Chapter Six: Sociological Theology or Ecological Theology

Process Theology as Political Theology
by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Chapter Six: Sociological Theology or Ecological Theology

When political theology was launched in the mid-sixties there were questions about the scope of the word political. But the inherent tendency of the term to focus only on the human occasioned no comment. At that time few were raising questions about the other creatures with whom human beings share this planet. When Dorothee Sölle wrote in 1971 of the indivisible salvation of the whole world, she and her readers assumed without reflection that the whole world is the world of human beings.1 But as the seventies progressed and the environmental crisis forced itself on public attention, more and more Christians became troubled about the separation of humanity from the rest of nature. At that point the adequacy of a political theology came under question from a new point of view.

Moltmann quickly recognized the importance of the new range of issues and incorporated them into his theology. The quotation from The Crucified God in Chapter Five shows how fully and profoundly he did so. He presented nature not simply in terms of its appearance and utility to human beings but as having ‘its own rights and equilibria’.2 The passage is in the chapter entitled ‘Ways towards the political liberation of man’, which suggests that Moltmann had no problem extending his already broad use of ‘political’ to include the ecological as well. This may reflect the fact that the category political theology, has not been the major one under which Moltmann has done his work. For him the political is a theme and horizon alongside others in the general context of a theology of the cross and of hope.

For process theologians the ecological horizon is even more important than for Moltmann, and the question arises whether this excludes us from political theology. Metz, the central representative of political theology, seems to resist this enlargement of the horizons. This chapter is primarily a conversation with Metz on this topic. In so far as the inclusion of ecological theology in political theology is a terminological problem, it is not debated. The argument is that the ecological horizon is needed if we truly care about the indivisible salvation of the whole world. The claim, therefore, is that ecological theology is the appropriate fulfillment of the intentions of political theology.

Section I describes the influence of Kant upon Metz and upon his anthropocentric understanding of political theology. With this it contrasts the philosophy of Whitehead and its different implications. In Section II this contrast is further developed at the level of practice. It is argued that the anthropocentric vision has led and continues to lead in self-defeating directions. Section III shows that without altogether ceasing to be anthropocentric sociological theory can become much more sensitive to ecological issues and that ecological theology needs to be informed by sociological understanding. Although in this way the initial oppositions can be extensively reduced, a difference remains.


Metz is not, of course, ignorant of the environmental problems which we face. He acknowledges them once in Faith in History and Society. But he does so primarily in order to insist that they do not justify a shift of horizons from history to nature. He writes,

As soon . . . as the problems of the preservation of the environment, the safeguarding of the sources of raw materials and an enlightened attitude towards the future are taken seriously, it becomes clear that history cannot be supported by a theory of nature, but that, on the contrary, nature must be safeguarded by a reflection about our historical responsibility for nature, so that it is not exploited without restraint. It also becomes apparent how far-reaching the effects are of an understanding that politics are the new name for civilization, since, if we regard it as an essential task to preserve nature as a pre-condition for a rational future, then civilization will justify both its original name and its claim to be able to overcome barbarism. The category of responsibility for one’s own actions, for others and for nature clearly demonstrates that civilization must justify itself in politics. In this way, the species becomes conscious of its own original process of life. This consciousness makes it possible for us to understand the unity of reason and reality as the reconciliation between nature and history.3

There is an obvious truth to Metz’s point. What we need is responsible human action in relation to our environment. But the way Metz makes this point reflects a view that is very different from that of Moltmann and process theology. For Metz the rest of creation can appear only in the horizon of history. It is not a topic of reflection except in its relation to human beings. And in that relation it is immediately taken up into the framework of human activity.

This subsumption of nature under history is not a casual matter. It expresses Metz’s philosophical views as carefully worked out in Christliche Anthropozentrik. In order to understand what Metz means by political theology, and thus the obstacle to a process theologian’s becoming a political theologian in Metz’s sense, we will need to study more carefully the position to which he came in that book.

The transcendental Thomism of Metz’s teachers was dependent on the influence of Kant and on the fresh reading of Thomas which the study of Kant made possible. Kant’s great contribution was to argue that the world as it is in itself is completely unknowable. What we perceive and reflect about are the phenomena, that is, the appearances of the world. Those appearances, which are the only world we have, are structured by human mind. They do not in themselves possess even spatial and temporal character. These are imposed upon them by mind. And although Kant’s own formulations suggest that the occurrence of the phenomena is the result of the interaction of mind with the world of things in themselves, his followers abandoned talk of such a completely unknowable world. In the tradition of German idealism, the world is the human world, that is, mind.

Metz conceived only one fundamental alternative to this anthropocentric position. That is the cosmological view which understands reality in terms of nature, i.e., what is given objectively in human experience. The Greeks understood human beings as part of such a nature.

