A Distant Examination of a Dialectic Regarding Religions’ Relationship to Environmental Catastrophe — or — I Have No Idea Who’s Correct, So Let’s Try to Find Out

Lynn White and Pope Francis, through their combined (unintentional) efforts, have managed to turn my brain into applesauce by arguing viewpoints which require that I have adequate biblical literacy, a comprehensive historical knowledge of the so-called West, and a mindset which allows me to actually come to a firm conclusion about anything. But I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

Lynn White, in his essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, argues that a person’s view of ecology is determined through how they view themselves in relation to nature.  He also argues that the primary underlying reason for the destruction of our environment is not only the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of contemporary science, but also a view of humanity which White believes came from Christian theology: the belief that humans are separate from nature, and that they have supremacy over nature. At some point in history, humankind made a dramatic switch from having a symbiotic relationship with nature to exploiting nature. White says, “…to use the new and more efficient plow, peasants pooled their oxen to form large plow-teams, originally receiving (it would appear) plowed strips in proportion to their contribution. Thus, distribution of land was based no longer on the needs of a family but, rather, on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth,” (White 4). White thinks that this change directly links to the advent of Christianity in Europe (specifically the Protestant and Catholic denominations). He states, “Is it coincidence that modern technology, with its ruthlessness toward nature, has so largely been produced by descendants of these peasants of northern Europe?” (White 4). Ultimately, when Lynn White argues that “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them” (White 4), he is more or less correct. Holding the viewpoint that one is related genetically to a fish or a bacterium, for instance, is often going to result in a much more connected and mutual relationship to the environment, whereas the viewpoint that one is separated from and above nature is likely going to result in a more distanced relationship from our ecology. But is Western Christianity to blame, as Lynn White suggests? To say that Western Christianity is the one true answer would be a stretch, but as a general direction to point to, he makes a pretty convincing argument. People practicing pagan religions, as noted by White and based on what I’ve read in other Climate Change literature, historically have a much more mutual relationship with the environment, and view humans and nature as equally important (White 4). It would seem that it was not until the emergence of monotheistic religions that people began to have the influential belief that human beings exist outside of nature and control it. But I haven’t found any compelling alternative theories to contrast White’s argument. Oh, except for this one:

In “Laudato Si”, Pope Francis approaches a similar question with a far different answer. He states that Christianity itself is not the problem, but instead, people have been misinterpreting God’s well-meaning words over the course of history. The Bible’s innumerable translations have led to centuries of misinterpretation, where different religious denominations took pieces that they saw fit and either changed or discarded pieces that didn’t fit into their narrative. Pope Francis knows this, and points out where these misconceptions are located in the Bible, and how God never intended for humanity to view the world in such a dangerous way (Francis 49). But despite the examples Pope Francis provides, the interpretation that man is separate from nature persists throughout the world anyway, thanks to the poor usage of the word “dominion”. But through some further investigation, I found that the book of Genesis (King James Version) contains a passage which presents us with what appears to be another questionable word: “…and God said unto [humanity], Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it…” (Gen 1:28). Subdue is synonymous with conquer, defeat, and master. It’s no wonder that so many people have misinterpreted this concept. But if Pope Francis is sure that this was a misinterpretation at all, why were the words “dominion” and “subdued” chosen for the Bible in the first place? Was there a decision made in an early translation of the Bible where the overseer(s) weren’t satisfied with God merely granting them “stewardship” or something or other, and thanks to some already established cultural desire for superiority over nature, they made a covert switch? If so, when did that begin to take place? Who knows? 

Though studying the reasons and origins behind the exploitation of the earth’s resources is crucial for understanding how we got to this dangerous point as a civilization and how we can prevent something similar from happening down the line (if there is a ‘down the line’), at least we’re discussing articles by two people who agree that Climate Change is an anthropogenic issue. It is becoming clear to more and more humans—albeit quite slowly—that human impacts are in fact real, and are a problem. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *