The Theological Structure of Christian Faith and the Feasibility of a Global Ecological Ethic

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  • Gordon D. Kaufman is Edward Mallinckrodt Jr. Professor of Divinity Emeritus atHarvard University Divinity School. His mailing address is 6 Longfellow Road, Cam-bridge, MA 02138; e-mail A version of this article waspresented at the symposium The Possibility of a Global Ethic: The Potential of a Reli-gion-Science Dialogue on HIV/AIDS organized by the Zygon Center for Religion andScience, 2930 September 2001. Some portions are largely drawn from an article previ-ously published in Zygon (Kaufman 2001b).


    by Gordon D. Kaufman

    Abstract. Scientific evolutionary/ecological thinking is the basisfor todays understanding that we are now in an ecological crisis.Religions, however, often resist reordering their thinking in light ofscientific ideas, and this presents difficulties in trying to develop aviable global ecological ethic. In both the West and Asia religio-moral ecological concerns continue to be formulated largely in termsof traditional concepts rather than in more global terms, as scientificthinking about ecological matters might encourage them to do. Themajority of this article is devoted to the kind of reformulation ofWestern Christian conceptions of God, humanity, and the relationbetween them that is necessary to address this problem. The ques-tion is then raised whether similar critical thinking about religio-moral issues raised by todays evolutionary/ecological scientificthinking is going on in Asian religions and whether it would be toopresumptuous (in view of our colonial history) for us Westerners toask for such rethinking. This leads to a final question: Without suchtransformations in religious traditions East and West, is the develop-ment of a truly global ecological ethic really feasible?

    Keywords: Abrahamic religions; anthropocentric; Asian religions;biohistorical; creativity; evolutionary thinking; faith; global ecologi-cal ethic; God; image of God; modern sciences; nature; traditionaldualisms; traditional religious terms.

    [Zygon, vol. 38, no. 1 (March 2003).] 2003 by the Joint Publication Board of Zygon. ISSN 0591-2385


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    I do not intend in this essay to sketch out a possible global ecological ethicor to comment on efforts toward developing such an ethic. Rather, I takeup three issues. First, in order to make clear what I take to be drasticimplications of modern ecological thinking for traditional religious framesof orientation, I briefly outline some of the features of the received Chris-tian thinking about God and the human that make its use in todays eco-logically sensitive world problematic. Second, I propose some new modelsfor thinking about God, humanity, and their relationship, models that willenable us to more effectively connect these two major Christian symbolsto widely accepted ecological and other claims about how human exist-ence in this world must today be understood. This will, third, put us intoa position for a fresh take on what Christian faith in God might mean intodays pluralistic world, a take more appropriate for developing a globalecological ethic; and it will also help us see more clearly certain issues thatmust be faced as we seek to construct such an ethic.

    A largely unspoken presupposition throughout much of Christian historyhas been that faith and theology are concerned basically with what we havecome to call the existential issues of lifedespair, anxiety, guilt, death,meaninglessness, sin, injustice, and so forth, problems that arise becausewe are self-conscious subjects and agents. Beliefs about Gods power, righ-teousness, love, mercy, and forgiveness and about justification by faith ad-dressed these issues of meaning, sinfulness, and finitude, thus enabling lifeto go on. This focus and imagery, I suggest, encourages an understandingof both the Christian God and Christian faith in fundamentally anthropo-centric terms, as concerned largely with certain deep human problems.

    The human-centered and personalistic character of Christian thinkingis clearly expressed in the idea that we humans, unlike all other creatures,were made in the very image of God as the climax of creation and in thefact that the traditional conception of God was itself constructed on themodel of the human agent. Thinking of humans as made in the image ofGod was not just employing a lovely metaphor. The metaphor provided atheological ground for a profoundly dualistic understanding of the humanthat has characterized Christian thinking through most of its history.Though we share bodiliness and animality with other parts of the creation,that which distinguishes us most clearly from the restour spirituality,our mentalityimages Gods own spiritual being, it was believed. What ismost important about us is that we are soulsspiritsand thus uniquelyrelated to those heavenly beings whom we will join when, in death, wedepart this physical world. God himself (I use the male pronoun inten-tionally here, in articulating the traditional understanding of God), a kindof cosmic spirit, loves humankind and for this reason entered directly intohuman history to bring salvation to us. Because of this intimate uniqueconnection of God and the human in the traditional Christian symbol

