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

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.

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