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Lost in the Forest? Some Books on Ecology


If books are like trees (as well as being made from them), the genre of "green theology" is a veritable forest. 

forest662A reader coming to the edge of this jungle for the first time needs to have at least a rough map in hand before plunging in. My own map would start by dividing the forest into rough areas: general surveys of green theology at the centre, with creation spirituality and so-called "deep ecology" off to one side, close to the books on eco-feminism and Celtic Christianity.

A reader coming to the edge of this jungle for the first time needs to have at least a rough map in hand before plunging in. My own map would start by dividing the forest into rough areas: general surveys of green theology at the centre, with creation spirituality and so-called "deep ecology" off to one side, close to the books on eco-feminism and Celtic Christianity.

On the other side, I would place the more philosophical approaches to the subject, including animal rights, and a bit further off books on politics and "alternative economics", which if they are not overtly Christian have often been influenced by Christian writers such as William Temple, E.F. Schumacher and Leopold Kohr. In this brief introductory survey, I will concentrate mainly on the central thicket, with only a few glances to right and left.

First Stop

One of the first patches of foliage that catches the ramblers attention does so by virtue of its seemingly foolish title: God is Green: Christianity and the Environment by Ian Bradley (DLT, 1990). Clearly He isnt (green that is). But, of course, the adjective is appearing here with its late twentieth-century connotation of "environmental friendliness". The book title achieves the publishers purpose in any case and the book has become one of the most popular introductions to the subject.

The author, a minister in the Church of Scotland, describes his object as seeking to show that "the Christian faith is intrinsically Green," and that "the good news of the Gospel promises liberation and fulfilment for the whole of creation." He sets the historical context for this task as most books in the genre also do by referring to a famous (and famous for being famous) article by the historian Lynn White in Science, first published in America in 1967, just as the hippy movement and the space programme were making a whole generation aware in a new way of the earth beneath their feet.

That article said what a lot of people were waiting to hear: that the Judaeo-Christian tradition was to blame for the ecological crisis, by encouraging the idea that nature exists for man to exploit. It has been reprinted, of course, many times since then, in collections of varying usefulness. (See, for example, Ian Barbours edited collection, Western Man and Environmental Ethics, Addison-Wesley, 1973). Most books on Green theology have been concerned to refute Whites allegation or at least to qualify it in important ways and Ian Bradleys book is no exception.

Bradley takes what has become a common line. That is to say, he argues forcefully, intelligently, and (I think) rightly, that the exploitative mentality we have seen develop in recent centuries is not rooted in Christianity at all, but arises from a gross misunderstanding. "Christianity is in fact the most concerned of all the worlds great religions about the fate of the non-human as well as the human part of creation." It speaks of God becoming incarnate in physical matter, and envisages human beings as "stewards, artists, mediators, priests and redeemers of the world".

The book cites from a wide variety of sources, including Catholic and Orthodox, and certainly touches on most of the main issues. The author admits that the problem of distortion lies mainly with the Post-Reformation churches of the West. The Eastern Orthodox churches, he writes, "have a much more holistic perspective than most western Christians and have never really entertained the idea of human dominion over nature".

According to Ian Bradley, then, we "do not need any new doctrines or new theology". He looks back to the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, the Celtic and Franciscan saints. But he is no uncritical traditionalist: St Augustine, in particular, comes in for savage criticism. The weakness of the book really shows when Bradley conjoins his Christian "orthodoxy" with Teilhard de Chardin, feminism and process philosophy, without drawing attention to the thorny issues that lie between these diverse worlds of thought.

The Catholic Contribution

Foremost among Green theologians in the Catholic camp is, of course, Pope John Paul II himself, whose sense of the importance of the science of ecology and the preservation of the environment seems to have been steadily growing since 1978. This is marked particularly by strong passages in the 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, and by his message for the 1990 World Day of Peace (celebrated at the beginning of January), which was entirely devoted to the question.

