Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 16, No. 10, October 2020
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Which God Should Environmentalists Believe In?

Walter Scott Stepanenko

October 2020


The question seems simple and perhaps the answer is also simple enough: the real one. But many environmentalists might hesitate when given this answer, and for one of two potential reasons. First, some environmentalists might think that religion is antithetical to environmentalism. Isn't religion about the afterlife and isn't environmentalism about this one? Consider Biblical statements such as "Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life" [1] and "Do not be conformed to this world" [2]. That sounds pretty bad. Do passages like these constitute good reason for environmentalists to reject Christianity? No. First, all passages need to be read in the context of the entire Bible and the Bible contains some beautiful references to creation. Consider the Psalms, which are replete with statements like "you are the hope of all of the ends of the earth" [3]. More importantly, consider these statements in theological context. The Bible is the story of God incarnate, of the Word become flesh [4]. It is a story of God become evident so that "they may have life" [5]. But some environmentalists might think that this still leaves us with a view of creation as subordinate to spiritual matters and that this subordination is cause for concern. What should be said in response to this complaint?

First, let's consider what kind of complaint this is. The focus of this complaint is on the idea of subordination. So, the environmentalist must be looking for something else, perhaps something like some sort of egalitarianism. This is a common move in academic work inspired by mid-20th century critical theory, which has now found its way into popular consciousness. This sort of work is propelled by a search for valuational contrasts that motivate forms of oppression. So, the environmentalist is here suggesting that talk about God necessarily involves talk of a Creator and a creation, and that the latter is subordinated to the former. To go along with this, the environmentalist might also suggest that several other distinctions are peripheral to this notion. These might include such contrasts as:

Spirit / Matter

Reason / Emotion

Male / Female

In each of these cases, the thought is that the left side of the contrast is exalted over the right side. Our response above suggested that the right side of the contrast is not valuationally empty. The complaint here then is that, even if this is the case, the right side is still valuationally less important than the left side of the contrast, and that, the environmentalist might suggest, is unacceptable.

Is this sufficient reason for environmentalists to eschew talk of God, religion and spirituality? No, and to see why not, we should note a distinction between a concept and a model (or what some might call a conception as distinguished from a concept). A concept is an intuitive idea we have of something, the properties it connotes, or how we recognize that thing. A model is an account of what that thing really is, how it works, and under what conditions it can be found. The reason these valuational concerns are not sufficient for taking the concept of God to be antithetical to environmentalism is that they rely on a specific model of God. Our concept of God simply tracks a personal being with powers and capacities that far exceed those of other creatures. But to say this is not to say that God is male, that God is not as emotional as reasonable, or that God is even a spiritual entity. Now, it's true that most people think of God as a spiritual entity, but not all models do. Consider the following distinctions.

Classical Theism ~ God is an immaterial spirit outside of time and space

Panentheism ~ God is a mereological substance containing the world as a part

Pantheism ~ God is a substance identified with the substance of the world

The valuation concerns we have been addressing only apply in the case of Classical Theism; they do not obviously apply in the case of the latter two models.

In the late 20th century, considerations such as these inspired many philosophers and theologians to retreat from Classical Theism [6]. Of course, this move comes with some costs [7], but perhaps the cost is worth the benefits [8]. However, we can still ask whether it is the case that Classical Theism imagines a model of God that environmentalists should reject. Some folks sympathetic with Classical Theism have suggested not. For example, Emilie Judge-Becker and Charles Taliaferro [9] have argued that the properties of God provide the resources from which to condemn all injustice. They suggest "believing that there is a just, all good God is to believe that any and all unjust action is profoundly against the will and nature of God" (p. 86). Furthermore, they suggest that "if God is all knowing, why wouldn't one claim that God knows what it is like to be an embodied woman or child…This is not disembodiment" (p. 87). However, it could be objected that Taliaferro is something of an Idealist [10], and so one could argue that he is not exactly as Classical Theist. We should be wary of drawing too stark of a line around Classical Theism. As Kevin Timpe notes [11], if we do so, we run the risk of calling nothing but doctrinaire Thomism Classical Theism, and certainly that is something we should resist. Nonetheless, suppose we accept the idea that Classical Theism is not or cannot be Idealist. What else can be said in favor of Classical Theism in response to the environmentalist's concerns?

