Introduction: Beyond Lynn White, Jr.

In 1967, a brief but influential article by Lynn White, Jr. appeared in the magazine, Science.  Entitled, "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis," the essay would prove to be a watershed in religious thought regarding the environment.  White argued that in order to successfully address the emerging environmental crises, humans must first examine and critique their attitudes toward nature.  Ultimately, the essay concluded, our attitudes toward nature are rooted in our religious beliefs.  As White expressed his conviction,  "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."[1]

In his analysis, White noted that the human capacity to wreak damage and destruction upon the environment grows out of Western technological and scientific advances made since the Medieval period.  These advances have occurred in a social context informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition.  White focuses his analysis on Western Christianity, understood as both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism together. He asserts that this Western Christianity is "the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen".  This overemphasis on anthropocentrism gives humans permission to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the integrity of natural objects.  White argued that within Christian theology, "nature has no reason for existence save to serve [humans]."  Thus, for White, Christian arrogance towards nature "bears a huge burden of guilt" for the contemporary environmental crisis.

Needless to say, White's thesis touched off a firestorm of controversy.  While White has had his defenders, many Christians -- including former Vice President Al Gore in his book, Earth in the Balance -- have argued that White has missed the theological point contained in the creation stories of Genesis, where nature is depicted positively.  Yet, for many other Christians, White's thesis clearly struck an important chord. Many members of the Church - even before publication of White's article - were struggling with the contradictions they saw between the doctrines of their tradition and the ecological consequences issuing from lifestyles based on these doctrines. The gradual evolution of an ecological consciousness within the Church caused many to begin questioning traditional interpretations of scripture. Today, the nature of God, God's relationship to the world, humanity's place in the earth's complex and fragile life system, and the notion of the salvation of the world and not just of humans are a few of the issues open for re-examination and reinterpretation.

As with most controversies, the truth about the Western Christian influence on attitudes toward nature appears to lie somewhere in the middle of the two extreme positions.  On the one hand, human stewardship of creation is a central theme in the Genesis stories of creation.  At the end of Genesis 1, the writer concludes, "God saw everything that had been made and indeed, it was very good." (Gen 1:31)  This scripture also describes a special relationship that God has with humans through the imago dei, the doctrine that women and men are created in the image of God.  For centuries, many Christians have taken a positive view of nature, and the special relationship that humans have with God, to mean that humans are called to be wise stewards, or caretakers, of the Earth.

On the other hand, Genesis could be interpreted as providing a justification for exploitation of nature, without regard for the consequences of that exploitation.  In Genesis, when God considers the creation of humans, God says, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." (Gen 1:26) White points explicitly to this “monarchy” of humanity over the rest of creation as the culprit for a Christian attitude that denigrates the importance of nature.  This human monarchy over the rest of creation seems implied in the Christian doctrine of the imago dei, humans created in the image of God.

In order to fully appreciate the Lynn White thesis, we must also note that White takes a very nuanced view of Christian theology.  His point is not that Christianity inevitably leads to an arrogant disregard towards nature.  In fact, he points to Saint Francis of Assisi, and the Orthodox traditions of Eastern Christianity, as being environmental-friendly expressions of the Christian faith.  Rather, he argues that historically Protestantism and Catholicism have permitted a blatant disregard for the environment.  On this observation, White was at least partially correct. 

By surveying the somewhat new, though burgeoning, literature of religious environmental ethics and theology (ecotheology), this essay will examine a wide range of theological perspectives and ecological issues.  While all valid responses to ecological challenges will be grounded in some religious and philosophical worldview, there must also be dialogue with the natural and social sciences, including, but not limited to, conservation and evolutionary biology, sociology, economics, ecology, physics, anthropology, and political science. From this dialogical, interdisciplinary, and dialectical approach, ecological issues will be resolved by moving from the concrete and particular to the more theoretical and universal, and then back again.  Thus, the dialogue between science and religion is very critical for thoughtful approaches to our ecological challenges.

