The Biblical Vision of the Ecological Crisis

by Rosemary Ruether

Rosemary Radford Ruether, a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis, is Georgia Harkness Professor of Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston. One of the foremost feminist theologians of the time, she was trained in church history arid historical theology and has published widely on feminism, the Christian roots of anti-Semitism, and the situation of the Palestinians.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 22, 1978, pp. 1129-1132. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The biblical understanding of nature inheres in a human ethical vision, a vision of ecojustice, in which the enmity or harmony of nature with humanity is part of the human historical drama of good and evil.

Two decades ago it was common to speak of the need for economic "development" among "backward" nations. The assumption behind this language was that Western-style industrialization was the model of progress, and that all nations could be judged by how far they had come along on that road. Poor nations were poor because they were at some retarded stage of this evolutionary road of development. They needed economic assistance from more "developed" nations to help them "take off" faster.

Movements of Dissent

In the mid-’60s there were two major movements of dissent from this model of "developmentalism." One of them occurred primarily among social thinkers in the Third World, especially Latin America, who began to reject the idea of development for that of liberation. They contended that poor countries were poor not because they were "undeveloped," but because they were misdeveloped. They were the underside of a process in which, for five centuries, Western colonizing countries had stripped the colonized countries of their wealth, using cheap or slave labor, in order to build up the wealth which now underlies Western capitalism. One could not overcome this pattern of misdevelopment by a method of "assistance" that merely continues and deepens the pattern of pillage and dependency which created the poverty in the first place.

A few years after this critique of development from a Third World standpoint, a second dissenting movement appeared, primarily among social thinkers in advanced industrial countries. This movement focused on the issue of modern industrialized societies’ ecological disharmony with the carrying capacities of the natural environment. It dealt with such issues as air, water and soil pollution the increasing depletion of finite resources, including minerals and fossil fuels; and the population explosion.

This dissent found dramatic expression in the Club of Rome’s report on Limits to Growth, which demonstrated that indefinite expansion of Western-style industrialization was, in fact, impossible. This system, dependent on a small affluent minority using a disproportionate share of the World’s natural resources, was fast depleting the base upon which it rested: nonrenewable resources. To expand this type of industrialization would simply accelerate the impending debacle; instead, we must stop developing and try to stabilize the economic system and population where they are.

These two critiques of development -- the third World liberation perspective and the First World ecological perspective -- soon appeared to be in considerable conflict with each other. The liberation viewpoint stressed pulling control over the natural resources of poor countries out from under Western power so that the developmental process could continue under autonomous, socialist political systems. The First World ecological viewpoint often sounded, whether consciously or not, as though it were delivering bad news to the hopes of poor countries. Stabilizing the world as it is seemed to suggest stabilizing its unjust relationships. The First World, having developed advanced industry at the expense of the labor and resources of the Third World, was now saying: "Sorry, the goodies have just run out. There’s not enough left for you to embark on the same path." Population alarmists sounded as though Third World populations were to be the primary "targets" for reduction. Social justice and the ecological balance of humanity with the environment were in conflict. If one chose ecology, it was necessary to give up the dream of more equal distribution of goods.

Religious Responses

In the late ‘60s there rose a spate of what might be called theological or religious responses to the ecological crisis, again primarily in advanced industrial countries; Two major tendencies predominated among such writers. One trend, represented by books, such as Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends, saw the ecological crisis in terms of the entire Western Judeo-Christian reality principle. Tracing the roots of this false reality principle to the Hebrew Bible itself, Roszak, among others, considered the heart of the ecological crisis to be the biblical injunction to conquer and subdue the earth and have dominion over it. The earth and its nonhuman inhabitants are regarded as possessions or property given to "man" for "his" possession. "Man" exempts "himself" (and I use the male generic advisedly) from the community of nature, setting himself above and outside it somewhat as God "himself" is seen as sovereign over it. Humanity is God’s agent in this process of reducing the autonomy of nature and subjugating it to the dominion of God and God’s representative, man.

