A Sacramental Approach to Environmental Issues

by John Habgood

John Habgood is Archbishop of York of the Anglican Church. Also trained as a chemist, he is the author of numerous articles and several books on relations between religion and science. He is the moderator of the sub-unit on Church and Society of the World Council of Churches, in which context he has contributed considerably to its recent reflections on environmental ethics, AIDS, biotechnology, and nuclear power.

This essay originally appeared as Chapter 4, pp. 46-53, in Charles Birch, William Eaken and Jay B. McDaniel (eds.) Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches in Ecological Theology, published 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


A sacramental approach to material reality, such as found in the sacraments, can give us a deep respect for the environment and its fulfillment of the divine purpose.

For many Christians, participation in the sacraments is a more immediate and more fundamental way of discovering the presence of God than is the reading of abstract theological treatises. Through them, as John Habgood explains, “material reality is shown to be capable of bearing the image of the divine.” In this essay Habgood carries this suggestion much further, showing how a sacramental approach to nature can give us a deep-seated respect for the earth and other living beings, and how it can, at the same time, guide us in developing technologies that help — rather than frustrate — the fulfillment of divine purpose. For those for whom sacramentalism is at the very heart of Christian faith, this essay offers an indispensable resource for seeing the relation between worship and environmentally responsible action.

Orthodox theology makes much of the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm. In the words of Kallistos Ware:

The human person is not only microcosm, the universe in miniature, but also microtheos, God in miniature. Each of us is not simply imago mundi, image of the world, but also image Dei, image of God. Each is a created reflection of the uncreated Deity, a finite expression of God’s infinite self-expression. That is why Gregory of Nazianus states . . . that man is “a second cosmos, a great universe within a little one” (Peacocke, 203).

Such a claim may sound absurdly anthropocentric. Who are we, mere specks in a vast universe, the accidental products of a process that far exceeds us and, even in earthly terms, only one among a myriad of life forms, who are we to dignify ourselves with such a central role in the ordering of things? Yet the inescapable truth remains that all our knowledge of the cosmos is our knowledge, filtered through the medium of our own minds and expressed in terms ultimately derived from our own thoughts and experience. The alternative may be even more arrogant. The quest for completely objective knowledge and the supposition that we can somehow give an account of the universe from some independent nonhuman standpoint fly in the face of the facts. Our perspective is, and always remains, human. To say this is not to deny that we can achieve in some fields of knowledge a high degree of objectivity. Nor is it to deny that the totality of things is much greater and more mysterious than our minds can grasp. There is a proper sense in which knowledge, like prayer, ends in silence. But insofar as our knowledge admits its human limitations, the claim that microcosm and macrocosm are related, and may reflect one another, is not absurd.

The theological basis of the claim rests, as Kallistos Ware makes clear, on the belief that humanity is created in the image of God. If this is true of humanity then it must in some sense extend to the whole cosmos because Christ, the perfect image of God, is also in St. Paul’s thought the agent and fulfillment of creation.

These are high and abstract thoughts, which may seem very distant from the main concerns of this book. I state them without argument as a prologue to some thoughts about sacramental theology, because sacramental theology itself may seem an absurdly narrow route along which to tackle practical questions about the environment. But if small things can reflect large ones, it may not be such a bad route after all. An eleventh-century Chinese administrator is said to have complained about Buddhists: “When they try to understand what is lofty without studying what is lowly, how can they have a proper understanding of what is lofty?”

I have no wish to make exclusive claims for sacramental theology. For some Christians the sacraments form only a small part of their religious experience. For others, among whom I include myself, they lie at the heart of Worship. They hold together in a unique manner the inner relationship with God and the Outer relationship with material reality, reaching out to embrace a universe whose meaning is finally disclosed in Jesus Christ. In the sacraments microcosm and macrocosm meet.

Sacramental theology centers on the perception that items of material reality — water, bread, and wine — can be given a new meaning and status by being brought within the saving action of God in Christ. This is both a revelation and a transformation. The true potential of bread, for instance, Is revealed by its transformation into a means of communication with God. This is beautifully summed up in the ancient offertory prayer:

Blessed be God through whom we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of heaven.

