Moving towards a theology that embraces both oppressed peoples and care for the earth requires the reclamation of trinitarian concepts and language that move us into communities rooted in radical love. Patrick Cheng writes,
The doctrine of the Trinity is a manifestation of God’s radical love because it is an internal community of radical love. That is, the Trinity breaks down a number of categories, including the self and the other. Because God is an internal community within God’s very being, this collapses the usual difference between the self and the other (that is, otherness as being “external” to one’s self). Thus, God consists of both the “self” and the “other.” Indeed, the love among the three persons of the Trinity has been described by the term perichoresis (or circumincessio in Latin), which means an ecstatic dance or interpenetration of the three persons.
The Trinity teaches us that the ontology of God is paradoxically both oneness and relationship. Part of our bearing the image of God is our longing not only towards relationship and community, but towards love. That humanity bears the image of God means that all people experience the intimacy of God through embrace, inclusion, community, and love. John writes that although no one has ever seen God, if we love one another God becomes alive within us, tangible, and made visible (1 John 4:12). The love which we are to imitate is indeed a radical love that is demonstrated in the act of creation. Cheng continues,
I believe that creation can be understood as God’s outpouring of radical love . . .God’s own being is inherently relational. That is, because of God’s three-fold existence, God is already a self-contained community and does not need anything else that is external to Godself. However, God chooses to create the universe–including humanity–as an outpouring of radical love.
Last week I wrote about history/nature dualism, which holds at its core that the natural world exists for the exclusive purpose of human use and enjoyment. This says something about our understanding of ourselves within the universe: we can use and dominate that which is “other” to us.
I am captivated and inspired by the concept of the Trinity containing both “self” and “other” in a radical love relationship.
Our spiraling human patterns of domination begin with the natural world and extend to our own species towards those whom we think are lesser than us, not as economically valuable, or simply “other” than ourselves. Our imitation of trinitarian love requires us to deconstruct hierarchical relationships that promote self over other, rich over poor, male over female, and human over non-human in an attempt to image the radical love of God and make it tangible, real, and present in a broken and hurting world.
1. Cheng, Patrick S. Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (Seabury Books, 2011), 56.
2. Ibid., 62.
Essential to developing an ecologically sensitive theology is the necessity of devising a theology of nature. Richard Bauckham sheds some clarity on the concept of nature and how the word is commonly used. He lays out four common usages of the term ‘nature’: (1) essence, such as employed in Chalcedonian Christology, (2) the entirety of the created or observable world as separate from and distinctly different than God, (3) the world (including humanity) in a pre-fall state, and (4) the observable non-human world with a priority towards the natural environment and its relation to human life.
Inherent within the last usage, Bauckham claims, is a presupposed “distinction between ‘nature’ and humanity, or rather, between nature and culture/human history. Bauckham, as well as Rosemary Ruether, Joseph Sittler, Jurgen Moltmann, Stephen Bouma-Prediger, and Ian Barbour cite the nature/history dualism as ecologically unjust and unfaithful to the biblical witness. Bauckham claims that distinctions made between human culture and nature are false. Bouma-Prediger states simply that the dualism assumes that “history is defined as and limited to human history and thereby set over against nature.” Because of that distinction, Bouma-Prediger asserts that traditional theology has allowed “redemption and grace” to “extend only as far as history, i.e., humanity.” The cosmic scope of the work of Christ is diminished within the the history/nature dualism. Rather, Bouma-Prediger affirms with with Joseph Sittler that such an assumption represents a deep misunderstanding, and that “history must be redefined as inclusive of all being and nature must be reconceived as inclusive of human being.” He continues,
These revisions are fully compatible with the claim that Christianity is a historical religion. Indeed they more accurately capture the comprehensive biblical vision of the redemption of bodies, of grace for a groaning creation, and of shalom for all of God’s creatures.
An ecological perspective (for more on this, see my earlier post St. Basil, Ecology, and Fellowship: Part 3) implores us to reconsider the categories of history and nature that are typically mutually exclusive and posit humanity as both different from and over and above the natural world. Humanity must be conceived as a part of nature, thus drawing nature into the realm of history. From this point we can go proceed in either of two directions: the image of God or human dominion in Genesis 1:28. For our purposes here, I’d like to focus upon the imago Dei.
