The unity of life: Greening Christianity

A new spirituality is needed to galvanise our responses to the global ecological crisis. Theologian SIR LLOYD GEERING links the rise of monotheism and Christian fundamentalism to the separation of humanity from the natural world, and our increasing destruction of Nature. The unfolding story of the universe returns us to the first Christians’ beliefs and our proper place on Earth as one of many connected species, dependent on each other and the health of our planetary home. Ten resolutions could aid our efforts to bring the changes needed to save life on earth.


What may be called the humanisation of the earth is leading to an imminent global crisis. Our species is now in the process of destroying in a few decades a life-support system that took billions of years to evolve. Some question whether it’s possible for six to eight billion people to change the direction of our global life sufficiently in time. Others see no reason why, with human ingenuity and the latest technology, we should not be able to reverse the dangerous trends. Jonathan Schell ends his book The Fate of the Earth by pointing out that humankind must make a choice between the path that leads to death and the path leading to life.

But how many today understand that we face a choice between life and death on a global scale? Billions of people living in Africa, India, South America, can be excused their ignorance as they are focussed on the need to make a living. More serious is the ignorance or apathy among those in the first and second worlds whose affluent life-styles are chiefly responsible for the crisis. Most are immersed in personal and local affairs so they either remain largely unaware or feel helpless to make any difference.

In the twentieth century human activities began to rival natural forces and now compromise natural conditions of the surface of the planet. We are not only causing extinction of many other species by destroying their natural habitats, we are endangering our own habitat, polluting air and water, the two most basic elements on which our existence depends. In 2005, 1300 scientists from 95 countries produced a report, The Millennium Ecosystems Assessment, which concludes that the human race has so ruinously squandered the earth’s natural resources in the previous fifty years that the planet has been overdrawn, saddling our descendants with an environmental debt of staggering proportions.

Equilibrium wanted

The chain of causes linking these unfortunate pheno­me­na is an example of the inter-connectedness of all life on this planet. It vividly illustrates the reason why the new term ‘ecology’ was created. We are coming to have such a radically new understanding of all life on this planet that the term ‘biosphere,’ coined less than a century ago, is now being replaced by ‘ecosphere.’ Just as we have come to understand each organism internally as a complex living system, so also each species of organism constitutes with its natural environment a larger living system, which could be called a ‘life field.’ Thus all forms of planetary life are involved and dependent on systems. The ecosphere is a complex system of systems within systems, itself depending on the sun’s energy.

The continuing life of each species depends on preserving the delicate balance that’s evolved between the organism and the environment supporting it. Each organism contains self-regulating mechanisms that help preserve that balance. We can understand this better by thinking of the organism we know best, the human being. We have long been accustomed to think of ourselves as wholes rather than as aggregations of parts. Modern physiology has fully identified the various organs, glands and immune systems that exist within the human body and promote its well-being. When one or more of those systems has its balance disturbed and can no longer function, our health, literally our “wholeness” suffers. We become ill and, if the balance cannot be restored we die.

The earth provides certain basic necessities and imposes certain requirements for its creatures’ survival. Humans have evolved within those parameters. Our respiratory system is suited to both the nature and proportions of the gases found in the atmosphere. The ozone layer protects us from the sun’s harmful radioactivity. Our muscles and bone structure have evolved to meet the conditions of the earth’s gravitational pull. For humans to be healthy they must be able to breathe fresh air, drink clean water, eat adequate food, and live in an environment not too different from that in which they became human. They must even keep to a diet not too different from that of their ancestors going back tens of thousands of years.

The more the environment changes from that in which a species has evolved, the more the health and behaviour of that species will show maladjustment. If the change is great enough, the health of the species will deteriorate to the point of extinction. We humans will always be earthlings, and like all other earthly creatures our existence depends on our mother earth.

Christianity & crisis

How shall Christianity, which claims concern for the salvation of humanity, respond to this global ecological crisis? At the very time when the Christian community is being challenged to direct its energies to the ecological crisis, its fundamentalist wing is giving attention to a mythical global crisis expected two thousand years ago. As the great majority of Christian fundamentalists live in the United States, it’s no accident this most powerful nation rejects international accords like the Kyoto agreement, and Biodiversity Protocol, and undertakes activities endangering world peace. Worse, their vision of a coming Armageddon is blinding them and others to the real problem we face, the ecological crisis. Misuse of the Bible has led fundamentalists astray.

