Is Christianity responsible for the ecological crisis?

January 30, 2011

The claim that Christianity was responsible for the ecological crisis [1] has been contested,[2] [3] [4] but is still asserted strongly.[5] [6]

key text has been Genesis 1:26,[7] a common interpretation of which is known as dominium terrare.[8] Such an interpretation is absent from the first 1,000 years of Christianity,[9] and many scholars reject this as the original meaning of the passage.[10] [11] [12]

In 1603 Francis Bacon proposed a dominion oriented interpretation claiming the purpose of science and technology (the ‘natural sciences’), was to recover paradise by dominating nature.[13] [14]

Early Christians expressed both eco-centric exposition and Hellenistic views unfavourable to the environment.[15] The later Christian tradition contains many advocates of ecological care.[16] [17] [18]

Against an unbalanced view resulting from looking at only a few texts,[19] the value of Biblical environmental instructions has been widely acknowledged. [20] [21] [22] [23]

Stewardship[24] is a recognized Biblical teaching[25] and Christian tradition,[26] against the claim that Christianity is inherently destructive.[27] Many environmentalists have identified the value of religion to ecological concerns. [28] [29] [30]

[1] ‘…the American historian and Presbyterian layman Lynn White argued that the Christian tradition itself bears a huge burden of guilt for the worldview of modernity and the economic system that has led to the present ecological crisis. White’s article placed the blame for the ecological crisis squarely upon Western Christianity. His thesis is a variation of Weber’s famous analysis of the relationship between Christianity and capitalism, namely that Protestantism has encouraged capitalism which, in turn, exploited nature.’, Conradie, ‘Christianity and Ecological Theology’, p. 61 (2006).

[2] ‘In an influential argument, John Passmore suggests that the exploitative attitudes in the West originate from Greek dualism more than from biblical sources. Peter Harrison argues that White is correct to suggest that particular biblical texts have served as important ideological sources for Western exploitation of natural resources. However, he denies that this has played a significant role in the history of the West prior to the emergence of modern science in the seventeenth century. ‘, ibid., p. 62.

[3] ‘The Bible, apart from which Western civilization is inexplicable, has powerful ecological teachings that support an ecological worldview and oppose a utilitarian worldview. This is not to say that these teachings have been widely put into practice in our time – by and large they have not. However, continuing degradation of ecological systems by humanity requires re-examination of these teachings by ecologists and the church.’, DeWitt, ‘Ecology and ethics: relation of religious belief to ecological practice in the Biblical tradition’, Biodiversity and Conservation 4, p. 847 (1995).

[4] ‘To be sure, certain strands of Christian thinking have indeed fostered a dualistic anti-material tendency that has provided the impetus for indifference toward nature. But the wholesale implication of Christian theology, let alone Scripture itself, in fostering such indifference is an overstatement at best.’, Moo, ‘Nature in the New Creation: New Testament Eschatology and the Environment’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (49.3.451), (2006).

[5]‘Many secular environmentalists insist that the Christian and Jewish religions are inimical to the environment and have been so for thousands of years.’, Conradie, ‘Christianity and Ecological Theology’, p. 62 (2006).

[6] ‘As James Nash argues, the ecological complaint against Christianity is, on the one hand, essentially valid. Throughout Christian history, the dominant theological and ethical strains have been oblivious or even antagonistic to nature. On the other hand, the ecological complaint is an over-generalization since it overlooks the significance of dissenting opinions in Christian history and underestimates the tradition’s capacity for ecological reformation.’, ibid., p. 64.

[7] Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.”

[8] An interpretation that this verse means God intended humans to dominate, suppress, and exploit the earth.

[9]But in general it can be said that in the first ten centuries there was not really so very much interest in this question. There was rather a static view of the cultivation of nature and the earth which did not always have a connection to the dominium terrare.’, Halkes, ‘New Creation: Christian feminism and the renewal of the earth’, p. 76 (1991).

[10] ‘The dominium terrae is no carte blanche for the exploitation of the world. If one has (unfortunately) (mis)understood this in this way, this is not intended in the text itself.’, Preuss & Perdue, ‘Old Testament Theology’, p. 116  (1996).

[11] ‘Hibert (2000:150-151) concludes that, “By describing the archetypcal human task as cultivating or ‘serving,’ the soil, the Yahwist subordinates human behaviour to the larger ecosystem upon which human survival depends. According to the Yahwist, the human vocation is not to manage the ecosystems of which humans are a part, but rather to align its activity to meet the demands and observe the limits imposed by this system upon all of its members.”‘, Conradie, ‘Christianity and Ecological Theology’, pp. 76-77 (2006).

[12] ‘In response, Christian exegetes have shown that the respective imperative of Gen. 1.28 is to be understood in the sense of the commission of man to care for the earth. On several occasions Gen. 2.15 has been recognized as an adequate help towards its interpretation.’, Reventlow & Hoffman, ‘Creation in Jewish and Christian tradition’, p. 165 (2006).

[13] ‘In Bacon’s opinion, the natural sciences will return to humankind its dominance over nature.’, ibid., p. 76.

[14] The view that a fallen earth could be redeemed by science and technology ironically led directly to ecological destruction; ‘Such a way of thinking lies at the root of the aggressive trait of all further attempts at dominating the world. ‘, ibid., p. 76.

[15]Santmire, ‘The Travail of Nature: the ambiguous ecological promise of Christian theology’ (1985), Boersema, ‘The Torah and the Stoics on Humankind and Nature: A Contribution to the Debate on Sustainability and Quality’, pp. 222-227 (2001.

