A Power struggle with the He and i

I’ve spent the last few days trying to figure out how I feel about this topic and where I wanted to go with this post, and all I have found is more confusion. While I do have some thoughts I would like to share, they all feel jumbled and misguided, and thus I’m excited to listen and participate in discussions about these two texts, however I feel slightly uncomfortable and unqualified sharing opinions. 

I grew up in a Jewish household, where somewhere along the way I adopted the notion that all other religions are based on money, greed, and power, and that I was to steer clear of these for the sake of my spirituality and physical safety. Looking back on this, I can see that a lot of the views that I once carried were passed down from people who had spent much of their lives in fear of other cultures and religions. For context, my family comes from both Israel and Poland, has a rich Jewish history, and has multiple individuals who are either killed in our fought in WWII. As I grew older, I maintained the view that many religions, Christianity in particular are based on greed, power, and money, however I have done everything I could to remove myself from a feeling of superiority, or that other belief systems were wrong. I no longer associate with any religious faith, but I do not have anything against those who choose to follow a religion of their choosing, for as written by Papa Francesco “respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality” if we are to act in unity to make the right choices as a human race.

Coming from my background, I have unintentionally seen most religions as constructs which attempt to control various aspects of the world around us, notably other people and wealth. While this mindset created by such shortcomings of many organized religions has been easier to spot in politics, I hadn’t thought about this in The context of our collective approach to anthropogenically driven climate change.

While I understand these examples are not representative of all people and expressions of Catholicism, I would like to point to things such as the Crusades, the opulence of the Vatican and local churches, repeated diaspora due to religious persecution, the worship of gold, partial and at times prejudice views toward other religions, (most of these have to do with the “establishment” or Church rather than the context of biblical writings), etc.

To a less aware outside observer such as myself, the Catholic Church has always seemed to be plagued by an unending power struggle. As Papa Francesco reminds, “we are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.” A gift is not something to be conquered, rather to be cherished and used in good health. I feel that the aforementioned characterization of the Church comes from those who have misunderstood and, in turn, misused it’s powers, when in reality the true intent of this religion is to spread love for people and the world around us. That said, it seems that many misunderstandings come from two interpretation of love: one being to care for, replenish, and understand the world around us, and the other being to benefit from yet be grateful for. These two interpretations have far different outcomes when applied to our interactions with our environment. While some may choose to love through profit, a future is only sustainable when love is shown through awareness, care, and giving back. The importance of this understanding with respect to all other religions, individuals, and ecosystems cannot be overstated moving into the future.

“God didn’t say that”

“Historian Blames Christianity for Nature’s Downfall.” A quick summary (lacking depth) of the article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” written by historian Lynn White, Jr, published in Science magazine. Upon discovering that in the near future I was going to read an article about the subject above I felt two dominant emotions: curiosity and confusion. The notion that Lynn White Jr was going to lay the blame for the ecological crisis was both confusing and intriguing. As I always do before reading, I brainstormed what the text could contain, and I came up empty handed. I honestly had no idea how Lynn White, Jr was going to present his argument (though this lack of ideas could have been due to my lack of knowledge of Christianity and the Bible). And so I read, and was thoroughly impressed. Lynn White, Jr. presented his argument as such: science resulting in technological development have given the people a means to disrespect nature and harm the Earth. Christianity has given society a motivation or a reason to do so. In “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Lynn White, Jr. focuses on a specific section of the Bible regarding how Christianity views the relationship between men and nature. White writes, “Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.” Lynn White, Jr. interprets the Bible as giving Christians permission to abuse the environment as they have dominion over it. Honestly, at the end of the article, I was impressed by Lynn White, Jr.’s main argument and his explanation. Lynn White, Jr. was thorough in providing evidence and examples. In the article, Lynn White, Jr. describes the invention of a plow that required eight oxen to pull. Lynn White, Jr. describes the relationship between man and nature as more harmonious before this invention. Man took only what he needed for subsistence from the land when he had to work harder for it. Now man could exploit nature because he had the means to do so. This technological innovation (among others) and Christian teachings and values is what Lynn White, Jr. argues caused this current ecological crisis. 

As instructed, I traded “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” by Lynn White for Laudato Si by Pope Francis. The relationship between the two pieces is solidified in the second chapter of Laudato Si, titled “The Gospel of Creation.” Pope Francis begins the chapter by contemplating why he has to discuss non-believers or those who criticize, but he ultimately comes to the conclusion that religion has an important place in society. Pope Francis argues that discussing religion and science together is beneficial. This chapter (in my opinion) seemed a little bit like an attempt to save face. While Pope Francis goes on to propose a somewhat valid argument, his writing seems circular as he always ends up in the same place (though this could be a tactic to reiterate his point). While Lynn White, Jr. argues that Christianity and its text are the cause of the ecological crisis  (or motivating factor for individuals to exploit nature), Pope Francis (surprisingly) argues the exact opposite. Pope Francis argues that Christian texts do not lead or encourage Christians to have “dominion” over nature. Instead Christian texts argue for a symbiotic relationship between man and nature. Men are supposed to get from nature what they need to survive. And in return for nature giving them what they need (not desire), man is supposed to give back to the earth and respect it. Pope Francis writes that God made all organisms on life equal and that they all deserve respect and life. When presented with the fact that some Christians do deviate from these values he explains that those who act in this manner have misinterpreted the Bibles teachings. Alienation or separation from God helped cause these behaviors. Pope Francis provides examples that the good Christians do, specifically when mentioning Sundays when everyone, even donkeys, get the day to rest. Pope Francis also describes times that must be taken off, when no one can reap harvest for profit, or pick all that has been grown. The leftovers go to the poor and the wanderers. 

