The United Nations is recognizing the credibility that churches have attained in lobbying on the climate change issue and that the issue is not only a technical but also an ethical one. An indication of this is that for the first time, the World Council of Churches has been permitted to address delegates in an official intervention in the UN climate change negotiations.The article introduced Dr. David Hallman, who is the World Council of Churches Climate Change Program Coordinator. Nothing could testify more vividly to the change that has occurred in religious thinking than the fact that the World Council of Churches has a coordinator for a "climate change program!"
Dr. Hallman explained that environmental issues had an ethical dimension that has been explored in the recent development of an "ecological theology." Here I quote him:
There has been a revolution in theological thinking in the past twenty-five years in our understanding of the relation between the human species and the rest of creation. Theologians were startled when Judaeo-Christian theology with its concept of humanity being on earth to dominate was accused of having a big part in the ecological crisis facing the world today.Dr. Hallman continued by noting that church people all over the world in rich and poor societies had taken notice of the spiritual importance of environmental problems. Not only must we deal with the effect of industrial society on the quality of the air and water essential to life, but many religious people have recognized the "meaningless of their consumer society" and have a longing to reestablish a connection to the earth. Many non-Western societies have retained a strong sense of the natural world as sacred and of the unity of humanity with nature. Dr. Hallman:
For example, in one African community, they have incorporated environmental stewardship into their theology and liturgy. Wantonly destroying trees, for instance, is seen as a profound sin and can even lead to excommunication. When they seek renewal in baptism, they confess not only their moral sins but also their sinning against nature.
The neo-orthodox bifurcation between nature and history has roots in European thought that go back as far as the philosopher Descartes in the 17th century. Descartes believed that the world was made of two kinds of things -- bodies that are extended but not conscious and minds that are conscious but not extended. In one form or another this dualism between the physical world and the human spirit reigned supreme for three centuries. It was thought to be the unavoidable implication of modern science. According to this view nature is made up of tiny bits of dead, purposeless matter moving and developing in accordance with mathematically exact and inexorable laws. The material world was thought to be a giant machine. In the midst of this materialistic, deterministic, mechanistic world lived human beings as thinking, feeling beings with the capacity for free choice and moral judgment. A great deal of modern philosophy can be seen as the attempt to overcome this bifurcation between fact and value, between the law-abiding physical realm and the moral and spiritual realm of freedom and purpose. This dualism in one variety or another was prominent in much academic Protestant theology of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The general principle was that whatever science may say about the external world, a basis for morality and religion can be found in the inner spiritual consciousness of human beings. The neo-orthodox theology in the first half of the 20th century stood in this long tradition of distinguishing between nature as dealt with by science and history as the primary arena in which human beings encounter the God of judgment and grace.
THE ERA OF SECULAR AND POLITICAL THEOLOGY
Along with political theology, a closely related emphasis in the middle of the 1960's was secular theology. Everybody was quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote that humanity "has learned to cope with all question of importance without recourse to God as a working hypothesis." A small radical minority of theologians spoke of the "death of God." In 1965 Harvey Cox published The Secular City, which soon became a best seller. According to Cox, the biblical world-view results in the disenchantment of nature, the descralization of politics, and the deconsecration of values. By this he means that nature, rulers of the state, and ethical systems are robbed of their sacred power and character. Nature is neutralized so that it becomes a fit object of scientific study and technological mastery. Governments and moral values are marked with a tag reading "made in history by human hands." In all these ways humanity is set free for the adventure of history and to develop into mature, responsible adulthood under God. Note carefully that humanity resides in history, specifically in a largely urban, technological environment. Nature is to be studied by science and mastered by technology. Humanity has come of age as a resident of the secular city freed from the divinity of nature and of kings and all sacred but enslaving authorities to create the content and direction of history as a free, grown-up adult.
In the midst of all this, ecological concerns were conspicuously absent except for a few lonely voices. One exception to the general trend was Joseph Sittler. In an address to the New Delhi Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1961, Sittler spoke of the theological importance of "the care of the earth, the realm of nature as a theater of grace, the ordering of the thick, material procedures that make available to or deprive man (sic, humanity) of bread and peace." He went on to reject the modern view that nature has nothing to do with the divine, asserting that the Old Testament sees it quite differently. It is true that the Hebrews had no word for nature, but the creation reflects the glory of God. We ourselves are made from the dust of the earth. His speech was warmly received, but according to Roger Shinn, it was largely "because of the beauty of his prose." No practical response followed.
