Thoughts on Theology: Ecotheology

April 13, 2022
A rainbow falling on trees and a mountain

This chapter on creation in the theology of The United Church of Canada refers to the four subordinate standards of 1925 and 1940, A New Creed of 1968 (and its revisions), and A Song of Faith, 2006. It places the subordinate standards in relation to their biblical foundations, the broader contexts of historic/creedal and ecumenical Christian theology of creation, and various sub-genres of 20th- and 21st-century theology. It refers to United Church documents regarding the climate crisis.

At the outset, I suggest that a theology of creation today has to be done on the basis of scripture, but also with reference to what we know of creation through the natural sciences and our general experience of the world. What I found in studying the official doctrinal statements was a significant shift away from what I have called “classical theism” toward what I call “ecotheology.”

The documents of 1925, and 1940 even more, speak in the tones of classical theism; that is, long-held, widely accepted beliefs about God going all the way back to the ancient church. Classical theism is not monolithic, of course, but generally is derived from many biblical texts, often read through the lens of ancient Greek philosophy. In this theism, “God” is absolutely omnipotent and all-controlling in relation to creation. God is immutable, beyond all suffering, and omniscient (all knowing). While God is also said to love the world, God’s transcendence and power over creation is so strongly asserted that creation becomes basically the passive recipient of divine decrees by this all-controlling divine monarch.

Cracks in the cement of this classical theism began to appear with the beginnings of modern science, advancing methods of scientific verification, and awareness of natural laws. For the new science, the physical world possessed a certain autonomy not directly controlled by God. Further, in the 19th century, there appeared the evolutionary science of Charles Darwin, together with new awareness of the universe. Here, the world of nature was no longer seen as a static reality created once by divine fiat. We now learn of an evolving Earth and even an evolving humanity, and an unimaginably ancient planet within an inconceivably vast universe. We now hear of evolutionary dead ends, of a planetary history of vast destruction, as well as great order, innovation, beauty, and love. We learn of five great extinctions, a huge planet-wide destruction caused by a volcanic eruption 250 million years ago, and a giant asteroid that almost destroyed all life on Earth 65 million years ago. This new awareness of the world in which we live does not point to an all-controlling, benevolent deity who rules all over all things by divine decree. So, from the late-19th century, we see a gradual crumbling of what I have called classical theism. To be credible in our time, it is necessary to think of God and of creation in a different way.

In the Methodist Church as early as 1885, Nathanael Burwash, professor of theology at Victoria College, Toronto, already accepted Darwinian evolution and its implications for biblical interpretation well before the Twenty Articles of Doctrine were adopted in 1925. It is surprising, then, that we hear no hint of this in those articles. The Statement of Faith of 1940 speaks even more strongly in the tones of classical theism. For example, the 1940 statement includes no separate article on creation; it speaks of God as Creator, “the Sovereign Lord exalted above the world, who orders and overrules all things in it to the accomplishment of his holy, wise, and good purposes.”

By the time we come to A New Creed 40 years later, we hear of God “who has created and is creating.”
We hear that creation is “God’s world,” but nothing of God’s overruling power. Then, the Song of Faith of 2006 can be seen to have left classical theism far behind. Not that it rejects all traditional doctrine. By no means. It is firmly Trinitarian and Christ-centered. Arguably, it is more authentically biblical than classical theism. I suggest the Song of Faith can be described as “ecotheology.”

By ecotheology, with its prefix “eco” (as in the term ecosystem), I mean a theology that emphasizes intimate relationality and mutual indwelling of all creatures with one another, but also of God with creation. Ecotheology speaks of God in creation, and creation in God. The first thing we hear about God in A Song of Faith is that “the one eternal God seeks relationship.” God’s reign is “not one
of domination,” we are told. Ecotheology does not speak of God’s “overruling” or supernatural
power in the universe. “God is holy mystery, and wholly Love.” Against classical theism, God suffers.
In Christ, God “bears the suffering and grief of the world.” God the Spirit is powerfully at work
in the whole universe, through natural processes and in faithful human action. In A Song of Faith,
we hear clear overtones of liberationist, feminist, ecological, and interfaith theologies, with a strong
emphasis on our present scientific awareness.

The end of my chapter refers to the present human-caused climate crisis, which could very well mean “the end of civilization as we know it,” or “an uninhabitable earth” (as climate scientists are warning). The older theism might expect a supernatural divine rescue by an all-controlling deity. But an ecotheology knows that the Creator Spirit will not set aside the laws of nature to accommodate our foolishness. Rather, as A Song of Faith says, it is part of our Christian mission “to participate with God in the healing and mending of creation.”

Harold Wells, Professor Emeritus, Emmanuel College, Toronto, Ont., wrote the chapter “The Good Creation: From Classical Theism to Ecotheology” for the book The Theology of The United Church of Canada, edited by Don Schweitzer, Robert C. Fennell, and Michael Bourgeois (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2019). This article, the second in a series that will feature contributors to the book, is Wells’s brief summary of that chapter. Purchase the book to explore in greater depth.