Critiquing Dualism in Christianity through Eco-feminist Lenses: Lessons from Wangari Muta Maathai: Part I

By Albert Billy Bangirana, University of KwaZulu-Natal

This is the second post in a three-part series reflecting on the sacredness of the earth. In this post and the subsequent one (to be posted next Monday), CIHA Blog Luce Graduate Fellow Albert Billy Bangirana[1] presents perspectives on global climate change by drawing on eco-feminist lenses and the work of Wangari Muta Maathai, an East African agent of eco-justice. Albert argues, along with eco-feminists, that the exploitation of women and nature has been constructed through social, cultural, and religious practice. In Christianity, the Hellenistic gender dualism, which identifies men with the mind, reason, and spirit while women represent the body, matter, and passion, has contributed to current androcentric thought-patterns that are oppressive to women and nature. He interrogates the extent to which the identification of women with nature through hierarchical dualism informs the patriarchal trends of domination over women and nature. In the final forthcoming post, Albert concludes the study with an analysis of late Nobel Laureate Wangari Muta Maathai’s initiatives towards ecological justice, where new and non-hierarchical patterns of relationships can be created for the good of humanity and nature. Access the first post here.

Part I:

“Spiritual Declaration on Climate Change”

The “Spiritual Declaration on Climate Change” made by Faith Community Participants during the United Nations Climate Change Conference at St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal in December, 2005 stated that, “People and other species have the right to life unthreatened by human greed and destructiveness.”[2]

This Spiritual Declaration emphasises that climate change is not a new phenomenon[3] in global ecological discourses. Irrespective of the adaptation of various initiatives, the question remains, “Are we managing and responding appropriately to climate change?”

Environmental Degradation and Climate Change

As defined by the US-based, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Climate refers to the average temperature and precipitation as well as the type, frequency and intensity of weather events.”[4] Through the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources and industrial pollution, such weather patterns have been altered culminating in devastating conditions.[5] Notably, human-induced climate change through deforestation and industrialisation has led to heat waves, cold waves, storms, floods and droughts.

In South Africa, significant alterations in biodiversity and agricultural production, including droughts and heavy storms have been experienced.[6] As a result of these adverse effects on the environment resulting from uncontrolled and selfish human activities locally and globally, the concerned parties, most of which are also major greenhouse gases contributors, converged at the Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP17/CMP7)[7] in view of preventing further environmental damage.

Lessons from the Durban Conference of Parties (COP17/CMP7) on Climate Change

The Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP17/CMP7) took place in the city of Durban, South Africa from 28 November to 9 December 2011. The participating country representatives grappled with issues on climate change and furthered negotiations to reduce greenhouse gases emissions. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change during the previous conference in Cancun, Mexico had concluded that “unless immediate action against climate change is taken, people, ecosystems and all life on earth face irreversible harm.”[8] Therefore, the main aim was to initiate policy mechanisms that will assist in averting the effects of climate change globally through a viable binding treaty especially before the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

During the preliminary discussions at Koinonia Johannesburg on 10 May 2011, Mary Scholes[9] stressed that issues of climate change affect both the rich and poor. She highlighted that for the past three years the world has experienced high energy costs, increased food prices, hunger in nearly a fifth of the world’s population, as well as water shortages and floods in many parts of the globe.[10] The theme for the Durban Conference: Working Together: Saving Tomorrow Today”, challenged all the participating countries to initiate policies that will make this vision a reality.[11] However, this vision can only be achieved if humanity challenges its attitudes grounded in cultural and philosophical worldviews that have found resonance in the social, economic and political order. Such attitudes as will be argued in the second part of this series contribute to the oppression of women and the exploitation of nature.

Hierarchical Dualism: A Platonic Background

Hierarchical dualism is the main philosophical construct that results in the oppression of women and the exploitation of nature. Plato’s Phaedo presents the ‘body’ and ‘mind’ as two unequal and distinct realities. He argues that “true substances are not physical bodies, which are ephemeral, but the eternal forms of which bodies are imperfect copies.”[12] In defence of this dualistic thought, Plato concludes that “Forms are the grounds of intelligibility” and that “the intellect perceives the forms in the course of comprehension.”[13]

