Repentance and Ecological Vocation

[1] In a country that has historically adapted well to the world’s most pressing needs, it is no surprise to see an ecological consciousness emerging among U.S. citizens. The prefix “eco” is now joined with a variety of business endeavors, describing more sustainable business solutions. Green practices such as composting and recycling are widely taught in public schools and have become more commonplace in civil society. Even political candidates and their critical pundits now discuss questions and issues related to wind and solar energy. At first glance, the cumulative effect of such shifts in America’s eco-consciousness may lead one to believe that U.S. citizens have made an ecological “about-face” and are now actively addressing the grave ecological concerns that have mounted throughout the past several decades. And while ecologically-minded citizens surely celebrate such gains in awareness, even a cursory look at the average American lifestyle quickly unravels such optimism. Unfortunately, our nation’s egregious consumption, waste, and degradation of the natural world have never been greater. For example, we Americans, who constitute less than 5% of the world’s total population, use 90% more energy than the average Chinese citizen and 50% more than the average European, resulting in a whopping 85% use of the world’s coal, natural gas, and petroleum products. Contemporary ecologists and climate scientists estimate that in order to level off the downward trend of global warming Americans alone would need to reduce their use of fossil fuels by 70%.[1] As Bill McKibben suggests, such a shift would not only require us to think on ecological matters more often, but would also require us “to change the ways we move ourselves around, the spaces we live in, the jobs we perform, the food we eat.”[2] In short, contemporary ecological matters call for nothing less than the radical reformation of both public and private life.

[2] The Christian church can and must play an integral role in the emergence of such progressive change. Even those who call to mind Lynn White’s famous ecological incitement against western Christian heritage now recognize White’s true thesis, a revision of traditional Christian notions on nature: “More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one,” said White, “….since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny.”[3]

[3] In response to this challenge many scholars have sought to reclaim the biblical texts’ attention to ecological matters. Notwithstanding some critique, the work of such biblical theologians throughout the past two decades has indeed served to rethink traditional Christian hermeneutics. However, surprisingly little has been done to connect such scholarship to the ethos of congregational life. While the occasional reference to ecological matters can be found in many Christian hymns and prayer books, and is sometimes alluded to from the pulpit on a Pentecost Sunday or the like, the bulk of our Christian liturgy and parish teaching has remained largely unchanged by contemporary ecological concerns. To be sure, liturgy and sermons themselves do not definitively communicate the pulse of any one Christian community. Yet, the way in which the Christian church worships most certainly communicates something about what it believes. And so to truly feel anew its ecologic destiny, as White so urges, requires that Christian communities better integrate recently rediscovered biblical ecological principles into corporate worship. Given the Christian church’s somewhat shoddy historical reputation in matters pertaining to ecology, and in considering the relationship between human sin and the contemporary environmental outlook, such a reformation in Christian identity necessarily includes the practice of repentance.

[4] So what does true Christian ecological repentance look like and how is it best enacted? Repentance is an essential component of one’s vocation and is a critical step in the lifelong process of Christian creation care. It is best understood and undertaken from a virtue ethics approach, wherein through the habitual pursuit of particular virtues Christians can embody a posture of ecological servanthood and willfully choose a lifestyle characterized by restraint, resourcefulness and contentedness.

Repentance As Integral To Ecological Vocation

[5] Ecological vocation includes both a mindset and a course of action characterized by creation care and a posture of servanthood.[4] Implicit to repentance is the reality of sin and God’s mercy. While one need look no further than our current ecological horizon to be convinced of social and personal sin, it is also helpful to recognize a longstanding tradition of Christians reflecting upon their wayward ecological sensibilities. Take, for example, Augustine’s famous pear tree illustration. While often used only to demonstrate the reality of human depravity, Augustine’s language in the text makes clear that his sin was not just against God, but also against the living tree itself. Along with his friends Augustine “robbed the tree,” and exploited it by taking its fruit with the intention of waste.[5] Similarly, the Eastern Church Father Gregory of Nazianzus understood human dominion to be a notion of service, sanctification and subordination to God. Convinced that humankind was not only a king, but also a worshipper, a witness, priest and subject, he called for a balance of relations. Repentance was necessary when human beings failed to be priests for creation.[6] Perhaps most well-known is the patron saint of animals, St. Francis of Assisi, who frequently repented his prodigal posture toward creation:

Therefore for his praise, for our consolation and for the edification f our neighbor, I want to write a new Praise of the Lord for his creatures, which we use every day, and without which we cannot live. Through them the human race greatly offends the Creator, and every day we are ungrateful for such great graces, because we do not praise, as we should, our Creator and the Giver of all good.[7]

