“What hath god wrought” Upon These Innocent Savages?

Pope Francis was considered a radical by much of the Christian world when his view on the nature of man and his connection to climate change opposed much of the contemporary theological perceptions of nature and natures place in the world. A particularly striking piece to this end is the second chapter of the Laudato Si’, which contains such rhetorical similarity to a plea for wounded friend’s life that it hinges on the edge of uncomfortable condolence and tearful empathy within a viewer’s conscience. Francis describes the personification of the earth to elicit a feeling of camaraderie and conscription within a societal system; the earth, a subject of our own matrix of control. Such a matrix within Francis’ writing, predicated on a voracious appetite for natural resources, suggests the genocidal manipulation of nature is bifurcated into both an attack on man and nature in one.

            Following the line of theological ideas left by Francis, Lynn White, Jr. continues the sentiments of the church within an algorithmic deduction of the motivations which spawned the need for such a mention of man’s relation to nature in the first place. Lynn observes the ideological separation of the eastern and western perceptions of nature within early civilization, alongside the creation of the allocation of resources according to economic pull rather than need, and places their precipice at the head of the concept that, as long as man is separated from nature and is superior, at least in concept, the ecological landscape will reflect our avarice, to highly probable deadly affect.

            The sentiments within each of these pieces rings true to myself as an aspiring scientist who knows, for a fact, that saying on certain grounds that I pursue such an interest as ‘a means to advancing the human condition’ is merely shorthand for an uncomplicated thrill of discovery and narcissistic measure of impact. Not too long ago, I was stuck within my own home because the air which consumed the space between my habitat and the others was scientifically known to be hazardous. I was happy; in some space, given environmental constraints, I was able to find joy in my connection to others through server rooms jam-packed with computers. Birds had left a few days before. Deer were few and far between. The animals had all but abandoned us as we waited to either get a signal to evacuate or see enough clear blue skies to go outside of our homes. The fires really shook what I thought I needed to be happy. I only hope that the ability of humans to persevere through their connections to others doesn’t leave climate change as an afterthought. However little of an environment we have in the future, I am sure that the humans then will be just as happy to be alive as those today, I hope that the fact that happiness is arbitrary doesn’t kill the planets beautiful ecosystem.

Is Christianity a Burden On the Climate, or a Call to Repair It?

The planet is currently in a period of ecological stress. This is more evident today than it has ever been in human history; with the ice caps melting, typhoons and hurricanes becoming more violent with every season, and fires lit by both nature and man growing to immense sizes, you would have to be willfully ignorant to be blind to the rising problem of the Earth’s gradual climatic shift.

But historian Lynn White argues that the problem of Earth’s climate started long before we had the weapons to destroy it. He describes in his paper titled, “The Historical Roots of Our Economic Crisis,” that the problems with our climate started with an idea – an attitude toward our world – that it was no more than a mere resource for us to harvest; a sacrificial lamb to perform a ritual of boundless prosperity for all of mankind. And he argues this idea was perpetuated by Christianity, whose God allegedly created the world as a playpen for mankind to do as it willed, so long as it did not intersect with sin. According to White, the Christian faith is entirely responsible for the modern self-serving attitude of mankind toward nature, as it created technology that allowed Western cultures to dominate the world in all forms: over nature, over nations, over other religions, and over other ideas. All would become subservient to the West and to the Christian God, and as the West grew over the world, it displaced nature itself. Believing that mankind was not nature and could not mix with it, like water cannot mix with oil, this imperialism led us inevitably to our present situation.

But there are other perspectives. Pope Francis, head of the Christian faith, believes that Christianity is no weapon against the world, but instead a weapon to aid it. The Pope states that the damage dealt to the world is a sin in itself, and that mankind has “forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth.” He pins the blame on mankind’s inability to take care of the world, motivated by greed and self-serving attitudes, much like White does. However, being the head of the Christian faith and an obvious large proponent of its beliefs, the Pope also says that God guides mankind toward selflessness, generosity, and self-sacrifice. By embracing the enlightenment of God, one also becomes a person that would never harm the world around him, for not only would that desecrate the world that He created, but also interfere with the values that God projects onto man.

