For the Good of All Creation: A Christian Ecological Ethic

If you look closely enough, you will notice—between the newly green blades of grass in the quad—tiny maple seedlings. Thousands of them. The seeds fall from giant maples and germinate in the ground. Walk through the Norway Valley forest, and you will see even more seedlings. Here, some may grow up tall and strong, depending on the light and nutrients available. Most, if not all the seedlings, will die in their first few years. And yet, every year, the trees produce an abundance of potential life in their tiny winged offspring. In the seedlings, I see the exuberant fecundity of life on this planet we call Earth.

In his book Earth Honoring Faith, ethicist and St. Olaf regent Larry Ras­mussen argues that Christianity and other religious traditions have particular power in developing ecological ethics because of their sense of reverence for the sacred. On the other hand, Christianity has been accused of being at the root of a paradigm of human dominion and exploitation of the earth. While this interpretation does hold true in at various points in history, it misrepresents Chris­tian thought and tradition, at the heart of which lies a call to be in right relation­ship with Creator and creation. Christianity can be a rich resource for people in finding beliefs that underscore care for creation, and can also exhort those who do not care for creation to do so.

In this article, I affirm dimensions within the Christian tradition that turn us toward ecological justice, I argue for the mobilization of the church and other institutions as communities that can help link belief and practice, and I develop a teleological ethic for all creation, based in character for humans. What we pro­fess and believe ought to align with our practices and way of living in the world. For me, this means engaging with my beliefs and the reality of the world to prac­tice reverence and respect for creation. God wants us to be in right relationship to creation, of which we are a part. But how do we live ethically in this complex, globalized world?

Are My Hands Clean?

For a week last semester, I wore the same outfit every day along with mem­bers of my ethics class. My classmates and I had just taken inventories of our dorm rooms, where I found most of my stuff to be outsourced from second and third world countries. We wore the same clothing each day as an experiment, using embodied practices to explore ethical questions about how much we need and how much the stuff we have defines our social identities. Our society places a high value on appearances and clothing as markers of class, ethnic, and social identity. Social scientists call this conspicuous consumption, consumption that goes beyond the functional value of a product to the identities and status con­ferred through it. Yet despite these cultural norms, not a single person noticed my repetitive wardrobe, not even my roommates.

The singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock follows the production of a blouse from cotton fields in El Salvador to oil rigs in the Caribbean Sea to a Sears department store where the blouse is on sale for twenty-percent discount. Crooning the final line, they ask, “are my hands clean?”

When we stop to look at the systems behind the production of things we use, we start to realize the moral complexity of the choices we make every day at the electronic store, the grocery store, and the shopping mall. As consumers, we are implicated in the injustices at various levels in this elaborate and com­plex system. We are all in a morally ambiguous gray zone induced by global capitalism, which separates product from the means and place of production. Disproportionate consumption by a well-off minority “goes hand in hand with desperate poverty for starving millions. Economists estimate that 25% of earth’s people in the affluent nations annually use roughly 75% of the world’s resourc­es.”[1] Are we ethically and morally responsible for the injustice, exploitation, and ecological devastation that occur outside of our own awareness or control but as a result of summed individual actions?

The Extent of Ecological Crisis

Clothing is just one example of a present day consumption habit that wreaks havoc on the ecosystems of our globe, from the rainforest to the arctic ice stores. Anthropogenic species extinction and climate change threatens the beauty, dynamism, and diversity of Earth, our home. In the history of Earth, there have been six mass extinctions, the last of which has been going on at the hands of homo sapiens – Latin for ‘wise humans.’ In this latest mass extinction, ecologists estimate that “more than 200,000 generations of humankind will have to live and die before levels of biodiversity comparable to those we inherited at the start of the twentieth century.”[2]

Not only are water sources and oceans across the globe polluted and rainforests being cleared for exotic lumber and farmland under our watch, but our atmosphere is changing too. Arctic ice loss since 2007 is far above the predictions of climate models, even that of the IPCC.[3] Further ice loss will re­lease unknown quantities of methane—which has a warming effect seven times stronger than CO2—locked beneath the Arctic Ocean as well as cause rising sea levels, flooding port cities. Further, with raised temperatures come droughts and declines in crop productivity, contributing to collapse of lawful rule and creation of refugees and migrants.[4] Modern political scientists tend to “decontextualize politics from geography, and culture from nature” and hence are more likely to read these events as the clash of civilizations than as evidence of climate change.[5] A four-degree Celsius warmer planet would be drastically different; the only habitable and fertile land would be in the Northern hemisphere above the 49th parallel – the border between the US and Canada.

