Ecological Trajectories in Moltmann’s Christology

Here’s a hint of what I’ve been up to lately, (besides not-blogging). What follows is the introduction to a paper I’m working on for a course in contemporary Christology. I’d love to hear what folks think about trying to get past anthropocentrism, and about Christology as the key-stone to the endeavor. 

The major conceptual puzzle necessary to address the ecological crisis is the task of reconfiguring the relationship between human beings and the natural world on which they depend for breath and life. This is struggle for hearts and minds, concerning the way we see the world and our own place in it. Anthropocentric schemes that overemphasize human uniqueness and privilege human interests are now spurious, but difficult to avoid as a “default” that overwhelms other modes of seeing and thinking. Theologically too, if “all the world’s a stage,” humanity has been traditionally cast as the central character—a dramatic role replete with comic and tragic interaction with God and creation.[1] Yet, as we place the phenomenal scope of natural history and the evolution of life alongside the scope of the destruction within human capabilities, humanity appears as a crazed member of the chorus rushing to center stage to demand the full attention of everyone in the theatre by tearing apart the set. The rhythm and momentum of the production grind to a shocking halt; the other actors and actresses reluctantly edge off the stage one by one. Anthropocentrism has not been a good logic for the oikos of creation.           

            Yet, Christian theology operates with a principle of Christological maximalism, variously expressed, that locates the deepest intensity of God’s presence in creation in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of a human being—an anthropos at the heart of things.[2] Thus, for Christian ecotheology, imagining a Christology that is coherent in the tradition and moves beyond anthropocentrism is simultaneously a most significant desideratum and the crux maneuver for the whole systematic enterprise.[3] If Christology can be ecologically grounded in a thoroughgoing manner, then other theological loci—creation, election, reconciliation, eschatology—seem to fall into place. If Christology cannot be integrated, then all the other pieces seem to develop odd angles that prevent them from coming together in an ecological frame. Without an ecological Christology, there is clearly, painfully, a piece missing. And yet, despite the flood of ecotheological writing, relatively little attention has been given to Christology proper.[4]

            Jürgen Moltmann is widely recognized as a touchstone figure in the growing concern for ecological theology.[5] And, in searching out an ecological Christology, he is a doubly apt figure. From the beginning of his career, he has been a Christocentric theologian. Significantly, Moltmann was also one of the first theologians to recognize the importance of wholeheartedly addressing environmental degradation from a theological perspective.[6] Furthermore, the growing ecological concern in Moltmann’s theology has generated significant changes in his Christology.[7] The contention of this essay is that Moltmann’s developments represent necessary starting points for any effort to articulate faith in Jesus Christ without giving ground to destructive habits of anthropocentry thought.[8] I will also argue that although scholars have noted the ecological implications of many aspects of Jürgen Moltmann’s theology, insufficient attention has been given to the ecological significance of shifts within his Christology.

       The task of this paper, then, is three-fold. First, I will briefly document the lack of attention to the ecological significance of shifts within Moltmann’s Christology. Second, I will discuss four trajectories of development found within Moltmann’s Christology from The Crucified God, written when ecological concerns were only beginning to enter Moltmann’s agenda, to The Way of Jesus Christ, a book in which those concerns take a determinative role. Finally, I will evaluate the significance of the trajectories in Moltmann’s Christology in ecological terms and argue for the necessity of certain shifts if future Christologies are to avoid underwriting deleterious modes of interaction with the natural world.

[1] Shakespeare, As You Like It, 2/7.

[2] Despite taking all sides in the heated debates about Jesus’ historicity, ethnicity, masculinity, divinity, and humanity, Christians are inclined to attribute as much significance to Jesus’ life as possible whether in the end that significance is existential, political, theological or otherwise. The concept is from George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postleberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 94; quoted in Terrence Tilley, The Disciples’ Jesus: Christology as Reconciling Practice (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 205.

[3] The difficulty of constructing an ecological Christology is compounded by the general absence of Jesus interaction with the natural world in the memories of Jesus handed down textually. Where these interactions are addressed thematically in the gospels (Jesus walking on water, directing a miraculous catch of fish, etc.) they seem to signify Jesus’ dominion over all nature, rather than a concern for the natural world in its own right. Clearly, Jesus was not an environmentalist. He appears in the disciples’ memory as someone predominantly concerned with human injustice, illness, demonic and political oppression, and with Israel’s religious practices. 

[4] The current issues in the main discourse of Christology at present are: gender questions, Christian-Jewish interactions, interreligious dialogue, political/economic liberation. Ecology only enters these conversations secondarily (most notably in the liberation conversation). One the other hand, ecotheology only rarely touches down in Christology, finding its key loci in creation, pneumatology, eschatology. Most volumes of ecological theology sidestep Christological questions. Exceptions include: Denis Edwards, Jesus the Wisdom of God: An Ecological Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995); or Sallie McFague, “An Ecological Christology: Does Christianity Have It?” in Christianity and Ecology, ed. Dieter Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 29-45. Zzz – Does Body of God hit Christology?