Ultimately, it is inconclusive whether or not religion has played a hand in the state of our climate. While the arguments proposed by both authors appear to contradict each other at first glance, they both state the fact that an avarice for exploitation has pervaded the hearts of mankind for centuries. If this hunger fails to be alleviated, our world will enter a period of suffering that can be conceived by only the harshest writers and artists. Whether or not Hell exists at present, Earth will become a Hell to dwarf all other Hells, and we shall wallow in its burning wastelands, should we fail to remedy the climate’s continuing downturn.

Lynn White speaks, and the Pope claps back

Nature has had it tough for the last many centuries. According to historian Lynn White Jr. in “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, the principal cause of nature’s rough patch is the advent of Judeo-Christian religion. While other religions and cultures stressed the dualism of man with nature, Judeo-Christian belief placed man as a ruler over nature, who should exploit nature to his own ends. This attitude towards nature can best be expressed in the development of agricultural methods in Northern Europe that become progressively more destructive from the seventh century onward. Though, I would argue it is unfair to pin all the blame on Judeo-Christian religions. Long before the start of these religions, humans were already causing significant environmental damage. From the destruction of the Nile River ecosystem, to Pleistocene megafauna extinctions in every continent except Africa, it can be argued that humans have never been effective caretakers of nature. While in modern times, the Judeo-Christian view towards nature can be viewed as the primary reason we currently face an environmental crisis, it is likely that, even if Judeo-Christian beliefs were not nearly as prevalent in contemporary society, a different justification would have been created to over exploit the environment. 

Lynn White also discusses the life of St. Francis of Assisi. I found his story to be quite intriguing and thought his message of man being a part of nature, rather than being apart from nature, is a major counterpoint to Lynn White’s major claim of Judeo-Christian religions being  inherently antinature. White ends his opinion piece by stating that, because religion is the root of our environmental problem, our solution to remedying man’s strained relationship with nature, should therefore also be religious. 

Pope Francis, in “Laudato si’” starts by giving a shout out to St. Francis, before discussing a variety of environmental topics, from climate change to mass extinctions of the Earth’s biodiversity. The piece is subtitled “On care for our common home”.  This view of Earth being a common home, not just for humanity, but also all of the organisms that share the planet with us, is contrary to Lynn White’s view of Judeo-Christian religions placing man above nature. The Pope acknowledges that humanity is overexploiting nature, but rather than blaming Judeo-Christian beliefs, he names sin as the principal agent in society’s poisoned attitude towards nature. Though, I think the Pope would very much agree with Lynn White’s final statement, as he also seems to wholeheartedly believe the change in the way humans treat the environment should come directly through Christianity. 

Is Christianity as Anthropocentric as We Thought?

The Ecologic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, written by Lynn White Jr. in 1967 is a critical analysis of what, or who, is responsible for the current state of the environment. He concludes that the combination of developed technology and science gave us the power to selfishly exploit the Earth’s resources. He also argues that the Book of Genesis and the stories of man’s creation gave those of Western origin the belief that the Earth was given to us to use as we see fit. Christianity essentially gave us permission to do so because of its inherent anthropocentric nature. However, he acknowledges the exception of Saint Francis of Assisi. White references him as a unique, radical figure who attempted to balance the relationship between humans and the environment by acknowledging the importance of the roles even the smallest creatures play.

Ultimately, it seems White does not have faith in a technocentric solution. Since the roots of the advancement of science and technology are so intertwined with these religious knowledge systems, they alone cannot solve the crisis we are now in. Because many of us subscribe to beliefs of a higher power, we all must reexamine our religious and spiritual relationship with nature if there is to be hope of us finding a working solution.

In Laudato from 2015, the current Pope Francis acknowledges the climate crisis and claims that it is the responsibility of humans, especially Christians, to take care of the Earth and the environment. He references the story of creation as well and highlights that a key element of being human is having a balanced relationship with God, each other, and the Earth. Our relationship with Earth was thrown out of balance once we were consumed with greed and refused to see our true role in this world. He admits that this could have been a result of misinterpretations of the Bible, but essentially, humans may retrieve sustenance from the Earth but must also maintain it, take and give to keep balance. He also addresses and credits the actions of Saint Francis from Assisi with the intention of healing the relationship between nature and Man through his practices.

