A Public Theology of the Anthropocene: The Earth’s Deep Freedom

In: Religion and Development
Dan Smyer Yü Yunnan University Kunming China
University of Cologne Cologne Germany

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The environmental engagement of religious practices and academic research is becoming a formidable trend of global endeavors for building new environmental ethics in the Anthropocene, the currently human-induced geological state of the earth. This trend is predictable given the demographic fact that over 80% of the world’s population consist of different religious traditions. The UNEP Faith for Earth Initiative attests to this diversely represented, spiritual approach to rethinking the geological and ecological meanings of being human in the 21st century. In this context, this article is intended to initiate what the author calls a public theology of the Anthropocene to discuss the ecological implications and environmental values of religiously and spiritually conceived understandings of the Earth as sacred and sentient. To this end, it comparatively takes Buddhist and Christian approaches to environmental sustainability as case studies and argues that, theologically and environmentally complementary to one another, the Christian idea of the sacred and the Buddhist notion of sentience offer geologically- and ecologically-lively spiritual understandings of the scientific concept of Deep Time, regarding the intrinsic value of the Earth with a life of her own.

1 Introduction

Since its inception at the turn of the twenty-first century, the Anthropocene or the human epoch of the Earth, proposed by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer (2000), has spread beyond earth sciences like wildfire. It compels social scientists, humanities scholars, and the public to rethink humankind as a geological force (Haraway 2015; Trischler 2016; Moore 2016; Chakrabarty 2021) that is transforming the Earth’s climate patterns and ecosystems in both destructively creative and creatively destructive fashions (Smyer Yü 2023). Although it is being debated among earth scientists as a hypothesis, an argument, and a concept (Ruddiman 2013 and 2017; Zalasiewicz et al. 2011 and 2019) concerning its cause and periodization, the Anthropocene has nevertheless been accepted as an ecogeological indicator suggesting the ending of the Holocene and the beginning of a human-induced geological cycle (McNeill and Engelke 2014; Bonneuil and Fressoz 2017; Chakrabarty 2018). The idea of the Anthropocene is observably accelerating new interdisciplinary approaches and public debates concerning the fate of the Earth and the meanings of sustainable development. As eighty percent of the world’s people are religious (UNEP 2008), scholars of religious studies and members of faith-based public institutions are equally active players in exploring new ways of building a sustainable, just, and peaceful future. The launch of the Faith for Earth Initiative of the United Nations Environmental Programme in 2017 attests to the critical importance of religious and spiritual understandings of the Earth in the public arena of environmental advocacy and policymaking.

In response to UNEP’s Faith for Earth Initiative and as an answer to the call for religious and cosmological understandings of the Earth’s history (Brown 2007; Christian 2011; Swimme and Tucker 2011; Dean-Drummond et al. 2018), I propose a public theology of the Anthropocene for a threefold purpose: to discern geological meanings of the sacred, and spiritual meanings of the geological Earth; to explore the ethical common good from the mutual embodiments of matter and spirit in diverse terrestrial lifeworlds; and to assess the value of faith-based, affective knowledge of the Earth in the public discourse of sustainable futures. In conversing with ecotheology (Northcott 2015; Kearns and Keller 2007), religious ecology (Grim and Tucker 2014), and spiritual ecology (Sponsel 2012), the conceptual gravity of this proposed public theology is found in the mutual embodiment of theo and geo – the spiritual worlds of divinity and the material worlds of Planet Earth. It thus unites earth sciences and public imagination to push the limits of human religious consciousness of the Earth into the unimaginably ancient prehuman times characterized as “Big History” (Brown 2007; Christian 2011) and Deep Time (Hutton 1795; Black 2021; Gordon 2021), in which the universe is found to be 13 billion years old and the Earth 4.5 billion years old. This added Deep Time thinking leads to a theo-geological understanding of what I call the “Deep Freedom” of the Earth or the Earth’s innate environmental freedom, with an inherent part of the Earth’s livingness and moral considerability discussed in the field of environmental ethics (Keller 2010; Callicott 2013).

This proposed public theology is built upon a comparative study of contemporaneous Christian and Buddhist environmentalisms since the 1970s. As Ian Harris (1995) observed three decades ago, their comparability, to be elaborated shortly, is based on their concurrently antithetical and syncretistical entanglements with each other and with the public concern of the global environmental crisis. By making this interfaith comparability more legible, I demonstrate the mutual complementarity of Christian and Buddhist environmentalisms in the arenas of global environmental advocacy and scholarly debate on the role of religions in the understanding of the intrinsic value of the Earth as a living planet and in the growing momentum of faith-based Earth stewardship. This particular complementarity is identified in the Christian sense of the Earth’s sacredness and the Buddhist perception of sentience as the fundamental essence that animates all life forms on Earth and ensouls landforms in places where Buddhism and indigenous religious customs are syncretized. Admittedly, from the scientific perspective, humans and our religious traditions are comparatively young in contrast to the 4.5-billion-year-old Earth; however, the Christian and Buddhist senses of the sacredness and the sentience of the Earth are a gateway to deeper ethical understandings of and affective appreciation for the life of the Earth.

2 Buddhist and Christian Environmentalisms in the Anthropocene

In the earth sciences, the Anthropocene hypothesis currently has three versions being debated concerning its dating and primary cause. Crutzen and Stoermer’s version regards the industrial adoption of fossil fuels in the late eighteenth century as the starting point of the Anthropocene, while Jan Zalasiewicz’s group looks at the drastic increase of carbon dioxide in the 1950s as the Anthropocenic triggering point (Zalasiewicz et al. 2019). William Ruddiman’s “early anthropogenic hypothesis” pushes the dates of the Anthropocene to seven thousand years ago when human-caused deforestation, wet rice farming, and animal husbandry began to increase the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (Ruddiman 2017). In my own work linking the Little Ice Age, Eurasian human migration, and the Industrial Revolution, I lean toward Crutzen and Stoermer’s assessment that the transition from nonfossil to fossil fuels on the industrial scale in the late 1700s marks the beginning of the Anthropocene (Smyer Yü 2023).

