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The theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer can tell us much about how Christians should care for the environment, says Dutch researcher Steven Van den Heuvel in his doctoral thesis.
What does it mean for Christians to live in a created world? What specifically should be their reaction to the continuing ecological crisis? Are there grounds to say that biblical theology leads to to action which protects the environment?
Researcher Steven van den Heuvel gives answers to some of these questions in a doctoral thesis he defended last 30th of January in Kampen (Netherlands).
He argued that the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1908-1945) is relevant to current environmental ethics. Although the renowned German theologian lived at a time prior to the ecological crisis, his work contains many elements that can help give shape to a 'green faith,' he said.
For example, “Bonhoeffer writes in a nuanced way about the relationship between mankind and nature – he emphasises that being human entails an intimate connection with the earth from which we are formed, while at the same time he holds to the biblical instruction for humanity to rule over the earth, albeit giving this ruling a very specific tint”.
To comment more on the views he expresses in his thesis, Evangelical Focus contacted Van den Heuvel with more questions.
Question. Some Christians think there is no need to care about the environment since God will create “new heavens and a new Earth”. In your thesis dissertation you said this is a “distorted view” of the Gospel. What would you respond to Evangelicals who think Environmentalism is a “distraction”?
Answer. In the biblical worldview, themes such as ‘the earth’ and ‘bodiliness’ are central notions. In the faith of Israel, expressed in the Old Testament, the ultimate ideal is peace – a rich, multifaceted concept, denoting a life wholly ‘in order’: socially, personally, in relation to God, and in relation to the land.
In the latter portions of the Old Testament, the realization arises that this expectation requires a cosmic reordering, to be brought about by God at the end of times. This is reinforced in the New Testament, where such a reordering is seen as part of the completion of God’s Kingdom, as already established by Jesus Christ.
Just as the expectation of personal glorification spurs Christians in the present on to work out their salvation, so also the expectation of the coming redemption of earth should spur them on in their activities to care about the earth. So it is not at all a ‘distraction’ from God’s Kingdom if Christians work for the betterment of the earth, but an integral part of that mission.
Q. What is “eco-theology” or “green faith”? Are there nowadays theologians who would describe themselves under these tags?
A. Eco-theology is that theological discipline which reflects methodologically on the relationship between Christian faith and ecological concerns. It finds its genesis in the 1960’s, when the public became knowledgeable about the ecological crisis. At first, the cause for ecology was primarily picked up by more liberal theologians, who of old focus more on the ‘earthly’ dimension of salvation, often in the form of social justice.
However, also some evangelical theologians were quick to respond to the ecological crisis. In 1970, the well-known Francis Schaeffer, for example, wrote his book Pollution and the Death of Man. In the decades following, eco-theology became an established school of theological thought, and continues to be so today.
In general, it is still true that it is mostly liberal theologians who work within this branch of theology, but fortunately, more and more, evangelical theology is committing itself as well. Notable names in eco-theology (both liberal and evangelical) are those of Jürgen Moltmann, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Steven Bouma-Prediger, and Larry Rasmusssen, among many others.
Q. Can you explain briefly one example from your thesis in which correlation can be made between some of Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas and environmental ethics in the 21st century?
A. One example is what Bonhoeffer writes about Christ’s relationship to nature. He has been the first Protestant modern German theologian to specifically state that Christ is the center of nature. In his lectures on Christology, he describes Christ as the center – the center of human existence, of history, and – as said – also of nature.
He argues that Christ is the hidden center of nature – he cannot be ‘read off’ from the bare facts of nature. This veil, this ‘hiddenness’ is broken only by the Christian sacraments – they are a foreshadowing of the liberation of nature. When it is said over the bread that it is the body of Christ, that bread becomes a signifier to Christ’s body.
Thus, says Bonhoeffer, nature receives back its function as a signifier to Christ. Here, then, we have a strong ecological motive at the very heart of the Christian liturgy: the sacraments, which for many Christians are formative for their spirituality, not only help them in the further union with Christ, but also stimulate them to care for the very earth to which Christ came and to whom it points.
Q. More and more evangelicals seem to understand the idea that there is only one reality, and no separation between the sacred and the profane. But some still would defend that caring about the Earth is ‘less spiritual’ than doing Evangelism. What would you respond to that?
A. I would not at all defend the thesis that caring about the earth is ‘less spiritual’ than doing evangelism – this is a thesis I take issue with in my dissertation. Based on Bonhoeffer’s theology – who, in turn, refers to the New Testament – I stress the fact that there is only one reality and that any effort to divide reality up in a ‘worldly’ and a ‘spiritual’ realm is an unhelpful abstraction of reality.
Christ, through his incarnation, took on reality – all of reality. He did not come to establish a novel religion, with the limited aim of appealing to the religious needs of people, but he came to establish God’s kingdom, with the aim of redeeming the world with God.
That includes the totality of our human lives, but also the totality of nature. Christians follow Christ in furthering his Kingdom. That means spreading the good news about the redemption of our sins through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross – but it also means that we are to take serious the redemption of nature, brought about by Christ. We can prefigure that redemption by working with other people of good will, for the common good – for initiatives that protect and restore endangered biotopes, for example. Doing so is not ‘less spiritual’ than telling people about Christ – it is partaking in the one, unbroken mission of God to bring eu angelio, good news, to the world.
Q. Finally, could you share some tips for churches to better give practical teaching about how all Christians could care more about the environment around us?
A. Although on the basis of Bonhoeffer’s theology itself no concrete advice can be formulated as to how Christians should deal with the practical issues surrounding care for creation, it is certainly possible to outline some areas in which churches and individual Christians can do more.
A very helpful tool is the concept of the ecological footprint – there are multiple tests available online by means of which you can measure if you live within ecological means. When you need more than the ecological footprint, you take up space in which other human beings cannot live and flourish. Perhaps a car is not necessary, when you can also converse by public transport. Or perhaps you don’t need to book a flight to a faraway holiday destination, but enjoy a holiday more closer to home.
Countless other examples can be given. For churches, it is interesting to look into the possibilities of solar energy for heating and cooling, for example.
Steven van den Heuvel thesis is called ‘Bonhoeffer’s Christocentric Theology and Fundamental Debates in Environmental Ethics’ (PhD diss., Evangelical Theological Faculty, Leuven & Theological University of Kampen, 2014). It is the first joint doctorate of ETF Leuven and TU Kampen.
TU Kampen is an academic theological institution linked to the (Liberated) Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. ETF Leuven is an interdenominational academic institution that focuses on the broad Evangelical movement, in which both established and free Churches have a place. The international institution is located in Leuven, Belgium.