Review: An Ecological Theology of Liberation: Salvation and Political Ecology, by Daniel P. Castillo

[1] Daniel Castillo frames his volume by asking how, in our current global context, we are to relate salvation, liberation, and care for creation. His answer, this book’s thesis, comes in the work’s title: Christians are to respond to our planetary emergencies with An Ecological Theology of Liberation, that is, with “a mode of discourse that grounds the preferential options for both the earth and the poor in its confession of who God is and what God desires” and that “seeks to elucidate and energize forms of praxis that make manifest these options in the world” (xxvi). The substance of this mode of discourse is a broad, integrated theological vision that is both Catholic and catholic, engaging liberation and ecology, Scripture and salvation, political economy and spiritual practice.

[2] The book consists of three parts, each with two chapters: part one gives the method and grammar for the text; part two provides a narrative for this theology through an interpretation of Scripture; and part three shifts to praxis, with an analysis of political economies and a proposal for an eco-theological spirituality. To some extent, each of these parts could stand alone, but there is also important continuity between and movement through these sections. The opening chapters are the most theoretical, and here Castillo locates and distinguishes his project within the field. Contra Leonardo Boff and Ivone Gebara, Castillo privileges political economy over “ecological cosmology,” portraying the latter, with its cosmic perspective and posture of wonder, as too far removed from the complex realities of earth and thus as impracticable. Against Lynn White, Jr., Castillo endorses a qualified anthropocentrism, which he sees as necessary for proper human responsibility, even with its potential abuses. Again diverging from Boff and Gebara, Castillo emphasizes the priority of the “book of scripture” (including the Bible and tradition) over the “book of nature,” arguing that “nature” is ambiguous and unable to undergird a preferential option for the earth and the poor. In a positive sense, Castillo aligns his work with the corpus of Gustavo Gutiérrez and with Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, offering something of a synthesis of the two. Gutiérrez’s concept of integral liberation is vital for Castillo, as it draws together socio-structural, cultural/psychological, and theological levels of sin and salvation, though Castillo argues that, especially in his early writings, Gutiérrez does not adequately attend to ecological dimensions of liberation. In Castillo’s reading, Laudato Si’ remedies this lack with its concept of integral ecology, which unites salvation history and eco-social realities. However, since the encyclical does not sufficiently develop Scripture’s salvation history in eco-socio-theological terms, Castillo takes up this task in part two.

[3] Castillo is obviously not the first to read the Bible with such a lens—he gratefully harvests the insights of Ellen Davis, Walter Brueggemann, and others—but his account is noteworthy for its span and its central image of the gardener. While Castillo gives Genesis the most attention (all of chapter three), he also touches on the entirety of the canon, including Exodus (with its indictment of and liberation from the death-dealing economy of Egypt), Leviticus (which yields an ecological vision of sabbath), the Gospels (in which Christ, the new Adam, plants the political and eschatological kingdom of God), and Revelation (with its promise of the renewal of creation in the New Jerusalem, which triumphs over the destructive political economy of Babylon). Such a grand overview of Scripture necessarily sacrifices some details; however, Castillo makes a compelling case that Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, casts a consistent ecological vision of liberation, inclusive of human and non-human creation. Especially intriguing in this discussion are Castillo’s linked images of God the gardener and the human as homo hortulanus. Here, God is the one who owns the land, plants the garden, and provides for its flourishing. The image of God is the gardening human, the homo hortulanus, who is called to “till and keep” (Gen. 2:15), that is, to live harmoniously with God, neighbor, and earth. And Jesus is the true and full homo hortulanus, as seen especially in John’s resurrection account, where Mary is surprisingly correct to “mistake” the risen one for the gardener (20:15). Taken as a whole, this “horticultural” interpretation of Scripture seeds the final part of the book.