Climate science is contested, but it is worth pausing for a moment to consider why with the help of ethicist Michael S. Northcott from the University of Edinburgh. If anthropogenic (meaning human-induced) climate change is a reality, then our present way of life and consumption of fossil fuels must dras­tically change. Estimates are such that though we have enough presumed coal stores to last us for the next 200 years, CO2 emissions from these stores would be devastating.[6] Northcott draws out the political aspect of the science:

Mitigating climate change requires dramatic, large-scale political interventions in fossil fuel extraction and marketing, and hence in the energy systems and behaviors that these fuels sustain. But these systems and behaviors are so intrinsic to industrial civilisation and mod­ern consumerism that radical reform without a real and present climate catastrophe lacks popular support, and hence influential advocacy, in most political domains.[7]

For Northcott, climate science is political because it runs directly counter to the modern story of human control over nature and implies that to live within plan­etary constraints we must collectively regulate consumption.[8] But he argues that it is also theological because it points to the error of human ways and indicates imminent judgment on human dominion.

Anthropogenic species extinction and climate science beg us to consid­er how our lifestyles affect the world of which we are a part. Ecological crisis, whether as dramatic as some predict or not, means we must reconsider the be­liefs implicit in a system that exploits humans, creatures, and natural resources. But I hope that in doing so, we find that, with or without a crisis spurring us on, we would develop ethics of care and respect for the world that go beyond miti­gating negative consequences to shaping our behaviors and beliefs about human nature and our relation to the world in which we live, move, and have our being.

The Theology Behind the Crisis

Lynn White, in a well-known 1967 Science article, indicted Christianity’s ‘dominion paradigm’ as the culprit behind environmentally degrading modern technologies viewing man as over nature and nature as ‘resource.’ White refer­ences Genesis 1:28, in which God directs humans to have dominion over the earth and its creatures. White argues that Christians, who adopted the mold­board plow in the early 7th century after Christ, have had throughout history a distinctive paradigm of man versus nature and of perpetual progress. But as Michael Northcott points out, White neglects to recognize that the Christian dominion paradigm took on new meaning and power when Francis Bacon melded the theme of human dominion with science and technology for progress that advanced human salvation, which he defined as happiness. Knowledge, for Bacon, is power over nature. However, White does see the solution for our mod­ern ecological crisis in the religious and philosophical underpinnings of how we see the world: “human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny—that is, by religion.”[9] We need a fundamental reshaping of human nature.

In a different diagnosis of the issue, Northcott traces the modern industrial mentality driving degradation of the earth to several philosophical shifts, some of which were brought on by materials. For example, the high temperature at which coal burns allowed for the development of more precise and powerful optical technology – the telescope and the microscope – that have drastical­ly affected our understanding of the world and the place of humans within it. Northcott also critiques mechanistic models of life and modern philosophies that involve a split between nature and culture, a divide between science and ethics, and an elevation of the rational individual leading to the disappearance of the common good. These ideas are the foundations of the modern economy and political system, which takes advantage of natural ‘resources.’ Northcott contends the modern political economy falsely characterizes humanity and the earth, and fails to recognize that the root of the political is the ecological; in other words, the land on which we build our lives. Our entire political economy needs to be reoriented in order for us to be able to live more ethically.

