Date of Award


Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Religion, PhD


School of Arts and Humanities

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Philip Clayton

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Ingolf U. Dalferth

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

John W. Quiring

Terms of Use & License Information

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

Rights Information

© 2020 Margaret H Ferris


ecotheology, human, nature, social construction, theology, water

Subject Categories

Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion


Environmental water issues are increasingly in the consciousness of environmental advocates, as well as scientists and engineers. Water experts have approached water issues from a scientific and engineering framework, which has led them to preference material and technical solutions. Yet those solutions have been insufficient. The interdisciplinary field of water studies has been critical of the scientific-engineering approach. Several water scholars have posited that water issues are social-human problems first, and material-technical problems second. They call for alternative approaches that emphasize reconstructing water as a necessary precursor to formulating effective, enduring solutions to environmental water issues. Likewise, ecotheological scholars and religious environmental movement organizations (REMOs) are developing responses to water issues but from a spiritual stance. A significant challenge for ecotheologians and REMOs is to instigate social change that may transform anti-ecological water practices. Water-focused ecotheologians and REMOs face particular problems because water is an unusually complex environmental entity, both categorically and physically. This dissertation investigates water as an environmental issue from the perspective of ecotheology, and also develops alternative approaches to water-focused advocacy from an ecotheological stance. It examines two categories of environmental water problems that are intertwined: shortages and water pollution. I identify, analyze, and evaluate discourses from three domains: the water sector, water studies, and ecotheology. From my research within the literature of the water sector and water studies, I conclude that the water sector has much to learn from water studies. I further concluded that water-focused REMOs not only have a distinctive contribution to make to both the water sector and to water studies, but that they may even be a “hydraulic force” for water conservation, protection, and restoration. As a result, to be effective instigators of change, they first need to recognize and challenge their incognizant social constructions of water. My research shows that several water-focused ecotheologians and REMOs have made modest gains in bringing attention to water issues and contributing insights based on their ecotheological doctrine and praxis. However, few of them demonstrated an awareness of water studies or of the significance of the social construction of water. For this reason, they are limited in their ability to instigate transformation of water practices. Nevertheless, while ecotheologians and REMOs may be hampered, they still have distinctive contributions to offer the larger discourses on water protection, conservation, and restoration. In this dissertation, I use the methods of constructive theology and ecological theology. Ecotheology offers an ecological critique of religious doctrine and a religious critique of cultural practices. In addition, I use two theoretical systems familiar to water studies and ecotheology. The first is social constructionism, which posits that knowledge of reality is organized, interpreted, and represented through human language and cognition. In turn, social constructs both enable and limit everyday practices. Second, as ecotheology aims to instigate transformation of ecologically harmful practices, I challenge conventional models of social change that have been assumed by the water sector and ecotheology. I contend that newer theories of social change better account for how culture is transformed and are therefore more useful models for water-focused advocacy. My central argument is that an ecotheological response to environmental water problems demands a more comprehensive and integrated approach to water. This approach would include: an understanding of how water is socially constructed; an ability to distinguish between water knowledge, water, and water-human relations; and knowledge of how circumscribed water constructs both enable and limit water practices. I further argue that before ecotheological doctrines of water can be reconstructed, water must be understood as material and non-material, as relational and transmutable, and that water and culture are mutually constitutive of one another. I integrate these insights with those of water-focused ecotheology and REMOs, which have both been critical of traditional constructions of humanity as separate from, superior to, and proper master of nature. In the second half of the dissertation, I explore social constructions of nature and human nature in Eurowestern culture. As constructs of water are grounded in those of nature and human nature, identifying and reconstructing the dominant constructs of each is a necessary precursor to reconstructing water. First, I discuss how nature and human nature have been constructed and the consequences of such constructions. Second, I examine reconstructions of each by ecotheologians. Third, I offer my own reconstructions. I content that nature is a unified whole that exists for its own sake and it is where all abiotic and biotic entities dwell. Further, God dwells in nature, participates with it, and makes it holy. In addition, human nature is neither ontologically distinct nor superior to other living beings in the world. Humans are embedded within nature, existing interdependently and interrelationally with other entitles. Additionally, while human beings are not ontologically distinct, by virtue of our ability to act collaboratively and to self-limit, humanity has a particular commission, given by God, to care and keep nature. Thus, I reconstruct the nature-human relationship as interdependent, and as entailing a moral obligation. In my last chapter, I conclude by offering three counternarratives of water, which I develop using my model of reimaging water through water awareness, literacy, and reconstruction as well as insights from water studies. I reconstruct water as a nexus, unfinishable, and part of holiness. It is in first understanding that water is relational, fluid, and in process that we may transform water-human engagements from being profligate and utilitarian to being sustainable and just.