Creation Spirituality and the New Story:
A Cosmos Without the Redemption of Jesus?
"Some people think they have to adopt Creation Theology or a new cosmology to be theologically correct on ecological issues.... Nothing could be farther from the truth."
U.S. Catholic Bishops
"One cannot dissociate the plan of Creation from the plan of Redemption. The latter plan touches the very concrete situations of injustice to be combated and of justice to be restored."
Pope Paul VI (1975)
Edited by Bill Jacobs, founder and president of the Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Conservation Center
A few Catholics today promote "creation spirituality," "creation theology," "Earth spirituality," or a "new cosmology" of the Universe, parts of which are variously called the "new story," "Earth story," or "Universe story." Generally speaking, the creation theology movement seeks to integrate the wisdom of Western and Eastern religions and the traditions of global indigenous cultures with the emerging scientific understanding of the Universe.
According to the U.S. Catholic Bishops, "Some people think they have to adopt Creation Theology or a new cosmology to be theologically correct on ecological issues.... Nothing could be farther from the truth. Environmental justice is now thoroughly embedded in the Church's social teaching, and it has been a repeated theme of Pope John Paul II's social teaching."9
The purpose here is not to put down other people's beliefs, but rather to show that these particular beliefs differ from the teachings of the Bible and Tradition of the Church.
Creation spirituality emphasizes the relationship between humankind and nature. The protection of nature is considered a sacrament and an expression of God and the “Cosmic Christ.” This approach is promoted by former Catholic priest Matthew Fox and was endorsed by "ecotheologian" Thomas Berry, among others.
Elements of a "new story of the Universe" are valid as scientific accounts of creation. This cosmology begins with the story of the Universe from its beginning fourteen billion years ago, and continues through the evolution of Earth life, and on to human life as we exist today.
In the interests of promoting a more Earth-centered view of life, however, creation theology overlooks the need for the redemption of humankind through Jesus Christ. This turns back the clock on our understanding of the relation between God, humankind, and the world. While rightly recognizing the wonders and beauty of the cosmos, the new cosmology fails to lead us to the Triune God.
The Universe story attempts to supplant the Christian story with a kind of scientific mysticism. Efforts to supplant the Christian story with a scientific mysticism demonstrate a shallow understanding of Christianity. Science and Christianity are complimentary; both speak of a harmonious Universe, of a cosmos endowed with its own integrity, its own internal, dynamic balance. The Christian story is forever new. Science, on the other hand, quickly grows old.
Creation theology often involves the worship of creation more than, or in place of, the worship of the Triune God. The Most Holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is ignored or presented in an unbalanced way by proponents of the "new story." Creation theology tends to favor creation and a "Cosmic Christ," considered an impersonal spirit or force in the universe, while downplaying or denying Jesus Christ as a person and redeemer.
The leading proponents of the "new" cosmology include Thomas Berry and Rosemary Radford Ruether. At times their teachings differ radically from the Bible and sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church, as exemplified below.
Thomas Berry, the late Catholic priest and "ecotheologian",we should "put the Bible on the shelf"1 and "the only effective program available as our primary guide toward a viable human mode of being is the program offered by the Earth itself."2 Berry's beliefs appear to stray far from the teaching of the Church: "We must rethink our ideas about God; we should place less emphasis on Christ as a person and redeemer."4 Berry insisted that we quit our "obsessive concern" with Jesus Christ.5 Berry went so far as to promote a "post-Christian belief system": "the world is being called to a new post-denominational, even post-Christian, belief system that sees the Earth as a living being - mythologically, as Gaia, Mother Earth - with mankind as her consciousness."6
According to Rosemary Radford Ruether, "Our consciousness did not fall from a heaven outside the Earth and will not escape outside of it into an eternal life. Our destiny and calling is of and for this Earth. Immortality lies not in the preservation of our individual consciousness as a separate substance but in the miracle and mystery of endlessly recycled matter-energy." She adds, "The real salvation that is available to us is of much more modest dimensions" than the salvation of Christ.7 Just as with the common theological errors of the past, Ruether leads her followers to worship the Earth and ego, in this case often limited to their alleged feminine natures, as opposed to the worship of the Triune God of creation and redemption. While being a self-professed "eco-feminist," Ruether endorses abortion (a.k.a. "choice"), despite the gory contradiction that about half of aborted babies are female. Feminism in her eyes must only apply to the strongest among us, and not to the weakest. Ironically, Ruether's endorsement of abortion exemplifies a grave lack of respect for the feminine natures of God, humanity, and creation. It is this very same lack of respect for life that is an underlying cause of ecological destruction and violence in the world! Not surprisingly, Ruether reveals in U.S. Catholic magazine (April 2002), "Frankly, if I hadn't been born into the Catholic Church I doubt I would have joined it."