Elsewhere Taliaferro [12] has argued that "traditional Christian theism embraces the transcendence as well as immanence and omnipresence of God" (p. 982). These considerations are supposed to go some way towards addressing the environmentalist's concerns, but how does that work? Here, the idea is that God's immanence and omnipresence do not support a stark contrast between Creation and creator that would allow one to privilege the former over the latter, even if one recognizes the value of the latter. However, there may be some reason to pause here. Georg Gasser [13] has argued that God's omnipresence must be understood in an agential sense (something with which Taliaferro agrees). The reason is that if God is omnipresent in a spatial sense, then God would be extended and have parts. However, many Classical Theists are committed to the doctrine of divine simplicity which precludes them from recognizing extension in the substance of God. This is the case for anyone who is a doctrinaire Thomist, but, as I mentioned above, we need not regard all Classical Theists as Thomists. Protestants typically reject the doctrine of divine simplicity [14], and so, perhaps they can recognize divine omnipresence in other than agential senses. The question then will be whether or not the Protestant is advocating one of the other models of God, for example, the pantheist or panentheist models. It will be up to them to respond to that challenge.

Will this satisfy the environmentalist? Perhaps, but perhaps not. The environmentalist might argue that even if God contains the world as a part, is somehow present in the world, or otherwise active in the world, it may still be the case that God is more important than the world, that that consideration will inevitably affect our ethical orientation, and that the result will be what we have gotten: environmental negligence. Here the Christian theist may argue that they have an advantage with respect to environmentalism. Taking a page from Andrew Linzey [15], the environmentalist might contend that the appropriate response to creation is best exemplified in the "paradigm of costly, generous service…at the heart of…the work and person of Jesus Christ" (p. 32). Here the idea is that if there is a hierarchy in Christian theism, then it is a hierarchy of service.

If the environmentalist is an egalitarian, they might take this position to endorse an even stronger concern for the environment than their position allows. It is hard to see how they could object to this view on environmental grounds. They might insist on egalitarianism as a better ethical orientation, but then they would no longer be complaining that Christian theism fails because it fosters an illicit environmental orientation. Of course, that's not to say that there might not be problems with the view. Asking everyone to follow the example of Christ is asking everyone to do some really serious moral work, and it's not clear that much can be demanded from us ordinary folk. However, my purpose in this essay is not to advocate for any particular position in Christian environmental ethics. Instead I have just asked the question, "which God should environmentalists believe in?" For Christians who believe that God is love [16], the answer will be the Christian God, but what model that means the Christian should accept is not clear, and apparently cannot be settled on environmental considerations alone, at least not the kind that merely demand the inspiration of environmental concern or action. Perhaps further environmental views will point in the direction of one model rather than another, but that will involve much more ethical thinking, likely raise controversial commitments, and thereby preclude a further consensus from emerging. That, after all, may be something on which many Christians agree.


[1] John 12:25

[2] Romans 12:2

[3] Psalm 65:5

[4] John 1:14

[5] John 10:10

[6] McFague, Sally. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

[7] Crisp, Oliver. 2019. Against Mereological Panentheism. European Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 11 (2): 23-41.

[8] Of course, we will then be owed an account of what the benefits are and how they outweigh those costs.

[9] Judge-Becker, Emilie and Charles Taliaferro. 2015. Feminism and Theological Anthropology. In Joshua Farris and Charles Taliaferro, editors. The Ashgate Research Companion: Theological Anthropology, 81-90. New York: Routledge.

[10] Taliaferro, Charles. 2016. Taking the Mind of God Seriously: Why and How to Become a Theistic Idealist. In Andrei Buckareff and Yujin Nagasaw, editors. Alternative Concepts of God: Essays on the Metaphysics of the Divine, 147-163. New York: Oxford University Press.

[11] Timpe, Kevin. 2013. Introduction to Neo-Classical Theism. In Jeanine Diller and Asa Kasher, editors. Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Reality, 197-206. New York: Springer.

[12] Taliaferro, Charles. 2013. Models of God and Global Warming. In Jeanine Diller and Asa Kasher, editors. Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Reality, 979-989. New York: Springer.

[13] Gasser, Georg. 2019. God's omnipresence in the world: on possible meanings of 'en' in panentheism. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 85:43-62.

[14] Moreland, J.P., and William Lane Craig. 2003. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

[15] Linzey, Andrew. 1994. Animal Theology. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

[16] 1 John 4:8


Walter Scott Stepanenko is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. His current research focuses on issues that emerge at the intersection of science and theology in philosophy of religion. He is presently preparing manuscripts on an environmental Christian approach to evolution and original sin and on accounts of animals and the environment in theodicy. He received his PhD from the University of Cincinnati where he completed a dissertation on the limits of moral demandingness with attention to the demandingness of the obligations of individual human actors with respect to climate change. He is a former Research Associate at the Center for Religious Understanding at the University of Toledo (Ohio).

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"Not everything that is faced can be changed;
but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

— James Baldwin (1924–1987)


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