For Plato, such forms are of a higher being and value than the material body. The soul which is also associated with the intellect belongs to the world of the forms whereas the body which is lesser in being belongs to the material world. Plato emphasises that the soul is always in the struggle “to leave the body in which it is imprisoned” in order to return to the world of the forms.[14] This philosophy presents an anthropology that regards the material world and basically the body as imperfect and inherently evil. He concludes that, “primal unformed matter is the receptacle and nurse” and he imagines a disembodied male mind as the divine architect that shapes this matter into the cosmos by fashioning it after the intellectual blueprint of the Eternal ideas.[15]

Plato uses gender markers to separate the material and the immaterial worlds while reinforcing socially constructed gender stereotypes. This dualistic thinking puts females and natural phenomena (matter) at a lower level while the male mind also the divine architect (Form) is exalted.[16] Therefore, eco-feminist critique challenges this dualistic understanding. It seeks to deconstruct the patriarchal paradigm of hierarchy that presents “God, man, woman, children, animals and nature” in a utilitarian descending order, a stereotype based on the truism, “the higher you go the stronger and more important you become.”[17]

Hierarchical Dualism and the Dignity of Women: Eco-feminist Perspectives

Links of women to nature are a central concern for eco-feminists as they have been found to facilitate the exploitation of nature and the patriarchal domination of women.[18] Eco-feminist theory critiques the domination of women and nature through such socialised patriarchal constructs. These constructs subscribe to the notion of the hierarchy of species and dualistic thinking that eco-feminists seek to replace with “holistic thinking.”[19]

Anne M. Clifford underscores the entrenched stereotypes within the “culture/nature dualism.”[20] She notes that “despite the value accorded to nature based on its utility, people still perceive nature as being “non-human nature.”[21] She thus proposes three eco-feminist images of relationships aimed at responding to the injustices against women and nature. These include, “the web of life”, “ecological wholeness” and “integration.”[22] A stanza from Lord Byron’s poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” published between 1812-1818, also reveals how deep roots of patriarchy have and continue to present Nature as ‘sweet’ and vulnerable thereby reinforcing feminine stereotypes that undergird the abuse of women and nature.

Further, Steven Bouma-Prediger in his book, The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Stiller, and Jürgen Moltmann, reiterates that dualistic thought patterns are not seen as the same but as one being higher than the other, hence hierarchical. He emphasizes that “it is no coincidence that we speak of the “rape” of both women and the earth.”[23] Therefore, as Chung Hyun Kyung can state, “ecology and feminism” join in the search for “justice, peace and integrity of creation” calling for a mutual cohesion in the cause for a common vision of the future.[24] They also thrive in the struggle against “‘power-over’ relationships which promote dualistic and hierarchical oppression among all beings.”[25]

Eco-feminism gained importance in the early 1970s as part of French feminist theory.[26] Eco-feminists draw their inspiration for the “struggle from more egalitarian, body-affirming, nature-respecting religions, cultures and ideologies.”[27] They search for a spirituality that upholds “the immanence of God, the sacredness of this world and wholeness of the body, sensuality and sexuality.”[28] Most outstanding is their cause to reinstate the holiness of matter as long cherished in various tribal and indigenous mundane religions.[29]

Eco-feminists identify and challenge religious traditions that hold ideas that contribute directly or indirectly to the oppression of women and nature. Christianity in particular, due to its “Hebrew and Greco-Roman tradition, has assumed cultural-symbolic patterns that have inferiorised women and nature.”[30] Ruether argues that, the idea of the male Christian God informed by Greek philosophical dualism has contributed to the identity of the male as the head and the rest as subjects including women and nature.[31] She therefore opts for a theology that is ecologically adequate and affirms “a more unitary view of the human person.”[32] Bouma-Prediger thus proposes that an adequate Christian eco-theology should develop and convincingly present “an integral anthropology.”[33] This anthropology should then seek to construct a holistic view of the human person.

Alternatively, Clifford presents the “web of life” as a framework for action. It calls for a “kinship relationship of humanity with the rest of nature” and “a new egalitarian holism” which affirms that “all nature is interdependent and interconnected” and integrated.[34] These three feminist images of relationships resonate with ecofeminist theorist and activist Ynestra King’s[35] principles of eco-feminist action. These include, “concern for the survival and flourishing of all life,” “showing connections between all forms of domination, including that of nonhuman nature”, “organising a global movement based on unity and diversity,” “thinking locally and acting locally against all forms of domination and violence” and finally “restructuring human society on eco-feminist principles.”[36]

These principles are evident in the ecological vision of Wangari Maathai, founder of the ‘Green Belt Movement’.[37] In the following section I examine Wangari Muta Maathai’s relentless initiatives towards environmental protection and sustenance in Kenya and beyond. These initiatives have empowered many African women, restoring their dignity and pride in the process.