The theme is picked up and consolidated in both Centesimus Annus (1991) and the new Catechism. Charles Murphys At Home on Earth: Foundations for a Catholic Ethic of the Environment (Crossroad, 1989) is an excellent introduction to the Popes writings up to 1990 and to much else in the "official" Catholic tradition. Some Catholics saw the whole thing coming years ago, of course notably Christopher Derrick, who published in 1972 an extremely readable and profound study (regrettably no longer in print) entitled The Delicate Creation: Towards a Theology of the Environment (Devin-Adair, with a Foreword by Rene Dubos).

Other Catholic introductions and contributions to Green theology, more directly comparable to Ian Bradleys book, abound as well. Creation and Redemption by Gabriel Daly, OSA, would be a typical example, Sean McDonaghs To Care for the Earth: A Call to a New Theology (Geoffrey Chapman, 1986) or his later The Greening of the Church (Geoffrey Chapman, 1990) another. McDonaghs theology , particularly in the later book, is informed both by his careful study of official Church documents and by his experience as a missionary in the Philippines. It is this experience that perhaps gives him such a strong sense of the seriousness of the population issue, and so he takes care to point out that Humanae Vitae was not presented as an "infallible" and therefore "irreformable" statement of the Catholic faith.

The population question is in fact inseparable from Green theology, and of course it proves a minefield for Catholic writers on the subject. Nor do I propose to deal with it here. Too much blood has been spilled on the pages of Humanae Vitae, and a detailed study of the state of the question should in any case wait until after the arrival of next years encyclical on life issues. I will only note a few things in passing.

The first is that too big a jump is usually made between the widely accepted fact that there is a growing "population problem" in some (not all) parts of the world and the conclusion that the most statistically "efficient" means of birth control must therefore be promoted wholesale in those areas (not to mention everywhere else). Many of those methods are linked to a whole industry and a way of life that needs closer examination. Alternative so-called "natural" methods are developing fast despite lack of comparable investment.

On a plane journey at the time of the Cairo Conference I sat next to an elderly American who told me, in the course of a friendly conversation, that he belonged to a "population institute". In explanation he added: "We want to keep the population of the third world under control." Something about his attitude reduced me to silence: was the support of International Planned Parenthood now a matter of national defence? Some influential Catholics, of course, continue to deny the assumption that there is a crisis anywhere except in the very success of the Green movement, which they abhor. (See Robert Whelans Mounting Greenery: A Short View of the Green Phenomenon, IEA, 1989.)

The Pope does not deny the crisis (though he points to an inverse crisis of falling and aging populations in parts of the developed world). What he does say is that we must "resist the temptation of a dangerous shortcut". "A programme for demographic regulation can be considered reasonable, but only on precise ethical conditions, and if it respects the values and fundamental rights which politics can never subvert" (LOsservatore Romano, 7 September 1994). The current Vatican position is represented in Ethical and Pastoral Dimensions of Population Trends , Lib. Editrice Vaticana, 1994.

Readings of the Tradition

If we venture deeper into the forest of Green theology proper, we soon come across George S. Hendrys Theology of Nature (Westminster Press, 1980, and T.&T. Clark). It would be hard to find a more comprehensive introduction to the history of theology and philosophy in this area. Other "readings of the tradition" focus specifically on the question of animal rights and welfare. Humphrey Primatts The Duty of Mercy (1776), reissued by Centaur Press in 1992, is a fascinating place to start, since it is strongly based in Scripture and was a major influence on the RSPCA. The books of Andrew Linzey are a good way into the current literature on this topic. See, for example, his Christianty and the Rights of Animals (Crossroad, 1987), or the more recent Animal Theology (????).