These and related teachings clearly are in conflict with the teachings of the Bible and the Church, and therefore also in conflict with reality. In marked contrast to these forms of creation theology, the Church teaches that creation finds its meaning and its summit in the New Creation in Christ, the splendor of which surpasses that of the first creation. "Creation is permeated with a redemptive sanctification, even a divinization. It comes as if drawn to the sphere of the divinity and of the intimate life of God," according to Blessed John Paul II.
Despite Berry's claim that we should put the Bible on the shelf, even temporarily, we would do better to take the Bible off the shelf and read it. The Bible has a great deal to say about social justice and environmental conservation. The fundamental causes of our environmental problems, as well as the solutions, can be found there. "Reflection on the biblical foundations of care for the created world can clarify the obligation to promote a sound and healthy environment," said Blessed John Paul II. (The Catholic Study Bible may be helpful for many of us in that it provides additional background information and explanations.)
The Bible and Tradition of the Church tell us that the first creation finds its meaning and its summit in the New Creation in Christ. Blessed John Paul II said, "Christians believe that the death and resurrection of Christ accomplished the work of reconciling humanity to the Father, who 'was pleased ... through (Christ) to reconcile to himself ALL THINGS, whether on Earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.' Creation was thus made new. Once subjected to the bondage of sin and decay, it has now received new life while 'we wait for new heavens and a new Earth in which righteousness dwells'."
Some of today's expressions of creation theology are not only misguided theology, they are misguided approaches to environmental justice and stewardship. Thomas Berry told us that "traditional religions in themselves and out of their existing resources cannot deal with the problems that we have to deal with" (Befriending the Earth). On the contrary, there is nothing stronger or more necessary than God and His Church to address the root causes of environmental destruction, including the sins of arrogance, greed, and lack of respect for life. Our problems are not simply economic and technological; at their root they are moral and spiritual. In order to solve our problems, we need to turn to God and his Church. As always, Jesus Christ is our one true Savior.
According to a leading Catholic theologian on ecology, Father Lawrence E. Mick, "The religious experience, properly understood, provides the best foundation for a lasting ecological awareness.... The religious experience provides the lasting motivation to continue the effort because it finds God, the source of all meaning, in the midst of creation."
The fundamental causes and solutions to our environmental problems are made known to us in the Bible, living tradition of the Church, book of nature, and the voice of conscience enlightened by God’s law authentically interpreted. Many of today's creation theologians focus excessively or exclusively on the message of nature and the voice of the ego, or on a conscience that is un-enlightened by God's law, thereby leading their followers away from the one true solution to our environmental crisis: the Redemption of humankind and the whole of creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the end, some so-called eco-theologians leave us with only a cold and impersonal "deep ecology" when what we truly need is "Deep Christianity." (Read more about Deep Christianity by Stratford Caldecott, below.)
The vision of God given us by Christ is not merely that of the Creator: it is of the Triune God who loves the world so much that He sends his only Son. "The Universe springs forth from ... the reciprocal Love of the Father and Son, from the Most Holy Trinity," said Blessed John Paul II.
