Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis (1967)

Lynn White Jr.’s landmark paper shows up in many, if not most, papers addressing the modern environmental crisis.  Though widely lauded White’s paper rarely gets the praise it deserves.  As a critic of Christianity’s impact on western civilization he is better informed and argues with greater honesty than many of the faith’s contemporary detractors.  White, rather than deny any positive contribution of Christianity towards western civilization, outlines a history whereby Christianity, as a result of two historical facts, gives rise to the scientific and industrial revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries and the resulting ecological crisis.

The first axiom, where White’s explanation can be called the exploitative hermeneutic (emphasis is mine):

Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.  As early as the 2nd century both Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when God shaped Adam he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the Second Adam.  Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature.  Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions (except, perhaps, Zorastrianism), 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.

The second historical fact (emphasis mine):

The Christian dogma of creation, which is found in the first clause of all the Creeds, has another meaning for our comprehension of today’s ecologic crisis.  By revelation, God had given man the Bible, the Book of Scripture.  But since God had made nature, nature also must reveal the divine mentality.  The religious study of nature for the better understanding of God was known as natural theology.  In the early Church, and always in the Greek East, nature was conceived primarily as a symbolic system through which God speaks to men: the ant is a sermon to sluggards; rising flames are the symbol of the soul’s aspiration.  The view of nature was essentially artistic rather than scientific.  While Byzantium preserved and copied great numbers of ancient Greek scientific texts, science as we conceive it could scarcely flourish in such an ambience.

However, in the Latin West by the early 13th century natural theology was following a very different bent.  It was ceasing to be the decoding of the physical symbols of God’s communication with man and was becoming the effort to understand God’s mind by discovering how his creation operates.  The rainbow was no longer simply a symbol of hope first sent to Noah after the Deluge: Robert Grosseteste, Friar Roger Bacon, and Theodoric of Freiberg produced startlingly sophisticated work on the optics of the rainbow, but they did it as a venture in religious understanding.  From the 13th century onward, up to and including Leitnitz and Newton, every major scientist, in effect, explained his motivations in religious terms…And Newton seems to have regarded himself more as a theologian than as a scientist.  It was not until the late 18th century that the hypothesis of God became unnecessary to many scientists.

It is often hard for the historian to judge, when men explain why they are doing what they want to do, whether they are offering real reasons or merely culturally acceptable reasons.  The consistency with which scientists during the long formative centuries of Western science said that the task and the reward of the scientist was “to think God’s thoughts after Him” leads one to believe that this was their real motivation.  If so, then modern Western science was cast in a matrix of Christian theology.  The dynamism of religious devotion shaped by the Judeo-Christian dogma of creation, gave it impetus.

Through these two facts White elucidates his distinctly neo-Luddite thesis and conclusion.  Science and technology, being cast in and products of the exploitative Christian principle, offer little hope of helping to escape an ecological crisis for which the two disciplines are, in White’s view, highly responsible.

In conclusion, he offers two paths to address the conundrum that the west’s own methods of coping with environmental problems might well be the primary culprit in causing them.  One solution is that western civilization turn to a different religious paradigm for understanding the man-nature relationship (he suggests Zen Buddhism, but like Wendell Berry three decades later in Christianity and the Survival of Creation, laments that culturally this is probably an impossible expectation).  The other solution he offers is a ressourcement of the tradition, specifically through the history and story of St. Francis of Assisi, where the exploitative principle that creates the foundation for modern science and technology might itself be scrapped and reworked.

Four decades after White’s paper, and a decade after Berry’s, Jame Schaefer has done the legwork of an ecological ressourcement that could have benefited both of these scholars.  In Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics Schaefer goes well outside the Francis box, compelling as his story is, to eastern and western patristics (Basil and Augustine), the medieval church (Aquinas and Hugh of St. Victor) and even into the reformation with St. John of the Cross.

Beyond rebutting the exploitative hermeneutic that White ascribes to and Berry argues against, she delves into the intellectual foundations of the Christian tradition that parallel modern environmental value theories.  She could go further; there appears to be a case that Christian theology anticipates major 20th century movements and scientific theories such as agrarianism and ecosystem and earth system theories.  If someone had the background and knowledge to offer a comparative view of how Christian and other religions’ intellectual traditions square up with a modern understanding of the environment environmental activists might finally stop wistfully imagining a world in which western civilization could have just been Buddhist.

More to come on Schaefer’s work in future posts.


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