In the biblical book of Matthew, near the end of his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asks his listeners to “consider the birds of the air.” But few readers of Matthew truly do, says Rebecca Copeland, a Boston University School of Theology assistant professor of theology.
Taking time to consider birds, their behavior, and their place in the food chain can offer readers of the Bible alternate ways to understand this well-known passage, Copeland argues in a paper in the journal Biblical Interpretation. Paying attention to the nonhuman characters in the Bible, she says, can also help individual Christians and their congregations incorporate a concern for the environment into their daily lives.
In her research and teaching, Copeland focuses on the intersection of ecology and theology: she examines Christian texts and doctrines through an ecological lens, and explores ways Christian teachings can influence environmental activism. Her 2020 book Created Being: Expanding Creedal Christology discusses the relationships among God, human and nonhuman creatures, and nature. In peer-reviewed papers, she’s studied human responses to animal suffering; the ancient cultural, economic, and ecological significance of fig trees (which Jesus curses as part of a lesson in the book of Matthew); and the commodification of water and women.
“When I started my theological studies,” Copeland says, “it bothered me that the rest of the world kind of gets ignored in most theological work—that Christian theology has a tendency to focus on human beings and human salvation and neglect everything else.”
But the idea that Christians should be paying attention to the natural world has been around for centuries, she says. Augustine of Hippo, a theologian and philosopher born in 354 AD, for example, wrote of two ways to learn about God: through Scripture and through nature. This focus on nature isn’t often emphasized in modern American Christianity, Copeland says, but she believes today’s Christians should care about the natural world—and use their social and political influence to protect it.
“John 3:16 says that God loves the whole cosmos,” says Copeland, who also directs STH’s Faith and Ecological Justice Program, which helps students prepare to do faith-based ecological work. “And Genesis 1 repeatedly says that creation is very good. So, the idea that we can just destroy it, or use it up, or neglect it seems irreligious to me.”
American Christians’ Environmental Views
Many Christians do care deeply about the environment. Interfaith Power and Light, Creation Justice Ministries, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and other such groups mobilize Christians around environmental issues, including climate change. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center, however, paints a complicated picture of American Christians’ environmental views: While 82 percent of Christians completely or mostly agreed that God gave humans a duty to protect and care for the Earth, only 50 percent agreed that climate change is an extremely or very serious problem, and only 45 percent agreed that the planet is warming mostly because of human activity. (NASA reports 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists believe humans are causing climate change.)
Copeland believes more Christians would accept and care about human-caused global warming if they heard more about the climate in their local congregations.
“The Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, and almost all of the mainline Protestant churches have statements that say climate change is real, humans are causing it, and we have a responsibility to address this, but the research indicates that’s not filtering out—at least not in the US,” she says. “So the Pope can say something, but if the parish priest doesn’t, and if there aren’t congregation members bringing it into the life of the local community, it’s not making a difference there.”
The Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, and almost all of the mainline Protestant churches have statements that say climate change is real, humans are causing it, and we have a responsibility to address this, but the research indicates that’s not filtering out—at least not in the US.
Another way American Christian churches can encourage members’ interest in climate change, she says, is to foster conversations with people whose daily lives are more affected by its consequences—something that churches, which are often international organizations, are uniquely positioned to do. Many Americans think of the effects of global warming as existing in the distant future or in faraway places, Copeland says, but their perception of climate risk might change if, say, they belonged to a church that received regular environmental updates from sister congregations in other parts of the world.
For his final project in BU’s Faith and Ecological Justice Certificate Program, Copeland’s student Abel Aruan (STH’23) organized an international panel discussion via Zoom this spring. Speakers from Zimbabwe, Ukraine, and Indonesia all talked about ways climate change is affecting their countries and what Christian communities are, and should be, doing to mitigate it. The conversation often highlighted connections between climate change and traditional Christian causes such as hunger and poverty.
In the Pew Research Center’s surveys, Christians who expressed little or no concern about climate change were asked the reasons for their views. “There are much bigger problems in the world today” was the most popular answer.
“The fact is—and this is the whole point of the environmental justice movement—there is no issue that you can be concerned about that the environment is not part of,” Copeland says. “If you’re concerned about hunger, if you’re concerned about health, if you’re concerned about communities that suffer from hurricanes, typhoons, heat waves, cold snaps, any of these things, climate change and environmental degradation is involved in that.”
A Biblical Metaphor or Ecological Disaster?
The idea that human-caused environmental harms can lead to hunger and suffering may even be discussed in the Bible, she says. The book of Ezekiel, for example, includes a description of a vision of an arid, salty landscape where no vegetation grows. While this vision has traditionally been interpreted as a metaphor, Copeland’s scholarship suggests these passages might be referencing the ancient Israelites’ actual experience with soil salinization caused by unsustainable agricultural practices. She explores this idea in depth in a 2019 Biblical Theology Bulletin article, writing that her goal is to draw a “description of the land east of Jerusalem into conversation with a modern example of soil salinization…identifying the necessary conditions for healing the ecological trauma of the land and fostering the future resilience of the human-land community.”
“Most Christians agree that the Bible says we should take care of the Earth,” Copeland says, “but I don’t think they recognize when many of the texts might be pointing to ecological degradations as a serious and underlying problem.”