v32#2 Collecting to the Core — Religious Responses to Ecological Crisis

by | May 11, 2020 | 0 comments

by Christine M. Larson  (Associate Professor and Reference and Instruction Librarian, Metropolitan State University;  Religion Subject Editor, Resources for College Libraries

Column Editor:  Anne Doherty  (Resources for College Libraries Project Editor, CHOICE/ACRL) 

Column Editor’s Note:  The “Collecting to the Core” column highlights monographic works that are essential to the academic library within a particular discipline, inspired by the Resources for College Libraries bibliography (online at http://www.rclweb.net).  In each essay, subject specialists introduce and explain the classic titles and topics that continue to remain relevant to the undergraduate curriculum and library collection.  Disciplinary trends may shift, but some classics never go out of style. — AD

The study of the relationship between religion and the natural world has become a rich and nuanced academic field addressing a range of questions, including:  how major religious traditions view the natural environment and non-human beings;  in what texts and teachings religions base these views;  the ethical bases for behavior towards other beings and ecological systems;  and how nature itself affects and evokes religious perspectives and spiritual practices.  It also explores traditions that take a more holistic or centering view of nature, such as Indigenous spiritualities and neo-pagan movements, and intersects with ecofeminism, environmental justice, spiritual ecology, and deep ecology.  As part of this diverse discipline of religion and ecology, scholars have also given considerable attention to how religions and people of faith should respond to issues like environmental degradation, species extinctions, global warming, and ecological disaster. 

Ecological crises have been discussed in the field of religion and ecology for decades.  Recently, they receive more, and more urgent, attention as evidence of climate change becomes more apparent and more destructive.  In the United States, while scientific consensus and viable alternatives to consumer culture increase, there remains an entrenched fossil fuel industry and indifferent government.  The scholarship of religion and ecology reflects the growing interest of religions in addressing these crises.  Thanks to thorough reviews of the literature on religion and ecology by Leslie Sponsel (2014), and Willis Jenkins and Christopher Key Chapple (2011), this essay focuses on recent books about religious responses to climate change and related ecological crises.1-2

This work arguably began in 1967 with the publication of a lecture by Lynn White Jr., a medieval historian, in Science.3  White pointed to religion in general, and Western Christianity in particular, as one key source of the growing environmental crises facing the world.  He also proposed that religions and religious faith could be an important part of solutions to the problems.  White’s short essay has had an outsized impact on the field of ecology and religion, sparking responses of all kinds.  Its influence receives treatment in Todd LaVasseur and Anna Peterson’s collection of essays Religion and Ecological Crisis: The “Lynn White Thesis” at Fifty.4  These thirteen papers lend some historical perspective to religion’s climate concerns, exploring the implications of White’s work and touching on themes such as human-animal relations, ecofeminism, evangelicalism, spiritual ecology, and American Christian responses.

While considering the topic from the perspective of a single influential work provides one angle of understanding, another can be gained by looking at it through a more general lens.  The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology is an overview of the broader academic field and provides context for more in-depth reading of religious responses to climate change and other ecological crises.5  Editors Willis Jenkins, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and John Grim are long-time leaders in the field, as are many of the contributors.  The book provides needed balance and diversity to the heavy North American and Christian-focused publications in the field, with chapters covering Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Baha’i, Indigenous cosmovisions, multiple regions, and nature spiritualities.  Many of the individual chapters include commentary on the response to climate emergencies, but there are also eleven chapters focused on “planetary challenges” such as climate change, oceans, and environmental justice.  This handbook is an excellent resource for students at all levels. 

Two monographs offer introductions from the standpoint of a major religious tradition.  In A Primer in Ecotheology: Theology for a Fragile Earth, Celia Deane-Drummond offers a concise and accessible introduction to terms, concepts, tensions, and concerns of ecotheology while exploring its relationship to systematic aspects of Christian theology including biblical hermeneutics, liberation and justice, Christology, and ethics.6  She includes references to key thinkers, a glossary, and an activism resource list.  This book would be an excellent course text or selection for a theological all-campus read.  Another accessible work is David Loy’s Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis.7  Loy explores the nature of the ecological problems, addressing both global and individual aspects, and applies Buddhist concepts and teachings such as impermanence and interdependence to empower action.  He concludes with appendices of specific Buddhist resources for practice and application. 

