Working with the integrity of creation to achieve ecological salvation?

Posted on March 2, 2008


I’ve been reading an interesting thesis by Xiaming Gong: Church Involvement in Education for Sustainability: Using Participatory Action Research to Design a Faith-based Education for Sustainability Programme in a Christian Community, New Zealand (link, pdf). This is outside my own belief system so apologies in advance if I’ve misinterpreted something here.

We’ve been having debates at work about the relationship between values and sustainability, and politics and sustainability, and beliefs and sustainability. We don’t have a strong answer (hence our vision is “graduates may act and think as sustainable practitioners).

This thesis presents some interesting perspectives. Here are some passages:

People’s worldviews are shaped by many factors including religion (Hayes & Marangudakis, 2001; Hunter & Toney, 2005). This study therefore, focused on combining Christian religious education with EFS.

This challenge presents an interesting opportunity for faith-based EFS. Environmental behaviour change is regarded as an important goal of EFS (MfE, 1999a). At the same time, a value commitment has been seen as essential for people to start environmentally responsible action (Stern & Aronson, 1984, cited in Taylor, 2005). Sterling (2001) insists that EFS has to encompass transformative education. Christianity is the major religion in New Zealand but it has been criticised as “the most anthropocentric religion” in the world (PCE, 2004; White, 1967). White (1967) states that Genesis1:26, in which God gives humankind a mandate to exercise dominion over the Earth, leads to an anti-environmental ethic. However, many theologians have questioned this interpretation of Genesis and indicated some other Bible passages which require humans to take good care of the Earth (Bookless, 2005; Hessel & Rasmussen, 2001; King, 2001; Petersen, 2003). Also, some empirical studies responding to White’s (1967) statement show no obvious negative and even positive relation between environmental concern and Christian faith (Biel & Nilsson, 2005; Hayes & Marangudakis, 2001; Hunter & Toney, 2005; Schultz et al., 2001; Wolkomir et al., 1997; Woodrum & Hoban, 1994). Elsewhere, Christian belief is found to be positively linked with pro-environmental behaviour (Kanagy & Willits, 1993; Wolkomir et al., 1997). For that reason, it is critical to re-interpret particular Bible passages and reinforce Christian faith to shape Christians’ worldviews, so that Christian faith can benefit EFS by promoting environmentally responsible action.

Importance of non-formal and adult education and critical thinking

enables people to take individual and collective action which can trigger social change to resolve environmental problems (Brookfield, 1987; Orr, 1992 & Tilbury, 1994, cited in Clover, 1996). Therefore, adult-focused community EFS is important for achieving the goal of social change.

Need for holistic paradigm:

It has been recognised since the 1990s that a big challenge for EFS is how to shift the mainstream educational paradigm from being mechanical to ecological, and how to shift the wider social paradigm from being reductionist to holistic (Palmer, 1998; Sterling, 1996; 2001). This challenge is made no easier by the ambiguous definition of “sustainability” (Fien & Trianer, 1993; Huckle, 1996; Tilbury, 1995). Also, an ecological or holistic paradigm calls for different approaches to conventional educational approaches – approaches that are holistic, inclusive, systemic, critical, collaborative, inclusive, ethical and participative (Orr, 1992; Robottom and Hart, 1993, cited in MfE, 1999a; Palmer, 1998; Tilbury, 1995).

Study overview:

The purpose of this research was to understand how to develop an effective faith based EFS programme (specifically addressing the issue of climate change) within the context of Christian environmental practice.

Transformative learning in theological context:

EFS calls for changes in social and behavioural patterns (Sterling, 1993). Therefore, “action objectives” need to be identified. However, the ambiguous concept of “sustainability” presents a difficulty for EFS (Fien & Trianer, 1993; Huckle, 1996). Christian theological themes on “sustainability” and relevant biblical/theological knowledge (“theological learning objectives”) can help Christians to understand “sustainability” from a theological perspective, which could motivate them to take action on climate change. In the process of theological learning and action taking, participants should be able to scrutinise and reorganise the nature of their paradigms or worldviews. Sterling (1993, 2001) calls this transformative learning which could inform and motivate changes in lifestyle.

Importance of education for the environment:

The three forms are

– Education for environmental management and control. This mainly uses

empirical or scientific knowledge to solve technical problems and is close to the

notion of education about the environment;

– Education for awareness and interpretation. This aims to increase people’s environmental awareness by examining their beliefs, attitudes and values towards the environment. This form is close to the notion of education in the environment.

– Education for sustainability (EFS). This aims to achieve sustainable development through social change in which people are empowered to reflect and act on paradigms and mechanisms which shape the social use of nature. This form is close to the notion of education for the environment.