We hope that this essay will provide a helpful summary of what has been written thus far in religious environmental ethics and ecotheology.  At the same time, we also hope that this essay will provide the foundation for a fuller dialogue between religion and science that leads us towards a more just, benign, and compassionate relationship with the natural world - and with one another.

H. Paul Santmire's The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology

Santmire's primary intent in this work is to assess the widely varying attitudes toward nature found in Christian theology's long history. Santmire’s goal is to "understand the travail of nature in Western Christian thought. . . To comprehend the ambiguous ecological promise of Christian theology." Santmire stresses this ambiguity by claiming that "Christian thought is both promising and not promising for those who are seeking to find solid traditional foundations for a new theology of nature. Which historical tendencies within the tradition are promising and which are not, moreover, is by no means self-evident." Regardless of Santmire's own rightful reluctance, Lynn White, Jr. himself had the following to say of Santmire's book: "Anyone, agnostic or religious, who wants to understand public attitudes toward ecology and how the very considerable force of religion in America may continue to shape them will enjoy and profit by this unusual book."

In his survey of the Christian tradition and its diverse attitudes towards nature, Santmire examines the thought of a number of key Christian theologians, including Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Dante, St. Francis of Assisi, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Teilhard de Chardin.   As a result of his analysis, Santmire identifies two opposing theological motifs that are interwoven like brightly colored thread through the historical tapestry of Christian thought.  He describes these two motifs as the "spiritual motif" and the "ecological motif."  These two motifs themselves arise out of what Santmire calls three “root metaphors”:  1) the metaphor of "ascent," 2) the metaphor of "fecundity," and 3) the metaphor of "migration to a good land."  For Santmire, root metaphors "arise from the hidden imaginative background of all theological thinking and then remain influential at the discursive level of analysis and self-conscious argument."[2]These metaphors thus form the unspoken assumptions and beliefs structuring the ecological and spiritual theological motifs. 

According to Santmire, the spiritual motif expresses a religious worldview that, if not outright hostile to the natural world, is at the very least unconcerned with its state of existence. This motif is "predicated on a vision of the human spirit rising above nature in order to ascend to a supramundane communion with God . . ."[3] Characteristic of this motif is the belief that God is a being separate from – or transcendent to – the world, who chooses to intervene in its affairs at will. Furthermore, this motif expresses a fundamental theological bias towards only those beings considered rational, spiritual, or moral.  This bias thus excludes nonhuman life and the material world from its purview of concern. Santmire quotes a well-known phrase from Augustine's Soliloquies as a basic expression of this motif: "I desire to have knowledge of God and the soul. Of nothing else? No, of nothing else whatsoever."[4] Ultimately, nature is affirmed as a "good" only in its ability to embody spirit, which is the final measure and end of all theological inquiry for the spiritual motif.

In contrast to the spiritual motif, the ecological motif expresses "the human spirit's rootedness in the world of nature and on the desire of self-consciously embodied selves to celebrate God's presence in, with, and under the whole biophysical order . . ."[5]Thus, unlike the spiritual motif's emphasis on God as a being separate from humanity and the natural world, the ecological motif stresses the immanence of God as the power of life itself, which is a presence in nature, humanity, and the rest of the cosmos. As Santmire states, the term "ecological" in ecological motif is meant to express the systemic interrelationships between God, humanity, and the natural world. The key modern theological exponent of such an understanding is Paul Tillich, who, in speaking symbolically, posits God as the creative ground of being and the self-transcendent source of life's meaning.[6]In the end, the ecological motif shows that our religious worldviews and conceptions of God have major impacts on our relationships not only with other humans, but with the natural world as well. In other words, to think hierarchically with God perceived as above us means acting hierarchically with nature perceived as below us.

As already noted above, the spiritual and ecological motifs arise out of three root metaphors that form the foundational assumptions and beliefs for the motifs.  According to Santmire, two of these metaphors - the metaphors of ascent and fecundity - seem to depend on a primary experience in human history, which he calls the "experience of the overwhelming mountain." The third metaphor, of migration to a good land, Santmire claims is not so universal, but is chiefly expressed in the history of Hebraic and post-Hebraic peoples.