While the debates are ongoing among earth scientists, the Anthropocene hypothesis has prompted some scientists to celebrate humankind as “a species with planet-wide powers and breathtaking gifts” (Ackerman 2015, 310) and to perceive human geological agency as “human power over the fate of the planet” (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016, 16). It provokes others to critically examine both “the promise and pitfall” (Nixon 2020, 6) of this human-induced geological epoch. The creative and destructive tendencies of the Anthropocene are concurrently recognized beyond the scientific world. Noticeably, the Anthropocene is coeval with historically emerging environmental-thought trends and movements, and with the presently robust environmental discourses. The first generation of modern environmental thinkers, such as John Ruskin, William Morris, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau, were all prolific and outspoken authors during the Industrial Revolution. These thinkers did not coin the word “Anthropocene” but their works undeniably point to the anthropogenic nature of industrialization – a notion that would become the source of Anthropocenic consciousness. Interestingly, many of these early modern environmental thinkers, such as Muir and Thoreau, had personal backgrounds or interests in different religious traditions, and very few of them openly based their environmental thoughts in one particular religious system. They impress contemporary scholars as nature mystics (Sponsel 2012) rather than religious ecologists or ecotheologians.

Modern religious environmentalisms took shape nearly a century later, coinciding with landmark events like the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, the United Nations’ call for sustainable development in 1987 (WCED 1987), and the UN’s designation of April 22 as Earth Day in 1970 (later rephrased as International Mother Earth Day in 2009). Among Christian institutions and public figures, the Roman Catholic Church is known for the consistent, global environmental engagements of its seven successive popes since the mid-twentieth century, from Pope John XIII (1958–1963) to Pope Francis (2013–present), whereas the global visibility of Protestant churches’ environmental engagements appears to have begun three decades later than their Catholic counterparts, starting mostly in the mid-late 1990s (Hitzhusen 2019, 27). This does not mean that Protestant theologians were less concerned about global environmental issues, but may have more to do with the Catholic Church’s centralized institutional system, its home base – Vatican City – being a sovereign state that favors the global spread of its environmental messages and proposed actions through the United Nations and international venues. Given the Vatican’s sustained global record of environmental engagement, it is discernible that the six popes in office from the 1960s to the present have consistently advocated the interdependence of humans and nature, and promoted care for the poor, indigenous rights, and environmental justice in economic development. In particular, the writings and public speeches of Popes Paul VI (1963–1978), John Paul II (1978–2005), Benedict XVI (2005–2013), and Francis (2013–present) share a clear theme of laying out the causal relationship between modern ecological crises and human moral problems. Paul VI condemned the industrial exploitation of nature (Paul VI 1971); John Paul II advocated environmental conservation for human flourishing; Benedict XVI proposed a human ecology as a relational understanding of humankind on Earth as God’s creation, and Francis recently proposed an integral ecology that deepens his successors’ call for environmental conservation as the basis of inclusive, fair, and just human flourishing (Lai and Tortajada 2021).

In comparison, modern Buddhist environmentalism on the global scale did not start in Asia, the original home of a variety of Buddhist traditions; instead, it began with the spread of Buddhism to the West. Japanese Zen, Tibetan Vajrayana, and Vietnamese Mahayana traditions are responsible for the initial and the formative phases of Buddhist environmental movements across the planet. D.T. Suzuki’s systematic introduction of Japanese Zen Buddhism to Americans through his publications and lectures in the first decade of the last century laid the foundation of the social and environmental activisms initiated from American Zen centers, notably San Francisco Zen Center and Buddhist Peace Fellowship in Berkeley.

On a larger scale, leading North American Buddhist scholars such as Joanna Macy (2007), Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Craft (2000), and Allan Hunt-Badiner (1990) are responsible for the systematic articulation and promulgation of Buddhist environmentalism. Their Buddhist practice is not merely replication of Asian Buddhist traditions; instead, it entails innovation, transformation, and engagements with modern science and the public, all centered on the pressing issues of the contemporary world such as climate change and environmental crisis. The foundation of the global Buddhist environmentalism they initiated rests upon the Buddha’s teaching on paticca samuppada or dependent co-origination; however, it no longer narrowly focuses on the karma of an individual person but is directed toward a full engagement with collective suffering. With her academic background in systems theory, Macy innovatively rephrased paticca samuppada as “radical interdependence” and gave it new meanings with an emphasis on “the living web of natural systems” and “[its] uncovering [of] our wider identity with the living planet itself” (Macy 1979, 1992). Macy’s “radical interdependence” is observably the cornerstone of global Buddhist environmentalism. This, of course, does not imply that Asian Dharma teachers have no role in shaping Buddhist environmental movements worldwide.

The 14th Dalai Lama (1935–) of Tibet and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh (1926–2022), respectively in exile in India and France, have not only spread the Buddha’s teachings across the world, but are also known for their sustained environmental engagements. The Dalai Lama’s environmentalism is centered upon what he calls chi-sem or “universal responsibilities” in an effort to rebalance human-Earth relations and be attentive to the wellbeing of all sentient beings (HHDL 2021, 42; 1999, 162). Chi-sem culminates in his “beyond religion” (HHDL 2011) approach to the health of the Earth as “our only home” (HHDL 2021) and his reaching out to Pope Francis’ integral ecology and to the scientific understanding of climate change and modern environmental challenges (Francis 2015). His environmental advocacy is grounded in Buddhist teachings of compassion for all living beings that does not confine itself within Buddhism.

Thich Nhat Hanh offered his environmental teachings through “engaged Buddhism” and “interbeing,” the two generative concepts he innovated to underscore Buddhism’s capacity to address human sufferings in social and political terms, and to highlight the interdependent nature of all life communities on Earth (Nhat Hanh 2021, 57). Like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh had close engagements with scientists and scholars on pressing anthropogenic issues related to the environment and the suffering of nonhuman species. He was frequently referenced in the academic field of religion and ecology because of his systematic teachings on the ecospiritual dimension of Buddhism. Like the Dalai Lama, he was also a prolific author who inspired millions of contemporary environmentalists with his publications.