In 1966 Kenneth Boulding wrote a paper for the National Council of Churches in this country in which he pointed to the irresponsible exploitation of natural resources and called for a new economic order suitable for life on "Spaceship Earth." He too was applauded, but no practical program was instituted to deal with the implications of his proposals. Clearly the main focus of attention was elsewhere. Achieving racial justice, avoiding nuclear war, overcoming poverty, reducing the great inequalities of wealth, and creating a good society for all were the primary ethical mandates before the churches at that time.
THE RISE OF ECOLOGICAL THEOLOGY
His contention was that attitudes developed in the Latin West in the Middle Ages led to the rise of science and technology, the union of which a century ago resulted in the contemporary threat to human existence posed by the possibility of ecological catastrophe. In many ancient religions, the world is filled with gods, with spiritual powers. Gods control the fertility of the land. If you want a good crop, you have to have the cooperation of these natural divinities. Nature is alive with spirits of all sorts. In the biblical view nature becomes neutral, void of spirits and of spiritual significance. Nature becomes an object to be exploited. It has no intrinsic meaning or significance. White's thesis is that the Bible banished the spirits from trees, fields, mountains, and streams, leaving humanity as the only place where spirit resides. In its Western form Christianity became the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen. "By destroying paganism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects." White contended that this view combined with certain cultural tendencies in northern Europe to produce an aggressive attitude to nature. It is to be exploited for human gain and human benefit. Whatever the reasons, he was able to show that a change in attitude took place somewhere between 1200 and 1400 in the Christian era.
White argued, however, that religion was both the root and the remedy of the present crisis. An alternative view with therapeutic potential was to be found in St. Francis' view of the democracy of created beings in which flowers, birds, ants, and wolves all have a contribution to make to the praise of God. Cosmic humility must replace arrogance, and an appreciation for the whole creation must replace a humanity-centered egoism. He urged ecologists to take St. Francis as their patron saint.
It was during the last years of the decade of the 60's that a new ecological consciousness began to develop both in the church and in the larger society. A veritable flood of books and conferences created a new awareness of the perils associated with the increase of population and pollution and the depletion of natural resources. The first Earth Day occurred in 1970. In 1972 the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth that predicted catastrophe unless certain trends were reversed that would transgress the limits with which life could be sustained on earth. Many of us for the first time were introduced to the magic and horror associated with the mathematics of exponential increase.
In 1972 The United Nations sponsored an international conference on The Human Environment that met in Stockholm, and two years later convened another on population in Bucharest. In these meetings an explosive debate arose between representatives of the industrialized countries, who insisted that economic growth had to be limited, and representatives of developing nations, who saw that as an attempt to keep them in a permanent state of poverty. The poor countries accused the rich ones of polluting the environment through overconsumption and of getting rich by exploiting them. The affluent nations warned of the dangers of exploding populations in the poorer nations and continents. Those of us who wrote books on Christian ethics found ourselves dealing with dilemmas and complexities we had not dreamed of a decade earlier.
In 1974 Garrett Hardin argued against helping the poor. Feeding the hungry masses today will mean only that even greater multitudes will starve later. He asked what the appropriate course of action is when you have 150 people shipwrecked and the life-boat will hold only 50. Hardin urged us to keep the starving masses off our life-boat. Soon every class in Christian ethics had a section on "life-boat ethics." That same year Robert Heilbroner published An Inquiry into the Human Prospect in which he held before us three awful perils -- the population explosion, nuclear war, and ecological catastrophe. He concluded by saying, "if by the question `Is there any hope?' we ask whether it is possible to meet the challenges of the future without the payment of a fearful price, the answer is "no," there is no hope."