Pope Francis does not offer us step-by-step guidance on how to proceed, but describes how faith is a superior motivator to follow the path of protectors and caretakers of the Earth that we were originally created for. He urges us to consider that we are not only protecting the Earth, but we are protecting others and even ourselves because we were created in a system of interdependence. Humans should use religion as a means to protect the environment instead of an excuse to exploit it. While still anthropocentric in that humans are still regarded as a superior species in the eyes of the Church, the views expressed by Pope Francis lean also more towards Ecocentrism. He acknowledges that humans are still part of an interconnected ecological system and they are not the only ones with inherent importance and value.

A christian’s view on lynn white and pope francis

As a christian myself, my reaction to both these articles may come as a surprise but I found both of them remarkably interesting and I actually learned a lot from both of them – both as a student and a believer of the christian faith. 

For starters, Lynn White’s article, The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, was actually very eye-opening in that I never considered how religion (especially Judeo-christianity) played a role in the development of technology and science. The connections and observations he made about Latin and Greek interpretations as well as Islamic ideals regarding man’s relationship to nature was almost, profound to me in that I never learned about these other views nor did I even consider how it was that christianity “won the race” per se, against all the other religious views about the world. More specifically, the way he capitalized on the idea that christianity “appealed” to western Europe because it allowed western europeans to exploit nature for their own benefits without guilt especially challenged my current views of christianity, albeit I am still very much a believer. Personally, when he proposed the idea of “replacing” christianity as the “main” (for lack of a better term) religion for most western thinking (in which he believes leads the development of technology and science), as a method of saving the world from the ecologic crisis, I physically frowned as I knew this wasn’t what I believed about chirstianity which is why I eagerly read the Pope’s article to see how someone of my faith would respond. 

To put it shortly, the Pope’s article had me nodding many times as I found myself agreeing with most of the points that he was making especially when he brought up bible verses explaining why and how christianity does not support the idea that man has domination over nature but rather, man should be caring and in resonance with nature. Of course, I do have some skepticism over the bible verses he used since I don’t have the bible learned and memorized and well as he does and I do have my suspicions that some verses may have been used out of context in order to support his argument (much like how horror movies may use bible verses out of context to evoke a certain way of thinking). However, I do also believe that with some more digging around the bible, I’d probably come to a full agreement with the Pope’s claims and agree that christianity does not condone the claims of Lynn White. 

Just as a disclaimer, I did not take any offense to Lynn White’s claims or suggestions, but rather, I was quite intrigued by his claims and I’m actually interested to learn more about religion’s impact on the environment. Additionally, I am not one that just “agrees” with the Pope and with everything he says simply because I’m a christian believer but it just happens to be that in this particular article, I found myself agreeing with him on most of his points. I do disagree with some things he believes but that is besides the point. 

Is Religion the solution or the cause of Our Ecologic Crisis?

The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis, by Lynn White, Jr., comments on the union between science, technology, and man’s interpretations of religion. It proposes that the current state of our ecologic crisis stems from those three ideas. When describing the advancement of how humans plowed fields for agricultural use, White highlights how these new ideas were geared towards exploiting nature rather than being a part of it. Old methods like cross-plowing were gentle compared to new methods that were more violent and disruptive. These new methods made it easier to not only turn the soil but to also farm much greater areas of land. The progress in science and technology that she describes had been influenced by Christian beliefs in man’s relationship with nature. With this in mind, she draws the conclusion that Christianity in and of itself, tends to affirm man as a dominator of nature. The solution to our crisis, therefore, can not be found by applying more science and technology. We must first redefine the relationship between us and the natural world, unattached from Christianity. 

Pope Francis shares his own beliefs in Laudato Si. He argues that it is clear God wanted man to be both cultivator and caretaker for nature and our fellow man. While we can use it for our own subsistence, to take anything more than that is beyond our discretion. It is also our God-given duty to maintain the natural world for the next generations, for they too will require its resources. Pope Francis urges us to recognize our existence as one not only created by God but to exist by his side. By devoting ourselves to faith convictions we can provide ourselves with the motivation needed to fulfill our duty. He quotes the stories of Cain and Abel and of Noah to further his argument. In both cases, God sees a lack of justice and so he delivers punishment. To truly maintain justice we must also watch out for the more vulnerable peoples around us. 

An Honors Colloquium in Environmental Arts and Humanities