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    system, we can (it was thought) have confidence that there will always be aChristian answer to every really important issue that might arise for womenand men anywhere and everywhere. With Godthe very creator of theheavens and the earth, the ultimate power in the cosmosso uniquelyinterconnected with us humans, how could it be otherwise?

    Today, however, we find ourselves in a period beset by serious issuessignificantly different from these existential problems of our subjectivityand agency. With the advent of the atomic age a half century ago, a greatmany things began to change. It became evident that we had attained thepower to destroy the very conditions that make human life (and muchother life as well) possible, and the notion that God would save us fromourselves as we pursued this self-destructive project became increasinglyimplausible. Though the nuclear threat has receded somewhat, the prob-lem it symbolized has grown more pressing with our discovery, beginningfor most of us about thirty years ago, that, whether there is a nuclear holo-caust or not, we are now rapidly destroying the ecological conditions apartfrom which much of life cannot exist. Moreover, it seems clear that it is wehumans who are responsible for this situation. Humanity, we are begin-ning to understand, is deeply situated within the evolutionary-ecologicallife processes on planet Earth, and it is becoming increasingly difficult toimagine God as one who mightor even candirectly transform andmake right what we are so rapidly destroying. So it is not really evidentthat God (as Christians have traditionally understood God) provides a so-lution to the major problem facing us today: the ecological crisis.

    This issue is different in kind from any that Christians (or any otherhumans) have ever faced, and continuing to worship and serve a Godthought of as the omnipotent savior from all the evils of life may even getin the way of our seeing clearly its depths and significance. Today the mostimportant issue is not how we can find a way to live with or overcomedespair or meaninglessness or guilt or sinfulness, or human suffering gen-erally, however significant these profound problems of human subjectivitymay be. Now it is a matter of the objective conditions that make all life,including human life, possible: we are destroying them, and it is we whomust find a way to reverse the ecologically destructive momentums wehave brought into being.

    This is not just a specifically Christian or theistic problem; it is a prob-lem in which all humans are implicated, and we are all called to do ourpart in its solution. So the central religious issue confronting humankindtoday is of a different order than ever before. And Christians may nolonger claim to have a corner on the solution to it; nor do Buddhists, orJews, or the adherents of any other religion. What is now required is areordering of the whole of human life around the globe in an ecologicallyresponsible mannersomething heretofore never contemplated by any ofour great religious (or secular) traditions. All of humankind must learn to

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    work together on this issue, or it will simply not be taken care of. This isone reason why the development of a global ecological ethic is so important.

    We may not be able, of course, to solve the ecological problem at all; wemay already be past the point of no return. Moreover, we cannot supposeany longer that there will be a distinctively Christian (or other traditional)answer to this question; we have to think through afresh what Christiantheology, as well as other religious and secular orientations, can contributeto its satisfactory address. Theology now becomes an essentially construc-tive task in the face of a heretofore unimagined situation, and the symbolsystems of our various religious and secular traditions, in terms of which wehumans do our thinking and acting and worshipping, have to be reconsid-ered in light of these problems that so urgently demand our attention.