They take literally the New Testament references to the “last days.” Certainly the Bible has numerous warnings issued by ancient prophets, but they were speaking to the people of their own times. It’s salutary to recall that Jesus rebuked the religious people of his day for failing “to interpret the signs of the times.” As fundamentalism spread in the 20th century, even moving into some mainline churches, the most widespread manifestation of end-of-world thinking is found today among Christians since the religion’s earliest days. A Time-CNN poll in 2002 found 59 percent of Americans believed that prophecies found in the book of Revelation are about to come true and nearly one-quarter think the Bible actually predicted the 9/11 attacks. This explains why the best-selling books in America today are the 12 volumes of the Left Behind series, written by Christian fundamentalist Timothy LaHaye. By relating the Bible’s words to present events in the Middle East, he has prophesied a future that’s captivated millions of Americans.

Here’s a summary: Israel will shortly occupy the rest of the lands long ago given to it by God. It will then be attacked by the legions of the Antichrist — presumably the Arab nations and Russia. This will lead to the final showdown, biblically known as the battle of Armageddon. The messiah will return for the ‘rapture’, the process by which true believers will be lifted up from the earth and transported to Heaven. From their grandstand seat they will watch the fate of those ‘left behind’. The latter will suffer years of tribulation after which the righteous will enter Heaven with the Son of God and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire.

To all reasonably thoughtful people living in the modern world this scenario is so preposterous it’s laughable. We could afford to ignore it if the people buying these books were not the very ones who put George Bush back into the White House. They also give strong moral support to Israel and the Jewish settlements in the West Bank backing it with money. Far from fearing war with Islam, they welcome any future Christian-Islamic conflict as a necessary step on the road that will bring them final redemption. They see the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as warm-up acts. Iran may be next. This message can be heard regularly in the United States over 1600 Christian radio stations and 250 Christian TV stations.

A striking example of the fundamentalist mindset is James Gaius Watt, who became Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan administration. He advocated giving developers access to national parks and natural resources. His argument was chilling: “The earth is merely a temporary way station on the road to eternal life. It is unimportant except as a place of testing to get into heaven. The earth was put here by the Lord for his people to subdue and to use for profitable purposes on the way to the hereafter.” This line of reasoning did not end with the Reagan administration. The Bush administration relaxed pollution limits for ozone to eliminate vehicle tail-pipe inspections, to ease pollution standards for cars, and allowed corporations to keep secret information on environmental problems from the public, and opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. This attitude shows fundamentalist Christianity at its very worst and most dangerous form.

If Christianity is to respond to the ecological crisis, it must put its house in order and reject completely the ancient expectation of a final Armageddon and the literal return of Jesus Christ. This must be replaced by a clear understanding of the real crisis facing humankind, the ecological crisis, and initiate a positive response. How can it do this? Visionary American Catholic priest, Thomas Berry, has said: “we must move beyond a spirituality focused simply on the divine and the human to a spirituality concerned with survival of the natural world in its full splendour, its fertility, and its integral well-being.”

A new spirituality

In 1976 Arnold Toynbee published his last book, Mankind and Mother Earth. “We now stand at a turning-point in the history of the biosphere,” he wrote. “It looks as if man will not be able to save himself from the nemesis of his demonic material power and greed unless he allows himself to undergo a change of heart.” Such a revolutionary change of heart, Toynbee warned, would require the kind of motivation usually generated only by religion. He was not looking for a religious revival of the traditional, super-naturalist variety. He regarded religion as the “human being’s necessary response to the mysteriousness of the phenomena he encounters.”

How will such spirituality arise in this global, secular age? No religion has ever been invented from scratch; they evolved from what preceded them.