With these alternatives in mind Metz examined Thomas. He came quickly to the conclusion that Thomas cannot be read as an objective, cosmological thinker. Thomas was aware of human beings as subjects and understood both world and God from the point of view of human subjectivity. Perceiving Thomas in this way, Metz finds that ‘the worldliness of the world is not therefore originally conceived in a cosmocentric way as an already given, self-contained, and actual existent, which man encounters’ 4 ‘Human existence -- that is: ecstatic subjectivity; both -- man and world -- are synthesized a priori in the one being of man.’5 ‘Man is not real because he appears in a real world, but the world is real, because man in his being really stands over-against himself as real, because he exists ecstatically.’6

This basic philosophical understanding is consistently expressed in Metz’s later work. In an unpublished lecture presented in Barcelona in 1966 ‘he divides the history of philosophy of religion into two periods: the development of faith within the horizon of nature and within the horizon of history’. The former he calls metaphysics, which he defines as ‘a conceptualizing understanding of the totality within the horizon of nature’. This metaphysic ‘has wrecked itself against the problem of history’.7 From the historical point of view nature is seen as ‘the world surrounding man’s activity, standing at his disposal and subject to his alterations’.8

Although there are distinctive features in this appropriation of Kant, they are not of primary importance for Metz’s view of the natural world. His important original contribution came slightly later in his revisions of Rahner’s writings. There he began increasingly to emphasize the social character of human existence. This is fully expressed in his article on Mitsein in the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche:

Man already gains entrance into the reality of his worldly -- corporal being in shared existence with other ontologically equal subjects. lie encounters the remainder of what exists in the world (that which is present at hand as a thing) within the horizon of this fundamental, shared existence. ‘world’ itself is to be understood ‘anthropocentrically,’ i.e., as always mediated through shared existence. One’s own being and shared existence form the one, continual, whole structure of the material worldly being of man. In the self-understanding of man the other person is already co-understood; in his self-fulfillment the other person is already co-determined. The more radical this self-fulfillment is, the more universal is the existential pre-forming of the space of this fulfillment, the ‘world’ of the other.9

This shift from a focus on the individual to the emphasis on the social is crucial for the emergence of political theology, but it does not affect the understanding of the natural world. Human beings are now collectively contrasted with the remainder of what exists, and this is all understood as what is present at hand as a thing. Hence Metz’s philosophy precludes his moving with Moltmann to consideration of nature as having its own rights and equilibrium.

Whitehead rejects both of the basic options between which Metz makes his choice, To interpret the human subject as merely an objective part of a purely objective world is completely unacceptable. But to see the totality of nature as existing only in and through the being of human beings is equally unacceptable. Whitehead agrees with Metz that apart from subjectivity there can be nothing at all, but he does not agree that apart from human subjectivity there can be nothing at all. Apart from human subjectivity, for example, there can be the subjectivity of a chimpanzee.

To extend subjectivity to chimpanzees, in itself, would not alter the structure of Metz’s thought very much. But of course the chimpanzee is only illustrative of the point that subjectivity need not be defined as human subjectivity. No doubt there are features of human subjectivity not shared by any other creature, but many of these are not shared with all other human beings either. We must avoid defining the subjectivity that is the requisite for reality too elaborately! What we know of biological evolution suggests that modern human subjectivity emerged very gradually over a long period of time out of simpler forms of subjectivity. There is no indication that the world came into being abruptly with the appearance of advanced human subjectivity!

There is a problem also with the relation of subjectivity to our notions of self-consciousness, consciousness and subconscious experience. Metz does not tell us where he draws the line. For Whitehead no sharp line is to be drawn. Even unconscious experience has its element of subjectivity. And indeed for billions of years after the Big Bang there was probably no other kind. When we think of such a world we should not conceive of it visually, for that visual world did not exist. Indeed, most of the phenomena which constitute the Kantian world did not exist. They came into being correlatively with animals with elaborate nervous systems, and some of them awaited the arrival of human beings. But that does not mean that there was then no world at all.

Metz speaks of our shared existence with other people. That corresponds with Whitehead’s understanding also. Our existence is constituted by the participation of others in it. There is no purely individual existence which then subsequently comes to be shared. But Whitehead does not agree that there is a radical difference between our relations with other human beings and with the rest of the world. We have shared existence with all other creatures. Of course there are differences. But these differences do not warrant viewing everything that is not human as mere things at the disposal of human beings.

The central notion by which Whitehead understands this sharing of entities in one another is ‘prehension’. The best place to look in experience to identify a prehension is in the way in which experience of one moment flows into the next. I am always aware of being continuous with what I have been just before. The emotions of the immediate past, for example, perpetuate themselves into the present. Also I find myself completing a word which I began a moment ago. What I now am is largely constituted by the presence within me of what I was just before. ‘Prehension’ is Whitehead’s term for the way in which the present experience includes, and thereby takes account of, past experience.

Present experience is taking account of much else besides the immediately past personal experiences that flow into it. Especially what is happening throughout the body is impressing itself upon present experience. I feel the discomfort in my back or the sensuous enjoyment in my hand. These too are prehensions. Then there is much taking place in my body which affects my experience without my awareness. For example, I am never aware of events in my brain, and yet these have an immediate bearing upon the content of experience. These too are prehended. My actual experience is a prehensive unification of my past experiences and what is taking place in my body. Through my body I am prehending also the events in the wider world. Thus we are not related to other people in one way and to everything else in another. All relations are prehensions, and all prehensions bring what is there into the presently self-constituting subjective immediacy.

My prehensive unification is partly conscious, certainly not entirely so. In the case of one of the cells in my finger, it is probably not conscious at all. But in both cases the prehensive unifications what Whitehead calls the actual occasions of experience, are highly selective unifications of other prehensive unifications, conscious or not. There is nothing actual to prehend other than such acts of unification.

