Christianity - Ethics - Studies of Religion 2012/2013

Christianity - Ethics
Environmental Ethics
Hope for the Common
As people who receive the
planet as God's sacred gift
to us, we have a particular
responsibility to live in
harmony with and care
for the natural world,
ensuring that God's gift
will be enjoyed by the
generations to come.
Up until the last few decades there have been few
examples of environmental awareness in the
Christian tradition. While the contribution of some
individuals is noteworthy, it has not led to
environmental ethics being prominent in the
mainstream of Christian thought and practice
until quite recently.
It has only been in the last fifty years, with the
advent of a global concern for ecology, that
Christian theology has embraced environmental
ethics in a substantial response. With this new
interest in ecology, Christian theologians are now
making more substantial use of the biblical
reflections on creation as well as the work of
historical figures such as Francis of Assisi, Hildegard
of Bingen and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Old Testament
Christian scriptures have a number of ecological
themes, many are taken from the Old Testament.
There are few specific teachings on environment
to be found in the New Testament, however,
some important principles in the teachings of
Jesus have significance for environmental ethics.
The first example to consider is that of the
creation stories of Genesis 1-2. These stories
provide the accounts of creation and provide a
number of important insights concerning
creation and the relationships and responsibilities
that exist between God, humankind and the rest
of the created order.
Religious truths
From these chapters of Genesis Christians draw
religious truths such as: that God is the creator of all
things; that there is a close relationship between God
and the created world; that the created world is a good
thing; that human beings have a particular
responsibility, known as stewardship, for the created
world and that failure to fulfill this responsibility of
stewardship will inevitably lead to undesirable
consequences for humankind.
Genesis 1:28
One of the more significant verses
in this section of the Bible is
Genesis 1:28 which includes the
instructions to have dominion
and to subdue the earth. It is
these instructions which have
contributed to the historical
exploitation of the environment
with the understanding that
humankind had been given
license to freely use the world's
Contemporary interpretations of this text highlight the
mutual relationship which exists between humankind
and the rest of creation. The world provides resources
needed for human life, however, the negligent use of
these resources will lead to environmental degradation
and a loss of the capacity of the earth to provide. Thus
this passage forms part of the teaching on stewardship
in the Christian tradition. Christians are taught that they
have a fundamental responsibility to care for creation.
In this sense they are God's partners in creation and are
responsible for ensuring that it is nurtured and cared for
in sustainable ways. The Christian understanding of
stewardship guards against selfish or careless
exploitation of the world's resources.
Genesis 2:15
Another passage from Genesis
speaks of God placing
humankind in the garden and
instructing them to till it and
guard it. These instructions
from Genesis 2:15 are further
aspects highlighting the
Christian understanding of
stewardship. The earth's
resources will provide for
human need, however,
humankind has a responsibility
to protect environment and
ensure it remains fruitful.
Messianic prophecy
Passages anticipating future messianic times also
convey some important environmental themes.
Prophecies such as those found in Isaiah 11:1-9 and
Joel 2:21-26 show a flourishing environment and a
state of harmony between humankind and the rest
of creation. These messianic visions reflect beliefs of
a future time where people will live according to the
will of God. It is important to note that
environmental wellbeing is integral to this vision.
Deuteronomy 20:19-20
Deuteronomy 20:19-20 includes instructions about
the conduct of a siege in the context of war. It
prohibits the wanton destruction of the crops of the
besieged city. In presenting this prohibition, the text
highlights the wrong involved in any needless
destruction of the natural environment.
Leviticus 25:5-6
The Old Testament also
teaches responsible
agricultural practices
whereby the fields are to lie
fallow every seventh year
in order to ensure the
continued fertility of the
soil and to guard against
over taxing its resources
(Leviticus 25:5-6)
Leviticus 22:28
Further teachings prevent hunters from killing the
adult and its offspring on the same day
(Deuteronomy 22:6-7 & Leviticus 22:28). This
constraint is in place in order to prevent the
destruction of a species which would result if a
generation was not able to reproduce. There is also
a provision in a number of texts for animals to be
given the same Sabbath rest as humans enjoy.
(Exodus 20:11, Exodus 23:12, Deuteronomy 5:14).
Psalms and Job
Two other elements of ecology are also found
in the Old Testament. The first is a reverence
and respect for creation which is espoused in
the Psalms and secondly there is a sober
assessment of the relative insignificance of
humanity in the light of the wonders of
creation found in the book of Job 39-41.
Both these examples challenge an
anthropocentric view which exalts humankind
over the rest of creation and which leads
inevitably to its exploitation.
New Testament - Reign of God
Jesus’ teaching on the reign of God extols the virtues
of respect, consideration, harmony and balance
which are at the heart of modern environmental
ethics. While he may not have taught explicitly about
environmental concerns, Jesus' teaching on the reign
of God is, nevertheless, a powerful element of
environmental ethics.
