Unoriginal Sin: The Judeo-Christian Roots of Ecotheology
The Heritage Foundation; Policy Review
1990 Summer; SECTION: No. 53; Pg. 52
BYLINE: Robert H. Nelson; the author of Modern Economic Theology [Rowman and Littlefield]
Many participants in environmental decision making have assumed that the goal of environmental policy is to reduce pollution, improve air and water quality, and achieve other environmental objectives in an efficient way. Yet, experience has shown that magnitudes of benefits, levels of costs, and other factors affecting efficiency often play little part in environmental policy-making. Decisions are instead frequently made as an act of symbolic affirmation, to make a statement for or against a particular set of values. Indeed, on close inspection, environmental policy-making often turns out to be a battlefield for religious conflict. Rather than rational policy analysis, the making of natural resource and environmental policy in the United States has become an exercise in theological controversy.
Many environmentalists today have no objection to the characterization of their outlook as a religion. They readily acknowledge a goal to change the values of society and that the values they seek to promote rest on what is fundamentally a religious underpinning. The leading historian, an energetic advocate as well, of American environmentalism, Roderick Nash, recently described environmental views as deriving from a set of "ecotheologians" who propound a new "gospel of ecology." There is in the "recent concern for nature" what Nash describes as a "quasi-religious fervor." Joseph Sax, in making the case for reducing the human presence in the national parks, states candidly that he and other preservationists are in truth "secular prophets, preaching a message of secular salvation."
Environmentalism is, to be sure, a diverse movement. Many people support environmental improvements for practical reasons that have nothing to do with environmental theology. They simply want clean air and water, parks for recreation, and protection of wildlife. Nor are all environmentalists skeptical of science or opposed to economic argument. For many environmentalists, taking care of the environment is simply a matter of doing economics better. Factoring in all the benefits (including nonmarket benefits) and taking proper account of private actions that have impacts not accurately reflected in market profits and losses.
Yet, the growing importance of the theological element means that those who would engage environmentalists in constructive dialogue may find that they have no choice but to enter the realm of theological discussion. Increasingly, the environmental policy analyst must address matters not only of physical science, economics, and other conventional policy subjects, but of theology as well.
Modern discussions of environmental theology have been strongly influenced by a 1967 article in Science in which the historian Lynn White Jr. asserted that contemporary environmentalism required a sharp break from the Judeo-Christian heritage. Because the Bible teaches that the earth and its creatures are created to serve the purposes of mankind, according to White, "Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects" [God ordained dominion not domination -MMr]. White believed the environmental crisis of the current age required "a new religion," perhaps inspired by the faiths of "ancient paganism and Asia's religions," in which humanity must be understood as part of and not distinct from nature. White also drew inspiration from some Christian teachers, particularly St. Francis of Assisi.
The messages of contemporary environmentalism are widely seen, by environmentalist supporters and critics alike, as a major step toward the fulfillment of White's prescription of the pantheistic veneration of nature. Yet, despite its wide influence, White's argument has served more to confuse than to illuminate the actual tenets of environmental theology. The laws of nature frequently are not the laws of an idyllic or pastoral world; they are the Darwinian laws of the jungle - "nature, red in tooth and claw," as Tennyson put it. Indeed, rather than becoming a part of nature as White asserted, the actual goal of environmentalism is the opposite: to inculcate a new morality with respect to the natural world that is found nowhere else in nature. No other creature is obligated to protect other species - as the Bible says that Noah was once commanded to do, and as the Endangered Species Act of 1973 again seeks to accomplish.
Environmental theology typically says little or nothing about God. It offers no answers concerning the hereafter; it is vague about the route of personal salvation; and in other respects it departs from basic tenets of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Yet, perhaps more remarkable is the extent to which environmentalism actually incorporates elements from the western religious heritage, indeed, the real source of the appeal of environmentalism may be that it offers traditional religious messages of the West in a new secular form - a form that, in an age of rampant secularism, lends these traditional messages great authority for large numbers of people.
