Trees van Montfoort, Green Theology, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, January 2022 (the English edition of the Best Dutch Theological Book of 2019) Click here.
Groene theologie (Green Theology) by Trees van Montfoort has been voted the Best Theological Book of 2019. The jury, reviewers from the Dutch daily papers Trouw and Nederlands Dagblad, calls it ‘a very urgent and necessary book’ . It challenges “a far-reaching Christian theological reconsideration of the relationship between God, creation, nature and human beings.”
According to the jury, this book also shows that ecology has everything to do with theology.
From the jury report :
‘Green theology is a very urgent and necessary book. With good stewardship and placing an additional solar panel we won’t get by anymore.’
‘With her thorough theological research into a very topical and important theme, Van Montfoort challenges, or even more, compels a far-reaching Christian-theological reconsideration of the relationship between God, creation, nature and human beings. The book helps believers and unbelievers to read the Bible through a different lens. And that is necessary, because with good stewardship and an extra solar panel we won’t get by anymore.’
‘The book marks what is currently beginning to dawn on many, that ecology really concerns theology, that “who God is” has something to do with “how this world works.” She does this in a way that shows that theology matters in the public debate. Green theology shows that theology has to do with everything and not just with ethics.’
‘We can be grateful to Van Montfoort that she turned her original plan for writing a dissertation into a book for the general public.’
‘We can be grateful to Van Montfoort that she turned her original plan for writing a dissertation into a book for the general public. Reading her book does require a fair effort and demands quite a bit from the reader, but nobody should object to that.’
(translation: Wim Reedijk)
Climate crisis sheds new light on worldview
review Saturday, January 23, 2021 (https://www.iofc.nl/climate-crisis-sheds-new-light-worldview)
’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
“God has a relationship with the whole world, and not just with people.”
interview with Trees van Montfoort by Maaike van Houten, Trouw (Newspaper), Friday 8. March 2019
In search of literature for thinking through a sustainable vision of the Bible, environmental concerned theologian, vicar and author, Trees van Montfoort found out that there was a substantial body of foreign language publications on this topic but hardly any solid Dutch ones. With this in mind she decided to write her own book on theology, sustainability and belief. In Groene Theologie she demonstrates that the Bible does not focus solely on humans, but on God’s relation with the earth as a whole, a relationship which includes animals and plants.
The movement of green churches continuously welcomes new churches, mosques and synagogues that are busy with solar panels and other sustainable things. On Sunday churches participate in the climate march, a Christian climate song has been written, there is a special ‘green’ prayer. It is already going well, isn’t it?
“Yes and no. The green church movement is very much geared to practical things, things you can do. For instance, there is a toolbox for green church management. Although this is very important, it only appeals to a small number of people. A few solar panels on the roof and perhaps fair-trade coffee in the kitchen, but that is very often as far it goes. Rarely does it affect the entire religious community and it has hardly any noticeable effect on theology. There’s no place for green theology in the service, in the liturgy. But I do see change in the air. The climate march begins and ends with a church service, churches are wholeheartedly participating. But there is also a need for theological grounding in the Dutch context. It’s not just about doing, it’s also about thinking.”
The Bible was written at a time when environmental problems did not exist. What significance can this book have for today’s ecological issues?
“The Bible does not provide answers to the ecological crisis that we are currently experiencing. Now it often goes like this. Either we don’t know how to deal with the problem and then look in the Bible what to do, but in general we don’t find such straightforward answers. Or we know exactly what to do, like flying less and stop eating so much meat, and then look for Bible verses that support our view. Either way, you don’t take the Bible seriously. You can’t just assume that the Bible provides such easy answers for what to do. You have to look at the whole picture, how the Bible presents the picture of God and the world.”
Is that picture clear then?
“No, it is far from clear. The only thing that is clear is that humanity is always part of the created universe and not separated from it. That is a very different world view than the current one. With the birth of modernity humans began to see themselves as being in the centre of everything. Theology took this view as well. Nature became an object of our use, a resource that must not be exhausted. But it is a degradation of animals and plants to see them as a resource and not as fellow creatures. In this way of thinking, God was either relegated to the background or he was no longer found in the whole cosmos, but only in us, human beings. If God is in mankind, then men have become creators, the absolute rulers of creation. Then something very essential is missing: man as such is a creature, a fellow creature with others, with plants and animals. What was lost at the start of modernity was this sense of being created like all other beings. We’re part of the ecosystem. God has a relationship with the whole world, and not just with people.”
Believers often see the Bible as the story of God with people. Are they wrong?
