Beyond Anthropocentrism: Are we guilty of causing the ecologic crisis?

Adapted from a paper given at the Beyond Blame conference, Wellington October 8th, a partnership between the Center for Theology and Public Issues (Otago), A Rocha Aotearoa NZ, and NZCIS. Nicola Hoggard Creegan This year (2017) we mark the publication in Science of Lynn White Jr.’s “The Historical Roots of the Ecologic Crisis,” in which […]

Adapted from a paper given at the Beyond Blame conference, Wellington October 8th, a partnership between the Center for Theology and Public Issues (Otago), A Rocha Aotearoa NZ, and NZCIS.

Nicola Hoggard Creegan

This year (2017) we mark the publication in Science of Lynn White Jr.’s “The Historical Roots of the Ecologic Crisis,” in which Christians were blamed for the state of the world, as it was even in 1967.[1] One of Lynn White Jr.’s critiques of Christianity is that nature has become instrumental for us, not worth anything in its own right, but only as it relates to humans and human ambitions. White argues that Christians have developed an instrumental culture because of the Genesis command to have ‘dominion’. Response to White in intervening decades can be placed in these categories:

  • Many scholars and respondents claim that the Bible should not be read in a way that matches the critique. The essence of Christianity is being unfairly treated, they say. Or they respond that a green reading of Scripture is compelling and should be guiding our understanding, even if it hasn’t been in the past.
  • Some respondents have agreed that White’s critiques are fair, and that Christians need to repent and undergo a conversion to nature.
  • Others have said, that although there are biblical reasons why we should respect the earth and revere it, the culture of churches commonly does not. Various forms of churchmanship tend to emphasize scriptural realities that are escapist and utilitarian. So Genesis might encourage a utilitarian approach to nature, and apocalyptic texts and 2 Peter have motivated the escapist ‘rapture’ theology.
  • Still more recently there have been empirical studies that look at the responses of various denominations and traditions to nature today.

For White, however, while Christianity was to blame for the crisis, it was faith that nevertheless also held the secret to salvation; the Franciscan tradition within Christianity held the best hope of approaching nature as a dynamic life force, or as sacred.[2] In that light, it is interesting and serendipitous that the 50 years has ended with the much respected encyclical Laudato Si’, by the present Pope Francis, who himself draws upon the Franciscan tradition, and who also urges us to treat the creation with respect, and to revere its creatures.[3]

White the prophet

My assessment is that Lynn White Jr. has acted much like a prophet, urging us to a deeper more inward relationship with nature. He has warned us of the dangers of our present desacralized, over-technical and instrumental approach to nature. Like many a prophet he may have overstated the Christian — rather than the universally human –connection to the problem, but he may also have been correct in many ways. He has prompted self-examination and self-critique and has spurred Christian ecological theology as a result.

If we look at popular theology rather than Scripture, and how it should be read, I would argue that Christians have been hugely anthropocentric, never more so than when humans were considered to be the product of the sixth literal day, and when the fall story was understood as being the reason for all suffering and death. Everything revolved around the human being and the drama of salvation for humans, and sometimes their rapture out of a future tribulation. Moreover, salvation was seen as only for humans. It is a very short step from this view of life, to treating nature in an instrumental way. Christians did not invent anthropocentric ways of thinking, but a disregard for the ultimate value of nature only encouraged an instrumental approach.

As Francis in Laudato Si’ has said:

Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality, since “the technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference.[4]

Wendell berry says something similar:

We have a lot of genuinely concerned people calling upon us to “save” a world which their language simultaneously reduces to an assemblage of perfectly featureless and dispirited “ecosystems,” “organisms,” “environments,” “mechanisms,” and the like. It is impossible to prefigure the salvation of the world in the same language by which the world has been dismembered and defaced.[5]

They are both suggesting that a part of the problem is the way we think and speak about nature. When we talk about nature as machines and systems we are approaching it in the wrong way, as an instrument of our purposes, rather than as sacred being. This whole instrumentalist way of talking is deeply embedded in our pscyhes. In the modern age, especially, we have not allowed the Bible to critique this approach, until recently.

And it isn’t always possible to know we are slipping into instrumental thinking. As Jacques Ellul, the famous critic of the technique said many decades ago:

With technology the positive aspects are easy to articulate and see, the negative aspects are always ‘vague phenomena, which are significant only by their bulk and their general nature…but [which] eventually give a certain negative style to human life.[6]

Human domination of nature

Humans have tried to dominate nature, at least from the dawn of agriculture.  I was recently in Te Papa (The New Zealand Museum in Wellington) and a display shows deforestation in New Zealand. Half the forest in NZ was gone before European settlers arrived. Maori, too, burned off the trees for agriculture or other anthropocentric activities. Most of the Moa were probably gone before European settlers came.

Whatever the truth of Lynn White Jr.’s charges, then, it isn’t just Christian faith that is associated with objectifying nature, or using it for our own purposes. All humans it seems, have an affection gap.[7] We find it hard to feel compassion for those who are not in our tribe. Human influence far exceeds our capacity to know and care. For Western people there has been a particular blindness towards other creatures. More ancient people groups did not have such a cavalier attitude to nature, even if many of their activities inadvertently harmed the environment.

In a story typical of many from around the world of cooperation between dolphins and humans, the aboriginal people of Wurunjeri  would sit by the sea and whistle for the dolphins which would come and start to push the fish toward them.[8] Later the dolphins were in turn fed from the catch, surely not a necessity for the dolphins, but an example perhaps of the pleasures of inter-species cooperation and interaction. When the white settlers came, the story says, they learned the whistles, attracted the dolphins and then speared them. This is a kind of Fall story, a fall from a state of coexistence to a state of enmity with nature, repeated in various forms throughout the colonized world.