The prayer is a subtle balance between recognizing God’s gift, acknowledging our human role in developing and using it rightly, and accepting its potential as a conveyer of God’s own reality. Bread, at once the most basic and ancient of foods, is also the human product that perhaps more than anything else, made possible the civilized world. This fundamental support of life, says the prayer, will reveal a new level of meaning, made possible and actual by God’s own involvement in material reality through Christ.

Behind the prayer lies a theology of the incarnation and, more immediately, the discourse on the bread of life in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel. Whether the author of the Gospel meant this to be his substitute for an account of the Last Supper need not concern us here. The point is that it is impossible to read it now without seeing the bread as the body of Jesus given for the life of the world in a eucharistic context. But it is significant that it is not confined to a eucharistic context. The bread given by Jesus is not just contrasted with ordinary bread, profoundly important though that is, but with the manna eaten for forty years by the Israelites in the wilderness. In other words even miraculous food, food that had saved a nation from starvation, food that lay at root of its self-understanding as a people saved by God, even this was not to be compared with the bread now promised. The “bread from heaven” is no incidental feature of life with Jesus. Its meaning spreads out to embrace the totality of relationship with him. “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If a man cats of this bread, he will live for ever” (Jn. 6: 51). And it points beyond Jesus himself. “I am” in the sentence “I am the bread of life” picks up and echoes the most profound and mysterious title of God, “I am that I am (Ex. 3:14).

Some of those who have no doubts about the value of the sacraments in their proper liturgical context find themselves uneasy when sacramental theology appears to “take off” in an apparently illegitimate fashion and to claim sacramental significance in everything. The process of widening sacramental horizons has already begun in John 6, which is why I have used it as the basis for my exposition. It fits well with a theology of worship and of the church which interprets them as expressing on a small scale and in an explicit way truths, often hidden, about what God is doing in the whole human drama. To think like this is not to ecclesiasticize everything. In fact, precisely the reverse. Church and sacraments are the making visible of what is already there but might otherwise remain unrecognized.

The essential point is that material reality is shown to be capable of bearing the image of the divine. It rests on the staggering claim that this is what happened in Jesus and what constitutes the truth in the doctrines of the incarnation and of salvation. Thus what happens to water, bread, and wine when they are used as vehicles of God’s grace is no isolated miracle. All matter shares this potential, and specific sacramental actions, which themselves belong within a specific historical, theological, and liturgical context, are the God-given means by which this truth is safeguarded and made known.

They are not the exclusive means, however. Thomas Traherne in Centuries of Meditations, saw the same truth as part of a childlike vision of the world before the distortions and separations of adult consciousness take over:

You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are everyone sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and kings in scepters, you never enjoy the world (Traherne, 29).

At a much lower level of awareness there can be a sense of the goodness. or meaningfulness, or value of the world, which forms part of many people’s basic religious awareness, even if it is only glimpsed in fleeting moments. What such experiences tend to lack, though, is the complex interplay between what God has given and what human beings must do, and the illumination that comes from setting individual experience within a developed and subtle religious tradition.

I contend, therefore, that the sacraments themselves remain one of our best clues as to how we should treat the world aright, and in what follows I sketch out in a preliminary fashion how this might help the environmental debate.

The Recognition Of Potential

What might it mean to live in practice as if anything or everything might become a vehicle of divine grace?

Perhaps it is easier to start by imagining the opposite, a universe in which anything or everything is ripe for exploitation. The essence of such a regime is that human needs and desires are sovereign, and the stuff of the world can be bent to human purposes with no respect paid to what it is in itself or what it might become within the purposes of God. In the sacramental vision the world is seen as created by God, owned by God, and ultimately finding its fulfillment in God.

Paradoxically the practical consequences of these two visions may not always be very different. Rubbish, for instance, may be seen as a resource by the sacramentalist who is concerned not to dismiss anything as mere waste, as well as by the commercially minded entrepreneur who sees that there is money to be made from it. Deep motivation may be one thing, but seeing a problem as an opportunity is not confined to those who share a particular philosophy of life.