On the global scale, it is the worldwide environmental crisis that has drawn Christian and Buddhist environmentalists together – a togetherness that has not yet been fully acknowledged by either side. In the 1960s, while accusing Christianity of being the historical roots of the global ecological crisis, Lynn White Jr. inferred the nature-friendliness of Buddhism embraced by the beatniks then (White Jr. 1967, 1206). Unintentionally or intentionally, White’s generalized and unsupported allegation pitted Christianity and Buddhism against each other in the environmental arena. At the same time, as Harris observed, the liberal aspect of Christianity had an influence on how Buddhists were reaching out to the public in the West in the manner of “Protestant Buddhism”. (Harris 1995, 177)

Harris made an important observation about the “family resemblance” (1991, 180) between Buddhist environmentalism and its liberal Christian counterparts in terms of social engagements and the concept of environmental justice. This was not the first time such interreligious influence was noted: in the nineteenth century, Theravada Buddhism encountered Christianity introduced by the British to Sri Lanka, and Anagarika Dharmapala’s anti-colonial Buddhist movement became the first iteration of what would come to be known as Protestant Buddhism for its emphasis on this-worldly engagement (Johnson 2004, 71; Obeyesekere 1970, 55; Ames 1963, 49). Protestant Buddhism or similar modern versions of Buddhist practices are commonly known among scholars as Buddhist modernism (McMahan 2008; Smyer Yü 2020a). Buddhist environmentalism initiated from North America can be considered to be part of Buddhist modern practices that bear the signature of Protestant social activism on the one hand and that are influenced by modern scientific findings on the other.

While the leading North American Buddhists are indebted to their Asian Dharma teachers’ mentorship, the leading Asian Buddhist environmentalists, such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, are socially and culturally environed in the Christian ethos of Europe and North America and surrounded by their students who frequently have had a Christian upbringing, who update themselves with new global environmental issues, and/or are well-versed in modern scientific explanations and approaches to the environment. It is inevitable that the environmental speeches and texts of the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are compelled to be interreligiously accessible and to contribute their Buddhist approaches to the global call for saving Planet Earth (Dalai Lama 2017; Nhat Hanh 2013 and 2021). The Dalai Lama’s recent coauthored book – Our Only Home: A Climate Appeal to the World – explicitly connects his “oneness of humanity” with Pope Francis’ “our common home” (Dalai Lama and Alt 2021; Francis 2015). The environmental common ground of the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh is the physical Earth as a mother (Francis 2015, 4; Dalai Lama 2017 and 2021; Nhat Hanh 2021). The Earth has thus become the meeting place of Christian and Buddhist environmentalists beyond their respective canon-bound, human-centered doctrines.

As Mother Earth cements the togetherness of Christian and Buddhist environmentalisms, the inception and ensuing trend of modern faith-based environmentalisms by Catholic popes and Buddhist public figures characteristically reveals a compassionate attentiveness to the suffering of both humans and nonhumans, and an ecumenical and interfaith outreach to other religious traditions and to the wider secular society beyond their own constituencies (Francis 2015; Thich 2013; HHDL 2021). Given their persistent, open engagements with modern science and secular politics, the environmentalisms of Christianity and Buddhism are complementary to each other. Yet, neither has sought a greater alliance with the other in the public arena of environmental discourses and in the policymaking world. At the same time, in parallel, each of the two human-centered world religions is being reinterpreted and repositioned toward becoming what I call “more-than-human religions” that take the ecological endangerment of the Earth as the central concern of their theological and spiritual responses to global climate change and environmental crisis. Thus, claims of their focus on ecologically oriented theologies and spiritually understood ecologies are the current trends of many socially engaged religious figures and their institutions, academic research, and environmental policy instruments, including the UN’s Faith for Earth (UNEP 2017), the Yale Forum for Religion and Ecology (Yale N.D.), and the Catholic Church’s initiative of “Go Green by 2050” (Gori 2020). The affective approaches to sustainable living in the field of religion and ecology are making an impact in environmental studies and public discourses (Tucker and Grim 2001; Smyer Yü 2020).

3 Ecological Meanings of the Sacred in Christianity

Christian environmental public engagement and theological development are currently undergoing a visible ecological turn. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, publications on ecotheology by Christian theologians and scholars of religion and ecology have been numerous, including works such as Ernst M. Conradie’s Christianity and Ecological Theology (2006), Laurel Kearns and Catherine Keller’s Ecospirit: Religion, Philosophy, and the Earth (2007), Willis Jenkins’ Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (2008), Anne Marie Dalton and Henry C. Simmons’ Ecotheology and the Practice of Hope (2010), Ignatius Schweitzer’s The Green Popes: Benedict XVI and John Paul II on the Environment (2010), and Pope Francis’ Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home (2015). In many ways, these publications mark a new era of Christian theological engagement with the pressing ecological issues of our time. The common characteristic of these ecotheological texts is that ecotheology is a Christian theology; however, its ecological and geological centeredness brings the physical Earth and its animal and plant residents, not just humankind, to the center stage of Christianity’s environmental concerns and its diverse theological debates. Christian ecotheologians demonstrate their openness to converse with scientific findings and with non-Christian ecoreligious knowledge systems.

Diversely expressed, the ecological turn of Christian theology in this century is characteristically grounded in the sacredness of the Earth as a divine creation. This planetary sacredness comes alive with the original, geological, biological, ecological bond of divinity, humanity, and the worlds of other species. The presence of divinity did not cease after the creation of the Earth and all life communities; instead, its creativity is alive in the physical Earth and in the bodies and souls of plants, animals, and humans. This common trend among Christian theological responses to environmental changes coincides with the overall global environmental debates centered on the notion of being human on Earth as an ecological species (Rose et al. 2012; Haraway 2008; Smyer Yü 2020b). It intermingles with non-Christian ecological and conservation concepts and practices. It is thus interfaith, publicly engaging, and resolved to contribute to new environmental ethics and conservation acts. Yet, it retains its Christian orientation.