For Roszak and others, this conquest-and-dominion approach turned nature into a subjugated object and denied divine presence in it. Humanity could no longer stand in rapt contemplation before nature or enter into worshipful relations with it. A sense of ecstatic kinship between humanity and nature was destroyed. The divinities were driven out, and the rape of the earth began. In order to reverse the ecological crisis, therefore, we must go back to the root error of consciousness from which it derives. We must recover the religions of ecstatic kinship in nature that preceded and were destroyed by biblical religion. We must reimmerse God and humanity in nature, so that we can once again interact with nature as our spiritual kin, rather than as an enemy to be conquered or an object to be dominated. Only when we recover ancient animism’s I-Thou relationship with nature, rather than the I-It relation of Western religion, can we recover the root principle of harmony with nature that was destroyed by biblical religion and its secular stepchildren.

This neoanimist approach to the ecological crisis was persuasive, evoking themes of Western reaction to industrialism and technological rationality that began at least as far back as the romanticism of the early 19th century. But many voices quickly spoke up in defense of biblical faith. A variety of writers took exception to romantic neoanimism as the answer, contending that biblical faith in relation to nature had been misunderstood. Most of the writers in this camp tended to come up with the "stewardship" model. Biblical faith does not mandate the exploitation of the earth, but rather commands us to be good stewards, conserving earth’s goods for generations yet to come. In general, these writers did implicitly concede Roszak’s point that biblical faith rejects any mystical or animist interaction with nature. Nature must be regarded as an object, not as a subject. It is our possession, but we must possess it in a thrifty rather than a profligate way.

Economic Considerations

One problem with both of these Western religious responses to the ecological crisis; there was very little recognition that the crisis took place within a particular economic system. The critique of the Third World liberationists was not accorded much attention or built into these responses; The ecological crisis was regarded primarily as a crisis between "man" and "nature," rather than as a crisis resulting from the way in which a particular exploitative relationship between classes, races and nations used natural resources.

The Protestant "stewardship" approach suggested a conservationist model of ecology. We should conserve resources, but without much acknowledgment that they had been unjustly used within the system that was being conserved. The countercultural approach, on the other hand, did tend to be critical of Western industrialism, but in a romantic, primitivist way. It idealized agricultural and handicraft economies but had little message for the victims of poverty who had already been displaced from that world of the preindustrial village. Thus it has little to say to the concerns of Third World economic justice, except to suggest that the inroads of Western industrialism should be resisted by turning back the clock.

Is there a third approach that has been overlooked by both the nature mystics and the puritan conservationists? Both of these views seem to me inadequate to provide a vision of the true character of the crisis and its solution. We cannot return to the Eden of the preindustrial village. However much those societies may possess elements of wisdom, these elements must be recovered by building a new society that also incorporates modern technological development. The countercultural approach never suggests ways of grappling with and changing the existing system. Its message remains at the level of dropping out into the preindustrial farm -- an option which, ironically, usually depends on having an independent income!

The stewardship approach, with its mandate of thrift within the present system, rather than a recognition of that system’s injustice, lacks a vision of a new and different economic order. Both the romantic and the conservationist approaches never deal with the question of ecojustice; namely, the reordering of access to and use of natural resources within a just economy. How can ecological harmony become part of a system of economic justice?

Misinterpretations of Scripture

To find a theology and/or spirituality of ecojustice, I would suggest that, in fact, our best foundation lies precisely in the Hebrew Bible -- that same biblical vision which, anachronistically, the romantics have scapegoated as the problem and which the conservationists have interpreted too narrowly and unperceptively. Isaiah 24 offers one of the most eloquent statements of this biblical vision that is found particularly in the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. The puritan conservationists have too readily accepted a 19th century theology that sets history against nature -- a theology which is basically western European rather than biblical. The biblical vision is far more "animistic" than they have been willing to concede. In Scripture, nature itself operates as a powerful medium of God’s presence or absence. Hills leap for joy and rivers clap their hands in God’s presence. Or, conversely, nature grows hostile and barren as a medium of divine wrath.

The romantics, on the other hand, have blamed Scripture for styles of thought about nature that developed in quite different circles. The concept of nature as evil and alien to humanity began basically in late apocalyptic and gnostic thought in the Christian era. The divine was driven out of nature not to turn nature into a technological instrument, but rather to make it the habitation of the devil; the religious "man" should shun it and flee from it in order to save "his" soul for a higher spiritual realm outside of and against the body and the visible, created world. Christianity and certainly Judaism objected to this concept as a denial of the goodness of God’s creation, though Christianity became highly infected by this negative view of nature throughout its first few centuries, and that influence continued to be felt until well into the 17th century.