The above first two forms can be seen at the “shallow green” stage of EE and the third form is at the “deep-green” stage according to a model identified by Sterling (1993) based on O’Riordan’s (1983) model of environmentalism. O’Riordan (1983) recognised that philosophical positions, which informed European environmentalism, were between “technocentrism” and “ecocentrism”. Accordingly, Sterling’s (1993) model identifies three stages of EE with “dry or non-green” at one end, “deep-green” at the other end, and “shallow green” between the two ends.

Therefore, the first two forms of EE in Huckle’s (1993) discourse are not sufficient “if environmental education is to contribute to a truly environmentally sustainable society”, although “they are probably necessary” (Sterling, 1993:89). As such, Sterling (1993:91) suggests employing a holistic approach to transform them by “balancing and broadening their perspectives”. On the other hand, Huckle (1996:12, based on Pepper, 1993 & Martell, 1994) states that the position of viewing nature neither as “a resource for our use (technocentric materialism) [nor] as a source of intrinsic worth (ecocentric idealism) but as a social category to be consciously created (historical materialism) [can collapse] dualism between technocentrism and ecocentrism and between the modern reductionist and postmodern holistic world views”.

For this study therefore, EFS was understood as Huckle’s (1993) third form of EE which is able to integrate valuable elements of the other two forms through creative understanding of this world and humanity’s relationship to it.


Dale and Newman (2005) suggest there are now hundreds of definitions of sustainability (also see Kates et al., 2005; Chapman, 2004)…

Kates et al. (2005) see this ambiguity as a “creative ambiguity” that drives a dynamic open discussion process and provides a baseline for debate on the concept. Lele (1999) believes that the main contribution of the sustainability debate has been its recognition that social conditions influence ecological conditions through human nature interactions (also see Wilson et al., 2000; Redclift, 2005; Littig & GrieBler, 2005). Based on the argument in the 1980 World Conservation Strategy (WCS) that conservation is a means to achieve sustainability, the Brundtland Commission’s definition is an effort to concern and reconcile development and environment by focusing on the intergenerational equity of development and by clarifying the environmental limitations of human development (Lele, 1999; Kates et al., 2005). However, it is arguable that equity should not only be intergenerational but also intra-generational, and that it should even exist between humanity and the rest of nature (Redclift, 2005; Qizilbash, 2001). Thus, the discussion on sustainability has moved from the original Brundtland Commission’s concern for human needs to concerns about human and non-human rights. It is now linked to liberty, power, justice and democracy (Fien & Tilbury, 2002; Mason, 1999 & Barnett, 2001 & Martinez-Alier, 1995, cited in Redclift, 2005; Langhelle, 2000; Huckle, 1996; Ray, 1997).

and here’s where it starts to lose me:

The linkage between socio-economic justice and ecological sustainability was first identified by the ecumenical community through the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) programme – “Just, Participatory and Sustainable Society (JPSS 1975)” (Hallman, 1997; Vischer, 1997). But the term “sustainable society” was replaced by “integrity of creation” in its follow-up programme – “Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC 1983). This was because the concept “integrity of creation” was seen to specifically combine ecological and theological perspectives of sustainability (Hallman, 1997; Rasmussen, 1996). However, Migliore (2004) recognised that humans’ limited knowledge about God as Creator and the integrity of God’s creation resulted in traditional Christian theology’s anthropocentrism and the understanding of human power as domination in relation to the environment. In this sense, sustainability is identified by Vischer (1997:145) as the need to make “a commitment to the greatest possible care and restraint in dealing with God’s creation” through reinterpretation and reformation of creation theology (Migliore, 2004) as well as redemption theology and eschatology (Bukus, 1999).

Danger of indoctrination:

there is an argument that priori environmental ideology and the political values of the critical approach made value education in EE no easier (Scott & Oulton, 1999) and put education for the environment in danger of being regarded as indoctrination (Jickling & Sportk, 1998). In this regard, there is wide debate about the necessity of a value-based curriculum (Dale & Newman, 2005).

World Council of Churches framework:

1975: “Just, Participatory and Sustainable Society” (JPSS) at its fifth assembly in Nairobi to address development concerns and environmental issues such as poverty and earth’s limited capacity to sustain life

1983 “Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation” (JPIC)

1991 – (present) “theology of life”

1992 and 2002 Rio and Johannesburg (UNCED conferences) “building a faith-based understanding of the integral relationship between social justice, human development and protection of the environment” (Martin, 2002:271). This understanding is a foundation of the ecumenical approach towards sustainability – building “sustainable community” – by ensuring “the integrity and sustainability of the ecclesial community” (Aram, 2002:483).

