“The earth mourns and withers, the world languishes and withers, the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants, for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenants. Therefore a curse devours the earth and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt.” Isaiah 24: 4-6a.
“They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain for the earth shall be full of knowledge of the Lord,” Isaiah 11: 9.
The 1970’s until today has been a time of an increasing recognition that the western industrial style of industrial development is unsustainable, although this has yet to be acknowledged by leaders of corporate growth. This system of development, based on an affluent minority using a disproportionate share of the world’s natural resources, is fast depleting the base upon which it rests. To expand this type of industrialization is accelerating the coming debacle. We need an entirely new way of organizing human production and consumption in relation to natural resources, one that both distributes the means of life more justly among all earth’s people and also uses resources in a way that renews them from generation to generation.
As the seriousness of the ecological crisis of modern industrial development became more and more evident, there has been an effort among theological or religious thinkers to respond to this crisis. To what extent has the different religious systems contributed to a destructive relation to the earth? To what extent do world religions have positive resources that can teach us to be more caring of the earth? Christianity in particular, as the dominant religion of western industrial countries, has been challenged as to its ecological impact.
In 1967 Lynn White, a historian of science, wrote an article entitled, “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” in which he claimed that the Biblical doctrine of human dominion over creation has been the key cause of the destructive relation of western Christians with nature. This article has been widely read and caused much soul-searching among both Christian theologians and scholars of Hebrew Bible.
There have been two main responses by western religious thinkers to this challenge. One response, dominant among scholars of Hebrew Bible, has been to protest that Genesis 1:28 which mandates that humanity “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” has been misread as allowing humanity a destructive domination of creation. Read in the context of the view of humanity in relation to God and nature generally, the Hebrew Bible teaches that God remains Lord of creation. We humans are mandated to be caretakers of the earth under God, not autonomous owners who can do whatever we wish with the earth. Our relation to the earth should be one of stewardship responsible to God, not destructive exploiters.
Other religious thinkers have rejected this stewardship model of human relation to the earth. They see this as still handing over all creation over to humans as rulers. These thinkers see Scripture as much less recoverable for an ecological spirituality and ethic. They agree with White that the main impact of Biblical thought has been to locate humanity outside of and over nature, rather than as a part of nature. We need to recognize that we are late comers to the planet. Humans have only existed on earth for half a million years, a mere blip on the time table of earth history that goes back four and a half billion years, most of that time as a non-dominant species. Fish, birds, animals have been here far longer than we and got along quite well and indeed better before we assumed power over them.
These writers argue that we need a more animist view of the natural world that sees the whole of nature as sacred, permeated by the spirit of the divine. We need to recover a sense of reverence for the earth and a recognition of our own place in it as one species among others. We need to learn how to enter into mutuality and fellowship with nature, rather than separating ourselves from nature and imagining ourselves as having been given a divine mandate to rule over it. Since, in the view of these thinkers, such views cannot be found in Scripture, we need to leave aside Biblical thought and look to the religious worldviews of indigenous peoples, such as Native Americans, or Asian religions, such as Hinduism or Daoism.
I have no objection to people exploring the ecological potential of other religions, especially if they enter into deep and responsible dialogue with other traditions, and do not just seek to use them without real relationship to them. But I believe that the Biblical traditions have precious resources for an ecological spirituality and ethic, or what I would call an ecojustice ethic, that should not be neglected. Moreover it is evident that the almost two billion Christians, close to a third of humanity, are not going to be moved to concern about ecology by the message that their religions are only a part of the problem, but no part of the solution, and should be discarded. If we wish to Christians to care about ecological crisis, we must speak about it in language that appeals to the Bible. This is not simply a matter of strategy. It is also a matter of truth. In fact the Bible has deep resources of ecology that we can and must recover.
Those who dismiss the Bible as hostile to nature have mistakenly confused the Biblical worldview with its 19th century German interpreters. In German thought we find a view that sets nature against history and sees God as the Lord of history against nature. Nature is decried as static and stifling to the spirit, while history is seen as emancipatory, allowing us to transcend nature. This split between nature and history, however, is foreign to the Bible. In the Bible we have an understanding of God as the creator of the whole world, of the stars and planets, animals and plants, as well as humans, as one. The same steadfast love of God is present when God “spread out the earth on the waters, …made the great lights,” made “the sun to rule over the day…the moon and stars to rule over the night,” and also when God “brought Israel out from among them…with a strong hand and an outstretched arm …divided the Red Sea … and made Israel pass through the midst of it… but overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea.” (Psalm 136: 6-15).
The view of nature that triumphed in Western science from the 17th century, sees non-human nature as dead matter without animating spirit. This shift in attitude toward nature is what historian of science, Carolyn Merchant, calls “the death of nature.” But this view is totally foreign to the Bible, and indeed to Christian thought generally until modern times. The Hebrew worldview, and that of Christianity until the scientific revolution, assumes that nature is alive, filled with soul or spirit. We interact with this animate spirit in nature. Nature is responsive to God as living creatures who relate to God in their own right.
