Leonardo Boff and Mark Hathaway – « Ecology and the Theology of Nature »

Leonardo Boff and Mark Hathaway

« Ecology and the Theology of Nature »

Concilium 2018-5. Ökologie und Theologie der Natur
Concilium 2018-5. Ecology and Theology
Concilium 2018-5. Ecología y teología de la naturaleza
Concilium 2018-5. Écologie et théologie de la nature
Concilium 2018-5. Ecologia e teologia della natura
Concilium 2018-5.

Linda Hogan, João Vila-Chã, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator

1. Opening to Wisdom, Renewing the Earth: A Theology of Nature

Humanity stands at a crossroads. We can either continue on a path towards increasing exploitation, inequality, and destruction – threatening both human civilization and the entire web of life upon which we depend – or, as the Earth Charter1 reminds us, we may choose instead to ‘form a global partnership to care for Earth and one another.’

While this crisis has economic, political, and technological dimensions, the threat of ecocide, at its root, is an ethical crisis. More specifically, it is an ecological – not an environmental – crisis. Indeed, part of the problem is that we perceive an environment – or even nature – separate from ourselves when actually ‘the world that environs us, that is around us, is also within us. We are made of it; we eat, drink, and breathe it; it is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.’2 As Pope Francis reminds us, we are not Earth’s ‘lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will;’3 rather, we have been formed from Earth elements. We need to learn how to experience this reality and live a genuine eco-logy: the logos (or wisdom) of our oikos– our common home, the Earth.

Home implies a sense of belonging, of being ‘a-part-of,’ rather than ‘apart-from,’ a community of living beings. An integral understanding of ecology does not separate out an ‘environment,’ but rather seeks a holistic understanding of the relationships between biotic, social, mental, and cultural phenomena. From this perspective, the way humans – particularly the wealthiest and most powerful – dominate, exploit, and destroy the living Earth community is intimately entwined with the exploitation and impoverishment of the poorest and most marginalized; climate change, pollution, and water shortages disproportionately affect the most oppressed and vulnerable people. The fact that this pathological (the logos of suffering) system largely excludes two-thirds of humanity while it undermines the very conditions for life denounces its unnatural character. It cannot have a future, because it is directly opposed to the logos of our home, which is characterized by connectivity, cosmic solidarity, creative emergence, diversity, and the ongoing evolution of life.

Our crisis is ecological because it is a crisis of relationships: the relationship of humans with each other; the relationship between humans and other living beings; and, ultimately, our relationship with the Creator who loves and sustains all. Theologically, the ecological crisis raises several questions: First, how is God actively present in creation? From whence did the ethos of domination arise and how does it contrast with the new insights that are now emerging from postmodern science? How can the wisdom of the cosmos, the Earth, and its myriad beings serve to guide our struggle for a more just, sustainable, and meaningful way of living? And finally, how might we attune ourselves to this ecological wisdom in ways that promote integral liberation and the healing of the Earth?

2. Divine Wisdom in Creation

As Pope Francis affirms, ‘“creation” has a broader meaning than ‘nature’, for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance.’ 4 While creation evokes the image of a divine gift which elicits care, nature (physis) – once understood as the generative process of life 5 – has increasingly been perceived as something apart-from humans, even as a resource to be used and consumed. Yet, in Christianity, there is a long tradition of understanding creation as a living book that reveals the nature of God. Scotus writes that that ‘the eternal light’ is manifest in the world both ‘through Scripture and through creatures’ 6 while Eckhart proclaims that we must ‘apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God.’7 St. Bernard affirms that ‘trees and stones will teach you what you cannot learn from masters’ 8 while – as Laudato Si’ reminds us – Saint Francis speaks of other creatures as our brothers and sisters, along with the sun, the moon, the air, and the water. In this theological tradition, all of creation is perceived as infused with the divine presence. Each creature may serve as a teacher of divine wisdom.

In the gospels, Jesus’s connection to the more-than-human world is readily evident. Jesus is portrayed as praying out-of-doors – from the 40 days spent in the wilderness to the night before his death in Gethsemane – suggesting that he experienced intimacy with God immersed in the expansiveness of creation. Preaching beside the Sea of Galilee, Jesus teaches in parables referring to animals, growing things, and the fruitfulness of Earth.

The Aramaic word that Jesus uses for the reign of God, malkuta, elicits the image of the verdant, regenerative power of the living Earth. Neil Douglas-Klotz notes that ‘the ancients saw in the earth and all around them a divine quality that everywhere takes responsibility and says “I can.” Later those who expressed this quality clearly were recognized as natural leaders – what we call queens and kings.’ 9 The malkuta does not describe a place, but rather the divine, governing principles evident in the cosmos itself – something akin, perhaps, to natural law, but more precisely, a creative principle that empowers one to act against all odds. This dynamic malkuta suggests that the life sustaining wisdom manifest in creation may itself be a source of healing energy, empowerment, and regenerative liberation.

