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Fall 1992 · Vol. 21 No. 2 · pp. 60–64 

Recent Christian Thinking on the Environment: A Bibliographical Essay

Daryl Kutz

As concern for the environment has grown, the traditions of the Christian church have often been blamed as part of the present environmental crisis. Recent Christian thinking and writing has responded to this issue in a variety of ways. This variety results in part from differing perceptions of God. Six recently published books and documents present three differing pictures of God. At the risk of oversimplification, they include God as a person, as creation, and as a symbol. All three summaries came to similar conclusions on several key items. The differences lay in the theological underpinnings.


The first picture portrays God as a living being desiring relationship with other living beings. God is the Creator, external to the physical world yet intimately involved with it. God is the source of all life and continues to sustain it. All of nature was created “good” by God and remains under God’s ownership. The authors whose books formed the first picture of God were all of the opinion that biological evolution {61} was the means by which God created the natural world. Intrinsic value is therefore present in creation because God placed it into the creative process. The planet is to be respected as another person’s property.

Does common sense or faith shape responses to the environment?

As the source of life, God can claim ownership of creation. Since creation was the product of divine love, there is the assurance that God will continue to care for it profoundly (Hallman, 1989). In return, all of nature, regardless of any human value placed upon it, is capable of giving glory to God. God has also provided a means by which right relationships can be restored as they once existed between God, nature and human beings.

People are inextricably linked to this natural world. They were formed from clay (the very elements of the earth) and suffer consequences similar to other interdependent creatures living in a damaged world. In light of this condition, humans should at least feel a basic self-interest in keeping the earth in good shape. None of the six authors disputed the unique place of humanity within creation. People are the centerpiece, the image of God in visible form. People are to be the caretakers and stewards of creation, physically looking after it with the same mindset and manner as God (Meyer, 1991). It is an occupation much more complex than the present concept of managing natural resources. People are to uphold the integrity of all creation (World Council of Churches, 1988). The ability to complete this assignment is given solely by being made in the image of God.

But this harmonious or “right” relationship between God, nature, and people broke apart. Humans willfully chose to disobey God. The natural world suffers because human authority remains intact but grossly misdirected. Fortunately God saw fit to rectify the situation. By offering salvation to people, the relationship between them and God could be restored. It remains the human task to care for creation and so this hope of restoration is extended to the natural world (Rom. 8:18-25). The task of the church as a restored community is then widened to living out this good news of salvation within all of creation (McDonagh, 1990). Through the church God continues to play an active role in caring for creation. One day God will still bring about a complete restoration of this right relationship between people, nature, and the divine. In the meantime, there is more than enough for the Christian church to do.


The second picture of God is significantly different from the first and moves further away from the biblical text for its sources. From process theology comes a picture of God not external to creation but actually being {62} creation (McDaniel, 1989). The earth is seen as an extension of God. In a sense, the earth is God’s body. Since every creature is in contact with this body, God intimately feels for and acts as a tangible link to each and every part of creation.

Once again, the natural world is seen to have emerged from a process of biological evolution. In this picture, God is portrayed as being definitely feminine, for it is out of this body called Earth that life emerged. God is not described as personal, with human attributes, because these are felt to result in unhelpful dualities. Rather, organic concepts such as the interrelationship of all living creatures is thought to be a more appropriate description of God. There is within God a love beyond all comprehension, that loves even what nature is forced to discard or consume. There is a compassion that goes out to each living creature. Each part of creation has intrinsic value if it has discernible interests in living with some degree of satisfaction or has interests that can be respected / violated by human moral agents. Non-human entities have value due to their “ability to experience.” Evidence for this is given by neurophysical, biochemical, behavioral, and anatomical qualities tied to evolutionary theory. In this view, God does not assign goodness in the Genesis account of creation but rather recognizes that goodness is already present.

People are understood to be unique in that they are the only creatures capable of acting out a life-centered theology. The human purpose is to act as moral agents in a world where all of life does not necessarily have equal value. The aim of a life-centered theology is to reduce the loss of life to a minimal level overall. There is an inherent integrity in creation that must be preserved.