Bauckham states that the writer of Genesis 1 sees humanity as “one of the land animals, created on the sixth day,” yet makes a distinction between them in 1:28, while the writer of Genesis 2 envisions both Adam and the animals as “created out of the ground,” invoking images of God designing clay figures. He claims that in the second creation account nothing distinguishes Adam from the animals. Bauckham alludes to a lack of clarity regarding the intention of Genesis 2:7 to imply that Adam directly received the breath of life from God.
Even if this detail does indicate Adam’s special status in God’s sight, it indicates nothing about human nature which distinguishes it from the animals. However received, the same divine breath animates all things . . .the Old Testament seems to draw no hard line of distinction between human nature and the animals.
Anna Case-Winters would agree with Bauckham, and states, “there is an unbroken continuity with the rest of nature; separation is a false report on reality . . .we are nature.” Traditionally, human dominion is connected to being created in the image of God, based on a hierarchical pattern of creation. On the connection between dominion and creation in the image of God, Bauckham claims that it does not refer “to the dominion itself, but to whatever characteristics of human nature make human beings capable of this dominion.” So instead of Genesis 1:26-28 being read as building dominion into the fabric of creation, with humans ontologically superior to the natural world, Bauckham insists that the writer of Genesis 1 is
starting from the empirical observation that human beings are the dominant species on earth, and providing a theological interpretation of this; that God in creation intended human beings to be the dominant species on earth and intended them to exercise their dominion as [God’s] viceregents, responsible to [God].
Anna Case-Winters offers a critique on the common conceptualizing of the imago dei in regards to theological approaches that seek to firmly establish the imago dei as “what distinguishes the human being from nature,” and what sets humanity over and above nature. When theology is performed in such a manner, she claims,
one suspects an agenda designed to establish human rights to rule and exploit the rest of nature. I think the whole approach to the imago dei needs to be reconsidered. Our present habits of thought have led to separatism and anthropocentrism, which have proven both untenable and dangerous.
For Case-Winters, the preferred approach is rather to draw distinctions around the contributions which “human beings may make to the rest of creation.”
Whether we think of the image of God in terms of intrinsic capacities such as reason/ rationality or the quality of our living in relationship, these admit of more and less and could be seen as placing the human being on a continuum rather than in absolute distinction.
Employing distinctions between human history and nature and excluding nature from history and history from nature has practical/ethical implications as well as influences upon our theology. These two categories must be reimagined in order to create an ecological theology that contains an ethos of love, care, and equality among life. Stephen Bouma-Prediger has summarized five arguments from Rosemary Ruether that highlight the problems of the history/nature dualism and why it ought to be rejected:
1) this dualism is false because the natural world is historical in its own right; 2) this dualism is false because the natural world is indelibly affected by human agency and thus a part of human history; 3) this dualism is false because, as corporeal, humans are embedded in the natural order; 4) this dualism has led to disastrous consequences since it has sanctioned various forms of exploitation; 5) this dualism conflicts with the biblical emphasis on a single all-embracing covenant.
How do the two different accounts of creation influence your understanding of humanity, non-human life, and ethic towards creation? How do you understand the imago dei in relation to the rest of creation?
1.Bauckham, Richard. (1986). “First Steps to a Theology of Nature.” The Evangelical Quarterly, 58 no.3, 229.
3.Bouma-Prediger, Stephen. The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Sittler, and Jurgen Moltmann (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1995), 272.
10.Case-Winters, Anna. “Rethinking the Image of God.” Zygon 39 no. 4 (December 2004), 815.
I’m going to lay my cards on the table as I try to reflect on the momentous event that happened this week. I do not have a nationalistic or patriotic bone in my body. I did not personally lose any loved ones on September 11, 2001, nor did I lose any loved ones in the ensuing war. I am a pacifist. I am white, middle-class, well-educated, and I do not know suffering first hand. For these reasons, and probably others as well, I can find it difficult to construct deeply empathetic feelings when great tragedies occur. I can look upon an earthquake, or a tsunami, or hunger, or slavery, and feel saddened and upset, but because of my status and my residence within the locus imperium, I can take comfort in knowing that I can continue my life unaffected. Part of my own journey lies in dismantling my indifference and discovering ways in which my own status, wealth, and privilege can be used for goodness, equality, and justice, rather than for comfort.
