Religion and Environment

The Role of Religion in Identifying, Understanding, and Solving the Environmental Predicament

1.       Is our eco-predicament a crisis of spirituality? Does it reflect a spiritual disconnect between human and nonhuman nature?

2.       Religion as cause: Is our eco-predicament significantly caused by religious world views?

          a.       Lynn White, in "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis," claims that Christianity is responsible:

                    i.        "Orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature" is a root cause of environmental problems: "Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt" and that "Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. "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."

          b.       Secular “religion” of “progress” as cause?

                    i.        The belief that salvation lies in greater economic growth, consumption and the continued manipulation and control of nature.

3.       Religion as solution: Can spiritual and religious means significantly help get us out of our eco-predicament?

          a.       Lynn White:

                    i.        “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny--that is, by religion.

          b.       If the roots of the ecocrisis are in the secular religion of progress, then religion is particularly well suited to play its traditional role of combating materialism in its many forms.

          c.       What are alternatives to religious solutions to environmental problems?

4.       Religion's Power: Our spiritual side extremely potent: Directed toward environmental issues it can galvanize apathetic public and marshal tremendous energy.

          a.       See Spirit and Nature

          b.       See Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation”

          c.       See Evangelical Environmental Network:

Four Religious views concerning the Earth

1.       Human Dominion Over the Earth: The Conqueror/Domination View

          a.       The former Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, John Cardinal O'Connor, said on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day (a modern example of Lynn White's thesis?):

                    i.        "The earth exists for the human person and not vice versa." Rather than focus on "snails and whales", Earth Day should focus on "the sacredness of the human person." He was worried that the rising ecological consciousness represented by Earth Day relegated humans to a subsidiary rather than the central role on earth. Earth day is a day to ''express our gratitude to God the Creator'' for the world ''he has given us for our use, not abuse.'' ''I do not think the total number of people in the world is an ecological and environmental problem.''

          b.       The often cited biblical passages:

                    i.        After God made the earth and nonhuman living beings, God made man and woman and told them to "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

                    ii.       Add to this that "God created man in his own image" and the idea that only humans are made in God's image and thus that the rest of creation is devoid of spirit. (Genesis 1: 20-31)

          c.       God gave humans a license to dominate the earth. Human dominion means a grant of supreme authority over and absolute ownership of the earth.

          d.       Humans as godly, sacred, spiritual beings in a world of spiritless and profane resources that are our God-given property.

          e.       Extreme anthropocentrism: God made the earth, all plants and animals for man; God planned it for our benefit--nothing in physical creation has any other purpose/use than to serve man.

                    i.        “It’s okay to eat and hunt animals because God gave them to man for food”

          f.       Lynn White’s interpretation of the dominant Christian attitude toward nature which he thinks has deeply influence our society


2.       Anthropocentric Stewardship of the Earth

          a.       Humans are not property owners of the earth, but rather we are stewards of something that still belongs to God.

          b.       Caretakers of God's property, stewards who manage the affairs of an absentee landlord.

          c.       We must treat earth with care: Caretaker may use the land/property he looks out for, but should not abuse or diminish it.

          d.       Environmentally friendly implications of Stewardship:

                    i.        Without clear instructions that this is God's desire, we should not extirpate life forms that belong to God, heavily impact and rearrange God's property, and replace God's creations with our human artifacts.

          e.       Problems with Stewardship:

                    i.        Does it sufficiently avoid human chauvinism and self-glorification?

                    ii.        Consider the words of one representative of this tradition:

                              (1)     “Only humans, according to traditional Christian doctrine, have the potential to serve as the image of God and to exercise dominion in creation. Despite historical misinterpretations and abuse, these concepts recognize a basic biological fact: humans alone have evolved peculiar rational, moral and therefore, creative capacities that enable us alone to serve as responsible representatives of God's interests and values, to function as protectors of the ecosphere.” James A. Nash, Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility, 1991.

                    iii.      The suggestion that the earth needs humans to protect it or that humans are up to the task, once again puts humans up on a pedestal where they do not belong.

                    iv.      Instead of property owners of creation, the stewardship view understands humans as planetary managers.