3. The Ethos of Domination

Throughout the Middle Ages, Christians generally understood the Earth as being, in some sense, alive and infused with the divine presence. Indeed, the idea of the world having a soul, the anima mundi, was commonplace. Thomas Aquinas, drawing on Aristotle, used the concept of natural law to argue for a common ethical ground rooted, ultimately, in the regularities of nature itself. While there were advantages to this approach, this vision of nature tended toward a fixed, metaphysical concept of morality which considers human nature as inflexible, immutable, and a reflection of the inviolable order of creation. Nature, too, was largely seen as static and passive rather than dynamic and creative.

With the rise of the enlightenment and scientific revolution, the idea of a living, organic cosmos was gradually lost. To describe planetary motion, Kepler originally affirmed that the planets moved due to the action of their ‘souls’ (animas), but this was later replaced with the word ‘force’ (vis). Similarly, Newton, originally inspired by alchemy, came to portray a clockwork universe governed by rigid laws and moved by impersonal forces. Descartes saw nature as mere res extensa (an ‘extensive thing’), observing that ‘I do not understand Nature as some kind of Goddess, or any other sort of imaginary power, but rather I use that word to signify Matter itself.’ 10

Matter – once understood as mater, the body of the Mother – became lifeless, ‘stuff’ that could be used and consumed as humans saw fit. Even animals were conceived to be mere automata who could neither suffer nor reason. Francis Bacon used the imagery of torture to describe the scientific method, proclaiming that nature would yield ‘her’ secrets more readily if it was constrained and vexed, ‘forced out of her natural state, squeezed and moulded’ 11 and made a slave. In such a vision, all ethical constraints on using, consuming, or destroying nature are effectively removed, providing a virtual license for exploitation and destruction. Yet, this new view of nature did not arise in a vacuum, but rather arose in a violent context in which women were hunted as witches and Europe was launching its colonial exploits. As Enrique Dussel observes, the roots of modernity, and Descartes’ subsequent ontological formulations of its philosophy, may actually lie in the brutal conquest of the Americas and the praxis of ‘I conquer.’12 Those depending more directly on the land – peasants, Indigenous peoples, and women – were also perceived as being closer to nature and therefore inferior – justifying, once again, their exploitation.

What role did Christianity – and theology – play in this process? Lynn White13 asserted, with some justification, that western Christianity has been the most anthropocentric of all religions. Certainly, the first chapter of Genesis has been interpreted – inaccurately, in our view – as giving humans a justification to subdue and dominate nature. At the same time, the involvement of the Church in colonization, violence, patriarchy, and acts of imperialism cannot be denied. These interpretations and involvements should be understood as a betrayal of the message of Jesus and his proclamation of the malkuta. They do, however, emphasize the need to articulate theologies that clearly respond to the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth, that seek to cultivate a deep respect for creation, and that support those struggling for integral liberation.

4. From Machine to Living Story

Since the early 20th century, the scientific view of the cosmos has been changing rapidly due to new insights from physics, complexity theory, ecology, and cosmology. Instead of a universe composed of discrete particles – where complexity can be understood by breaking things into smaller, simpler components – the cosmos is increasingly revealed to be interconnected, dynamic, and even ‘mindful’ – a whole far greater than the mere sum of its parts. Indeed, matter itself is no longer seen as static, dead ‘stuff,’ but is rather understood as a dynamic dance of energy and relationality. Simply observing a subatomic entity affects it – indeed, quantum animism suggests that consciousness in some sense constructs reality.

The non-linear dynamics of complex systems illuminates how creativity is woven into the cosmos – meaning that the future is always open to novel possibilities. The universe itself is understood as an ongoing process of emergence which began over 13.7 billion years ago with the great flaring forth, giving birth to space, matter, and energy. If the initial rate of expansion had been faster or slower by the slightest of margins (a factor of 10-59) – the stars would never have formed. If the physical constants had been infinitesimally different, life could never have emerged.14

The Gaia hypothesis 15 suggests that our planet functions as a self-regulating system that resembles a giant superorganism. The level of oxygen in the atmosphere, the surface temperature of the planet, and the salinity of the oceans are all regulated by organisms to maintain the conditions necessary for life. Evolution, while involving dynamics of competition, also depends on cooperative processes of symbiogenesis. Biologists are discovering sentience in the most surprising of places – not only among mammals, but everywhere from the octopus to the plants. Evolution also affirms that humans, are intimately related to all the other beings in our Earth community. While we may have unique and special capacities, we depend on other creatures – even the bacteria living within us – to sustain life. Indeed, we know that the conditions for life are only possible due to the generosity of countless living beings. All of creation – and particularly the living Earth community – is a symphony of which we are a part. In contrast, the destruction of an ancient rainforest, the removal of entire mountains to exploit coal, or the pollution of the oceans, or killing peasants to usurp their land can be seen as forms of desecration.