I assume this indifference is true for the majority of Christians living in the United States. Our popular theology reveals this reality. The American narrative, deeply intertwined with Protestantism, reflects themes of election, exodus, and promise. God is on our side. Stir into the batter interpretations of Romans 13 that implore Christians to obey, support, and be subject to governing authorities, and we are left with a confidence that the directions that our nation takes are surely ordained by God at some macro level.
I’d like to posit two things, neither of which are new by any stretch of the imagination. The first is this: unless dominant Christianity adopts a theology that appropriately deals with suffering it will be bankrupt in its ability to deal with oppression and poverty, both asking the questions and searching for the answers as to why people are oppressed and poor, and what roles we knowingly or unknowingly play in perpetuating unjust systems. Wrapped up within a theology that appropriately deals with suffering is the notion of justice and exactly whose side God really is on. I feel quite confident in looking at our nation’s imperialism, military-industrial complex/disease (I’ll stop at those two) and say that God is not on our side. To be perfectly clear, this means that God is not responsible for, nor is God the cause of suffering in the world. Rather, when women, children, men, and the earth suffer, God suffers with them.
The second thing is this: God cares about this world. Much of Christianity theologically affirms a balance between the immanence and transcendence of God, but completely eliminates such a balance in worship and practice. Lurking behind the heavy emphasis on God’s transcendence is spirit/matter dualism and the subjugation of the lowly physical to the holy spiritual. There is so much to be said about the damage this has done, but for our purposes here, in removing God from within all of life we have desacralized creation and allowed ourselves to desacralize people who are different than us, destroying both. More than desacralizing our ‘enemies,’ we have made enemies out of our sisters and brothers. In light of this, we must allow the incarnation to teach us that God values all life, broadening our scope of both the incarnation and the atonement to include the breadth of creation.
Therefore, must affirm that God is on the side of life. When lives are taken it should grieve us. It should grieve me. As many other bloggers have expressed this week, rejoice is never the Christian response in the face of death. Justice is not served when life is taken. Rather, justice is served when life is redeemed, renewed, valued, and invigorated. Justice is served when schools and hospitals are rebuilt, when communities are restored, when gunfire ceases, and when weapons of mass destruction (ours) are dismantled. Justice and death are not related, but justice and life most certainly are. When we believe this, our theology changes and our actions then change.
Two particular responses to this week’s events are worth sharing. The first is from Miroslav Volf, and the second is from D.W. Horstkoetter writing for The Other Journal.
The words of the poet Andrea Gibson are gut-wrenchingly apt as we recognize that the death of one man will not eradicate violence, terrorism, death, oppression. We are far from peace, but I hope with all of my being that there is life and justice and peace in the way of Jesus.
May we realize that they live not for us alone
but for themselves and for thee,
and that they love the sweetness of life.
-St. Basil, 4th Century
The largely unexamined view of creation that exists within much of Evangelicalism is that nonhuman creatures and the rest of creation do not have intrinsic value, but derive their value from human usage. This view towards creation goes hand in hand with traditional theism’s understanding of the dominion language of Genesis 1, and the hierarchical divides outlined in Part 2 of this series. In his book, For the Beauty of the Earth, Steven Bouma-Prediger examines seven realms of ecological thought on a continuum ranging from the “Conservation Movement” to the opposite end in the “Deep Ecology” movement (which we will look at another time). It is my presumption that the “Conservation Movement” is the prevailing position of Evangelicalism. It is also my presumption that faithfulness to God and to the earth requires Christianity to move beyond this realm of “Conservation,” the basic outline of which Bouma-Prediger states thusly:
“Nonhuman creatures do not have intrinsic value. Their value is derived exclusively from their usefulness for humans––trees are for lumber, water for human consumption, the prairie for grazing cattle. The natural world is valuable only as a means of serving human interests. The scope of what is morally considerable is relatively small––only humans count morally, and usually only humans here and now.” 
What are your thoughts and reactions to this position? Do you see it reflected within the Christian community today? Does this position seem too human-centered? Also, do you see it as a biblical position? The questions raised by this ethic are: What is the value of a tree? Of a wetland? A mountain? A spider? Do they have value? If so, how much value do they possess and at what point does the human community sacrifice its power for something nonhuman?
