For some, Judeo-Christianity cannot form a viable basis for either a stable environment or a caring environmentalism, because it is too closely associated with a pietism that isolates and thus emancipates us from fluctuations in our surroundings, and then unleashes the tyrannies of technology. Nature, such critics argue, is found in identification with it, in the protection of life rather than its manipulation.
Dominion and Devastation
We have seen in Chapter 3 how the world (or nature, or the environment) changed from being accepted and treated as a divine creation to being regarded as a ‘thing’, subject to misuse and valued only for its productivity. Recent commentators have interpreted this ‘dedivinisation’ of creation as the inevitable expression of Judeo-Christianity and condemned Jews and Christians for all they see wrong in the world. In the essay already quoted (p. 38), Lynn White wrote, ‘We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim… We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence but to serve man’ (White, 1967). Ian McHarg believes that the Genesis story
in its insistence upon dominion and subjugation of nature, encourages the most exploitative and destructive instincts in man, rather than those that are deferential and creative. Indeed, if one seeks licence for those who would increase radioactivity, create harbours and canals with atom bombs, employ poisons without constraint, or give consent to the bulldozer mentality, there could be no better justification than this text [‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase, fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion over the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, and every living thing that moves on the earth”’ Genesis 1.28]. When this is understood the conquests, the depredation and the despoliation are comprehensible… Dominion and subjugation must be expunged as the biblical injunction of man’s relation to nature. (McHarg, 1969:26)
For pioneer conservationist Max Nicholson:
the first step must be plainly to reject and to scrub out the complacent image of Man the Conqueror of Nature, and of Man Licensed by God to conduct himself as the earth’s worst pest. An intensive spell of environmental repentance is called for… The core of the cultural complex disseminating and maintaining errors of attitude and practice on these matters has been organised religion. (Nicholson, 1970:264)
Poet Laureate Ted Hughes was appalled by Nicholson’s diagnosis: ‘The subtly apotheosised misogyny of Reformed Christianity is proportionate to the fanatic rejection of Nature, and the result has been to exile man from Mother Nature’ (Hughes, 1994:129).
There are two answers to these accusations, one defensive, one positive.
The defensive response is that the critics have misunderstood Bible teaching. The command to have dominion and subdue the Earth was given by God in the context of beings made in his image. It was not a licence for unfettered exploitation, but an obligation to look after God’s work responsibly on his behalf (Hall, 1986; Reichenbach and Anderson, 1995). Our role is to act as God’s stewards, not to behave as children given toys for play (cf. the proper attitude to genetic engineering, p. 79). The word translated ‘dominion’ implies rule, but the Israelite ideal of kingship was of a servant king (like David, or Jesus himself), not oriental despotism. The Hebrew understanding was of a ruler totally responsible for his subject’s welfare—caring, feeding, protecting (e.g. Psalm 72.1–2 [‘God, endow the king with your own justice, his royal person with your righteousness, that he may govern your people rightly and deal justly with your oppressed ones’]):
As Lord of his realm, the king is responsible not only for the nation; he is the one who bears and mediates blessings for the realm entrusted to him. Man would fail in his royal office of dominion over the earth were he to exploit the world’s resources to the detriment of the land, plant life, animals, rivers and seas. (Westermann, 1971:52)
Christ came to serve (Matthew 20.28 [‘The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’]; Philippians 2.6–7 [‘He [Jesus Christ] was in the form of God, yet he laid no claim to equality with God but made himself nothing, taking on the form of a slave’]); human dominion equates with responsible authority.
This is not to deny that generations of Christians have interpreted the Genesis commands as almost mandating an exploitative and totalitarian dualism. The seventeenth-century Puritans who fled to New England saw themselves as entering a Promised Land, which had to be cleansed and timed in the same way that God commanded the Israelites to subdue the wilderness of Israel. They were frightened by the great forests; early settlers wrote how wonderful it was to remove enough trees to see the stars or, even better, to see a neighbour and know that you were not alone (Lillard, 1947). The distortion gave birth to a heroic archetype, opening new lands to settlement through his courage, skill and derring-do. The frontiersman and his surrogates, the mountain man, the cowboy, the logger, the flatboat man, came to represent in an exaggerated way valuable and desirable characteristics (Golley, 1993b).