Matthew 6:28-31
Further examples from the New Testament, such as
Matthew 6:28-31, use the example of the natural
world to convey the ways of God to listeners. Thus
the balance and simplicity of nature are placed
before followers as worthy of contemplation in order
to more perfectly respond to the will of God.
Mastery of nature
The recognition of the fragility of the environment and
the limited extent of the world's resources is a relatively
recent development. Furthermore pre industrialised
societies have had a far lesser impact on the
environment than that of modern communities. It is
understandable, therefore, that theologians throughout
the history of Christianity were largely unaware of their
responsibilities towards the environment. Indeed, the
focus had frequently been on the ability and capacity of
humankind to harness the world's resources in more
sophisticated and efficient way. This thought was
popularised by the 17th century French philosopher
Rene Descartes who extolled the virtue of humankind
demonstrating its ingenuity and capability through more
complete "mastery of nature".
Utilise gifts and talents
Christian theologians saw that it was important for
human beings to fully utilise the gifts and talents
provided by their creator and that to use their
intelligence and ingenuity to exploit the world's
resources and control the natural environment was in
fact a form of worship of the creator. While such
thinking may seem abhorrent to modern Christians, it
needs to be understood that theologies such as this
were developed in the absence of any understanding
about the potential of humankind to damage and
destroy the natural world.
While Christian history as a whole has not been alert to
the importance of environmental ethics there have been
significant individuals who have made important
contributions to environmental awareness.
Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi was born in
the 12th century into a
wealthy family of Italian
nobility. He rejected wealth
and power to live in harmony
with nature. Francis
celebrated nature as vision of
God and is famous for his
prayers and meditations on
the beauty of creation as well
as his practical concern for all
of God's creation.
Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen was a leader
of a monastic community in the
12th century. She was a famous
student of nature who
investigated and made use of the
healing qualities of nature and
taught of the need to respect
nature and learn from it. Her
writings, music and art all reflect a
profound sense of oneness with
creation and an immense respect
for the work of the creator.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born in the late 19th
century and is highly regarded for his reflections in the
fields of science, philosophy and theology. He proposed
that matter is impregnated with purposeful energy that
constantly evolves towards a greater complexity, matter
is not merely an inert mass, it is the indispensable pre
condition for spirit and is the basic building block of life.
With the increasing social awareness of ecology,
Christian theologians have presented important insights
into environmental ethics which are not only informing
the understanding of Christian adherents but are also
contributing to dialogues with scientists, economists
and politicians throughout the world.
Pope John Paul II
Church leaders have universally
stated the urgency and priority
of environmental action. From
the Catholic Church, Pope John
Paul II has made important
contributions to environmental
ethics. Principally through his
statement on ecological
awareness, "Peace with God the
Creator, Peace with all of
Creation". This statement was
released on January 1st 1990 as
the Pope's peace day message.
In June 1991 the World Council of Churches held an
international summit on the environment and released
a statement called "The Joint Appeal in Religion and
Science: Statement by Religious Leaders at the World
Environment Summit"
In 1990 and again in 1995, the American based National
Religious Partnership for the Environment published
appeals for greater ecological awareness while the
Evangelical Environmental Network published its own
Declaration on Creation in 1996.
Other initiatives such as the "Forum for Religion and
Ecology" provide an opportunity for ongoing dialogue
among concerned individuals and groups.
Within Australia there are a number of important
initiatives to be noted. The National Council of
Churches in Australia (NCCA) declared a "Decade to
overcome Violence" in 2001. This campaign includes
a focus on overcoming violence against the
environment. The NCCA has also produced an
important statement on environmental ethics called
"Sustaining Creation". Released in March 2003 this
statement has a particular focus on calling on
governments at various levels to provide leadership
and act responsibly in relation to the environment.
Catholic Earthcare Australia
The Catholic Church in Australia through the Bishop's
Committee on Justice, Development, Ecology and Peace
(BCJDEP) has set up an organisation called "Catholic
Earthcare Australia" (CEA). It has the role of advising the
Bishops on matters of ecology including the
safeguarding of the integrity of creation, environmental
justice and ecological sustainability.
CEA is responsible for carrying out research, developing
and furthering national networks, sponsoring and
undertaking environmental initiatives and providing
educational materials. In 2005 CEA held a national
conference in Canberra and has produced a number of
video, cd and dvd resources including an environmental
audit that can be used by organisations to review their
environmental practice.
Other significant Australian initiatives include:
• Anglican Diocese of Newcastle Environment
Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn
Commission for the Environment
• Catholic EarthCare Australia
• Columban Centre for Peace, Ecology and
• CREATE (Christian Environment Network
developed by the Catholic Archdiocese of
• Earth Bible Project
• Season of Creation
• Uniting Justice resources
Climate change initiative
Over the last few years the National Council of
Churches in Australia, Catholic Earthcare Australia
(CEA) and the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and
Goulburn's Environment Commission have been
working in partnership with other organisations on
a climate change initiative. This initiative is
specifically designed to further the NCCA's
environment statement "Sustaining Creation" with a
direct focus on calling on the Australian Government
to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
Among Christian denominations there are many
important theologians and activists who are
working in the field of environmental ethics.