I purposefully made quite a jump from exploring the intrinsic value of nonhuman life to the competing interests between human and nonhuman life. That logical jump is firmly rooted within the anthropocentric view of creation espoused by the “Conservation Movement,” assuming that valuing nonhuman life is a slippery slope towards the impediment to human progress and growth.
When we begin to examine these questions from just outside of our traditional Western (and dualistic) worldviews, we can evaluate them in a new light. Recognizing the influence of modern science on the way we think, we often fail to process the individual entities listed above within their ecological contexts. They remain isolated and examined within the realm of substance. Stated another way, we fail to comprehend the relations that each of these entities engage in because we tend to extract individuals and valuate them apart from the community they exist in. John Cobb asserts that,
“The effort to study things in abstraction from their relations is based on a misunderstanding. This misunderstanding is that things exist as independent entities and only incedentally are related to one another. This is the misunderstanding that lies at the base of the materialistic view of nature (which is shared by both the dualistic and the materialistic worldviews).” 
Cobb joins in the critique of Western dualism and its difficulty in viewing things in relation to one another. The relational vision of all creation proposed here is what is precisely what is meant by the term ecology. Ecology deals explicitly with relationships within ecosystems. Everything is in relationship. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Once we remove objects, people, animals, or other components of creation from their relational context, we strip them of life. Relationship is the language of creation. Therefore, developing an ecological theology is in a sense, to borrow from St. Basil, part of enlarging our “sense of fellowship.” This requires a shift from our understanding of nature and creation as the backdrop for human history to an understanding of nature and creation as intimately and indispensably related to human history.
As we finish our look at this ecologically minded poem from St. Basil, his final stanza places an intrinsic value on the nonhuman community. His hope is wrapped up in a vision of an earth community that embraces all of life, eschews dominion as domination, and sees all of creation as possessing great worth because it was made by the hand of God. Animals, plants, and the earth exists not for humanity alone, but for all of life in a great web of relationship. Throughout history many prominent theological voices have proclaimed the beauty of creation as witness to God’s glory. This is not merely an aesthetic beauty experienced upon creation as it is pleasing to the human eye, but the inherent beauty in the systems and cycles of creation that occur in transcendence to human experience and participation. This is nothing new or radical. However, the implications of recapturing an inclusion of the greater earth community (human and nonhuman life) within our enlarged sense of fellowship requires a shift in not only our environmental ethics, but also our political ethics, and our economic ethics as well.
Our attendance to the world’s current environmental situation is deeply connected to both our theologies of creation and anthropology. These prophetic words of St. Basil that we have explored over the past three weeks speak arguably more loudly to us today than to their original audience. Over the past three weeks, Basil has been the avenue through which I have laid down some statements, ideas, and thoughts that I am currently seeking to work out and explore in my own personal academic and spiritual journey. I feel that these issues of ecology are deeply important to the Church today as it seeks to curate hope in a world desperately seeking purpose, community, and answers. They are also intimately tied to our views of God, the Incarnation, and the restoration we hope for in Jesus, which makes wrestling with an ecological theology even more important for us today.
Dialogue, feedback, criticism, and amens are welcomed and encouraged. Thanks for reading.
1. Bouma-Prediger, Steven. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 128.
2. Cobb, John B. “Ecology, Science, and Religion: Toward a Postmodern Worldview,” in Readings in Ecology and Feminist Theology. Edited by Mary Heather MacKinnon and Moni McIntyre (Lanham: Sheed and Ward, 1995), 241.
We remember with shame that in the past
we have exercised the high dominion of humankind with ruthless cruelty
so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song,
has been a groan of travail.
This second stanza from the poem of our Cappadocian father, St. Basil, is one of repentance, humility, and vision for a better reality. Before continuing the exegesis of St. Basil’s poem where I left off last week, I’d like to share a little bit of the perspectives from which I am writing. One of the major threads that has woven itself into our theology – and which I wish to unravel and deconstruct – is dualism. Its absorption into Christianity has much to do with our Western thought processes of either/or instead of being able to hold a both/and in tension and embrace mystery and paradox within our faith. The most prominent way in which dualism manifests itself is the separation between the spiritual and material. The blending of the spiritual and material to form the adam from the adama in Genesis 2 presents us with a wild pattern for creation that ultimately finds its culmination in the Incarnation. Secondly, our dualism also locks us into limited metaphors for God. None of our language for God is completely adequate, nor can our metaphors and images of God be taken literally in ways that bind God because they all break down at one point or another. Thirdly, because of this dualism, Christianity has prescribed an anthropocentrism that sharply divides between human and non-human based on an understanding of the imago Dei as located within the human soul and equated with rationality. Recognizing and breaking free from these dualistic tendencies allows us to enter into paradox in a way that enables us to see God, creation, and ourselves afresh–enabling us to see God in all people and in all things, and in ourselves as well.