Historian Donald Worster has described the seductive power of this myth:
The key American environmental idea, and at once the most destructive and most creative, the most complacent and most radical, is the one that ironically has about it an aura of wonderful innocence. America, we have believed, is literally the Garden of Eden restored. It is the paradise once lost but now happily regained. In Judeo-Christian mythology the first humans, Adam and Eve, discovering evil after yielding to the Devil’s temptation had to be kicked out of the Garden on their nearly naked bums. But mirabile dictu, Americans of the eighteenth century found a way to sneak back into the garden. A band of their ancestors had made their way to the New World and there rediscovered it, with the gate standing wide open, undefended. What a blessed people. They brought along with them some Africans in chains to help enjoy the place, and by and by they let in a few others from Asia, but mainly it was a fortunate band of white Europeans that destiny allowed to re-enter and repossess the long-lost paradise. No other people in the world have ever believed, as Americans have, that they are actually living in Eden. (Worster, 1993:9)
And lest Europeans become too smug, Robin Grove-White has given an essentially similar picture of the European way of viewing the world, albeit in a sort of mirror reversal:
Particular industrial societies like ours have become progressively more locked into a vast range of commitments, which have developed over decades and which are economic, industrial, infrastructural, geopolitical, technological and social. These have been underpinned by, and work to reinforce, a dualistic picture of man and nature. Most of the commitments (to individual motorised mobility, to ever higher levels of energy use, to social, moral and cultural norms encouraging increasing levels of material consumption) have tended to be producer-led. They have been entered into without prior analysis of their cumulative potential impact. They are commitments which help define and shape our collective social and political identities… The disclosure of ‘environmental’ problems, expressed in terms of the same man-nature dualism as industrialism itself, is one key manifestation of this… The sense of unease experienced by those who argue with energy or traffic forecasts, or about regulatory myopia or scientific uncertainties, is social and moral, quite as much as physical.
It is now widespread—as the escalating memberships of NGOs and the unpredictable ebb and flow of green politics, suggests. It arises from a particular, unprecedented set of historical contingencies, in which new configurations of technology and capital, linked to bureaucratic and corporate power, can be seen as presenting societies with a Faustian bargain—goods and ‘welfare’, in exchange for subtle (and not so subtle) manipulations of man’s self-understanding and moral identity. Perhaps the most corrosive dimension of this bargain is the escalating encroachment into sensitive moral and human territory concerning life itself—witness the intensifying conflicts over biotechnologies. (Grove-White, 1992:26–9)
Grove-White’s solution is a radical revision of the widespread dualism he identifies, giving a new theological understanding of the human person and his or her needs.
However, there is a positive side to the diagnoses of McHarg, White, and the like: all the critics agree that a necessary key to both past and future is a right attitude to nature. For example, McHarg has written:
In the history of human development, man has long been puny in the face of overwhelmingly powerful nature. His religions, philosophies, ethics and acts have tended to reflect a slave mentality, alternatively submissive or arrogant towards nature. Judaism, Christianity, Humanism tend to assert outrageously the separateness and dominance of man over nature… these same attitudes become of first importance when man holds the power to cause evolutionary regressions of unimaginable effect or even to destroy all life.
Lynn White is explicit: ‘Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not… What we do about nature depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship.’
Even more compelling is the ‘confession’ of American philosopher Max Oeschlaeger that he had been led astray by White’s 1967 essay, into believing that religion is the primary cause of the ecological crisis. He says his confidence was destroyed by ‘the demystification of two ecological problems—climate heating and the extinction of species’ and the realisation that it was not religion per se that causes ecological problems, but us:
it is primarily our philosophies, economies and governments that motivate and direct the devastating onslaught against the earth. The pervasive idea that there are ‘green saviours,’ who occupy the environmental high ground and ‘evil exploiters’ who are rapaciously abusing nature is not useful… Creating a binary opposition between ‘good guys’ who protect nature and ‘bad guys’ who destroy it assigns blame to some groups and excuses others… Environmentalists like myself can be sanctimonious. People who portray themselves as nature’s champions and corporations as evil villains are not always contributing positively to efforts that lead the way beyond ecocrisis.… (Oeschlaeger, 1994:3)
In practice Islam seems to have been no better than Judaism or Christianity. The Qur’ān teaches like the Bible that we are stewards or trustees (khalifa) answerable to God:
He is the One who made
you inheritors of the earth:
Subsequently, whoever chooses to disbelieve
does so to his own detriment.
The disbelief of the disbelievers
only augments their Lord’s abhorrence towards them.
The khalifa is to help in sustaining, not destroying the ‘due balance’ put in place by Allah to enable all creatures to support one another in an interdependent way. Serageldin (1991:62) notes ‘God’s grace is conditioned on the proper execution of stewardship’, but adds, ‘the concept of “stewardship of the earth”… is curiously under-represented in the scholastic tradition of Islamic theology, although references are plentiful in the Qur’ān’. Commentators have pointed out the earth is only a temporary home for Muslims, and it is God who orders and wills; the environment is merely the platform for God’s work (Forward and Alam, 1994; Timm, 1994). This removes any urgency from creation care. But the same considerations apply to Christians.
