Bad Theology Creates Bad Ecology
A leading voice for progressive Christianity says that either traditional theism goes, or the earth goes.
By John Shelby Spong
“Ideas Have Consequences” was the title of a book I had to read as a young theological student. I recall today nothing but the title, which captures for me an elementary truth. Ideas are not disincarnate from history. Adolf Hitler had ideas that he expressed in a book entitled “Mein Kampf.” Karl Marx had ideas that he expressed in “Das Kapital.” Both sets of ideas have had enormous consequences for human history.
I would like to suggest that the way the Judeo-Christian faith has conceived of God is an idea that has had enormous ecological consequences, and that one of the reasons the Christian church has never really embraced environmental concerns is that the church has seen God as external to life and life itself as sinful and fallen, in need of rescue by our external deity. That being so, I now believe it will be impossible to save our world from human destruction unless we abandon that traditional understanding of God.
To state it boldly and in a straightforward manner, the way the Judeo-Christian tradition has conceptualized God is a primary factor in the destruction of our ecosystem and ultimately of our world. I hope you recognize that those are strong words to come from a bishop of the Christian church. I recognize that they will not be happily received in many church circles. I have a deep wish that I did not have to say them, but I do, because I believe they are true. I also wish that I did not feel compelled to act upon them. But I do. I cannot be silent, nor can I retreat from their consequences. Let me hasten to put some flesh on these provocative thoughts.
In the biblical tradition, and consequently in Christian theology, which is largely based on the way the Bible has been interpreted, the claim is made that God is known primarily through divine revelation. That is, God is a divine being who comes to us from outside life. This means that God is thought to rule this world from a position outside this world. It is only because this deity is not part of this world that the divine command could be given to the single creature who was said to be made in the divine image, to subdue the world as if that creature were not himself or herself a part of it. One does not view the earth as an enemy unless one is alienated from it.
This understanding of God is called “theism” in theological circles. It assumes that God is a supernatural being who lives outside this world, but who periodically invades this world in a miraculous way. There is no question but that this is the popular and the majority view of the God that one meets in the pages of scripture. This God of the Bible can control the weather so as to send 40 days and 40 nights of rain to achieve the divine purpose of punishing a sinful world by destroying it with a flood, according to the story of Noah. This God is pictured as entering history to engage in a political conflict by slamming the Egyptians with plague after plague after plague, all in the service of this God’s chosen people, according to the book of Exodus. This God can shape the norms for both worship and ethics by dictating the law at Mount Sinai.
This theistically understood deity was also said to have entered the world in the “fullness of time” in the form of a human life known as Jesus of Nazareth. That is the central image upon which the traditional Christian faith story is built. So powerful was this theistic definition of God that it dominated the way people told the Jesus story. Ultimately it was this definition that prevented people from seeing Jesus as a God-infused human being and forced them rather to perceive him as a divine visitor who came from heaven.
As a divine visitor Jesus needed a mythological landing field, which is what caused the tradition of the miraculous virgin birth to enter Christianity in the 9th decade of the Common Era (see Matt. 1:18–25, Luke l:26–2:7). At the end of his earthly life he also needed a launching pad to propel him back to his “external to the world” home above the sky, which is why the story of his cosmic ascension entered the Christian tradition in the late 9th or early 10th decade (see Luke 24:50–53 and Acts 1:1–11). Between his miraculous entry and his miraculous exit, Jesus was said to have done other supernatural, godlike things that showed his dominance over the world of nature. He could walk on water (Mark 6:48, Matt. 14:25), still the storm (Mark 4:39, Matt. 8:18–27, Luke 8:22–25) and expand the food supply to enable crowds that numbered in the thousands to have their stomachs filled from just a few loaves and fishes (Mark 6:37ff., Matt. 14:16ff., Luke 9:13ff., John 6:9ff.).
Christian theology developed through history in such a way that the humanity of this Jesus was radically diminished and his divine-visitor status was greatly enhanced. This trend reached its crescendo in 1739, when Charles Wesley penned his popular Christmas carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” which portrayed Jesus as not human at all, but one “veiled in flesh,” through which only the godhead was seen.
The second element in the theistic definition of God was that it spoke to people’s security needs in a waythhat nothing else could. That sense of safety has been a bulwark against raising any alternatives in theological development, and enormous fear is loosed when theism is challenged. Human beings like to pretend that there is a supernatural, all-powerful God who can and will take care of them. We like to believe that there is a miracle worker in the sky who can come to our aid, a divine parent figure to whom we can appeal when all seems to be collapsing around us. We take comfort in living in the delusion of a continuing childhood of dependency.
But this theistic God died long before the ecological crisis overtook us, and despite great efforts at denial by fundamentalists, those who embrace the modern world recognize that this is so. There is no theistic God who exists to take care of you or me. There is no God who stands ready to set aside the laws by which this universe operates to come to our aid in time of need. There are no everlasting arms underneath us to catch us when we fall.