[6] The horizontal or interrelational nature of human sin touched upon by these prolific figures is a theme that many contemporary ecofeminists champion. Ivone Gebara, for example, argues that we must understand sin first and foremost as a relational condition given our fundamental relatedness. Paying close attention to our experience, Gebara and many other ecofeminists are wary of a priori understandings of sin and opt instead to focus upon “the destruction of life processes,” which humans have undoubtedly developed within our own selves.[8]

[7] The relational destruction of life is particularly important when discussing ecological vocation, as it emphasizes the need for reconciliation with both God and others. In this way repentance is not only “a turning of life to God,” although it is that, but is also “a transformation, not only in outward works, but in the soul itself. Only when it puts off its old nature does it bring forth the fruits of works in harmony with its renewal.”[9] Repentance, then, includes both an intentional change in one’s disposition and also a redirection of one’s life on a whole. In this sense repentance is an ethical act; it is as Stanley Hauerwas states, “a change that not only reorients [one’s] understanding of [one’s] existence, but a change that makes for a radical reorientation of this character and conduct.”[10]

[8] This radical reorientation is not a one-time event, however, for as Luther observed the continuation of sin and evil in the life of the baptized remains a mystery and a struggle. Hence, Luther saw the whole of Christian life as repentance, wherein, “The old creature in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily contrition and repentance and, on the other hand, a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”[11] Repentance must be understood in the context of vocation. By dying to self, the Christian is habitually conformed to God’s call and act, a spiritual process that is most readily actualized and enacted through a virtue ethics paradigm.

Toward A Virtue Approach To Ecological Ethics

[9] Several contemporary scholars have laid ground for a virtue ethics approach to ecological ethics in theological perspective.[12] Their work serves as a contrast to the work of others who have promoted perspectives of godly dominion, stewardship and citizenship respectively. Appropriately maintaining the uniqueness of human life while also avoiding the respective pitfalls of an overly anthropocentric view of creation, a virtue ethics approach sees the human being as the primary moral agent in a fundamentally relational way. Virtue approaches to ecological ethics cannot be purely individualistic, as if one could simply retrofit classical renderings of an Aristotelian-Thomistic virtue tradition to contemporary ecological questions. Rather, as Louke van Wevessen suggests, the environmentally damaging attitudes mistakenly read into the virtue tradition must be transformed for ecological purposes.[13] And while a great deal of literature also critiques the viability of this methodological approach, the virtue ethics approach is espoused here for three primary reasons. [14] First, any ethic that is sustainable in light of our ever-changing environmental situation must go beyond moral imperatives and deal first and foremost with one’s orientation toward the non-human world. Secondly, a decidedly Christian ecological ethic must be both faithful to biblical texts and also be relevant to the larger secular community for the sake of the common good. And finally, the habitual pursuit of virtues, or the intentional formation of Christian character, by its very definition necessitates repentance.

[10] So what is a virtue and what is its relationship to repentance and ecological ethics? Seeking to synthesize a variety of views on the virtues, Alasdair MacIntyre provides a comprehensive definition: “Virtue is an acquired human quality, the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are integral to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods.”[15] A critical element of virtue ethics is habituation. “The virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature,” said Aristotle: “Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and we are completed through habit.”[16] The idea that we are in fact more complete when we intentionally live out the virtues is particularly important to ecotheologians, as recognition of how virtue models apply outside the realm of human life can seem somewhat inchoate. For this reason many scholars, such as Steven Bouma-Prediger, highlight particular virtues like respect, self-restraint, benevolence and justice and suggest that they are manifested in ethical principles such as biodiversity, sufficiency, earthkeeping, and equity.[17] For the purposes of highlighting the importance of repentance in one’s ecological vocation Bouma-Prediger’s thesis is here espoused and further examined through three particular virtues: prudence, temperance, and fortitude. The pursuit of these characteristics, among others, requires a fundamental humility and a readiness for confession and redirection.


