This article claims that the modern ecological crisis arose out of an ethic derived from
Medieval Christian theology. By focusing on the passage in Genesis in which God gave man dominion over the earth, Christian theology justified the exploitation of nature. White compares this outlook with non-Western perspectives, and he concludes the article with a suggestion that a radical Franciscan theology of nature might open the way for a more ecologically sensitive Christian environmental ethics.
In the previous post, Zev Trachtenberg explained that “a defining (and obvious) feature of human habitation is that it is social, and cannot be understood apart from the structures and forces that characterize human society.” This focus on human society is the launching point for this post and upcoming ones, where I will explore how religious belief and behavior pertains to habitability. In these posts, I will ask How are religions facing the anthropocene?
I plan to consider religion and secularism worldwide, but now I will look only at Christian perceptions of man and nature, and I will reflect primarily on the curious problem of conservative evangelicalism.
The problem was posed first in a seminal 1967 paper by historian Lynn White Jr. (1907-1987), in which he claimed that Christianity has been one of the primary causes of the modern environmental crisis because it has encouraged human exploitation of nature: “Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen,” something that is “in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions.” (p. 1205) White’s claims were controversial at the time, and I believe that he exaggerated the importance of religion and greatly oversimplified Christian theology. Nonetheless, his claim resonates with some aspects of contemporary American evangelicalism.
A Pew Poll from 2009 showed that only 34 percent of white evangelicals accepted that human beings are causing global warming, as compared with 47 percent of the population of the U.S. as a whole. In other words, a starkly anthropocentric religion, according to White, refuses to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change. Clearly, this is not a Christian problem, however; the survey found that both mainline Protestants and non-Hispanic Catholics scored about the same as the overall population, so the low evangelical response indicates something else. I believe it is more likely the result of years of cynical political maneuvering by right-wing industry lobbyists than theology. I say that because there are some strong evangelical environmentalists.
One of the earliest of these environmental voices is a seminal figure in modern evangelical circles, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). Schaeffer took White’s message to heart as soon as it was published and wrote a response in his largely forgotten book Pollution and the Death of Man. Schaeffer accepted White’s charge that Christianity as a whole had not been kind to God’s Creation, and urged Christians to do a better job. He embraced what has come to be called the stewardship position, in which man is seen to be the steward of nature, not its master.
But what does this have to do with habitability? In one telling passage, Schaeffer explains the contrast that he saw between a Christian community and a pagan group living just opposite it on the other side of a ravine:
… I realized what a poor situation this was. When I stood on Christian ground and looked at the Bohemian people’s place, it was beautiful. … Then I stood on pagan ground and looked at the Christian community and saw ugliness. Here you have a Christianity that is failing to take into account man’s responsibility and proper relationship to nature. (p. 43)
Habitation, for Schaeffer, meant much more than simply living in a place; it was linked to aesthetics and spirituality as well. Indeed, one of his major criticisms of modernity is that it was simply based on pragmatic and utilitarian notions. Schaeffer, who preached his evangelical theology from a chateau in the Swiss Alps, described a complex relationship between man, nature, and God, a compelling theology for many young Christian intellectuals.
The conservative evangelical community mostly ignored the environmentalist message after Schaeffer. Only recently are we witnessing a resurgence of this kind of thinking. One can see this evidenced in a recent television series on Showtime, Years of Living Dangerously, which addresses the religious question directly in an entire segment on a drought-stricken West Texas evangelical community. The segment features the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who is herself an Evangelical Christian, showing the way toward an anthropocene Christianity.
For Christians of all stripes, the anthropocene presents a challenge because it forces people to come to grips with a different sort of Creation than the one that was experienced when the religion was in its infancy. But this is nothing new. Every age has presented similar challenges.
(Note that this article has been corrected since it was published. The original version contained an incorrect value for the percentage of evangelicals who believed in human induce climate change as reported in the 2009 Pew poll. The author thanks Tyler Wilson for pointing out the discrepancy.)