The Whole Earth in the Trinity

What happens when we view the whole earth as an icon for the Holy Trinity?

The Whole Earth in the Trinity

This post is the second in a three-part series on ecotheology and biodiversity. Last month, I discussed how the Christian theological tradition contributed to the ethical frameworks which allow people to justify their immoral behavior toward the earth. You can access that post here.

Today, I am posting here about how the Trinity can help us to shake some of our anti-earth theologies. I am posting it today especially because of the Trump Administration’s shameful weakening of the Protected Species Act, which has happened today. We Christians cannot stand idly by as the lives of thousands of species are in jeopardy; we must respond faithfully, and reclaim our faith as one in which even the sparrow’s life has infinite value.

It is an ancient knowledge which tells us that human life and non-human life are tied together, our livelihood resting in the well-being of the other. It is something that Vine Deloria Jr., the theologian whose work I discussed last week, explains as being central of Native American religion in his book God is Red. And yet, it is also something forgotten by many of us in Western cultures, and so reports on climate change often read as if the news of the interrelatedness of all life is something recently discovered. For example, in the New York Times report I referenced last month on mass extinction, one scientist, Robert Watson, framed the findings of this study as something newly added to the conversation on ecology. “For a long time, people just thought of biodiversity as saving nature for its own sake … but this report makes clear the links between biodiversity and nature and things like food security and clean water in both rich and poor countries.”

Who is it, exactly, that thought that preserving biodiversity had nothing to do with the well-being of all creation – including us human animals? And what are their backgrounds, that allowed them to think this way for so long?

Deloria would argue that Western Christian theology contributed to this kind of thinking, and that this kind of thinking is contrary to the ways Native American religion posits human relationship to the earth. In writing about the native understanding of creation, he says, “To exist in a creation means that living is more than tolerance for other life forms—it is recognition that in differences there is the strength of creation and that this strength is a deliberate desire of the creator.”

In this framework, biodiversity has inherent value in its own right, regardless of how much or how little it benefits humanity. It is a “deliberate desire of the creator.” It’s a far cry from how the editorial board of the New York Times describes the importance of biodiversity when they write, “Biodiversity loss, [the report] says, is an urgent issue for human well-being, providing billions and billions of dollars in what experts call “ecosystem services.” This is a framework in which biodiversity is important only because it is imperative to human well-being and financially beneficial; it is only important because it can fulfill human desire. And Christian theology has been an active participant in developing this earth-as-tool mindset which has led us to the ecological disaster we face now.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Christian theology does not have to be a death-dealing force when it comes to discussing the earth, nor should it be. It is imperative at this time in history to draw on our theological tradition to find a life-giving, life-sustaining approach to the earth and all its inhabitants because, as I discussed last week, our theologies influence the actions of people outside of our seminaries and churches – either for good or for ill.

At the core of this discussion is the question of anthropocentrism. Whereas Deloria considers the values and experiences beyond those of humans, the New York Times, in this editorial, expresses concern only for human values and concerns. As Western cultures come to understand more and more than our fate as human beings is tied up with the fate of our non-human neighbors, we must begin to consider more than just our values and experiences; we must abandon our anthropocentrism.

This might first appear to present a problem for Christian theology; after all, in our tradition, humanity was honored with the imago Dei, and God became truly human in Jesus Christ. These are high praises for human beings, which exalt us over and above non-human life as the crown jewel of creation. One goal of ecotheology is to find parts of our tradition which help us to claim the value of non-human life. I think one place we might begin is with the Trinity.

