Theology and Ecology

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is

The following paper was written in 1990. Used by permission of the author.


The seriousness of the ecological crisis creates major new theological challenges. Dr. Cobb summarizes the features of the inherited theology that block attention to what is going on in the natural environment, then suggests how these obstacles can be removed.  Finally he inquires into whether Christianity not only can cease to be an obstacle to the needed response but also can become a positive contributor.

            I awoke to the importance of the environmental crisis in the summer of 1969.  One of my sons pushed me to read Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb.  For the first time I saw the interconnection between the growth of population, dominant economic practices, the exhaustion of resources, and pollution.  Although even then I recognized that there were unrealistically alarmist elements in Ehrlich's book, it was clear to me that I could not continue to think and act as if the basic patterns of our global life were tolerable.  I became an alarmist myself.

            Once my eyes were opened, I asked myself why I had been so blind so long.  I had not been indifferent to all of these matters, of course.  No one could live in southern California without concern about smog, for example.  But it was possible to think of this as an isolated problem to be solved by technical fixes.  I had hoped that the smog could be blown out to sea, supposing that, when that happened, it ceased to be a problem.  When I confronted other problems, about the use of water, for example, I had thought of them as the province of my colleagues in ethics.  It had not previously occurred to me that theology was involved.

            As my perception changed, I came to see that theological issues were important.  The theology in which I had been immersed was a main reason for my blindness to the encompassing reality.  It had directed my attention away from the range of issues that now struck me as crucial for human survival.  Even now it inhibited an adequate response on my part.

            The remainder of this paper will be divided into three parts.  The first will summarize the features of the inherited theology that block attention to what is going on in the natural environment.  The second will consider how this obstacle can be removed.  And the third will inquire whether Christianity not only can cease to be an obstacle to the needed response but also can become a positive contributor.


            The primary focus of most Christian theology has been on personal salvation.  Historically that has led to an emphasis on such topics as justification, sanctification, election, faith and works, sacraments, and so forth.  The focus was on what happened after death, with the last judgment, heaven, and hell.

            More recently, beginning with Schleiermacher, there has been a lessening of emphasis on rewards and punishments after death.  There has been heightened emphasis on the quality of life here and now.  Religious experience and psychology have come to the fore.  In the United States most preaching, even in quite conservative churches, has a primarily psychological character.

            With respect to attention to the nonhuman world, it makes little difference whether our preoccupation is with rewards and punishments after death or with our subjective experience here and now.  To focus attention in either of these ways means lack of attention to other parts of creation.  These appear only as the stage on which the human drama is enacted.

            Fortunately, there has been a secondary concern throughout Christian history with the social-historical situation.  As long as the Bible is read, some attention to this cannot be avoided, since much more of the Bible deals with public events than with the inner condition of individuals.  At times, as in the social gospel and in much of liberation theology, the salvation of society is given primary importance.

            This widening of horizons, however, has done little to introduce care for the earth.  History has been depicted as in contrast to nature.  Nature is treated as repetitive and objective, whereas meaning is to be found only in historical events and their effects on subsequent human life.  Concern for nature is associated with the Canaanite religion against which the worship of Yahweh is defined.  Where the wonder of the natural world is celebrated in the Bible itself, this is dismissed as the influence of Baal worship or as the theologically inferior wisdom tradition.

            In more modern terms, those who are committed to social justice have looked askance at those who are concerned to preserve the natural world.  They have often accused environmentalists of insensitivity to the needs of the poor and oppressed and seen the concerns of the environmental movement as expressing the elitist self-interest of "nature-lovers."  The World Council of Churches stayed away from the Stockholm meeting of the United Nations largely for reasons of this sort.

            Whether the soteriological focus is on individuals or on society, it presupposes dualistic thinking.  In the former case,  the dualism is usually that of soul and body, with the assumption that only human beings have souls.  In the latter case, it is the dualism of history and nature, with the assumption that nature is not historical.