For example, the integral ecology recently proposed by Pope Francis in his Laudato si’ (Francis 2015) is emblematic of the deepened understanding and appreciation of Earth’s ecology-centered sacredness among current Christian environmentalists and scholars. While Pope Francis reaffirms the ecological value of the Christian creation story, Laudato si’ builds an actionable, interfaith alliance with public policy instruments and the fields of the sciences and humanities to focus clearly on the pressing issues of our time such as climate change, indigenous rights, and endangerment to the sustenance of multiple species. The foundational tenet of integral ecology is what Pope Francis calls the “integrating vision” or “a broader vision of reality” that reaffirms “how everything is interconnected,” how “we are part of nature,” and how ecosystems have their own “intrinsic value independent of their usefulness” to humans (Francis 2015, 105). The spirituality of this Christian integral ecology serves what Pope Francis calls “the principle of the common good” for impartial world peace and the wholesomeness of individual human societies (Francis 2015, 116). Unlike his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI’s “ecology of man” (Benedict XVI 2011), Pope Francis’ integral ecology is rooted in Saint Francis of Assisi’s vision of the Earth as an animate planet. Laudato si’ begins with Saint Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, quoting this section:

Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs. (Francis 2015, 3; Francis 1999, 113–114)

The added emphasis is meant to point out that the openness of Pope Francis’ integral ecology is grounded in his willingness to connect Christian belief with a panhuman religious-spiritual understanding of the Earth as the living maternal source nourishing everything and everyone. Reverence for the Earth as the mother of all is common among indigenous beliefs, Christian theologians in the academic world, and many culturally engaged earth scientists. Many indigenous beliefs that have survived their peoples’ conversion to Christianity attest to the resilience of this panhuman reverence for the Earth as a mother, a goddess, or an animate source of sustenance and nourishment (de la Cadena 2015; Lepcha 2021; Carreño 2021). Likewise, relevant to the discussion here, the interconnectedness of everything prompted in integral ecology naturally finds a common ground with the Buddhist concept of interdependence.

Regarding the Earth being cherished as a maternal figure, it did not take long for Christian theologians to see the ecological and geological relevance of Lovelock’s (1995) and Margulis’ (1998) Gaia hypothesis, which posited the Earth to be a self-regulating system. A growing number of Christian ecotheologians have also adopted Gaia, an indigenous European Earth goddess, to illustrate the livingness of the Earth (Smyer Yü 2020a). Anne Primavesi, a prominent Christian systematic theologian and ecotheologian, is exemplary in her full engagement with the Gaia hypothesis to interlink Christian theology with geohistory for the sake of emphasizing God as “emerging from earthly knowledge and firmly situated there” in contrast to God as “transcendent, unaccountable, omniscient, all-powerful and non-locatable in relation to the earth” (Primavesi 2009, 17). Divinity in Christian ecotheology is thus considered to be geological and ecological.

The ecological and geological meanings of the sacred among the works of Christian environmental scholars and public figures are expressed through a pattern of the intertwinement of the material and the spiritual worlds. Thus, ecogeological meanings are to be found in the mutual embodiment of matter and spirit; as both hold divine origin and are inextricably alive in one another, they are one. For the sake of theological and intellectual convenience, their oneness is understood in the language of “two” – two in one, and/or one-begetting-many. Prominent Christian environmental theologians and practitioners of sustainable living, like Thomas Berry, Anne Primavesi, Wendell Berry, and Norman Wirzba, ground their ecotheological and ecophilosophical visions in the creation story of the Earth and human-nonhuman relations. Their theologies of the Earth begin with the elemental materials shown in Genesis – the embryonic deep, wind, water, and light – making the habitability of the Earth’s surface. These materials of divine origin are the prerequisites for the forthcoming births of plants, animals, and humans.

God’s creation of the first human vividly demonstrates life as the union of matter and spirit: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Animals were created before humans, though no detailed account of how they became living beings is given; however, it is reasonable to infer that animals were given diverse bodies into which God breathed the same breath of life. It is to be emphasized that the first three sentences of Genesis suggest the preexistence of land, air, and water in the imageries of “the face of the deep,” “a wind from God,” and “the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1–3) before the creation of the first plants, animals, and humans. Similar to the scientifically conceived Big History or the history of the universe and the Earth (Brown 2007; Christian 2011), the Christian creation story suggests a continuing process of life-giving, life-taking, and life-transforming with God’s creativity symbiotically materialized with land, water, and air. These three elemental materials have woven together the Earth and the sky, and give life forms to all living beings.

The intertwinement of the elemental materials and the spiritual presence of God is thus the foundation of Christian ecological understanding of the Earth as a life-giving gift from God. The sacredness of the ecological Earth lies in the God-given “maternal principle” (Berry 2009, 75) or “mothership” (Bailey 1916, 9). This planetary sacredness is synonymous with the earthly presence of God and thus makes the physical Earth animate and life-generating.

The Christian ecological approach to the sacredness of the Earth unavoidably connects the biblical creation story with the ever-expanding geohistorical, ecohistorical, and biohistorical understandings of the Earth and multispecies relations that are explored in the academic world and public discourse. It is particularly noteworthy to point out Christian ecotheologians’ adoption of the social-scientific concept “new materialism” that regards “materials as lively and self-organizing,” and finds “the shared materiality of all things,” reaffirming that “we are vital materiality and we are surrounded by it” (Bennett 2010, 10, 13–14). When it is applied and expanded in the ecotheological realm, social-scientific-oriented new materialism emphasizes the intertwinement of living beings, inanimate objects, the agency of matter (Keller and Rubenstein 2017, 1, 5), and the animacy of matter (Rubenstein 2017, 157). The theological interpretive advantage naturally allows ecotheologians to spell out explicitly what makes the vitality of matter possible. It is the “holy spirit – ruach or pneuma, breath and wind of life” (Kearns and Keller 2007, 3) that endows livingness and creativity to the material world. This theologically revised new materialism is a Christian spiritual experience of the physical Earth made alive by the essence and energy of God. The entire Earth, or her diverse environments such as mountains, rivers, and plains, is what Jacob Erickson calls “theophanic materiality, in which divine energy is entangled in the performance of indeterminate material agencies” (Erickson 2017, 204). Nature is thus a theophany, and the ecologically embraced God on terrestrial Earth is “a material being” (Bradshaw 2013, 11–10) incarnated in the geomorphology of the Earth and the bodies of humans and nonhumans.