Many of the recent published works in this area are collected papers offering detailed explorations of the theological, ethical, organizational, educational, and advocacy efforts of religious groups to address climate change.  One that provides perspectives on the intersections of faith, gender, and poverty is Planetary Solidarity: Global Women’s Voices on Christian Doctrine and Climate Justice.  Edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Hilda P. Koster, these essays by a geographically and ethnically-diverse set of scholars explore issues around climate justice and theology.8  Several contributions engage and critique Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’, an encyclical urging “care for our common home” and a unified response to global environmental problems.9  Another collection of papers frames the ecological crisis as a call for a new Reformation, a dramatic shift in how the faithful view creation and the nature of the church.  In Eco-Reformation: Grace and Hope for a Planet in Peril, Lisa E. Dahill and James B. Martin-Schramm offer creative Lutheran perspectives on responding to climate change, such as theological resources, liturgical shifts, and ninety-five eco-theses.10

Many religious discussions of ecological crisis draw on tradition-based approaches such as hope, stewardship, and care.  Several new works offer challenging counterpoints.  Sallie McFague has contributed significant ecology-oriented scholarship to Christian theology, including groundbreaking work in earth-based understandings of God.  Her book Blessed are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint centers the concept of kenosis as a means for living in a world of greed and climate crisis.11  Kenosis can be understood as self-emptying, or self-giving, and McFague uses it to steer emphasis away from an individualistic, self-fulfilling mode of living to one that empties the self, making a gift of it to communal or universal interests.

Catherine Keller takes the concept of emptiness in another direction.  In her Political Theology of the Earth: Our Planetary Emergency and the Struggle for a New Public, she explores time and unknowing as central to the current climate emergency and possible responses.12  She raises the reader’s understanding of time: it is not chronos, or enough time left that will help, but kairos, the right, contracted moment.  She works with apophatic, or negative theology as the ground for action: a theology based in a profound unsaying or unknowing.  In dense, poetic prose, Keller engages ancient and current theologians, philosophers, and theorists of science, race, and feminism in constructing a political theology in which uncertainty opens to possibility. 

Ethics also get a twist, as Willis Jenkins critiques religious ethics for two shortfalls: first, they are inadequate for addressing overwhelming and complex problems such as climate change and poverty;  second, ethics do not affect as much change as anticipated.  In The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity, Jenkins proposes instead a “prophetic pragmatism,” in which humans seek new opportunities by “learning from problems how to use our traditions differently.”13  He flips the usual approach that looks to traditions for an ethical basis for action and encourages readers first to engage in working on the problems in order to then find the appropriate ethical approach and reshape religious tradition.  He also asks pointed questions about what human actions sustain and what is desirable to sustain.

This field offers various creative theologies and motivating manifestos, but it is also enlightening to turn to excellent scholarship on what, exactly, religious people are doing as they actively confront ecological crises.  Robin Globus Veldman, Andrew Szasz, and Randolph Haluza-DeLay provide us with a picture of these actions through their collection How the World’s Religions are Responding to Climate Change: Social Science Investigations.14  This book covers a multiplicity of religions, cultures, geographic regions, and approaches to climate change, and helps to broaden the perspective beyond Christianity and the West.  More than half of the contributed papers focus on areas of the Global South, with topics that include Buddhism, Islam, evangelical Christianity, and Indigenous religions in several regions.  The chapters explore how religious traditions, communities, and organizations have responded to climate change, facilitated or inhibited adaptation, and informed action.  The specific cases explored in these studies illustrate the complexities of human cultural responses to the global emergency. 