            These theological dualisms are closely related to philosophical ones.  Indeed, the former derives much more from Greek philosophy than from the Bible.  And the latter is influenced by modern idealism.


            The dualism emerging from anthropocentric views of salvation was further rigidified in the development of modern philosophy.  Descartes was working with the results of Christian thinking, but his dualism went beyond any developed in the Middle Ages.  For him, the human mind is one metaphysical type of substance.  The remainder of the created world is constituted of material substance.  The characteristics of these two types of substances are radically different.  The mystery is that they can iteract at all.  This dualism replaced the great chain of being that depicted reality in terms of degrees of being and value as the dominant vision of the modern world.  Modern theology is far more dualistic than Medieval or Patristic theology, and these are more dualistic than the Bible. 

            The most influential philosopher since Descartes was Kant.  He has been especially important for Protestant theology.  Kant inherited a philosophical problematic that seemed to dissolve the human subject into impressions or threatened to see us as mere parts of the world machine.  He responded by affirming the human subject as active in the creation of its world.  This has been a valuable starting point for subsequent philosophy and theology. 

            But in affirming the creativity of the human subject he denied creativity to everything else.  Although he assigned some noumenal reality to the experienced objects, he viewed them as totally lacking in any specificity or character.  Even their spatial and temporal nature are a function of human creativity.  Thus he denied to the material substances of Descartes any significant function. The only world in which we can take any interest is the one brought into being by ourselves.  The result is that dualism gives way to a monism in which the integrity of nonhuman creatures is denied or disappears from view altogether.  It is hardly surprising that theology under the influence of Kant has turned our attention away from the crisis in the biosphere.

            Even theologians who have not internalized these philosophical ideas have, for the most part, directed their attention only to the human sphere.  An additional reason for this has been the outcome of the struggle between theology and science.  As modern science advanced, it presented theories differing from traditional ones derived from the Bible and from the Greeks.  Theologians schooled in these older traditions often defended them against the new scientists.  With some consistency, theologians were forced to give ground when confronted by cumulative scientific evidence.

            The greatest battle in the English-speaking world, where the hegemony of Kant was less well established, was over evolution.  Both the Bible and traditional science assumed that species came into existence separately.  This was especially to be affirmed of the human species.  Hence, the evidence that human beings evolved from subhuman forms of animal life was strongly resisted.  It seemed to undercut human dignity.

            Nevertheless, the cumulative weight of evidence compelled most Christians to acknowledge their earlier error.  How were they to handle this.  The most widely adopted strategy was to distinguish the range of questions dealt with by theology from those treated by science.  For example, it could be said that theology deals with meanings while science deals only with facts.  Since the meanings are no longer to be shaped by the facts, there is a loss of theological interest in the scientific facts.  An individual theologian may have a personal penchant for the study of science, but the information gained is not expected to affect theology.

            This separation of theology from science is only part of the compartmentalization of knowledge and research that dominates the world of scholarship and teaching today.  There is, first of all, the great division between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften, that is, the natural sciences and the humanities.  Then, within each, individual academic disciplines emerge with their distinct methods and subject matters.  They may or may not depend on one another or contribute significantly to one another.  Hence, as theology models itself on the other academic disciplines, it is thoroughly insulated from information about what is happening to the natural world.

            The realization of how effective this organization of knowledge has become was particularly painful to me when I was forced to recognize how I had ignored much of what is most important.  It was even more painful, because the specific theological tradition, what has come to be called process theology, in which I had been nurtured had protested against the dualisms I have described.  In principle, it had continued to believe that knowledge of the natural world was important.  To some extent it stayed in touch with developments in scientific theory.  Nevertheless, because it was located within an academic department, it did little more than argue with others in that department against dualism and in favor of the relevance of scientific knowledge.  It did not, at least in my case, open itself to the practical importance of what one group of scientists were teaching us about what is actually going on in the natural world.

            As I reexamined the process tradition with questions that were new to me, I discovered that not all had been as blind as I.  Interest in environmental questions was present in Whitehead, quite strong in Hartshorne, and visible in Bernard Meland.  Because of my own centering in soteriological questions, and my having allowed the broader theological tradition to define soteriology for me in purely anthropological terms, I had ignored aspects of what my own teachers had said.