Another diagnosis of the roots of ecological crisis is bad theology. Rather than conflating paradigms of dominion with the core message of Christianity, theologians Sallie McFague and Jürgen Moltmann both reflect on aspects of the­ology that influence poor practices with respect to the earth. McFague diagnoses the problem to be models of God in the Christian tradition, which have typically focused on God as separate from nature, and therefore engendering dichoto­mies of God over human, human over nature, and man over woman. McFague critiques these models on account of the inequalities and oppressions that result from such dualisms. In an age of impending ecological crisis, McFague sounds the need for a different model of God that reflects that all matter and life have value. German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, in his 1984-5 Gifford lectures, similarly takes issue with bad theology (as well as bad science, which sees itself as neutral and value-free) at the root of ecologically devastating practices. In enlightenment thought, humans started to see themselves as creatures that exist through rational thought, not through bodies, passions or love. Further, when God is seen as only potential and power, uninvolved in the messiness of this world, humans become gods over a desacralized nature. Science makes us powerful, with nature as the object of humans’ power. For Moltmann, we need to retrieve Christianity’s robust theology of creation. Christians need to think critically about how to practice respect and reverence for God’s creation.

But McFague and Moltmann correlate beliefs and practices almost too easily, following a logic that if beliefs change, or bad theology is corrected, better practices will follow. At least in our time, there is no such flow between beliefs and practices. Rather, there is a complex nexus of beliefs and practices influ­encing each other at the individual and collective level. To develop the linkages between belief and practice, we will turn to the Christian tradition to help us develop a theological and philosophical basis for ecological ethics.

Resources in Christian Doctrine and Tradition

Catholic nun and writer Elizabeth A. Johnson seeks to “put the natural world back on the theological map,” asking what the theological meaning of the world – for her in particular, evolution, speciation, natural selection, death – is in order to illuminate an ethic of care for species. Over the centuries, Chris­tian thought has narrowed its interests to focus on human beings, particularly after Anselm’s satisfaction theory, which placed Jesus’ death and resurrection as redemption solely for humans.[10] In the church, ecology is generally not on the agenda at all. The key obstacles, Johnson believes, are theology setting up humans as the species set apart to rule the world and the use of such theology to support our present day political economy and consumption levels. But Christi­anity is not an anti-ecological faith; thinkers such as Augustine, St. Francis, Ju­lian of Norwich, and the early church fathers had robust theologies of creation.

Theology must broaden its focus and reclaim the natural world. In doing so, we do not need to create a whole new theology severed from the roots of the tradition; instead we need to seek deeper into the tradition itself to find ways that it has been giving us a basis for an environmental ethic all along. Johnson sees the task of theology as seeking “to understand faith more deeply in order to live more vibrantly.”[11] Johnson draws from the Christian story of God’s love and mercy in the Nicene Creed to develop a basis for ecological action. The creed is at the heart of Christian faith and tradition, itself a kind of practice as laypeople in many churches across the globe confess the creed at each mass or Sunday service.

Christian doctrine and tradition provides a resource for reflection and an imperative for ecological action, as well as a corrective to those beliefs implicit in economies running on growth without acknowledgement of the ecological costs of consumption. In contrast to other religions, Christianity is historically a religion of orthodoxy – right belief. Islam, Judaism, and other religions are or­thopraxis religions, focused on right practice. As such, Christianity has very few mandatory practices, and in many communities has become only about mental assent. This means we need to do some extra work in translating our beliefs into practices that work within our context.

The Doctrine of Creation

To begin with, we can look at the relation between God and creation. There is a distinction between the terms ‘nature’ and ‘creation’: nature is a dynamic but law-bound process we can scientifically study, but the word creation implies the living world in light of its relation to its Creator. The doctrine of creation in Christian thought is threefold: creatio originalis, creatio continua, and creatio nova, meaning original creation, continuing creation, and new creation.