One source of modern environmental theology is the long, powerful tradition within Christianity that regards wealth and riches, sophisticated reasoning, the structures of the law - all the formal institutions of society and of the good life - as dangerous and corrupting influences. These instruments all too often serve, not the will of God, but the devious designs of the devil. Since the fall of man from the Garden of Eden, human weakness has rendered the products of human reason unreliable, often deluding man to false optimism and excessive confidence in his powers. The leading American Catholic theologian of the 20th century, John Courtney Murray, once labeled this tradition within Christianity as one of "contempt of the world" and found that it has seen "sin as a permanent human fact that casts a shadow over all human achievements." This tradition encourages asceticism (and had an important influence on a number of monastic orders), spurns the attempt to perfect an earthly existence, and suggests that man "should by right neglect what is called the cultural enterprise - the cultivation of science and the arts, the pursuit of human values by human energies, the work of civilization." This outlook often asserts that the world is about to be overcome by the forces of evil. But there can still be hope that "in that moment [of collapse] the light disperses the darkness."
Contemporary environmentalism shares a closely related outlook: a sense that modern civilization tempts man to evil and represents retrogression rather than progress; an apocalyptic foreboding concerning ecological catastrophe and the near-term future of the earth; an attitude that human reason, as today embodied in science, offers false promises and alienates man from his true self; a view that a widespread sinfulness has infected the world (now seen in the "assaults" on and the "raping" of nature that meet popular indifference); a condemnation of the pervasive greed that motivates current evils (found especially in corporate "profiteers" who abuse nature); a view that urban and industrial civilization cuts men off from deeper and truer natural instincts; and a desire for a return to an earlier and more natural existence - the existence of the earth long ago - in which the products of modern science and economics would be banished. The deliverers of such environmental messages today issue a new call for men to renounce their evil ways and to live in simple harmony with their true natures and with the divine order that governs the universe - much as Christianity has preached repentance and deliverance from sin, and obedience to God.
This belief in the alienation of man from his true nature existed in the western tradition even before the advent of Christianity. For Plato, the undermining and corrupting power of greed and other economic influences, destroying the virtues of the citizenry, explained the decline of man. In the latter part of the ancient Roman empire, Augustine brought together the Platonic tradition and Christian theology. For Augustine, life on earth offered an existence of sin and depravity, characterized by "the love of self" and the pursuit of self-interest, as exemplified by the corruption and debauchery of ancient Rome.
In the history of western religion, Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation represent the next great statement of such a theology. Owing to the fall of man, reason is subverted; government, the law, and other institutional products of man's rational faculty will reflect the corrupted nature of man, exemplified for Luther by the Catholic Church. Reunion with man's true nature is not to be achieved in this world, but is possible only in a heavenly future. Luther also continued the Platonic and Augustinian tradition of seeing economic competition and the pursuit of self-interest as forces of darkness.
In some ways, Marxism is a secular variation of the tradition of Plato, Augustine, and Luther. Its fundamental thesis is the growing alienation through history of mankind from his true nature. In a new rendition of the fall of man, Marx argued that the forces of technological advance and economic growth created surplus production, causing the outbreak of class warfare to gain control over the resulting surpluses and thus yielding the alienation of man from himself. The Marxist concept of alienation was derived, as the political scientist Isaiah Berlin commented, from what "Rousseau and Luther and an earlier Christian tradition called the perpetual self-divorce of men from unity with nature, with each other, with God." Yet, Marx promised that there would soon be a day when the millennium arrives - the laws of economic history have predestined with ironclad certainty that the impending culmination of class struggle will open the way to a future in which earth becomes heaven.
The ideas of "deep ecology," which derive from this theological emphasis on the fall of man, are not widely known to the American public but are exercising a significant and growing (if often unacknowledged) influence even within the mainstream environmental movement. In their book "Deep Ecology", Bill Devall and George Sessions offer a familiar portrayal of the fall of man. The story of history as one of decline from an earlier existence in true harmony with nature. In their version of the story, "technological society not only alienates humans from the rest of nature but also alienates humans from themselves and from each other." Human pride and an excess of confidence in human reason, now exalted as scientific reason, have led to the fall of man. Devall and Sessions thus preach that deep ecology challenges "not only the growth addict and the chronic developer, but science itself."