The new naturalism and science of the 17th century initially had the effect of restoring the vision of nature as good, orderly and benign -- the arena of the manifestation of God’s divine reason, rather than of the devil’s malice. But this Deist view of nature (as the manifestation of divine reason) was soon replaced by a Cartesian world view that set human reason outside and above nature. It is this technological approach -- treating nature as an object to be reduced to human control -- that is the heart of modern exploitation, but it does not properly correspond to any of the earlier religious visions of nature. Any recovery of an appropriate religious vision, moreover, must be one that does not merely ignore these subsequent developments, but that allows us to review and critique where we have gone wrong in our relationship to God’s good gift of the earth. In my opinion, it is precisely the vision of the Hebrew prophets that provides at least the germ of that critical and prophetic vision.

A Covenantal Vision

The prophetic vision neither treats nature in a romantic way nor reduces it to a mere object of human use. Rather, it recognizes that human interaction with nature has made nature itself historical. In relation to humanity, nature no longer exists "naturally," for it has become part of the human social drama, interacting with humankind as a vehicle of historical judgment and a sign of historical hope. Humanity as a part of creation is not outside of nature but within it. But this is the case because nature itself is part of the covenant between God and creation. By this covenantal view, nature’s responses to human use or abuse become an ethical sign. The erosion of the soil in areas that have been abused for their mineral wealth, the pollution of the air where poor people live, are not just facts of nature; what we have is an ethical judgement on the exploitation of natural resources by the rich at the expense of the poor. It is no accident that nature is most devastated where poor people live.

When human beings break their covenant with society by exploiting the labor of the worker and refusing to do anything about the social costs of production -- i.e., poisoned air and waters -- the covenant of creation is violated. Poverty, social oppression, war and violence in society, and the polluted, barren, hostile face of nature -- both express this violation of the covenant. The two are profoundly linked together in the biblical vision as parts of one covenant, so that, more and more, the disasters of nature become less a purely natural fact and increasingly become a social fact. The prophetic text of Isaiah 24 vividly portrays this link between social and natural hostility in the broken order of creation:

Behold the Lord will lay waste the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. . . .

The earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled; . . . The earth mourns and withers, the world languishes and withers; . . .

The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes. broken the everlasting covenant.

Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;

The city of chaos is broken down, every house is shut up so that none can enter. . . .

Desolation is left in the city, the gates are battered into ruins. [Isa. 24:1, 3, 4-5, 10, 12]

But this tale of desolation in society and nature is not the end of the prophetic vision. When humanity mends its relation to God, the result must be

But this tale of desolation in society and nature is not the end of the prophetic vision, When humanity mends its relation to God, the result must be expressed not in contemplative flight from earth but rather in the rectifying of the covenant of creation. The restoration of just relations between peoples restores peace to society and, at the same time, heals nature’s enmity. Just, peaceful societies in which people are not exploited also create, peaceful, harmonious and beautiful natural environments. This outcome is the striking dimension of the biblical vision. The Peaceable Kingdom is one where nature experiences the loss of hostility between animal and animal, and between human and animal. The wolf dwells with the lamb, the leopard lies down with the kid, and the little child shall lead them.

They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord. . . . (Is. 11:9].

The biblical dream grows as lush as a fertility religion in its description of the flowering of nature in the reconciled kingdom of God’s Shalom.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

Like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,

and rejoice with joy and singing. [Isa. 35:1-2]

"The tree, bears its fruit, the fig trees and vine give

their full yield.

Rejoice in the Lord, for he has given early rain . . .

The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats

shall overflow with wine and oil." [Joel 2:22-24]

"Behold the days are coming." says the Lord, "when the plowman will overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it." [Amos 9:13]

In the biblical view, the raping of nature and the exploitation of people in society are profoundly understood as part of one reality, creating disaster in both. We look not to the past but to a new future, brought about by social repentance and conversion to divine commandments, so that the covenant of creation can be rectified and God’s Shalom brought to nature and society. Just as the fact of nature and society grows hostile through injustice, so it will be restored to harmony through righteousness. The biblical understanding of nature, therefore, inheres in a human ethical vision, a vision of ecojustice, in which the enmity or harmony of nature with humanity is part of the human historical drama of good and evil. This is indeed the sort of ecological theology we need today, not one of either romance or conservationism, but rather an ecological theology of ethical, social seriousness, through which we understand our human responsibility for ecological destruction and its deep links with the struggle to create a just and peaceful social order.