Eschatology and Ecology

The problematic relationship between Christian theology and ecology is often set up as a question of eschatology. The problem of whether Christians can really value created being is made synonymous with the question of whether the planet is destined for fire when we all “go to heaven” or whether the earth, too, will be redeemed. The ecological program of theological re-education becomes the task of convincing people that all of creation has a future with God (and usually involves copious, and atypically literal, reference to Revelation 21). While this eschatological perspective on creation is clearly important, more and more I think that it is a red herring rather than the crux of the issue.

A metaphor is helpful here. If we think of creation as the stage on which salvation history takes place, then the real drama is human history, and “nature” is made into a static entity which serves as the backdrop. The stage is manipulable according to the needs of the story and the movements of the characters. In this context the questions in the paragraph above come naturally. Will the stage be preserved? Does the stage get to come along when the actors who have gone off-stage are finally invited into the fullness of fellowship with God? In this vision, history happens to, and with, and through human beings while creation merely tags along as the proper habitat for bodily resurrection at the great day of the Lord.

But the real issue ecologically is not what “will happen” (or better put theologically, the shape of the “not yet” for creation that corresponds to the “already” of Jesus Christ), but the human relationship to creation in the present. We can think about creation as a resource to be instrumentalized even while we hope for its eventual replenishing. Our willingness to undermine the integrity of all the planet’s ecosystems and consume the ground out from underneath our own feet betrays a flippant conception of the world in the present.

Here are a few questions rumbling under the surface:

In what way do rocks, trees, birds, fields, and rivers relate to God on their own, without human intrusion?

Should we (can we?!) try to think about this relationship theologically in order to protect it?

How can we think theologically about positive human interaction with creation—inevitably including eating, building, and being creative—without assuming that creation is a resource provided for our purposes? 

How can we comprehend the magnitude of God’s acts in Jesus Christ, without arrogantly assuming that humanity mediates creation’s significance to God? 

3 Replies to “Eschatology and Ecology”

  1. Eric,
    I agree with you that the eschatological argument/approach is important, but whether or not it is a red herring I couldn’t say. The problem with this approach (in my mind) isn’t really a problem with the approach – it is a problem with us. Living presently in light of a future reality is simply something humans aren’t very good at. We lack the will, desire, or both. Why is that? Selfishness, perhaps.

    That said, if I had to point to anything that has caused me to care for creation, it would be constant meditation on Psalm 24:1-2, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.” This speaks volumes to me about my relationship to creation in the present. In fact, when asked why Jess and I compost, recycle, bike to work, etc, I often cite this verse as a response and leave the questioner to ponder the implications.

  2. Hi Eric hello Tim…

    Eric, the “can’t take it with you” stage props is a good one and your lead into the “now and not-yet” of our faith journey brings to mind some thoughts I’ve had about these matters.

    Tim, thank you for bring to the surface the contemplative opportunities we have to become immersed daily in the ways we relate to each other and our creation that serves us as if we were gods despite our relentless obsessions and compulsions.

    For some reason we’re all caught up in the entropy of the created order. There’s no escape, except that people of faith say “take me up Scotty” I’m ready to go. This is understandable too. Unfortunately we’re able to believe (and live) as if all this wasn’t happening or that “Scotty” doesn’t exist or care. The price of oil and the depletion of ozone are reminders of these matters that hit home once in a while. I’d like to think it would cause us to ponder our relationship with the rest of the created order – more so. Thank you for this opportunity, Eric.

    These matters have tremendous sacramental opportunity. They give us moment by moment connectivity to our relationship with The Creator, if we’re so inclined. That’s the real problem – motivation. I would say that it’s also education and a change of heart we need.

    Then there’s the trauma of over spiritualizing these things. Animism – they call it. Having lived and worked among our Native American brothers and sisters for almost two decades, I’ve come to appreciate their perspective of living “in harmony” with the earth. Stewardship – we call it.

    Sacramentally we live and die to give life and so does the rest of the created order. Bringing this close to home, so where does that leave my companion Quanah who would lead me to pray “God help me to be the person my dog thinks I am?” Maybe by design, the created order is there to remind up of the gap we have that’s filled by the Holy Order of things – the “now and not yet”.

    Eric…I’m sure you and Carolyn have heard about the Tea Fire that went through Westmont. Paul, Sharon and family lost their home with 13 others in the Westmont community all total 140 homes reported. Google it for more.

    Take care.


  3. Willy,
    It’s been too long already, but I wanted to thank you for your comments. Good thoughts all around.

    The contemplative side is so important in ecological concerns. Much of the destruction being foisted on the planet is a matter of wrong-doing, but I’m convinced that this wrong-doing is based in wrong ways of seeing.

    One prof. here at Fordham has talked about a three-fold response that I find really helpful:
    1. We need a contemplative approach that helps us see nature, creatures, ecosystems in all their invaluable intricacy.
    2. We need an ascetic approach that pinches off the flood of consumption to which we have become so accustomed.
    3. We need a prophetic approach that stands up to the eco-injustices being perpetrated on the world’s poor and on future generations. An imagination for changes in our social structures that will benefit all.

    Say hello to Karen, Hope you are well.

    We were so sad about the Tea Fire, I think that we are going to send some framed Rainbow Canyon pictures to the Willises and Fikes, places that they certainly miss and likely no longer have pictures for….

    Much love,

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