            I would not emphasize the details of my personal experience if I thought them unusual.  I emphasize them because I believe that in these respects I was typical of my generation of theologians.  At just the point when environmental issues were becoming most critical, our training had blinded us to the possibility of their theological relevance.


            One of my early readings, after my eyes were opened, was the ground-breaking essay of Lynn White, Jr., "The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis."  In this essay he showed how Christian anthropocentrism had allowed for a ruthless exploitation of nature that supported Western science and technology.  Whereas earlier Christians might have taken pride in his demonstration of this support, in the new context, Christians convinced by White saw the need of repentance, that is, of reformulating theology in a non-anthropocentric way.  The question for us was, then, whether this invovled a break with the Bible itself.

            My first reaction was that, indeed, the overcoming of theological anthropocentrism required a very sharp break with traditional Christianity including its Biblical grounding.  However, I came gradually to the conclusion that I had exaggerated.  My impression that the Bible is massively anthropocentric was due more to a Biblical scholarship influenced by Kant than to the Biblical teaching itself.  I suggest that four steps can be taken that renew our positive relations to our Hebrew roots.

            First, we can recover the dominant Biblical view of the relation of creation and redemption.  Whereas I had been taught to see the covenant as central and creation as a peripheral and dispensable extension from covenantal thinking, it is at least equally justified to see that the ancient Jews located the covenant within creation. 

            As the canon comes down to us, the story begins with creation.  God sees that what God has created is good, not only because it is useful to human beings, but quite apart from that.  Again, in the story of Noah, God shows concern for the preservation of species because this is important in its own right, not because all of them are useful to human beings.  It is within this context that God establishes a covenant with Noah that is also a covenant with animals.  The subsequent covenants with Abraham and with Moses do not set all this aside or render it peripheral.

            Modern theology has separated creation and redemption far too drastically.  As creation goes awry, God acts in new creation.  This new creation is redemptive.  And all of God's redemptive work is at the same time creative.  Often the focus of attention is only on the human, but often it is not.  Even in Paul, who is certainly one of the more anthropocentric Biblical writers, redemption involves the whole of the created order.

            A second feature of ancient Jewish thought and life with which we need to wrestle anew is the love of the land.  There can ;be no doubty of Israel's concern for the land, whether in ancient or modern times.  Possession of the land and the health of the land are of central importance.

            Christianity lost this connection with the land largely because of its otherworldliness.  It depicted Christians as pilgrims in an alien land.  Our true home was thought to be in heaven.  This removed the passionate love of the land from Christianity, or at least from expression in theology. 

            I do not advocate simply recovering our Jewish heritage on this point.  We can see its ambiguity both in ancient and modern times, as the possession of a particular land leads to theologically-supported dispossessing of others, often with great suffering.  But the Jewish sense that faithfulness to God is bound up with the way we treat the land is a truth that we badly need to relearn.

            Third, the Hebrew scriptures provide us with a healthy perspective on both the continuity of human beings with other creatures and the element of discontinuity.  The great division in these scriptures is not between mind and matter or human beings and all other entities.  It is between the Creator and the creature.  We are fellow creatures with other animals and even with nonliving things.  They, like us, praise the Creator and testify to God's goodness.  We, like them, are made of the dust of the earth and return thereto.  The idea that we are metaphysically different from them, or that the course of our lives can be separated from theirs, gets no support here.

            On the other hand, if we look at the Jewish scriptures in light of some of the more extreme expressions coming from deep ecologists and others, we do find an emphasis on discontinuity as well.  Human beings differ from other creatures in that we are made in the image of God.  Just what that means can be debated endlessly, but it certainly gives us a responsibility for the rest of the creation that no other creature has.

            Many of us have been appalled by the Biblical granting of dominion to human beings in light of how Christians have exercised this.  But the truth is that we do exercise dominion.  The survival of millions of other species depends on what policies we now adopt.  At such a time, to deny that we have dominion is foolish and likely to lead to irresponsibility. 


