Moltmann Monday: On Community with Nature

Happy Moltmann Monday! It also happens to be Columbus Day, so I thought we might benefit from hearing Moltmann talk with us about ecological rights, human rights, and how they are inextricably connected. So our excerpt today comes from Ethics of Hope in chapter 15. It’s a little dense, so read slowly.

The ideology of modern civilization maintained that it is only the human being who exists for his own sake; everything else is there for the sake of the human being, and for his use. Cosmocentrism was the foundation of the pre-industrial agrarian society, but anthropomorphism is the foundation of its modern industrial counterpart. If the human being’s dignity is seen only in his ‘quality as determining subject’ and if this quality is ascribed to the human being alone, human rights which are built up on that dignity are a threat to nature, and hence ultimately to the ability of human beings themselves to survive.

The European concept of the determining subject stems from the division of the world into subject and object, and it was intended to secure the central ruling position of the human being himself. But that means viewing human beings as bodiless subjects, and nature as an object without a soul. There is no community and no bond between the bodiless subject and the soulless body. Aristotle was still able to talk about ‘the soul of plants,’ ‘the soul of animals,’ and ‘the soul of human beings’ because for him a ‘world soul’ embraced and differentiated all the living. It was only the mechanistic world picture of the modern industrial society which drove out the ‘world soul,’ so that nature might be subjugated.

Postmodern views, on the other hand, are now starting again from the body-soul totality of human beings, in order to develop the idea of a cosmic community into which human beings are integrated, out of the bodily needs and sensory relations of human beings with other living things. The modern split into soul and body, subject and object, person and thing, does justice neither to the totality of human beings, nor to their natural living community with the earth. If the modern fissure is rigorously pushed through, human bodiliness is destroyed and the natural community of life is ruined…

So let me talk about that for a minute, and then we’ll continue with one more part of this section where he brings it back around. To give a Cliffs Notes recap: the problem of modern civilization is that we have deluded ourselves into believing we are at the top of the food chain. Everything else in creation is intended for us, so therefore we can do what we want with it. Some people even use Genesis to defend this kind of humanity dictatorship, preaching that God’s admonition for us to have dominion over the earth means exactly this. It means nothing like that. It means, in fact, the very opposite. As humans, our job is to steward the earth and protect it. We hold not a position of authority but of service. (If I had a nickel for every time we got that confused…)

What happens when you put humans at the center of the universe in this way is that we start looking for our dignity and purpose as AT ODDS with the dignity and purpose of nature. We create an us against them mentality, in which only one can survive. You need only to think of our hesitation to change our ways in the face of climate change, or the reluctance of corporations to clean up after themselves when they pollute the environment, or our incessant exploration of oil to the point of fracking and coal to the point of literally blowing the tops off of mountains. We accept these actions as normal (consider the insanity of that) because deep down we believe it is more important to fuel our own lifestyles than to limit ourselves or take up responsibility for our actions. This is why Moltmann says, quite rightly, that “human rights which are built up on that dignity are a threat to nature.” If we believe as a society that the most important thing about us is our consumption, our output, our bottom line, we will continue to ravage nature and find it socially acceptable and even preferable.

And when we do that, we cannot kid ourselves. We have decided that creation does not have a soul. We have so divided the world that we make nature into an object rather than a living organism.

Think for a moment again about Genesis. Why did people of faith hand down that story from generation to generation? What does it tell us, what is the deep truth that it reveals? It says that creation is holy, good, and soul-ful. Even Aristotle understood this, and it is only in the crisis of our modern age that we have abandoned the sacredness of our world. And it is killing us.

This split of soul and body, Moltmann says, destroys the natural community God intends. There is no justice there. I write this on Columbus Day for a reason.

Now, to share one last thought from this section:

The Orthodox theology of the Eastern churches has never gone along with these Western European divisions, because it saw the human person not as standing over against objective nature, but as a hypostasis of nature. In the human being, nature gathers itself together into a hypostasis; consequently the human being is dependent on nature. In his bodiliness the human being together with all other living things and with all material elements remains bound up with nature. Human beings have been created together with nature and together with nature will be redeemed.

A quick note: hypostasis means that something shares both physical and spiritual qualities. It is both soul and body, so to speak. This word, you may know, is used to describe the nature of Jesus as both divine and human. There were a number of church councils that argued on what exactly this meant, and they rejected the idea that the divine and human ever stayed separate and affirmed instead that Jesus was fully both, all the time, and that these two natures were bound up with one another in a way that cannot be separated.

This may seem like a petty thing to argue about, theological nitpicking, but Moltmann reminds us here why it matters for all of us. We, too, are bound together as spiritual and physical beings. We are bound together in a way that cannot be separated. If we are redeemed, we are redeemed together. But the inverse is also true: if we are destroyed, we will be destroyed together. The community of humanity and nature cannot be a house divided, or it will fall.


  1. ‘Hypostasis means that something shares both physical and spiritual qualities.’

    That’s not correct – hypostasia, in classic Greek philosophical discourse, refers generally to an underlying substance or a fundamental reality or being (more literally a ‘standing forth)- in theological discourse, a hypostasis refers to an individual reality or person, hence the hypostatic union, in which the two natures of Christ are united in one person, and in Trinitarian terms, we have three hypostases in one ousia, or three persons in one essence.

  2. Thanks for clarifying. I am using broadstrokes and short-cuts for sure, but my intention was to convey that the underlying substance is one of unity between spiritual and material, between human and divine. I believe that IS our fundamental reality.

    But I’d love it if you want to share some more thoughts on hypostasis here, especially as it relates to Moltmann’s excerpt.

Your email address will not be published.

Facebook IconTwitter Icon