Instead of a mechanistic world of dead things or ‘natural resources,’ then, we live in an emergent cosmos full of creativity, mind, and life. Brian Swimme summarizes this surprising universe story in one line: ‘You take hydrogen gas, and you leave it alone, and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes, and humans.’ 16 With the eyes of faith, we can perceive this story as miraculous. The cosmos evokes awe, reverence, and a sense of pregnant possibility that enables us to perceive the unfolding of the malkuta already among us and its promise of integral liberation.

The universe story is neither deterministic nor random, but rather is marked by creative emergence oriented by a kind of allurement which, while neither a fixed design nor blueprint, may reveal a deeper sense of meaning or purpose. Swimme and Berry speak of this in terms of the cosmogenic principle – the tendency of the cosmos to move towards ever greater communion, differentiation, and creativity – as the ‘governing themes and basal intentionality of all existence.’17 These inclinations– evident in all complex systems – can perhaps be seen most clearly in mature ecosystems like a rainforest where, as biodiversity increases, interdependence and communion also grow while the ability of the system to create and respond to change also increases. Similarly, we could understand the process of liberation itself as a process of moving towards ever-greater communion (living with harmony and justice with others, both humans and other-than-humans), diversity (respecting and celebrating different ways of perceiving and being-in-the world), and self-organization (seeking meaning, purpose, creativity, and depth).

5. Opening to Earth’s Wisdom

Beyond insights from science, how might we find ways to draw on the divine wisdom present in the cosmos, the Earth, and the myriad of lifeforms? How can we learn to open ourselves to their voices, be guided by them, and work with them to bring forth a more just, sustainable, and meaningful way of living as an Earth community?

While there is no simple way to define wisdom, wisdom can be understood as a deep, experiential (or heart) knowledge that enables one to discern actions – appropriate to a specific context – that will further the common good of all life. Wise people are marked by humility, openness, compassion, generosity, and an equanimity that enables them to deal with complexity, see wider patterns, and discern creative potential. Wisdom is particularly important in times of crisis, then, when a clear path to ecological regeneration and collective well-being may be difficult to perceive. Indeed, as humans, we must remember that divine wisdom is manifest in all of creation – not in humans alone – and that we need to draw on the wisdom of all beings (and the diversity of human cultures) to find pathways from destruction to life.

In Hebrew and Aramaic, the word for wisdom – hochma – implies ‘a living knowledge of divine patterns and forces,’ expressing the idea that sacred motifs, energies, or intentions are ‘hidden beneath surface appearances’ which the wise must uncover.18 Similarly, Panikkar writes that we must learn from Earth’s wisdom ‘which discloses unto us once we are open to understand it [and] stand-under the spell of what she is revealing to us.’19 Concretely, this means we need to spend time listening to, observing, and sensing the ‘words’ of other beings via even the subtlest of gestures, be they the smallest insect or the grandest of trees. Ultimately, this entails learning the art of ‘sympathetic perception’20 based on loving identification and communion where ‘self and not-self’ are ‘identified at the moment of experience’21 and we allow the alterity of the other to enter and transform us. This kind of mystical communion, in which we allow ourselves to be permeated by another being, does not imply fusion, but rather a deeply intersubjective exchange of being in which we become entwined with another without losing our distinctiveness.

Jesus may have been referring to something like this in the third Beatitude (Mt. 5:5) which, from the Aramaic, could be rendered as: Fruitful are those who have softened all inner rigidities; they shall receive the physical strength and vitality of the earth as their inheritance. The word l’makikhe, often translated as ‘humble,’ conveys the image of having both softened any inner hardness and letting go of repressed desires. This might be understood in terms of leaving behind addictive behaviours, including the desire for unnecessary consumption. The word nertun (inherit) implies receiving from a profound source of reciprocal strength. Softening opens us to a deep fountain of transformative energy: ‘God acting through all of nature, all earthiness.’22 Those who soften these inner rigidities will be renewed inwardly and be filled with the living vigour of the Earth itself. This image suggests reconnecting deeply with the Earth community, harmonizing with the wisdom and energy present in other beings, and acting in concert with them for healing.

