Christian Environmental Ethics

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Among many environmentalists religious belief is often viewed, at best, as irrelevant in addressing environmental issues or, at worst - particularly in the case of Christianity - as a leading culprit in creating the global environmental crisis. No religion, either Eastern or Western, primitive or modern, has ever prevented environmental degradation, and in some instances religions have aided and abetted the destruction of ecosystems. This disdain for religion reflects 'the largely unexamined position espoused by scores of ecologists, historians, philosophers, poets, nature writers, political activists, and even some theologians who have identified themselves with the ecology movement' (Santmire, 1985). Two articles which conveniently frame the growth of popular ecological consciousness over the last quarter-century reflect this environmentalist disdain for religion. In his now classic essay, 'The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis' Lynn White, Jr indicts Christianity as the source of humanity's 'unnatural treatment of nature and its sad results' (White, 1983). According to White, Christian theology stripped nature of any sacred status leaving it composed of inanimate objects and ignorant beasts that humans could exploit and manipulate with impunity. When this anthropocentric faith was uniquely joined with modern science and technology an unprecedented destructive power was unleashed. Nor did Christianity's destructive influence wane with modern secularity. Although 'the forms of our thinking and language have largely ceased to be Christian', we nonetheless continue 'to live ... very largely in a context of Christian axioms' (White, 1983). Consequently, in terms of the global environmental crisis, 'Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt' (White, 1983). Twenty-five years after the publication of White's essay, Wendell Berry, in his article, 'Christianity and the Survival of Creation', notes that Christians are culpable for the 0960-3115 © 1995 Chapman& Hall



environmental crisis because they ignore the key precepts of biblical faith. Our technological age, which originated and was nurtured with Christendom, ignores the theological belief that the earth belongs to God and humans are called to be God's guests and stewards. The attempt to reshape nature in a technological image is 'the most horrid blasphemy' because it throws 'God's gifts into his face, as of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them' (Berry, 1993). This blasphemy is morally and spiritually corrupting leading to the 'preposterous assumption that Paradise can be recovered by violence, by assaulting and laying waste the gifts of creation' (Berry, 1993). White and Berry both conclude that the environmental crisis stems from a spiritual crisis in which humans attempt to master rather than to live in harmony with nature. In the interval between their two articles, environmental ethics has turned to a variety of resources to solve this crisis of the spirit. In addition to secular appeals to pragmatic and enlightened self-interest, there is growing curiosity in pantheism, mysticism, animistic religions, and the peculiar amalgamation labelled 'New Age' as possible ways to guide the world out of its ecological and spiritual malaise. Yet this quest for spiritual resources has missed an important cue from White and Berry. Despite their harsh indictment of Christianity's complicity in the environmental crisis. both turn to it to provide spiritual resources for rectifying our current predicament. White proposes St Francis as the "patron saint for ecologists' (White, 1983), and Berry pleads for the recovery of a stewardship ethic. In short, cutting ourselves off from traditional Christian theological resources will not help heal our ecological and spiritual sickness. We cannot 'devise or invent a new ethic' but we must utilize "principles' which are 'implicit in our moral traditions' (Attfield, 1983). There...
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