concept as did the writers of the Hebrew scriptures. In ancient Israel, relationships were intense and a sense of the holy permeated all. Those who ruled had a sacred responsibility for stewardship and for justice. Our modern world--scientific, rational, measurable--is filled with separate objects, not fellow subjects with whom we share deep bonds. "Dominion," to the modern mind, implies no responsibility toward the rest of the universe, which shares the gift of Creation with us. 

The ecotheological view, however, based as it is on the historic nature theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin, suggests that Christianity is inherently interested in caring for God’s creation, including both the animal world and the environment, for the very fact that this is God’s creation and we therefore have an obligation to care for it and keep it for posterity.

Figures such as Saint Francis of Assisi have been influential in promoting this world view, and writers like Annie Dillard continue to make this case.

For those who see God as disconnected from his creation, there is probably little chance of appeal on a spiritual level to be more environmentally responsible. For those who see God in his creation, how we treat the environment is inextricably connected to how we treat God. This is the crux of any ecotheological discussion or movement, and there is not likely to be complete agreement by Christians on how to move forward on the environmental crisis any time soon.

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