[1] Albert Billy Bangirana is a Theology Doctoral student (Gender and Religion programme) in the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. <></>

[2] JustEarth. “Spiritual Declaration on Climate Change.” Made by Faith Community Participants during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP11 and COP/MOP1), St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal December 4, 2005,” [Accessed 29 March 2013]. This statement was released after the eleventh session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the first session of the meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol. It specifically emphasised further action on climate change by the forty major industrialised nations.

[3] Climate change at the global level (i.e., outside the scientific community) has been used since the 1990s. This was before the concept of global warming was more widespread.

[4] Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Coastal Zones and Sea Level Rise.” <> [Accessed 27 October 2011].

[5] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – IPCC, (Synthesis Report 2014): 53-65.

[6] Noted among others is a significant reduction of rooibos production in the Suid Bokkeveld region by 40% in 2004/5, in the Kruger National Park there has been reduction in roan, sable, eland and tsessebe since the mid-1980’s and further decline in these species is expected. Changes in the distribution of kokerboom and Aloe dichotoma present in the western parts of South Africa, Namibia and Angola has also been noted <Dada Rehana, “Global Warming and Climate Change,” < /topic/default.php?topic_id=123>, [Accessed 21 August 2012].

[7] The Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP) is an annual meeting of the signatories to the Kyoto Protocol. Parties to the convention that are not parties to the Kyoto Protocol can participate in the Conference of Parties as observers, but are not allowed to make decisions. See COP 17, “Working Today: Saving Tomorrow Today, 28 November – 9 December 2011.” <> [Accessed 29 March 2013].

[8] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) “Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP17),” [Accessed 29 March 2013].

[9] Scholes is a Professor in the Wits School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, and Head of the South African Climate Leadership Programme. Her areas of expertise lie in the savanna and plantation forestry functioning, food security and atmospheric chemistry and climate change.

[10] Mary Scholes, Consultation on Climate Change and COP 17, (Johannesburg: Koinonia, 10 May 2011): 3-4.

[11] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) “Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP17).”

[12] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Dualism.”  < dualism/> [Accessed 29 March 2013].

[13] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Dualism.”

[14] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Dualism.”

[15] Susan Rakoczy, In Her Name: Women Doing Theology, (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 2004), 308.

[16] Susan Rakoczy, In Her Name, 308.

[17] Judith Plant, “Ecofeminism,” <> [Accessed 29 October 2011].

[18] Plant, “Ecofeminism.”

[19] Clifford, Introducing Feminist Theology, 225.

[20] Clifford, Introducing Feminist Theology, 225.

[21] Clifford, Introducing Feminist Theology, 225.

[22] Rakoczy, In Her Name, 313.

[23] Bouma-Prediger, The Greening of Theology, 226.

[24] Chung Hyun Kyung, “Ecology, Feminism and African and Asian Spirituality,” in Ecotheology: Voices from South and North, ed., David G. Hallman, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 175-185.

[25] Hyun Kyung, “Ecology,” 176.

[26] Clifford, Introducing Feminist Theology, 222-223.

[27] Hyun Kyung, “Ecology,” 176.

[28] Hyun Kyung, “Ecology,” 176.

[29] Hyun Kyung, “Ecology,” 176.

[30] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Ecofeminism: First and Third World Women,” in Women Resisting Violence: Spirituality for Life, eds., Mary John Mananzan, Mercy Amba Oduyoye and Elsa Tamez, (New York, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 25-35.

[31] Ruether, “Ecofeminism: First and Third World Women,” 29.

[32] Bouma-Prediger, The Greening of Theology, 267.

[33] Bouma-Prediger, The Greening of Theology, 266.

[34] Clifford, Introducing Feminist Theology, 225.

[35] Ynestra King is a renowned American ecofeminist theorist and activist. She has been at the forefront of the ecofeminist debate for over a decade now. She is author to the accredited book, Feminism and the Reenchantment of Nature.

[36] Rakoczy, In Her Name, 314.

[37] Shamara Shantu Riley, “Ecology is a Sistah’s Issue Too: The Politics of Emergent Afrocentric Ecofeminism,” in Readings in Ecology and Feminist Theology, edited by Mackinnon, Mary Heather and Moni McIntyre, (Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1995), 214-229.