Humanity’s pious worship of the gods of nature had previously held in check its greedy impulse to exploit nature. But the rise of monotheism, as Toynbee observed, ‘removed this age-old restraint,’ freed humankind to do what it wished with the natural world, encouraging it to dominate all living creatures. Because of the looming ecological crisis it’s necessary to move beyond monotheism, and the idea of: ‘Our Father in heaven, omnipotent creator and controller of the earth.’ Major maladies of today’s world, particularly the recklessly extravagant consumption of nature’s irreplaceable treasures, and pollution of those not already devoured, can be traced to a religious cause, the rise of monotheism. In Christianity, the beginning of true monotheism is found in the Israelite prophets, who over a period of five hundred years weaned the people of Israel from their dependence on the gods of nature, first by denying they had any reality, then by replacing them with the one God Yahweh. Henceforth, the prophets declared, the whole of humanity was to worship and obey only Him. This brought about the monotheism that has been the foundation of faith for Jew, Christian and Muslim ever since.

This transition from polytheism to monotheism took some centuries. Monotheism annihilated the goddesses of nature so successfully that the Hebrew Bible does not contain a single word meaning ‘goddess.’ The original gender balance existing in polytheism disappeared in monotheism, and women were left at a spiritual disadvantage with no feminine figure or icon to identify with. The cult of the Virgin Mary in the Christian tradition, and her acclamation as Queen of Heaven, was probably to fill this spiritual vacuum.

Because Earth-Mother was one of the gods of nature to be annihilated, the earth itself became desacralized. The sacred power it once possessed was effectively transferred to another world, the heavenly dwelling place of God the Father and the forces of nature became impersonal phenomena that God could control by way of reward and punishment. Even worse, Christians came to regard the earth as a fallen world. Monotheism led to the dualistic view of reality that dominated traditional Christianity until modern times. It helped deepen the contrast between the earthly and heavenly, the material and spiritual, the human and divine, temporal and the eternal. So the natural world, previously venerated as the source of the necessities of life, came to be seen as degraded, under divine judgment, and destined for destruction. Devotees of monotheism were so anxious to reject the gods of nature that they disconnected the human species from the world of nature and focused attention on the human species itself. ‘Much of our trouble,’ said Thomas Berry, ‘has been caused by our limited modes of thought. We centred ourselves on the individual, on personal aggrandizement…A sense of planet Earth never entered into our minds.’

Christianity taught us to fix our attention on heaven above and regard this as a fallen world, doomed for ultimate destruction. Consequently in mediaeval times many withdrew from the world into monasteries and nunneries to prepare themselves spiritually for their ultimate salvation.When Protestantism closed the monasteries and took a giant step towards secularising Christianity, they still saw the world as the place where the Devil beguiled and entrapped the careless and unsuspecting. This conviction explains why fundamentalism regards those who call for the greening of Christianity as doing the Devil’s work.

Nature & the divine

Christianity began as a movement to unite all humans in one body, the body of Christ, with, ‘neither Jew nor Gentile, neither freeman nor slave, neither male nor female.’ After the fall of Rome, Christianity began to exhibit something of the Empire’s Pax Romana, but it gradually lost the vision of a united humanity and became increasingly focused on a spiritual life after death. From that time on corporate self-interest waned, and individual self-interest re-asserted itself as people were urged to embrace Christianity to save themselves from Hell and guarantee a place in heaven. By offering to save people’s souls for life in another world, Christianity lost its own soul in this world, meriting the words: ‘the church has become so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use.’

The 5th century Incarnation doctrine and the Holy Trinity doctrine reconnected the divine Creator with Creation, re-linking heaven and earth. This radical departure from strict monotheism led to the modern secular world, but the twin doctrines proved too revolutionary for most Christians, let alone Jews and Muslims, who reinforced their monotheism. The human Jesus was lost from view behind the wholly divine Christ. The significance of the incarnation was obliterated and the gulf between heaven and earth reappeared. Despite this reaction, the revered and brave Saint Francis in the 13th century exhorted Christians to value nature, saluting all earthly creatures as his brothers and sisters. His famous Canticle of the Sun refers to ‘Dear Mother Earth.’