Human beings also present to themselves through their eyes and ears and other sense organs a world of phenomena. These seem to be given as mere objects, mere things, and it was interpreting the world in terms of such objects, especially of vision, that led to the objectifying cosmologies of which Metz is rightly critical. The world of prehensive unifications is badly misinterpreted when we take our categories from the world of visual objects. Physics has already learned that it cannot understand its subatomic particles by categories drawn from the visual world. Philosophers and religious people have long known that human beings cannot be understood this way. It is time to realize that this objectifying knowledge, while useful for many practical purposes, distorts all reality.


It seemed necessary to bring out clearly the philosophical differences between Kantians and Whiteheadians which under lie our disagreements as to what political theology should be. But this is not the place for a philosophical debate. The concern of this chapter is practice. To a process theologian it appears that the practice encouraged by Kantian philosophy has been disastrous so far as the human relation to the remainder of the created order is concerned. Some of the disasters could be avoided without altering the basic philosophic view, but such ad hoc improvements in practice are not sufficient. The kind of anthropocentricity established by Kant and affirmed by Metz is, in process perspective, an important part of the problem. If theology is ‘political’ only when it accepts these parameters, then process theologians do not want to become political theologians.

However, if political theology at bottom is theology directed by commitment to the indivisible salvation of the whole world, it in no way entails a non-ecological attitude or indifference to other creatures. On the contrary, in Moltmann political theology has already in part become ecological theology. The form of political theology to which a process theologian can aspire is a thoroughly ecological theology.

For process theology, as an ecological theology, human beings are part of nature. We are a very special part with peculiar capacities and value. But we came into being at a late point in the evolutionary process and we will some day be gone. That will not be the end of the world, only of humanity. Viewing ourselves in this way it is natural to ask the question of what our prospects for survival may be. We see that other species are becoming extinct at a rapid rate,10 and we find no reason that extinction should not be our fate as well. Indeed, we see that the degradation of the environment led to the downfall of many ancient civilizations, and that we are now engaged in such a degradation on a global scale. ‘The human prospect’, to use a phrase from the title of Heilbroner’s book,11 is bleak.

Viewing our species from the point of view of the total natural process does not mean adopting an attitude of calm detachment. On the contrary, we who do so are in danger of becoming shrill, especially when our fellows turn a deaf ear to our warnings. For us it seems supremely important to develop national and global policies which will reverse our headlong race toward suicide. The piecemeal approach to a few of the sociologically understandable and manageable problems, which is favored by so many, seems woefully inadequate to stem the tidal wave of destruction.

The threat is not from ecological deterioration alone. On the contrary, there is a much more imminent threat of human self-destruction through nuclear war. As pressures on resources and accompanying economic difficulties grow worse, the likelihood that all nations with nuclear potential will refrain from using their power grows less. Once a nuclear war begins there is great danger that it will not be contained. The combination of the ecological and nuclear threats leads to what is in the most straightforward sense a threat to the survival of the human race. Nothing appears more important than so altering the course of human action as to make this total destruction less likely.

How, then, does this appear to Kantian eyes? The first answer must be that there is a striking absence of discussion of the threat to human survival among philosophers and theologians heavily influenced by Kant. This is not surprising. Logically, from the point of view of this philosophy the end of the human race is the end of being as such. This is a difficult thought -- one that falls outside the system. This does not necessarily mean that Kantians deny the possibility or likelihood of such an end. But the practical result is silence. They simply do not discuss it.

It might seem that in the case of those who direct our attention dominantly to the future, the threat of human self-destruction would play a central role. But here too there is silence. The topic does not arise directly in Metz’s book of 1977. It may be that his reflections about the evil of the evolutionary viewpoint and the desirability of renewing the apocalyptic one constitute his reaction to what others are saying about the threat. The fact that he leaves open the possibility of failure for the Christian enterprise also suggests that he does not ignore it. But it is significant that an entire book could be written in 1977 about the practical meaning of a theology of hope without discussing the relevance to that practical meaning of the serious doubtfulness of human survival. One must judge that this topic is not readily assimilated into the Kantian frame of reference. That seems to the outsider to be systematically the case.

Metz did deal with the ‘crisis of survival’ in an address to the Evangelischen Kirchentag in Nürnberg in 1979. This lecture shows far more sensitivity to ecological concerns than his earlier writings had. Indeed from the point of view of an ecological theologian it is an excellent statement, It may indicate that the problem felt in identifying an ecologically sensitive theology as a political theology will soon be resolved. But with respect to the question of survival it is noteworthy that Metz speaks of the ‘so-called crisis of survival’. He calls for a revolution of human attitudes toward nature and even more toward other human beings. His strongest statement is: ‘I cannot see how, without such a revolution, a way out of this crisis of survival that does not involve some kind of catastrophe is possible at all’.12 One does not sense that Metz seriously reckons with the possibility that the human race will not survive.

There is, of course, no special virtue in harping on this danger. But our attitudes and our practice will be different according to whether we take it seriously or whether we always translate the crisis of survival into the urgent need for an anthropological revolution. Adherence to the Kantian philosophy almost necessitates this type of translation. But we are not likely to forestall an end of history if we are not able to face its likelihood squarely and discuss it directly. If political theology cannot deal openly with this topic, then a process theologian does not want to become a political theologian. But it is arbitrary to limit political theology to the sphere of Kantian hegemony.