Using the archetypal image of an "overwhelming mountain," Santmire asserts the metaphor of ascent as the metaphor that is most inherently anti-ecological.  The goal in this metaphor is to rise above the earthly world toward the ethereal, supernatural realm of pure spirit. It is when the metaphor of ascent is continuously manifested in Western theology that it forms the spiritual motif. Key theological exemplars of this metaphor are Gnosticism, the early Augustine, Origen, Dante, and Aquinas. The metaphor of fecundity also arises from an experience of the overwhelming mountain, but this metaphor is inherently ecological.  Someone may indeed seek greater religious consciousness and communion with the divine through ascent of the mountain, but when this consciousness is informed also by the metaphor of fecundity it becomes part of the ecological motif. St. Francis is one illustration of someone ascending the mountain in order to look back through glorious vistas at the precious gifts of earthly life: "[H]e climbed the holy mountain of God and then turned back to embrace in joy and love the whole material world below."[7] In the end, the distinction between the metaphors of ascent and fecundity centers on where one's gaze is fixed.  In the ascent metaphor, it is upwards toward the landless, nonmaterial realm of spirit.  Whereas in the fecundity metaphor, it is from such heights that one surveys all directions, seeing one's own soul in every dimension of the material world below.

 Santmire sees the metaphors of fecundity and migration to a good land as often clustering to form the ecological motif. As we saw, the metaphor of fecundity infuses one's awareness with life's beauty, wonder, and awe, causing one not to seek to rise above or leave the land, but rather, to commune with it in new ways. Similarly, the metaphor of migration to a good land is always rooted in an individual's or community's identity with a particular land experience. Santmire uses the Hebrew people and God's promise to them of deliverance as a primary expression of this metaphor. Out of this example, he stresses this metaphor's theological importance: "In this context . . .to be removed from the land is finally to have no identity whatsoever: to be no one."[8] In this metaphor, one's life in general, and spiritual life in particular, is always necessarily rooted in a primary experience of the nonhuman world. Thus, unlike the metaphor of ascent, in this metaphor one's spiritual experience will be "located not apart from nature, but in the midst of nature, surrounded by the creatures of the earth." However inherently ecological this metaphor may seem, Santmire does point out that what is crucial is the ethical relationship to the land one chooses to embrace, for, as we know, there are many.

Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, Jr.'s The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community

"Science teaches us to doubt and in ignorance to refrain" - Claude Bernard

Liberation of Life is a unique book. Its combined philosophical breadth, scientific rigor and specificity, and interdisciplinary scholarship make it one of the very few works to successfully weave together a micro and macro explanation of life's complexity and interrelatedness. In an outward movement from the biological to the social, Birch and Cobb attend to molecular ecology and then move slowly towards wider issues of sustainable economics as well as social and environmental justice. Here, they examine a diverse spectrum of topics, including modern technology and its accompanying myth of "progress," the nature and relations of market and socialist economies, sustainable agriculture, animal rights, genetic engineering, and sustainable energy production. Whether attending to the micro or macro dimensions of existence, their explicit goal is to liberate the concept and reality of life at the molecular, individual, and population levels. Writing from a Christian perspective, biologist Birch tries to show how a better understanding of life's scientific basis can release us from the bonds of outdated and untenable scientific theories concerning life itself.  Philosopher and theologian Cobb tries to show how new ecological conceptions of life, that are suggested by current scientific research, both support and expand scientific and religious views of life, which have been impeded by mechanistic science and dualistic religion.