[16] ‘For Mennonites (one of the historic peace churches) the theme of “peace with the creation” had powerful resonance (see Redekop 2000).’, Haluza-DeLay, ‘Churches Engaging the Environment: An Autoethnography of Obstacles and Opportunities’, Human Ecology Review (15.1.75), 2008.

[17] ‘Many authors (including Lynn White) have pointed to St. Francis of Assisi as an example for ecologically sensitive practice. Dubos (1974) and others have highlighted the Benedictine monks, characterizing them as conservationists to the Franciscan preservationists (stewardship compared to partnership in Rasmussen’s (1991) terms). There are numerous additional exemplars (Attfield 1983; Oelschlaeger 1994).’, ibid., p. 78.

[18] Including Jonathan Swift, James Eliot, William Bartram, John Ruskin, and George Perkins Marsh; Marsh’s work ‘Man and nature: or, Physical geography as modified by human action’ makes specific reference to deforestation as ‘war upon the garden of God‘, p. 279 (1865).

[19]‘The selection of some favourite texts may unintentionally reinforce the perception that ecology is indeed a marginal concern in the Bible. The focus may be far too narrow. It only relates to an aspect of creation theology or, more specifically, to the relationship (of stewardship?), between human beings and nature.’, Conradie, ‘Christianity and Ecological Theology’, p. 69 (2006).

[20] ‘The Bible, without which Western civilization is inexplicable, has powerful ecological teachings that support an ecological worldview.’, DeWitt, ‘Ecology and ethics: relation of religious belief to ecological practice in the Biblical tradition’, Biodiversity and Conservation 4, p. 838 (1995).

[21] ‘The Bible’s portrayal of the dominion issue is actually more detailed and complex than most studies have indicated. The Bible indicates a variety of ways in which nature is subservient to man, but also ways in which man is subservient to nature.’, Kay, ‘Concepts of Nature in the Hebrew Bible’, in Yaffe, ‘Judaism and Environmental Ethics: A Reader’, p. 90 (2001).

[22] ‘Boastful destruction of resources apparently was common testimonial to the might of kings in the ancient Middle East. The biblical condemnation of deforestation for self-aggrandizement may be contrasted with the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (third millennium B.C.E.), in which the heroic king destroys a cedar forest “to establish his name”.’, Kay, ibid., p. 95.

[23]In the Bible, humans indirectly bring about environmental destruction as the outcome of sin, or do so directly through foolish arrogance. These analyses scarcely support the theory that the roots of the modern environmental crisis rest in perspectives intrinsic to the Bible.’, Kay, ibid., pp. 95-96.

[24] Of God giving humans the responsibility to care for the environment, rather than exploit it.

[25] ”We have said that our “dominion” over animals is granted to us on the condition that we exercise it responsibly. Another way of putting that may be taken from a comment on the Psalm verse, “The heavnes are the heavns of the Eternal One, but the earth God has given to humankind” (115:16). On this Abraham ibn Ezra remarks, ‘Sheha-adam k’mo p’kid elohim ba-aretze al kol mah sheyesh bah – that humanity is like God’s steward on earth in charge of all that it contains” (ad loc.).This concept of p’kidut – of stewardship – is central to our subject, and, as we have already seen, what it primarily entails is conservation. But equally obviously, it has implications for the way we treat animals, especially domestic ones, since by domesticating them we assume responsibility for them. That this requires considerate behaviour on our part is a major theme of Jewish literature, expressed in exhortations, stories and regulations.’, Rayner, ‘Judaism and Animal Welfare: Overview and Some Questions’, in Jacob & Zemer, ‘The Environment in Jewish Law: Essays and Responsa’, p. 60 (2003).

[26] ‘One group might be termed the despotism school because it views Gen. 1:26-28 and subsequent Christian writers as mandating tyrannical human control over nature. The competing stewardship tradition interprets the identical verses and other early Christian writings as assigning humans a caretaker role.’, Kay, ‘Concepts of Nature in the Hebrew Bible’, in Yaffe, ‘Judaism and Environmental Ethics: A Reader’, p. 87 (2001).

[27] ‘First, the assumption that the entity to blame for the modern environmental crisis is in fact “Judeo-Christian” has been challenged. Passmore has argued that the tradition in question was not Judeo-Christian, but rather Greco-Christian. He sees little evidence that the Hebrew Bible was anti-environment, and additional evidence that the Bible constrained human use of nature. Ehrenfeld and Bentley has well as Helfand have pointed out that Judaism and Christianity are two separate religions, and have examined Jewish beliefs in support of a stewardship position.’, Kay, ibid., p. 87.

[28] ‘We have found that the academy is not the source or repository of practical environmental ethics. However, religious institutions are such, although the modern scientist and citizen may have failed to acknowledge this.’, DeWitt, ‘Ecology and ethics: relation of religious belief to ecological practice in the Biblical tradition’, Biodiversity and Conservation 4, p. 840 (1995).

[29]The church may be, in fact, our last, best chance. My conjecture is this: There are no solutions for the systemic causes of ecocrisis, at least in democratic societies, apart from religious narrative.’, Oelschlaeger, ‘Caring for Creation’ (1994), cited in ibid., p. 841.

[30]‘A significant number of contemporary environmentalists are convinced that some form of religion is needed to provide motivational power for the transformation of human attitudes toward the natural world.’, Moo, ‘Nature in the New Creation: New Testament Eschatology and the Environment’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (49.3.450), 2006.


One comment

  1. […] ecological crisis is comparatively recent while the Genesis texts date from some 2,500 years ago other scholars question whether the Biblical texts really are responsible for […]

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