The absolutization of history and the ignoring of the effects of a real nature upon historical events has had other negative consequences against which Kantian theology does little to protect us. History means primarily civilization, as Metz sees when he says that politics is the new name for civilization. Both ‘politics’ and ‘civilization’ point to the city, and in fact the movement of civilization is toward urbanization and industrialization. Unconsciously, perhaps, the subsistence farmer, and even the peasant village, are assimilated to images of an unhistorical nature which serves civilization and industrialization but has no inherent reality. After all, history and sociology are written by urban people. Rural areas are viewed as remote and backward. Primitive cultures are studied by anthropology, not sociology. History belongs to the city.

This deep-seated perspective has had profound consequences for development policy since World War II. Development is judged largely in terms of GNP, which is a measure of goods and services that are exchanged for money in the market-place. Subsistence farming, accordingly, is hardly considered a significant economic activity. Employment is understood as working for wages, and since subsistence farmers do not receive wages they are not considered among the employed. A report of the U.S. Department of Labor declared that only 5 percent of the women of Africa work. Irene Tinker comments: ‘This clearly is an absurd assertion about a continent where women are reported to be doing 60-80 percent of the work in the fields and working up to 16 hours a day during the planting season.’13 A goal of development is to draw people into the money economy despite the often negative consequences on food production and family life. Until they are part of the national economic system, they are simply invisible -- just a part of that nature which is the backdrop for history.

In our eagerness to draw people into history thus defined, development policies have encouraged the shift from raising food for local consumption to growing cash crops for export. Often this has meant the destruction of the family farm in favor of great plantations commercially Operated by foreign corporations. When the problems of increasing food production is addressed, industrial methods are applied, as in the ‘green revolution’, further supporting the concentration of land ownership in a few hands. This has often meant the end of a sustainable agriculture in favor of one that rapidly depletes the soil and hastens desertification. Production depends on expensive machinery, oil, and chemical fertilizers, not available to subsistence farmers. But all this is not too high a price to pay if cash can be raised for industrial development in the cities! There is where ‘history’ really happens. The result of such views, of course, is that few of the so-called developing countries can any longer feed themselves! Malnutrition and even starvation are rampant, the soil base for feeding future generations is rapidly eroded, and the social and cultural fabric is torn. All this -- because the ‘reality’ is ‘history’ and not ‘nature’. Even now the problem of developing a sustainable agriculture in order that future generations may eat does not grip the mind as does the problem of justice for the urban poor. It seems to fall outside of the categories of the Kantian imagination,

This is not at all to suggest that a Kantian theologian such as Metz lacks deep concern for the Third World. He desires for that world freedom and justice. These are noble ideals, and the willingness to give of oneself generously that they may be realized is indeed commendable. The problem is that without a wider perspective the policies one supports for the sake of freedom and justice can sometimes be ambiguous in their consequences or even harmful.

Out of a concern for justice, people often quote figures showing the gross disparity in the per capita GNP of different countries, The apparent implication is that justice requires reduction of the disparity. Such reduction requires rapid industrialization on the part of the poorer country. Hence our moral task is defined as transferring technology and funding industrial expansion. Yet it may be that this whole ‘development’ is destructive. The need may be for simple improvements in farming implements and seeds for subsistence farmers along with aid to peasant villages for improved hygiene and reforestation of their hills. When these are neglected and money is pumped instead into industrial development, the males move to the cities, destroying the communities which have sustained the people for thousands of years and creating huge urban slums. Policies that would bring dignity and significant improvement to peasant life would do little for the GNP, but they might do much more than new factories for the indivisible salvation of the whole world. Preoccupation with ‘history’ in its opposition to ‘nature’ largely obscures this possibility.

The topic of limits is another on which ecological theology perceives the requirements for the indivisible salvation of the whole differently from most Kantian theologians. For sociology, nature poses no moral limits to human beings. Nature is there simply to be used, controlled, and reshaped. Moral problems arise only in the human sphere. For ecological theology, as Whitehead said, all ‘life is robbery. It is at this point that with life morals become acute. The robber requires justification’.14 All life involves the taking of food, and in the taking of food animals break down living things into their inorganic elements. Eating involves killing, even when the food is vegetable matter. The killing is more obvious and morally important when we eat the flesh of other animals.

Much more serious is the destruction of habitat by deforestation and expansion of farming. There is also the poisoning of the environment by insecticides and wastes. Our agricultural methods since neolithic times have rendered barren half of the then arable land on the earth. The speed of desertification has been greatly accelerated in our century. All life involves robbery, but modern social life is grand larceny.

Ecology does not teach us that life is unjustified in its robbery. From the fact that something of value is destroyed when we kill an animal, it does not follow that we should stop eating meat, although that is a serious ethical issue. But it does follow that the development of a civilization which decimates other species casually and threatens to deforest much of the rest of the planet in the next two decades is beyond justification. We have passed all moral limits. An ecological theologian calls for the acceptance of limits to our robbery on moral grounds. We may take what we need, We should not seek to generate and then to satisfy infinite greed.

This conception of moral limits is prior to and independent of the question whether there are actual physical limits. The latter is a matter of fact on which judgements differ. Some believe that with nuclear fusion unlimited sources of energy will be ours and that we can chemically alter the earth’s matter so as to replace exhausted resources with others. They believe that ultimately we do not require for our human existence a context of living things. Synthetic food can be produced that will meet all our nutritional needs. A completely artificial environment can be made to simulate any feature of the formerly living world which we require.