[5] Examples of this recognition?

[6]  Other early figures to make ecology a programmatic element in their theology include Joseph Sittler, Rosemary Radford Ruether, H. Paul Santmire,

[7] Bauckham, Moltmann’s Theology, zzz.

[8] Perhaps the pattern Moltmann presents is only one of many possible sets of starting points for an ecological Christology. At present, however, the proposals on offer are so few that one cannot find any significant dialogue concerning ecological Christology. Any additions to the field would be significant.

6 Replies to “Ecological Trajectories in Moltmann’s Christology”

  1. So deep, I actually have to pull out a dictionary for this one. Can’t wait for the paper! How interesting you are to me!

  2. You’re working on a very interesting idea, and I’m eager to see how you overcome a few problems of scrubbing anthropocentrism out of the theology.

    One of the most crucial challenges I think you’ll have to overcome is the burden of showing how a non-anthropocentric Christology and theology can arise from Christian scripture and then dictate an environmentalist worldview, rather than holding an environmentalist worldview and arranging a non-anthropocentric Christology and theology to accommodate it. This is going to be a tough pull, and not just because we believe God’s Word incarnated in human form. Anthropocentric frames are hard-woven throughout both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, starting in Genesis.

    Maybe a good place to start are places like Job, which usually doesn’t play a huge role in theological frameworks. God demolishes Job’s anthropocentric view of the world pretty thoroughly. And, though it may be a bit ham-handed, maybe some meditation on why God appeared to Moses not incarnated in a man, but first in a burning bush? His apparitions to Moses are anything but anthropomorphic…

    I’m looking forward to seeing more!

  3. Hello Crowe,

    Thanks for your thoughts and encouragements.

    You are certainly right that anthropocentrism pervades our tradition, and certainly governs our reading of scripture so that emphasis generally falls on human concerns (and often only the soulish part of the human…).

    Still, I wonder if Christianity is necessarily anthropocentric, or just caught up in bad habits. Pointing to Job and to many of the Psalms is a good way to shift our emphasis and open up the possibility of reading scripture in a theocentric way, rather than an anthropocentic one. “Centering” our perspectives outside creation (or, perhaps better, on God in creation) helps to relativize our interests and recontextualize us in the whole matrix of created relationships. The propensity to think of ourselves as little gods ’round whom the world revolves strikes me as a perversion of God’s image in humanity rather than its best expression.

    I think that if a project like this is going to work, it’s going to be because we can differentiate between seeing the world through human eyes—an unavoidable perspectival “anthropocentrism” that clearly pervades Scripture—and privileging human aspirations, intentions, and goals over the concerns of other creatures and the integrity of the land we inhabit together. I’m not convinced that this latter form of anthropocentrism is hard-wired into Scripture (at least not through and through).

    I like your thought about the bush, it brings to mind the whole host of “natural” metaphors for God, which we usually consider as secondary, All of these images shake up our familiarity and push Michaelangelo’s depiction of God (and those of it’s ilk) out of our minds for a while. But even an anthropomorphic apparition or revelation (to human beings, after all) need not entail anthropocentrism where the goal of that interaction points toward a greater peace that includes peace with the whole land and the flourishing of life more generally.

    I think I’d want to challenge the “oil and water” comparison in your second paragraph between an “environmentalist worldview” and a Christian Scripture, at least if it accompanies any sort of assumption that the worldview that can overlook extinction and degradation is somehow more native to Scripture.

    I’ll get around to reposting parts of the paper here soon. I’d love some more feedback. Thanks again,

  4. The problem I see is one of divisional thinking and hierarchical regimes. Feminist psychology assesses that the demonic male is the habitus that created the need to dominate as resulting out of a Oedipal projection of being different, justifying uniqueness and narcissistic “id” urges towards supremacy and need gratification. They wanted it all and they wanted it now. Unfortunately to many outside the inner sanctum of theology; the whole realm of deism appears to be a sanctimonious need to have a power monger jealous “alpha male” floating around in the sky just to justify wielding synthetic control over a dynamic ecosphere that suffers incredible damage from such overt and blatant control pathologies.

  5. Hello Thomas,
    A few thoughts. Most of your comment seems to be off topic and pushes some pretty tired stereotypes.

    Not all feminists are Freudian, not all think that maleness is demonic. A commitment to feminism, it seems to me, is a necessary component of ecological justice—but that’s not really what this post is about.

    Second, wherever the “inner sanctum” of theology is, Moltmann (of all theologians) is absolutely not invested in a Grandfatherly anchor for the stability of the universe and its structures of white male privilege. Enter his inner sanctum and read him; you might be surprised.

    This post is, as you rightly note, an attempt to get around some of the divisional thinking and hierarchical regimes (and the theological investment in them) that contribute to our ecological crises. But very few people disagree that this is the problem, the question is what to do about it.

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