            What is now needed is to understand dominion in the full Biblical sense.  It is the task of the ruler to serve the ruled following the divine model.  God does not exploit us for selfish divine purposes.  If we play a godlike role in relation to other species, this cannot be expressed in selfish exploitation.  Discontinuity does not mean arrogant indifference to others.  It means responsible servanthood.

            Finally, the separation of science from theology is a modern heresy that has no justification in the scriptures.  We can understand and sympathize with those who sought to protect faith from scientific knowledge in this way.  Perhaps at some times and places no better solution was available.  But today we need to repent and to return to the holistic vision of the Bible.

            This certainly cannot mean that we repristinate the Biblical cosmology.  It was based on the best knowledge of that time.  We must base ours on the best knowledge of our time.  We are fortunate that the cutting edge of scientific thought has lost its modern hostility to religious faith.  In many ways it has become religious. 

            This does not solve the Christian's problem of attaining an integrated world view, for the religion that arises in contemporary science may be in tension with aspects of Christian belief.  But we have passed the point of wholesale rejection that encouraged the retreat into a protected discipline.  We are developing new stories of how our world came into being and how it now functions that have both scientific and theological warrant.  They are also stories that sensitize us to the evil of what we are doing to the planet.


            Thus far I have primarily showed how Christians can remove the barriers that have blocked their participation in a healthy response to the destruction of the basis for continued life on the planet.  Once those obstacles are removed, we can expect that Christian energies will flow much more fully and naturally into support of needed change.  What can we hope for as the church involves itself in these matters?

            First, we can rejoice if the church simply brings new recruits to the work.  There is so much to be done that any increase in the number of workers is significant.  To whatever extent the church also provides institutional support, the effectiveness of these new recruits will be multiplied.

     But second, as the deeper motivation of Christian faith comes into play, it can contribute much more.  Once it becomes clear that the call to save and renew the earth does not come only from human self-interest or personal preference, that instead it is the call of God, a new level of commitment and loyalty arises.  When the going is very difficult, this kind of motivation often makes the difference. 

            There is increasing realization on the part of persons who have not been interested in the church in the past that the church has an important role to play.  Carl Sagan has shifted from a rather flippant dismissal of Christianity to eagerness to work with churches.  Max Oelschlaeger has come to the conclusion that only as the church brings its teaching to bear can the needed changes take place.

            Third, is it also possible that the church can help the environmental movement with some of its problems?  I think it is.  One of the greatest problems for environmentalists is the tendency to juxtapose them to those who identify with the poor and the oppressed.  With the best will in the world, environmentalists whose personal experience is middle class have difficulty in understanding those who have not had the same benefits.  The environmental movement contains too few members of the oppressed classes for its internal discussions to be adequately sensitized.


            This has long been a problem for the church as well.  Too much of its leadership has been European and middle class.  But the church contains people of all ethnic groups and classes.  And in recent decades it has worked hard, and with some success, to give voice to many of these groups.  An ecumenical church meeting such as the World Council has to come to its conclusions through hearing and integrating many diverse voices.  As it continues to advance in its reflection and activity with regard to environmental issues, its results will not confront the poor as something purely external, for its policies are shaped with the involvement of their spokespersons.

            That church policies will be sensitive to justice issues is highly probable.  Indeed, for the church these concerns have long been primary.  The problem has been how to integrate environmental issues into this pattern of concern for justice.  To whatever extent the church succeeds in this undertaking, and its success has already been considerable, it can assist others to find a way forward.

            Fourth, the integration of justice and ecology, often called "eco-justice" by Christians, moves toward another integration, that of economics and ecology.  Thus far, the fragmentation of the secular world has kept these apart.  Most of the solutions proposed for economic problems are environmentally damaging, and most of the solutions for environmental problems are felt to interfere with the desired growth of the economy.  Viewing matters from inside either of these two communities of discourse, it is hard to see a way beyond this impasse.