Equally, there may be very different motives for wishing to preserve, say, a forest or an animal species. Long-term prudential considerations can provide reasons for holding back even within a general philosophy of exploitation. An attempt to recognize and respect divine potential might take various forms. It might include, for instance, respect for the evolutionary process as the means whereby in practice most of the potential within the living matter of the universe has so far been released. To let a forest be, or to protect a species, is to acknowledge that they still have within them a greater potential for life, growth, and development, and that their being may therefore form part of the larger purposes of God in using evolution as a means of creation.

Alternatively there might be a more direct respect due to them for what they can reveal of God in being themselves. This is a difficult idea to carry through into practical programs. To let everything be, to respect its right to be itself, and to allow it to develop in its own way, would, if carried to extremes, make human life impossible and negate our own creativeness. Forests also have the potential to become fuel or furniture or agricultural land, and some of the greatest human achievements have resulted from seeing a potential in things that was decidedly not a consequence of letting them be.

Human beings have interfered decisively and irreversibly in many kinds of animal breeding, often bringing out latent potentials that have been hugely to our benefit. We now stand on the threshold of wielding far greater genetic powers, with incalculable consequences for the future. This need not be mere exploitation, though with such powers available the dividing line between drawing out potential and arrogantly trying to play God may be a narrow one.

The key religious insight would seem to be that, whether things are let be or whether they are developed by human ingenuity for human purposes, they belong to God and not to ourselves. There is a respect due to them, an awareness of human limitations, a fine balance to be struck between penitence for what we have done to God’s world in the past and hopeful creativeness for the future.

Sacramentally such an attitude would seem appropriate toward inanimate things, at least toward things of a certain complexity, as well as toward living creatures. A flowing stream, a clear sea teeming with life, a mountain landscape, surely deserve respect and care despite the large subjective element that enters into our appreciation of them. They can be treated in specific ways that still further reveal their potential. The great eighteenth-century creator of English landscapes, Capability Brown, earned his nick-name for his skill, not in imposing his will on a recalcitrant nature, but in drawing out its aesthetic capabilities. A sculptor carving a particular stone or lump of wood may describe this work in similar ways; the finished object is somehow seen as being already there in the natural formation of the raw material, waiting only to be revealed. An engineer may see a valley as waiting to be dammed, a chasm as waiting to be bridged, an ugly and unhealthy swamp as potentially a place of beauty and usefulness. Such actions can in their own way become secular sacraments, an enhancement, a liberation of what is already there, a transformation that does not violate a thing’s essential nature.

I fully admit that such a way of speaking creates acute difficulties for those who are more used to seeing the universe as a torrent of change. “Essential natures” do not have much place in evolution. Clearly, by itself the recognition of potential is not enough. But sacramentalism is also about God’s work complementing and giving substance to ours in a world still in process of creation.

The Need for Cooperation

The offertory prayer speaks of bread “which earth had given and human hands have made.” Cooperation with natural processes, working with the grain of nature rather than against it, is now part of the conventional wisdom among conservationalists. Can the sacramental context add anything significant to this already familiar idea?

The eucharist is a complex act of giving and receiving in which the worshipers as well as God are both givers and receivers. At its highest it is a mutual exchange of love. But all this is set within the context of what God has already done. Despite the mutuality, therefore, the key word is response. In the exchange of love “we love because he first loved us” (I Jn. 4:19). Sacramental action is thus essentially a matter of cooperation rather than co-creation. As human beings we share a role with God in drawing out the divine potential of the world, but only because God has already himself taken the decisive steps.

The theme of cooperation receives further emphasis in the communion, which forms the climax of the whole. There can be no true giving and receiving with God unless others form a part of it. As those who are themselves loved by God, worshipers caught up in this action are commanded and enabled to love their fellow human beings. And this communion with others spreads still further to embrace “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” The microcosm of love and mutuality in response to the love of God experienced by those engaged in sacramental worship ultimately has to include the macrocosm.

But how far should this mutuality spread? Should it for instance include battery hens? There is an evolutionary case for including battery hens in some kind of relationship with human beings as very distant cousins, and this common membership of the community of life constitutes some kind of moral claim, albeit not a very strong one. If the sense of community goes further than this, if it is possible to hold that at a very rudimentary level there can and should be a cooperative relationship between human beings and hens, the moral claim is strengthened. If, to put the point more strongly, God gives hens a being of their own and values them prior to their usefulness as a cheap source of food, then the hen’s point of view as a partner in this larger communion begins to assume some importance.

