What has been the response of Christian theology to ecological issues and concerns? Can Christian theology provide us with insights and strategies for dealing with current ecological dilemmas? Do those theologies which utilize a synthesis of Christian theology and natural science give one a quantitative advantage for dealing with ecological issues? What shape should theology take to effectively deal with ecological problems? These questions will guide this brief study because they lead us to the critical issues involved in any discussion of theology and ecology.

Historically, most theological reflection has been strongly rooted in scripture. But, as Richard Hiers points out, "ecology was not a topi within range of vision in biblical times." Thus, the nature of biblical witness with respect to the environment requires further theological reflection if one is to produce a substantial and coherent ecological teaching. The basic problem with the available biblical material is threefold: it is spotty in quality, contradictory in content and scarce in quantity, especially in the New Testament. This last factor has been exacerbated by the preference of the Christian faith for the New Testament over the Old Testament with the concomitant devaluing of the latter.

While some of Christianity’s lack of environmental and ecological concerns may be traced to it’s biblical heritage, that alone is not sufficient to account for the paucity of theological reflection. Historically, Christian theology has ignored questions centering on the care of creation because ecology and the environment have simply been non-issues. There were no compelling environmental needs which Christian theology felt warranted major attention. It must be remembered that it has only been within the last few decades that ecological concerns have become important to the world, much less the Church. Hence, other issues absorbed the attention of theologians.

Doctrinally, the primary theological categories that Christian thinkers have focused on have not in general been appropriate for stimulating ecological discussions. While most Christian theologians have developed a doctrine of creation, almost all of these have been dependent on and subordinate to other doctrines, such as salvation, redemption and humanity. As a result, few creationcentered theologies have emerged in Christianity.

This pushing of the doctrine of creation to the periphery of Christian thought has been deleterious to the treatment of the environment in several ways. First, the fact that the doctrine of creation serves other doctrines can lead to an instrumental view of creation itself. Hence, creation is merely a means for effecting the more crucial concerns of God or a backdrop to the great drama of redemption. The redemption doctrine, by theologically judging creation flawed and inadequate, opens the door to the historical denigration of creation.

Second, the redemption paradigm has been reinforced by a strong strain of Platonic metaphysics which has led Christians to view the world as inauthentic if not evil. Combined with a powerful "other-worldly" eschatology, this has provided the Christian theologian with a paradigm within which it is easy to ignore or deny the value of the created order.

Third, this notion of creation is reinforced by a view of humanity as suspended between God and the rest of the created order. Thus, the human being who may be "a little less than God," is nevertheless a lot better than the rest of creation. While this may not lead to exploitation per se, it does create a hierarcy in which the role of the lesser is to serve the needs of the greater. In any case, it certainly does not provide a paradigm that is conducive to discussions on environmental issues.

The question now to be asked is this: must it be this way? If not, then what sort of corrective actions might be taken? To the first question, we must answer, "No!" In responding to the second, one can choose several options. The option that I wish to choose is the one offered by the molding of natural science with Christian theology. Such theologians as Ralph Wendall Burhoe, Arthur Peacocke and John Bowker have attempted such a synthesis. Let us look briefly at this synthesis and its relevance for ecological issues.

It must first be noted that science in its own way has proven as ineffective in dealing with basic ecological questions. This
ineffectiveness is in large part due to science’s traditional insistence that it is an amoral discipline and that nature is an object to be studied. The result has been an instrumental view of nature not unlike that of Christian theology. This is not, however, to close the door to the possibility that either one, independently, could change in such a way as to produce an effective environmental paradigm. Yet it is to suggest that a synthesis of natural science and Christian theology provides a better possibility for the development of a Christian environmental/ecological ethic.

Before showing why this is so, it is necessary to clarify our use of the term ethic. E.O. Wilson defines an ethic as a "set of rules invented to meet circumstances so new and intricate, or else encompassing responses so far in the future that the averge person cannot foresee the final outcome." Thus an ethic implies a stable foundation of precepts and attitudes out of which environmental or ecological decisions can be made. This paradigm is stable but not static and can be significantly modified and informed by the dynamism of the natural order. Thus it weds the essential or foundational with the experiential.

In my opinion, this ethic, or paradigm, is best constructed by an open dialogical interaction between science and religion–an interaction where both science and theology make contributions of a foundational and experiential nature. While many may argue for a bifurcation of task with science and theology concentrat,ing on their "particular area of expertise," it can be shown that this strategy has, in fact played a major role in the current crisis in environmental ethics. On the one hand, scientific theories provide insights of a foundational, or paradigmatic, nature as well as means of organizing and reporting data. On the other hand, theology provides us with a means of reporting and organizing information as well as giving us a cosmological framework in which to operate. For example, Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory provides foundational insights into the operation of the cosmos in addition to a way of discussing species variation and development. Likewise, the Christian doctrine of creation tells us something about the universe as well as providing a worldview.