What motivates religious people to take action on ecological crisis? This is the question that led Erin Lothes Biviano to conduct focus groups with environmental activists from a highly diverse range of religious identities and cultural backgrounds.  Their conversations explore barriers to action, the roles of communities and theological resources, and reveals the importance of the interactions of sacrifice (making sacred), a sense of interdependence with others, and giving and acting in community.  Her book Inspired Sustainability: Planting Seeds for Action is part of the Orbis Books series “Ecology and Justice,” which includes a number of relevant titles that contribute to conversation around religious responses to ecological crises.15

Another scholarly study of religious perspectives in action is Joseph D. Witt’s Religion and Resistance in Appalachia: Faith and the Fight against Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining.16  Through interviews and observation, Witt reveals the mutual influence, cooperation, and conflict among members of Catholic and Protestant justice groups, the evangelical “Creation Care” movement, and proponents of earth-based spiritualities as they resist the environmentally-destructive practice of coal extraction.  Witt’s work lends a specific, in-depth case to the picture of how religions are responding to the environmental and community devastation wrought by fossil fuels and illustrates how faith and religious groups respond to ecological crisis.

Indigenous peoples around the world are on the front lines of ecological crisis, in terms of direct experience, resistance, and adaptation to its effects.  Their actions are often motivated by sacred relationship with the land, as can be seen, for example, in the Standing Rock water protectors’ resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline or in declarations of personhood for natural features like rivers.  Although books discussed here do include the perspectives and specific cases of some Indigenous peoples, Indigenous earth protectors are not the primary subject of many books that frame their actions as a religious response to climate change.  While this may be because Indigenous spirituality is highly integrated into life and culture—and publishing largely reflects Western constructs of religion—it is nonetheless important to highlight Indigenous experience and voices.  One book that helps to do that is Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future.17  Melissa Nelson has collected speeches given by Indigenous leaders at Bioneers conferences that reflect and teach about Native sacred values, stories, knowledge, and work on ecological crisis.

Set within the discipline of religion and ecology, these recent books on religious responses to ecological crisis represent a growing chorus of care, creativity, and action.  They reflect the intersection of faith, scholarship, and activism in addressing a pressing global problem and are worthwhile additions to academic collections supporting undergraduate research and teaching.  


1.  Sponsel, Leslie E.  “Spiritual Ecology: Is It the Ultimate Solution for the Environmental Crisis?”  Choice 51, no. 8 (2014): 1339-1348. 

2.  Jenkins, Willis, and Christopher Key Chapple.  “Religion and Environment.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 36, no. 1 (2011): 441-463.  Accessed November 22, 2019.  doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-042610-103728.

3.  White, Lynn, Jr.  “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science 155, no. 3767 (1967): 1203-1207.  Accessed November 22, 2019.  www.jstor.org/stable/1720120.

4.  LeVasseur, Todd, and Anna Peterson, ed.  Religion and Ecological Crisis: The “Lynn White Thesis” at Fifty.  New York, NY: Routledge, 2017.

5.  Jenkins, Willis, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and John Grim, ed.  Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology.  London: Routledge, 2018.*

6.  Deane-Drummond, Celia.  A Primer in Ecotheology: Theology for a Fragile Earth.  Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017.*

7.  Loy, David.  Ecodharma: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis.  Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2019.

8.  Kim, Grace Ji-Sun, and Hilda P. Koster, ed.  Planetary Solidarity: Global Women’s Voices on Christian Doctrine and Climate Justice.  Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017.

9.  Pope FrancisLaudauto Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.  Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2015.  Accessed December 18, 2019.  http://w2.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si_en.pdf

10.  Dahill, Lisa E., and James B. Martin-Schramm, ed.  Eco-Reformation: Grace and Hope for a Planet in Peril.  Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016.

11.  McFague, Sallie.  Blessed Are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint.  Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2013.

12.  Keller, Catherine.  Political Theology of the Earth: Our Planetary Emergency and the Struggle for a New Public.  New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2018.*

13.  Jenkins, Willis.  The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity.  Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2013, p. 8.

14.  Veldman, Robin Globus, Andrew Szasz, and Randolph Haluza-DeLay, ed.  How the World’s Religions Are Responding to Climate Change: Social Scientific Investigations.  London: Routledge, 2014.*

15.  Biviano, Erin Lothes.  Inspired Sustainability: Planting Seeds for Action.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016.

16.  Witt, Joseph D.  Religion and Resistance in Appalachia: Faith and the Fight against Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining.  Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.*

17.  Nelson, Melissa K., ed.  Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future.  Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 2008.

*Editor’s note: An asterisk (*) denotes a title selected for Resources for College Libraries.

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