Nature and Grace: Making Environmental Issues Matter for Christian Life

Willis Jenkins

Adapted excerpt from Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology, Oxford University Press, Fall 2007

Consider how commonly nature writers reach for a salvation metaphor when they want to communicate the power of an environmental experience. Of course the rapturous John Muir, who saw cathedrals in the forest, choirs in the storms, and put the words of Jesus into the mouths of trees, often did.

His register was blatantly soteriological (“I pressed Yosemite upon him like a missionary offering the gospel.”) I have in mind the more subtle reaches of down-to-earth environmental writers, like the scientist Rachel Carson: “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature.” Or the usually plain-spoken forester Aldo Leopold; when explaining what he learned from “the fierce green fire” in a wolf’s eyes and from trying to “think like a mountain,” Leopold misquotes Thoreau’s dictum, “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” to say “in wildness is the salvation of the world.” This, he immediately goes on to say, “is the hidden meaning of the wolf, long known to mountains.”1

Contemporary environmental writers exhibit the salvific instinct as well. Scott Russell Sanders writes that encountering nature involves a kind of faith “in the healing energy of wildness, in the holiness of creation. One of the reasons many of us keep going back to Thoreau and Muir and Leopold and Carson is because they kept that faith.” Environmental writing thus seems to dwell near the literatures of faith, as attested by the fact that an editor would ask Barry Lopez to introduce an anthology of spiritual writing. Lopez does so by writing about the cultivation of reverence, which allows a landscape to enter and elevate a person. Humans are “creatures in search of…a pattern of grace,” writes Lopez elsewhere. When “the land gets inside of us,” as Lopez puts it, those patterns of grace are crucial for deciding what we will do about it.2

These writers seem to sense that they hold a sacred trust, remembering forms of holiness and salves of healing nearly forgotten by an alienated world. Terry Tempest Williams: “There is a holy place in the salt desert, where egrets hover like angels…I am hidden and saved from the outside world.” Even upstart David Gessner, who professes to be sick of pious writing about nature, cannot help himself, concluding one book: “If we look for it, we will find that a whole world is waiting for us. And it is in that world that we, not seeking it, will find a sort of salvation.” Some of our best environmental writers exhibit an organic reach toward grace.3

Other cultural observers have noticed this spiritual creep in environmental thought and trace religious valences in the civic reform of American environmentalism, sometimes with dismay. The veneration of nature, the feelings of prophetic alienation, the raptures and epiphanies, the sense of apocalyptic doom, the missional project of personal and cultural transformation — all this makes the environmental movement look religious.4

Meanwhile, the religious are beginning to look environmental. Religious leaders from many traditions have committed their respective faiths to addressing environmental problems. Religious com- munities from across the spectrums of diversity have begun to lift their voices for greener policies. Faith-based grassroots organizations around the world work to reclaim, restore, and replant. Religious thinkers regularly propose ecological retrievals, critiques, and revisions of their traditions.

The charged relations between religious and environmental thought produce some ambivalence in what we might mean by “religious environmentalism.” The term could mean the environmental responses and practices of various religious com- munities. That includes a range of phenomena from theological redefinitions of environmental goals to the mobilization of religious adherents in social re- form movements. Or “religious environmentalism” could mean the religious themes of environmental thought. That ranges from the missionary postures of the environmental movement to the spiritual dimensions of environmental experience. And there are hybrid uses of the term, as in the perception that global environmental problems are so complex, terrifying, and significant that they require a religious register for understanding and responding to them.

Life with God, Life on Earth

For Christian communities, making sense of what we mean by “religious environmentalism” means making sense of how to talk about life on Earth and life with God as a mutual venture. It means find- ing ways to make environmental problems morally intelligible for Christian experience, significant for Christian identity. Because problems of such scale and scope are new to humanity, that task challenges theological traditions in ways unprecedented by oth- er debates in Christian ethics, like arguments about war, sexuality, or poverty. Species loss and threats to biodiversity obviously arrest our moral attention, but how do they matter for Christian life? New tech- nological capacities seem to exercise transgressive control over nature, but what part of the Christian story offers approval or critique? Globalizing capitalism changes everything from agriculture to local economies, but how is it measured by theological wisdom? In an urbanizing world, the need for sustainable planning, housing, and energy use calls for imaginative new political forms, but how are they intelligible to Christian communities? Climate change places new dimensions of society in jeopardy, but how is that preachable on Sunday mornings?