The ecogeological turn of Christian appreciation of the Earth demonstrates the terrestrial embodiment of divinity in humanity, animality, and vegetality. The omnipresence of God’s transcendence is also witnessed and understood horizontally, in the geological depth, the ecological interconnection, and the coexistence of all lives. Given the temporal order of God’s creation of the Earth and its life forms, humanity is one of many life forms born after the emergence of many plants and animals. Humans’ God-given dominion over the seas and lands comes with the responsibility of being attentive companions and stewards with the ecological Earth and nonhuman life communities.

4 Ecological Sentience in Buddhism

Unlike Christianity, Buddhism offers a beginningless cosmology of the Earth, referring to a kind of Deep Time in which matter and life perpetually appear and transform throughout the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, each of which takes place as an impermanent state formed by inner and outer conditions. The cosmological periods in Buddhism are often defined by the physical manifestations of different Buddhas in different kalpa or cosmic eras. Each kalpa is marked by a Buddha whose teachings engage with each age’s unique material worlds and conditions, its life forms, and the common psychic states of its sentient beings. The current kalpa is the cosmic time of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings and the next kalpa is prophesied as that of the future Buddha Maitreya. Although the Earth is not given an origin story in Buddhism, it nevertheless holds a cosmic place in the current universe whose center is known as Mt. Sumeru. The mythology of Mt. Sumeru is commonly shared by Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus; however, it offers different cosmic and geographical meanings for members of the three religions. For instance, in Hinduism, Mt. Sumeru, approximately located in the current Pamir Mountains, is more understood as the center of the Earth rather than of the universe, whereas in Buddhism, it is believed to be the center of the current universe. Thus, to Buddhists, the Earth is known as Jambudvipa and is cosmically located south of Mt. Sumeru, a mythologically understood center of the universe. The Earth is a realm where humans find ways to attain Buddhahood or the state of enlightenment. Early Buddhists likely amplified the Hindu Earth-centered geography to the cosmic level due to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni’s residence and attainment of enlightenment in ancient India, a region located to the south of the Pamir and Himalayan mountain ranges.

Situating Jambudvipa, or the Earth, in the greater universe, the Buddha’s teachings parse sentient existence into sadgati: the Six Realms – the realms of hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demigods, and gods. The first three realms are called “the Three Malevolent Paths” while the remaining three are “the Three Benevolent Paths.” Among the beings in these six realms, only humans are immediately eligible (in their current incarnation) for enlightenment, although the Buddha’s teachings emphasize that all sentient beings inherently and equally possess an identical Buddha Nature (tathagatagarbha) or seed of enlightenment (The Lankavatara Sutra 119, CBETA 2022). This order of life shows the concurrence of spiritual equality and moral differentiation among sentient beings. Humankind is apparently spiritually more privileged than other species; being a human is the prerequisite of becoming a Buddha.

The notions of sentience and Buddha Nature are immediately relevant to my discussion of how ecology and spirituality are interwoven together in Buddhism. Sentience, as a Buddhist doctrinal concept, refers not merely to living beings’ ability to sense and feel in their natural states of being in given ecological habitats, but also entails their divergent moral conditions and uneven spiritual capacities. Regardless of the doctrinal nuances, sentience is fundamentally the biological and intellectual condition for the presence of Buddha Nature in a given living being. Being sentient and having Buddha Nature are two concurrently innate qualities of all living beings.

In the Buddha’s teaching, the metaphoric coupling of lotus flowers and silt illustrates the dichotomous and yet symbiotic relationship between Buddha Nature and sentience. The former, as the seed of enlightenment, can only grow from the latter as its soil, though the latter is often morally associated with the notion of samsara, the unenlightened realm of suffering. Thus, firmly grounded in the belief of the universal seed of enlightenment in every sentient being, becoming a Buddha starts from one’s bio-ecological experience, intellectual understanding, and spiritual willingness to end suffering in the sentient world. Similar to the orthodox image of God as being otherworldly, Buddhist enlightenment is often looked upon as the “other shore,” a metaphor that implies that the unenlightened realm is “this shore,” a sentient, physical, affectively felt world where one is trapped by one’s own greed, jealousy, and ignorance – the three fundamental causes of unenlightenment.

In both remote and recent Buddhist history, this orthodox, bifurcated vision of the enlightenment process was contested, particularly in Tibetan tantric traditions, Zen/Ch’an traditions in China, Japan, and Korea, and in the modern humanistic Buddhism initiated by Dharma Master Xuyun (1840–1959) and spread to other parts of Asia in the twentieth century (McMahan 2008, 75; Sodargye and Dan Smyer Yü 2017, 105). Contemporary Buddhist environmentalisms in Asia and around the world find roots in these historical trends of recognizing the earthly world as an entwinement of samsara and the actual or potential enlightened state. They laid the philosophical and spiritual grounds for Buddhist ecological understandings of the Earth as a complex system of interdependence resting upon the common sentience and the omnipresence of Buddha Nature in all sentient beings. Both are rooted in the ecological worlds of the Earth.

Unlike the Christian sense of the sacred Earth as a divine gift, the sacredness of the Earth from the Buddhist perspective is centered on Buddha Nature in all sentient manifestations, rather than directly on the physical Earth as a sacred entity. It is thus essential to revisit the perennial questions:

  • How are sentience and Buddha Nature intertwined in Buddhism?

  • What are the ecological implications of being sentient and having Buddha Nature?

In The Diamond Sutra, the Buddha describes the different forms of sentient life to his disciple Subhuti:

I must cause all living beings – those born from eggs, born from wombs, born from moisture, born by transformation; those with form, those without form, those with thought, those without thought, those not totally with thought, and those not totally without thought – to enter nirvana unconditionally and be taken across to the Other Shore”. (Heng Kuan et al. 1974, 77)

This style of describing who the sentient beings are is common throughout the Buddhist canon. It is succinctly encompassing and yet remains abstract enough to invite commentaries and interpretations since the time of Buddha Shakyamuni. To return Buddha’s abstraction to the concrete world, sentient life includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects as well as bodiless supernatural beings, ghosts, spirits, and deities. Thus, Buddha’s teachings on sentience are abstracted from the lively ecological worlds of the Earth, but give it moral meanings and spiritual orientation toward enlightenment. Situated in the doctrine of Buddha Nature, the Buddhist idea of sentience thus simultaneously means a bio-ecological existence, this-worldly physical and psychological suffering, and a potential spiritual state of being free from suffering.