As the title implies, the book's purpose is to help liberate – or reinterpret – the concept of life in all of its dimensions. The authors outline their thesis by calling for a two-fold liberation of life:

There is the liberation of the conception of life from its objectifying character right through from cell to human community, for the concept of life itself is in a bondage fashioned by interpreters of life ever since biology and allied sciences began. Secondly, there is the liberation of social structures and human behaviour such as will involve a shift from manipulation and management of living creatures, human and non-human alike, to respect for life in its fullness.[9]

Thus, the authors are not merely concerned with the theoretical consequences of shifting assumed paradigms of life in the sciences and religion, they are also concerned with practical ethical outcomes from such shifts. In other words, to liberate the concept of life in the sciences and religion theoretically is to liberate ourselves from current paradigms that impede the flourishing of life in actuality. For this reason, the book concludes with the ethical considerations of economic, ecological, and social justice as they relate to worldviews conditioned by various conceptions of life.

In seeking to scientifically support and philosophically promote what they call an "ecological model of life," Birch and Cobb specifically challenge what they see as the three principal contending models of life: the mechanistic, the vitalistic, and the emergent evolution models. Their redefinition of life is ultimately aimed at widening our conceptions of what we consider "alive." Although the mechanistic model is most antithetical to their proposal for an  ecological model, they do affirm its value in describing structures or elements that exist in relative independence from their environment, such as, inorganic stones or metals. However, as a method for understanding and explaining the full multidimensionality of life, the mechanistic model is limited by its most fundamental premise that organisms and their constitutive parts are essentially just composites of atoms, molecules, and other elements. As such, the mechanistic model tries to explain living organisms through reductionism, breaking down the totality of entities into simple chemical and biological reactions. Accordingly, organic life is seen by analogy as a machine, only a more complex one. The scientific and philosophic determinism inherent in this view excludes any concern for non-human forms of life from the scope of ethical consideration.  Unlike the modicum of freedom that humans seem to possess, this model sees animals and other non-human life forms as completely bound by the stimulus-response reactions that condition their existence. In short, they are viewed as inferior machines in the hierarchy of life - a view first propounded by René Descartes.

Not surprisingly, this model poses clear and difficult problems for those who believe that life should be explained in more rich and complex terms.  But, as Cobb and Birch point out, the alternative models of vitalism and emergent evolution are often no more illuminating than the mechanistic one they seek to challenge and replace.  Since they want to undermine the reductionism of the mechanistic model, "vitalists have been those who . . . asserted that the living organism consists of physical atoms and molecules plus another entity of a totally different nature variously called vital spirit, life force, élan vital and entelechy."[10]In other words, while vitalism essentially upholds the view that living beings are composed partly of atoms and molecules which operate mechanistically, it tries to transcend a mere physical explanation of life by attributing an additional life quality to living beings that inorganic entities lack.

In the early 1900s, Lloyd Morgan attempted to go beyond both mechanism and vitalism in his book Emergent Evolution. Morgan argued that several miraculous events were spawned in the course of evolution:  the two most important miracles were the emergence of life and mind. In contrast to both mechanism and vitalism, Morgan's emergent evolution theory posited life as inherently unexplainable.

In developing their ecological model, Birch and Cobb are concerned primarily with the fact that vitalism and the emergent evolution models merely point out mechanism's limited ability to explain life adequately.  The two alternatives do little to offer any further scientific basis for life's constitution. Basing their model on recent advances in sciences, such as quantum physics and ecology, Birch and Cobb argue that living things can only be properly understood and explained in the context of their interactions with all the organic and inorganic entities that constitute their environment. In this way, we come to see that in the molecular and ecological dimensions of life there is a fundamental interconnectedness that conditions the personal, physical nature of the individual, as well as the communal nature of relationships between individuals. From Cobb and Birch's perspective, to explain the life of an organism or population without attending to this principle of interconnectedness misunderstands the true nature of life itself.

Calvin DeWitt and the Evangelical Approach to Environmental Ethics

Calvin DeWitt represents one of the best, most thoughtful evangelical Christian perspectives on environmental ethics.  This perspective emphasizes the primacy of scripture as formative for Christian environmental ethics.  Yet, DeWitt is also a serious environmental scientist, with a unique ability to bridge the gap between religion and science.  DeWitt's emphasis on the physical and chemical provisions of life exemplify his commitment to a vibrant science and religion dialogue that includes both biblical wisdom and also the discoveries of modern science.