As a secular faith, the tenets of deep ecology are closest to the Marxist analysis. Dave Foreman is the founder of Earth First, a self-described "radical environmental" organization that has received wide media attention in recent years for engaging in "monkey wrenching" (sabotaging heavy machinery and other acts of destroying instruments of development). If Marx once believed that the class struggle for surplus production had yielded the alienation of mankind from a truer nature, Foreman now contends that "human destruction of the wild" is the "keystone to understanding our alienation from nature, which is the central problem of Civilization." Foreman follows Marx in locating the fall of man in history; in this case, it is the arrival of agriculture and an organized society.
If advancing technological capacity for Marx first made surplus production possible, and thereby yielded the class struggle, Foreman now finds that it was the "nascency of agriculture" about 10,000 years ago that first left man "apart from the natural world" and yielded the evils of "city, bureaucracy, patriarchy, war, and empire." Where Marx saw history as revealing an ever deeper corruption and degradation, Foreman now finds history to be the story of "an ever widening rift" that opened "between the wilderness that created us and the civilization created by us." In the gospel of Foreman, if it was the wilderness that created man, man has now rebelled against his primitive naturalness and fallen into sin. One can hardly fail to note the environmental retelling in secular form of the Genesis story. The creation in the Garden of Eden and the original sin of Adam and Eve (the pursuit of knowledge) causing mankind to be cast out into sin and iniquity.
In his recent, much-noted book, "The End of Nature", William McKibben writes of a severe "crisis of belief" in the current era but asserts that "many people, including me, have overcome it to a greater or lesser degree by locating God in nature." When Europeans first arrived in North America, McKibben writes, they found a "wilderness" that was a "blooming, humming, fertile paradise," very much like the biblical version - but by destroying God are instead "making ourselves gods." If they succeed, if nature, or God, no longer exists, there would be no "hope for a living, eternal, meaningful world." In essence, "nature" becomes for McKibben a substitute for the Christian God. If Friedrich Nietzsche a century earlier warned of dire consequences of the death of God, the end of nature today for McKibben and for many others of environmental faith would have much the same meaning.
Because there is a long tradition in America of separating church and state, and for tactical and other reasons, spokesman for the contending theological viewpoints often leave the religious elements implicit. As a society, we often mask basic value disagreements by dressing them up in the formal rhetoric of rational discourse. Yet, theological terms and a recognition of an underlying religious content have been creeping into policy discussions with growing frequency. Although leaders of environmental groups are often guarded in their public statements, funding solicitations of these groups are often much more revealing of the fundamental values and convictions of their membership. A few selections from recent solicitation letters of leading environmental organizations are offered below to illustrate the prominent role that themes and images from our western religious heritage play in the appeals of these groups.
Natural Resources Defense Council: Imagine a spectacular bay [in Alaska] that is home to the greatest concentration of marine life in North America - with more fish, birds, whales, seals, and otters than inhabit any other single place - more wildlife refuges and critical habitat areas than any other region on the continent. Now picture that the world's oil giants - Shell, Mobil and others - propose drilling for oil and gas in this national environmental treasure, at the invitation of the United States government. Opening up Bristol Bay to oil and gas drilling is akin to opening up Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks to oil giants. I believe we can save Bristol Bay if I can convince you to help us.
One meaning of "save" is to preserve, but another is to curb the influence of evil. Today, urgent new calls are being issued to save innocent environments and helpless wildlife from the ravages of human exploitation and sinfulness. In this case, nature must be saved from "oil giants," who provide an especially powerful symbol of the growing alienation from nature resulting from modern technology and the forces of economic development. It is the ability to tap oil, generate electricity, and utilize other energy supplies that has given mankind a new and enormous power to reduce nature to submission for human purposes. The oil companies use drilling equipment and other intrusive technologies that can be seen as almost literally raping the virgin earth. Oil companies are large and impersonal corporations, motivated by the pursuit of profit and indifferent to the assaults on nature that their own activities bring about. In short, if the power of greed has long tempted Christians to sin, and if in Marxism surplus production moved one class to enslave another, now in our own time the need for energy to maintain the luxuries of modern living compels man to still further depravity, the violation once again of the innocence of nature.
