In light of some recent interest in biblical views of sustainability—for example, with the recent publication of The Green Bible —it seemed entirely appropriate to blog on the topic of Christian Faith and Sustainability. Below is the first half of a paper I presented last month at Chico State University at their annual sustainability conference.
Christian Faith and Sustainability: Friends or Foes?
If thy heart were right, then every creature would be a mirror of life, and a book of holy doctrine. There is no creature so small and abject, but it reflects the goodness of God.
The medieval Christian mystic, Thomas á Kempis
Reasons for this topic
Three images run through my mind and frame my thoughts on “Christian Faith and Sustainability: Friends or Foes?” First is my grandmother Elizabeth raising chickens in Tacoma, Washington during the Depression. There, in this simple instance, was sustainability—not self-conscious, but crafted from necessity: The chickens provided eggs while they were alive, they later provided meat when they were killed, and the bones could supply excellent chicken stock. And with very little carbon footprint!
I also remember my parents, Tom and Ruth, and their Yuban coffee cans—after the grounds were all percolated, these sturdy brown steel containers housed bacon grease, nuts and bolts, and sundry other items. They were hardly ever thrown away, at least until they were used and re-used multiple times. And that cycle sometimes implied amazing creativity. On one rainy day, the roof started leaking, and my father unrolled the can and patched the offending spot.
Finally, I imagine the faces of my two daughters, Melanie and Elizabeth—and wonder how they will be viewing you and I will and the way we have left this planet for them to inhabit. This topic is not distant and “academic” in the negative sense, but engaged and real for me. To be frank, I hope that the ideas imbedded in this paper will affect lives, change attitudes toward and within the Christian community, and ultimately transform behavior.
Next, I turn to two facts that embolden me as a pastor, or in some ways, a religious leader in this community. Calculated at probably the highest level possible, the percentage of Christians in the United States hovers somewhere around 80% (Wikipedia, for example, has 78.5%)—thus how leaders in Christian churches approach the topic of sustainability will prove to be central to facing the ecological issues we face. Admittedly, that represents this represents people who are more Christian in name than in belief and practice. I also know the limitations that I, as a pastor specifically, or the church more generally, has on even those 40% that regularly attend worship services. Nonetheless, if any religion will have a majority influence on United States citizens, it is Christianity. For that reason, there is the gauntlet that has often been thrown at the Christian Church; we are alleged to have caused most of the ecological problems that face our planet. Consider just one recent book, assigned this semester at Chico State course entitled, “World Religions and Global Issues.” In his book, Ecology and Religion, David Kinsley, offers this summary statement, “Contemporary discussions of ecological spirituality centers on Christianity’s possible role in the advent of the contemporary ecological crisis” (Kinsley, xx).
In light of these considerations, I pose then this question: Are Christian faith and sustainability friends or foes?
The topic of Christianity’s responsibility for ecological problems—or turned around, the Christian Church’s relationship with sustainability—still finds its epicenter in Lynn White’s famous article in Science, which still wears well after forty years, “The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis.” Among many partners in this dialogue—and in some ways, dispute—White remains worthy of attention. To his article, I will return in a moment.
On the way, I must make two clarifications: When I am addressing the topic of “Christian faith,” I will be focusing on Christianity as a system of belief and practice, which follows a line of scholarship that leads through such seminal scholars of religion as Robert Bellah, Huston Smith, and Clifford Geertz. This means that—in some contrast to White—I will center on Christianity as faith and less on Christianity as an historical religion. Secondly, I will offer a simple, provisional, working definition of sustainability: a way of life and practices that utilize natural resources by means that can endure, thereby providing for the welfare and ecological balance of the natural world.
The persistent challenge of Lynn White
Let me then return to the persistent challenge of Dr. Lynn White, professor of medieval history whose article first appeared in Science in 1967. This short, pity, and fascinating piece still continues to resonate to this day. (This fact is remarkable when one considers how much global ecological concerns have changed in these four decades.)
First of all, White makes excellent arguments and presents them in a much more subtle way than many summaries would indicate. In fact, he speaks from within the church, not as an outside critic. Nonetheless, he argues that, historically—and it is important to remember that White was a medieval historian, not a scientist nor scholar of religion—the Christian Church has been a significant player in Western in abusing our world’s ecology. He contends that Christianity set it self against and ultimately destroyed the animism present in paganism, and thereby “made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects” (White, 1206). The great historian, Arnold Toynbee, echoes this sentiment when he writes, “The salutary respect and awe with which man had originally regarded his environment was thus dispelled by Judaic monotheism in the versions of Israelite originators and of Christians and Muslims” (Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue, in Kinsley, 104).
Moreover, White particularly bases this contention on a reading of certain biblical texts, such as Genesis 1:26, that describes men and women as created in the “image of God” and calls for humankind to have “dominion” over the earth. This story comes in the very first chapter of the Hebrew Scriptures in its description of God creating the world and particularly making Adam and Eve:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after 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 earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
White concludes that “dominion” equals “domination” or “exploitation” and then combines with this argument—and this is critical and underappreciated move, in my opinion—that this element of thought in the Hebrew Bible led to the rise of modern science and technology and thus contributed to the “ecologic crisis,” to which sustainability seeks to respond. From the concept that “man” is “not simply part of nature; he is made in God’s image,” White concludes that Christianity “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” (White, 1206).
This latter point brings us to a critical weakness in his argument. White ties the ecological crisis with growth of science and technology itself based on Christian theology. Today, we often hear the criticism that the history of Christianity is the narrative of suppressing scientific insight. Usually, the prosecutors bring out the trial of Galileo and the Church’s reception of Darwin as Exhibits A and B. Scholarly research of the past few decades has proven these two pieces of evidence are hardly conclusive, but I will not pause there, except to note that the argument is problematic. (I have a brief discussion of this, and the proper relationship of science and theology in the first chapter of my book, Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science. Click here for link. It seems to me that the argument cannot go both ways. The history of Christianity is either largely for or against the development of science. In my opinion—and in agreement with White—Christian theology is the seedbed for the rise of modern science. This is not a new argument—Michael Foster, the Oxford philosopher first made it in 1934 and it has been echoed more recently by the U.C. Berkeley, Noble laureate physicist, Charles Towne. Nonetheless, misuse of our planet is not consistent with a properly constituted and elaborated theology. In other words, the history of Christianity does have within it the exploitative use of science and technology, but that is an infiltration of foreign thought and not integral to the core of Christian theology. It is worth noting the other threads of western history that have caused the degradation of our natural environment such as the rise of the Enlightenment and its propagators such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton. In addition, White does not note the growth of consumerism after World War II—as an alternative to spiritual life—whose consumption of resources has greatly inflamed the ecological problem.