If the best ethic is developed from an interdisciplinary synthesis, does the synthesis between science and Christian theology provide the optimal ethic/paradigm? Could a synthesis between other disciplines be equally as effective? I would maintain that the disciplines of science and theology best provide the elements needed for an effective ethic because: a) each focuses on the operation of the cosmos at all levels, b) each does so in an attempt to understand the universals by which the cosmos operates, and c) each expands the view of the other because of differences in their approach and focus.

What shape then will this new ethic take? On a broad conceptual level it would integrate current scientific theories (Big Bang, NeoDarwinian evolution, 2nd Law of Thermodynamics etc.) with major theological categories (Creation, Christ, Humanity, Eschatology, etc.). While it is beyond the scope of this paper to completely detail this intergration, one can get an idea of its nature by looking at some of its characteristics.

First, the ethic would be creation-centered. In other words, the creation of the cosmos and the understanding of that creation must be at the center of the paradigm and define all other concepts and categories. It is obvious that science with its focus on the natural order does much to enhance the creation- centeredness. It does so by defining questions, providing an understanding of processes and events, and developing a modus operandi But, beyond this, science provides an evolutionary paradigm of creation. Theology in making creation its central doctrine must do so in a manner that is compatible with this evolutionary woridview, i.e., of a creation that is constantly active and ongoing. Furthermore, the creation doctrine must define other doctrines as well. One, therefore, arrives at a doctrine of Christ in which Jesus Christ is continuously active in the ongoing processes of the cosmos. While such a Christology is uncommon, it can be found in Col 1:15-20 and in those theologies which contain the idea of creation continua such as Irenaeus and Teilhard de Chardin. Such a Christology imparts a degree of sanctity to the universe now understood as a place where God/Christ is active in an ongoing manner. Therefore, when one interacts with this cosmos, one is, in a sense, interacting with God and Jesus Christ. The individual is thus provided with an understanding of the cosmos, with strategies for responsible interaction, and with a motivation for that interaction.

Second, this heightened view of creation implies a more modest view of humanity. This does not mean that humanity has less value but that humanity has no more value than the rest of creation. The incorporation of this view of the human presents a major challenge to Christian theology. Historically, the church has been reluctant to adopt this view, resisting both Darwinian evolutionary theory and later the Neo-Darwinian model for their suggestions that the human was no different from any other species in its development as a species.

Even those theologians who have a creation-centered theology maintain an exalted view of humanity, (with the possible exception of Francis). For example, Neister Eckhardt, in the collection of his sermons entitled Creation Spirituality has one sermon entitled "How all Creatures Share an Equality of Being" followed immediately by one entitled "The Greatness of the Human Person." In this latter sermon, Matthew Fox points out that Eckhardt argues that "Humanity, . . ., is the Creator’s masterpiece, a likness of the divinity that has no parallel." This leaves us, then, with an Orwellian-like system in which all creatures are equal but humans are more equal.

Some argue that a doctrine of humanity could be designed which translates privilege into responsibility. But this stewardship model has not and will not work to protect the environment because privilege is generally translated into rights. Thus, humanity, as a result of its position, has a right to use the universe in any way it sees fit. Even responsible use is use for humanity’s benefit. A truly meaningful environmental ethic will arise only when a use pattern is developed in which all creation has equal privilege. This can be facilitated within Christianity by a lessexalted doctrine of humanity.

Finally, a less other-worldly eschatology is needed within Christian theology if a viable environmental ethic is to be developed. The "play now, pay later" attitude, when coupled with the Christian doctrine of forgiveness, has traditionally produced little sense of urgency or necessity. Even evangelical eschatology which does produce a sense of urgency and upheaval does so in an other-worldly manner. In a this-worldly eschatology "eternal" judgment occurs here and all successive generations must endure it. This is precisely what science is telling us about humanity’s treatment of the cosmos. Our actions are so disturbing the environment that the results will serve as an "eternal" judgment of humanity. If for example, we poison the environment in an irreversible manner, that poisoning becomes not only an "eternal" judgment of humanity but something that creation must endure. In short, Christian theology must couch our actions in apocalyptic terms so that we come to grips with the gravity of our actions and need for an urgent response. Christian eschatology must recapture the immediacy felt by Paul and the early Church but it must do so in such a way that it remains anchored in the world of everyday experience.

This paper has been only a beginning in the exploration of a possible synthesis between science and Christian theology in the interest of an environmental ethic. I have merely tried to suggest some steps in a direction which will be beneficial for both and for creation itself.

NOTES

1. Richard Heirs. Zygon, March 1986, p. 45.

2. Wilson, E.O. (1984). Biophilia Harvard Univ. Press, p. 120.

3. Thisso-called "two book theory" would have science deal exclusively with the physical world in as an empirical a manner as possible while theology would concentrate on metaphysical considerations.

4. Fox, Matthew. (1980). Breakthrough: Meister Eckhardt’s Creation Spirituality. Doubleday & Co., p. 107.

 

William S. Falla Jr., Ph.D. (Cand.) is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Chaplain at Cedar Crest College, Allentown, Pa.

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