What Does Ecology Have to Do with Christ?

Fifty years ago, the answer of many Christians may have been “not much.” Ecology was only about fifty years old itself as a distinct science (The Ecological Society of America was founded four days before 1916 began). But hearts and minds of people were becoming more aware of the ecological crisis, and theologians and bishops were turning their attention to understand humankind’s relationship to God the Creator and to creation itself. A fruit of that ecological awareness on the part of Christians is today’s celebration of prayer for creation.  A year ago, Pope Francis instituted the “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation” to be celebrated by Catholics on September 1.  In addition to its primary focus on creation, it was an ecumenical gesture toward the Orthodox Church which has celebrated “The Day of Prayer for Creation” since 1989 when Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios instituted it. 

September 1 is the feast of the Indiction, or first day of the ecclesiastical year for the Orthodox. The Orthodox offer “prayers and supplication . . . for all creation” on this day to praise and thank God and to turn sinful humanity back to its proper relationship, not only with God, but with creation. Dimitrios wrote that humankind was “created in order to refer creation back to the Creator, in order that the world may be saved from decay and death.” His successor, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who has been called the Green Patriarch because of his prophetic condemnation of ecological sin and his evangelical focus on a spiritual renewal concerning humankind’s relationship with the earth, shares the same concern with Pope Francis about the future of creation (Laudato Si’ §7-9). Prayer for creation points to the fundamental identity and mission of Christians as well as to the intrinsic relationship of ecology to human flourishing.

Pope Francis startled many people around the world when he promulgated his encyclical Laudato Si’ on the Solemnity of Pentecost, May 24, 2015. He focused the Church and the world’s attention upon the ecological situation of humankind and our common home, the Earth. Rooted in Catholic Social Teaching and building upon the ecological teaching of previous popes and Catholic national bishops’ conferences reaching back nearly 50 years, but also upon that of the Orthodox ecumenical patriarchs, Pope Francis broadcast a Christian vision of the identity and mission of the human person as an ecological citizen who depends upon, and has an essential responsibility to care for, what God has created. Often, the resistance to Laudato Si’ given by some, because it addresses ecology and the environment, reflects the centuries’ long diminution of Christian awareness about God as Creator and our relationship to creation.

Nearly fifty years ago (1967), UCLA historian Lynn White, Jr. blamed Christianity as being the root cause of the ecological crisis. He saw Christianity as the most anthropocentric religion which de-mythologized nature, privileged the human person above all else, and delivered a divine command to exploit the earth. Such was his interpretation of God’s telling humankind to “subdue” the earth and to have “dominion” over creatures (Genesis 1:28). Science and technology, which only emerged from within a Christian framework, allowed a forceful exercise of this exploitative directive. White’s indictment of Christianity, however, was overstated, and ultimately inaccurate. First, exploitation of the natural world is not unique to Christians and pre-dates Christianity. For example, the Quaternary megafauna extinction 50,000-10,000 years ago, which eliminated two-thirds of the world’s largest mammals, was due to the combined effect of human overharvesting and climatic change.[1]  Second, he assumed that religion was the determining factor in how one related to the world. But what about how social, political, philosophical, and scientific perspectives shape one’s view of nature? He did not mention, for example, the influential views of two of the major contributors to the foundation and rise of modern science and their subsequent powerful and long-lasting effects upon how science and its application in technology affected people’s view of and relationship to nature. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), considered the father of technology, wrote that “human knowledge and human power, do really meet in one”, and René Descartes (1596-1650) proclaimed that we should “make ourselves, as it were, the lords and masters of nature.”[2]  Third, he did not mention sin. Theologians today argue that these Baconian and Cartesian views are discordant with Scripture and theological anthropology. Though Christians have exploited the earth over the centuries, and even used Genesis as the basis for their actions, their behavior is not representative of God’s wisdom and the Gospel.

Pope Francis himself corrects White’s hypothesis. A biblical command that encourages “the unbridled exploitation of nature” is a misinterpretation of “the Bible as understood by the Church.  Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures” (§67). His brief interpretation of Genesis 2:15—to till and keep the garden—highlights the broader meaning of these verbs, “to cultivate, care for, protect”, which places humankind and creation in a relationship of mutual responsibility.

Others, particularly in the Eastern Church, have developed this exegesis further to identify humankind as priests of creation. “Till” and “keep” are used throughout the Old Testament in reference to Israel’s relationship to God, particularly the priest’s cultic worship. “Till” is connected to the Hebrew words “work”, “worship”, and “service”, and so Israel is to “[s]erve the LORD with gladness” (Ps 100:2). David instructs his son Solomon to “keep” God’s statutes, commandments, and ordinances (1 Kings 2:2-3). The parallel between creation (=Eden) and redemption (Law and the Temple) casts humans as priests serving in the cosmic temple of creation.

For the last several centuries, however, Christians have forgotten their identity and mission as priests of creation and, coupled with sin, have exploited the earth. Pope Francis’ foremost remedy to restore humankind’s proper relationship to God and the world is a recovery of knowing and worshipping God the Father specifically as Creator (§75) as Christians profess weekly in the Nicene Creed. But Francis’ theological vision of creation is Trinitarian.  All of creation comes to be in and through the Word of God (§77, 99) who become Incarnate of the Virgin Mary and takes to himself “part of the material world” (§235). The “ultimate destiny” of all of creation is found in the bodily risen Jesus (§83).  The Holy Spirit, the giver of life, “possesses an infinite creativity ” and is “intimately present to each being” (§80).

A rediscovery of God as Creator has at least two effects. It calls forth a new relationship to God and to the rest of God’s creation. For the Christian, it calls for “‘ecological conversion’, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (§217).  The World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation affirms that ecology is inseparably related to Christ, to Christians, and more universally to human flourishing.

[1] Paul L. Koch and Anthony D. Barnosky, “Late Quaternary Extinctions: State of the Debate,” Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 37 (2006): 215-50.

[2] Francis Bacon, “The Great Instauration,” in The New Organon and Related Writings, ed. Fulton Anderson (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1960), 29. René Descartes, “Discourse on Method,” in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol I, trans. John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985), Book VI, 142-43.