Xiaming Gong used a participatory action research process. Focus groups were facilitated to draw diagrams:

Diagramming Activity 1 – Creation Narrative – aimed to understand sustainability from a theological perspective. My rationale was to facilitate the participants to not only identify the learning objectives of the St John’s faith-based EFS programme but also to reflect on their theological understandings of creation. This reflection would be the motivation for their action/behaviour changes with relation to climate change.

Unfortunately she doesn’t give a justification for this method, and it seems the participants had considerable trouble with it.creation_key.jpg

It did though, produce diagrams that well show the focus groups perspective. Given a colour coded diagram structure (right) the two workshop groups were prompted to explore the creation narrative (nearly wrote myth) with reference to sustainability (or perhaps the other way around!). creation_narrative2.jpgcreation_narratives_raw.jpg

The latter of these is tidied thus creation_narratives.jpg.
Gong made transcripts of the diagram process and interviewed participants. Here’s her take on the meaning of these diagrams:

Theme one: The goodness and reality of original creation
– Originally creation is good and ordered;
– Humanity is part of creation, but given a special responsibility for the care of creation;
– Creation has been marred because of human sin, and exploited by human greed;
– Creation is being redeemed and will one day be renewed as the new creation;
Theme two: Human stewardship and dominion
– God gave us the responsibility of stewardship and the privilege of dominion at the same time, which means we should see nature as a valuable creation while yet also having the right to use it as resource;
– We must get a biblical model of stewardship which is balanced with dominion and away from greed because greed leads to political and social mismanagement;
– People are mutually interdependent with each other and with nature, so we have responsibility to take care of the poor and the vulnerable without harming creation.
Theme three: Jesus, resurrection and new creation
– Jesus heals people and restores their broken bodies and lives back to wholeness;
– Through his resurrection, Jesus initiates the new creation which is good and ordered, and transforms original creation into a new creation.
Theme four: Human capacity and limitation
– God created humanity with the potential to address problems theoretically and practically. But humanity’s understanding has limitations and only God has the complete understanding of the nature of ecological order;
– Affected by original sin, we have limited generational and cultural perspectives and there are ethical limits to science;
– We have to challenge generational and cultural differences and be aware of the limitations of science to find our Christian path towards tomorrow.
Theme five: Eschatological (future) hope and redemption
– The final redemption of creation, prefigured in Jesus’ resurrection and the activity of the Holy Spirit, awaits the future;
– Only God has the power to achieve ecological salvation, but He chooses not to work alone but in company with his people;
– Our task is not to wait passively for God to do it all, but to bear witness to God’s redemptive actions in Christ and to participate in its outworking now;
– Inspired by the hope of eschatological redemption of all creation, Christians should do all they can to make an effort for healing the planet in the present


Given how fundamental all this is, I can’t help by being disappointed by the actions the church chose to undertake followingswot.jpg these discussions – reduce paper waste, maintain appliances and so on. Perhaps the participants knew this too, there’s more depth on a SWOT analysis and from this they plan a “faith-based” green plan which is a deliberate attempt of “movement in the same direction”. In later sessions, the groups established a “group theological study on sustainability” and “group eco-discussion”.

Although this plan still is focussed on little more than waste paper in the church it is done within the context of people’s deeper understanding and worldview: a “theological motivation”:

Our motivation for taking action [that] would make a distinctive difference [for the St John’s programme][was a choice] between being a faith-based EFS programme and just an EFS programme Participant, Workshop 4 data, 26/03/07).

So, how is this different from normal sustainability?

Many participants expressed that engaging sustainability as an issue of their faith gave them a new incentive to both take action on climate change and to reflect on their faith. This made me reflect on the different languages of the secular world and the Christian world in their conceptualisations of sustainability. I realise now that they both contribute to the “rhetoric-reality” gap in EFS more widely. The secular discourses on sustainability often have no space for theological terminology (or even the terminology of whatever cultural or social group sustainability advocators are trying to engage with), so that they hardly motivate Christians (or any other group) to take action on an environmental issue like climate change. On the other hand, Christian discourses on sustainability often hide the secular aspect behind theological terms such as “integrity of creation”.

perhaps we don’t have to agree with it, or even understand it, but working with what people know is critical:

linking the concept of sustainability with Christian faith (or other cultures) is an important point from a practical point of view. It shows that the degree to which people take action is at least partly a product of enabling them to engage in an issue on their own terms and from within their own value system rather than by any attempt to completely change them to someone else’s value system.



References in the full thesis.