Admittedly it is not easy to know what a hen’s point of view is, but in the case of battery hens there would seem to be a fairly simple test. In a battery the human element in the relationship with hens so dominates the conditions of life that the possibility of co-operation virtually disappears altogether. The hen is reduced as far as possible to machine-like operation.

Animal husbandry at its best has always contained an element of cooperation.

Even when the relationship ends in death it can be marked by respect for the life taken. The rituals surrounding animal sacrifice in cultures where sacrifice was the almost inevitable preliminary to eating meat witness to the seriousness of taking life, unpleasant though some of the rituals were. Here again the theme of communion with the life sacrificed can perhaps help modern Westernized consciousness develop a different feel for the products of industrialized scientific agriculture. Organic farming, for instance, may not fulfill the quasi-scientific claims for it, but may have moral and spiritual benefits for societies that see the need to develop a more sensitive relationship with the natural world.

The limits of cooperation become all too evident, however, when there is a mosquito in the bedroom. Letting things be themselves, discerning their point of view, looking for the divine potentiality in what is lowly, cannot become a recipe for the passive acceptance of whatever befalls us. Our human place in God’s purposes is to cooperate with him in the process of creative change. Sacramental thinking points to a world which has to be redeemed before it can truly reveal the face of God. There is an inescapable element of struggle, discrimination, suffering, and tragedy in the process, and any theological approach to ecological issues that belittles or ignores these is hopelessly unrealistic. Hence, my third and final heading.

Transformation by Redemption

The sacraments are sacraments of Christ’s death and resurrection. Suffering and the transformation of suffering belong to their very essence. This is plain from the New Testament account of their origins.

Sacramental theology has no excuse, therefore, for underrating the extent to which the divine potential of the world is denied, frustrated, distorted, defaced, and ignored. Nor need it shrink from accepting that the very means of creation through evolution entails conflict and suffering. Sacramental awareness is not at all the same as sentimentality. The perceptions of divine glory in a world capable of bearing God’s image have to be matched by the belief that God bears the weight and suffering of his own creation on the cross.

All this is basic Christianity. To interpret the cross in the light of the sacraments can help to strengthen the bridge between the redemption of human sin and suffering and the redemption of the rest of creation. St. Paul’s language about creation “groaning and travailing” (Rom 8:22) and “waiting for the redemption of the sons of God” (Rom 8:23) is another way of expressing the same link.

To put it in sacramental terms has an advantage in that it can suggest a means by which the link is actually operative. The sacraments entail human cooperation with divine initiative, a cooperation which is essentially priestly. This is so whether we think in terms of the priesthood of all believers or the representative priesthood of individuals within the body of the church. The point is that there is a human role whereby, under the grace of God and in the midst of an ambivalent and partially evil world, ordinary things can be offered, consecrated, broken, and transformed as a means of anticipating heaven on earth. The priestly role of all human beings toward the world of nature entails a similar offering through prayer and through the recognition that all belongs to God already, a similar transformation by the release of new potential and by the discovery that even in the world of nature there can be glimpses of heaven on earth.

Implicit in this priestly role is the dual character of human life as belonging to the world of nature yet transcending it. The priest is a mediator, and our common human priesthood as cooperators with God in his creation entails coming to terms both with our createdness and with our God-relatedness. There are other ways of expressing this within Christian theology. The description of human beings as both “beasts and angels” is perhaps the most famous. But the link between sacramental theology and priesthood makes the idea of mediation particularly apposite.

As ourselves part of the process that has to be offered and transformed there is no room for arrogance or for the exploitative mentality which assumes that the created world is ours. But as those who also stand on the godward side of the process, and who dare to describe ourselves as “made in the image of God,” we also have a responsibility not simply to accept the world as it is but see and pursue its possibilities for revealing more fully the glory of God. All our environmental thinking has to take place between these two poles. And the value of a sacramental approach to it lies in the richness and diversity of images, rooted in common Christian experience, such a theology can provide.


Works Cited

Peacocke, A., and G. Gillett. Persons and Personality. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

Traherne, Thomas. Centuries of Meditations. I. New York: Harper and Row, 1960.