Part two: Alternative Christian visions of the natural world
In response to Lynn White’s contentions—and many others who follow him—it's critical to remember that he was no biblical scholar nor historian of Christian doctrine. Herein lies the seeds of his mistakes and of rehabilitating the relation of Christian faith and sustainability.
White could have pursued this more deeply in the biblical and theological traditions. First of all, the notorious texts that speak of dominion—particularly Genesis 1:28—have a much richer and subtle meaning. “Dominion” (from the Hebrew kibbes) is closely related to stewardship, to the concept that the people of Israel were to act as God’s viceroy on earth, to “bear his image” as Genesis 1:27 says. This is language of the ancient near eastern kings who set up their image to demonstrate the boundaries of their territory and how it was governed. The critical exemplum for dominion in the history of Israel was the king, who was judged, according to the tradition of the mercy code in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), by his concern for the least, always exemplified in the “widow and the orphan.” In sum then, stewardship is care, not domination. For this reason, a statement D.T. Suzuki’s represents a serious misrepresentation of the biblical traditions, but provides a notable example of the academic caricature of this passage: “The Nature-Man dichotomy issues, as I think, from the Biblical account in which the creator is said to have given mankind the power to dominate over all creation” (“The Role of Nature in Zen Buddhism, Eranos-Jahrbuch 22 : 292). Human part of nature but also bear a distinct privilege in their power and ability to affect the natural world—I take this to be reasonably self-evident—but what are we to do with this capacity? The biblical traditions call us back to careful stewardship of creation.
White does note the life of Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), who lived in much greater harmony with the natural world. Francis wrote one of the earliest poems in the Italian language called the “Canticle of the Sun.”
Be praised, my Lord, with all your creatures,
Especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who brings the day, and you give light to us through him.
How handsome he is, how radiant, with great splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon and the Stars.
In heaven you have formed them, bright, and precious, and beautiful.
Notice two things with this poem: First of all, Francis spoke of a level of similarity and symmetry with the created world, naming the sun his “brother” and the moon and stars, his “sister.” Secondly—and at the same time—he retained the image of God language that much later became notorious as an exemplum for why men and women have exploited nature, using the tradition language that humankind bears God’s “likeness.”
It is also accurate that the biblical traditions talk of humankind as just one component of creation—miniscule in relation of God’s perspective. The eighth Psalm poses this insight in a question of wonder:
When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers,
What is man that you are mindful of him?”
White is probably presenting Francis as the exception that proves the rule, but that argument has to strain out a considerable amount of Jewish and Christian history, the thousand year traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures itself notwithstanding.
In the history of Christian faith, Francis of Assisi is an excellent model, especially in his resplendent praise and appreciation for creation. Another, less obvious choice, remains John Calvin (1509-64) and the subsequent Calvinist tradition generally, which has always highlighted the call to Christian simplicity, which focuses on a life without ostentation, and which (to quote the Girl Scouts) instructs its followers to “use our resources wisely.” It is the tradition in which I, as a Presbyterian, stand. In a broader sense, it is the tradition, as descendents of the Puritan strain in American life, that my parents and my grandmother, whom I noted above, are largely unconscious heirs. In light of the current domination of market forces, this represents a stunning counter-consumerist move—when followed—that counteracts the exploitation of the earth. It does also offer a critique to much of the practices that have often characterized the history of the Christian Church, when we have forgotten the traditions of the Scriptures, of Francis, of Calvin, and of many others.
There are numerous other contemporary examples. I will simply mention the North American theologian, Douglas John Hall, who speaks of imperial Christianity:
Under the conditions of imperial Christianity, it was not stewardship but lordliness that appealed to the mentality of the church’s policy makers. Thus, historic Christianity has seemed either to ignore and escape from the world, or else wish to possess it. (The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age, 82)
(Here I am reminded of Descartes’ notorious phrase that we are “masters and possessors of nature.”) Hall continues his analysis and reclaiming of the concept of human stewardship: it means that we must take in action role in tending creation and abandon “forms of religion that denigrate the natural world, that view the world as primarily a cache of resources to be exploited for human ends” (ibid.). In other words, strong biblical theology and faithful Christian practice lead us to care for the earth as stewards, not exploit it as consumers. Obviously, my arguments here find strong resonance with those of Hall.
Forward is the only way to go
With the exception of Hall, all those positive ideas—and the negative examples in Christian history—represent what is the past. And what lies ahead of us—with shrinking ice caps and decreasing rain forests, with increasing acid rains and diminishing species—is what Christians can do now. The first step I advocate is to reclaim a vibrant theological term, repentance. The Christian community must admit its guilt in the current ecological problems. We must turn around from our ecologically negative practices. We must repudiate our thralldom to the gods of consumerism and return to lives of proper simplicity and stewardship of nature.
Next, I believe we must move toward grass roots stewardship at the individual and congregational level. Congregationally, I have looked toward other Presbyterian churches and even our denominational structures, and have met with a team to engage with issues of sustainability and ecological stewardship at Bidwell Presbyterian Church. From the more conservative side of the Christian ledger a notable document has emerged recently, “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action.” It makes four claims: 1) Human-induced climate change is real, 2) The consequences of climate change will be significant, and will hit the poor the hardest, 3) Christian moral convictions demand our response to the climate change problem, and 4) The need to act now is urgent. Governments, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change starting now. As the prominent evangelical pastor, Ric Warren, writes in this document:
Life is all about stewardship. It all belongs to God—he just loans it to us for a short period of time. The first command God gave to man was to take care of the Earth, which includes managing and protecting the environment.
Even more individually, we are called to reuse, to limit our consumption of resources, and to be very specific and hit home, to bring with us reusable containers, to turn down thermostats, to turn up air conditioners, to lobby our politicians, to ride our bikes, and to walk. I heard a survey a few years ago that stated most Chico State students, who live within a mile of campus, drive to school! I also believe we are called to take this on, as we are today, in secular academic institutions and in theological institutions, where courses on ecology and theology, though a bit of a cottage industry, must form a component of academic discourse and ministerial formation.
I do not know entirely what will motivate the Church toward appropriate actions or whether the call to a sustainable life will ultimately take root. Though I must admit that I have a long way to go to stewarding well the resources of this planet, I know that as I attempt to live a more sustainable life, I seek to do as I bring to mind Grandma Elizabeth, my parents, and particularly the future for my daughters. I seek to care for this earth and to find a more sustainable life because I believe this is what my faith requires of me. I see many other Christians today doing the same and pray that many others to join because I believe, when we act as stewards of creation, we touch a bit of what God wants for all humankind.