The doctrine of creation continua means that God is immanent in creation through the Spirit, Moltmann and Johnson both argue. In the creed, Christians confess the Holy Spirit as the giver of life: the Vivificantem, in Latin. The He­brew Scriptures, in which the Hebrew word for spirit also means breath or wind, simultaneously evoke divine nearness and a sense of the ineffable: blowing wind, flowing water, blazing fire: the spirit is personified as nature. These symbols “can surround and pervade other things without losing their own character; their presence is known by the changes they bring about.”[12] The breath and spirit of God is the animating force of all life. Moltmann argues for the panentheistic view that through the Holy Spirit’s animating presence as the breath of life, God is immanent in all creation. God dwells in the world through the presence of the Spirit, but God is more than the world. Johnson summarizes the beauty of panentheism well: “Rather than conflating God and the world as happens with pantheism, panentheism allows that God who dwells within also infinitely transcends the world at every point. At the same time, it honors the immanence or closeness of God.”[13] Such a view imbues creation with the presence of the Creator. God enlivens all creation, in every breath we take.

God is in us, but we are also in God, along with the rest of creation, by the mere fact of our existence. The links between God and creation are such that everything has being – existence and essence – but some things have less being than others. God has the most being; in fact, God is the ground of all being, be­ing itself. While humans and other creatures come in and out of existence, God is, and will never not be. We have being because God has shared God’s being with us. In the words of Aquinas, we participate in God’s being. The same goes for other beings – animals, plants, matter – in their very existence they partici­pate in God’s being. Participation, creation dwelling in God, is inevitable, what it means to be; but creatures still exist with their own integrity. Every created good is good by participation in the One who is good by nature. God, whose being is fundamentally relational as three ‘persons’ united in love, creates out of love and generosity in being. In an ethic guided by participation, our task is to commu­nicate love through our actions, because this is what God does.[14] Therefore, relationships are not about power or even our idea of perfection, but indwelling, sympathizing, and mutuality.

Related to participation is Johnson’s understanding of the doctrine of creation, which implies a community paradigm for all those created by God as a counterpoint to the dominion paradigm critiqued by Lynn White and other thinkers. The primary evolutionary insight is that we are all a community, inti­mately interrelated in our development and existence. For those Christians who do not accept evolution as demonstrated, present day ecology voices a similar message of interdependence and interrelatedness among species and ecosystems through the cycling of nutrients. Sallie McFague suggests that in our formation and education as humans, “we forget that our own lives as well as the ongoing life of our species depend also on living on top of, in between, and inside other forms of life on our planet.”[15] Furthering this insight of evolution and ecology, the biblical vision of creation reminds us of our contingency and relation to creation. God answers Job out of the whirlwind: “where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”[16] In Psalm 104, the psalmist lays out the species in their beauty and speaks of humans as part of the whole God created. In these scriptural passages, humans and other creatures as finite, dependent on God. Simply being is an act of praise in Psalm 148, and everything praises God in its own way: rivers rush, fish swim, ants march. These passages do not perpetuate an anthropocentric view of dominion that places humans above creation; rather, they present us with a theocentric view of God above all created things, which have their being by and through God.

The divine indwelling of the Holy Spirit in creation, participation of cre­ation in God’s being, and the community paradigm affect our understanding of divine presence and the natural world. God is intimately and profoundly pres­ent, and the natural world continuously participates in the livingness of divine being. Therefore, goodness is encountered not merely in looking past creation to its source, but in creation itself by celebrating each creature’s uniqueness and value. While goodness in God is simple and uniform, in creatures it is diverse and manifold. Biodiversity manifests the goodness of God. Such a view of God dwelling in creation also makes Earth a kind of sacrament. In the church, a sac­rament is a material sign that signifies God’s presence in the world. The physical and the spiritual are intertwined in materials things blessed by the church, such as bread, wine, sexual union in marriage, water, oil. In Johnson’s words, “In­stead of being distant from what is holy, the natural world bears the mark of the sacred, being itself imbued with a spiritual presence.”[17] Moltmann also develops a view of earth as sacrament, a kind of cosmic liturgy in which we can recognize God as creator and sustainer.

God Incarnate and the Christic Paradigm

Central and unique to the Christian narrative is the person of Jesus Christ, God-with-us. Christ is not just another sign of God in the world, but actually is God in the flesh. In the centuries after Christ and even today, varying positions regarding Jesus’ humanity and divinity existed. For example, in the docetic po­sition, Christ only appeared to be human, but was actually God. This view stems from Hellenistic elevation of the spirit over matter.[18] But the gospel of John tells us a different story.