“Cardboard Cathedral,” transitional Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand

The Trinity, which sees perfect unity in multiplicity and perfect differentiation within one being, offers us a model for making sense of our own home of planet earth, which simultaneously and mysteriously functions as one complex organism and as a complex web of an uncountable number of individual living beings. Brian Swimme, a professor of evolutionary cosmology, once described it this way: “The universe is a single, multiform energetic unfolding of matter, mind, intelligence, and life,” – a reality we can see reflected in the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
This is the argument of Brazilian ecofeminist and liberation theology, Ivone Gebara. She describes the Trinity as being a reflection not of stagnant dogma, but as a reflection of life lived, as something which is better experienced than catechized. Above all, she says, the Trinity is relationship, and we participate in it constantly. She writes, “We need to reaffirm that the Trinity is an expression of the Mystery, both one and multiple, that envelops us, that has made us what we are, and in which we participate ceaselessly… The Trinity is relationship, after all: an existential experience in ourselves and in the world.”

An Old Man, a Young Man, and a Bird – beautiful, sure, but our dogma limits our understanding of God.

However, despite the dynamism of the Trinity, we have clung to exclusive language which limits our understanding of the Divine. For so long, we have clung to our traditional and exclusively male imagining of God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – at the expense of allowing our living faith to, well, live. We are left with a god theologian Sandra Schneiders cheekily describes as “an old man, a young man, and a bird.” The truth, which Gebara points to, is that God is so much bigger, transcending the images and metaphors we use to point towards this reality. This does not mean that the image of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is inaccurate, but our dogmatic approach to this image being The Only Image for God closes our minds. Instead, we must be able use many images if we wish to use language to describe God, which is something Jesus did when he spoke of God as a mother hen, a woman with a lost coin, a shepherd and, of course, a father.

In reality, we use many images for God all the time, though people are often miffed (to put it mildly) by incorporating other trinitarian formulations in church. But to do so is important in the world of ecotheology; by opening up our language about the Trinity, we can come to see the Trinity in many and various places throughout creation. The whole earth becomes an icon of the Holy Three in One.

Holy Trinity, pastel by Farid de la Ossa

This allows Christian theology to loosen its death grip on anthropocentric faith and begin to see non-human life as inherently valuable, rather than valuable only as a tool for humankind. When we consider the earth and its biodiversity as worthy only because it is useful to us, this is another way of expressing our perceived dominance over the earth, which is the kind of attitude which created our ecological crisis. Coming to see value inherent in the earth is a crucial step in being in right relationship with it. Rather than seeing it as something to be protected just because of its utility, we can instead come to appreciate all life in its abundant diversity as being “deliberately desired by the creator,” as Deloria puts it, in both its superb interconnectedness and particularity.

What do we make of the unique and multiform structure of our planet? What do we make of it that no two non-human animals are alike, even those of the same species? What do we make of it that every one of these individuals has a role to play in its own neighborhood, and that not one of them could live without the other? What do we make of it that we are equal to these non-human animals, at least in our distinction as having been formed by the Creator?

And how could we ever make sense of these things, expect through the Trinity, the mystery of our interrelatedness and particularity?

To see the entire earth and all its inhabitants as an icon of the Trinity, to see each living being in its particularity while knowing that our lives cannot be extricated from each other, has great implications in our lives and in our faith. It is an awe-striking change of perspective; rather than the meaning of this life coming our dominance over the world and its inhabitants, rather than seeing ourselves as exalted above our fellow creatures, we come to an “awareness of the meaning of life comes from observing how the various living things appear to mesh to provide a whole tapestry,” and the fullness of creation, the true majesty of the work of God, begins to reveal itself before us.

But it also has real ethical implications. By understanding ourselves as just one piece within the trinitarian earth, “we accept the responsibility of knowing and loving the earth as a living being, and of refraining from manipulating its secrets and destroying it,” as Gebara put it. No longer can we sit idly by as our governments destroy animal life and the few measly protections it currently has.

Acknowledging our part within the Trinity makes us aware of something new about ourselves. Seeing our own part in the Godhead calls us to be in a right relationship with the earth and its creatures, a calling I’ll discuss in the next final installation of this series.

When Theology Kills: Christianity & Mass Extinction

This is the first in a series of three posts about Christianity, ecotheology, and biodiversity. In this post, I explore the ways that centuries of Christian theology about creation has had a devastating impact on our common home. I publish these critiques with a heart full of love for the Christian tradition, and a heart full of sorrow, knowing that Christians have often failed in our duty to love our earth and our neighbors who call it home.