    It is not difficult to understand why the orientations of most religions,including traditional Christian faith and the symbol system that providedthe structure of that faith, were basically human-centered. Our faith struc-tures, our basic human stances in the world, however diverse they may bein our many different cultures, were all created by human beings (not de-liberately and self-consciously, of course) as they sought ways, over manygenerations, to adapt to the various contingencies in life. It should notsurprise us, therefore, that the basic focus of these orientations (includingChristian) was on what would facilitate survival of the communitythetribe, the peoplewho worked together and faced the problems of lifetogether, who sensed that they belonged together. The God of Israel, forexampleYahwehwas originally a savior-God who (it was believed)brought the people of Israel out of Egypt in dramatic displays of powerand led them into military victory as they invaded Canaan, the land thatYahweh had promised them. Yahweh was the one on whom they couldalways call when life became unbearable, horrible, unintelligiblethinkof the many cries to Yahweh in the Psalms, in Job, in Jeremiah, and else-where throughout the Hebrew scriptures. The Christian story, when itappeared, built on this heritage, maintaining that God was so deeply in-volved in the human project on Earth that he came down to Earth in theperson of the man Jesus to rescue humankind from all the evils of life,bringing an eternal life of perfect human fulfillment. The whole storyherethe very idea of God in these traditionsis thoroughly human-centered. God is imagined primarily in terms of metaphors drawn fromhuman lifelord, king, father, mighty warrior, and so on; humans thoughtof themselves as made, in their distinctiveness from the rest of creation, inthe very image and likeness of this God; and Gods activities were cen-trally concerned with human life and its deepest problems.

    This kind of deep structure in the God-human symbolic complex thatunderlies and forms the faith-consciousness and faith-sensibility in the threeAbrahamic religionsand is most powerfully accentuated in Christian faith,

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    because of the centrality there of Gods incarnation in Christinevitablygives rise to a fundamental tension (indeed a conceptual and logical in-compatibility) between, on the one hand, this received understanding ofGod and of the intimate relation of humanity to God, and, on the otherhand, our growing awareness that human existence is essentially consti-tuted by and could not exist apart from the complex ecological ordering oflife that has evolved on Earth over many millennia. I want to spell this outa bit further.

    The symbol Godnot nature, it is important to notefunctioned duringmost of Western history as the ultimate point of reference in terms ofwhich all human life, indeed all reality, was to be understood.1 God wasbelieved to be the creator of the heavens and the earth (as Genesis 1 putsit), the creator of all things visible and invisible (as declared in some ofthe creeds), the lord of the world. It was, therefore, in terms of Godspurposes and Gods acts that human existence and lifein point of fact, allof realitywere to be comprehended; and human existence was to be ori-ented most fundamentally on this transworldly reality God, not on any-thing in the world (that is, in the order of nature). To orient ourselves andour lives on anything other than God and Gods acts was deemed idola-trya turning away from the very source and ground of humanitys beingand life, and a direct violation of Gods will for humankind. However, asthe context and ground of human life becomes increasingly thought of inevolutionary and ecological terms, as in modernity and postmodernity,nature becomes a direct rival of God for human attention and devotion.

    For many centuries, nature and God were not in any sort of significanttension with each other, since what we today speak of as nature was thoughtof as Gods creationthe finite orderin every respect a product of Godscreative activity and at all points completely at Gods sovereign disposal.The concept of an autonomous nature, as we think of it today, had no realplace in the biblical story at all. It is, rather, Yahweh and Israel, God andhumanityor even, especially in the individualism of much Western Chris-tendom, God and the individual soul (as Augustine emphasized)thatare the realities of central interest and concern in the Christian religion.The divine-human relation is clearly the axis around which all else re-volves. And in the end when God will create new heavens and a newearth (Isaiah 65:17; Revelation 21:1), this will be primarily for the sakeof the new Jerusalem where all human suffering, pain, and misery will beovercome (Isaiah 65:1824; Revelation 21:24). The rest of creation,though always recognized and sometimes acknowledged and reflected upon,simply was not of central theological interest or importance, and (with theexception of the angels) never became the subject of any technical theo-logical vocabulary or doctrines.

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    In modernity (and in so-called postmodernity as well) nature and Godhave become rivals in the claims they make on our interest, attention, com-mitment, and loyalty. With Giordano Bruno and others, nature began tobe thought of as itself infinite, and a direct conflict began to emerge withthe concept of (the infinite) Godand with Gods unique metaphysicaland religious roles. In due course, God and nature were explicitly identi-fied with each other (by Spinoza and others); and it was under the aegis ofthe concep...


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