An Eco-Christology for an Age of Mass Deforestation
Samuel M. Coker *
Amid the many environmental catastrophes gripping the planet today, perhaps none are of greater consequence to loss of life than mass deforestation. Forests make up roughly a third of the land globally, but in the past thirty years, we have lost 420 million hectares of the world’s forests. That’s equal to over 1 billion square acres of forest gone since 1990. The Amazon rainforest, the world’s largest, has lost about 1 million square acres total since 1978. The consumption of our forests for agricultural-industrial practices is drastically shrinking Earth’s biodiversity, since so much of our biodiversity is located in forests. Furthermore, the destruction of forests is robbing our atmosphere of the capacity to store carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, contributing to the ongoing process of global warming. While the global rate of deforestation has lessened in recent years, there has still been tremendous loss of plant and animal life. Deforestation would be tragic for this reason alone. However, because the atmosphere itself is altered as a result of deforestation, it spells doom for Earth’s human population as well. It has been argued that if current deforestation and population growth rates hold, then it is nearly guaranteed that “we have a few decades left before an irreversible collapse of our civilization.” This crisis poses serious concern for homo sapiens as a species, not to mention the millions of other species that have died and are dying due to habitation loss and the greenhouse effect in our atmosphere.
Such a crisis demands a response from the Christian church. What Christians believe about our relationship to forests and deforestation is of some consequence, given that it is the world’s largest religion with over 2 billion adherents. Care for the earth has become a more pressing concern for Christians over the past decade with figures like Pope Francis using his platform to speak on environmental concerns. But it is clear from the damage done so far that concern over deforestation specifically and ecological concern more generally are still far from the center of the Christian faith. Lynn White, Jr.’s assertion that “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt” for the destruction of our planet is built on the historical understanding that Christianity birthed a belief that humankind is destined for transcendence. Our efforts in science and technology have been to master our surroundings to the point of ecological domination, and this attitude in the West can be blamed, at least in part, on Christianity. The growth of modern science and technology, which informed the current paradigm of domination over nature, “cannot be understood historically apart from distinctive attitudes toward nature which are deeply grounded in Christian dogma.” Prevailing beliefs about humans’ relationship to God and to creation focus on the human project of transcendence of this world. The idea that Jesus came to save humanity but has very little to do with the more-than-human natural world has facilitated a stratification between us and nature. To quote White once more, because the natural world has been thought of only as an object of mastery with little relationship to the faith, “to a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact.” If this remains the case, not only will we fail to stop the disturbing trend of deforestation, we will doom ourselves to societal collapse. I propose a possible solution. Because Jesus is the linchpin of the Christian faith, we must radically rethink our Christology so that it includes the more-than-human natural world in the promise of redemption. I propose an eco-Christology that turns the perspective of the faith from heaven above to the world around us. Instead of trying to transcend and abandon this world, we must embrace it.
More should be said about how we got here. The historical development of Christology in the West can be traced back to the early church fathers. Joseph Sittler has claimed that the divide between the churches in East and West signaled the most significant break in Christology. In his move to retrieve a vibrant Christology for the contemporary ecological crisis, Sittler goes back to Irenaeus who, consciously refuting the beliefs of Gnosticism, wrote of nature and grace as coming from the Son. In Irenaeus’s view, all creation is of God. The running theme in Irenaeus’ writing, echoed in Athanasius and other early fathers, is the inherent goodness of creation, of physical reality. Sittler calls this a “cosmic Christology” that effectively countered the Gnosticism of the day and provided a strong model for thinking about the relationship between God and the physical world.