In the final two posts, coming out in the next two weeks, I’ll discuss some constructive ways Christians can talk about God and God’s relationship to our planet: theology that is life-giving and life-sustaining, instead of deadly, as our theology has sometimes been throughout history.

CreditCreditSoren Andersson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; accessed from the New York Times 18 July 2019

In May, the New York Times announced something many of us already knew: Humans are speeding up mass extinction. Across the world over, biodiversity is shrinking, native species are in a precipitous decline, and entire habitats are disappearing – all while the populations of humans and the animals we farm for food are growing at an alarming rate. 

I knew about these worrisome trends before I read this particular headline, but still, I thought a great deal about this story. In large part, I thought about the image which dominated my laptop screen when I opened the New York Times that morning. In this terrible image, a beautiful olive ridley turtle is on the sand. Its head is bowed, its face mournful and still, its eyes closed. It is being strangled by a fishing net, tied almost as if it were a deadly bow around the great creature’s neck . That turtle died, as many sea creatures do, because of our insatiable and unsustainably desire to eat aquatic animal life – tuna, halibut, scallops, sea bass, shrimp, and on and on and on. In the background of the image, children play in the sand and water. It’s haunting.

That turtle was one casualty of human disregard for the lifeforms with whom we share our planet. It is a heart-wrenching image of just one animal, but the reality is much larger than one turtle. To understand the destruction we level against our non-human animal neighbors, we’d have to imagine millions of animals like this lone olive ridley turtle.

It is an injustice that we have condemned so many innocents to such a fate, and it’s a real-life injustice which reflects a biblical one, found in the Christian account of creation. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and all the creatures in the waters and on the land and human beings in God’s image, and God called it all very good. And then humanity took a bite from some fruit, and God condemned not just humanity, but all creation, to pain and toil and death for the rest of our days.

Vine Deloria, Jr., Native American theologian

The animals (at least, the non-human, non-snake animals) and the earth and the waters had nothing to do with the decision of Adam and Eve to eat that fruit – and yet, they paid the price along with us. It is an injustice, one that Native American theologian Vine Deloria, Jr. correctly names as intolerable.[1] I can imagine that, if we asked that dead olive ridley turtle whether she too paid the price of humanity’s sin, she would give a resounding yes. We ate the fruit from the tree of technology and fossil fuels, and so pollution, destruction, and degradation entered the life of the whole creation. It is intolerable, and devastatingly true, that the consequences of our wrongdoings reach far beyond the human community.

Unlike the other mass extinctions long ago in the earth’s history, the responsibility of the current devastation we are witnessing lies squarely on our shoulders. This current mass extinction is the result of our clearing of forests for animal agriculture, the ever-expanding cities and suburbs, ceaseless logging, hunting, wanton water pollution, and our transportation of plant and animal life around the globe[2] – resulting in invasive species colonizing the habitats of native species. All of this is in addition to the overfishing caused solely by human demand for fish to eat.

All of this makes one thing clear: we have a poor relationship with the earth and its creatures. In human terms, we might say that we have an estranged relationship with the earth. We’re not on speaking terms; in fact, we humans are frequently actively violent towards these other earthlings and their homes.

But we didn’t get to a point of crisis over night. Relationships are not ruined in one dramatic moment – not with other humans, or with other creatures. Instead, this current moment in time, when we are so acutely aware that we are living in an ecological crisis, is the result of Western civilizations’ disrespect for the earth – and especially Christians’ poor theology around the creation that God called good. This is a bold claim, but it is not a new one. It’s an argument that is frequently associated with Lynn White, an American historian who argued in 1967 that Medieval European Christian theology laid the theological, ethical groundwork for a worldview which sees the earth as a disposable tool, which was passed down through the generations to the early modern period and the first burgeoning moments of industrialization.

