Christianity and the Environmental Crisis
Forty-five years ago, Lynn White wrote the words that were heard around the world: “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen” (Foltz; White, p. 34). Consequently, White’s proposal facilitated discussion regarding the influence of Christian dogma and its role as the driving force of the environmental crisis. For over forty years, Philosophers and Theologians have defended and opposed White’s brazen statement about Christianity. I propose that White’s generalization of Christianity is ambiguous and that true Christianity,the actual teachings of Jesus, contain ample resources for an ecological ethic.
In his 1967 essay,The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, Lynn White wrote, “Especially in it’s Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion that the world has seen” (Foltz; White, p. 34). Anthropocentric is a term used for the view that humans are to be valued higher than anything in the universe. White describes 2nd century Christians as having “established a dualism of man and nature” and “believing that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends” (Foltz; White, p. 34). White explains that the Christian worldview regarding nature stems from the belief that at the time of creation, man was given dominion to rule over nature; Christians alienated themselves from pagans by creating a “mood of indifference” towards nature, and that man has a “monopoly” on the spirit world, therefore “enabling him to exploit nature with no limit” (Foltz; White, p.34). White’s essay concludes with a call for the rejection of the “Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man” (Foltz; White, p. 36).
By prefacing the statement with “especially in its Western form”, White gives the reader a better idea of the style of Christianity that he is referring to, yet it is still not totally clear (Foltz; White, p.34). In 2011 there were approximately 41,000 separate Christian denominations and organizations worldwide (“Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life”). The Christian worldview is extremely diverse; there are approximately 2.18 billion Christians living all over the world within various cultural settings (“Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life”). In Anna Peterson’s essay, In and of the World? Christian Theological Anthropology and Environmental Ethics, she concurs that White’s “claims are too sweeping” (Foltz; Peterson, p. 319). Peterson clarifies this by stating that “claims about God shape claims about humans” which ultimately “shape views regarding nature”, yet “Christianity is a diverse, changing, and complex tradition” (Foltz; Peterson, p. 320). It is the interpretations of the Bible that cause some Christians to hold damaging views about nature, not Christianity in its original form.
White’s article is accurately titled, The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, yet the claim is not made directly towards certain Christians during a specific historical timeframe; the claim is not that “Christianity [was] the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen”, the claim is that “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen” (Foltz; White, p.34). Claiming that 2.18 million modern Christians, from 41,000 separate Christian groups around the world are the cause and the driver of the environmental crisis is unsubstantiated (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life). It is reasonable to argue that today’s environmental crisis may have origins within certain modernist Christian philosophy’s hundreds of years ago, yet non-ecological worldviews are also influenced by non-religious factors such as money, greed, power, and sheer scientific curiosity, and a host of other influences.
While there are tens of thousands of separate Christian denominations and groups worldwide that interpret the Bible in a multitude of ways, the core of Christianity is simply the belief in Jesus Christ as God made flesh and the resurrection of the dead, as well as the commission to follow the teachings of Jesus. Granted, notable historic Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas reasoned that the exploitation of nature was appropriate because “God made all creatures unequal”, and Augustine “insisted that ultimate value lies only in spiritual things” (Foltz; Peterson, p. 323-324), yet Christians do not follow the teachings of Aquinas and Augustine; they are required to follow the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus taught his followers something different. Similar to Eastern traditions, Jesus taught his followers to be mindful about consumption: “…the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Foltz; Mark 4:19 NIV). Jesus also spoke of God’s love of nature: “See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these” (Bible; Matt 6:28-29 NIV) Furthermore, the book of Revelations states that wrath will come and “destroy those who destroy the earth” (Bible; Rev 11:18 NIV). The book of Genesis, which is one of White’s main positions for argument, describes animals and sea creatures as holding intrinsic value: “God blessed them [birds and sea creatures] and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.’” (Bible; Genesis 1:22). These are just a few of the many passages in the Bible that admonish Christians to not over-consume and to take care of the earth and its creatures.
The Christianity which White boldly chastised for causing and driving the environmental crisis is based on a highly anthropocentric interpretation of the Bible, which was used by certain so-called Christians in the past, and is no doubt used even in this present day, as an alibi for the manipulation and destruction of nature which temporarily benefits certain groups of people. These particular interpretations contradict the message of Jesus, which is to be like Him and to love His creation; “…God so loved the world…” (Bible; John 3:16).
What do you think? Is Christianity the most anthropocentric religion that the world has ever seen? Why or why not?
Bible New International Version 1984
Foltz , Richard. Worldviews, Religion, and the Environment A Global Anthology. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2003. Print.
“Global Christianity.” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Pew Research Center, 19 2011. Web. 22 Oct 2012. http://www.pewforum.org/