Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Praxis
Reviewed by James R. Skillen, Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies, Calvin College
Over the last 20 years, evangelical Christians in the United States have become increasingly active in national debates over environmental protection. From action to protect the federal Endangered Species Act from revision in the mid-1990s to the statement “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action” a decade ago, a growing number of evangelical Christians have found that their theology and faith support robust environmental protection measures. This is not to say that evangelical Christianity is now a uniform shade of green, however, since some prominent evangelical leaders continue to see environmentalism as a basic threat to the Christian faith and to American freedom. To see this internal debate, one has only to look at the diverging work of the Evangelical Environmental Network on the one hand and the Cornwall Alliance on the other.
In this context, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology is a welcome addition to the literature on Christian faith and the environment. The authors choose not to focus on the deep divisions that have formed in the evangelical church over environmental issues, explaining that this type of conflict “exhausts us. We are more interested in engaging and embracing the wide stream of the body of Christ, seeking common ground to discover what our own tradition might teach us” (18).
In this spirit, the book unfolds in three parts. Part one, “Why Ecotheology?,” addresses basic methodological issues in reading God’s two books—Scripture and creation. “Scripture is inspired,” they explain, “but our interpretations are not” (22). Thus, they return to the biblical text and to the Christian tradition with pressing environmental questions, asking, as Jürgen Moltmann once put it, “Who really is Christ for dying nature and ourselves today?”1 The physical creation also requires interpretation, and the authors argue that it should be interpreted in dialogue with or in tension with Scripture. “Our method,” they explain, “is rooted in listening to God’s Creation and to those who speak on its behalf, exploring Scripture and our historical tradition…and placing high priority on living out our values through praxis” (25). The remainder of part one illustrates this method through a survey of various biblical environmental principles and numerous environmental problems.
Part two, “Exploring Ecotheology,” outlines key ideas in Christian history and theology that have direct bearing on environmental questions. The authors find an ambiguous legacy in Christian history. From Irenaeus and Augustine to Calvin and Luther, the authors identify constructive resources for ecotheology, particularly the affirmation of a theocentric worldview and the goodness of creation. At the same time, they argue that these convictions existed in tension with dualistic modes of thought and eventually succumbed to a modern, scientific worldview in which humans dominate the rest of creation. They celebrate the rise of contemporary ecotheology out of the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions—including contributions from feminist theology, liberation theology, and the ecojustice movement—while lamenting the fact that “evangelical and Pentecostal voices have been curiously missing from the broader ecotheological conversation” (94).
The rest of part two explores the ecological implications of Trinitarian theology and the biblical-historical arc of creation, fall, and redemption. Trinitarian theology, the authors argue, leads Christians into an appreciation of mystery, both the mystery of God and the mystery of creation, and it challenges the tendency of Western Christianity to overemphasize God’s transcendence and underemphasize God’s immanence. Particularly in the incarnation and in the upholding presence of the Spirit, Christian theology affirms that God is in and with creation. The theology of creation, sin, and redemption, they insist, emphasizes humanity’s calling to image God in the care of the whole creation and to hope for God’s peace not in some distant heaven but here on earth.
Part three, “Doing Ecotheology,” applies these theological insights to contemporary environmental questions. As the authors put it, “A thoughtfully constructed Christian ecotheology must lead to a renovated spirituality and praxis” (146). In particular, they argue, a Christian ecotheology rejects the gnostic tendency to value the spiritual over the physical and points Christians to lives that promote sustainability and resilience for both the human and nonhuman creation. They provide examples of how an ethic of ecojustice might transform the Christian environmental witness. From centering prayer and honoring the Sabbath to gardening and water conservation, the authors suggest practical steps for living out Christian ecotheology, and they end part three with ways to institutionalize environmental practices in the church.
The book ends with a short chapter on hope in the face of discouraging environmental problems. Hope is not escapism, the authors insist. Rather, “Our first step toward hope is to become rooted in gratitude. Gratitude is fundamental, first, because it recognizes the centrality of grace and of our dependence on God” (243). This kind of hope allows Christians to live into God’s promises for the whole of creation.
Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology has much to commend. It is an accessible volume that leads readers through important topics in Christian history, theology, and practice. Perhaps most importantly, it models dialogue and collaboration. In addition to the unified voice found throughout the main text, the authors highlight their ongoing disagreements in inset discussions of “tension points.” Many of these are familiar friction points among evangelical Christians—gendered language for God, evolution, politics—and the authors work to model hospitality with one another. The tension points are incredibly valuable in subtly undermining the culture wars over environmental issues; they are valuable in separating concern for the nonhuman creation from entrenched political and social ideologies.
The one potential limitation of the book may simply come down to its title, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology. The book is not, as the title might suggest to some readers, a systematic introduction to or survey of evangelical ecotheology. In other words, it does not survey what evangelicals are doing in the field of ecotheology or in creation care. Rather, it is the record of three evangelical authors exploring the broad field of ecotheology and practice, within and beyond evangelical Christianity. As they write in the introduction, “Like a walk in the woods or a hike up a mountain, this book has unfolded as we have walked with it” (11).
The result is occasional ambiguity as to the map that the authors use for their exploration and their intended audience. For example, when the authors summarize their biblical reasons for creation care—earthkeeping, mutuality, artistry, character, the underprivileged, harmony, and the future—it is not clear if this list represents some established body of evangelical environmental thinking or is primarily the reasons that the three authors found important in their collaborative exploration. They note that the list is not meant to be comprehensive, but readers might still wonder what led them to these particular principles and what guided their selection of material in in other parts of the book. And sometimes it is not clear what evangelical audience the authors have in mind. For example, their discussion of biblical hermeneutics, their description of an overarching environmental crisis, and their use of scholarship from wide reaches of the Christian tradition certainly will certainly make a significant number of evangelicals nervous, and their discussion of praxis seems to assume a middle-class or upper-class lifestyle. Perhaps more surprisingly, the authors explain that they embrace evangelicalism’s emphases on the crucifixion and conversion, yet these do not appear to be particularly dominant themes in the book.
Despite these ambiguities, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology deserves a wide audience. It is the collaborative testimony of three thoughtful and knowledgeable Christians who are less interested in providing a comprehensive and definitive evangelical ecotheology—much less in arguing with fellow evangelicals over environmental questions—and more interested in sharing their considerable experience in exploring Christian faith and the environment. They invite readers to consider for themselves what Christian theology and faith might mean for the environment, and they identify a wide range of topics for further exploration. And if readers do follow the example of hospitable environmental dialogue and praxis in Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology, they will strengthen the church’s witness in caring for God’s creation, human and nonhuman alike.