And I’m sad to say that I think White was correct; Christians bear a great responsibility for creating ethical frameworks which allow people to find mistreatment of the earth and all the creatures who call it home tolerable. It’s something that Vine Deloria – the theologian I mentioned earlier – also argued. In his most famous work, God is Red, Deloria compares Christianity to Native American religions to illustrate the ways that Christian theology has often been harmful. He points out two especially egregious ways that Christian theology – especially that grounded in our creation story – has objectified and disrespected the earth.

The first egregious theological claim about creation is that it has been that it is entirely corrupted.[3] The logic goes that, since all creation fell when Adam ate the fruit, creation became sinful. But, unlike humanity which has Jesus as our savior, the earth will simply pass away and a new, virtuous one will take its place (people who hold this theological view often cite Revelation 21 here). Of course, this biblical interpretation ignores important verses that stress the redemption of all creation through Jesus, such as John 12:32: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everything to myself.”

This theology runs deep, even today. So deep, in fact, that John 12:32 is often translated as Jesus saying, “I will draw all people to myself,” despite the fact that the Greek word in questions here is pantas; it literally just means all, the whole, and everything. Translating this word as “all people” instead of “everything” highlights exactly what Deloria is saying: Christians often see the earth as unredeemable. So unredeemable, in fact, that even Jesus isn’t promising to save it, as if God’s grace does not (or cannot?) extend to the land and waters on which we make our common home.

The second way that Christian theology has often been used to demean our ecosystem is through the idea that we have been given rightful domination over the earth and all the non-human animals in it[4]; the emphasis here is on the word “subdue” found in most translations of Genesis 1:28. This idea is ubiquitous among Western Christians, and even within the social and governmental policies Christians have created in the American Colonies and the United States.

For example, nineteenth century Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton combined racist ideas about Native Americans with biblical language to argue for Manifest Destiny, the movement which claimed that it was the God-granted right of White people to expand across North America (and take Native lands). Benton said, “It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth: for it is the only race that has obeyed it-the only race that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish…”

This kind of interpretation clearly has a long history, both of its supporters and those who rightfully criticize this approach. However, this interpretation is not confined to history. In 2016, for example, Poland’s environmental minister Jan Szyszko argued for permitting aggressive logging of ancient forests by saying that we have been given the responsibility to subdue the earth.

Of course, this theology, the kind that says the earth is entirely corrupted, beyond redemption, and to be subdued by mankind (emphasis on the “man”) is not universal among Christians. There are a great deal of Christians who care deeply about creation and who seek its well being. However, this anti-earth theology has had a long history within the European traditions of the faith. And, we European-descent Christians come by it honestly: even the Roman Empire, which impacted the Christian tradition a great deal, had a poor relationship to the earth based in the misuse of its resources.

This is not to say that it is only European and Euro-descent cultures which have exploited the earth, something Deloria is quick to say, as well.[5] After all, it is well known now that deforestation led to the end of humankind on Easter Island. But Deloria points out that one would be hard-pressed to find another society that justifies its exploitation of the land and waters with theological claims of a corrupt earth which we have been commanded to subdue.

It is clear to me that my own tradition of Christianity shares the responsibility for the ecological crisis we face today. We Christians share the responsibility of that olive ridley turtle’s death; we Christians share the burden of responsibility for current crisis of mass extinction. But we are not doomed to an anti-earth theology, and the impact of anti-earth theology makes something clear: the way we practice our faith can have a real impact on the earth. Next week, I’ll talk about an alternative way that Christians can approach theologies of the earth, which is also firmly grounded in the traditions of our faith. Perhaps we can hope and pray that ecotheology might have as broad an impression on the earth as anti-earth theology has had before it.

[1] Vine Deloria, Jr. God is Red: A Native View of Religion. (Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 2003), 86.

[2] The Editorial Board, “Life as We Know It,” The New York Times. 11 May 2019.

[3] Deloria, 78.

[4] Ibid., 81

[5] Ibid.