Who can say whether all this is possible? An ecological theologian is so revolted morally by this prospect of wholesale destruction of other living things that the question of possibility seems almost irrelevant. Yet there is also skepticism about the possibility. Even if technology could enable us to increase our production and consumption infinitely, are we capable of the perfect social order generation after generation required to protect the nuclear plants and chemical factories from accident or sabotage? Can we abolish war, including wars of liberation? Can we cope with the enormous changes in weather that will result or learn to control them also? Can we replace the ozone layer when it is gone or move underground to escape the deadly rays of the sun? Or can we abandon this planet altogether and find another to destroy? But even if all that is possible, is it not a nightmare? Would it not be better to live morally now, acknowledging limits, than to project such a future for our descendents?

These choices are not distant ones. Continuing commitment to industrial growth in both capitalist and socialist countries is pushing us toward a situation where the nightmare I have pictured could become the only possibility of survival. But it is not too late for a moral choice. We do not have to destroy the remaining forests of Amazonia and South-East Asia. We do not have to destroy the remainder of the ozone layer. We do not have to commit ourselves to an energy policy that will either increase the carbon-dioxide content in the air to the point of making major climatic changes or scatter plutonium around the world. We do not have to support Western-type industrialization as the one path to the good life throughout the tropical world. We do not have to continue agricultural practices which are rapidly expanding the world’s deserts at the expense of range and farmland, There are moral and practical alternatives. But they require commitment and imagination. Unfortunately those who insist that history is the all-inclusive horizon have been of little help. These ecological concerns fall outside their purview and they lack the sense of moral limits in relation to the rest of nature apart from which sensitivity to these problems rarely arises.

The polemic of this chapter has been against the continuing influence of Kant in directing attention away from the autonomous existence and inherent importance of the non-human world and in supporting a philosophical situation in which human history is the encompassing horizon for thought. Metz systematically adopted and vigorously affirmed these features of the Kantian tradition. Hence the argument has been directed in part toward political theology as he has understood it. There is little in his published writings to indicate that the argument is misdirected. Nevertheless, he is not totally committed to the features of this tradition which have been attacked.

In the first place, his interest in history as the history of suffering and his commitment to solidarity with the oppressed have always run counter to the ignoring of peasants15 and women and the concentration of attention upon urban -- industrial development which have characterized most of those who share his focus upon ‘history’. If his published writings to date have not lifted up these concerns, this no doubt reflects the attention of the general culture and the churches rather than the specific consequences of his own theology. The view that history is the encompassing horizon can be combined with a view of human existence which does not center in the city or even civilization. But this must be established against meanings of ‘political’ which have been influential for Metz as well.

In the second place, his 1979 address referred to above runs counter to his earlier writings at a very important point. Earlier he had sharply contrasted the relation to nature and the relation to human beings. He had thought of nature as the world of things, present at hand, which stand at our disposal. He taught that creation and incarnation both declare ‘the thing-character of the creature and its general purpose of service to man’.16 ‘Everything in the world is more and more subject to total domination by him and appears as derived directly from him . This is all fundamentally a Christian event.’17 Such language, quite appropriate to Metz’s Kantian commitments, gave explicit approval to that attitude of domination toward nature which he now opposes as evil. From the point of view of process theology this change is a great gain, but it remains to be seen how fully it can be worked out without deeper alteration in the Kantian philosophy which thus far has shaped his thought.

It may be, indeed, that the change has not gone very far. All along he was aware that there was a danger that attitudes appropriate to nature could too easily be directed toward human beings as well. Even in the recent address it is the dominating attitude toward other human beings that is the primary problem. One could suspect that the only real reason for objecting to the domination of nature is that it leads to the domination of human beings as well. The speed with which he turns from the ecological problem to the social one arouses this suspicion. He associates an interest in an independent nature with Fascism. He states, consistently with his Kantian commitments, that ‘nature itself cannot become the principle of a new way of action without some kind of mediation, without some permeation of nature through society and anthropology’.18 This allows him to keep his concerns fully within the political arena, narrowly understood. Still, the new sensitivity is important, and, from the point of view of process theology, profoundly encouraging.


Political theology, in Metz’s form, is based on Kantian anthropo- centrism. In that context there can be no interest in plants and animals except as they are given being in human experience. Their own interconnectedness and welfare can not constitute a topic of human attention or concern. The model for thinking of the nonhuman world is taken from stones and machines, and living things are hardly mentioned. Human society and history are the encompassing horizon of reality. Theology which aims to be truly inclusive will be socio-historical theology. It will be more convenient to call it ‘sociological theology’.19

Process theology, on the other hand, as a development in and from the Chicago school, has been deeply informed by the quite different philosophy of Whitehead. Here humanity is seen within an interconnected nature, all of which is made up of prehensive unifications or occasions of experience. With the appearance of humanity whole new dimensions of reality came into being, but reality itself does not depend on human existence. Theology which aims to be truly inclusive will be ‘ecological theology’.

There is no doubt that the term political theology, because of its rootage in ‘polis’, favors attention to human society as the horizon of its concern. Indeed, within the totality of human society, it favors attention to the city. It is in the city that civilization and history are made. Metz struggles against this further narrowing of attention; for he is interested in the history of the defeated, the powerless, the sufferers. But he is borne along, in part at least, by the overwhelming tendency of those who think within the socio-historical horizon to concentrate upon the city and industrialized civilization.

