Environmental Theology: A Judeo-Christian Defense

Article excerpt

Much of the modern environmental movement has found it necessary to develop new theologies of nature and humanity. However, the traditional beliefs of Judaism and Christianity provide a better perspective on nature and offer ample grounding for a realistic environmental ethic. Anthropocentrism is a necessary component of any workable system of human responsibility and the doctrine of sin means that Jews and Christians understand both the promise and perils of modern technology. Human creativity is a gift from God and can be used appropriately to alter the natural world. Jews and Christians should be forthright in defending their faith as relevant and sufficient for dealing with environmental issues.


When examining the history of the environmental movement, one is struck by two major phenomena. First, the environment is relatively new as a major political and economic force. The relationship of humans to their natural environment has always concerned some members of society, but only in the last several decades, and largely in the West, has concern for the environment expanded to be a matter of intense public discussion. In the process, environmentalism has also become, for the first time in history, a major driving force in economic and political affairs.

However, a second ideological revolution has also taken place--namely, the rising influence of religious concerns in environmental issues. There are two major strands to this new religious consciousness. The more radical is the effort to develop whole new theologies of nature and humanity to replace existing religions that are viewed as having been responsible, in a significant way, for the environmental degradation of the world. The second, and less radical, approach is the alteration of traditional theology to take better account of environmental concerns.

Whatever the particular religious response to the issue, it has become increasingly clear that simply discussing the environment in terms of costs and benefits and trying to make rather narrow utilitarian arguments about the efficacy of particular environmental policies is insufficient. Environmental arguments are not value-free. We can attempt to assess the efficiency of a particular activity, but the question arises: Efficiency in achieving what ends? The whole issue of who counts in the social calculus is a fundamental one that every society must address: Do just the members of my tribe or ethnic group count, or does some larger concept of humanity matter? Do animals and fish have rights? What about plants and rocks? Can we use nature to expand human happiness? If so, how should that use be limited? How should we understand economic growth and technological change? Each of these questions involves a host of normative and theological issues, and participants in the environmental debate have begun to frame these questions in religious terms. (1) More recently, a group of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants have jointly issued "The Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship." (2)

The religious community's response to the increasing concern about the relationship between humans and nature has been vast and varied. (3) In some cases, it has been simply to form bodies to explore ways of raising environmental consciousness. In 1990 an open letter to the religious community was drafted by astronomer Carl Sagan; the Very Rev. James P. Morton, president of the Temple of Understanding; and Paul Gorman, vice president of public affairs for the Cathedral of the Divine in New York City. This effort led to the 1992 formation of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE), an alliance of the United States Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCC), the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (CEJL). The NRPE has been actively distributing "creation care resources" to congregations as well as lobbying in the public policy arena. …