Concretely, the kind of harmonious, fruitful action this entails can be seen in practices of ecological renewal such as as the restoration of the Loess Plateau of China,23 the Syntropic agroforestry project in northeast of Brazil,24 the regeneration of fertile land in the Sahel region by Yacouba Sawadogo,25 and the Chikukwa permaculture project in Zimbabwe.26 In all these cases, humans – working humbly, sensitively, intelligently, and co-creatively with soil microorganisms, insects, plants, and animals – greatly accelerated processes of ecological healing, in some cases even modifying local climates and restoring lost rainfall. These processes have also often helped regenerate human communities, building solidarity and creating just and sustainable livelihoods. Yet, in all these cases, humans could never have accomplished these tasks without the work of other living beings. By working responsively and wisely with the greater Earth community, much that might otherwise seem impossible can be accomplished.

6. Towards Regeneration and Liberation

Ultimately, we are called to live into Thomas Berry’s affirmation that the universe – and particularly the Earth community – is ‘a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects’27 and that the cosmos ‘is the way in which the divine is presently revealing itself to us… The universe itself is the primary sacred community.’28 Of course, this does not mean that all is God. But God is in all and all is in God. By the very act of creation, God leaves an imprint on each being, manifesting a divine presence and wisdom in each creature.

God and the world are different – one is not the other – but neither are they separated or closed off from each other. Each is open to the other in such a way that each is inextricably linked to and interpenetrated by the other. If they are distinct, it is so that they can communicate with each other and be united through communion and mutual presence. At the same time, each being can communicate and interpenetrate other beings, and in so doing, touches something of the divine essence and wisdom.

If we began as members and plain citizens of the Earth community – then painfully attempted to separate ourselves out – we now return again to this community, relinquishing our sense of separation while retaining our distinctiveness, including our capacity for self-reflection. Like other organisms, we are not simply strands in an undifferentiated web – we are subjects with our own interiors and lifeworlds. We are not just on the Earth, we are part of the Earth community. We are one aspect of the Earth that in this phase of its evolution has begun to feel, think, love, reverence, and care. For this, the word human comes from humus – meaning fertile earth. Similarly, in Hebrew, the word adam– meaning human – comes from adamah – meaning soil. We are fruit of Earth’s fecund soil. As Arthur Waskow explains, this affirms that that humans are entwined with the very soil of Earth in a way in which the divine breath (the sound ‘ah’ in the last syllable of adamah) is internalized and made immanent29. While humans have unique gifts, capacities, and responsibilities, we are very much a part of the Earth from which we are formed.

We can only hope to heal the Earth and move toward the liberating vision of God’s malkuta if we learn to work out of an ethic of love, care, and compassion, an ethic that respects and reverences all the diverse voices and beings of the Earth community. If we can open ourselves to the divine wisdom manifest in the myriad of living creatures and the diversity of cultures, if we learn to consciously participate in the movement toward greater diversity, interiority, and communion, then we will draw closer to God’s promise of liberation and the healing of the Earth. 


The threat of ecocide poses an ethical challenge which calls humans to rethink our relationship with nature, perceive the divine wisdom manifest in creation, and act cooperatively and co-creatively with other living beings. This article explores how God is present in creation and links Jesus’s proclamation of the Reign of God with the wisdom manifest in creation. Emerging insights from postmodern science are examined to better understand the ‘governing themes and basal intentionality’ manifest in an evolving cosmos. Finally, it is suggested that humans can develop ecological wisdom by opening themselves to the alterity of other beings and working respectfully and creatively with them to seek the healing, regeneration, and integral liberation of the Earth community.


Leonardo Boff, 1938, professor emérito de teologia e ética da Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, membro da Iniciativa Carta da Terra e co-redator; portador do premio Nobel da Paz alternativo do Parlamento sueco de 2001 e autor de mais de 70 livros nas áreas da teologia, ética, espiritualidade e ecologia.

Mark Hathaway is an ecophilosopher and educator who studies the nature, experience, and practice of ecological wisdom. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo’s School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (Canada) and teaches transformative ecological learning with the Earth Charter’s Center for Education for Sustainable Development (University for Peace, Costa Rica). Together with Leonardo Boff, he wrote The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation (Orbis, 2009).


Pour Leonardo Boff: Caixa Postal 92144 – Itaipava, 25741-970 – Petrópolis, RJ- Brazil.

Pour Mark Hathaway: School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, University of Waterloo, 200 University Avenue West, Waterloo, ON, Canada, N2L3GI


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