Process theology as an ecological theology is concerned about the whole course of nature. Humanity appears as rooted in that nature but also as highly destructive of it. Indeed, humanity is so destructive of its own environment that it threatens to destroy the conditions of its own survival. The problem of food is central. Agriculture is of more basic importance than industry, the peasant village than the city. The human species could survive without the city, and indeed a less urban and less industrial society would have a more promising relationship to the rest of nature. Of course, ecological theology knows that there are cities and that the life of cities is important. Most of its practitioners are city-dwellers. There is nothing about the adoption of an ecological perspective that excludes attention to the social structures of urban civilization. But the tendency of ecological theology is to protest against the dominant preoccupation of sociology and sociological theology with the city and its history and the accompanying neglect of the much larger rural population.

Even if the philosophical differences are not overcome, sociological theology and ecological theology need one another. Sociological theology needs ecological theology in order to widen its horizons to the actual situation of the majority of the human population who face an increasingly desperate and neglected plight in their rural villages. It needs to give much more than passing attention to the decay of the human environment and how this affects the lives and prospects of all human beings, It must recognize that changing the structures of human society and the attitudes of human beings to other human beings in itself is unlikely to solve the environmental problem. Ecological theology needs sociological theology because left to itself it does not deal realistically with the actual structures of power whose exercise will determine human destiny. It does not attend sufficiently to the way economic interests shape convictions and attitudes, including those of ecological theologians, Further, in its preoccupation with the problem of sustainability of human life and respect for other creatures, it can too easily lose sight of the enormous suffering and oppression which can and do take place even in relatively sustainable societies. Because of its tendency to see what is happening now in a temporally extended context, it needs sociological theology to remind it of the immediate importance of the present suffering of a single child. The interaction of sociological theology and ecological theology can lead to an ecologically sensitive sociological theology and a sociologically sensitive ecological theology.

Whitehead himself did not neglect sociology altogether. He rightly entitles the first part of Adventures of Ideas ‘sociological’, and there he shows what it would mean for sociology to be ecologically sensitive. A passage quoted near the end of the preceding chapter summarized a part of this discussion with an emphasis on the relation of persuasion to necessity. One of the ‘four factors which decisively govern the fate of social groups’ according to his analysis, is ‘the iron compulsion of nature that the bodily necessities of food, clothing and shelter be provided’.20 Whitehead continues: ‘The rigid limits which are thereby set to modes of social existence can only be mitigated by the growth of an understanding by which the interplay between man and the rest of nature can be adjusted.’21

Thus, within a strictly sociological analysis, one concerned only with the human condition and the human future, the interplay between human beings and the rest of nature has its proper place?22 That this is so, and, especially, how this is so, may be clearer from the ecological perspective than from the sociological, but it remains a true and important point about human society, which sociological theology need not and should not continue to neglect. Whitehead discussed this feature of sociology repeatedly, especially as he wrestled with the truth, and the limits to truth, of the Malthusian principle. There is much that he wrote on this topic that speaks with undiminished relevance today. But he wrote before the human capacity for total self-destruction had become apparent. He thought in terms of a multiplicity of civilizations and of how the Malthusian principle was rendered inoperative in some over long periods of time. Today we must consider the relevance of Malthus on a global scale, and such considerations should be a part of our sociology.

The problems of freedom and equality, and therefore of justice, were at the center of Whitehead’s sociological concerns, and they have been important for all process theology. An ecological theology is not indifferent to justice. Sociological theology has focused on questions of justice, but as it has recognized that the effects of human beings on their environment are having seriously deleterious consequences for humanity, it has extended its concern to questions of the sustainability of human society.23 Yet in practice the difference of the amount of attention given to these two issues of justice and sustainability still leads to opposing judgements on important issues.

These issues are too often dealt with in the context of the tradeoff mentality described in the preceding chapter. It is thought that the requirements of justice and of sustainability are in tension with one another, and those who are preoccupied with justice are reluctant to make concessions to the needs of sustainability. They are still at times inclined to regard the latter concerns as a luxury only the comfortable can afford. As long as justice and sustainability are viewed as antagonistic interests, sociological theology and ecological theology will work against each other, whereas they are both needed in a truly comprehensive political theology. They can work together only when, abandoning the trade-off mentality, the adherents of both rethink the requirements of both justice and sustainability so as to see that justice entails sustainability and sustainability entails justice.

This is not difficult to do. As Metz has seen, attitudes toward the natural environment and toward other people deeply influence each other. He has not yet shown awareness of the full meaning of this especially as women have shown us how it has affected male attitudes toward them. But in principle the general point is now widely recognized. We are unlikely to put an end to the exploitation of human beings unless we also bring an end to the exploitative attitude toward the natural environment.

In addition, justice cannot mean only justice to those who are now living. It must include justice to generations yet unborn. That demands a sustainable relationship to the environment. On the other side, a society many of whose members find themselves oppressed is inherently unstable, and without social stability there can be no ecological sustainability either. To enforce, in the name of ecological sustainability, policies that violate the sense of justice of the people involved introduces an element that is very likely to make those policies unsustainable.24

The mutual support of justice and sustainability has more concrete meaning as well. It means that, for the most part, the policies that are now operating to destroy the capacity of the environment to support human life in the future are also expressions of the injustice of present distribution of wealth and power. On the whole, remedies proposed to attain justice will, or can, support sustainability as well, and vice versa.