DeWitt bases his environmental ethics on the understanding of God as ultimate provider and caregiver.  The fundamental understanding of humans is the imago dei; that is, humans are created "in the image" of God (imago Dei).  DeWitt sees the proper human stance toward the natural world as one of deep stewardship and respect for all that is given to us. In his book, Earthwise, DeWitt lays out what he sees as the seven primary provisions of creation that we should recognize: energy exchange, soil building, carbon and hydrological cycling, water purification, creative fruitfulness, global circulations of water and air, and the human ability to learn from creation.[11]On the other side of these primary provisions of creation, DeWitt identifies seven degradations of creation, which arise from human failure to respect and uphold the integrity of creation: land conversion and habitat destruction, species extinctions, land abuse, resource conversion and wastes and hazards production, global toxification, alteration of planetary energy exchange, and human and cultural abuse.[12] According to DeWitt, "all of the above degradations are contrary to biblical teaching. While we are expected to enjoy the creation and its fruitfulness, we humans are not granted license to destroy the earth. While human beings are expected to be fruitful, so is the rest of creation: 'Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky. . .be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth' (Genesis 1:20, 22)."[13]  Perhaps DeWitt's most pragmatic, and so easily overlooked, insight for us today is that “all the things we use, all the things we make, everything we manipulate, everything we accumulate, derives from the creation itself. If we learn to seek godly contentment as our great gain, we will take and shape less of God's earth. We will demand less from the land. We will leave room for the other creatures.”[14]

Thomas Berry on the Mythical-Cosmological Dimension of Environmental Ethics

To construct his environmental vision, Thomas Berry draws from multiple sources, including history, cosmologyR, “ecopsychology” and ecotheology.  His somewhat unique approach utilizes the pre-rational, mythical wisdom of humanity to show how current environmental problems occur precisely through losing contact with this human dimension. In line with his thesis, Berry claims that "we need not a human answer to an earth problem, but an earth answer to an earth problem. The earth will solve its problems, and possibly our own, if we will let the earth function in its own ways. We need only listen to what the earth is telling us."[15]For this hearing to occur, humanity needs a better story by which to live: "We need a story that will educate us, a story that will heal, guide, and discipline us."[16] In the story that Berry proposes we need to imagine ourselves less as "a being on the earth or in the universe than a dimension of the earth and indeed of the universe itself."[17] 

Berry is clearly a creation-oriented thinker, emphasizing the miracle of life's existence and the uniqueness of humanity, rather than humanity's fallen nature and need for redemption. However, this does not mean that Berry fails to recognize and challenge the ways in which humans wrongly use their unique gifts of intellect, self-consciousness, and “directed will” to alienate themselves from other humans and the natural world. This estrangement – stated more traditionally as “sin” – grows out of two flawed myths:  the religious myth of a transcendental redemption from earth and the secular myth of ultimate fulfillment on earth through increased technology and rationality, which he names the “industrial myth”.  The irony of the industrial myth is that regardless of how rampantly it lays waste to the earth and alienates us from each other and the natural world, it still maintains its hegemony over us.  Berry likens this to a drug or alcohol addiction:

Even when the consequences of a desolate planet are totally clear, the industrial order keeps its control over human activities because of the energy generated by the mythic quality of its vision. We could describe our industrial society as counterproductive, addictive, paralyzing, [a] manifestation of a deep cultural pathology. Mythic addiction functions something like alcohol and drug addictions. Even when they are obviously destroying the addicted person, the psychic fixation does not permit any change. . . Any effective cure requires passing through the agonies of withdrawal. If such withdrawal is an exceptional achievement in individual lives, we can only guess at the difficulty on the civilizational or even the global scale.[18]

Since the root of ecological problems are themselves largely mythic, its resolution will naturally stem from the ascendance of a new myth.  Thus, Berry concurs with Lynn White, Jr.'s thesis that the answers to ecological problems will come largely from within religion – whether one wants to call it that or not – because ecological problems arise from particular religious worldviews, which are themselves constructed of particular myths. 