[11] Considered by Thomas Aquinas to be the most excellent of the acquired virtues, prudence directs all other moral virtues and provides the mean that all virtues are to attain.[18] The prudent person recognizes the ends to which they are naturally inclined and, with good reason, measures the rightness of those inclinations. For this reason Aquinas referred to it as the “right reason about the things to be done.”[19] Prudence guides other virtues, such as temperance and fortitude, by perfecting one’s natural reasoning and by aiding virtuous realizations. In this sense, prudence shapes not only how one acts, but also how one feels.[20]

[12] As one grows in prudence one necessarily becomes more self-actualized, increasingly realizing the limits of his or her own inclinations. In measuring and in seeking to address such proclivities, repentance plays a unique role for the Christian. While some inclinations may be conformed to the likeness of God, the prudent person is quick to realize that many are in fact not holy and stand in need of transformation. Speaking more concretely, the ecologically prudent Christian will pay careful attention to her views of nature as well as her demands of it and with skill and good judgment discipline her relations with the natural world and critically govern her actions. In this way, prudence, repentance and a realized ecological vocation are all stages of an ongoing, circular pattern wherein the virtue of prudence helps one realize their need to repent, which then fosters opportunities to live out one’s calling on this earth, and culminates in the building of one’s sense of good judgment.


[13] Perhaps more intuitive than the relationship of prudence to ecological servanthood is the connection between temperance and creation care. Guided by prudence, temperance moderates the affections of the soul and keeps one’s appetites consonant with the order of reason and divine law.[21] Most commonly understood to imply restraint against impulses that might compromise the integrity of one’s soul, the virtue of temperance also emphasizes the pleasure of things, the exhibition of beauty and honor, and the tranquility found in simplicity. [22] In other words, the cultivation of temperance calls for enjoyment just as much as it does detachment, the act of having just as much as abstaining. So while practices like abstinence and chastity certainly highlight an aspect of temperance, a more holistic definition might be, “The habit of being consistently moved and pleased in a beautiful and honorable manner by attractive objects of sense experience.”[23] Of course the key word here is “honorable,” which gets at the connection between temperance and repentance. For Aquinas, a thought or action was honorable if it maintained a proper reference to the ultimate ground of being. If, however, the preservation of self, species, or community was risked on account of one’s behavior repentance was needed and temperance, understood as a limitation, had to be enacted.

[14] While on the one hand a focus on the virtue of temperance can serve to expose our greed, lust or carelessness and prompt us to respond in repentance, it can also provide an ecologically sound way forward by redirecting our energies toward the sustainable pleasure of creation. When we practice temperance we grow in our ability to enjoy what we do have and become increasingly attuned to what God has done and is doing in creation. It is in this act that we learn to find tranquility and joy in creation.


[15] Choosing to reorient ourselves toward contentedness, a seemingly alternative choice in our contemporary consumerist context, isn’t easy and requires a certain amount of strength of mind. When making ecologically responsible choices requires sacrifices of time, resources, and energy the virtue of fortitude proves especially important. In order for today’s Christian to successfully overcome the plethora of temptations to live beyond one’s means one must cultivate an appropriate strength of mind.

[16] A focus upon the virtue of fortitude aids repentance in so far as it helps one make the turn around necessary to fulfill one’s ecological calling. As fortitude increases, these shifts become easier and ideally less frequent. Fortitude also plays a role on the back end of things, when one has committed to appropriate lifestyle changes, as it enables one to endure and to manifest the fruits of a fulfilled ecological calling.

The Fruits Of A Fulfilled Ecological Calling

[17] As has been described above, repentance is a critical part of one’s ecological vocation and can most genuinely become a way of life by way of the virtues. When human orientation toward non-human life is characterized by prudence, temperance, fortitude and the like the Christian is more free to serve creation and is empowered to live a lifestyle of restraint, resourcefulness and contentedness.


[18] “The American way of life is not negotiable,” stated President George H. W. Bush at the first UNCED Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio in 1992. The President’s sentiments were not only his own, but also were indicative of the pervasive American outlook on life in the early 1990’s. One could convincingly argue that this same worldview remains today, nearly three decades later.[24] Americans value liberty and are quick to revolt against that which threatens to impinge upon it. Yet with regard to the natural world, human freedom has always been limited in some fashion. The free nature and dignity of humankind, as perhaps first articulated in 1486 by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, has time and again proven false. Humans, like animals, are indeed determined by nature.

