Eco-Theology

In 1967, Lynn White published an article in the periodi­cal, Science, entitled, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Cri­sis,” in which he examined the influence of Christianity on human­kind’s relationship with nature. White believed that envi­ronmental decline was, at its root, a religious problem, specifi­cally a Christian problem. He marked the Industrial Revolution as the fundamental turning point in our ecological history, when our ability to destroy nature grew exponentially. However, for White, the belief that the Earth was a resource for human consump­tion was much older and could be traced back to the triumph of medieval Christianity over pagan animism, and even further back to the Biblical injunction to humankind to “subdue” the Earth and exercise “dominion” over every living thing. Medie­val Christianity, according to White, elevated humankind, who was believed to have been made in God’s image, and deni­grated the rest of creation, which was believed to have no soul.

“In antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. … Be­fore one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of the particular situation, and keep it placated. By destroy­ing pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to ex­ploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natu­ral objects. … Man’s effective monopoly on spirit in this world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.”

White argued that what was needed to avoid environmental catas­trophe was a change in religious perspective:

“More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new reli­gion, or rethink our old one. … Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be es­sentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny.”

White concluded that our problem was to find a “viable equiva­lent to animism,” and he recommended St. Francis of Assisi’s model of a “democracy of creation” in which all creatures are respected and humankind’s dominion is circumscribed.

In 1972, five years after White published his article, Arnold Toynbee published “The Religious Background of the Present Environmental Crisis.” Similar to White, Toynbee traced the cause of environmental destruction to monotheism, with which he contrasted the ancient pagan attitude toward nature:

“Some of the major maladies of the present-day world—in particular the recklessly extravagant consumption of na­ture’s irreplaceable treasures and the pollution of those that [humankind] has not already devoured—can be traced back to a religious cause, and that this cause is the rise of monotheism. …

“For the premonotheistic [human] nature was not just a treasure trove of ‘natural resources.’ Nature was, for [them], a goddess, ‘Mother Earth,’ and the vegetation that sprang from the earth, the animals that roamed, like [humankind itself], over the earth’s surface, and the miner­als hiding in the earth’s bowels all partook of na­ture’s divinity. The whole of [their] environment was di­vine, and [their] sense of nature’s divinity outlasted [their] technological feats of cultivating plants and domesti­cating animals: wheat and rice were not just ‘cere­als,’ they were Ceres herself, the goddess who has al­lowed [humankind] to cultivate these life-giving plants and had taught [them] the art.

“My observation of the living religion of eastern Asia, and my book knowledge of the extinguished Greek and Roman religion, have made me aware of a startling and disturbing truth: that monotheism, as enunciated in the Book of Genesis, has removed the age-old restraint that was once placed on [humankind’s] greed by [their] awe. [Humankind’s] greedy impulse to exploit nature used to be held in check by [their] pious worship of nature. This primitive inhibition has been removed by the rise and spread of monotheism.”

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These articles set off an extended debate about the role of reli­gion in creating and sustaining the West’s exploitation of the natu­ral world. Many writers have followed White and Toynbee in contrasting Judeo-Christianity, which is portrayed as dualistic and anthropocentric, with Asian and indigenous religions, which are portrayed as holistic and eco-centric. Whether or not the White hypothesis is correct, this idea has had a profound influence on Neo-Pagans, who often describe their beliefs in con­trast with the Abrahamic religions (as I have done above). It is no coincidence that White’s article was published in 1967, the same year that two of the earliest Neo-Pagan groups, Feraferia and the Church of All Worlds, were incorporated.

The White Hypothesis is a form of what Arne Kalland calls the myth of the “ecologically noble Other.” Whether the Other is the “noble oriental” or the “noble savage,” the myth romanti­cizes reality. It oversimplifies both the Abrahamic religions, which are vilified, and the Asian and indigenous religions, which are idealized. The truth is that indigenous practices are not necessarily benign to the environment. Indigenous peoples of North America, Polynesia, and Europe have hunted species to extinction. And Europe, China, and North America all experi­enced massive deforestation long before industrialization. Kal­land argues that, while the myth of the “ecologically noble Other” may be useful to the extent that it helps us develop an internal critique of our own cultural practices, it is problematic when it causes us to ignore the complexity of Eastern and indige­nous religious traditions or overlook the good in the Abra­hamic traditions.

Advocates of the White Hypothesis have tended to be selec­tive in approaching the beliefs and practices of Asian and indige­nous religions, ignoring those aspects that are potentially harmful to the environment. Every religion is a complex mixture of ideas that can be used to either rationalize environmental abuse or encourage preservation. For instance, in many Asian religions, there is a world-denying tendency that encourages with­drawal from the world of suffering and escape into a bliss­ful void. This can be used as an excuse for ecologically irresponsi­ble behavior.

On the flip side, the injunction in Genesis to exercise “domin­ion” has been interpreted by many Judeo-Christian eco-theologians as a mandate to exercise environmental “steward­ship.” Episcopal priest and theologian, Matthew Fox, has articu­lated an eco-theology called “Creation Spirituality” that empha­sizes the goodness of creation (which is both chronologi­cally and ontologically prior to the Fall), contrasting what he calls “Origi­nal Blessing” (a reference to the Christian God’s state­ment that creation was good) with “Original Sin.” Fox’s Crea­tion Spirituality—along with the work of others, like Michael Dowd’s “Evolutionary Evangelism,” John Cobb, Jr.’s “Earthist Christian­ity,” and Sallie McFague’s “Ecological Theology”—demon­strates that there is untapped potential in Christianity and other monotheistic religions to inspire change in our relation­ship with the Earth.

Updated 2019

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