There exists within Christianity a tension between God's creative, loving powers and humanity's capacity and tendency to rebel against God. Christianity, drawing upon the Biblical imagery of Genesis 1 and 2 and Genesis 9 is unambiguous about the special role of humanity within creation. A document of the World Council of Churches from a meeting in Granvollen, Norway in 1988 states:
"The drive to have 'mastery' over creation has resulted in the senseless exploitation of natural resources, the alienation of the land from people and the destruction of indigenous cultures [...] Creation came into being by the will and love of the Triune God, and as such it possesses an inner cohesion and goodness. Though human eyes may not always discern it, every creature and the whole creation in chorus bear witness to the glorious unity and harmony with which creation is endowed. And when our human eyes are opened and our tongues unloosed, we too learn to praise and participate in the life, love, power and freedom that is God's continuing gift and grace."
In differing ways, the main churches have sought either to revise or to re-examine their theology, and as a result their practice, in the light of the environmental crisis. For example, Pope Paul VI in his Letter Octogesima Adventeins also comments in a similar manner:
"... by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he [man] risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation [...] flight from the land, industrial growth, continual demographic expansion and the attraction of urban centres bring about concentrations of population difficult to imagine."
In his 1990 New Year message, the Pope also stated: "Christians, in particular, realize that their responsibility within creation and their duty towards nature and the Creator are an essential part of their faith."
In Orthodoxy this is brought out even more strongly, especially in the document produced by the Ecumenical Patriarchate Orthodoxy and the Ecological Crisis, in 1990. The Orthodox Church teaches that humanity, both individually and collectively, ought to perceive the natural order as a sign and sacrament of God. This is obviously not what happens today. Rather, humanity perceives the natural order as an object of exploitation. There is no one who is not guilty of disrespecting nature, for to respect nature is to recognize that all creatures and objects have a unique place in God's creation. When we become sensitive to God's world around us, we grow more conscious also of God's world within us. Beginning to see nature as a work of God, we begin to see our own place as human beings within nature. The true appreciation of any object is to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.
The Orthodox Church teaches that it is the responsibility of humanity to restore the proper relationship between God and the world. Through repentance, two landscapes, the one human, the other natural, can become the objects of a caring and creative effort. But repentance must be accompanied by appropriate initiatives which manifest the ethos of Orthodox Christian faith.
The World Council of Churches, predominantly Protestant, but also with full Orthodox participation, produced a series of conclusions on the issues of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation:
"We affirm that the world, as God's handiwork, has its own inherent integrity; that land, waters, air, forests, mountains and all creatures, including all humanity, are 'good' in God's sight. The integrity of creation has a social aspect which we recognise as peace with justice, and an ecological aspect which we recognise in the self-renewing, sustainable character of natural ecosystems.
"We will resist the claim that anything in creation is merely a resource for human exploitation. We will resist species extinction for human benefit; consumerism and harmful mass production; pollution of land, air and waters; all human activities which are now leading to probable rapid climate change; and the policies and plans which contribute to the disintegration of creation.
"Therefore we commit ourselves to be members both of the living community of creation in which we are but one species, and of the covenant community of Christ; to be full co-workers with God, with moral responsibility to respect the rights of future generations; and to conserve and work for the integrity of creation both for its inherent value to God and in order that justice may be achieved and sustained."
Implicit in these affirmations is the belief that it has been human selfishness, greed, foolishness or even perversity that has wrought destruction and death upon so much of the planet. This is also central to Christian understanding. As far as we can tell, human beings are the only species capable of rebelling. against what God has revealed as the way in which we should live. This rebellion takes many forms, but one of these is the abuse of the rest of creation. Christians are called to recognise their need to be liberated from those forms within themselves and within society which mitigate against a loving and just relationship one with another and between humans and the rest of creation. The need to repent for what has been done and to hope that change can really transform the situation are two sides of the same coin. The one without the other becomes defeatist or romantic - neither of which is ultimately of much use to the rest of the world.
The Orthodox Churches pursue this in their own line of theology and reflection concerning creation and expressed their commitment in the document Orthodox and the Ecological Crisis in 1990:
"We must attempt to return to a proper relationship with the Creator and the creation, This may well mean that just as a shepherd will in times of greatest hazard lay down his life for his flock, so human beings may need to forego part of their wants and needs in order that the survival of the natural world can be assured. This is a new situation - a new challenge. It calls for humanity to bear some of the pain of creation as well as to enjoy and celebrate it. It calls first and foremost for repentance but of an order not previously understood by many."
The hope comes from a model of our relationship with nature which turns the power we so often use for destruction into a sacrificial or servant power here using the image of the priest at the Eucharist:
"Just as the priest at the Eucharist offers the fullness of creation and receives it back as the blessings of Grace in the form of the consecrated bread and wine, to share with others, so we must be the channel through which God's grace and deliverance is shared with all creation. The human being is simply yet gloriously the means for the expression of creation in its fullness and the coming of God's deliverance for all creation."