For example, there is a high correlation between the concentration of land ownership in a few hands and the degradation of the soil. In some countries, as in the United States, this is connected with agribusiness viewing the soil as a capital investment to be depreciated as it is used up, whereas the family farmer typically wishes to pass the farm on to children in good condition. In Third World countries it is related to the fact that the best land is often owned by a few families or corporations and used for the production of crops for export. Subsistence farmers are then forced to till land that is not suitable for agriculture. As a result of this all too typical pattern of unjust land distribution, for example, 77 percent of the land in El Salvador, where fourteen families control the wealth, is suffering from erosion, according to a recent study.25 A more just distribution of land would greatly reduce the negative impact on the environment.

This is not an isolated case. The preceding chapter noted that Amory Lovins has developed in detail a proposal for soft energy paths which is at once environmentally beneficial and encouraging of a wider distribution of more satisfactory employment, of power, and of wealth. Other studies are increasingly supporting his view that more efficient use of the energy now produced can meet all real needs and that the United States can shift from vast centralized systems of energy production to others which are accessible to regional and local control.

Efficient use of energy for transportation also tends in the direction of justice. Thus far, many development programs in Third World countries have taxed the poor in order that the few who can own private motorcars may ride in comfort. These same private cars are the most wasteful form of transportation from the point of view of exhausting scarce resources. A transportation system that emphasizes the widespread availability of the bicycle supplemented by trucks and buses and trains is both preferable from the environmental point of view and more equitable.

The way cities have developed in much of the world is such that they remove much prime agricultural land from cultivation and can function only through vast consumption of energy and other scarce resources. At the same time they ask such that the poor are excluded from public advantages and segregated into those parts of the city that are least well-served. The city dweller who is without wealth is unable to escape the urban environment so as to enjoy a natural one. Massive alienation is the inevitable result, with the accompanying increase of crimes. Paolo Soleri has conceived of an alternative form of urban life in which the architectural ecology -- arcology for short -- would promote both justice and the environment. His beautiful structures would soar into the air, releasing most of the land now covered by urban sprawl for agriculture, recreation, or wilderness. Within the arcology distances would be such that elevators, escalators and moving sidewalks would combine with walking to make all the city’s facilities available to all. Similarly everyone would be able to walk outside of the city into its rural environment. Such cities could operate on a small fraction of the energy consumed by our present cities and they could be so built that most of the requisite energy could be provided directly by the sun.

In these and many other ways the supposition that policies guided by justice should conflict with those guided by sustainability can be shown to be factually and dangerously wrong. Our God-given imagination can provide us with a vision of a possible future that is both much more just and much more sustainable than our present world. The trade-off is not the helpful image for moving us toward this new world.

This point can be illustrated in another way as well. It is rightly stressed that no sustainable society is possible apart from population stability.26 Such stability cannot be attained at once, but there is great importance in developing policies which will rapidly slow population growth around the world and bring it to a halt at no more than six billion. Unfortunately, when there is talk of reducing population growth by public policies, many people immediately envision serious infringements on the freedom of families to make decisions about the number of children they shall have. Civil libertarians rise to the defense of this private freedom while those concerned for the global good seem prepared to adopt penalties that severely limit personal freedom.

Of course such tensions are inevitable. But the supposition that the only way to limit population growth is to restrict personal freedom is a major obstacle to creative action today. The supposition is false. The major way to slow population growth is to increase personal freedom, especially for women. Study after study has shown that when women have real freedom to choose they opt for fewer children. In those countries in which women not only have a great deal of freedom to control their own bodies but also are free to share in public life on a nearly equal basis with men, the birth rates have already fallen to equal the death rates. Indeed, some governments are fearful of a loss of population! The problems are complex. But the emancipation of women for the sake of justice is the key to the stabilization of global population.

In the case of the emancipation of women and the birth rate it should be recognized that the reduced birth rate is largely an unforeseen and unintended result of social change. Here it seems that pursuit of justice alone would suffice and that the other problem would take care of itself. This is an exaggeration even in this instance. Governments concerned to slow their birth rates will support the freedom of women to limit the number of their children more than will governments which are insensitive to this need. What is important is to keep in view the simultaneous need to free women and to reduce the birth rate and to encourage policies that achieve both.

In other areas the direct quest for immediate justice is not likely to generate the requisite policies, for reasons suggested earlier in this chapter. For example, just as those preoccupied with ‘justice’ have paid little attention to the subsistence farmer, so also they have paid little attention to the world’s most urgent energy crisis -- the shortage of firewood. It is those who focus on the environment who have long been calling attention to the manifold negative consequences of deforestation and have concerned themselves with how this situation could be reversed.

The shortage of firewood is not a function of obvious injustices in ownership and distribution. It is a function of the pressure of growing population on the environment, combined with neglect of the problems of that segment of the population most dependent on firewood. I refer to the peasantry. Governments in most Third World countries, supported by development policies in First and Second World countries, have been concerned about supplying sophisticated forms of energy for industrialization and urban life. They have been too little concerned with the simple technological changes needed for more efficient use of firewood as a fuel for cooking. Nor have they helped villagers to develop woodlots near at hand which would meet their needs and reduce the pressure on the increasingly distant wooded mountainsides. The beginning of a shift of attention to these matters has come about because persons concerned for the preservation of forests have also been concerned that ordinary people should be able to cook their food. Sustainability and justice here, too, belong together, but without ecological sensitivities neither is attained.