As pastor, lay leaders, ethicists, and theologians try to answer those questions we have to decide what resources can engage Christian practice most directly, what parts of the Christian story can inform faithful response most adequately. Our theological traditions and moral practices are challenged, maybe even jeopardized, by environmental crises. In what ways does a wounded Earth matter for Christian spirituality? How do unsustainable or exploitative forms of inhabitation trouble Christian community? Good theological answers reestablish the Christian synthesis of life on Earth in the context of life with God.

So it is unsurprising that some of the most effective Christian initiatives inscribe environmental issues into the heart of Christian experience and identity by drawing on the metaphors, logics, and narratives of grace. They sense that nature matters for the Christian soul when it comes into contact with grace. Nature and grace — the bedrock logic of Christian experience. So perhaps in addition to reviewing our creation stories we should look also to our salvation stories, reading them as accounts of life on Earth in the context of life with God. What are our ecologies of grace? How does nature matter for the Christian experiences of redemption, sanctification, or reconciliation?

At first glance soteriology appears an unlikely starting place, for it seems to focus on the human, the spiritual, the interior, the otherwordly — quite the opposite of environmental concerns. Indeed, some compelling critiques blame the human-centered, spiritualized ambitions of salvation stories for generating the bad worldviews that underlie environmental problems. For better worldviews, therefore, Christian environmental ethics often begins from creation stories, reconsidering the moral dimensions of religious cosmology. Yet look carefully and you will see ethicists relying on the tropes and concepts of grace to make those cosmological reformulations come to life within Christian experience. Even while talking about other things, Christian environmental ethics tends to draw on background stories of salvation at the moments it wants to make environmental issues matter for Christian life.

They do so, I think, for reasons of pragmatic resonance. Species loss and threats to biodiversity require urgent and wholehearted responses; relationship with God animates Christian responses. Changes in agriculture and land use alter basic patterns of human experience; views of salvation shape the patterns of basic Christian experience. Technologies grow ominous with gargantuan and transgressive power; Christian conversion envisions powers overthrown and transformed. Unsustainable economies and climate change jeopardize contemporary forms of community; Christian communities form within economies of grace.

Redemption and Reforestation

Let me offer two examples from my experience work- ing with faith-based community development organizations. The first I came across several years ago in Uganda. As an assistant to a Church of Uganda (Anglican) development program, I learned how Ugandan churches theologically mobilize community responses to new social problems. Core parish committees, often centered around revivalist prayer groups, have adapted community responses to HIV transmission and AIDS outreach; they help protect and school orphans; they start and manage local clinics and schools; they protect water sources, organize microdevelopment loans, and plan community land use. And, as priests give voice to these organic theological innovations, all of those practical responses somehow inflect the preaching and worship on Sundays.

For each new problem, church communities were finding ways to redeploy their traditions (both theological and cultural) in order to address a social problem. New forms of Christian practice were striving to keep unprecedented social problems and dramatic socio-economic changes from fracturing the centers of common life. Each mode of response, I began to see, invented some new capacity from their traditions to make social issues significant for the experience of Christian life.

Many of these church groups, especially in the deforested hill country of western Ankole and Kigezi, include tree-planting initiatives in their activities. Despite familiarity with their expansive register of social ministries, I was surprised to see very poor church communities, possessed of revivalist evangelical faith, working to replant native trees. To my mind, reforestation was an “environmentalist” issue somewhat removed from more immediate concerns like protecting water and traditionally evangelical concerns like caring for orphans. Yet here were Christian groups who had started a nursery for seedlings and were planting trees all around the village. Priests regularly approved the practice from the pulpit, and when the local bishop made the rounds his exhortations always included tree planting (along with marriage, sexual fidelity, and good schools.)