The Wilderness Society: We need to protect our wilderness areas from being bulldozed, stripmined, denuded, and drilled. Destroy them and we destroy our spirit. Destroy them and we destroy our sense of values. Destroy them and we deprive future generations of their greatest heritage. Destroy them and we upset a critical balance of nature, an upset that will have long-range adverse effects on our health and quality of life. Wilderness and the environment have become today's scapegoat, sacrificed on the altar of economic expediency.
To preserve a wilderness is to maintain a place where humanity can experience nature in the absence of human intrusion. Wilderness "cathedrals" some have called these places. A wilderness, like a church, is a small enclave where the alienation, otherwise so pervasive in modern life, has been challenged. If the church historically sought to teach and to minister the restoration of man's sinless nature, as it was once found in an earthly paradise in the Garden of Eden, an environmentalist's return to nature now seeks a physical environment where the signs of human misdeeds are missing. A place, as the Wilderness Act of 1964 states, that is "untrammeled by man." If reunion with nature for many in the current age has assumed the traditional meaning of reunion with God, a wilderness is a place for communing with and being at one with the divinity.
Sierra Club: The progressive loss of the ozone shield will result in millions of new cases of skin cancer. In addition, increases in ultraviolet (UV) light will cause massive losses in the productivity of the oceans because, as one scientist put it, "we simply fry the plankton in UV." An increase in global temperatures is resulting from the over-use of fossil fuels and from massive deforestation. Also, rainfall patterns will shift, resulting in devastation of the world's food crops. Finally, the sea may rise, flooding much of the world's coastal plain. Citizens are going to have to be fully educated about the threat to global climate and then called to action.
In the Bible, the wicked can expect to incur the wrath of God. Drought and pestilence will be the lot of those who disobey, as in the time of Noah a flood encompassed the entire earth. Now, as the Sierra Club warns, massive flooding again threatens. Global climate change raises the prospect of widespread "devastation" of agriculture. Other catastrophes and disasters loom as well, which may arrive at any moment. Yet, these punishments for human attacks on and indifference to nature can be avoided. Men must be "called" to a new crusade on which the very future of the earth may depend. They must be educated in the truths of the natural world in order that they may reform their wicked ways. Otherwise, if the separation of man from nature continues to widen, there will be an ultimate and unforgiving reckoning.
Environmental Unitarians: The environmentalism of these solicitations and of deep ecologists such as Dave Foreman is of a fire-and-brimstone sort, harking back to Calvin and other Protestant reformers who saw a depraved world filled with sinners bent on their own destruction. But environmentalism also has its optimists, who have greater faith in human reason and in the benevolent impulses of mankind. These "Unitarians" of the environmental movement envision a happier future for humanity. Indeed, a wide range of practical and theological considerations can be found among those who have enlisted in the environmental cause.
In a recent analysis of "the meaning of wilderness," the chairman of the Sierra Club, Michael McCloskey, identifies 24 reasons to support the creation of wilderness areas. The reasons were classified into four main categories: biocentric; anthropocentric but not utilitarian; anthropocentric and utilitarian; and, least valid, commercial. The utilitarian reasons included "watershed function," "education," "science and research," "therapy," and "recreation." Wilderness areas in the United States can be seen as a museum of the geological and biological past, especially important to a nation that otherwise lacks a lengthy history to record. But McCloskey concludes that the core justification for creating wilderness areas is that they provide "beacons of hope for all those whose lives are oppressed by lines of traffic, layers of smog, piles of trash, and the menace of toxins. At last, perhaps, we can understand what Thoreau meant when he said: in wildness is the preservation of the world.'"
Is Man Part of Nature?
Despite drawing heavily on the Judeo-Christian tradition, environmental theology also contains major new theological elements. In the western religious tradition to return to an original state of nature has been to return to the sinless condition of mankind in the Garden of Eden, or for many secular theologies of the modern age, to some primitive tribal existence. Current environmental theologians, however, now have available to them the fairly recent scientific knowledge that for all but a very limited recent span, nature did not include human beings. To return to the original nature of creation thus might now be interpreted to mean a return to a state of nature that preceded human influence.
