Ecology and Theology: Ecojustice at the Center of the Church's Mission

By Ruether, Rosemary Radford | Interpretation, October 2011 | Go to article overview
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Ecology and Theology: Ecojustice at the Center of the Church's Mission


Ruether, Rosemary Radford, Interpretation


This essay examines two major biblical and theological traditions for ecological commitment: the covenantal tradition, biblical and modern, and the sacramental tradition, biblical and modern. It also asks how we need to reclaim these traditions in the practice of the churches today.

Many traditional Christians feel a deep suspicion toward the ecology movement, particularly when it lays claim to theological and religious meaning. They see this as the rise of a new nature worship, something they regard as totally contrary to biblical faith. In this essay, I argue that the church's mission of redemption of the world cannot be divorced from justice in society and from the healing of the wounds of nature wrought by an exploitative human industrial system. Furthermore, I show that this holistic perspective is central to the biblical vision of redemption. It is a Christianity that divorces individual salvation from society and society from nature that is unbiblical.

This does not mean that some of the challenges directed at the biblical and Christian tradition by deep ecologists and ecofeminists1 have been totally off base. The biblical and Christian traditions do have elements that sacralize the domination and negation of body, earth, and woman. But these traditions also struggled against what they perceived to be injustice and evil, and sought to vindicate the goodness of creation and the body and their ultimate redemption against extreme dualists that saw in the material world only the manifestation of the demonic We can reclaim these more holistic traditions to ground an ecojustice vision of redemption.

Let me be clear about what I am not saying by such affirmations. I am not saying that the biblical and Christian tradition is the sole source of religious truth, the only way of access to true divinity, and therefore, only here is religious truth to be found. The great Asian religious traditions, as well as the unjustly scorned nature religions of indigenous peoples, have precious resources that need to be cultivated. An ecological crisis of global proportions can mean nothing less than a true dialogue and mutual enrichment of all spiritual traditions.

Secondly, I am not saying that these biblical and Christian traditions are adequate. They need critique and reinterpretation. But I suspect that this is true of all human spiritual heritages. The global ecological crisis is a new situation. Until now, humans have assumed that nature's power far transcended puny humans. Even biblical apocalyptic thought did not put the power to destroy the earth in human hands. The awareness that our power has grown so great that we must now take responsibility for preserving the biotic diversity of rain forests and the ozone layer of the stratosphere was unimaginable in past human experience.

Although biblical and Christian traditions are not the only source for ecological theology and ethics, they are a source that must be central for us of Christian background. First, there are magnificent themes here to inspire us. Secondly, Christian people and their institutions are a major world religion and world power. They have been a major cause of the problems, but they will not be mobilized to conversion unless they can find the mandates for it in those traditions that carry meaning and authority for them. Finally, I suspect that none of us work in a healthy way if we operate merely out of alienation from our past. We need new visions. New visions have power when they are not rootless, but are experienced as based on and giving authentic understanding of our heritage.

The ecological theologies of Christian inspiration at this time seem to fall into two different types, which I call the "covenantal" and the "sacramental." The covenantal type is represented by books such as Richard Austin's Hope for the Land? It draws strongly from Hebrew Scripture, and claims the Bible as the primary source of ecological theology.

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