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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 3-22

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Ecological Consciousness and the Symbol "God" 1

Gordon D. Kaufman
Harvard University

I am a Christian theologian. This does not mean, however, that I understand my work as being essentially a matter of explaining and defending Christian faith and the Christian set of symbols for interpreting human life and the world. The task of the Christian theologian is rather, as I understand it, to scrutinize carefully, critically evaluate, and reconstruct (in whatever ways seem appropriate and necessary) the central Christian symbols, so they will encourage and support a faith and life appropriate for today. 2 In our time it is no longer sufficient for theologians simply to take it for granted that the basic structure and commitments of traditional Christian faith are--in all of their main lines--right and proper; and to proceed, then, to expound and reinterpret them in whatever ways seem intelligible and persuasive. Whatever may have been the value and justification of this sort of theologizing in the past, the crises of the twentieth century (to many of which Christian symbols, institutions, and practices have themselves contributed) have made it clear that thorough reassessment of the traditional Christian symbol-system, with an eye to its (possibly drastic) reconstruction or even to the total rejection of some of its principal features, is required--if it is to continue to contribute to human well-being, and to the well-being of the rest of life, on planet Earth. It is with this thoroughly critical and open understanding of the task of Christian theologians today that this contribution to our Buddhist-Christian dialogue has been prepared. And I hope a similar spirit will animate the responses to this paper, whether offered from the Christian or the Buddhist side of our conversation.


My assignment here is to examine the topic of "Christianity and Ecology." This is, of course, a very broad topic, much too large for a paper of this sort. I have taken the liberty, therefore, to confine my discussion to only one of the many questions that might be considered under this heading. The central symbol in terms of which Christian faith and Christian life (as well as most other western religious traditions) understand and order themselves is God, usually thought of as designating the creator and governor of the world, the only One to whom unqualified devotion, love, [End Page 3] and service are due. If we can come to some understanding of how this symbol has functioned in the past, and might be conceived properly to function today with respect to ecological concerns, we will have made a large step toward understanding the overall topic of Christianity and ecology. I am devoting this paper, therefore, to the question of "Ecological Consciousness and the Symbol 'God.'"

Throughout my professional life I have been concerned with the problem of the continuing viability (or lack of viability) in our contemporary world of the symbol "God," as that symbol has been understood through most of western history (not only by Christians and Jews, but also by many humanists and secularists). And for the last thirty years or so, I have been reflecting on the issues which our growing ecological consciousness poses for our understanding of--and our ordering of life in terms of--this symbol. My earliest writing directly concerned with this question is in a paper entitled "The Concept of Nature: A Problem for Theology" published in the Harvard Theological Review in 1972. 3 In that paper I attempted to show that there is a fundamental tension--indeed, a conceptual and logical incompatibility--between, on the one hand, the understanding of God, and of the intimate relation of humanity to God (as seen in our western religious and philosophical traditions), and on the other hand, our growing awareness that human existence is essentially constituted by, and could not exist apart from, the complex ecological ordering of life that has evolved on planet Earth over many millennia. 4

The main emphasis in that paper remains largely correct in my view. Hence, I would like to...