[4] In the third section, Castillo implements his integral theory and biblical narrative through diagnosis and prescription. The former, in a word, is bleak: this is the judgment that Scripture brings. Castillo begins with a critical examination of the “500-year project” of the Anthropocene, which he, following Pope Francis, Karl Polanyi, and others, characterizes in terms of technocracy, market dominance, extraction, racism, and ecological debt. Per Castillo’s analysis, the present “globalization project,” even with its appeals to sustainable development and ecological modernization, is a hollow and harmful political economy that is captive to hegemonic power, material inequality, and the “culture-ideology” of consumerism. If Castillo’s diagnosis is bleak, then his prescription, given for Christian individuals and churches, is both realistic and hopeful: this is Scripture’s promise. Castillo openly acknowledges that, on this side of the eschaton, we have no simple, unambiguous alternatives to our current globalization project. Even so, the biblical witness does give us the way of the gardener—faithful care for the earth and the poor—which is our telos for the historical and eschatological world. The praxis of this eco-spirituality of liberation weaves together dispositions (acceptance of guilt, cultivation of gratitude for God’s work, a spirit of humility) and disciplines (especially the practice of sabbath through rest, solidarity, discernment, gathering, and celebration). In sum, “participation in this work is nothing less than the practice of resurrection—the experience of and witness to the mystery of salvation at work in the world” (213).

[5] Among this book’s many virtues, one stands out: its unifying power. Taken individually, the numerous layers of Castillo’s text, insightful as they are, will not necessarily be novel for readers—but that is not his aim. Integration—of Scripture’s parts, of ecology and liberation, of theology and practice, and of all of these together—is the goal, and in this Castillo succeeds. His integral approach, building on Gutiérrez and Pope Francis, convincingly connects social, ecological, and theological concerns and ties them into a concrete call to action. To be sure, this is an ambitious project—and as a mixture of ecological, liberation, biblical, and political theology and ethics, it is hard to classify. That said, attempts at synthesis, like Castillo’s, are absolutely needed. For many Lutherans and other Christians—those who major in the Creed’s second article to the diminution of the first, or who shy away from activity in God’s left-hand, “civil” realm—Castillo’s integral method may be a helpful ethical model (though Lutherans may want a clearer distinction between the “two kingdoms”). Castillo proclaims the centrality of Scripture, sin, salvation, and eschatological promise; and, by linking these to the narrative of history and the material of the whole creation, he sketches a this-worldly vocation that resonates with elements of Luther’s thought. Don’t neighbors and gardeners have a lot in common? And didn’t Luther (at least apocryphally!) say that if he knew the world were going to end tomorrow, he would plant an apple tree?

[6] Of course, this book’s well-unified breadth is also a liability of sorts, in that it leaves some areas under-addressed. One such area is Christology (and another is feminist thought). Like other theologies of liberation, Castillo’s highlights Jesus in terms of the kingdom of God and Jubilee proclamation and practice; further, Castillo presents Christ, in continuity with Genesis, as the new Adam and the true homo hortulanus. All of this is true and important, but an ecologically-minded Christology could go further and deeper by, for instance, considering the Word’s work of creating and sustaining the world; the incarnation, in which the Word assumes humanity in a way that does not disrupt but fulfills its created nature; the concept of “deep incarnation,” which sees the Second Person as ecologically united to all flesh/creation; and union with Christ, whereby Christians dwell in Christ and are empowered to live in the world by his Spirit. These additions would underscore the divine presence and power at work in the salvation history that Castillo so richly develops. I take such a christological expansion to be more a matter of theological emphasis than of fundamental change: both Castillo and I want to relate Christ and creation, but Castillo seems to approach Christ through creation (i.e., he begins with a theology of creation and uses this to interpret Christology), while I’m inclined to approach creation through Christ (i.e., to begin with Christ and to move “back” and “out” to creation). Despite my preference, which may gesture toward some broad “Protestant” and “Catholic” tendencies, it seems to me that this switch does not make a significant difference in terms of praxis for an eco-theological ethics of liberation. Both approaches, I hope, can nurture more robust and ecumenical Christian engagement with ecology and political economy.

[7] Castillo does not offer an exhaustive response to his framing question about salvation, liberation, and creation, but his theological argument is both guide and goad for further reflection from Catholics, Lutherans, and others. The scope of his book—as well as its admirable clarity—means that it could be fruitful in many settings: upper-level university and seminary classrooms, a pastor’s study, a gathering of theologically-curious adults in a church group. The book could be used, in part or whole, to examine contemporary Catholic thought, eco- and political theology, or liberation practice. For Castillo, in light of the cries of the earth and the poor, the last is the most imperative.

Andrew Ronnevik

Andrew Ronnevik is a PhD student in theology and ethics at Baylor University and a rostered ELCA pastor.