Ask the people who were the hapless passengers on those hijacked airplanes as they were hurtling toward the World Trade Center or the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. No divine hand reached down to save them. Ask the families and friends of the crew on the spacecraft Challenger as it exploded shortly after lift-off in 1986. No protecting deity embraced them. Ask the children, spouses or parents of service personnel during the varqius Iraqi wars where this supernatural God was when they received the official message from their government which began, “We regret to inform you...” Ask the Jews where the God who could split the Red Sea was when they were being marched into Hitler’s crematoriums during the Holocaust. Ask the children who are born with the HIV virus or the parents of an only child who is killed by a drunk driver. The God that we presume lives above the sky, whose primary vocation is to watch over, guard and protect vulnerable human beings, somehow appears to be frequently off-duty.
When people question this theistic God in the light of the constant pain and trauma found in the normal course of human life, the pious rhetoric of theism’s defenders becomes almost incoherent. One hears hysterical talk about free will, about how God allows us to bring pain upon ourselves and even about how God never asks us to bear more than we can endure. Sometimes religious spokespersons explain that we actually deserve the pain and trauma of life. How very trite these explanations are!
Does a soldier, of his own free will, decide to walk into the line of fire, or does the theistic God finger a particular person for punishment? Does a baby choose, of its own free will, to be born to an HIV-infected mother or are only those babies who are particularly evil infected with this virus? Does God designate those who are to be executed in any religious or ethnic cleansing operation or in any mob activity? Are not these divine definitions little more than the pitiful pleas of human beings who prefer to live in a world of make-believe, human beings who want never to grow up? Is there some hidden hope, deep inside us, that manifests itself in our attempt to define God theistically so we might not have to alter our lives dramatically to save our environment?
After all, if the theistic God can control the weather patterns, bring the rain and stop the hurricanes, could this deity not also vacuum the atmosphere to remove our pollutants and thus restore this external world to ecological balance? How many people really believe that this could happen? How many believe that the theistic God really exists?
Christian evangelicals like to use the term “born again.” It is an interesting choice of words, for when one is “born again,” one is newly a child. It represents a second return to a state of chronic dependency. Perhaps what we specifically need is not to be “born again,” but to grow up and become mature adults. Until we recognize that this understanding of God is no more, that the theistic God has either died or that such a God never existed, we will fail to reach the maturity that enables us to recognize that we have to be responsible for ourselves—for our own breeding habits and for ountconstant violation of the earth that is our home.
We human beings are not some alien visitors who happen to be on the planet earth. Our human life is part of this planet. We have evolved like every other creature into our present stage of life. We share a common environment and a common world with plants and animals to which we are related more closely than we have ever imagined. We breathe the same common air and drink the same common water. We can no longer sing, as one evangelical hymn suggests, “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home,” with any integrity. Heaven is not our home. This planet earth is. That is the first realization we must embrace when theism dies.
Once we accept the fact that there is no theistic God who will come to our aid, religious authority crumbles. For it is the claim to be able either to speak for God or to explain divine behavior that is the source of religious authority. Part of the reason believers let church leaders get away with excessive claims of infallibility and inerrancy is that this kind of certainty keeps human fears in check. When theism dies, those fears become manifest. But theism is not God; it is nothing but a human definition of God—and a radically inadequate one at that. When theism dies God does not die, but a human definition of God does. That is an enormous difference that needs to be grasped. Our job is not to Gcreate God but to seek a more adequate, new definition of our experience of God.
To begin that task I turn to the minority voices of the Bible that speak of a different understanding of the God experience that might make more sense in our time. On the other, less frequently read pages of our sacred text one can also discover a God who is not an external supernatural being, but who is perceived as the life force that flows through all that is. Sometimes this God is called Spirit and is identified with the wind that vitalizes and animates the forests. Sometimes this God is identified with our very breath as an indwelling presence. When this divine life force comes upon us, it does not lift us out of the world. Rather, it brings life out of death (see Ezek. 37:1–15) or it calls us into a new state of living. The classic biblical story indicating this is the account of Pentecost (Acts 2), which suggests that Spirit-filled people can step beyond tribal boundaries and speak the language of their hearers and thus respond to a call to a new humanity because God is no longer external but internal.
Another minority voice in the Bible defines God simply as the power of love. If you abide in love, says one writer, you abide in God (1 John 4:16). Love is the power that somehow expands our sense of freedom and thus enables us to enter life deeply by giving ourselves away.
Still another image of God is found in the poetic language of the book of Psalms, where God is likened to a rock, that firmness underneath one’s feet that is real (Ps. 18:2, 19:14, 31:2, 42:9, 62:2, 71:3). When the Bible is read carefully, we discover that the image of God as a supernatural invading external deity that has dominated Western religion is not the only way our spiritual ancestors perceived God. Why then should we be bound to an image, or to the religion based on that image, which has left a trail of pain across human history? Even today, as a direct result of our theology, people are still able to believe that God has commanded us to multiply and to do violent things both to our environment and to one another. It is in obedience to that dominant biblical understanding that we are today at the point of destroying the ability of this planet to sustain any life at all.
