Ecological Sinfulness

Today I was busy writing a book review for the magazine of the European Society for the study of Science and Theology. This is my favorite society, whose conferences I have visited for about ten years now – although I am neither a theologian nor a scientist. What I like about this network is the fact that most of its members are at home in more than one discipline, which reduces ivory tower discussions, and something which lies below that fact: that the meetings aim at addressing real issues, instead of playing only academic games. With real issues I mean not so much practical ones, concerning needs and problems – they mostly are very theoretical – but they adress fundamental questions concerning human knowledge of and relation to the world. Taking into account that a great deal of humanity is in some sense religious and also under the influence of the scientific worldview garantuees that the society is engaging in debates that matter.

The book I was reviewing, The Cosmic Breath by Amos Yong, is within this category: written by a (pentecostal) theologian with Asiatic background, who tries out the possibility of a dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity in relation to modern science (actually he calls this a trialogue). I will not repeat my review here, but will focus on a point of concern in one of the concluding chapters of the book, on ‘spirit and environment’. The point that, where he describes a possible spiritual approach within the Christian tradition with regards to the environment, he refers to thoughts (as taken up by theologian Marthinus Daneel) that were developed in African Christian churches, in their own dialogue with traditional African religion. Obviously Christian theology in its classical Western version lacks something, when confronted with the problem of our relation to the environment. From African traditions it lends a more fruitful view of nature as a spiritual realm.

But let me first put Yong’s search for a spiritual environmental ethics into perspective: as the book’s theme is the spiritual concern of the two mentioned religious traditions, it focuses on how they can lead its adherents to an attitude of healing the world (in Christian terms) or of reducing the suffering of sentient beings (in Buddhist terms). In my own little book on ‘understanding spirituality’, I call spirituality trying to seek and maintain an orientation of conscious awareness, which makes it an anthropological factor between experiencing and acting. Between the phenomenal and the ethical. I think Amos Yong does a very relevant thing in searching for a spiritual foundation for ethics – since the way we experience the world, and the way we orient ourselves toward it in connection with that experience, informs the way we will act morally. When we see the world as a vale of tears from which we need to escape, we will develop a different kind of morality than when we see it as an originally good place, which we need to maintain and repair.

The special ecological theology Yong discusses in the mentioned chapter leads to an orientation which takes into account ‘that the Spirit’s presence and activity is directed against the “destroyer of the world”. This is manifest first in the Spirit’s bringing to awareness our ecological sinfulness and complicity with the destructive wizardry at work through the realm of the human, whether that be in our excessive consumption of natural resources, ignoring land husbandry laws, unrestricted tree-felling, blatant promotion of soil erosion, acts of pollution, over-fishing, over-hunting, etc.’ Practically it leads from awareness (confession and repentance) to ritual expulsion of evil, followed by ritual tree-planting and possibly other acts which heal the wounds we brought to the environment.

A discussion of environmental ethics in such overtly religious terms might irritate a lot of people. It might irritate for mystifying our relation to nature. It might irritate also because of the difficulties in engaging with traditional indigenous thought and practice in a (post)colonial epistemological situation. It might irritate for not addressing enough the political and economic factors which are at work in creating ecological disaster. What is of importance to take from it, though, is precisely the expression ‘ecological sinfulness’. The old word ‘sin’ indicates not only a morally wrong act, but an act which is a transgression of an order which was there ‘before’ humanity. ‘Before’ is not meant chronologically, but in the way grammar is prior to speech, or law to acting. The religious outlook on things implies that there is a cosmological grammar, a (natural) law that humans did not make, but find. This makes trying to understand it and orient ourselves to it not a matter of choice – since transgressing it (which we do also when we fail to understand it) will get us some punishment (also when we were not aware of it) – like climate trouble or an ugly and unhomely environment. This view can be linked with a Derridian understanding of responsibility: we are not only responsible for our acts, and not only for what we understand – but also for what we don’t understand. Something/someone is addressing us, and we should try to hear. 

The link to Esssat’s this year’s conference:

My review of Amos Yong, The Cosmic Breath. Spirit and Nature in the Christianity-Buddhism-Science Trialogue, will appear in Esssat News and Reviews 24:1 (March 2014).

My approach to spirituality and my thoughts on Derrida and responsibility can be found in my (Dutch) books Spiritualiteit begrijpen (2007) and Geesten (2011) respectively. See the links in the sidebar.


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