It is precisely from the Buddha’s teachings on the mutual embodiment of sentience and Buddha Nature that contemporary Buddhist environmental thinkers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Joanna Macy, and Stephanie Kaza, innovated the concept known as “interbeing” to underscore the interdependent existence of all lives:

We are a human being, yes, but at the same time we are everything. Seeing this, we know that to preserve other species is to preserve ourselves. This is interbeing, the deepest teaching of deep ecology. (Nhat Hanh 2021, 43)

The environmental vision of interbeing thus highlights the web of integrated and interdependent life: “Unity is diversity, and diversity is unity. This is the principle of interbeing” (Kaza and Kraft 2000, 85). The mode of interbeing allows us to experience the empathetic understanding of “the interdependently co-arising nature of things” (Macy 2007, 30–35). The diversity of the Earth’s lifeworlds embodies not only sentience as the universally innate quality of all living beings but also the seed of enlightenment as the spiritually cherished sacred state of being free from ignorance and pain. Although the Buddhist sense of interdependence is grounded in the intrareligious doctrine of sentience and Buddha Nature, its ecological implications are nevertheless no different from those of Christianity and other religious traditions. This ecological convergence of Buddhism and Christianity is inevitable because of the simple fact that the Earth, preceding both human religions, is the original womb of humans and nonhumans as well as the ground of humans’ relational awareness of all existences.

5 Deep Freedom of the Sacred and Sentient Earth

Buddhist ecology and Christian ecotheologies of the Earth and its life communities show the precedence of the physical Earth, with or without a beginning, as the ecogeological foundation in existence before the emergence of all sentient beings. In their own theological and cosmological terms, both religions, in fact, manifest a sense of Deep Time, a scientific perspective positing the Earth as a 4.5-billion-year-old planet. Conceived by the Scottish geologist James Hutton two hundred and thirty years ago, the idea of Deep Time tells a story of the Earth with “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end” (Hutton in Rudwick 2008, 384). The age of the Earth in many human religious mythologies is as old as or older than the scientifically conceived Deep Time. Hutton’s beginningless Deep Time and the Buddhist sense of the ever-transforming universe without a fixed beginning very much resonate with each other and are thus mutually intelligible. Likewise, the preexisting elemental material components of the Earth before the emergence of life – land, air, and water – in Big History and the Christian creation story are likewise congruent in spite of their different timescales. It is not surprising that open-minded Big Historians like David Christian would call the scientific origin story of the universe “a modern creation myth” (Christian 2011, 3). Likewise, Cynthia Stokes Brown (2020) feels compelled to bring religion into her Big History writing.

Though faith-based ecogeological knowledge of the Earth’s history and the notion of Deep Time are mutually communicable, what needs to be pointed out is that, while appreciating religious cosmologies, Big Historians insist that the modern creation myth “must start with modern knowledge and modern questions because it is designed for people who live in the modern world” (Christian 2011, 11). Herein, the modernness refers to modern sciences; therefore, “Big history is a scientific origin story” and “is by definition methodologically materialistic or naturalistic,” such that supernatural elements are excluded (Brown 2020, 251–253). This suggests that modern science and religion manifest a zone of artificial mutual exclusion. In my understanding, the scientific frontier of Deep Time studies, in fact, unavoidably encounters the question of the entanglement of the supernatural and the natural. Deep Time compels both scientific and religious humans’ natural cognitive ability to imagine how the supernatural cosmos, larger than the solar system and the Milky Way galaxy, was conceived and how it gave birth to the Earth (Swimme and Tucker 2011).

Deep Time is the inevitable common ground on which earth scientists, ecotheologians, religious ecologists, ecospiritualists, and the public are coming together to re-witness the union of the supernatural and the natural, the material and the spiritual, and humanity and divinity. Since Lovelock and Margulis metaphorized the Earth as Gaia, as a planetary being, the increasing number of religious ecologists and environmental scientists have not only shifted from the human-centered ecological view toward the Earth-centered, relational understanding of life, but have also made their religion- or discipline-specific findings conversant and intelligible with each other. Seen from both religious and scientific perspectives, Deep Time unites religions, the sciences, and the public to re-embrace the Earth not merely as a human (-centered) Earth or a historically shallow Earth contemporaneous with humankind over the last two hundred thousand years, but also as a cosmically ancient planet with unimaginable historical depth and a life of her own.

The deepness of the Earth’s history, understood from either religious or scientific perspectives, allows us to see the Earth’s own indigeneity to the universe conceived thirteen billion years ago according to modern cosmologists. As an embodiment of Deep Time, the 4.5-billion-year-old indigenous Earth obliges us to recognize her innate planetary freedom (Smyer Yü 2021, 239–260), preexisting and eventually outliving humankind, as the basis of the moral and ethical considerability of the Earth in our current environmental discourse. This innate freedom can be called “Deep Freedom” in the sense of Deep Time that is understood spiritually and/or scientifically. It affords us diverse mythical, cosmological, and historical understandings of nature – as a synonym for the Earth, as a prehuman life-supporting surface of the Earth, and as a planetary bio-ecological sphere currently dominated by humankind. If we understand freedom as the state of absence of subjugation and domination, Deep Freedom is the Earth’s inherent creative power, right, and agency to sustain her own mode of being and to respond rightfully to human-imposed hindrances, frustrations, and degradations. In the Anthropocene, there are numerous examples of the overwhelming geological power of the Earth’s Deep Freedom: floods, droughts, earthquakes, and climate change are the common means, expressions, and statements of the Earth when she interacts with human-induced environmental and geological changes. She has her own terms to exert in order to restore and sustain her innate freedom. This Deep Freedom is the freedom to nourish life as well as to take life, to reshape local and regional geology and ecology, and to rebalance and sustain the course of her cosmic journey (Swimme and Tucker 2011).

