Comfortably middle-aged, at 58 years of age I suspect ecotheology might be having a mid-life crisis. The project that sprang into being in 1961 - because ecotheology is as old as the environmental movement itself - all of a sudden is not quite sure what to do with itself.
Environmentalism - which is to say environmental activism as a popular movement - sprang into being with Rachael Carson’s scary 1962 book, Silent Spring in which she single-handedly put the DDT business out of business. Carsen made the powerful case for the idea that if humankind poisoned nature, nature would poison humankind. Ecotheology - the double-edged project of advocating for the environment from the perspective of theology - and critiquing theology and the Church from the point of view of the natural world - dates from two powerful arguments around the same time. In 1961 economist Lynn White argued the devastation of nature was the outworking of the theology of dominion based on the creation story of Genesis - Dr White laid the blame for environmental crisis at the feet of a Church that had sowed the seeds of Western anthropocentrism and a utilitarian view of the natural world. Christianity bears a burden of guilt, he suggested, because the destructive alliance of science, technology and economics that threatens the earth was made possible by the worldview forged by Christianity. The following year, Professor Joseph Sittler of the University of Chicago Divinity School delivered an address to the World Council of Churches in New Delhi that argued the ta panta - the ‘all things’ that St Paul claims in Colossians chapter one are created and reconciled through the cross, and brought together at the eschaton into the unity of Christ - that the ‘all things’ of Colossians are literally the whole of creation - and that theology and the Church need to be concerned not with individual but with cosmic redemption, the redemption of all things. Theology could no longer be a prop for human exceptionalism but has to be imaginatively engaged with a doctrine of creation that embraces the non-human world.
As a reform movement within theology, ecotheology is not always popular. There was enough truth in Lynn White’s critique. Let’s face it, the Church all too often functions as a font for the baptising of the status quo. The view that God has a priority not just for the poor but for the humblest of creatures that creep and swim and fly and for ecosystems that need clean air and water and unconcreted open space challenges and unsettles Christians used to flicking on a light switch and taking for granted modern transport and technology and diets. Might being a Christian mean thinking seriously about vegetarianism? Flying and driving less? Doing your clothes shopping at the Op Shop? Having less stuff? And - if God’s plan for salvation starts to get reimagined as the restoration of the earth - then what’s happening to heaven?
Ecotheologians have been busy since 1961. Ernst Conradie in 2013 published a short retrospective, a rear-view snapshot of 50 years of ecotheology. As with feminist theology, the Bible scholars were first off the starting blocks with worthwhile approaches like the Green Bible project of Norman Habel and others. We discovered quite a lot. The prophetic texts of the Old Testament speak of God’s intention for shalom, that rich, many faceted word that stands for wholeness and inter-relationship. From Hosea and Micah to Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel the prophets speak of God’s yearning for shalom that knits together the whole created order in peace. In his oracles against the leaders of Israel the prophet Jeremiah draws the connection between covenant faithfulness and the health of the land - faithfulness to Yahweh draws the human world and the natural order into relations of harmony. In the Wisdom writings, in the Book of Job for example, we learn of God’s providential care for lions and ants and ravens, of the rain that God sends even out in the desert where no humans live just because the thirsty land needs it - and we are counselled to look to the intricate beauty and order of the natural world to discern the wisdom of God. Ecotheologians have also pointed us back in the direction of Celtic spirituality, the wisdom of a so-called dark age in which earth and sky and rock and ocean were luminous with the spirit of God and the lives of humans and animals unfolded within the cycle of sacred time.
This century, the project of ecotheology has been the insight that the fundamental categories of theology need to be broken open for new meanings. Theologians like Celia Deane-Drummond and the Australian Denis Edwards have gone back to the ancient wisdom of thinkers like Maximus the Confessor who sees a dynamic creation in process towards God and St Bonaventure whose trinitarian theology of creation reveals the grounding of all things in the divine Word. Even further back, St Irenaeus in the 2nd century reminds us that everything that is, is made of dust and Spirit. The natural world, for St Augustine, participates in the creativity of the Trinity through the rationes seminales, the eternal seeds of growth and potentiality. For these ancient theologians all creation is dynamic, oriented towards incarnation and growing into unity with Christ.
More recent thinkers help us understand the common thread that runs through the narrative of creation, incarnation and redemption. Biblical scholar Mary Coloe points out the theme of creation in the Passion narrative in the Fourth Gospel - where the risen Christ is met by his lover in a a garden on the first day of a new creation. All things are made anew in the resurrection of the one in whom all things are created. Jürgen Moltmann contributes a fresh understanding of eschatology - the end of all things - in his analysis of a new creation which transcends and fulfills all that God made and found to be good. The narrative of resurrection ends in the Bible with the vision of the tree of life planted beside the living water in the Book of Revelation - a final echo of Eden and affirmation that salvation is the shalom of all creation. An affirmation, too, that the promise of God is not only cosmic but also personal. As Jesus tells us, over and over - don’t be afraid.
Creation matters to God. The story of creation and the story of salvation are intertwined. Discipleship is necessarily connected with learning to love all that God has made in love, with rediscovering our vocation to serve and protect the earth. And yet. We do seem to be having a bit of a pause in the ecotheological project.
