In his famous article, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ former Princeton historian Lynn White once blamed Christianity for today’s ecological breakdown. And after its publication in Science magazine back in 1967, the blame has become mainstream. Asking any relatively serious environmentalist today, soon one finds an outright suspicion of the Christian faith.
That’s sometimes the case because White suggested that the opening chapter of the Bible provided the intellectual license for the “exploitative attitude” towards nature—an attitude that's magnified in today’s technological world. According to White's reading, the first stories of the Book of Genesis showed that “God planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes.”
“Christianity” he continued “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”
Was White right in affirming that Christianity is not green—nor blue? Having this dilemma in the background, below are five related Q&As about the relationship between Christianity and nature.
Is Christianity responsible for the destruction of wildlife?
Historically speaking, in many ways it is. While White’s interpretation of Genesis certainly does not honor the intentions of what the narrator of Genesis might have intended to portay, White’s view is true at least in the sense of how some Christians through history have themselves interpreted the two opening stories of creation.
For example, the intellectual mind-maps that came out of the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ did in fact read a few isolated verses in the Book of Genesis as a blank check for us humans to dominate nature, often in the name of stewardship. French Augustinian philosopher René Descartes argued that animals were imperfect machines without feeling. A British chap by the name of Francis Bacon interpreted Genesis to make many believe that we were meant to put nature on a rack in order to torture the secrets out of her. (Whether these folks were enlightened or endarkened, that’s another story.)
This to show that, indeed, certain misreadings of the Bible have lent themselves to fuel the devastation of the living world. Such interpretations continue to give full license to millions of Christians today to treat the living world essentially as a junk-yard in the way to a supposedly blissful heaven.
Thankfully, in the last few decades such views have come to be replaced by the voices of more faithful people—the best-known of them being Francis of Assisi, who urged us to embrace a sense of sisterhood and brotherhood with all other living and non-living creatures.
What can the church learn from the environmental movement?
There is a lot to learn, actually—just as churches can learn from other movements and other cultures. In this respect, we do well to remember that would-be religious folk bypassed the hurting man on the street, but it was the ‘outsider’ Good Samaritan who stepped in. And it was him who was applauded by Jesus.
That so say that Christians have no monopoly on the truth, and certainly no monopoly on doing good.
In fact, many ‘secular’ people are far ahead from where most churches are at in regards to earthkeeping and climate-caretaking. If anything, followers of the Nazarene are called to be meek and humble, always with a posture of learning from others and of affirming what is good, just and true.
Specifically, this means that us people in the business world, for example, should think long and hard and do our best to mimic the radical practitioners of C2C cradle-to-cradle industrial systems. Even better, we should think even longer and harder about alternative economic structures—such as co-operatives and social-enterprises—which can be designed to promote fairness and wellbeing and happiness; instead of rampant growthism and accumulation in the hands of the very few at the expense of the exhausted rest.
And that’s only the business world. People in politics can work towards implementing a substantial carbon tax, for dramatically translating subsidies from fossil fuel industries to cleaner forms of renewable energies, for supporting local and provincial and federal transitions towards low-energy municipalities that also look after the most vulnerable.
Those in the arts should write songs of ecological renewal. Folks in the medical field can come together to work for strong legislation that guarantees cleaner air and waters and soils. And of course, we should all shift towards much more conscious ways of eating.
That’s just a taste; but the list of creative initiatives is truly endless.
Is there a unique contribution of spirituality and religion to the environmental cause?
There is—not least in how we speak about this crucial issue. For example, when we use the term “environment”, sometimes we’re led to imagine that we’re referring to ‘a thing’ ‘out there’, surrounding us as if it was a sort of envelope external to us.
The Judeochristian tradition, however, rests on the declaration that what we call ‘nature’ or ‘the environment’ is in fact the living (and unfinished) work of a living and loving Source. In that sense, we do better of speaking of ‘the living world’, or of ‘the community of creation’ (to quote German theologian Jürgen Moltmann), or of our ‘common home’ (to borrow the wonderful term from Laudato Si’).
This shift in language becomes more concrete once we look at ourselves and realize that we’re around 70% water, for instance. And that no three minutes can go by without us taking a breath. In our urbanized supermarket world, we surely take these basic elements of life for granted. But without them, we die.
Not unlike other ancient spiritualities, biblical religion urges us to acknowledge that we are not only ‘part’ of nature, but that we are fundamentally beings-of-nature. Even if we are distinct, we’re not separate. We are embedded and grounded in this world; we are made of it and belong to it—very much what the narrator of the Book of Genesis recognized through the metaphor of us humans being made from the humus.
Isaiah, John the Seer, and other prophets envisioned a new heavens and a new earth. Should we care for nature today in light of such a promise?
Absolutely. It might not be evident now that we have our noses stuck to our mobile phones, but life on this side of death is a miracle. That in and of itself should prompt us to be in the forefront of protecting it and of resisting anything that stands against it.
But secondly, the promise of a new earth says nothing about sending this earth to the trash bin to then get a new one out of nothing. That’s hocus-pocus, consumerist thinking that’s 100% foreign to the authors of the Bible.
God is not a magician. The ‘new heavens and new earth’ language of the prophet Isaiah, which was picked up by John the writer of the Apocalypse, is poetic through and through; it’s about renewal, about healing, about liberation and cosmic ecstasy.
The promise of a world free from the clout of evil does not at all mean that we should back away from caring for this world. We must care for a hurting planet just as much as we care for an aging person or for a sick child. And what is more, people of faith should live by the recognition that humanity was commissioned to ‘serve’ and ‘preserve’ a garden/world that is not ours, following the call to ‘earthkeeping’ sketched poetically by the narrator of Genesis, chapter 2.
What are the most promising ways of responding to the ecological crisis?
It’s often said that those who want to save gasoline should raise their right foot. There is some truth to that, as individual actions do have a role to play.
However, if we focus primarily on what we can do as individuals, we ignore the larger powers at play. And we actually fall prey to the dominant myth that shapes our society today: the story that tell us that we are, at the core, ‘consumers’ and that the best thing we can do is to ‘vote with our dollar’.
But that’s outdated (and dangerous) thinking that keeps some of the deeper issues pretty much unresolved.
On a practical level, we need collective solutions backed up by our collective will—not all different from the abolitionist and civil-rights movements. These were themselves sustained by minorities of people of great faith who then both inspired and challenged the masses and the powerful to jump on board.
Thankfully, such movements have been emerging. And thankfully, too, more and more people of faith are being awakened to the realization that the cosmic vision of the bible begins with the Tree of Life planted in a garden, but ends with that same tree giving fruit in a city, watered by a pristine river in its middle.
So in these senses at least, White was not entirely right, because the Judeo-Christian faith is not only green—and blue—but very earthly as well.
Edwardo Sasso is the co-founder of Earthkeepers and the author of A Climate of Desire - a book reconsidering the original roots of Christianity to more fully enable us to respond to the challenges of climate change