Climate crisis sheds new light on worldview, review iofc

review  Saturday, January 23, 2021 (

’The environmental crisis strikes us at the very core of our faith,’ the General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church declared in 1990. In their subsequent discussion paper on the ecological crisis, they state, ’Our alienation from our environment signals an alienation from God. Our carelessness towards the dying environment constitutes a form of lovelessness towards God.’

With this document, the Reformed Synod provided an impetus for turning the environmental crisis into a primary concern for faith. This appeal, unfortunately, remains relevant 30 years later. The current policy of the Dutch Protestant Church (PKN) includes ecological sustainability as a minor theme. In her book Green Theology, theologian Trees van Montfoort examines why this is the case. In this book, Van Montfoort advocates a theology in which care for the environment is not only practical in nature, but also touches the very core of the church. In 2019, Green Theology  was listed as the best book on theology of the year.

The synod wished to expound on the aforementioned discussion document in response to reactions from the member churches. This follow-up, however, never happened. Perhaps, Van Montfoort writes, the different Protestant churches were too preoccupied with the merger process they were going through. Or perhaps the environmental question then seemed a distant and irrelevant issue, which still may be the case now.

Van Montfoort’s Green Theology is the result of her own process of becoming eco-conscious. At an early age, she developed two areas of interest, theology and sustainability. To her, those areas were mutually exclusive. She was an academically-trained and practicing theologian. Sustainability played an increasingly important role in her private life. She traveled by bicycle or by public transport as much as possible, monitored her domestic energy use, and deposited her savings at a sustainable bank. She also maintained an increasingly organic and vegetarian diet. But for the past ten years or so, Van Montfoort has started to combine these two areas, exploring the Bible’s relevance for the environment.

Nature is not a commodity

Several ecocentric church initiatives have been put forward during the past decades. In 1972, the Club of Rome warned for an impending environmental crisis in their controversial Limits to Growth report. The Dutch Council of Churches rose to the challenge and proclaimed 1975 the year of the New Lifestyle (‘De Nieuwe Levensstijl’). In the 1980s, the World Council of Churches called for, as they put it, a conciliar process for justice, peace and the wholeness of creation. The term ‘wholeness of creation’ referred to ecology. The Dutch Council of Churches adopted this terminology, which inspired numerous publications and initiatives. Van Montfoort mentions a number of these, including the previously mentioned discussion document of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Reading this, you learn about churches that were concerned with pressing, tangible issues. These churches put forward ideas on how to handle the ecological crisis.  However, there was enthusiasm as well as resistance. Ecological involvement was usually expressed through practical actions, but it did not touch the core of theological ideas. Van Montfoort is convinced that green theology can contribute significantly to ecological sustainability. This means that some concepts need to be revised.

One concept that needs revision, for example, is the theological view that God has placed man above and beyond nature, and that nature serves as a mere instrument for human progress. Van Montfoort believes that the ecological crisis is, in fact, a worldview crisis. The Bible is too often read from an anthropocentric point of view, as the story of God with people, or simply as the story of man. This is how Genesis, for example, is read, as an interpretation of man as the ruler of creation. Van Montfoort reads the Bible in broader terms, as the story of God with all living nature, of which man is only a part.

The term stewardship, which is often used in Christian circles with regard to sustainability, also places man above nature. After all, a steward manages property on behalf of a client, but he is not part of the property himself. Moreover, it is an economic term that implies the notion that nature is a resource and commodity for man.

Sustainable use of the earth

If, as Van Montfoort does, you give nature its rightful place in theology, you will also regard the so-called nature religions differently. They were wrongly regarded as pagan religions. Van Montfoort believes that non-Western worldviews and practices can serve as an example for a more sustainable approach to the Earth. I am reminded of the Great Surinam exhibition last year, which took place in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam. I learned that the indigenous people of Surinam did not have a waste problem. In the jungle, everything was re-used. In Extinct Rebellion’s “While it Still Can,” Mitchall Esajas writes that pollution in Surinam started during colonial times. Back then, indigenous people were considered uncivilized and inferior. The logic that proposes that profit is more important than people and nature’s well-being has a long history. This history is rooted in colonialism. In order to find a sustainable way of living, we can learn from those who were considered inferior during colonial times, says Esajas.

I find that a similar view is also represented in Green Theology. Here, the churches must provide some compensation. If religion and worldview have contributed to the crisis, it is also evident that we must turn to the field of philosophy for the solution.  And in our case, Van Montfoort writes, to the field of Christian faith.

Van Montfoort looks for the solution in her extraordinarily rich and detailed book, which includes 320 pages, 1025 notes, and a list of approximately 300 consulted sources. She refers to examples such as Francis of Assisi, who called the Earth his sister in his famous Canticle of the Sun. His namesake, the current Pope, starts off his encyclical Laudate Si: On the Care of the Common Home by referencing this song. Van Montfoort distinguishes herein elements from feminist theology, such as attention to daily life and a non-dualistic worldview. According to Van Montfoort, the Earth’s exploitation is caused by, among other things, a dual and hierarchical worldview. In this hierarchy, earth, nature, women, body, emotion and wilderness are considered as subordinate categories. Heaven, culture, men, spirit, ratio, civilization are considered as dominant categories. Ecofeminist theology, to which Van Montfoort devotes an entire chapter, rejects this dichotomy and replaces it with the concept of connectedness.

The book ends on a hopeful and practical note, with a ’green’ church service in Boxtel. A number of church members are also involved in the process of turning Boxtel into a transition town, a worldwide movement of local initiatives that aim to make possible a sustainable society. Van Montfoort visited Boxtel as a guest preacher, and has said that it is a site where green theology is tested and further developed.

Christian faith, she concludes, is not a passage to a future that we can already outline. Instead, it is a response to what is happening, without being able to oversee everything, without a blueprint, something that belongs to all the senses, our whole body here and now, connected to all that is. These words seem prophetic after 2020, the year of the coronavirus pandemic. Nature has shown us our place mercilessly. It is now the time to respond to what is happening, and to use all our senses to learn to live in harmony with each other, and with nature.

Author: Hennie de Pous-de Jonge / Translator: Shereen Siwpersad