Within process theology, nature is seen as possessing its own creativity in which evil is an inevitable possibility of the evolutionary process. God could not and cannot prevent evil. To do so would be to interfere in the process of life. God does, however, possess perfection. In the midst of the disharmony and death present in the natural world, God lures all creatures, including people, toward harmony and integrity. This is redemption. Having experienced such harmony, a person should then act accordingly to preserve all forms of life as much as possible.


The third picture of God is one of a symbol conceived by the human mind to meet specific human needs. God is the ultimate point of reference for humanity and must therefore be allowed to expand to fit new situations as they arise (Kaufman, 1985). {63}

In this view, how God relates to nature is really a question of how people relate to nature. Historically, there has never been a time when the human species has been capable of such massive destruction that the existence of life on this planet was at stake. But this catastrophe may occur through nuclear or ecological means. This condition has arisen due to an inherent tendency of human beings toward personal and social disintegration.

The blame for this present global crisis, therefore, falls on the human species. A restoration of harmony between people themselves as well as nature is high on the list of global priorities. The concept of salvation, a restored relationship, needs to be extended to all people and all of nature. For people to work at serving the common good, creating harmony, and protecting creativity is to do the work of the divine spirit, thereby accomplishing salvation. It is this kind of activity that should occupy the Christian. This enormous and difficult task will require self-sacrifice, possibly to the point of death on the part of many. However, the example and legacy of Jesus provides hope for those who follow his footsteps and suggests that to give oneself for others is the ultimate expression of what it means to be human.


Several observations piqued my interest as I encountered these views of God. I wonder how it is that three very different theological perspectives recommend similar or identical sets of concrete actions towards an environmental solution. Is it mere common sense that dictates what action should be taken? How does faith serve in shaping one’s response toward the environmental issue?

The concept of salvation differs from writer to writer. But they all suggest that salvation, a restoration of a right or proper relationship with God, is to be extended to all of creation and not limited to human beings. People must be restored first, due to their unique place in the natural world. However, once a person’s life has changed, the responsibility to practice and share that right relationship with God extends beyond reaching out to other people. Should this greatly expanded vision of salvation be embraced, it would significantly alter the role of the church in the world.

A further similarity among these thinkers is the criticism that the past several hundred years of Western Christian theology have been too closely linked to those political and economic systems that have most ravaged the planet. It is true that all areas of the globe have been impacted, but North American and European technology and industry have arguably been the {64} greatest contributors to the destruction. How does one revise theology? If God is merely a product of creative human imagination, a meaningful symbol, then a change in theology is only as far away as the next well-argued thought. In this way God can rise to every occasion with a meaningful answer. For those whose theology is rooted in a permanent source external to human imagination (which Kaufman argues is impossible), the task of changing theology becomes more difficult.

Another similarity emerges from these three pictures of God. In each, “nature” and “creation” are used interchangeably. All three conclude that biological evolution was the means by which God “created” or within which the creator God is enclosed. Admittedly, the Genesis account of creation does not satisfy the curiosity as to “how” God created the earth. Opposition to evolution emerges in environmental philosophy. If evolution is to work according to the theory, it must be purposeless. The mutations subject to natural selection must occur in a completely random fashion. How then do human beings emerge with a sense of purpose and morality? How can purposelessness produce purpose?

The theology presented by these thinkers represents but a fraction of present Christian environmental thinking. But from this survey it is clear that the theological underpinnings for environmental thinking need careful formulation and scrutiny.


  • Hallman, David. Caring for Creation. (Winfield: Wood Lake Books Inc., 1989).
  • “Integrity of Creation: An Ecumenical Discussion.” World Council of Churches working paper, 1988.
  • Kaufman, Gordon. Theology for a Nuclear Age. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1985).
  • McDaniel, Jay. Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence for Life. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989).
  • McDonagh, Sean. The Greening of the Church. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990).
  • Meyer, Art and Jocele. Earthkeepers. (Waterloo: Herald Press, 1991).
Daryl Kutz is a 1992 graduate of the University of Waterloo (Honours B.E.S.), Kitchener, Ontario.
The focus of the essay was suggested by Professor John Fast of Conrad Grebel College.

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