[19] The concept of living within one’s creaturely limits is an ancient one. This is likely due in part to the realities of daily life, which regularly reminded humans of their fragility and dependence upon the earth. But it is also due to the religious fabric of most ancient cultures. From east to west and north to south communities ascribed the comings and goings of the natural world to the Divine. As Bill McKibben rightly points out it has not been until recently that humans have sought to exhibit divine-like power over nature, through mechanical, technological and biological means. This shift reflects a more slow and gradual change of attitude, one wherein humans have become God’s equal, or rival, able to destroy the natural world just as God has created it. Wendell Berry refers to this as the problem of becoming creators, where “we felt ourselves greatly magnified.” So why, Berry asks, “should one get excited about a mountain when one can see almost as far from the top of a building, much farther from an airplane, farther still from a space capsule?”[25]

[20] Yet, the Scriptures are replete with imperatives to let creation be and to enjoy it for what it is. In fact, a great deal more is said about restraint and letting be than about intervention, enhancement or change.[26] So not only is our human liberty curbed by our limitations as creatures, as the ancients understood, but also by our calling to see creation as fundamentally good in and of itself. Lifestyles characterized by restraint are born out of this perspective and put into practice through the habitual practice of repentance. We seek to use only what we need because in our humility we are reminded of the effects of greed. We refrain from exploitation of the earth’s resources because the practice of the virtues puts us into closer relations with non-human life. And we protest against the ubiquitous messages of materialism and consumerism because Christ modeled a radical alternative. In short, when one seeks to fulfill his or her ecological calling, the fruit of restraint proves to be not just a lifestyle option, but more significantly a fundamental way of life.


[21] As Aldo Leopold, the twentieth century’s most influential advocate of a ‘land ethic, ’ suggested, conservation cannot be achieved without the creation of a new kind of people.[27] When one seeks to restrain by taking less and living with less it is arguable that in turn one has even more. Such a lifestyle frequently requires one to be more practically equipped, i.e. competent in things such as gardening and the trades. It also leads to more adaptability, as evidenced in a person’s use of public transportation or the choice to eat only local, seasonal foods. Additionally, seeking to live within one’s creaturely limits enhances creativity. This is not only due to the need for a growing resourcefulness, but also due to the lack of distractions, which can be myriad in decidedly consumerist lifestyles. When less time is spent commuting, shopping or hoping for more, greater amounts of time can be spent doing things like walking, cooking whole foods, and being grateful for what one does have. This newfound space in life also provides more room for deeply satisfying artistic, creative endeavors such as writing, playing, painting or building. Finally, fulfilling one’s ecological calling undoubtedly leads to a stronger sense of community, both in that one can see him/herself as a part of a much larger whole and also in one’s collective pooling of resources. Both simple, deliberate choices like carpooling and collective purchasing, as well as more substantial commitments such as communal living and cooperative banking or healthcare can lend themselves to deeper, fulfilling relationships.


[22] Empirical research has, time and time again, shown the strong connection between healthy relationships and human happiness, including one’s relationship with non-human life. In places where the relentless pursuit of wealth, beyond modest income levels, and its close relative, consumerism, is prevalent happiness is waning, if not altogether diminished.[28] In environments where people are increasingly detached from the land or the outdoors depression and anxiety are on the rise.[29] Some studies now show that children with limited access to nature and the outdoors suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder, a behavioral/emotional disorder that effects neurological and biological functioning.[30] Keeping such findings in mind it is logical to suggest that the fulfillment of one’s ecological vocation also leads to contentedness.

[23] But for the Christian, contentedness lies beyond merely the psychological benefits of caring for creation, for to be truly happy is to honor God and to fulfill God’s calling in life. When the Christian adopts a mindset of service to creation and enacts this perspective in concrete ecologically virtuous ways he or she is recognizing God’s creative act in all of its complexity and is worshipping by fulfilling God’s call. In short, by becoming a servant of creation the Christian is doing what she was made to do. And it is when we are in our element that happiness comes effortlessly.


[24] I believe that a recasting of Christianity’s ecological reputation must take place on a congregational, rather than a purely scholarly, level. Central to this reclamation is the role of Christian repentance toward the fulfillment of one’s ecological vocation. Repentance here refers to one’s ongoing orientation, made manifest in both outlook and action. As such, virtue approaches to ethics best promote the habitual practice of repentance and therefore most effectively lead to the realization of Christian ecological ethics. The practice of such ecological ethics positively impacts the non-human world by recognizing and working to restore the interdependent nature of life relations. The ecologically ethical life also benefits human beings as it fosters restraint and resourcefulness, both of which can ultimately lead to a deeply contented existence within creation.


[1] Pew Center on Global Climate Change, “Climate Change 101” Arlington, VA: Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, 2011 and The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Synthesis Report” Geneva: IPCC, 2007.

[2] Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006), xx.

[3] Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” in Machina ex Deo: Essays in the Dynamism of Western Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968), 91.