Reviewing this history, I was startled to realize what a transformation took place in society, in the church, and in theological thinking between 1965 and 1975. As I indicated earlier, the attention of theologians and of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches in the mid-60's was on social ethics, political theology, and on the implications of science and technology for human values. A decade later a major change had occurred. The notion of a "sustainable society" was first used in a conference convened by the World Council of Churches in Bucharest in 1974. In 1979 the World Council of Churches sponsored an international conference on "Faith, Science, and the Future" at MIT. At this meeting ecological concerns were at the center of the debate.
It was during this decade that my own interests in ecology as a theological problem blossomed. Without being excessively excessive in my immodesty, I can claim to be one of the first theologians to take up an agenda that is now commonplace. In 1969 I published an article in The Christian Century entitled "The Case for Christian Biopolitics." This was expanded into a book that came out in 1971 under the title Christian Biopolitics: A Credo and Strategy for the Future. I began with the notion of political theology prominent in theology at the time and argued that we needed to expand it into a biopolitical theology. Political theology is much too narrow if it sees humanity only in a historical and social context and does not taken into account the natural and biological setting. Biopolitics takes life as the central category and asks how we can produce an outlook and a program of action that will cooperate with God in honoring the whole creation and all living beings in the quest for universal fulfillment.
BIBLICAL TEXTS AND THEMES
I referred earlier to Lynn White, Jr., and his astounding thesis that Western religion is one of the roots of the ecological crisis. Some religious thinkers went on the defensive and argued that it was not the biblical outlook on nature but sin that is the problem. The thirst for power, greed, and the impulse toward exploitation are at the root of our desire to dominate, subjugate, and control nature and other people. Other theologians reacted to White with appreciation and joined in calling the churches to repentance and to a new appreciation of the whole creation and the care of the earth. The production of an ecological theology and ethics became a priority within the church. Today theological books with "ecological" in the title are as common as "secular" and "political" were thirty years ago.
Central to the discussion are two texts in Genesis. After human beings had been created we find this passage in Genesis, chapter 1, verse 28:
And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (RSV)The troublesome words are "subdue" and "have dominion." The Hebrew terms used here are very strong. The word translated into English as "subdue" suggests English equivalents such as conquer, subjugate, violate, bring into bondage, force. The Hebrew term translated as "have dominion over" has equivalents such as tread down, prevail against, and reign over. I think we have to admit that this verse simply does not say what we as environmentally concerned people today might wish it had. However, in its original context, it had a quite positive meaning. Israel faced a natural world that was mysterious, powerful, and threatening. Within that setting, this text was profoundly liberating. It sees nature as good, as part of a divinely ordered world not to be feared but to be engaged and used for human purposes. Anyone who has ever tried to clear and prepare new ground for farming or plowed a mule in rocky ground, as I have in my youth, knows that subdue is the proper word. This text reflects the experience of an ancient people trying to make a living under difficult conditions, and we soft urban people today may not appreciate the strong language that is used here.
Another theme frequently cited by environmentalists is suggested in chapter 2, verse 15.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it. (RSV)So here we have two motifs. The first says subdue nature and dominate it. The second urges us to till the garden and to maintain it. Minimally, the message of the two together is this: use the resources of earth for human purposes, but in so doing, take good care of the garden. I would suggest that both sides of this equation are equally important.
THE THEOLOGICAL FRAMEWORK OF BIOPOLITICS
A. THE GOODNESS OF CREATION
The first is the goodness of creation. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament of the Christian Bible teach that God is good and has made a good world. In the first chapter of Genesis after every stage in creation, we are told that God looked at what had been made and saw that it was good. The heavens and the earth and the sea, the plants, and the animals are all good. All this is said before humanity comes on the scene. The world independently of people is good in and of itself and in God's eyes.
No one was more eloquent in speaking of the goodness of creation than St. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in the 5th century.
Truly the very fact of existing is by some natural spell so pleasant that even the wretched are for no other reason unwilling to perish; and, when they feel that they are wretched, wish not that they themselves be annihilated, but that their misery be removed. Is it not obvious how nature shrinks from annihilation? What! Do not even all irrational animals from the huge dragons to the least worms all testify that they wish to exist, and therefore shun death by every movement in their power? Nay, the very plants and shrubs, do not they all seek in their own fashion to conserve their own existence by rooting themselves more and more deeply in the earth, so that they may draw nourishment and throw out healthy branches to the sky?To that ancient witness, I will add that of Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote that all life is driven by a three-fold urge: "to live, to live well, and to live better." I suggest that we feel the goodness of existence in ourselves, and we observe it in all living beings, as Augustine said.