Read every Christmas day, John 1:14 expresses what would later be called the doctrine of incarnation, “the belief that the living God who is utterly beyond comprehension has joined the flesh of the earth in one particular human being of one time and place.”[19] “And the word became flesh and lived among us.” The text does not say that God became a human being (Gk. anthropos) or a man (Gk. aner), but flesh (Gk. sarx). Sarx refers to a broader reality of embodiment shared between humans and animals. God becoming flesh would have been shocking to the average Greek, yet this is what John writes.

Johnson argues that in becoming flesh, the carpenter Jew from Nazareth not only becomes human, but reaches down to the very tissue and matter of biological life. To be human means more than just having a body and mind; it is also to be fundamentally related to the rest of creation. In Jesus, God “became a creature of Earth, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles.”[20] The atoms comprising his body were once part of other creatures, and his genetic structure was similar to flowers, fish, and horses. Through Christ, matter has been touched by God. This is deep incarnation: sarx weds Jesus to other human beings but also to the whole biological world and the materials of which it is composed. Deep incarnation also provides a basis for redemption for all creation, supported in the language of Colossians 1:20: Christ reconciles God to all things, whether on earth or in heaven. Creation, too, is to be saved and glorified.

Sallie McFague offers further insights for developing an ecological ethic based on Jesus’ life and works through what she calls the ‘Christic Paradigm.’ The Christic paradigm deconstructs our normalcy, hierarchy, and anthropo­centrism; reconstructs through healing stories that deal with physical bodies in pain; and gives us hope for the future exemplified by the inclusive eating sto­ries of Christ.[21] Christ reveals God reaching out to the poor and the oppressed, concerned first and foremost with bodily needs in healing and eating. Through Christ, we see that physical bodies, not only those that are beautiful, but also those that are diseased, violated, or dying, matter to God. Though later Christian tradition interpreted Christ primarily as spiritual savior and saw bodiliness op­posed to the divine, Christ himself “used his own spittle and warm touch to con­vey health.”[22] In our world, McFague identifies nature as the ‘new poor’ whom Christians are called to include and protect.[23] Jesus sees not in an arrogant, objectifying way akin to modern industrial appropriation of resources, but with a loving eye, teaching us also to pay “patient, careful attention to the particular­ity of the other in a non-sentimental, vitally interested way that reverences its reality.”[24] A wanderer with few possessions, Jesus lived a sacrificial life concerned with the outcasts of society and not his own reputation. In these ways, the life of Christ provides us with beautiful and challenging practices to enact in our own context.

But Christ is not only an example for us in living out ethical practices. One obstacle we encounter in changing our individual actions is desire. Going back to the ethicist Michael Northcott, even if we see the earth as intrinsically valu­able, our desire will prevent us from making the lifestyle and political changes we know we should. Our choices are always limited because we are guilty of sin. Drawing from St. Augustine, Northcott argues that the only way to overcome our tendency to sin is to look to God in Christ as the redeemer, reformer, and ultimate satisfaction of desire. For McFague, Christ is an example and happens to be our best example, whereas for Northcott, Christ is the organizing principle of our lives, and if we miss this, our desires remain messed up. Here we see how the two different approaches to the relevancy of the Christian narrative for eco­logical ethics play out differently in directing how we ought to live. The trans­formation of the mind and heart cannot occur fully without God’s direction and without us turning our eyes not only to the outcasts, but to God. Ultimately, God’s love is what empowers us to love others.