Most of these individuals have been calling on
the Churches to act urgently and more decisively
in the field of environmental ethics. Most have
been critical of the Churches for their tardiness
in taking serious steps in responding to
environmental issues and strongly challenged
the Christian tradition as a whole.
Sallie McFague
Sallie McFague is from the
liberal protestant tradition. She
is a feminist theologian who is
setting out to construct a new
theology of nature and of God
which connects God with the
human process rather than
distances God from creation.
She identifies a need to
develop a new metaphor for
God which recognises that the
world is the physical
expression of God not a
separate "product" of God.
Thomas Berry
Thomas Berry, a Catholic theologian born in 1914 was a member of
the Passionist Order of Priests. Berry espoused a mystical approach to
ecology. He argued that God made the world and therefore God is
profoundly related to it. Accordingly if we lose our sense of the
splendour of the natural world then we also lose our sense of the
divine. Berry suggested that human beings must see themselves in
perspective i.e. only existing for about 60,000 years in a cosmos as
much as 15,000,000,000 years old. The cosmos is to be seen as an
ongoing energy event rather than a sudden creation at a specific
point in time. He stresses that human beings as creatures are not
separate from the rest of creation who can be valued over and against
the rest of creation. Finally he says that we need to develop a new
creation story (myth) which takes into account our now more
developed sense of awareness of the human impact on the
environment and the growing sense of profound unity with the
Matthew Fox
Matthew Fox was a Catholic theologian born 1940.
He was a member of the Dominican Order of Priests
before ultimately being expelled by his order after
long running disputes with Rome and has now been
accepted into the Episcopalian church. Fox
proposes a mystical approach to the environment
known now as Creation Spirituality. His main idea
was that of original blessing i.e. an ancient notion
that the cosmos has been continually blessing
(bringing life to) human beings since their
evolution. This idea stands in contrast to the idea of
original sin which Fox identifies as a very recent
Sean McDonagh
Sean McDonagh is a Catholic missionary Priest, a member
of the Columban order of Priests and has worked
extensively in the Philippines. McDonagh focuses on the
relationship between justice and ecology. This approach
is called eco-justice. McDonagh identifies the type of
greed and exploitation which is at the heart of injustice to
be the same factors which are at the heart of
environmental degradation. He also identifies that
significant amounts of environmental degradation take
place through the exploitative action of the rich and the
practices which are forced upon the poor, particularly in
the need to meet debt repayments. McDonagh has been
a strong critic of the lack of involvement of the Church in
environmental issues.
While the Christian biblical tradition
provides significant guidance in the
field of environmental ethics, it has to
be said that until recent times there
has been little done by the Christian
Churches in the field of environmental
There have always been individual
and communities within the Christian
tradition who have provided examples
of leadership in this field, however, it
has not been a prominent concern for
Christians overall.
In recent times, there have been many significant
statements and other initiatives developed by
Church leaders both within Australia and
internationally, however, there is still an absence of
widespread engagement at the grass roots levels of
Church communities.
While most Christian communities tacitly recognise
the importance of environmental ethics, it is yet to
become a major focus of day to day life for most
Christians and their local Church communities.
In the present climate of increased environmental
awareness there remains a wide range of perspectives
among the Churches. Liberal members of the Catholic,
Orthodox and Protestant Churches are generally very
aware of teaching on environmental ethics and are
often active in response to the issues raised.
Conservative members of these same denominations
are less likely to be engaged in environmental issues in a
significant way.
Some of the fundamentalist and evangelical Churches
have been reluctant to place significant emphasis on
environmental concerns as any form of transformative
social action is seen as a low priority in comparison to
evangelisation in the light of the anticipated return of
Jesus and the end of the world.
Mainstream Christian thinking acknowledges that there
is a special relationship between humankind and the
environment because both humankind and rest of the
created world are created by God. They acknowledge
that both reflect the glory of God and convey the image
of God. They also recognise that God commanded
human beings to live in fruitful relationship with the
earth and that humankind has a requirement of
stewardship of the earth.
Thus, it is evident that there is a richness in the
tradition of Christian teaching on environmental
ethics and a clear rhetoric calling for action in recent
times. However, there remains a considerable
challenge in education and action to engage
significant numbers of local Christian communities in
significant environmental actions. This challenge is
particularly evident in Western industrialised
countries where Christian communities enjoy high
standards of living which depend on significant and
often negligent use of the world's resources.
In poorer parts of the world, there is considerable
engagement of Christian communities on
environmental issues. This is because for Christians
in these parts of the world environmental
degradation is an issue which is affecting them in a
very serious and tangible way through a lack of
clean drinking water, rising sea levels, damage to
crops etc. People in richer countries are largely
insulated against these challenges, although it is
clear that this insulation is a temporary thing and
that within decades more affluent countries will be
faced with similar environmental disasters.

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