The concerns I have been pressing are not in principle excluded from sociological theology. They fall within history. But since the interest here is practical, it is important to recognize that in fact those who have turned for guidance to sociology have rarely been helpful in directing attention to many of these types of problems and solutions. The lead has been taken in most instances by those who have a lively interest in the environment. This should say something to those who are committed to the praxis model!

If there emerges a sociology which is truly sensitive to ecological issues, and if ecological theology truly assimilates the insights that can be learned only from sociology, that will be a great gain. The gap between such a new sociological theology and a new ecological one will be narrowed. But it will not be erased.

Ecological theology will not limit its concern for the environment to its role in the sustaining of human societies. From the point of view of process theologians, justice requires that the rest of the creation should also be treated with respect and recognized to have reality and value quite apart from usefulness to human beings. Other creatures are of value in themselves and for God. Unless it breaks fundamentally from the Kantian tradition, even an ecologically sensitive sociological theology can not acknowledge this inherent reality and worth of our fellow creatures. But not to do so, for ecological theology, is profoundly false to the Biblical vision.27

It would be unfortunate if at this point the trade-off model once again controlled thought and action. There may be times when human beings should make real sacrifices so that other species can continue to exist, even when these species are of no value to humanity. But for the most part what is truly good for human beings and what is truly good for other species will coincide when problems are faced with good will and imagination. The preservation of the tropical forests is essential if we are not to decimate the planet’s wildlife. It is also essential if we are not to alter the human environment in ways that could be disastrous for the next generation. Concern for the least and most powerless of our fellow creatures may at times save us from suicidal action! But ecological theology will insist that our concern for these creatures must not be motivated only by our desire for human welfare. It is this important element which a Kantian theology does not include.



1. It is disappointing that sensitivity to the natural environment is not expressed in such later writings of Sölle as Beyond Mere Dialogue: On Being Christian and Socialist (Detroit, Mich.: American Christians Toward Socialism, 1978).

2. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, trans. R.A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 334. See also Moltmann, Experiences of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (Philadelphia, Pa: Fortress Press, 1980), P. 27.

3. Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. David Smith (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), pp. 106-7.

4. Johann Baptist Metz, Christliche Anthropozentrik: Über die Denkform des Thomas von Aquin (Munich: Kosel Verlag. 1962), P. 68 (My translation.)

5. Ibid., p. 69. (My translation.)

6. Ibid. (My translation.)

7. Roger Dick Johns, Man in the World: the Political Theology of Johannes Baptist Metz (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1976), p. 87.

8. Ibid., p. 89.

9. Johann Baptist Metz, ‘Mitsein’, in Lexikon für. Theologie und Kirche vol. 7, cola. 492-3. The English translation is from Johns, pp. 97-8.

10. See Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, Extinction: the Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species (New York: Random House, 1981).

11. Robert Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (New York: Norton, 1974).

12. Johann Baptist Merz, ‘Bread of Survival: The Lord’s Supper of Christians as Anticipatory Sign of an Anthropological Revolution’, in The Emergent Church, trans. Peter Mann (New York: Crossroad, 1981). p. 41. On page 34 Mann translates ‘sog. Überlehenskrise’ as ‘what is called our crisis of survival’. This removes the pejorative force which I have retained in my translation as ‘so-called crisis of survival’.

13. Irene Tinker, Michelin Bo Bramsen and Mayra Buvinie, eds., ‘The adverse impact of development on women’, in Women in World Development (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1976). p. 23.

14. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected ed. by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: The Free Press, 1978), p. 105.

15. See Metz, Faith in History and Society, p. 66.

16. Johann Baptist Metz, ‘Unbelief as a theological problem’, trans. Tarcisius Rattler in The Church and the World, Concilium, vol. 6 (New York: Paulist Press, 1965), p. 76.

17. Johann Baptist Metz, Theology of the World, trans. William Glen-Doepel (New York: Herder & Herder, 1971), p. 38.

18. Metz, ‘Bread of Survival’, pp. 34-5.

19. This term was applied to Metz by Erik Rupp, ‘Der Deutsche Emanziparions-katholizismus 1968/69’, in Kritischer Katholizismus, ed. Ben van Onna and Martin Stankowski (Frankfurt: Fischer Bücherei, 1969), pp. 49-56. The context and meaning are different from mine.

20. Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933),p. 108.

21. Ibid., pp. 108-9.

22. It is significant that the September/October 1980 issue of American Behavioral Scientist is devoted to ‘Ecology and the social sciences: an emerging paradigm’. The lead essay begins with the statement: ‘The social sciences have largely ignored the fact that human societies depend on the biophysical environment for their survival.’ Riley E. Dunlap. ‘Paradigmatic change in social science: from human exemptions to an ecological paradigm’, p. 5.

23. The Church and Society sub-unit of the world Council of Churches deserves special credit for having brought its sociologically oriented constituency to this recognition ratified in 1979 at the MIT Conference. See Paul Abrecht, ed., Faith and Science in an Unjust World: Report of the World Council of Churches Conference on Faith, Science and The Future (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1980).

24. Mrs. Gandhi’s earlier political defeat was connected to her birth control policies.

25. Howard Edward Daugherty, Man Induced Ecological Change in El Salvador. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, Dept. of Geography, 1969. Reference is made by Erik P. Eckholm, Losing Ground (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), pp. 168-9.

26. The best available short statement on population is Lester R. Brown, Resource Trends and Population Policy; a Time for Reassessment (Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Institute. 1979).

27. See George S. Hendry, Theology of Nature (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press. 1980).