Secular ecologists have long been suspicious of Christianity. It is worth explaining why people of faith have been mistrusted by environmentalists and from there to locate the common ground that can be used to overcome that wariness for the sake of advancing our common objectives. After all, that the ecological crises already endangering the quality of our lives requires that everyone to work together.
The most famous accusation made against Christianity was thrown by historian Lynn White Jr. in 1967 with a bomb-shell article in Science Magazine. He makes a succinct charge: the “subdue and dominate” language of Gen. 1:27 “established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.” Christian focus on the spiritual world means we insist on “transcendence of and mastery over nature.” “Christianity,” he adds, “bears a huge burden of guilt.” Ouch.
The variety of religion that White criticizes is not Christian at all, but our most pernicious and tenacious heresy. It is called Manichaeism, from its founder, Mani, who was influenced by Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity. Manicheans divide the world into crisp categories. Two gods - one of light and one of darkness - are wrapped in a cosmic battle for dominance (“Star Wars” is a great Manichean epic). The god of the realm of light is pure spirit, while the evil god, or demiuge (a sort of beastly god) is the creator of the physical universe. Humans are to deny the material world, including their bodies, so as to liberate their pure spirit. It isn’t hard to catch the anti-environmental implications.
Since the fourth century Manichaeism or its other manifestations has been condemned many times over. In contrast, Christianity posits a healthy asceticism that challenges us to trim back our appetites for material pleasures in order to register that these are not ultimate goods, but reflections of The Good. The material world, while not divine, reflects divinity. Unfortunately, we are rather prone to forget that immediate pleasures of this world have an Author toward which they should be pointing. It was in this spirit of ‘renunciation’ that the ideals of celibacy, virginity, fasting, and abstinence were cultivated. To be clear: the material world is good, it reflects the Creator. Surrendering the world’s pleasures is not a condemnation, but a sacrifice taken up for the sake of the "Highest Good."
White and secular environmentalists observe that too many Christians too often appear to be ‘closet Manicheans’ rather than real disciples of the flesh-and-blood Messiah. They point to our less than careful vocabulary and our under-interpreted myths which feed the persistent allure of simplistic dualism. We casually evoke angels and demons; we relish Milton’s Satan, Dante’s devils, and Tolkien’s imps. Even St. Augustine counseled men to avoid contact with women for being sexually tempting. Women to flesh, flesh to matter, matter to the material world. Is this a stretch? Consider that we speak of ‘Mother Earth’ and of "raping" the planet, while God is our "Father" in "Heaven." Theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether warns us that as women are (mis-)treated, so is the earth. The point is not that such imagry is inherently dualistic, but that, unexamined, it can be subverted. The too convenient urge to categorize everything as either good or evil corrodes our appreciation for the earth, its beauty, and its many delights. This may explain why many Christians so loudly object to environmental interest in this world which is destined to pass away in the rapture…very, very close to Manichean thinking, this.
Christianity, again, is not dualistic. It does not condemn or disparage the material world. Rather, it celebrates it as a gift from and a reflection of God whose pleasures are to be enjoyed with just that perspective: not as ultimately good, but as expressions, traces, and hints of The Good. Henry David Thoreau, arguably the founder of environmentalism, and not exactly a church-going Christian, gets it. “I enter a swamp,” he says, “as a sacred place.” Channeling St. Francis, he exalts: “Of thee, O earth, are my bone and sinew made: to thee, O sun, am I brother. Here have I my habitat. I am of thee.”
White concluded his provocative essay with an appeal. “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious.” He then makes the startling suggestion that we embrace St. Francis of Assisi who was, he says, “the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history.” In 1980 Pope John Paul II declared the little man from Assisi as the Patron of the Environment. Environmentalist criticism of the Church, it turns out, may just have been the stimulus needed to awaken us to our responsibility to care for God’s Creation.
Father Bud Grant is an Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, where he teaches courses such as Intro to the New Testament, Intro to Environmental Studies, Environmental Ethics and others. He's the coordinator of the Environmental Studies program and advisor for St. Ambrose's environmental club. He was also a planner and presenter at the symposium in October 2009 celebrating the 30th anniversary of John Paul II's visit to Iowa.
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