            Christians have certainly not consistently escaped this dilemma.  Nevertheless, viewing matters from a Christian perspective allows in principle, and to some extent in fact, for a wider context in which the relations of economics and ecology can be rethought.  This has been a special concern of mine, and I believe that in the book I wrote with Herman Daly, some progress is made.

            Fifth, the rethinking required is to a large extent the renewal of traditional Christian teaching about society.  Three traditional principles are relevant.  These are (1) the primacy of the poor, (2) subsidiarity, and (3) suspicion of usury.

            (1)  Liberation theology has renewed ancient Christian teaching in its emphasis on "the preferential option for the poor."  This means that in judging among alternative social and economic policies, a primary consideration must be their effect on the poor.  This runs counter to orthodox neo-liberal teaching which holds that any economic policy is good if it makes for overall economic growth. 

            (2)  The principle of subsidiarity teaches that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level.  That is, as much power as possible should be vested in smaller communities.  Larger societies should make decisions only in cases where the decision cannot be made at the local leve.  The implication is that the social and economic orders should be highly decentralized so as to make possible political decentralization as well.

            (3)  Throughout the modern period we have been taught that the Jewish and Christian opposition to usury was simply naive.  Certainly, people always had to find ways to get around it, and many of the ways were highly questionable.  For example, the fact that Christians could not take interest from Christians, meant that Christians loaned very little money.  This opened a role for Jews to become money-lenders.  This, in turn, added to Christian hostility to Jews and contributed to the caricature of the Jew as gouging money from poor Christians.  I do not recommend a return to the prohibition of usury between Christians.

            But the suspicion of money-making-money is not ill-founded.  It contributes to the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.  In recent times it has shifted power further and further away from productive activities and accented speculation as the road to gain.  There is urgent need of a reversal of these trends that returns to a primary focus on earning money through activities that contribute to the social good.

            Sixth, the church has added new principles in recent decades.  At the World Council of Churches Assembly in Nairobi (1975), the church added "sustainability" to its image of the just and participatory society to which it is committed.  Although there are important social dimensions to sustainability, the point was to accent the need for human beings to achieve a sustainable relationship to their environment.  At Vancouver, in 1982, the phrase, "the integrity of creation,"  was coined to express the reality to which Christians should adjust their thought and practice.  Since 1982 a great deal of work has been devoted to articulating what this phrase means.

            One element in its meaning is that the whole creation does not exist just for human purposes.  It has its own integrity.  This recovers the message of the first chapter of Genesis to the effect that God saw that the creation was good before and apart from the emergence of human beings.

            This also provides a basis for overcoming the tensions between those who think in terms of ecosystems and those who are concerned for individual animals and their rights.  Both are correct.  The health of eco-systems is essential to our survival, and their integrity must be respected both for human self-interest and because of the intrinsic value of the nonhuman world.  This integrity or intrinsic value is located in each individual creature as well.  Its suffering or enjoyment has its own immediate importance.

            The weighing of the respective values is much easier if we think of God as including the whole of things within the divine life.  We can then ask how much each creature individually contributes to the joy and suffering of God.  We can also ask how much each ecosystem contributes through all the creatures whose wellbeing it makes possible.  Finally, we can imagine how the diversity of creatures and ecosystems adds to the aesthetic richness of the encompassing divine experience.

            I am not suggesting that the church approach those who responded more quickly to the environmental crisis in a triumphalistic spirit.  We Christians have confessions to make.  We have dragged our feet when others pioneered.  Even now we slip back repeatedly into anthropocentric patterns and ignore the consequences of what we do and say for the larger world.

            But because the task of redirecting human energies on this planet is so vast, and because we do have distinctive contributions, it is past time for us to join forces enthusiastically, and with firm commitment, with those who have given the leadership thus far.  It is urgent that we finish the work of dealing with those ideas and teachings that have delayed our participation.  Then, and only then, can we contribute creatively to the new vision apart from which the living system on this planet will continue to decay.