I personally follow Whitehead in believing that all the basic constituents of reality at every level have a life-like quality right down to sub-atomic particles. Reality consists of organisms, pulses of life aiming at satisfaction. Therefore, the world is finally made up of nothing but experiencing subjects who are capable of enjoyment. Tables, rocks, and computers are, of course, not regarded as living subjects. They are objects, but they are composed of entities that are experiencing subjects in some extended or analogical sense. In this way of thinking, the goodness of creation is understood in the most literal way possible.
Every element of reality has intrinsic value. There is, of course, a hierarchy of complexity as we move from the elementary occasions of experience that are the building blocks of the universe to plants, animals, and human beings. The value of organisms increases as the range and depth of their capacity for enjoyment increases. Value is measured in terms of the richness, complexity, and intensity of feeling enjoyed by organisms. Human beings have a much wider and deeper capacity for experience and enjoyment than animals and hence have more intrinsic value than they, although all living beings have some value. I stress this point because I have had some rather intense arguments with some ecological theologians who contend for what appears to be a pure democracy of value in which the claim of superior worth for humans beings is regarded as a prejudice of homo sapiens. I find the notion that a mosquito has the same value as a human being to be simply incredible and without foundation in either Scripture or reason. Jesus said that sparrows and sheep are valuable but that human beings are worth much more (Matt. 10:31, 12:12). Reverence for all life, yes. Equal reverence for all life, no.
One does, of course, not have be a disciple of Whitehead to affirm the goodness of all creation, but I would contend that it does have certain advantages.
THE AMBIGUITY OF THE PRESENT
The second theme is usually put under the heading of the fallenness of creation. The original goodness of creation has been corrupted by the sinfulness of humanity. I personally prefer to abandon that symbol and speak instead of the ambiguity of the present. The reason is that today we know that a perfect paradise in the past never existed in any literal sense. Rather, the theory of cosmic and biological evolution teaches us that the universe has emerged from a "big bang" some billions of years ago to expand and develop into the present world. In the light of this model, our original sin is not that we fell from some primordial perfection in the past but that we have at every stage failed to actualize the potentialities for enjoyment, goodness, justice, and love that were given in each situation. We have not fallen; we have failed to rise to the heights of which we are capable. We have achieved much good, but we have also introduced massive evils and deep suffering into history and have spoiled our natural environment by our ruthless and reckless exploitation in quest of wealth, power, and glory.
Hence, I suggest that the present is ambiguous, a mixture of good and evil. As in the parable of Jesus, the wheat and the weeds grow together, and it is impossible to separate them out fully in this present age (Matt:13:24-30). No concept is more useful for describing our moral, cultural, and ecological condition than ambiguity. Nature is wonderful, but it is in conflict with itself. Life is marvelous in all its manifestations, but it is a struggle for existence. Most of us live by eating animals. Whitehead said that all life is robbery. Life feeds on life. Nature documentaries are mostly scenes of animals mating, giving birth, and eating, especially eating one another. Evolution gives rise to forms of life awesome in their splendor, beauty and variety, but the evolutionary process is blind, wasteful, cruel, full of pain, horror, and massive death.
Nature and technology are both ambiguous. Nature is the small pox virus, AIDS, cancer, hydrocephalic babies, diseases galore, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, suffering, and death. It is also sunsets, those rare days in June, the Grand Canyon, mountains, oceans, food, sex, babies, kittens and puppies at play, the joys and pleasures of the body, and the ecstasies of love.
Technology is also ambiguous. The history of technology is filled with instances of unintended, unpredictable, and undesired consequences. Technology is nuclear bombs, explosives that terrorists use to blow up buildings and airplanes, the burning of fossil fuels, the pollution of the environment, the greenhouse effect, depletion of the ozone layer, poisoning of water, air, and land, hazardous wastes, oil spills, and so on. Technology is also vaccines for smallpox and polio and eventually maybe cures for AIDS and cancer. Technology is the Milwaukee brace that saved my precious daughter from the ravages of a curved spine, the surgery that saved my life at age 29 from an inflamed appendix, and the skill that kept me alive when I had a heart attack. The use of science and technology to accomplish human ends has unleashed powers for both good and evil, and we do not yet know whether they will ultimately save us or destroy us.
