Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Expanding the Scope of Eco-Theology
distributed 12/12/14 - ©2014

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Harold Palevsky, M.D., and Lorna Lynn of Wynnewood, PA, in honor of Jack Twombly. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

At an academic seminar recently, I heard a re-hashing of a very familiar topic: what is the meaning of the word "dominion" in Genesis 1:28?

It is not a question that I worry about much these days, but this go-around was a bit more interesting than some. The two people involved were a Jewish rabbi and an Evangelical scholar, both of whom spoke with knowledge and passion.

I listened closely, too, because their discussion came right after my talk on "The Faith-Based Environmental Movement: where we are, where we are going." One section of my presentation spoke to why and how these two learned men discussed the Genesis verse. I had pointed out that individuals and congregations building an environmentally-relevant faith often work through a gradual shift in their approach to scripture and religious traditions.

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The boundaries are fuzzy, the details might not happen in a tidy sequence, and not everyone can (or should) move through the entire process, but -- I see a progression through three general categories as people raise environmental questions about their faith traditions. Think about where you, and your faith community, fit on this map.

1) Reinterpret the familiar
At the start, questions about environmental teachings and responsibilities are likely to be framed in traditional religious language, and refer to familiar texts. The stories and themes that we teach kids in Sunday School are where we begin.

What do those stories in Genesis mean? (Many folk are amazed to find that there are two different creation stories in the first chapters of the Bible!) The affirmation of creation as "very good" sets a context with God in relationship with all things, reminds us that the world is important, and stirs us to gratitude.

Those new to the connection between faith and the environment might flip through the "Green Bible" and be surprised at the number and variety of passages which speak of nature. A look at the parables of Jesus will reveal that he spoke often about the natural world. Caring about the environment is validated because the Bible cares about it, too.

Looking at the creation stories leads to questions about central concepts. If we are to be "good stewards of creation", then what is involved in stewardship? (There are no easy answers to that!) What is the nature of dominion? What does it mean that humans are created "in the image of God"? These can lead to sophisticated and challenging explorations that re-shape theology and ethics through a new awareness of the world. (Hauerwas and Berkman wrote, "If we are to throw off the view that dominion means domination over other animals, we must turn to a Trinitarian understanding of what it means for us to be in the image of God.")

Often, a first awareness that the environment might be a matter of religious concern keeps a fairly conventional religious and cultural assumption. "Nature" and "the environment" are realms that are separate from humans. Our categories are stretched and expanded, but not dramatically transformed.

2) Discover wider perspectives
The "eco-theologies" that have taken shape in recent decades have tapped into a broader set of religious texts, and asked larger questions. Fruitful and exciting ideas emerge with new sources and a shift in assumptions. Larger and more inclusive categories open up new theological and ethical principles. (These wider perspectives are often explored in Eco-Justice Notes.)

Taking seriously the wholistic biblical concept of "the creation" breaks down a human/nature dichotomy -- and meshes with modern ecological understanding. "Stewardship" and "dominion" are not as helpful when we understand ourselves as part of creation, instead of separate from nature.

Environmental perspectives on faith lead us to texts that have been forgotten, or hidden. Wisdom literature in the Bible opens up an affirmation of God as creator that gets lost when too much attention is given to the God of history. The startling end of the book of Job illustrates the theological idea of "the integrity of creation," and takes humanity out of the center.

Rather than seeking out texts that talk about "nature," an eco-theology which is inclusive of all creation finds insight in the rich tradition of shalom, which connects themes of peace and justice to the mandate for Earth care. Religious principles like "love your neighbor" are expanded with far-reaching new definitions.

Christians who recognize that we are part of creation, members of Earth community, find challenge and delight in biblical and theological themes that are quite different from the conventional starting points of stewardship and dominion. Christian themes of salvation and reconciliation have new meaning broken open in a cosmic and ecological context.

3) Move into new territory
Some people see a dramatic disconnect between traditional religious perspectives about creation and the wonders revealed by modern science. This can lead to formulations of faith and philosophy that expand beyond, or step away from, the historic expressions of Christianity.

The most clear-cut example is a diverse movement that speaks of a "new cosmology" or "evolutionary Christianity." The context for religious thought is not just an ecological understanding of Earth community, but the realization of a vast cosmos with a 14 billion year process of evolution and change. A conference at Yale University last month on the "journey of the universe" engaged scholars in connecting the language of Christianity to cosmology.

On this edge of Christian theology, the familiar biblical texts and the standard language of stewardship are very marginal.

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The scholar and the rabbi started with "dominion" and expanded the conversation a bit. But that question is going to be fairly peripheral to people who have discovered that scripture is full of ideas about humanity's role within Creation.

Ecological theologies -- and there are many of them -- can stretch us and delight us when they move past notions of humans as separate from the rest of creation. We can find that faith is relevant and ethics are meaningful when our Christian story draws on the full wisdom of the Bible, learns from the rich insights of theologians and spiritual guides, and finds comfortable ties to modern science and cosmology.

We're not serving ourselves and our communities well when we limit environmental theology to a few texts and a human-centered worldview. Let us be blessed by both the variety of old religious knowledge, and the possibility of contemporary insights.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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