Democracy, Christianity, Ecology: A Twenty-First-Century Agenda for Eco-Thelogy

By Engel, Ronald J. | Cross Currents, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Democracy, Christianity, Ecology: A Twenty-First-Century Agenda for Eco-Thelogy


Engel, Ronald J., Cross Currents


I do not believe we can think about Christian eco-theology in 2011 in the same way we thought about it at the time of its founding, a period of immense theological creativity that began with the historic speech of Joseph Sittler, "Called to Unity," at the third Assembly of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi in 1961, and continued through the end of the second millennium. Declaring that "a doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation," and Christology irrelevant unless related to the issues of hunger, war, and the care of the earth, Sittler claimed a theological basis for an ethic that joined ecology, justice, and peace and placed it squarely on the agenda of the ecumenical movement. (1)

In 1968, when I wrote my first paper on the subject, "Can theology help save the wilderness?" and in the 1970s when I began teaching courses on religion, ethics, and ecology at Meadville/Lombard Theological School and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, I was emboldened by the success of the citizen-led moral causes of the time, beginning with civil rights and moving on to peace, economic justice, gender equality, and the environment. Many of us who began to teach and write in the field in those years were led by our positive experiences in grass-roots activism and community organization, and the more far-reaching national and international social change movements with which they were allied, both inside and outside of the churches, to embrace what we considered the imminent prospect of a democratically legislated "paradigm shift" from industrial capitalism to a just, peaceful, and sustainable society. These experiences became the largely unconscious yet sustaining presupposition or background for our efforts to "green" congregations, seminaries, and denominational headquarters, marshal communities of faith in the comprehensive cause of eco-justice (justice for all of creation and all human beings), participate in the covenanting processes of the Peace, Justice and Ecological Integrity theme of the World Council of Churches in the run-up to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and in the many ecumenical and inter-faith efforts to create a spiritually and ethically purposive international civil society afterward, through the launch of the Earth Charter in 2000 and Rio+10 in Johannesburg in 2002. (2) They were also the subsoil for the immense intellectual energy we poured during those years into recovering the creation-affirming elements of the Christian tradition and what we hoped would one day be called a New Reformation--history-making reforms of theology, church dogmatics, ethics, biblical hermeneutics, church history, and liturgical practice in light of our new-found recognition of our special place and responsibilities in the evolutionary drama of the planet. (3)

Can we govern ourselves?

The democratic uprisings in the Middle East which fill the headlines as I write now are reminders of the kind of positive citizen activity we experienced in those years in the United states and hoped would someday spread worldwide. The non-violent protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, especially, with their visible diversity of religious and secular participants, men, women, young and old, sharing of food, poetry and songs, modeling in microcosm the beloved community they fervently aspire to bring into being in a free Egypt, are reminiscent of earlier American protest movements at their best. It is not only the street protests, however, but the capacity of young people to organize and protect their neighborhoods, to engage in public communication and debate, to demand a new constitution with strong assurances of human rights and an open and inclusive society under the rule of law, to deliberately adopt a philosophy of non-violent social change, which is so heartening. We are encouraged by these unexpected eruptions of genuine democratic aspiration in other parts of the world and grieve for the lives that are being lost in brutal retaliation. …

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