I wrote this paper in November 2008, and since I'm doing some research and teaching in
sustainability, I thought it was time to return to it and thus post it here.
"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." Medieval Christian mystic, Thomas á Kempis
Introduction: Reasons for this topic
Three images run through my mind and frame this paper 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 this 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.” [i]
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. [ii]
The 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. [iii] (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.” [iv] 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.” [v]
In addition, 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.” [vi]
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. [vii]
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—which is not a new argument [viii]—but that ecological misuse 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.
In response to White’s contentions—and many others who follow him—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 [ix]. 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.” [x] 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. [xi]
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. [xii]
(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.” [xiii] 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.
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. [xiv]
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.
Cootsona, Gregory S. Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science. Geneva, 2002.
“Creation Care: An Introduction for Busy Pastors.” [No author listed].
Kinsley, David. Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1995.
Sandelands, Lloyd E., and Andrew Hoffman. “Sustainability, Faith, and the Market.” Ross School of Business Working Paper Series. Working Paper No. 1107, July 2008.
White, Lynn, Jr. “The Historical Roots of the Ecologic Crisis.” Science 155 (March 10, 1967): 1203-1207.
[i] David Knsley, Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in Cross-cultural Perspective, Prentice-Hall, 1994, xx.
[ii] I am leaning on the insights of Lloyd E. Sandelands and Andrew Hoffman in their paper, “Sustainability, Faith, and the Market,” Ross School of Business Working Paper Series, Working Paper, no. 1107, July 2008.
[iii] The Kingsley book mentioned above engages with White when it addresses the topic of “Christianity as Ecologically Harmful.”
[iv] White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” 1206.
[v] The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1976), 139; cited in Kinsley, 104.
[vi] White, “Historical Roots,” 1206.
[vii] For an entirely brief discussion, see my Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science (Geneva, 2002), ch. 1.
[viii] See, for example, M.B. Foster, “The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Natural Science” first published in 1934.
[ix] See also Creation and Last Things, ch. 3.
[x] “The Role of Nature in Zen Buddhism,” Eranos-Jahrbuch, vol. 22 (1953), 292, cited in Kinsley, 104.
[xi Cited in Kinsley, Ecology and Religion, 122.
[xii] The Steward: A Biblical Symbol come of Age (Eerdmans, 1990), 82; cited in Kinsley, 170.
[xiii] Kinsley, 171.
[xiv] “Creation Care: An Introduction for Busy Pastors,” 8.