It is Lynn White, Jr.’s interpretation of the Bible and Pope Francis’ interpretation of the Bible that lead these men to take these sides. This is where their argument stems. Lynn White, Jr reads the same text as Pope Francis and instead of coming to the conclusion that Christians and nature must work together, he comes to the conclusion that Christians are being encouraged to exploit nature. Ultimately, it is evident that both Lynn White, Jr and Pope Francis care about the ecological crisis, and both have kind words about Saint Francis of Assisi, who had great concern and respect for the environment. Both men realize that man can feel above nature, and that is a problem that needs to be fixed. It appears that the main difference lies in their interpretations of man’s motivation to exploit.

The Dominant Worldviews of Christianity

While reading the writings of both Lynn White Jr. and the Pope, I could not help but be continuously reminded of the dominant worldviews each individual held, and how these views ultimately lead to what they have described as “ecological crisis.”

The Pope states, “The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth” (Francis, 48). The Pope’s encyclical letter makes it clear that the Earth does not solely belong to us, but every living creature inhabiting the planet. Humans have misinterpreted their dominion over Earth to mean much more than God has given us, in addition to acting selfishly with the gains we reap from tilling the Earth. The passages provided by both the Pope and White reminded me of the worldviews summarized by Dunlap: the Dominant Western Worldview, the Human Exceptionalism Paradigm, and the New Ecological Paradigm. White and the Pope suggest that most readers have interpreted the bible in a way that reinforces the Human Exceptionalism Paradigm. This model denotes humans being distinct and above all other creatures, as well as driving technology and being the master of the Earth.

This is where White’s discourse branches, as he does not believe Christianity’s teachings yield anything more than the thoughts of enslaving nature for our own personal gain (White, 1207). White emphasizes that in order to stop ecological collapse, we must reject Christian thought and arrogance, while the Pope details the “correct” interpretation of Christian texts. From the Pope’s words it is easy to gather that God intended for the New Ecological Paradigm to become dominant thought; that while humans are exceptional, they remain only one of many and are surrounded within the web of nature, creating unintended consequences while remaining dependent on the Earth for all resources. Further and from the Pope’s writings, is that in order to create solutions to solve the ecological crisis, all branches of human connection must be included.  Too often we seek out solutions that benefit our group, while leaving out others. In order to create lasting positive change, we must view the Earth as residents and not owners.  

Photo by Will Cornfield on Unsplash

Defining “Dominion”

“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

Dominion is defined as sovereignty or control. When translated literally in the context of Genesis 1:28 it gives rise to an interpretation of human superiority over Earth and her living creatures. In his analysis of the Catholic Church, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, Lynn White assumes the literal definition of dominion, and therefore places the blame of the ecological crisis on the church and its followers. This dominion, he argues, stems from the removal of natural spirits within the context of religion causing devaluation and exploitation of the natural world. However, there are other interpretations of the creation story, giving special consideration to the significance of dominion. In the Laudato Si’, the Pope specifically clarifies the difference between “dominion” and “domination”, stating that the dominion over nature given to man by God is a responsibility to care for and protect, not to exploit. He points out that, unfortunately, the actions of man have led the definitions of dominion and domination to become blurred into one and that the need to redefine and reevaluate our actions based on God’s original meaning of dominion has never been more urgent than now. 

The current actions of humans are reflective of Lynn White’s article and interpretation of dominion; we are exploiting the earth for selfish benefit and without respect for natural processes. The Pope acknowledges our actions, but instead of placing the blame on the teachings of the Catholic Church, accuses man of misinterpreting God’s word. These differences in interpretation have significant impacts on political, religious, and cross cultural understanding. If both White and the Pope interpreted the meaning of dominion in the same manner White’s blame on the Catholic Church may have instead been directed onto the actions of man. This misunderstanding has larger implications; without the divide between the scientific community (White) and the Catholic Church (the Pope), there would exist cooperation, rather than conflict, while working towards the common goal of a sustainable and healthy planet.

Common Ground?

Even though Lynn White Jr. and Pope Francis come from completely different sides when discussing the impacts humans play on the environment, they both share at least a few common points. One piece of contention that both Lynn White Jr. and Pope Francis share is the section of Genesis where it states humans have “dominion” over the earth. Pope Francis actively calls out people for incorrectly interpreting the bible and states that “we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures” (Francis 49). While Pope Francis attempts to change the way, people look at the earth through the eyes of the bible, Lynn White Jr. takes a different route. He argues that the way the bible was written gives people the notion that they are more important than any of the other creatures on this planet. He suggests that because of that line in Genesis people believe that “no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purpose” (White 4). Ultimately, while they go about it in different ways, both Pope Francis and Lynn White Jr. seem to conclude that when people view themselves as “above” the environment they will treat it with very little care. They will place their own personal comfort over everything else, creating and fueling this ecological crisis.