[4] While the term vocation is often understood equivocally with occupation, Luther’s use of this term went much deeper. At the heart of Luther’s ethics of vocation, says Gustaf Wingren, “is one’s neighbor, not one’s sanctification” (Wingren, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl Rassmussen (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 182). In Luther’s own words, “Man’s co-operation with God is not directed towards God, but outward, toward his neighbor” (Ibid, 180). For the purposes of understanding one’s ecological vocation, the neighbor must include human and non-humans alike.

[5] Augustine, Confessions, trans. James O’Donnel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), Book 2, chapter 4.

[6] Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations, 38.11-12 as cited in Sigurd Bergmann’s Creation Set Free (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 101.

[7] Francis of Assisi, “Canticle” in The Writings of Francis of Assisi: Letters and Prayers, edited by Michael W. Blastic, Jay M. Hammond, and J.A. Wayne Hellmann (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2011), 229.

[8] Ivone Gebara, Longing for Running Water (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 84-94.

[9] Calvin, Institute of Christian Religion, trans. by Henry Beveridge, Esq. (London: Bonham Norton, 1599), 3.3.6. Christian Classics Ethereal Library:, accessed November 20, 2012.

[10] Stanley Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life, (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1985), 183.

[11] Luther, Small Catechism, trans. Robert Ernst Smith (Fort Wayne, Ind: Project Wittenburg, 2002), 30.

[12] For examples see the work of Celia Deane-Drummond, Steven Bouma-Prediger, and Louke van Wensveen Siker.

[13] Louke van Wevessen’s work is a good example of this. Critical of an approach that seeks to retroactively apply a Thomistic model to contemporary environmental issues she states, “I propose that we follow the man Aquinas, rather than cling to the whole system of his thought, and engage in the creative task of transforming Christian virtue tradition from the bottom up, looking to ecological praxis to provide new structures and content” (“Christian Ecological Virtue Ethics: Transforming a Tradition” in Christianity & Ecology, edited by Dieter T. Hessel & Rosemary Radford Ruther (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 165).

[14] Some liberationist and ecofeminist scholars argue that virtue ethical approaches are far too individualistic and do not adequately deal with the larger, systemic, social aspects of ecological ethics. While this critique certainly presents an array of valid concerns and questions, the work of scholars such as Celia Deane-Drummond has served to illustrate the collective (social) aspects of virtue/character ethics. The virtuous good, she says, is to be aimed at the common good, “encompassing all peoples as situated in an ecological context; in other words, it is not simply individualistic, but looks to the good of the individual alongside the wider good of the community as a whole” (“Theology, Ecology, and Values” in Christianity and Ecology, 899).

[15] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind: Notre Dame Press, 2007), 191.

[16] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1999), 18.

[17] Steven Bouma-Prediger, “A Response to Louke van Wesveen” in Christianity & Ecology, 175. Here, in an accessible table, Bouma-Prediger explores seven ecological motifs and relates them to specific ecological principles and classical philosophical/theological virtues.

[18] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. T. Gilby (London: Blackfriars, 1973), IaIIae, q. 66, a. 3, ad 3.

[19]Ibid, IaIIae, q. 57, a. 4.

[20] James Keenan, “The Virtue of Prudence” in The Ethics of Aquinas, edited by Stephen Pope (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 262.

[21] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIaIIae, q. 141, a. 3

[22] Aquinas makes the distinction between these four aspects in IIaIIae, q. 141, a.2-5.

[23] Diana Fritz Cates, “Temperance,” in The Ethics of Aquinas, 322.

[24] For example, studies have shown that despite more exposure to the reality of global need Americans waste 50% more food now than we did in the late 1970’s (Washington Post, “How the U.S. manages to waste $165 billion in food each year” by Brad Plumer on August 22).

[25] Wendell Berry, quoted by Bill McKibben in The End of Nature, 67.

[26] Richard Bauckham, The Bible & Ecology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), 33.

[27] Aldo Leopold, A Sand Country Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 230.

[28] See for example, R.E. Lane, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001).

[29] Richard Jackson, MD., the chair of Environmental Health Services in the Department of Public Health at UCLA, has argued this point in numerous articles and in his book Healthy Communities, with Stacy Sinclair (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2011).

[30] It is important to note that Richard Louv’s findings, articulated in his book, The Last Child in the Woods (Chapel Hill, NC: Alcoquin Books, 2005), have not yet been endorsed by the wider psychological community. Louv connects his proposed Nature Deficit Disorder with other conditions such as: depression, attention deficit disorder and obesity.

Kiara Jorgenson

Kiara Jorgenson is a Ph.D. candidate at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Her studies in theology focus upon the Lutheran concept of vocation in the formation of ecological ethics.