- Creation versus Nature? —Gordon Kaufman and the Challenge of Climate Change
Climate change calls for resource saving, sustainable ways to generate energy as well as moderation in growth and industrialization. Religion can help to develop a general change in our worldview and a realignment of our aims and lifestyles. If we are seeking a new outlook on life, religion should be a part of it, as religion and culture shape and form our outlook in significant ways.
Gordon Kaufman is one of those theologians who have early on openly acknowledged the scope and responsibility of religion concerning environmental exploitation and destruction.1 Due to his dissatisfaction with traditional anthropomorphic talk about God and the world, Kaufman was always looking for new ways of shaping the symbol of God in order to help us orient ourselves in the midst of the challenges we are facing.
Climate change and environmental destruction are arguably two of the most pressing and also widely debated issues we have been confronted with in the last few years. Moreover, the topic is no stranger to theology at least since the publication of Lynn White Jr.’s The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis (1966). Kaufman’s concept of the relativizing and humanizing symbol of God addresses questions of human behavior in unfamiliar situations in an open and direct way, aiming for a universal evolutionary and ecological ethics. His proposal can be linked to and illuminate several key questions in the field of religion and ecology,2 that is, (a) concerning culture—How do humans perceive and construct “nature” and how does nature influence what we think of as “culture”? (b) With regard to ethics—how can we create moral grounds for protecting this [End Page 279] environment and thus the basis of life not only for us but for every creature for generations to come? (c) Concerning religion—How can the Christian tradition help us develop a different attitude toward nature and how can specific values ameliorate our understanding of and behavior toward nature?
And yet: can Kaufman’s proposal actually help us deal with the challenge of impoverished ecosystems and a significant rise in global temperatures? Starting with Theology for a Nuclear Age and moving on to In Face of Mystery and a selection of later books and essays, I will discuss whether his naturalistic approach presents an alternative to theological proposals operating with the category of “creation” that have been prominent throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century.3
I. “Taking Care of Creation”—A Doctrine and Its Career in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century
Traditionally, the doctrine of creation is the place in Christian theology where human experience of the world is negotiated—therefore, it is one of the topoi where our theological interpretations and ethical orientations are most intimately linked.4 In the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, German protestant theology5 has largely operated with the idea of orders of creation6 to ensure God’s involvement in the world and—at the same time—theology’s claim to valid and universal interpretations of reality. For the influential Schleiermacher, the idea of creation mainly wants to express the [End Page 280] world’s absolute dependence on God by saying that the religious consciousness does not exclude “anything whatsoever from creation by God.”7 However, by refraining entirely from any integration of scientific ideas of the origin of the world,8 Schleiermacher’s theology can no longer integrate those interpretative attempts of nature that have left their mark on society as a whole.9 A different position was advocated by conservative Lutherans. They opted for the idea of orders of creation by which they tried to emphasize the integration of humanity in the created order of nature. With the help of this idea, they were able to find ordering structures that are principally withdrawn from human influence and present an alternative ideal to existing societal changes that seemed to threaten the traditional social order and belief in God.10 Thereby, theologians risked falling prey to the danger of a religious elevation of traditional societal models and structures—the consequences of which have become clear...