For Christians, the very act of creation and the love of God in Christ for all creation stands as a constant reminder that, while we humans are special, we are also just a part of God's story of creation. To quote again from the World Council of Churches report of the 1991 General Assembly on the theme "Come Holy Spirit - Renew the Whole Creation":
"The divine presence of the Spirit in creation binds us human beings together with all created life. We are accountable before God in and to the community of life, an accountability which has been imagined in various ways: as servants, stewards and trustees, as tillers and keepers, as priests of creation, as nurturers, as co-creators. This requires attitudes of compassion and humility, respect and reverence."
For some Christians, the way forward lies in a rediscovery of distinctive teachings, lifestyles and insights contained within their tradition. For others, it requires a radical rethinking of what it means to be Christian. For yet others, there is still a struggles to reconcile centuries of human-centered Christian teaching with the truths which the environmentalists are telling us about the state of the world we are responsible for creating. For all of them, the core remains the belief in the Creator God who so loved the world that he sent His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should have eternal life (John 3:16). In the past, as we can now see, this promise of life eternal has often been interpreted by the churches as meaning only human life. The challenges to all Christians is to rediscover anew the truth that God's love and liberation is for all creation, not just humanity; to realize that we should have been stewards, priests, co-creators with God for the rest of creation but have actually often been the ones responsible for its destruction; and to seek new ways of living and being Christians which will restore that balance and gives the hope of life to so much of the endangered planet.
"I shall not cease reverencing matter, by means of which my salvation has been achieved... " St John of Damascus, On the Holy Images, 1.16
Current Conservation Projects
Since the Assisi summit in 1986, and as the result of certain programmes and ventures begun before that date, most of the major Christian denominations have undertaken some degree of environmental work. Those churches belonging to the World Council of Churches have, since the late 1980's been engaged in work centred around the theme of Justice, Peace and the integrity of Creation. This has involved not only national churches but also national councils of churches in wide-ranging educational and theological discussions and the production of educational and research materials.
In the Orthodox Churches, the creation of a new day in the Ecclesiastical Calendar (1 September) as a special day for prayer and supplication for the environment has led to hundreds of local initiatives and projects ranging from soil reclamation projects in Russia to tree planting initiatives in Romania to wildlife preservation programmes in the Greek islands and to forest preservation on the Holy Mountain. Furthermore, this day is used each year for the sending and reading of an Environmental Message from the Patriarchs and this has spawned much new material for education and preaching.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the national centres for justice and Peace within the Catholic Bishops' Conferences have taken environmental issues as one of their major strands, in particular by establishing Commissions on Justice, Peace and the Safeguarding of Creation in many dioceses around the world. This has led to intensified work being done by national structures in the Catholic church on education, practical projects and development / environment work. It has also helped many thousands of dioceses and tens of thousands of parishes to engage in similar activities.
In addition, Catholic environmental groups and centres have been established in most parts of the world. Their purpose and activities vary with some focusing upon the promotion of environmental education, while others are actively committed to the improvement of the environment. For example, an environmental centre, Poland has been set up to educate people to assume responsibility for the environment while the centre in Montevideo, Uruguay educates people to work with the poor to protect the environment. In Brazil, several missionaries have been killed for their work with indigenous peoples to protect the Amazon, while in Indonesia, missionaries work to protect tropical forests.
The role of the teaching orders of both monks and nuns should also be mentioned here. They often own land, and many have started organic farming projects, tree nurseries and similar practical programmes on their own land. Their role in education on environmental issues cannot be over-emphasized and considerable work is being done through Catholic schools, colleges and charitable organizations.
Most Catholic Universities in developing countries have departments of engineering which have assumed environmental responsibilities, and in many cases, these universities have developed environmental studies institutes.
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has taken a particularly strong role in environmental studies and published some major papers since Assisi 1986.
This is complemented by the work undertaken by the World Council of Churches on climate change. Councils of churches in many countries have worked on this topic and have undertaken studies and published extensively on climate change and the issues of justice, peace and creation which surround this topic.
All the major Christian aid agencies, such as Caritas, Christian Aid and the German and Swedish Lutheran aid agencies have made environmental factors integral parts of their development programmes around the world.
Most other Protestant churches such as the Methodists, Lutherans and Baptists, now have an international policy agreement to work on environmental concerns. At national and local levels many thousands of churches undertake programmes ranging from recycling, through education to practical schemes on church lands.
Of the smaller churches, some of the most active are the indigenous churches of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Here environmental considerations go hand in hand with the rediscovery or reintegration of traditional cultures and Christianity. In areas such as the Philippines and South America, churches assist indigenous peoples in struggling for land rights and against economic and environmental exploitation.
Martin Palmer is an environmental educationalist, and director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture (ICOREC), based in Great Britain.