Berry proposes a "mystique of the land" to counteract the industrial mystique and calls for three central commitments to achieve this: commitment to the earth as irreversible process, to the ecological age as the only viable form of the millennial ideal, and to a sense of progress that includes the natural as well as the human world.[19] That is, Berry’s “”mystique of the land” focuses pointedly on the need for immanent healing of the earth and our relationships with it. 

Of course, it is one thing to recognize a problem and propose a solution; it is quite another feat to provide the knowledge and impetus necessary for its realization. And, therein lies the most difficult part of Berry's proposals:  How can we gain access to the archetypal symbols and energies necessary for healing ourselves and the world – especially when it is precisely their nature to remain beyond our conscious control and willfulness?  Berry’s response is that we can only recognize our needs and remain open them, just as we only need listen to what the earth is telling us. At this stage of our evolution, with the industrial myth so entrenched in the collective consciousness, can such a task even be understood, let alone embraced? Time will tell.

[1] Lynn White, Jr., "The historical roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," Science Vol 155, pp. 1203-1207 (10 March 1967).

[2] Santmire, 15.

[3]  Santmire, H. Paul, The Travail of Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 9.

[4] Augustine Soliloquies 1.2.7.

[5] Santmire, 9.

[6] Interestingly, even though Tillich's conception of God is the most consonant with the ecological motif of all the theologians Santmire considers, he excludes Tillich from his book. In a footnote toward the end of the book, Santmire explains his reason for this exclusion by claiming that "Tillich writes self-consciously 'on the boundary' of classical Christian thought. This is indicated most dramatically, perhaps, by his 'hyper-personalism,' his refusal to think of God in personal terms. He asserts that the personal is rooted in God, not that God is personal" (p. 252). As Santmire notes, this places Tillich's thought outside of the ecological dilemma that traditional Christian thought finds itself in, namely, the confession that a personal, highest being called God is master of all of impersonal nature. Santmire, nonetheless, makes the following observation: "Some critics of the Christian tradition would perhaps maintain that the only way for Christians to have both God and nature is to follow Tillich's path. That may be. But that is moving outside of the classical theological tradition, as we know it in the West" (Ibid.). Thus, Santmire neglects Tillich in this work, even while acknowledging his significance. For a sustained discussion of the relevance of Tillich's thought for environmental ethics, see Jeremy Yunt, "Reverencing Life in its Multidimensionality: Implications in the Thought of Paul Tillich for a Deep Environmental Ethic," unpublished Master's thesis, Pacific School of Religion (Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA), 1999.

[7] Jeremy Yunt, "Reverencing Life in its Multidimensionality: Implications in the Thought of Paul Tillich for a Deep Environmental Ethic," unpublished Master's thesis, Pacific School of Religion (Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA), 1999, 22.

[8] Jeremy Yunt, "Reverencing Life in its Multidimensionality: Implications in the Thought of Paul Tillich for a Deep Environmental Ethic," unpublished Master's thesis, Pacific School of Religion (Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA), 1999, 26.

[9] Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, Jr., The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community (Denton, TX: Environmental Ethics Books, 1990), 2.

[10] Ibid., 75. Emphases added.

[11] Calvin Dewitt, Earthwise (Grand Rapids, Michigan: CRC Publications, 1994), pp. 14-24.

[12] Calvin Dewitt, Earthwise (Grand Rapids, Michigan: CRC Publications, 1994), 30-35.

[13] Calvin Dewitt, Earthwise (Grand Rapids, Michigan: CRC Publications, 1994), 36.

[14] Calvin Dewitt, Earthwise (Grand Rapids, Michigan: CRC Publications, 1994), 45.

[15] Thomas Berry, Creative Energy: Bearing Witness for the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 19.

[16] Thomas Berry, Creative Energy: Bearing Witness for the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 22.

[17] Thomas Berry, Creative Energy: Bearing Witness for the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 46.

[18] Thomas Berry, Creative Energy: Bearing Witness for the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 13-14.

[19] Thomas Berry, Creative Energy: Bearing Witness for the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 16.