Lutheran pastor H. Paul Santmires The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Fortress Press, 1985) is a bold attempt to re-read the entire Western Christian tradition in terms of two rival metaphors: that of "ascent" (Origen and the Gnostic-Platonic influence on the Christian tradition) and that of "migration to a good land" (Irenaeus, the later Augustine and Francis). According to Santmire, only the latter metaphor holds out any real promise for Green theology, for it does not devalue the material creation.

Santmires book srikes me personally as a bit idiosyncratic, not to mention a bit too obsessed with the contrast he is trying to draw. The tradition itself is much more "ambiguous" than he admits. (It is, however, interesting to see St Augustine presented as a Green theologian for once.) A useful corrective is provided by Susan Power Brattons Christianity, Wilderness, and Wildlife: The Original Desert Solitaire (Associated University Presses, 1993.

Bratton concentrates on the theme of wild nature in Scripture and tradition, in order to develop the basis for a new theological approach. Her close attention to detail, without the distortions caused by trying to impose on the texts an artificial schema, helps lay to rest any lingering worries about Lynn Whites thesis. Both her book and that of Santmire may be taken as representatives of that sub-genre of Green theology which re-interprets the human role in creation in terms not of priesthood or (sacramental) mediation, nor of lordship and dominion, but in terms of stewardship. For "God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it" (Gen. 2:15), not to pillage and destroy.

Readers who wish to go beyond Susan Brattons study should be alerted to an important monograph by the Biblical and Syriac scholar Robert Murray, SJ: The Cosmic Covenant: Biblical Themes of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (Sheed & Ward, 1992). Those approaching with an "advanced beginners" interest in Green theology (rather than a scholars interest in Biblical criticism) should perhaps start at the back, with the fascinating Epilogue on "The Challenge of the Cosmic Covenant Today", with (again) a fleeting but significant reference to Lynn White.


Of course, White wasnt all wrong. The distortion in the Western understanding of nature, the attempt to "subdue" it to human will in the sense of "dominate" and even "oppress" was, in part, the responsibility of Christians. Modernity is the rebel child of Christendom. But it is no easy task deciding what went wrong and why. Descartes is an easy target, for with him the dualism of mind (or spirit) and matter became firmly established. He is notorious for teaching that animals are merely machines, without feeling, and thus justifying vivesection.

The ecofeminists, whether Christian (Rosemary Radford Reuther) or not (Susan Giffin), seem to be agreed on this, at least, that the enemy is a kind of dualism of man vs nature, to which the dualism of Reason and Flesh is intimately linked. But they tend to place the problem further back than Descartes, in the "patriarchal" and even "hierachical" tradition of Christianity and the preceding cultures.

In her book From Apocalypse to Genesis: Ecology, Feminism and Christianity (Burns & Oates, 1991), Anne Primavesi blames the ancient idea of "ranking by divine decree" for the low self-esteem of Christians and particularly of women, and for the sense in our civilization that the "lower" forms of life are expendable, leading to the rape of the earth. "Within Christianity, ingrained hierarchical thinking contributes to the devaluing of human diversity and to the exhaustion of theological imagination". (For a major study of contemporary feminist theology to help put ecofeminism in sympathetic but definitely critical perspective, see Francis Martin, The Feminist Question: Feminist Theology in the Light of Christian Tradition, T&T Clark, 1994. This could usefully be compared with Charlene Spretnaks States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.)

Sallie McFague, in The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (SCM Press, 1993), opposes the dualism of recent times with what she calls "the organic model" of the universe as literally Gods body. She invites us to "look at nature with new eyes... as our kin, that of which we are a part", and on nature as "the new poor of Jesus parables". All created things possess intrinsic as well as instrumental (use) value. Here we rejoin the genre of stewardship literature, for she writes (in contrast to more radical thinkers who would denounce her approach as excessively anthropocentrist) that "we human beings have a special vocation", for we are "responsible for taking evolution to its next step, one in which we will consciously bond with other human beings and other life-forms in ways that will create a sustainable, wholesome existence for the rich variety of beings on our planet."