Religion can legitimately be blamed for some of our environmental problems, but it may be doing no more than serving as a whipping horse for the factors that determine our attitudes to the environment. Although these are influenced by our philosophical and religious background or world view, they tend to be shaped also by selfishness, greed and perhaps lust.
Is it possible to learn from these attitude-forming factors? How do history and reason (or science) affect the way we (as individuals and as societies) treat our environment? How do we come to an acceptable environmental ethic?
Environmentally Friendly Religion
Are the monotheistic religions peculiarly hostile to the environment? Are the Eastern religions more environmentally friendly than the attitudes produced by our frenetic Western lifestyle, which has sprung from Judaism and Christianity even if most of us now disown any formal religious allegiance? The honest answer is that there is no evidence that any religion has been better or more successful than any other when faced with hard environmental decisions. For example, vast tracts of China were deforested despite Taoism and its aim of recovering the ‘primordial harmony of heaven and earth’. This devastation contradicts the claim that ‘the Taoist passivity in relation to social and political processes restrained Taoists from preventing the ecologically destructive practices of others’ (Cobb, 1972:30). Former European Community President Jacques Delors has commented that ‘the Oriental religions have failed to prevent to any marked degree the appropriation of the natural environment by technical means… despite differing traditions, the right to use or exploit nature seems to have found in industrialised countries the same favour, the same freedom to develop, the same economic justification’ (Delors, 1990). Cobb (1972:30) confesses that ‘it is Communist China which shares the Western passion for mastery and use, that is engaged in widespread efforts of reforestation’.
Failure to protect the environment is not a modern phenomenon. The demands of urban-based civilisations for agricultural products ruined many ancient civilisations, and turned the lands on which they relied to desert; their ecological footprint became an army’s boot stamp. This pattern recurred in Mesopotamia, Central America, the Indus Valley and the Roman Empire (Ponting, 1991). Similar disasters have struck many areas of Africa and Central America in more recent times. The densely wooded areas described in ancient Chinese poetry were being cleared before the time of Christ to control wild animals and to provide fuel for industry and cremations; in Japan, the Buddhists felled trees to build huge wooded halls and temples:
Overgrazing, deforestation, and similar errors of sufficient magnitude to destroy civilisations, have been committed by Egyptians, Assyrians, Romans, North Africans, Persian, Indians, Aztecs and Buddhist… ‘Early’ hunters used fire to drive out their game. Agricultural people everywhere clear fields and dam streams and wipe out stock predators and kill plants that get in the way of their chosen crops. (Derr, 1973:19)
Eastern religions can be described as biocentric in contrast to the attitudes characteristic of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the Orient, humans are part of nature; in the West, the monotheistic religions are more anthropocentric. Notwithstanding, in practice religious biocentrism seems to have been as ineffective as anthropocentrism in preventing environmental failures. Counterintuitively, an enlightened anthropocentrism may be the best approach for forming proper environmental attitudes. This is because it underpins, as Lynn White recognized, ‘the nature of the man-nature link’. The essential point is that it is religion which defines and motivates that link.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) tacitly accepted the importance of religion when it held its twenty-fifth anniversary celebration in Assisi in 1986 and called upon the world’s great religions to proclaim their attitudes to nature. In his presidential address to the gathering, the Duke of Edinburgh (1986) distinguished between the practice and rationale for environmental conservation:
It is not enough just to be concerned about the conservation of nature, neither is it enough to have the scientific expertise to enable us to achieve the conservation of nature: we also need a clear and sufficient motive to ensure that our hearts as well as our minds are committed to the cause. We need the knowledge plus commitment. We need a credible philosophy. What we need is to establish the practical and moral reasons why conservation is important, and to clarify the motives that will help people to commit themselves to the cause of conservation… the economic argument… the scientific argument… the moral argument, the relationship between man and nature. There can be little advantage in attempting to save our souls or to seek enlightenment or salvation, if our very existence in this earth is threatened by our own destructive activities.
WWF called upon the major world religions to declare their attitudes to ‘man and nature’, and were answered by leaders of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism (and later by Baha’i) (Assisi Declarations ). All the statements produced are worthy, and have been acted upon to various degrees by the religions concerned. Following the Assisi event, WWF established a ‘Network on Conservation and Religion’. In Britain ICOREC (International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture) organised or stimulated various events, including a number of ‘Creation Celebrations’ in cathedrals, which were aesthetically successful but also strongly criticised on the grounds of syncretism and pantheism, seeming to imply that ecology was the key to theology
Disenchantment and Alternatives
We return in Chapter 9 to the role of the established religions in caring for the environment, but for the moment we need do no more than note that there is a general agreement that the environment is part of the religious agenda but that there is no consensus about how to deal with it. The result has been a widespread search for answers from other sources than mainstream religion, much of this lumped together in the so-called New Age.
