This week we ponder the connections between Christianity and the environment, through two readings.
Lynn White claims that Christianity has set up Western culture to think nature exists for human exploitation, with man as master of nature, and that this has led to Western technological success as well as ecological misery.
Pope Francis, on the other hand, claims that the Bible shows that humans are the stewards of the Earth, using his influence as the Pope to advance the biblical cause for increased environmental mindfulness.
Both argue interesting ideas, and both are accomplished people. But they have something else in common, too – they’re both wrong.
Lynn White comes at history looking for a reason Western Europe had so much success, and he lands on Western Christianity, which was unique to Europe. What else was largely unique to Europe? Constant war. Nowhere on Earth was there such a close competition for power between so many nations, uniting to blunt a common enemy when one got too strong. In Asia, for instance, most countries were tributaries to China: they had a stable position in the world. Europe launched the age of exploration to finance their wars, and they had the best cannons because they had so much practice making them. Necessity is the mother of invention, and competing European powers had plenty of necessity with their survival on the line.
That aside, Lynn White’s argument is defeated by something the Pope brings up. In the encyclical, Pope Francis says “the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people” (92). If exploitation of nature arises from Christianity, where does exploitation of humanity come from? Cultures all over the world have exploited people horribly, showing that exploitation is a universal human qualm. If exploitation has been a problem all over the world, I’m skeptical that non-European powers didn’t become technological leaders because they were too polite to hurt the Earth.
Pope Francis is advocating for environmentalism through the lens of the Bible and Catholicism, which I support him doing.
However what undermines Pope Francis’ point is the apparent mutability of the Bible. You can make the biblical case for anything if you look hard enough. For example, the Americans who say that same-sex marriage goes against their religion because of 1 or 2 verses that indirectly reference same-sex sex. Slavery was even justified through the Bible. So when Pope Francis claims that the Bible and Christianity are inherently and intentionally environmentalist, that is wrong as well. He’s just giving it that meaning.
What is the relationship between Christianity and the environment? Christianity is not the root cause of environmental degradation, nor it is inherently environmentalist. Christianity is a lens to view the world through, and hopefully Christians like Pope Francis can use their faith to make the world a better place.