This Christology has persisted in the Eastern church but fell out of favor in the West. Instead, the West developed a Christology that was concerned only with humans’ redemption insofar as it pertained to their salvation and transcendence of this world. Sittler points to the misappropriation of Augustine’s writing as the chief cause. More specifically, the depravity of human beings, a common theme in Augustine’s works, became the focal point of Christology. Jesus ceased to be relevant to the broader world of creation when the redemption of the human being became the only important aspect of Christology. This has left the Western church unable to relate to the natural world. In Sittler’s view, this development has also worked to alienate non-Christians from the church. For the artist who strives to appreciate the grandeur of the natural world, Sittler writes, “this living stuff of natural life is either indifferently regarded or negatively assessed by the community which is Christ’s church.”
The discussion about how Christology came to be divorced from creation is a worthy one, but for now it is sufficient to say that the Christian church, specifically the church in the West, has for centuries adopted a Christology that is entirely vertical. In other words, the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ took place so that human beings could be lifted up from their depravity and be saved. This language of ascendance is common in popular ways of talking about Jesus.The result is that the Western church has come to regard creation merely as the stage on which the great drama of human salvation is played out. Care for creation is secondary to the human relationship with Christ. We are now witnessing the devastating consequences of such a Christology. I submit that the necessary antidote to an entirely vertical Christology is a more multi-dimensional one. We need a Christology that views the whole cosmos as subjects of redemption. Not only can such a Christology reorient us to the inherent goodness and beauty of the world in which we live, it can work to prevent catastrophic ecological practices like mass deforestation. I believe that an eco-Christology for these times requires we turn to the image of trees. After all, it was on a cross made from a tree that Jesus was crucified. In a very physical sense, trees are the site of the crucifixion. And now, in an age of mass deforestation, we now can think of trees, forests, the natural world on which we depend as undergoing their own crucifixion. Such a Christology is a radical move. It forces us to think of the more-than-human natural world as reenacting parts of the supposedly human-only drama. But I argue that this proposal is not so far removed from our imaginations that it cannot be done. Neither is it so far removed from the work of ecological theologians of the past fifty years who have offered new ways of thinking about Christology and the natural world. I intend to draw on voices from contemporary strands of ecotheology, including ecofeminism, liberation theology, and process theology, to develop the eco-Christology that I am proposing.
The notion that Jesus is fundamentally interested in the life of the natural world beyond humans is perhaps best expressed in the Christic paradigm adopted by Sallie McFague. This paradigm emerges from her view that the whole cosmos should be thought of as the body of God. The two dimensions to this paradigm are shape and scope, shape being the “direction of creation…toward inclusive love for all, especially the oppressed, the outcast, the vulnerable,” and scope being “all of creation in a particular salvific direction, toward the liberation, healing, and fulfillment of all bodies.” For McFague, the story of Jesus reveals God’s solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized. The fact that Jesus is fully human, himself a part of the natural world, shows God’s concern not only for souls but for bodies. Because the scope of the Christic paradigm includes the whole of creation, Jesus is in solidarity with all suffering bodies, which in this age should include the more-than-human natural world. The cosmic Christ in McFague’s paradigm demands Christian think of the whole world as the arena in which redemption can take place, which will include liberation, healing, and sharing of the natural world. Such a view is conducive to an eco-Christology that prioritizes the wellbeing of all suffering life. The redemption offered by the story of Jesus is available to the natural world as well as to humankind. Living out the Christian response to a suffering cosmos will necessarily include protecting those parts of the world that are under threat of harm or death. This includes Earth’s forests and trees.