Thus we have to admit that historically there has been an exploratory intensity and confidence manifest as anthropocentrism and associated with an instrumental view of nature, that may or may not be necessarily associated with faith but was historically associated with it. It is not necessary in the sense that the last 50 years have shown that we can and should interpret the Bible differently. Recent Christian history, however, is a fallen history. As colonialists and frontier explorers it was Christian cultures, rather than particular Christian humans who were responsible for the suppression of people and the exploitation of creatures.

Nevertheless, humans can change the natural world for good.  An example of this is in a stunning case of habitat restoration by the trophic cascade effect, first anticipated and researched by Robert Paine. Wolves have been reintroduced to a number of American wilderness areas including Yellowstone.[9] As a top predator wolves have kept the elk on the move, and the willows flourishing and the banks of the rivers more stable. Coyotes are under control and badger colonies are flourishing. Similar cascade effects have been felt elsewhere, with different intermediate species. Brenda Petersen, the author of Wolf Nation, says, “The wolf nation must thrive if we are to make the world wild and whole again.”[10] Humans have been involved, first in the extermination of wolves as predators, and then in their re-introduction, but the aim is an eco-system with minimal human supervision. The speed and diversity of the eco-system restoration has been surprising even to those who predicted it. For the man who first anticipated this cascade, Robert Paine and other researchers, it required close observation of and attention to the interdependencies of the natural world as well as scientific experimentation.

As Pope Francis says:

The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator.[11]

Christian resources for healing and the fear of idolatry

Christians, however, have some resources that help. We have the language of repentance, the practice of sacraments which invoke the material/spiritual connection, and hope for the future, that can all be part of the solution, and a part of a conversion toward a new appreciation for nature.

A part of repentance is the recognition of a lack in our lives. Charles Taylor expresses it this way: “The sense can easily arise that we are missing something, cut off from something, that we are living behind a screen.”[12] Let us assume for a moment, then, that there is a need to go inward, to turn a more meditative gaze at nature, to appreciate its inwardness and its hints of transcendence.  Even then, the way ahead is not clear.

For Christians there always has been an iota of worry about affirming God’s presence in nature. Is it idolatrous? Is it finding an alternative route to salvation? Is this why Christians have often eschewed nature and developed theologies of escape? But truth is often very close to the lie. There is a long Christian history of distinguishing between idolatrous worship of nature, and nature as a reflection of God’s glory. For one thing, Christian faith allows us to differentiate between God in or contained in nature, and God as distinct from matter.

These are difficult balances to maintain. Humans are unique, but find we find ourselves in service to other creatures. All life is journeying towards God, in an unknown future, not one that is already mapped out. God is presence and purposeful, but partially hidden and is not a cause like any other cause.

Or as Pope Francis, echoing St John of the Cross says,

This is not because the finite things of this world are really divine, but because the mystic experiences the intimate connection between God and all beings, and thus feels that “all things are God”. Standing awestruck before a mountain, he or she cannot separate this experience from God, and perceives that the interior awe being lived has to be entrusted to the Lord. [13]

But affirming God in the creation is also mandated by the Incarnation itself and by Paul’s reflections on this mystery. If we consider Christ, we have every reason to think that nature should be a proper locus for our spiritual attention.

Jesus was born of the earth. His healing mandate was present in all he did. Moreover, Jesus became human, took on matter, took on the second law of thermodynamics as well as human sin and creaturely suffering, surely a fool’s errand if that was to be followed by no real difference in the long run, in terms of human life and flourishing for nature. And Jesus, in becoming incarnate and in his resurrection into new life, was also blessing and affirming nature. The battle for the human does not take place only in escaping creaturely limits. At the same time, the incarnation affirms that nature is always tinged with transcendence, is always more than, deeper than we see on the surface.

It must be the task of those of us who cherish community and God to be the seeds by which a more holistic way of seeing can emerge. For Francis, this occurs in beauty, especially as seen and discerned in nature. The desire to contemplate beauty, he argues, is able to “overcome reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it.” He continues:

An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door. Will the promise last, in spite of everything, with all that is authentic rising up in stubborn resistance?[14]

We can be seekers after beauty as salvation. This beauty is discernible in and perceived in both the contemplative life and some scientific approaches to nature, like the wholistic approaches of trophic cascades and in any scientific enterprise that stops to wonder at the enormity and contingency of all that is.

For Audio recordings of more lectures from the Beyond Blame conference in Wellington on October 8th, click here.

[1] Lynn White, “The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203-7

[2] Ibid.

[3] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, May, 2015,

[4] Laudato Si’

[5] Wendell Berry, Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition,  New York: Counterpoint, 2001, 8.

[6] Jacques Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Bluff.  Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley,  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990, 47.

[7] John Hare speaks of the affection gap in, “Evolutionary Theory and Theological Ethics,” Studies in Christian Ethics, 25(2) 244–254.

[8] Jason Cressey, “Making a Splash in the Pacific: Dolphin and Whale Myths and Legends of Pacifica,” Rapa Nui Journal, 12/3, 1998, 75-84, 75:

[9] Christina Eisenberg, “Living in a Landscape of Fear: How Predators Impact an Ecosystem,  Scientific American, August 10, 2010.

[10] Brenda Peterson, Wolf Nation, Philadelphia: Da Capo, 2017, 257.

[11] Laudato Si’

[12] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 1.

[13] Laudato Si’

[14] Laudato Si’

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