Christianity (and the eco-crisis)

In the introduction to this chapter, the following was quoted from White (1971: 11): “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to the things around them”. Having said this, White goes on to identify and trace the Christian notion of dominion as relevant when broadly considering ecologically insensitive human activities – some of his points will be explored below in this section, as will the relevant work of various other thinkers. ‘Dominion’ as per White’s use of the word means “the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation” (1971: 17), and as will be seen below, this idea of dominion prevailed as the dominant discourse about the relationship between humans and nature within Christianity. A brief caveat, however, is important here: to claim that the idea of dominion is dominant in Christianity, is not to claim that it is necessary. At the conclusion of his essay, White (Ibid) offers such a caveat when he points out that Francis of Assisi, a devout Christian, “proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it”, namely, “the idea of equality of all creatures”. St Francis’ view is one more in harmony with the eco-sensitive discourses of Chapter 5, and it will indirectly be explored there. But as White says of St Francis and his alternative view, “He failed” (Ibid), and “the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation” (Ibid) dominated instead.

White says of Christianity’s victory over Paganism that it is “the greatest psychic revolution in the history of [Western] culture” (1971: 11). He also states that many people “continue today to live, as [they] have lived for about 1700 years, very largely in the context of Christian axioms”. White substantiates these claims with reference to the Christian creation myth where man is given dominion over all animals. He describes the story as one wherein the main protagonist, God, planned creation “for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes” (Ibid). Elaborating on White’s point that nature was supposedly created purely to serve humans, Irving and Priddle (1971: xii) confirm the cogency of his “claims that the roots of our crisis extend into the very heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition”. They concur that the dominant Christian discourse has been a disaster for ecology. They ask:

What better licence to chop down, tear up and otherwise modify his environment could Western man have than the text of his own holy book? Does the bible not specify that all the earth and everything that lives upon it has been put here for the sole use and enjoyment of man?

It is clearly not the case that “usage and enjoyment” necessarily equate to chopping down and tearing up (as the caveat in opening to this section on Christianity suggests), but the Christian bible clearly states in Genesis 1 verse 281 that God told people to be “fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Again, dominion does not necessarily give people license to destroy, so Irving and Priddle’s quote may seem somewhat severe at this early stage of the analysis. What is certain is that the theme of dominion is firmly established in the Christian bible; and as it will be seen below in this section, as well as in all the sections that follow in this chapter, the historical prominence of this theme cannot be downplayed considering the facts of the ecological crisis outlined in Chapters 1 and 2.

One important consequence of the historical prominence of the theme of dominion is the metaphysically dualistic stance where humans transcend nature – and as it will be seen, this characteristic is common to all of the discourses in this chapter. This characteristic is part of the essence of anthropocentrism: Kovel, in his The Enemy of Nature (2006: 122), writes derisively of the “’anthropocentric’ delusion that sees nature, in all its intricate glory, existing like so many planets around the human sun”, a poetic way of describing a view in which humans are prioritised above all else; Arne Naess (2005: 186) echoes Kovel’s tone in The arrogance of antihumanism when he associates anthropocentrism with “an image of man as an immature being with crude, narrow, shortsighted interests”. Christianity is not explicitly anthropocentric – its central focus on an almighty God classifies it instead as a theocentric religion. However, White (1971: 12) situates Christianity in a context where it is impossible to avoid the association of the religion with anthropocentric views. He says that human beings share “God’s transcendence of nature” and that Christianity “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends”. God retains central theological importance, but humankind has via this global religion been given holy mandate to decide how to treat nature. Pierre Hadot agrees. In The Veil of Isis (2008) he isolates the metaphysical dualism of Christianity as prominent in the suppression of nature, though he does not explicitly state the word ‘dualism’. Hadot spends the first quarter of the book analysing the various historical contexts in which Heraclitus’ aphorism, ‘nature loves to hide,’ can be understood; he (2008: 92-94) eventually identifies a cognitive approach (only one of several hermeneutic possibilities) where the aphorism is taken to suggest that nature has a secret which human beings can and should discover (especially via the ‘mechanistic’ view of nature, which will be shown to have grown out of the same ideological stance of ‘dominion over nature’ that spread with the Catholic church’s mandate of Christianity during the Middle ages – more on this in the following sections of this chapter). Hadot names the approach whereby humankind takes it upon itself to unveil nature’s secrets the “judicial” model. He writes:

Indeed, this judicial model supposes that human reason ultimately has a discretionary power, which would, moreover, be confirmed by biblical revelation, since the God of Genesis speaks these words after the creation of Adam and Eve: “Grow and multiply, and fill the earth, and dominate it. Command the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and all the beasts that move upon the earth.

With such ‘discretionary power’ assumed by Christians to be validated by God via bible stories that advocate the judicial model, it is unsurprising that critical parts of the history of Christianity are characterised by oppressive activities: J. Denny Weaver2 lists as examples “the crusades, the multiple blessings of wars, warrior popes, support for capital punishment, corporal punishment under the guise of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child,’ justifications of slavery, world-wide colonialism in the name of conversion to Christianity, the systemic violence of women subjected to men, and more”. Granted, other human beings were the explicit focus of such oppression for the church, but it follows that part of the effect of its undeniable reign and associated far-reaching discursive consequences was the deep entrenchment of the dualistic, dominion-focused stance referred to above. Such a dualistic position is not exclusive to the Christian church; it is well known that Plato, for example, had established a dualistic system centuries prior to Christianity, but as will be seen immediately below, the closest the Ancient Greeks got to ‘dominion’ was in what Hadot (2008: 101-106) refers to as the field of ‘mechanics’, developing in the third and second centuries BCE. Plato’s [Pythagorean] idealist dualism of body [subject to becoming] and soul or psuche [being], which contrasted, in turn, with the ancient Greek conception of cyclical nature as physis, was notably different from the modern dualism of Descartes. Descartes successfully articulated ‘modern’ ontology in dualistic terms (mind and matter), in this way setting nature up as non-human domain that was the legitimate field of scientific investigation and technical mastery. This happened after the Church had reigned officially for over a thousand years, time enough for its ideologies to spread widely all over the world, so it is fitting that Descartes – a Christian – formulated his dualism so definitively near the climax of the Christian stronghold on discourse in general.

One event in particular played an important role in establishing an ostensibly irrefutable link between nature and death during the latter parts of the explicit reign of the church: the Black death., which is well-known to have wiped out a third to half of Europe’s population. Theologian Thomas Berry, in The Dream of the Earth (1988: 125), explains that in

response to the plague and other social disturbances of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, two directions of development can be identified – one towards a religious redemption out of the tragic world, the other toward a greater control of the physical to escape its pain and increase its utility to human society. From these two tendencies the two dominant cultural communities of recent centuries were formed: the believing religious community, and the secular community with its new scientific knowledge and its industrial powers of exploiting the natural world.

Berry’s points confirm that the ideological impact of the reign of the church was widespread, considering that he identifies only two “directions of development” (Ibid), one Christian, the other scientific, technological and industrial (the latter of which is explored in detail in sections below). Considerable evidence has been provided above in this section to show that Christianity, at least, laid the groundwork for the kind of dualism that is associated with Descartes, where a definitive split between humankind and the natural world cannot be ignored. As has also been shown, White and Hadot posit Christianity as responsible for a widespread focus on dominion over the natural world. These characteristics – dominion and metaphysical dualism – therefore can be historically associated with Christianity, which remains the world’s largest religion. Considering what has been discussed respectively in this section, in Chapter 1 about the ecological crisis, and in Chapter 2 about diabolical anti-ecological activity, White’s comment (1971: 11) – “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to the things around them” – provides the impetus to identify dominion, anthropocentrism, metaphysical dualism, and assumed judicial prerogative over nature as characteristics of discourse that are relevant in any consideration of anti-ecological activity. The sections below add further information and context for such a consideration and continue to identify anti-ecological features of discourse.

1 accessed 23 February 2014