This theological logic is today exhibited in the formal criteria for designation of wilderness areas, where it is precisely the absence of signs of human presence that must be documented. Following a similar logic, the National Park Service maintains a policy to avoid interfering with nature and to seek to return to original natural conditions preceding human influence (thus, man-made fires are fought but "natural" fires are allowed to burn). The government goes to great lengths to regulate very small quantities of man-made pesticides, but sees little problem in the widespread presence of dangerous pesticides that are created naturally by plants and vegetables. Global warming due to natural causes would be a cause for concern, but would no doubt stimulate much less public alarm than warming due to a buildup of gases caused by human activities. In each case the violation of nature is the basic concern, not the risk or other impact on human well-being.
The AIDS of the Earth: Environmental theology faces a dilemma that could prove insuperable: how can mankind find harmony with and return to an original state of nature when the very presence of man may now be seen as foreign to original nature? One theoretical answer would be the disappearance of mankind. Many environmental proponents seeking to limit the violation of nature support a sharply reduced human population on earth. A former leader of Greenpeace, Paul Watson, recently commented that "our species [is] the AIDS of the Earth: we are rapidly eroding the immune system of the Earth, destroying [her] ability to cleanse herself." If so, perhaps the proper fate of humanity might even be the same that medical research today seeks for AIDS.
Such theological logic was actually carried to this extreme by the author of a proposal - hopefully offered somewhat tongue-in-cheek - that appeared a while ago in a radical environmental publication: "only a very few of human pathogens are shared by other partners on our planet - biological warfare will have no impact on other creatures, big or small, if we design it carefully." Although few if any environmentalists would so advocate, in some fringe groups serious proposals are being made to exclude signs of human presence from as much as one-third of the land area of the earth.
Some environmentalists have avoided this theological difficulty by arguing that man should be seen not as foreign to but as an inherent part of nature, no different in any fundamental way from the plants, animals, and perhaps even inanimate objects of the natural world. A faith of an animistic or pantheistic character would result: worshipping nature and seeking a unification of man with the divine element to be found directly and literally in the natural world. However, these environmentalists face a theological problem of equal severity. If the lion is not to be condemned morally for wanton acts of cruelty against other creatures, why, then, should mankind be judged harshly for making practical use of the natural world? This brand of environmental theology ends up in a virtual self-contradiction: men are to look to the current natural world for their values and spiritual sustenance, yet are instructed to behave and are to be judged by a standard found nowhere else in nature.
Law of Nature and of Nature's God
Lynn White's influential argument that only a new and non-western religion could protect the environment has diverted attention from a more promising theological direction for the environmental movement. Few would dispute that there are new threats to the world ecology; that there are growing numbers of people, creating increased demands on natural resources; and that quality of life becomes a greater concern as other basic human needs are met. These factors and others suggest the necessity of taking active steps to maintain and improve environmental quality. Yet, it does not follow that a brand-new theology is needed to justify such efforts. Indeed, perhaps reinterpreted a bit to take account of improved ecological knowledge and other changing circumstances, the messages of the Judeo-Christian tradition not only offer ample scope for environmentalism but firmer grounds for the development of an environmental ethic and a theology of environmental protection.
While deep ecology and other branches of environmental theology have borrowed from the ascetic tradition of Christianity, there are other theological outlooks of equal importance. Besides the tradition of "contempt of the world," John Courtney Murray labeled a second and much different central tradition of Christianity as one of "affirmation of the worldly." There is no need to reject the current social order and its values, but man should set about "building himself a world" through the historical processes already at work. Although this theological tradition recognizes man's sinful nature, it sees history as not the story of a fall into ever greater sin and evil, but potentially of the progressive realization of "the life of reason" with the help of God.
Such a worldly and rationalist outlook reached a high point in Christianity in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. If Martin Luther saw rational argument as often subversive of strong faith, for Aquinas a life of reason brought man closer to God. Much of Christian theology over the centuries has been grounded in a natural law tradition that finds in reason the means to discover the divine intent for this world.
Mammon or Messiah research cross-post