Nature, history, technology, and everyday life are ambiguous, a mixture of good and evil. The Apostle Paul sees all of nature as estranged from its original purpose.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now. (Romans 8:22 RSV)C. THE PROMISE OF THE FUTURE
the creation waits with eager longing . . . because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Romans 8:19, 21 RSV)The grand scheme of the Bible moves from creation to consummation. The Bible opens in Genesis with the announcement that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and saw that it was good. The Bible ends in the last chapter of Revelation with the promise that in the end the whole cosmos will be brought to glorious fulfillment in the appearance of a new and perfected heaven and earth. This destiny is the consummation of the creation and the realization of the divine purpose for the world. In between is the fallen world or, as I prefer to say, the ambiguous world with its mixture of good and evil.
But into the midst of ambiguity comes the promise of redemption. The last word is hope. The Bible is a future-oriented book. Central to is its message is the promise of a good future that God will enact at the end of the age. This divine promise is the basis for hope. It needs further to be said that according to the Bible history is a moral enterprise in which humanity is free to do good or to do evil. The biblical imperative is this: Respond to God's creative and redemptive action with appropriate human action that contributes to achievement of God's own purposes in the world. The mandate is to cooperate with God in a covenant of faithfulness in establishing peace, justice, and prosperity. The fact is, however, that in one way or another all have gone astray and have sought to build empires of greed in which power is used to oppress other people and to exploit nature for selfish purposes. Hence, history is the story of divine judgment but not of judgment alone but also of grace, reconciliation, and renewal.
ECOLOGICAL TRANSITION AND BIBLICAL THEMES
Systems theorists tell us that when a complex natural or social organization is undergoing change from one system state to another, a crisis arises. A situation emerges that is both threatening and promising. The threat is that the stresses on the system will be so great that chaos or destruction will follow. The promise is that restructuring may occur that enables a transformed organization to function at a higher, or at least, sustainable level. I am suggesting that at the planetary level, this state of being in crisis between one mode of functioning and another obtains.
I further suggest that it is to just such realities that the biblical vision speaks. The Bible witnesses to an original creation out of chaos, to a continuing threat of demonic, disordering powers, and to the possibility of a fresh creative, redemptive action of God to transform the present ambiguous situation into a new surge of life toward fulfillment. This pattern runs all the way through the Bible from the 8th century prophets onward. Israel lived in expectation of a New Age that God will establish. The present age exists in a state of crisis. But here is the critical point: Before the new day can dawn, the surviving remnant must pass through the consuming fires of righteous judgment. The Old Testament prophets speak of the catastrophic Day of the Lord that must precede the New Exodus and the New Covenant that lies beyond judgment. The New Testament speaks of the breaking in of a New Age that will overcome the Old Age of sin, demonic devastation, and death.
Let me draw three conclusions that speak to our present existence between the ages. First, the Bible tells us that historical catastrophe when it comes has a moral dimension. If we have to pay the fearful price that Robert Heilbroner says we must, let us see it in the light of Scripture not simply as an irrational fate that tragically falls upon our innocent creativity and daring. Rather, let us see it in part as a judgment upon our unbridled lust for power and material gain that leads us to plunder the earth, trampling over the poor and the helpless when they stand in the way of our pride and greed.
In the second place, the future is open to be shaped by our free decisions. We can discern the signs of the times. We can change our ways and perhaps avert the catastrophe. Or we can persist in our blindness and folly and bring down the fire of heaven on our heads.
In the third place, we can hear once again the offer of grace
and mercy to those who open themselves to the promise of a new and better
world available to those who seek and do the truth. Today, as always, life
and death are set before us. Let us choose life. If the fearful price must
be paid, let us experience it as both judgment and grace. Let us experience
it as both the outcome of our folly and as the door to a new future that
awaits a purged remnant who may yet the learn the truth about life that
we have scorned.
I invite responses.
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