                              (1)     But both humans' ability to manage the planet and the desirability of humans managing it are open to question.

3.       Recent Christian Ecotheology: Wendell Berry's view of the Earth (in “Christianity and the Survival of Creation”)

          a.       Rejects the earth as property idea entirely

          b.       All in creation as God's creatures, loved and cherished equally by God.

                    i.        The earth is a "communion of subjects, rather than a collection of objects."

          c.       Critical of Traditional Christianity's approach to nature

                    i.        Christianity "stands by while a predatory economy ravages the world," destroying its natural beauty and health and plundering it human communities and households in the process. Contemporary Christianity conspire in the industrial economy's "murder of creation."

          d.       Champions "true Biblical instruction"

          e.       Immanence of the holy: The creation is not independent of the creator and that all creatures (not just humans) constantly participate in the being of God.

                    i.        The creation, he says, is "God's presence in things." This, he thinks, explains "why subduing the things of nature to human purposes is so dangerous and why it so often results in evil, in separation and desecration."

                    ii.       Our nature and culture destroying economy could not exist without denying the spirit, truth, and holiness of nonhuman creation.

          f.       Importance of rejecting sacred versus profane dualisms that restrict preciousness to the sacred side and devalues the secular side opening it to reckless exploitation.

                    i.        Spirit/nature, soul/body, human/nonhuman, church/life outside of church, worship/work, and religion/economy.

                    ii.       Berry's rejects these dualism. Nature has spiritual value; the body is not lowly and despicable; nonhumans are precious as are humans; and ordinary life and work should be treated as having religious dimensions.

          g.       We are holy creatures--all of us--in a holy world.

          h.       Our destruction of nature is not just shirking our responsibilities to fellow humans, not just bad stewardship, but a blasphemy against God. We are throwing God's gifts back in God's face. We are suggesting that our creations, human artifacts, are preferable to God's creation.

4.       Ecospirituality: Spiritual Earth Paganism

          a.       Not Judeo-Christian because it does not search for a transcendent ground to the religious significance of this world.

          b.       Not atheistic for it locates religious and spiritual significance in the earth.

          c.       Earth is a holy place: if there is anything sacred, anything that is worthy of reverence and devotion, it is this miraculous earthen community of life processes.

          d.       Strongly anti-humanistic--not in the sense that it is anti-human--but steadfast opposition to the anthropocentrism that sees humans as of ultimate significance and that thinks human life has meaning apart from its context as one expression of the earth's creative energies.

          e.       A thoroughly immanent conception of the holy: Salvation is to be found in an altered understanding of and relationship to this earth, not in getting in touch with or finding a way to attain something beyond this world.

          f.       Naturalistic in the sense that it accepts that nature is all that is: But the nature it accepts is sacred precious nature


          g.       Defense of Ecospirituality

                    i.        Religious attitudes are properly directed at the earth: This earth is an awesome, magnificent, and wonderful place that should elicit our love, our thanks, our support, and our humility. We should cherish the earth, and have reverence for life on it. Awe at creation; seeing the earth as majestic; loving the earth intensely; being thankful for it's existence; committing oneself to defending and fighting for the earth. Nature makes one feel small, overcomes tendency to take ourselves so seriously, engenders humility and undercuts human arrogance/hubris.

                    ii.       The earth is our creator: it brought us and all other life forms into existence. The earth's life processes--evolution, speciation, natural selection--are causally responsible for who we are. Humans are "earthlings." Thus the earth warrants a profound parental respect and honor. Profound because this parent is four and one-half billion years old and has begot not just you and me or our kind, but every kind of being on the planet. The earth has a justified claim to deference, inviolatable respect, and ceremonial acknowledgment, if anything does. It produced us and continues to be our home.

                    iii.      The earth and it's natural processes as miraculous:

                              (1)     As Wendell Berry says:

                                         (a)     “Outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine--which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

                    iv.      It is a mistake to think true religious attitudes are only properly directed at an intentional agent.

                              (1)     Love and thankfulness for example can be directed at an unplanned and accidental event.