The hope of personal immortality in a world beyond death goes back only to the second and third centuries. It developed when Christianity was competing with and being influenced by various salvation cults and other mystery religions. This belief must now be judged an aberration, a concession to personal self-centredness. To motivate Green consciousness, Christianity must rediscover its real roots. This earliest Christian belief was not in the immortality of the individual, but of the species, for the species, not the individual has the capacity to live from generation to generation. And all living species depend on one another and on the earth itself. This is the kind of immortality ecology is concerned with. Ecological immortality calls for a much greater degree of selflessness than we find in the traditional Christian concept of immortality, a self-serving hope that by tragic irony became the very opposite of the Christian definition of love found in the Fourth Gospel: ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’

Immortality then is a quality that pertains to the species not the individual, and above all to the evolving web of life on this planet. We human individuals are mortal as are all earthly creatures. It’s our great privilege even to have been born into this awe-inspiring web of life and to have inherited the evolving human culture created by our forbears. It’s our responsibility to transmit this rich culture to our descendants and hand on to them the earth itself in the best possible state. This is the ecological version of loving God with all one’s heart and loving one’s neighbour as oneself. We must respond to the ecological imperative for our children and countless generations beyond.

New story of origins

For reasonably well-informed and thoughtful people, the biblical story of origins has now been replaced by an entirely new story. This sketches the changing universe from the ‘big bang’ onwards, through the evolution of life on this planet, followed more recently by the evolution of human culture. The new story of origins not only leaves us with an entirely different picture of the vast universe we live in, it describes our relationship with the earth in strikingly different terms.

This modern understanding of the source of our being indicates that while we rightly value what we may call the spiritual dimension of the human condition, there is no absolute gulf between us and other living creatures. As French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin so wonderfully put it: all physical matter has the potential for spirituality. Therefore, the spiritual dimension of human experience can never be divorced from the physical, and the supposed dichotomy between spiritual and material is spurious. We humans are psycho-physical organisms. We must abandon the widespread but false notion that we are spiritual beings only temporarily encased in physical bodies, a notion that derives, after all, not from the Bible but from Greek philosopher Plato.

The new story of origins also returns us humans to our proper place among the many and diverse life forms on this planet. Thomas Berry points out that everything on earth is cousin to everything else. This has now been scientifically demonstrated by the genetic code which determines the physiological structure of every creature and that shows we are related to all other forms of planetary life. We humans have no special rights of ownership and dominion over the others.

In the old story we were subject to the dictates of the Heavenly Father, and believed ourselves to have been given dominion over the earth. In the new story we are subject to the same forces of nature as are all other living organisms. We are earth creatures, who can live only within the delicately balanced natural forces, geographical conditions, and interdependence of species that constitute the ecology of our planetary home. Because of our new understanding of our origins and nature of our ecological home, the ethic that concerns us today is no longer the divine imperative but what may be called the Ecological Imperative. This is not an ominous new heresy, as it does not reject, it reorients. ‘The Greening of Christianity,’ means Christian thinking must now incorporate all we have learned about the human species from the human sciences. In the last two hundred years our understanding of the human species and its relationship to the natural world has greatly changed.

You might expect to find little or nothing in common with earlier Christian doctrine. Surprisingly, this is not so. The biblical myth of origins declared with striking boldness that we humans are formed of the dust of the ground, and when our lives end we return to dust. Three thousand years later we still use the words of that ancient story at our funeral services, ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ The biblical proposition that we are made of earth is basically unchallenged, though of course we now know the ‘dust’ we are made of consists chiefly of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. The lifeless atoms of which we are composed are united in the most intricate designs to form myriads of living cells and the many internal organs that constitute the human organism.

Easter’s eternal message

To reconnect Christianity with Nature and foster the kind of religion Toynbee called for, there’s perhaps no better way than to return to the origins of our major festivals, rooted as they were in celebrating nature. The ecological spirituality will celebrate the wonder of the universe and the mystery of life. It will encourage people to be grateful for the richness and beauty of the natural world and to respond positively to the ecological crisis. What might this mean for Easter, a major Christian festival, stemming from the religion of the ancient Middle East long before the rise of Christianity?