We live in an age of forgetfulness. It’s just over 30 years since the first climate report from the International Panel of Climate Change scientists. Yet over those thirty years, global carbon emissions have steadily increased, by 1.3% per year. Last year in Australia, we increased carbon emissions by 2.7% - the rate of increase of emissions is increasing. About 30% of all greenhouse gases ever pumped into the atmosphere have been emitted since 1988, since that first frightening warning. Last year IPCC scientists warned we have about 12 years left in which to make the massive changes needed to ensure we don’t cross the threshold over 1.5C global warming with catastrophic consequences. OK, so that’s 11 years left, now.
We live in an age of loss. The rate of species extinctions is now running at up to 1,000 times the background rate which means something between 10,000 and 100,000 species are being lost every year. A half of all Australia’s native plant species are now at risk. Global insect populations have plummeted by 75% over the last 40 years. This puts us smack in the middle of a mass extinction event of similar magnitude to the Great Dying of the Permian Era 250 or so million years ago in which up to 99% of all life was extinguished in a global warming event.
We live in an age of limits. By mid century, the human population of the earth is projected to reach 9.7 billion. But fresh water from aquifers and rivers and glaciers is drying up and by 2050 over half of the world’s population will live in areas where fresh water is in short supply. And as a drying, warming climate restricts the areas where traditional crops can be grown and as extreme weather events and natural disasters caused by a changing climate put more and more of the world’s population on the move - well, the poorest of the world’s poor will be most at risk.
I think ecotheology is at a cross-roads. We need a new focus and a new task, a new prophetic word for a new time of exile. And it is an urgent theological task. How do we sing the Lord’s song in the strange new land of the Anthropocene? How do we live? What is the appropriate spirituality and what is the appropriate narrative of hope? You will note I don’t qualify that by saying ‘if these things come about’ or ‘unless we take steps to avert disaster’ - because these things are already unfolding. We need a new project. One suggestion, the so-called Benedict Option of conservative writer Rod Dreher, envisages Christianity enduring by shrinking to an archipelago - islands of sanity in a sea of madness that like the monastries of the Dark Ages preserve the light of Gospel and reason.
A Centre for Ecotheology is definitely a good idea. St Johns of course would make a good fortress - except that I’m reliably assured it stands on a patch of ground that is probably going to be underwater by the end of the century. I’d like to suggest not the Benedict option of raising the drawbridge but the Franciscan option, the mendicant option of embracing insecurity.
The Christological narrative in ecotheology over the last decade or so articulates God’s purpose of shalom in creation and clarifies a vision of eschatological peace. This is right and good. But it is a vision that can be captured by empty optimism and even used to justify inaction. Like Jeremiah who resists the empty words of hope uttered by the lying prophets,Jer14.13-18; 23.9-40 ecotheology needs to discern a word of hope without fudging the reality of judgment. The resources for such a theological project are certainly available within the Wisdom tradition that extols the virtue of righteous suffering, and a Wisdom Christology that identifies the suffering Christ with a suffering creation. The hiddenness and humiliation of divine Wisdom are noted by St Paul as he struggles to articulate the paradox of glory revealed on the cross; "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles".1 Cor 1.23b Divine Wisdom for Paul is characterised by kenosis, the self-outpouring seen in Christ who "though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave".Phil 2.6-7
For Balthasar kenosis and brokenness are at the heart of the inner-trinitarian life of God which is torn apart on the cross. In my own work I draw together Balthasar’s narrative of the Passion with the Letter to the Hebrews’ vision of the crucified and ascended Christ bearing the blood of his earthly life into the heavenly sanctuary.Heb 9.12 Experiencing suffering, death and alienation in creation and incarnation, the Trinity also eternally bears the residue of created suffering. This helps make sense of the notion of theosis, the drawing of creation and human life into the heart of God, the doctrine of Maximus the Confessor which is at the heart of Orthodox theology and also lies in the background of the Franciscan theology of St Bonaventure. The journey of creation into God is solidarity with divine sacrifice and suffering, and a mutual benediction. This suggests, also, the Franciscan ethic of poverty as the ecospirituality of the Anthropocene. This will be an ecospirituality of solidarity with the God who suffers in creation. Poverty is not just doing without stuff but a different way of relating, of regarding others not as assets to be colonised but as companions for dwelling and safeguarding and participating in one another’s pain.Robert Stolorow, "Planet Earth: Crumbling metaphysical illusion", Thrive Global 6 Sept 2019 The earth that grounds us - both biologically and existentially - is regarded not as a resource to be exploited or a problem to be solved but as the mother who brings us to birth and whose vulnerability calls forth our love.
Where, then, is hope? Precisely where it has always been, in the shalom of creation that is the promise of resurrection, the first day of the new creation, the day after the silence and rest of Holy Saturday. It’s as far off now as it ever has been. In the meantime we need ecotheologians and yes - definitely a Centre for Ecotheology, for gossiping the future, for checking in on one another and for dreaming boldly, as storytellers of the love that made the stars, reminding ourselves constantly that the consequences of our own foolishness are not divine abandonment but the invitation to solidarity, courage and good humour. We don’t know what is coming to birth next in the surprising universe of God’s creativity.