The Christic paradigm offered by McFague has been developed and expanded on by Catholic feminist Elizabeth Johnson. Johnson’s move in her work on the relationship between Christian belief and evolutionary science is to suggest that the incarnation accounted for the pain, suffering, and death of all living things across the planet’s whole evolutionary history. In this “deep incarnation,” God has experienced all the travails of physical life on Earth and thus shows solidarity with even the animals who have experienced great suffering. The incarnation “confers a new form of nearness to God on the whole of earthly reality in its corporal and material dimensions, on all of Earth’s creatures, on the plants and animals, and on the cosmos in which planet Earth dynamically exists.” In Jesus’ death, God experiences great pain, a pain that living creatures from the whole of Earth’s history have experienced. Additionally, because the solidarity of suffering includes the more-than-human natural world, there exists also a “deep resurrection.” The implication of Jesus’s resurrected body is that all creatures who have experienced pain and suffering are given the compassionate presence of a loving God. Johnson concurs with McFague that the incarnation signals concern for physical bodies for the whole created world, not just humankind. The “deep incarnation” of Johnson’s Christology is useful for imagining a doctrine of Jesus that extends horizontally out to the whole of creation. Earth’s forests and the life they hold are included in the solidarity with the oppressed and the promise of resurrection. If this is the case, then care for the land, especially land that contains so much capacity for life, must be protected from rapacious acts such as deforestation. McFague and Johnson together make a compelling case that the incarnation of Jesus includes the whole of creation within the promise of redemption.
Other voices from the contemporary landscape of theology have offered intriguing possibilities for reimagining Christology. In the field of liberation theology, Leonardo Boff has expounded at length about the “cosmic Christ” that emerged from the process of cosmogenesis. Jesus is made of the very same cosmic materials that all things in the universe are made of. Like Johnson, Boff is troubled by the implications of suffering in the process of evolution. Jesus, like so many others in the history of creation, experienced pain, suffering, and death. It is singularly remarkable that the being who signals the defeat of death and the flourishing of life was crucified. Jesus was not only in his very physicality composed of the very same stuff that makes up all other life in the cosmos, he suffered extreme pain and death. To Boff, Jesus represents all those who are left behind in death, human and otherwise. The reason for the incarnation is not the sin of humankind – this view is too anthropocentric for Boff – but rather, “the incarnation, which encompasses the entire universe, touching all beings and becoming promise in each human being, signifies the supreme glorification of God.” Jesus the Son is the bursting forth of God’s purpose for creation in an earthly body. The Christogenesis that Boff speaks of is the method by which the entire cosmos is brought into unification with God. All life on the planet, and even beyond the planet, is part of the story. In such a view, the destruction of creation for selfish purposes is antithetical to God’s plan for the flourishing of all life. Mass deforestation not only kills swaths of species, it robs us of our own ability to live. The Son was incarnated so that the whole universe would be brought into God’s love and image. What kind of world do we fashion when we forget our place in the cosmos and treat every other living thing as the object of domination?
An eco-Christology to address mass deforestation must renew the emphasis on Jesus’ humanity. Theology around the incarnation has tended to center the godliness of Jesus. We have done so forgetting that Jesus was a person of flesh and blood, a living created being as well as the divine Logos. The revelation of Jesus has been abstracted to the point of total immutability. Without remembering the earthly element of the incarnation, the deep solidarity with suffering life, Jesus becomes irrelevant to the created world. Process theologian Catherine Keller has said that “the grandeur of this incarnate logos in its illumination of the word enfleshed in every creature of the creation – and above all in those least.” Jesus reveals the inherent goodness of all living creation. Like with McFague, Johnson, and Boff, Keller recognizes that the solidarity of Jesus’ humanity extends especially to the “least” of life, those who are oppressed and marginalized. It is no stretch of the theological imagination to claim that this principle applies to the nonhuman creation. Whatever part of creation is under greatest threat to the thriving fullness of life is of particular concern to the Son of God that knows pain, suffering, and death.
An eco-Christology for a catastrophe such as mass deforestation requires more than a deconstruction of the theology that has brought us to this point. It also needs hope. The image of Jesus as the healer of creation is of some use here. Howard Snyder has proposed that Jesus should be thought of as the cure for the disease that has stricken creation. Jesus reconciles creation unto Godself, enabling the flourishing of the whole natural world. Such is God’s desire for the created order. Snyder is specific that the disease of creation is a result of human sin. The disorder, disease, and disharmony of humankind has endangered the natural world. But Jesus signals the ultimate hope God has for creation, which is the flourishing of all living things. Humans are called to live in responsible interrelatedness to the rest of creation. The good news, according to Snyder, is “total healing, full flourishing, and strategic mission for God’s people.” Ecologically holistic living is very much a part of that mission. Herein lies the eschatological dimension to eco-Christology. By living in responsible interrelatedness to the natural world, by promoting healing, restoration, and thriving of life, we may realize the hope for the whole creation that Jesus embodied in the incarnation.