The essential Easter message is a paradox: All life ends in death but out of death comes new life. Death followed by resurrection had long been expressed in stories of the gods that we today call myths. Chief among them was the story of the dying-and-rising god. The ancients told these stories because that’s how they experienced life. They saw the sun die every day in the West and rise again with new life the next morning. They saw the moon wax and wane every month. Then for a short time it could not be seen, but on the third day the new moon appeared. This is the origin of the well-known biblical phrase, ‘on the third day.’ They also noted the seasons of the year. Summer fruiting was followed by autumn harvesting, then by dying vegetation in winter. But in spring, what seemed to be dead came to life again so the Easter festival was celebrated in spring when, more strikingly than any other time, death was followed by the resurrection of new life.

You may think the Easter experiences of the first Christians was quite different from the nature festivals of the past. The first Christians did not think so. The Fourth Gospel places these words in the mouth of Jesus: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ In other words, the death of Jesus was understood as analogous to the death of a seed that springs into new life. This is how Clement, one of the very early Popes of Rome, put it: ‘Let us observe how the Creator is continually displaying the resurrection, of which we find an example in his raising of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. Let us look at the resurrection that happens regularly all the time. Day and night shows a resurrection; the night goes to sleep, the day rises: the day departs, night comes on. Let us take the crops. How does the sowing happen and in what way? The seed falls on the ground and dies. Then from the death of the one grain, by the mightiness of divine providence, there grows much more fruit.’

If the early Christians could see that the rising of Jesus from the dead was all of a piece with the death and resurrection observed in nature, how much more are we free to do so today. Now we not only can observe that life on this planet has an awe-inspiring capacity to keep renewing itself, but that the evolution of life in all its innumerable, diverse forms out of this once lifeless planet is itself the greatest resurrection miracle of all, and that’s not the end of it. As astronomers unfold the marvels and mystery of our ever-evolving cosmos, they tell us the earliest galaxies and stars did not then have within them the chemical elements of carbon and the like that are essential to life. Before these more complex elements could even be created, stars of the type known as a supernovas had to explode and die, for only out of their fragments could the planets and higher chemical elements be born. This is death and resurrection on the grand scale.

Thus the universe itself is deeply permeated by this basic phenomenon of death and resurrection. The Easter theme of life out of non-life, of life, death and resurrection, has been operating from the beginning of time. It is inherent in the nature of the universe itself and a fundamental principle of all life on this planet. This wellspring of existence as we know it calls for continual celebration.

What an opportunity there is in this ecological age for green Christianity to restore to Easter celebrations Easter’s eternal message, giving us hope as we face the ecological crisis. Just as our own bodies show a remarkable capacity to recover after illness and disease, so the earth has a remarkable capacity to recover, to regain its stability to renew itself. We can take heart that the creative forces within us, within nature and the universe itself, are of such a kind that a new earth can yet be resurrected from the death which we humans now threaten it. Easter so celebrated, can revive in us the hope for a worthwhile future on this planet.

As the religious activities of the past are reformed to meet the needs of the ecological age, ten resolutions could replace the 10 commandments and help us build a healthy world for those who follow us:

  • Let us take time to stand in awe of this self-evolving universe.
  • Let us marvel at the living eco-sphere of this planet.
  • Let us set a supreme value on all forms of life.
  • Let us develop a lifestyle that preserves the balance of the planetary eco-system.
  • Let us refrain from all activities that endanger the future of any species.
  • Let us devote ourselves to maximising the future for all living creatures.
  • Let us set the needs of the coming global society before those of ourselves, our tribe, society or nation.
  • Let us learn to value the human relationships that bind us together into social groups.
  • Let us learn to appreciate the total cultural legacy we have received from the past.
  • Let us accept in a self-sacrificing fashion the responsibility now laid on us all for the future of our species and all planetary life.

The above article is extracted for Pacific Ecologist from Sir Lloyd Geering’s book The Greening of Christianity published in 2005 by St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, Wellington, New Zealand. It was republished in Coming Back to Earth, Polebridge Press, Oregon, 2009. Sir Lloyd Geering, New Zealand’s most eminent theologian, is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Born in 1918, he faced heresy charges in 1967 because of his controversial views. His recent books include: Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic; From the Big Bang to God: Our Awe-Inspiring Journey of Evolution; Such Is Life!: A Close Encounter With Ecclesiastes. [KW]