God is seen as taking profound pleasure in his work of creation, and creation in turn responds to God with praise. God rejoices in the world which God creates, and the planets, mountains, brooks, animals and plants return this rejoicing in their relation to God. God visits the earth in rain showers, watering its furrows abundantly, blessing its growth. The earth responds with overflowing abundance and joy. “The hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows cloth themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout, they sing together for joy.” (Psalm 65: 9-13).
It is important to remember that the world of Hebrew Scripture, as well as that of Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth, was a world of small, mostly subsistence, farmers. They were keen observers of nature, dependent on nurturing its growth in a stony and water scarce environment. Hebrew religion also constructed an ethic of care for nature through practices of letting fields lie fallow periodically and regular land reform that sought to prevent over exploitation of the land. These agricultural laws were embodied in the Levitical codes about the cycles of the week, the sabbatical year and the Jubilee.
In this reflection on the Biblical vision of ecojustice, I would like to focus particularly on what I see as a key prophetic pattern of thought. This thought knits together injustice of humans to one another and the devastation of the earth. It also lays out a vision of redemptive hope in which a human conversion to justice renews the earth and restores harmony between humans, nature and God. This view rests on an understanding of the covenant between humanity, the earth and God which is holistic. The land is itself an integral part of the covenantal relation between humanity and God. In this covenantal view nature’s responses to human use or abuse itself becomes an ethical sign. The erosion of the soil, drought, the drying up of the springs of water and the pollution of the earth are themselves judgments of God upon unjust ways of living between humans with each other and with nature. Thus Psalm 107 declares “He turns rivers into a desert, springs of waters into thirsty ground, a fruitful land into a salty waste, because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.” (Ps. 107: 33-34). This text is a religious interpretation of the reality of the ecological disasters in the ancient Middle East, caused by abuse of the land in which deforestation and over irrigation was causing desertification and salination of the land.
From the Biblical point of view, when humans break their covenant with God and one another by social injustice and war, the covenant between God, humanity and nature is broken. War and violence in society and the polluted, barren, hostile face of nature are both expressions of this violation of the covenant. They are linked together as expressions of one reality. Isaiah 24 vividly portrays this link between social and ecological violation and violence:
The earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly spoiled ….The earth mourns
and withers, the world languishes and withers, the earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants. For they have transgressed the laws, they have
violated the statutes, they have broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore
a curse devours the earth and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt…The
city of chaos is broken down, every house is shut up so that none can enter,
….Desolation is left in the city, the gates are battered to ruin…(Is. 24: 3-6,
But this divine judgment expressed in desolation in society and nature is not the end of the prophetic vision. When humanity mends its ways with God, the covenant of creation is restored and renewed. Restoration of just relations between peoples restores peace to society and also heals nature’s enmity. Just, peaceful societies where people are not enslaved, where violence has been overcome, also blossom forth in a peaceful, harmonious and fruitful land.
The Biblical dream of redemption is one of a flourishing nature in the peaceful Kingdom of God’s Shalom. Springs of water return and the land flourishes abundantly. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom, Like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing,” (Is. 35: 1-2). This redemptive promise includes abundant harvests: “The tree bears its fruit, the fig trees and vine give their full yield…Rejoice in the Lord for he has given early rain…The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.” (Joel 2: 22-24). “Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when the plowman will overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine and all the hills will flow with it” (Amos 9:13).
Justice in human affairs and harmony with nature together reflect a humanity made right with God, thereby filling the earth with peace and abundance. As Isaiah puts it in his vision of a redemptive future, “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord,” (Is. 11:9). This redemptive vision that knits together nature and society as one is expressed succinctly in Jesus’ Lord’s prayer as he prays for God’s Kingdom to come, God’s will done on earth. In that coming of God’s kingdom upon the earth, we can hope for all people to be fed. The debts, that turn some into debt slaves to others, will be forgiven. The temptations to dreams of power over others are surrendered. “Give us this day our daily bread; forgive us our debts as we forgive out debtors, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The Biblical Kingdom of God is ecojustice realized on earth, as it is in heaven.
Rosemary Radford Ruether, Ph.D. is Professor of Feminist Theology at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont School of Theology. She is also the Carpenter Emerita Professor of Feminist Theology at Pacific School of Religion and the GTU, as well as the Georgia Harkness Emerita Professor of Applied Theology at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. Rosemary has enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a scholar, teacher, and activist in the Roman Catholic Church, and is well known as a groundbreaking figure in Christian feminist theology. Ruether is the author of multiple articles and books including Sexism and God-Talk, Gaia and God, Women Healing Earth and The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Her most recent books include Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican: A Vision for Progressive Catholicism(2008), Many Forms of Madness: A Family’s Struggle with Mental Illness(2010), and Women and Redemption: A Theological History, 2nd ed.(2011).