The life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has implications for the nonhuman natural world. Creation is more than just the stage on which human drama is played, it is part of the story of redemption. There is some irony in the fact that Christians believe that Jesus died on a cross, presumably cut from the wood of a tree, while watching as millions of trees are cut down to serve human interests. Now the trees, the very materials on which Jesus died, are being crucified at the hands of a global capitalistic economy that sees creation as its subordinate. In response to this devastating crisis and the challenge levied by Lynn White, Jr. over fifty years ago, I have endeavored to construct an eco-Christology that recaptures the horizontal dimension of the incarnation. This includes reclaiming that Jesus was a physically embodied human being, a participant of the creation that is currently under threat. Because Jesus lived a human life of pain, suffering, and death, the divine Logos is in solidarity with all living things that have suffered and died. This connection with and concern for life extends beyond humankind into the rest of creation. The whole of nature is included in the promise of redemption. All living things are glorified by God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus because himself was a living thing of this Earth. We may think of Jesus as the cosmic Christ, redeeming the entirety of creation. The inherent goodness of all creation is celebrated and made new in the incarnation. It is the responsibility of humankind, with the faculties for great care and harm we possess, to foster ecologically holistic practices of living that prioritize the flourishing of creation. Such a Christology demands that Christians take seriously the threats posed by the project of mass deforestation, which cuts down myriads of living creatures and makes it increasingly difficult for even us, the supposed masters of nature, to flourish. The paradigm shift of eco-Christology is intimidating. It requires the church unlearn centuries of theology that has centered humans as keepers of dominion and neglected creation care. But the adoption of the cosmic Christ, who experiences death and promises life, is cause for celebration. As Keller writes, “the significance of the cosmic Christ extends – from a Christian perspective – infinitely outward, in all directions. It is no more high than it is wide and deep.” Perhaps by taking on the Jesus of all creation, we may take steps to heal the damage we have done. The Earth’s forests call out in agony. It is our responsibility to answer with humility, reparation, and the promise of life for the whole world given by Jesus Christ.
Boff, Leonardo. Cry for the Earth, Cry for the Poor. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997. Bologna, Mauro and Gerardo Aquino, “Deforestation and world population sustainability: a quantitative analysis.” Scientific Reports 10, 7631 (2020) https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-63657-6 Butler, Rhett A. “Amazon Destruction.” Last updated December 4, 2020. https://rainforests. mongabay.com/amazon/amazon_destruction.html Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. “A fresh perspective: Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020.” Accessed December 13, 2020. http://www.fao.org/forest-resources-assessment/2020/en/ Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. “The State of the World’s Forests 2020.” Accessed December 13, 2020. http://www.fao.org/3/ca8642en/online/ca8642en.html# Francis. Laudato Si’. Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2015. Johnson, Elizabeth. Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Keller, Catherine. On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008. McFague, Sallie. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1993. Sittler, Joseph. Evocations of Grace: Writings on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics. Edited by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. Snyder, Howard with Joel Scandrett. Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011.
* Samuel Coker is a second-year Master of Divinity student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston and pastoral intern at Urban Village Church in Chicago, Illinois. A native of central Arkansas, Sam has spent most of life in the United Methodist Church and is currently a certified candidate for ordination as an Elder. He feels deeply drawn to work as a preacher, teacher, and theologian. A lover of all kinds of music, he is the author of Metal Music: A Hunger for Transgressive Spiritual Spaces in Open Horizons.
White, Jr., Lynn “The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science, Vol. 155, No. 3767 (March 10, 1967): 1203-1207.