Returning to St.Basil’s poem, we are confronted with the notion of the “high dominion of humankind.” Bound up in this language of Genesis 1 are the dual ideas of privileged relationship and tremendous responsibility. It’s striking to imagine what St. Basil meant by such ruthless cruelty in his pre-Industrial Age, fourth-century context while we read from our own twenty-first century era of ecological unrest and strife.
The first chapter of Genesis is our source for this dominion language.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 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. (Gen 1.27-28 NRSV)
This notion has been the justification for centuries of harm to the earth, to animals, and to other humans in the name of Christianity. The misinterpretation of this dominion language is a result of our previously mentioned dualism. “Dominion” has not been tempered by servanthood. Basil aptly laments that humanity actively silences the song, life, and fecundity of the earth, God’s creation. Dominion has been understood to mean ours for the taking, for our benefit, power to manipulate, absolute sovereignty over. While these concepts do speak to dominion, they fail to capture the fullness of dominion. They promote ownership without responsibility; leading without serving; consuming and not refilling. Those are not the traits of healthy, fulfilling relationships. Our understanding of dominion has been constructed outside of the Gospel. For God, dominion entailed not strength and power, but weakness and servanthood. It meant becoming human. The incarnation–the blending of the material and the spiritual says something about God, and it says something about the way in which we live our lives in reflection of God. A dominion that is not lived out through a servanthood that tracks with God the worth, value, and beauty of the creation is illegitimate and has failed to enter into the radical reversal of the Gospel: everyone and everything matters.
Our vision of dominion establishes a hierarchy from creation that denies that everyone and everything matters. It looks like this:
This hierarchy plays out in the following ways. Closeness to God is about spirituality, which means becoming less human and more divine so as to escape the physical obstructions that stand between us and God. God is understood to be intimately close to humans, but not intimately close to the rest of creation. Male is over and above female. Male and female both are over and above the animals. The feminist critique recognizes a line between Male and Female, denoting Female association with nature and maternal processes within non-human life, dividing the hierarchy between God and Male, and the rest of creation. Animals sit below humans. Lastly, the earth – consisting of all non-animal life – sits at the bottom of this hierarchy. With such sharp separations between humanity and the earth, and between the earth and God, we lose a sense of God within all of creation. Dualism yields separation, and separation results in enmity. This separation and enmity has caused us to remove God from the very foundational elements of creation, life, and sustainability: arable soil, adama. When we remove God from something or someone, it doesn’t matter what we do to it, or him, or her. Is God present in the dirt? Is God the dirt (which is different than asking “is the dirt God?”)? What are your reactions to these notions?
Is this observed hierarchy God’s construction? The biblical authors’ constructions? Genesis 3 is often appealed to as the source for this hierarchy vis-a-vis the fall, but here is the question we must ask ourselves: is this hierarchy prescriptive or descriptive. Is this the way things will be ordered in a fallen world in which sin is chief? Or is it a description of how humanity fails to live in proper relationship to one another, to God, and to creation, from which we strive to evolve?
Basil sees that the self-sustaining and self-regulating fecundity with which God has created is being systematically interrupted by dominion. Within the framework I have outlined, dominion and fellowship are in opposition. Our fellowship is limited by anthropocentrism, preventing us from seeing God alive and present within non-human creation. This desacralizes both human and non-human life, rendering us unable to see the thread of God stitching all of life together within creation’s interdependent ecosystems.
Given the global consequences of our disassociation with creation, removal of God from creation, and subsequent abuses of nature, it is our responsibility to reconcile dominion and fellowship if we wish to be faithful to the earth, to humanity, and to God. We must come to realize that there is no environmental injustice that is not also a social injustice, that is not also painful to God.