” Of course, our view is always biased, we see the world from our human perspective. But it does matter whether you see human beings as part of the world, or as above the world, or outside of it all. In the Biblical story of Job, Job wants to know why he has to suffer so much. God shows him wild animals and two monsters, in many modern translations a crocodile and a dragon. What God does, is to make Job realise that he is not the one who is at stake, but that he is part of a greater whole. The Bible also uses the expression, ‘all flesh’ which means ‘all living beings’ if it refers to humans and animals simultaneously. In the biblical book of Jonah God says about the city of Nineveh that it is a city of people and animals, but in most church sermons the animals vanish into thin air. One often forgets that God made a covenant not only with Noah, but with all living beings. The animals have also survived the flood, they also emerge from the ark. The animals were also in need of surviving. Therefore, they had to embark on the ark as well. And the rainbow stands for a bond with the whole earth, not just with people.”
How does this relate to the Christian idea that mankind is the crown of creation?
“That is an assumption that you can’t find in the Bible.”
And that men will rule over animals and the earth, isn’t that also a biblical image?
“That is indeed an important text to look into, and this is what I have done in my book. Don’t avoid these texts, that’s too easy. There’s a lot of discussion about it. One of the questions you can put to this saying about men ruling the Earth is what is meant by ‘men’. Is that everyone? Some say: this is an example of male arrogance, get rid of it. But that answer is also too easy.
“I look at the context and I see that God first created the land, the water, the sun, the animals, and then human beings. That’s the dominant species and therefore it has to take care of the earth. The story of Genesis 1 is written at the end of the period when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. In my opinion the text is an encouragement to rebuild the land. You can do it, says God. That’s how I explained it.”
At the climate march, people take to the streets for firm measures to combat global warming and to keep the earth liveable. Who but humans can stand up for the lives of plants and animals?
“In having responsibility people differ from plants and animals. But responsibility is not the same as thinking that you have everything under control, that you stand above the whole thing.
“It’s important to realize that we’re not entirely in control and that we are not in command of everything. The climate is a system that is too big to contain and to handle for us. It doesn’t mean one shouldn’t do something, but one should acknowledge one’s limitations.
With your book you want to reach non-believers. What can they gain from green theology?
“Many people think that Christianity is the root cause of all environmental problems. This is partly true in as much as Christianity had the tendency to place men above the created cosmos that was subsequently seen as an object to be freely used for our benefit. But there are also many other sources within Christianity that opt for a more ecological use of the earth. In the environmental movement there is a lot of sympathy for Buddhism, with its respect for all living beings. But you can find the same intuition far closer to home.“
Trees van Montfoort, Groene theologie, Skandalon publishing house, 320 pages, 27.50 euro
(translation interview: Wim Reedijk)
The invisibility of the non-human world.
This March I published a book on ecotheology. Groene theologie (Skandalon 2019) introduces and designs an ecotheology for the churches in the Netherlands and Flanders – both catholic and protestant. I argued why a new worldview is necessary in the context of the ecological crisis, I reread the Bible from an eco(feminist) point of view (on Creation, God and animals, salvation of the Earth), I discussed the traditional apprehension of and even downright resistance against any form of connecting God and nature and I examined the possibilities of four ecofeminist theologians for the Dutch speaking countries.
My main argument is that ecological theology is not a sub-discipline of theology but a rediscovery of theology as such. Theology in general is too much focused on God and human beings, making the rest of the world invisible. Cosmology should be part of theology again. The Bible could function as a mirror for modern people, showing a different worldview: the role of human beings in relation to the Earth is first of all being aware that one is a creature among other creatures. Therefore the role of Christ as incarnation of Wisdom and saviour of the word becomes an important topic, which is also the key for an ecofeminist Christian theology.
The insights of ecofeminist theologians worldwide can enrich the theology in the Low Countries. From both Ivone Gebara (catholic, Latin American), Sallie McFague and Catherine Keller (protestant, North American) and Elizabeth Theokritoff (orthodox, European) I use the panentheistic view and the emphasis on relatedness. Gebara teaches the perspective of poor women and an anthropology in which human dignity does not compete with God or with the Earth, but is embedded in both. Keller gives an alternative for the concept of salvation history using postmodern philosophy and metaphors derived from science. Theokritoff derives from the Church Fathers a non-dualist worldview that is related to positive self-restriction and celebrating.
Trees van Montfoort (1956) is an independent theological researcher, journalist and minister of the protestant church. She studied catholic as well as protestant theology in Utrecht and Leiden. She worked for several national radio broadcasting companies. She published and edited books and articles on theological topics, in the last years with emphasis on ecofeminism. Her book on ecotheology (Groene theologie, Skandalon 2019) was well received by academics and the popular press in the Netherlands.