To conclude this section, I turn again to Catholic thinker Elizabeth John­son and her discussion of a ‘conversion to the earth.’ To repent literally means ‘to turn,’ in Greek, metanoia. At my Northfield church, our pastor recently gave a children’s sermon on repentance. She played follow the leader, periodically exclaiming, ‘repent!’ And everyone turned around. Johnson speaks of con­version to the earth as just such a turning. God calls us to turn from lifestyles of consumption that perpetuate inequality and destroy living systems. Such theological awakening and commitments to the goodness and value of creation should transform us to new thought patterns, and new lifestyles.[25] Intellectually, we must move from an anthropocentric view to a theocentric view and let go of philosophical dualisms that prize spirit over body. We also need to recognize our culpability in the state of the earth, however small or large that may be, and work to correct it:

Ecological degradation is not just one more issue to be addressed along with the misery of racism, poverty, domestic violence, and other human ills. It embraces all these and more, insofar as our ecologically destructive actions are depleting and degrading the very condi­tion that make human life possible at all, to say nothing of jeopardizing the rest of life in fundamental and unprecedented ways.[26]

In the words of Pope John Paul II, it is deep moral failure for humans to go on destroying life on earth. Such ways of life are profoundly sinful, suggesting lack of respect for life. In our day, a moral universe limited to human beings is no longer adequate.[27] Since we tend not to consume with the intention of dom­inating the earth and harming creation, it can be difficult for us to realize our own responsibility in the larger effects of extinction and climate change. But the consequences of our actions, however distant from us in space or time, matter to God, and ought to matter to us as well.

The Role of the Church and Institutions

In contrast to the other thinkers cited in this paper, Michael S. Northcott does not necessarily base his ethics in the doctrines of the church; instead, Northcott constructs a political theology that reaches back into concrete Judeo-Christian practices that recognize land as theological, created by God.[28] Northcott retrieves the Judeo-Christian concept of covenant, in which there is a clear relation between God and creation based on justice. The Israelites’ possession of the land and its fertility depended on their worship of its owner, God.[29] In the Christian faith, humans are stewards of an earth ultimately owned by God. God creates, and God redeems; people of God live into this redemption through the egalitarian practices such as the jubilee, the Sabbath, the Eucharist, and the Christian call to love both neighbor and stranger.[30] The church, therefore, has a duty to witness to the nations the importance of restraint and care for the earth.[31]

We need communities such as churches and other institutions to help us link belief and practice in meaningful, fruitful, and ultimately transformative ways. In our present world, beliefs and practices are often severed from each other; we can do Hatha yoga or learn meditation without the contextual spiritual traditions that have historically been associated with them. As such, we have particular difficulty, I think, in figuring out how to live out our values when there are, 1) so many values to choose from, and 2) so many things competing for our attention. Our desires tend to be shaped by media, advertising, and peer groups, often at the subconscious level. Society shapes us, but we must remember that it is also set up by us. Communities can serve as powerful crucibles for social and personal change.

While the role of the church in people’s lives is much less encompassing and influential than in the past, the church can help form people whose faith leads them to care deeply about issues of ecological justice. Given the robust basis for an ecological ethic in the Christian tradition, the church ought to be a leader in environmental practices. Mobilization of the church, however, first requires recognition of the ways that the beliefs professed by a congregation do or do not align with their practices as a congregation. We need to examine our practices more carefully to understand whether the norms of our culture are in line with the individual and communal beliefs we hold. There is also a need, then, for church communities and leaders to engage with science as dealing with what is real: how our lives affect the earth and its processes. For instance, we consider plastics and Styrofoam disposable when they do not biodegrade – per­haps this norm needs to be reexamined and other cups for church coffee hour sought out. We must also recognize that social change can have positive conse­quences but can also alienate or shame those who do not participate.

I recently spent time at a place called L’Abri (‘shelter’ in French), composed of a small Christian community of people who come and go for anywhere from days to years. In my few days there, I took part in the communal effort to sustain the community – spending part of each day cooking lunch, cleaning the house, or doing laundry. While there, I used clothing from their free closet to help me stay warm in the chill of Swiss winter in the Alps. I did not even think twice about wearing the same wool sweater everyday because that community culti­vated social norms of simplicity and sustainability.