If we bracket the effects industrial humans have had on the Earth, for example, dams, tunnels, oil wells, and mines, the Earth’s Deep Freedom manifests itself as a planetary state of natural commoning – it is the Earth’s own way of distributing environmental flows, climate patterns, and ecological resources over the uneven terrestrial habitats and oceanic worlds on her surface (Smyer Yü 2021, 239–260). The scientifically discerned self-regulating nature and the religiously/spiritually recognized animate nature of the Earth both point to her livingness as the ultimate commons of all living beings. This planetary commons is often viewed in a utilitarian way by nations, corporations, and intergovernmental organizations as merely common (or contested) resources. Modern human efforts to extract the Earth’s resources are committed without awareness of the Earth’s own innate environmental freedom and commoning process. Forests are felled for the expansion of agricultural land; rivers are dammed for hydraulic power; mountains and hills are flattened to retrieve metals and minerals; industrial drill bits penetrate deep into the bowels of the Earth for oil and gas; wild animal habitats are shrunken and fragmented; species extinction becomes commonplace; and the Earth’s innate environmental freedom and geophysiological self-regulating systems are being subjected to the unprecedented anthropogenic forces of change.

While Big History enlightens the public about the unimaginable ancientness of the physical Earth, with its materialist approach to sketching out the Earth’s history in the universe, it has not yet addressed the affective relations of the Earth with humans and nonhuman beings. The genre of its storytelling starts with the physical inception and formation of the Earth and shifts to the emergence of humankind as the dominant species. In many ways, nearly half of the Big Histories written by Christian (2008, 2011, 2018) and Brown (2007) are concerned with human-centered world histories, impressing upon readers that the Earth was ultimately conceived for humans only. Of course, it is undeniable that humankind is the currently dominant species on Earth; however, our two-hundred-thousand-year species history, situated in Big History, ought to remind us that the majority of nonhuman species made their homes on Earth many millions of years before the arrival of humans. Many of them have deeply entered the religious, cultural, symbolic, linguistic, and artistic consciousness of the human worlds. Modern dichotomies of nature and culture, animality and humanity, and materiality and spirituality are being increasingly challenged in the Anthropocene.

With eighty percent of the total human population engaging in religious practices, traditions such as Christianity and Buddhism rightfully have a say in modern human endeavors to reconstruct the more-than-human Deep Time and Deep Freedom of the Earth and its human and nonhuman residents. In recent years, a growing number of Big Historians have advocated Edward O. Wilson’s idea of “consilience” (Wilson 1998, 13) aiming at building an alliance of natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities for the sake of “a unified understanding” of a diversely understood reality (Benjamin et al. 2020, 7; Christian 2020, 16). Under the currently accelerating public concerns of climate change and environmental health, this consilient intent can be made expansive enough to include voices from diverse religious constituencies and publicly engaged scholars of religious studies. Both local and global religions worldwide have long histories and rich traditions that address freedom and its associated concepts and ideals such as liberation, salvation, soteriology, enlightenment, and transcendence concerning life and its meanings on Earth. The Deep-Time-inspired Deep Freedom of the Earth awaits scholars of religious studies and the religious public to offer affective, spiritual, and theological understandings of the Earth’s innate freedom and its implications in innovating new environmental ethics and policies for restoring and sustaining the health of the Earth.

6 Proposing a Public Theology of the Anthropocene

While Darwin’s evolutionary theory profoundly changed human cosmological and biological worldviews, some of its inadvertent public impacts, such as social Darwinism and the feud between evolutionists and creationists, tragically condoned systemic racism in Europe and Neo-Europes (Crosby 2004), and justified state violence enacted on religious institutions and individual believers in nearly half of the world in countries such as the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. In contrast, the Anthropocene hypothesis offers a bigger evolutionary picture of the Earth’s geological and climatic cycles but is observably uniting science, religion, and the public on the grounds of human collective concern for the effects of environmental degradation and of care for the fate of the Earth. Reverberating through natural and social sciences, humanities, and public environmental debates, the Anthropocene shows the world the collective crisis of climate change that compels collaborative research, collective debates, and more-than-human wisdom for the sake of sustainable living on a sustainable planet. Faith-based knowledge of the Earth is actively playing a role in addressing the maternal principle and ecospirituality of the Earth (Berry 2009; Grim and Tucker 2014; Rose 1996; Sponsel 2012) and climate justice (DeLoughrey et al. 2015; Bonneuil and Fressoz 2017; de la Cadena and Blaser 2018). The interdisciplinary field of religion and ecology is increasingly being diversified with fresh approaches to the interconnectedness of the Anthropocene, religious conceptions of the physical Earth, and the union of matter and spirit (van Dooren and Chrulew 2022; Northcott 2023; Smyer Yü and Wouters 2023).

In this context, I propose a public theology of the Anthropocene with the intent stated earlier and based on a comparative case of the Christian and Buddhist environmentalisms discussed thus far. The rationale for my proposal is that the Anthropocene is not merely an intra-scientific matter but is a public concern across the world. It may remain a debated hypothesis among earth scientists; however, the Anthropocenic appearance of the Earth, in terms of human-induced climate change and unsustainable use of natural resources, is widely witnessed across the world. Given the large number of religious persons in the world, more inclusive, diversified, and publicly engaged research and discourses are in high demand. Scholars in the fields of religious studies are compelled to recognize and weave the diverse knowledge of the Earth from different religious traditions into the consilience of science, religion, and public awareness (Deane-Drummond et al. 2018).

Admittedly, public theology originates from and is nearly exclusively practiced by Christian theologians and scholars; however, it successfully demonstrates its ability to connect Christian theology, the academic world, and the public (Kim and Day 2017; Patrick 2020; Pirner et al. 2018). This liberal aspect of Christianity was recognized by Harris three decades ago when he offered his critical perspectives on Buddhist environmentalism. The Dalai Lama (1999, 2017, 2021; Dutton and Goleman 2018) and the late Thich Nhat Hanh (1995, 2013, 2021) are widely recognized for their interfaith public outreach environed in the social ethos of Christian public theology. Public theology from Christian scholars indisputably shows a greater potential to inspire other religious traditions to engage with similar public outreach efforts grounded in those traditions’ own theological worldviews or exercised with interfaith approaches. As a social scientist and a scholar of religious studies, I am among those who are adopting Christian public theological approaches to the environmental discourse but situate such approaches in terms of interfaith, scientific, and public engagements with the deep history of the physical Earth and its felt life-essence.