Returning to the concept of Spirit for a moment, I find a slightly different nuanced understanding in the creation story that deserves at least a mention. In the first chapter of Genesis, God is portrayed as a presence “moving over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). A study of this text suggests the analogy of a mother hen brooding over her nest to bring forth life. A God who is understood after the analogy of a mother hen is not something external to this world. It makes a vast difference to our sense of responsibility to our world if we redefine God, not atethe external deity who calls the world into being by divine command, but as the power that emerges within all of life.
We know from our study of evolution that life is a single whole. All life has developed from that first cell of living matter that was born in the sea some four billion years ago. Life moved from that single cell into clusters of cells over hundreds of millions of years, allowing in those clusters the beginning of cell differentiation and therefore organic complexity.
Hundreds of millions of years later, this seamless source of life split, with one strand producing plant life and the other animal life, but both were deeply interdependent. Each was a source of life to the other. Hundreds of millions of years later, life left the oceans and moved into estuaries and riverbeds and it kept evolving and adapting. When the land finally became hospitable to life, these living specimens climbed out of the riverbeds in both plant and animal forms and began to live in the unique land environment, always changing and adapting, but still deeply related.
No more than one to two million years ago, this process finally evolved into our earliest recognizable human ancestors. Perhaps no more than fifty thousand to one hundred thousand years ago, self-consciousness and the ability to create symbols, called words, to convey abstract ideas combined to make us uniquely human. Human beings were not created in the image of some external deity; we developed out of the evolutionary soup as part of the fabric of life itself. DNA evidence today demonstrates that we are kin not only to apes, but also to cabbages.
We are part of an emerging life force sharing a common environment with every other living thing. No creature can dominate the world, as those called Homo sapiens have sought to do, because all life is radically interdependent. God’s spirit, which brooded over the waters to call life into being, is not an external, but an emerging presence. It is not a theistic, supernatural, alien-to-our-world deity, but the source of our common life.
Even when the Bible moves on to a second story of creation, the portrait is still of a deity who is not really external. God breathes into Adam, says the ancient Hebrew legend. Adam becomes a living creature because the breath of God becomes his breath. God then creates the animals to alleviate the man’s loneliness. All living things share that divine life.
In Hebrew the word for breath is nephesh, and it is related to the wind, which was thought to be the breath of God. Nephesh, however, is present in all creation. It is the prophet Jeremiah who says that the animals too are the creation of God and must therefore be regarded as holy (Jer. 27:5). It is the Psalmist who asserts that all creatures look to God for their sustenance and that even tue creatures are dismayed when God hides the divine face. When God removes the divine breath, says the Psalmist, even the creatures die (Ps. 124:29). God is not external to life. God is to be identified with the life present in all living things.
The Psalmist goes on to say that God’s springs quench the thirst of the beasts. God caused grass to grow for the cattle, cedars for the birds, fir trees for the storks, high mountains for the goats, rocks for the badgers. God even made the darkness so that creatures may seek their prey in it just as God made the day so that human beings could earn their livelihood (Ps. 124:10–30).
In the Noah story saving the animals was part of the plan of salvation (Gen. 6:20). In Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, the Preacher, reminds his readers that “the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. ...They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts.” In contemplating death this writer asks, “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?” (Eccles. 3:19, 21).
This is not the portrait of a supreme being living beyond the sky, separate from the earth; this is the portrait of a divine presence that permeates all of life, that binds all creatures into the mutuality of interdependency. These images are beyond theism, but they are not beyond God.
Surely we can now see that we have created the theistic God in our image, even as we asserted that it was the other way around. We then used this God to justify the dreadful things we were and are doing to our world. Theism is a false notion, a human idol that must die, and when it does, God—seen as the sacred dimension in all of life—must replace it. The minority voices in our religious past must become the majority voices of our religious future.
So who is God? No one can finally say. That is not within human competence. All we can ever say is how we believe we have experienced God, doing our best to dispel our human delusions. Let me try to do just that. I experience God as the source of life calling me to live fully and thus to respect life in every form as embodying the holy. I experience God as the source of love calling me to love wastefully all that God has made, including the earth with its plants and animals. I experience God, in the words of Paul Tillich, as the “Ground of Being” calling me to be all that I can be and to affirm the sacred being of all that is. The worship of such a God could never result in the destruction of the planet that has produced us.
We have looked upward for a God above the sky for centuries, but we now know that this infinite universe is empty of supernatural invasive deities. We need to shift our vision to look within—at life, at love, at being.
The theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote that the “alienation of nature brought about by human beings can never be overcome until men [and women] find a new understanding of themselves and a new interpretation of their world in the framework of nature.” That will occur, I believe, only when a new understanding of God is achieved. Good ecology requires good theology, and good theology alone will guarantee our very survival.
John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000. His books include “A New Christianity for a New World,” “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism,” “Resurrection: Myth or Reality?,” “Why Christianity Must Change or Die,” and his autobiography, “Here I Stand.”
Excerpted from The Sins of Scripture by John Shelby Spong. Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers.
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