Why should the revivalist faith of poor community groups express itself in reforestation? The usual diagnostic tests do not seem to help: the degree of nature’s moral standing (low) and anthropocentrism (high) in revivalist preaching cannot explain why prayer groups would care about reforestation. Why would tree planting make it into a sermon headed for an altar call for an outburst of ecstatic dancing? I suspected that I needed to ask theological questions closer to the heart of the community’s identity, which meant, for these communities, asking soteriological questions.

Somehow hills and trees had become significant for their experience of redemption. “Walking in the light” of Christ’s regeneration meant reclaiming their village highlands as the environment of God’s grace for them. Denuded hills were a sign of shame, and reforestation a way to give witness to God’s new abundant life for this faith community.

A few years later, on the other side of the world, I visited the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) in Nasushiobara, Japan. ARI is at once an experimental farm for sustainable agriculture, a training institute for NGO leaders from the two-thirds world, and a remarkable interfaith community. College volunteers, staff leaders, and NGO participants from around the world form a life together, working among their organic chickens, high-yield rice paddies, bio-gas generators, and onsite cannery. The community requirements: everyone works and everyone attends chapel. They decide together how to run the farm and why, and they take turns holding chapel, each in the tradition of her own faith.

ARI believes that spiritual, economic, and eco- logical alienations must be healed together, and that the path to restored communion with each other and with God comes through learning the Earth’s lessons. Roommates Fr. Jovy, a Filipino Anglican priest, and Markuse, an Indian Hindu, exemplify ARI’s lived theology. Both had graduated from the ARI program and started successful ecumenical environmental initiatives in their home countries, and had now come back as staff. Now they share a simple dorm room and vision for reconciliation through sustainability. Jovy and Markuse believe that interfaith peace comes through collaborative work to restore human communities to ecological harmony. The daily work of understanding and tend- ing fields is for them also the theological work of understanding one another and creatively entering communion with the divine.

As I reflected on the implicit theologies of ARI and the revivalist tree-planters, I began to see lived environmental theologies that formed according to distinct notions of grace. The patterns of their environmental responses seem contoured by their notions of relationship with God. They seem to embody grassroots theologies of living on Earth according to their experience of living with God. They seem to inhabit, that is to say, distinct ecologies of grace.

Nature and Grace in Environmental Theology

Following  a clue  from  the revivalist  reforesters and reconciling organic farmers, I wonder whether soteriology might illuminate practical strategies. Following the hunch of the nature writers, I wonder whether vocabularies of grace might name re- sources for restoring ways of living ruptured from the Earth or haunted by loss. Suppose we let our stories of nature and grace show how environmental issues matter for Christian moral experience. How might our narratives of redemption and reconciliation guide the way churches should think about species loss or sustainability or community gardens? What role does the Earth play in God’s invitation to participate in the divine life? How does the environment matter for becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ? Such questions lead Christian communities of all theological stripes to discover the ecological dimensions of their experience of God.

George Kehm argues that a practical environ- mental theology must “demonstrate the indispensability to the Christian story of an idea or theological claim: that this idea or claim must be in the story or else the story would not be that story.”It must show precisely how, as Luke Timothy John- son writes, environmental problems are “a crisis in Christian identity.” Insofar as Christianity revolves around a story of persons liberated, the sick healed, covenant restored, sinfulness redeemed, experience made holy, or the world reconciled, so far should environmental theologies seek soteriological roots. A practical Christian ethic, in other words, should show how the environmental crisis amounts to a crisis in the intimacies of God’s salvation.5

Joseph Sittler, who began rewriting theology for the environmental crisis in the early 1960s, insisted then that “nothing short of a radical relocation and reconceptualization of the reality and doctrine of grace is an adequate answer to that problem.” For Sittler, the church rediscovers its relation to the natural world by reconsidering its teachings on the presence of God for humanity. For in God’s saving acts we find a doctrine “large enough and ready enough and interiorly most capable of articulating a theological relationship between theology and ecology.” The paradoxes of grace and nature orient human persons to both humble soil and heavenly glories, shaping them for friendship with God and love of the world.6

