Christian theology is at odds with itself when it comes to the natural world. On the one hand, it promotes a deep-seated aversion to nature, which is said to be corrupted by sin. Joseph Campbell makes this point clear in The Power of Myth, his famed series of interviews with Bill Moyers, noting that “it’s in the biblical tradition, all the way, in Christianity and Islam as well. This business of not being with nature, and we speak with a sort of derogation of the ‘nature religions.’ You see, with that fall in the garden, nature was regarded as corrupt. There’s a myth for you that corrupts the whole world for us. And every spontaneous act is sinful, because nature is corrupt and has to be corrected, must not be yielded to.” The contempt for nature, including the natural functions of the human body, permeates the cannon of Christian myth and has done much to condition western attitudes toward the environment.
On the other hand, Christianity teaches that human beings have a responsibility to care for the earth. The bounty of nature is figured as a trust, with humanity acting as both trustee and beneficiary. The theology of environmental stewardship has received renewed attention following Pope Francis’s second encyclical, Laudato si, a document that urges environmental protection as a Christian duty. Francis summarized the Christian position vis-à-vis environmental stewardship in his 2014 address to the European Parliament: “Each of us has a personal responsibility to care for creation, this precious gift which God has entrusted to us. This means, on the one hand, that nature is at our disposal, to enjoy and use properly. Yet it also means that we are not its masters. Stewards, but not masters. We need to love and respect nature, but instead we are often guided by the pride of dominating, possessing, manipulating, exploiting.”
The contradictions between these two positions seem intractable. How are we meant to reconcile the idea of nature as a gift with the belief that nature is “fallen” and corrupt? It’s worth remembering that the myth of the fall imagines Eden as containing within itself the source of sin, and thus also our own deaths, just as it shames the natural condition of the human body. Much loathing of ourselves and our environment grows from this root. And yet there is indeed a Christian imperative to care for what Pope Francis, quoting his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi, identifies as “our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.”
I was reminded of this imperative by two short articles I recently came across in The Spectator, an underground newspaper published by students at Indiana University from 1966–1970. Both articles draw on biblical language to make the point that we have abdicated our responsibilities toward the environment. For example, in his article “On Population,” Bruce Williams uses familiar phrases from Genesis to argue that both environmental degradation and human want are the consequences of our irresponsibility and ignorance: “We are fruitful and multiply so that overpopulation and starvation are commonplace, subdue our planet by destroying it, exercise dominion with poison and killing.” By echoing language taken directly from the first book of Genesis, this sentence makes the point that modern humanity’s mistreatment of the earth stands in opposition to the doctrine of environmental stewardship.1
More striking still is the second article, which recasts the seven days of creation as a perverse undoing of ecological balance and planetary health. Ironically titled “Last Chapter of Genesis,” the article reads:
In the end, there was earth, and it was with form and beauty; and man dwelt upon the lands of the earth, and meadows, and trees — and said, “Let us build our dwellings in this place of beauty.” And he built cities and covered the earth with concrete and steel. And the meadows were gone, and man said, “It is good.”
On the 2nd day, man looked upon the waters of the earth. And man said, “Let us put our wastes in the waters that the dirt will be washed away.” And man did and the waters became polluted and foul in their smell. And man said, “It is good.”
On the 3rd day, man looked upon the forests of the earth and saw they were beautiful. And man said, “Let us cut the timber and grind the wood for our use.” And man did and the lands became barren and the trees were gone. And man said, “It is good.”
On the 4th day, man saw that animals were in abundance and ran in the fields and played in the sun. And man said, “Let us cage these animals for our amusement and kill them for our sport.” And man did. And there were no more animals on the face of the earth. And man said, “It is good.”
On the 5th day, man breathed the air of the earth. And man said, “Let us dispose of our wastes in the air for the winds shall blow them away.” And man did. And the air became heavy with dust and choked and burned. And man said, “It is good.”
On the 6th day, man saw himself and, seeing the many languages and tongues, he feared and hated. And man said, “Let us build great machines and destroy, lest others destroy us.” And man built great machines and the earth was fired with rage. And man said, “It is good.”
On the 7th day, man rested from his labors and the earth was still, for man no longer dwelt upon the earth. And it was good…
It is difficult to read “Last Chapter of Genesis” without sharing in its misanthropic attitude, especially when the current ecological crisis is considered alongside the myth of Eden. Not that its misanthropy is out of step with mainstream environmental consciousness. Even Laudato si is misanthropic, especially in its salutation, which bemoans the fact that the earth “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” Francis leaves little doubt that the responsibility for environmental degradation rests squarely with humanity.
Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut (one of America’s great misanthropes) was correct when he suggested that the only hope for a peaceful, verdant future is the possibility that human beings may still evolve out of their highly-destructive hyper intelligence. In his view, this means regressing (or is it progressing?) into a species of comparatively unintelligent seal-like creatures, as his novel Galápagos so brilliantly suggests. But even this participates in the Christian aversion to nature that Campbell identifies, for Vonnegut’s story exploits an antagonism between humanity and nature that can only be resolved when one or the other is purged from existence. Rather than deepening this antagonism, we need to develop a synthesis between culture and nature. It will only be when we move beyond the sort of dualistic thinking that Zen philosopher Daisetz Suzuki, whom Campbell quotes in The Power of Myth, characterized as “God against man, man against God, man against nature, nature against man, nature against God, God against nature” that we will begin to come to terms with how thoroughly we are invested in the natural world.
It’s unfortunate that western attitudes toward nature continues to be shaped so powerfully by Christian myth. So long as people think of nature as a “gift” from God that is now “at our disposal” (and here Francis seems to fall into the ideological trap of “ownership” that he criticizes in so many of his other writings), we are unlikely to experience the behavioral revolution that our ecological crisis demands. In the meantime, we should seize ground wherever we can. If Christian thinking insists upon dominion over nature, let’s commit to a wise and noble dominion. We can then hope that the sort of responsible stewardship urged by The Spectator so many decades ago will serve as a catalyst toward the deeper work that remains to be done.