To me this sounds not excessively anthropocentrist (for human beings clearly do have a special responsibility over nature that, after all, is the cause of the crisis in the first place), but excessively rhetorical, and also pantheistic. The difficulty I feel with much Christian ecofeminism, as well as the "deep ecology" literature that runs alongside it, is that it seems not to grasp the paradoxical fulness of the mainstream tradition. God is not merely immanent (like a soul within a body), nor merely transcendent (like a Deist watchmaker).

He is both, and immanent precisely because He is transcendent, and therefore impossible to circumscribe or limit. As for hierarchy, there is a paradox here which even Dionysius the Areopagite preserved, in his enthusism for ranks of angels "ascending and descending on the Son of man" (John 1:51): the different "levels" of creation are ways not of separating creatures from God but of connecting them, and above all a way of manifesting the beauty and grace of God in an ordered cosmos.

The hierarchies of Denys assume the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the Christian inversion of those worldly values that give hierarchy such a negative hue in human experience. They assume the fact of the Incarnation, which has turned the world itself inside out in a way that few modern thinkers have yet realized. Without the Incarnation, the creation would still live, move and have its being within its Creator, but it would not be "sacred" in the sense that it became after the conception of Christ in the womb of Mary. The creation was sacralized by the self-giving of God in the Incarnation.


Genuine sacramentalism respects the dynamic proper to God in dealing with creation. It is to the Orthodox and Catholic traditions that we turn, finally, for a fuller understanding of the relationship of human to divine in God. Paulos Mar Gregorios profoundly exciting work, The Human Presence: Ecological Spirituality and the Age of the Spirit (WCC, 1977), is several times cited by Ian Bradley as the his source of much information about the Orthodox view, and it has long been my own favourite work on ecology. It is exciting partly because it of the radical questions it poses to our entire consumerist civilization in the final chapters (not unlike, I believe, the challenge implicit in the Popes own call to an "evangelization of culture" and to a transformation of the "models of production and consumption" that we too easily take for granted in the West).

Gregorios concurs with Bradley in finding much of interest in Teilhard and in Whiteheads process thought, but instead of simply throwing them together with the Church Fathers he endeavours to sift the wheat from the chaff, to discern the valid and the invalid elements in their thought. He would not endorse without qualification, I imagine, Bradleys revisionist view of God not as "omnipotent, absolute and unchanging", but as "flexible, fluid, relative and constantly changing and active throughout his creation". Drawing on Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, through to Solovyev, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Olivier Clement in our own time, Gregorios manages to maintain a thoroughgoing orthodoxy in essentials but almost a new language in the creative assimilation of that tradition for the world of today.

From Olivier Clement, Gregorios quotes this beautiful text: "Only through us can the cosmos, as the prolongation of our bodies, have access to eternity. How strange all this must sound to modern minds! That is our evil, our sin, our freedom led astray to vampirize nature; it is we who are responsible for the carcasses and the twisted trees that pollution produces, it is our refusal to love that baffles the sad eyes of so many animals. But every time a human being becomes aware of the cosmic significance of the eucharist, each time a pure being receives a humble sensation with gratitude whether he eats a fruit or inhales the fragrance of the earth a sort of joy of eternity reverberates in the marrow of things."



caldecottStratford Caldecott "Lost in the Forest? Some Books on Ecology." 9:2 Priests and People, 1995.

Reprinted with permission of Stratford Caldecott.

The Author

Caldecottcaldecott1Stratford Caldecott (1953-2014) was the editor of Second Spring and of Humanum Review (for the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC) as well as the Director of the Centre for Faith & Culture in Oxford, England. A Fellow of St. Benet's Hall, Oxford, he is the author  of Beauty for Truth's Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education and The Seven Sacraments: Entering the Mysteries of God, Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R.Tolkien, Catholic Social Teaching, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings, and Beyond the Prosaic: Renewing the Liturgical Movement

Copyright © 2002 Second Spring
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