“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 doing 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, and 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 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 the 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?
“People have a responsibility, in which they 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.
You want your book 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.
(lecture, summary) Trees van Montfoort, ESWTR, Leuven (BE) 2019
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 subdiscipline 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), Salie McFague and Catherine Keller (protestant, North American) and Elizabeth Theokritoff (orthodox, European) I use the panentheïstic view and the emphasis on relatedness. Gebara teaches the perspective of poor women and an antropology 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.