Looking at the potentially mutual and complementary facets of Christian and Buddhist environmental thoughts and conservation endeavors from the perspective of the UN Faith for Earth Initiative, I regard the expanding Anthropocene discourse among the world’s religious constituencies as what many Christian theologians call the “public square,” where one finds the intersection, interaction, and intertwinement of religious and secular voices and actions (D’Costa 2005; Rivera 2018). The faith-based public squares of the Anthropocene are numerous; however, the resulting common questions and debates are centered on the collective suffering of humans and nonhumans under the destructive anthropogenic forces, on renewed queries on the union of matter and spirit, and on the transcendence of divinity in the terrestrial worlds of the Earth. Given the religious diversity of human worlds, the theology I propose is neither a Christian theology nor a Buddhology; rather, I wish to highlight the environmental value of the Christian sense of the physical Earth as a sacred creation and the Buddhist notion of sentience as the inner essence of all living beings. When the sacredness and sentience of the Earth are woven together into the greater public environmental discourse, they show a clearer picture of the Earth’s biography – as a life of her own – and of multispecies relations since the inception of life on Earth. In the same but expanded vein, as David Christian calls Big History a modern creation myth, this proposed public theology could act as a new pantheism, involving both religious and scientific understandings of matter as the prerequisite for the creation of the physical Earth and its life communities. In other words, Big History, as a modern creation myth, and culturally specific traditional origin stories are panhuman responses to and imaginations of how supernatural forces (in the images of gods, goddesses, spirits, and the cosmically shapeshifting universal energy) make the Earth alive and give breath to all living beings.

Inspired by earlier ecotheological thinkers like L.H. Bailey and Pierre Teilhard de Chadin, the pantheistic aspect of this public theology reaffirms the genesis of the Earth and life as an everyday event (Bailey 1916, 11) and suggests that “matter will always remain young, exuberant, sparkling, new-born” and as “the matrix of spirit” (de Chadin 1961, 61, 67). The creative divinity or the primal universe-making force remains present and original throughout the past, present, and the future. It endows humankind with a deep sense of physical and affective unity with the Earth as a whole and nudges us “to become one with the world which envelops us without our ever being able to distinguish either its face or its heart” (de Chadin 1974, 58). Deep Time, whether in scientific or religious imaginations, is pulsating through the geology of the Earth as well as in each and every human and nonhuman being. In other words, whether understood as God or as the universal energy in Big History, the primal creative force giving birth to the Earth has been omnipresent throughout its evolutionary journey. It continues to play with land, water, and air and works tectonically to make oceans, split landmasses into continents, and rejoin them on the geological scale. Through a combination of modern cosmology and earth sciences, this new pantheistic theological vision of the Earth affords us an understanding of the sacredness of the Earth – not as an otherworldly property, but rather as an inherent part of the this-worldliness of the Earth and its multispecies residents.

The this-worldliness of divinity or the primal creative force affords us a horizontal transcendence of diverse life forms. In this respect, the idea of sentience from Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism lends strength to the recognition of the fundamental kindredness of humans, animals, and plants. When the identical essence of life is cherished, species’ formal differences and humans’ moral prejudice against nonhuman beings can be horizontally transcended. Divinity, in this horizontal sense, makes possible the ontological union of this-worldliness and otherworldliness that affords us the recognition of the sacredness of the Earth in sentient terms and of its planetary sentience as sacred. Situated in the global environmental discourse, the concurrent sacred and sentient attributes of the Earth are not intended to reinforce the religious beliefs of Christianity, Buddhism, or animism, but are steered toward the moral considerability of the Earth with an intrinsic value of her own advocated not only by faith-based environmentalists but also by a growing number of scientists and scholars. The basic criterion of moral considerability is the sentience of a given life (Callicott 2013, 35). If we understand sentience as the ability to sense, feel, and communicate, the Earth may not be sentient at all. However, when we recognize the ability of the Earth as a living, self-regulating planetary system to give life, take life, and transform life (Lovelock 1995; Margulis 1998), we are actually given intellectual room to imagine the sentience and innate freedom of the Earth on a different scale and in a different capacity. Andean and Himalayan indigenous peoples’ animistic acceptance of mountains and large water bodies as sentient spiritual beings shows us the precedence of the sentient Earth and its animated landforms (Paerregaard 2021; Smyer Yü 2020b). Among environmental ethicists, Aldo Leopold (1960), Kenneth Goodpaster (1978), and J. Baird Callicott (2013) already opened new ground for morally considering the sentience of the Earth. However, there is still a long way to go before we humans can overcome our anthropocentric conception and anthropogenic treatment of the Earth as a depository of common pool resources only awaiting extraction. This is where this public theology of the Anthropocene is expected to join forces with other faith-based environmental movements in global and regional public squares so as to re-ground our environmental ethics in the livingness of the Earth.

With these basics explained, the public theology of the Anthropocene proposed in this article is conceptualized as an interfaith theology of the living Earth that is recognized as a more-than-human planet under human-induced geological, ecological, and environmental stresses. With the inclusion of nonhuman species and physical environments, this public theology is also a more-than-human theology to be constructed both as an instrument of critiquing the environmentally destructive behaviors of modern humans and as an actionable intention to revive, re-cherish, and relive the knowledge and the ethical principles of humans’ co-stewardship of the Earth with nonhuman species as found in accounts of world religions and local belief systems. This public theology serves the public as a conduit of the diverse ecogeological meanings of divinity and the sacred meanings of the ecological Earth. Its theological imaginations and social engagements rest upon an interfaith, interdisciplinary translation of ethnolinguistically conditioned but globally invaluable local environmental knowledge into a publicly communicable language available to a global interfaith audience, religious specialists, academics, and policymakers. It celebrates biodiversity and human diversity as the wonders of the divine creative power and as the biography of the sentient Earth remembered in diverse human creation stories and imagined scientifically in Big History and Deep Time.

Issue and Editors

This article is part of the special issue “Religion and Ecology: Perspectives on Environment and Sustainability Across Religious Traditions,” edited by Almut-Barbara Renger, Juliane Stork and Philipp Öhlmann.


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