Sittler thus suggests that environmental theologies should focus on showing how life with God and life on Earth are shared ventures. But that is no easy task, for as Oliver Davies (among a number of recent theologians) laments, modern theology somewhere lost the facility to hold together divine and natural aspects of createdness. If “our intimacy with God is set outside our intimacy with the world,” says Davies, then theology will fail to make sense of creation. In order for intimacy with God to illuminate the way of the world into Christian experience, theology must show how we are intimately related to the Earth, and the Earth to us, through God’s ways of relating to creation.

Davies argues that when Christianity fails to maintain relations among humanity, creation, and God’s presence, Christian experience loses its sense of the world. Failing to hold together God’s invitation to humanity and the human enfleshment within creation, says Davies, Christianity impoverishes both its christology and its soteriology – and so begins to lose the very center of its faith. So Davies raises the practical stakes: if Christians inadequately understand the ecology of God’s desire for humanity then they stutter before the fullness of their gospel. So too the converse: if they inadequately connect God’s saving work to inhabiting creation, environ- mental theologies will sit awkwardly with Christian identity and mission.

Sittler and Davies thus connect environmental is- sues to pastoral strategies from both sides. Without the fullness of grace, a Christian environmental ethic will falter. Without its environmental dimensions, a Christian story of salvation will falter. That not only issues a challenge but presents an organizing clue: if Sittler and Davies are right, then we would expect successful practical strategies of Christian environmental ethics to organically connect environmental issues to experience of God.

And in fact we see something like that happening in grassroots environmental initiatives. Ecojustice theologies tend to draw on themes of sanctification in order to connect respect for creation’s integrity to the spirituality and practice of God’s justice. Stewardship theologies rely upon tropes of redemption, where encounter with God creates vocational responsibilities to care for creation. Creation spiritualities appropriate themes of deification, in which eucharistic creativity gathers all creation into the gift of union with God.

I could proliferate examples; the point is that each strategy brings environmental issues within Christian moral experience by fitting them into a shared pattern of grace. That helps explain the diversity of Christian environmentalisms by the diversity of theological communities. Alternative stories of the experience of God make for various experiences of our Earthly habitat. We can argue (and do!) about which stories narrate the experience more fully or truthfully, and which forms of inhabitation live on Earth more appropriately. The point is that the story and the habitat connect.

Listening to theologians like Sittler and Davies, and following lessons learned from innovative Christian environmentalisms from the global south, I propose we take a second look at the way stories of grace bind the ventures of life on earth to the ventures of life with God. If we do, we may find ways of restoring the intimacies of nature and grace.

Willis Jenkins is the Margaret Farley Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Yale Divinity School.


1    John Muir, Nature Writings (New York: Library of America, 1997), 238; Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 87; Henry David Thoreau, Collected Essays and Poems (New York: Library of America, 2001), 239; Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949), 137.

2   Scott Russell Sanders, Hunting for Hope (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 39; Barry Lopez, Introduction to The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005, ed. Philip Zaleski (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), xvii–xxiii; Barry Lopez, Resistance (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 11; Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 411.

3   Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge (New York: Random House, 1991), 237; David Gessner, The Prophet of Dry Hill (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005), 181; Cf. David Gessner, Sick of Nature (Lebanon: Dartmouth Press, 2005).

4  See, for example, Thomas Dunlap, Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as Religious Quest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004).

5   George Kehm, “The New Story: Redemption as Fulfillment of Creation,” in After Nature’s Revolt: Eco-Justice and Theology, ed. Dieter Hessel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992), 91; Luke Timothy Johnson, “Caring for the Earth: Why Environmentalism Needs Theology,” Commonweal 132, no. 13 (2005): 18.

6   Joseph Sittler, Essays on Nature and Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1972), 6. Joseph Sittler, “Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” Zygon 5 (1970), 180.

7   Oliver Davies, The Creativity of God (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 6–7.