Uses of the Bible in environmental ethics

Project outline

Background

Awareness of the impact of human activity on the natural environment has been growing in recent decades, with issues such as climate change now increasingly prominent on the political agenda. A large body of literature is devoted to understanding the causes of these environmental changes and to finding ways towards a sustainable future. This is the broadest level of research context for the project. A more specific context is constituted by the many theological responses to the environmental crisis, in which it is often argued that the causes and solutions to the problems must be sought at the level of worldview, values and attitudes, and that these are essentially religious concerns.

More specific still is the challenge to the Christian tradition expressed in the now classic article by Lynn White Jr, where White argued that the Christian worldview in the West has resulted in an instrumental attitude towards the natural world and is in large part responsible for the environmental degradation that has resulted from human exploitation. White’s critique forcefully raises the question as to whether the biblical tradition necessarily generates an anthropocentric worldview which inadequately values the non-human world. Theologians have responded in various ways to this argument, and have often appealed to the Bible in support of their arguments. However, much of this appeal is superficial, focused on certain ‘favourite’ texts and lacking serious engagement with contemporary biblical scholarship. By contrast, much biblical scholarship proceeds without making connections with the contemporary ethical and theological discussion.


Aim

This project therefore aims first to examine critically the various kinds of appeal to the Bible that have been made in the context of discussions of environmental issues, ranging from appeals that see the Bible as a text that teaches human preeminence and imminent destruction for the earth, and thus countermands any environmental concern, to appeals that see in the Bible a mandate for responsible stewardship, or even the resources for a radically new and non-anthropocentric ecotheology.


Approach

Central to the project is a concern to engage closely with key biblical texts in both Old and New Testaments, with historical sensitivity and exegetical care, and to consider the ecological dimensions and ethical potential of these texts. The work undertaken under the auspices of the project is thus intended to bring the approaches and results of biblical scholarship and historical research into conversation with environmental issues and ecological theology, fostering scholarly interaction across subdisciplinary boundaries.

The final task will therefore be to consider what kind of contribution the Bible might make to contemporary theological ethics in this vital area and to consider what kind of hermeneutic is justifiable and appropriate to allow the biblical texts to function constructively in the formulation of an ecological theology. These various and interrelated tasks will be undertaken both in research done directly by the members of the project team and also through the contributions of visiting speakers, international visitors, and advisory board members.

Benefits

The benefits of this project include the following. First, it will provide a critical assessment of the environmental implications – positive and negative – of various kinds of appeal to the Bible, an assessment which may enrich wider analyses of the relationship between religious worldviews and political and ethical stances in this area. Second, it will provide some well-grounded material on the ways in which some specific biblical texts can be related to ecological issues and concerns. Third, it will produce valuable resources central to the formulation of a contemporary ecological theology and thus contribute to an urgent and important theological and ethical task.