Such small, village-like communes are perhaps not practical on a large scale, but may offer inspiration for how institutions can be helpful to us in living ethically. With more powerful resources and purchasing power, institutions can help people be ethical both in the choices they provide and the tools they give us to think about such choices. For example, St. Olaf as an institution creates a space where some of our lifestyle choices become more ethical than they otherwise might be, with energy sourced from a windmill, dormitories that use less heat than individual houses, and cafeteria food that is sometimes locally sourced. The downside of such benefits, however, is that sustainability is some­times chosen by St. Olaf students out of mere convenience rather than actual values for sustainability that would translate into seeking out such a lifestyle beyond our four years at St. Olaf. But such institutions can also play a part in the formation of citizens who are conscious of their environmental footprint and the moral ecology of everyday life.

We Are All Ethicists

Because we make choices everyday that have moral components, we are all ethicists. Most ethical theories fall into one of three categories: character ethics focuses on the individual person and his or her motives and dispositions; deontological ethics are based on rules or duties that a person must follow to be ethical; and teleological ethics have do with goals or consequences as the guide for ethical action. The Christian tradition interpreted here urges us to a teleolog­ical ethic with respect to all creation as well as a character ethic for humans in particular. The Greek word telos means goal, or end. So, we ask: what are peo­ple for? what is the earth for? As we have developed above, humans and all of creation are created to simply be and to flourish in their God-given glory. Jürgen Moltmann lays out a particular telos for creation in his reading of the creation story with rest as the final act of creation. We tend to read that story as though creation ended on the 6th day, but Moltmann proposes that this seventh day of rest, which is for God and for all creation, sets a precedent for our lives. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the weekly Sabbath is a kind of eternity-in-time, a reminder of God allowing all things, not just humans, to rest from their labors. The goal of creation is ultimately this rest, celebration, and peace.

The early church doctor Irenaeus writes: “The glory of God is a human fully alive.”[32] For humans in particular, as creatures endowed with language and reflexivity, character ethics goes hand in hand with a teleological ethic for all creation. In Johnson’s formation of the ecological vocation, she notes: “Christian tradition has always interpreted the good we are called to do for other humans not first and foremost under the rubric of duty but as an expression of love, love of neighbor impelled by the love of God.”[33] Good theology can help us to tend to the earth as a sign of God and as a way of honoring God in all that we do in our involvement with and as part of the natural world. When we learn to act out of humility, love, and prudence, we internalize values and beliefs through practices so that they become habits. Such an ethic cultivates and forms hu­man agency. Character ethics help us mediate between beliefs and practices so that we may live out our values in our way of being in the world. There is hard work to be done in thinking about what practices speak of care and respect for the earth and all its creatures, including other people. The dual meaning of the word practice may help us here; it is both a continual way of doing things and a trying-and-failing-and-trying-again kind of practice. We will not be perfect, but we can strive for better ways of living together that help us all approach a more peaceful, flourishing, and exuberantly alive world as creatures of God, hopeful of resurrection.




1 Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), 245.
2 Ibid., 252.
3 Michael S. Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 1.
4 Ibid., 7.
5 Ibid., 8.
6 Ibid., 53.
7 Ibid., 12.
8 Ibid., 100.
9 Lynn White Jr., The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis (Science, New Series, Vol. 155, No. 3767, pp. 1203-1207. American Association for the Advancement of Science. March 10, 1967), 1205.
10 Johnson, 222.
11 Ibid., 2.
12 Ibid., 134.
13 Ibid., 147.
14 Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, Trans. Margaret Kohl. 1985. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).
15 Sallie McFague, The Body of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 63.
16 Job 38:4
17 Johnson, 150.
18 Ibid., 194.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid., 196.
21 McFague, 168.
22 Johnson, 201.
23 McFague, 165.
24 Johnson, 44.
25 Ibid., 258.
26 Johnson, 259.
27 Ibid., 258.
28 Northcott, 169.
29 Northcott, 59.
30 Ibid., 44.
31 Ibid., 49.
32 Johnson.
33 Johnson, 281.


Nicole Newell is from Clive, IA.

For the Good of All CreationImage: Pastured horizons by Lydia Yamaguchi – The Brown & RISD Cornerstone, Fall 2013.

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