We're going to need a lot more than a "new" mysticism to get us out of the mess we've made of our environment. We're going to need God and His Church. Jesus Christ is our Savior. The Triune God is the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of the whole Universe. God maintains the existence of the Universe through an ongoing creative will. The presence of the Holy Spirit in creation generates order, harmony, and interdependence in all that exists. Christ's redemptive mission extends to all of creation. In the end, we can only save the Earth as co-workers with God.
"When it comes to the environmental movement and various forms of creation spirituality, homilists can be guided by St. Paul's advice: praise whatever is good. At the same time, there is no need to accept every novelty, nor to listen to every assertion uncritically. Do not be afraid to point out differences or distortions."9
~ US Conference of Catholic Bishops
"If anyone confesses the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and praises the Creation, but calls the Incarnation merely an appearance, and is ashamed of the Passion, such a one has denied the faith."
--St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 107 A.D.)
A Matter of Old Gnosis
"New theology?" And welcome! At times, however, it's not a matter of a new theology, but of old Gnosis. The presumptuous mentality of the old gnostics often re-surfaces: "We give explanations at the highest level of science; we eat up the poor, obsolete and bygone explanations of the Magisterium!" The method of Gnosis is also coming back, that of taking the arguments and terms of the Catholic faith, but only partially, usurping the right to sift them and select them, to understand them in one's own way, to mix them with extraneous ideologies and to base adherence to the faith no longer on divine authority but on human motives; on this or that philosophical opinion, for example, on the match between a particular argument and determined political choices adopted earlier.
~ Cardinal Luciani (Pope John Paul I), Homily on Christ the Liberator, Venice, March 7, 1973
by Stratford Caldecott
FOR ANY DEEPLY Catholic or Orthodox mind, the Church is a person, typified in the Virgin Mary.... Her actual boundaries extend far beyond her formal membership, into the realm of nature itself. It is in her that the flowers bloom and the rivers flow. Through his telescope the atheist scientist gazes at the stars. One can in fact only exclude oneself from her by a conscious act of rejection. The responsibility for the loss of this poetic or mystical sense of the Church as a cosmic, supernaturally organic community lies with the same dualist mindset that has pervaded Western society since the 17th century, and which is associated with the rise of industry and of the merchant classes....
The answer to that industrial mindset, however, is not Deep Ecology, it is Deep Christianity. In one way Lynn White was right. Christians helped to get us into this mess. They became shallow. And if Christians got us into it, Christians might bear a special responsibility for getting us out.
From within the Catholic tradition, it is perfectly possible – and indeed increasingly urgent – to recover relatedness, community, and transcendence. This can be done without capitulating to the excesses of modern Romanticism, for indeed the key to all three lies not in any alternative to Christian belief, but in the deeper understanding and implications of Incarnation and Trinity. What modern Catholicism terms the "universal call to holiness" is ultimately a call to unity with God in the life of the Blessed Trinity. That unity is achieved through man, but it ultimately enfolds and transforms the entire cosmos. It answers the need of the human heart for the supernatural, but at the same time it incorporates the community of natural creatures.
"God delays causing the confusion and destruction of the whole world...because of the seed of the Christians, who know that they are the cause of preservation in nature."
~ St. Justin (c. 100-165 A.D.)
1 Excerpt from a talk by Thomas Berry given at the Foundation for Global Community's Center for the Evolution of Culture in Palo Alto, 1996.
2 p. 71, The Great Work, by Thomas Berry. 1999. New York: Random House, Inc.
3Thomas Berry, The New Story. Teilhard Studies no. 1 (Chambersburg, PA. Anima Press, 1978)
4Florida Catholic, Feb. 14, 1992
5Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow website, April 1, 2000
6 Samantha Smith. 1993. Goddess Earth, Exposing the Pagan Agenda in the Environmental Movement
7 Hessel, Dieter R. and Rosemary Radford Ruether, eds. 2000. Christianity and Ecology: seeking the well-being of earth and humans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
9 USCCB Homily suggestions http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/ejp/climate/homilysuggestions.pdf . Last accessed 2/6/10.
Photo of bluebird by Robert McCaw
Photo of monarch butterfly (c) Ivan Rothman
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