A major problem with the New Age is defining it. It is:
a vast umbrella movement embracing countless groups, gurus and individuals, bound together by a belief that the world is undergoing a transformation or shift in consciousness that will usher in a new mode of being, an earthly paradise… By dismissing logical argument, by putting intuition above intellect and feeling above theory, the New Age happily embraces wildly differing creeds. The New Age is not ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and’ as its proponents so often insist. (Storm, 1991:91)
Douglas Groothius (1986) calls it ‘a smorgasbord… heralding our unlimited potential to transform ourselves and the planet so that a “New Age of peace, light and love” will break forth’. Perhaps its clearest trait is an assumption that there are no barriers between ideas and things, a belief reminiscent of Nietzsche, the prophet of chaos (Osborn, 1990:20).
Groothius (1986:18–31) identifies six characteristics of New Age thinking:
- All is one (monism). All is interrelated, interdependent and interpenetrating; perceived differences between separate entities are only apparent. This is where a practising scientist might be expected to part company, but New Agers give high credence to quantum physics, since they see there the disappearance of any distinction between matter and energy. This allows them to think of mind and matter as being effectively interchangeable. They frequently quote the physicist Fritjof Capra (1982:371) who identified the ultimate state of consciousness as one ‘in which all boundaries and dualisms have been transcended and all individuality dissolves into universal, undifferentiated oneness’. This approach has some similarities to that of Rupert Sheldrake, a former Cambridge cell biologist, who in his A New Science of Life (1981:93) wrote: ‘chemical and biological forms are repeated not because they are determined by changeless laws or eternal Forms, but because of a causal influence from previous similar forms [his italics]. This influence would require an action across space and time unlike any known type of physical action’; he calls this action ‘morphic resonance’.
- All is God. This follows from all-pervading monism and means that pantheism is a basic tenet. Moreover, if everything dissolves into a cosmic unity, then so does personality because it can only exist when defined in relation to other beings or things. If all is one, there is only one being—the One which is beyond personality. This means that God is more an ‘it’ than a person; the idea of a personal God is abandoned in favour of an impersonal energy, force or consciousness. Ultimate reality is god, in all and through all; in fact, god is all.
- Humankind is divine. This also follows. Only ignorance keeps us from realising our divine reality. Theodore Roszak (1977:225) argues that our goal should be ‘to awake to the god who sleeps at the root of the human being’. Christianity is viewed
as a shallow surface-religion ‘esoteric’ cult, concerned with the past-historical—or mythical—figure of Jesus, correct moral behaviour and belief in God; the ‘esoteric’ traditions found in all non-Christian religious and handed down in some areas of the Judaeo-Christian tradition (Gnosticism, the Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry) are believed to convey the real or ‘deeper’ truths. (Seddon, 1990:5)
- A change in consciousness. We need to open ‘the doors of perception’ so that we recognise that our limitations as individuals are nothing more that a seductive illusion. There are many names claimed for this process: cosmic consciousness, God-realisation, enlightenment, illumination, Nirvana, Satori, at-one-ment, satchitananada. Once true knowledge (gnosis) is achieved, higher powers are activated.
- All religions are one. There may be various paths to the one truth, but all the differences are superficial and external. The ‘god within’ or the ‘perennial philosophy’ as Aldous Huxley called it, undergirds the experiences throughout history of Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Taoists, Christians and Muslims. All claims of uniqueness and exclusivity must be submerged into the cosmic unity.
- Cosmic evolutionary optimism. This is somewhat different from the other marks, but it follows that there must be a progress towards greater perfection, greater realisation. Julian Huxley (1957:236) described ‘Man as that part of reality in which and through which the cosmic process has become conscious and begun to comprehend itself. His supreme test is to increase that cosmic comprehension and to apply it as fully as possible to guide the course of events.’ Groothius includes Teilhard de Chardin and his notion of progression towards the Omega Point as arguing the same point: at Omega all consciousness is fused, and all become one with the One.1 Julian Huxley wrote a laudatory Preface to the English translation of Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man (1959), although he later regretted his enthusiasm (H. B. D. Kettlewell, pers. com.).
Once we accept the New Age assumption of boundarylessness, other beliefs follow. For example, health becomes ‘a dynamic and harmonious equilibrium of all elements and forces making up and surrounding a human being’ (Weil, 1983:51). This becomes an explicit reaction against scientific (= reductionist) medicine, and implies a notion of ‘holistic health’ (and healing).
The significance of the New Age is not its intellectual rigour, but the size of its following, which shows that there are large numbers of people who are concerned about themselves and the world in which they—and we—dwell. There seems little doubt that at least some of Western unease arises from the widespread perception that the world is ‘only’ a machine with a geological and biological history, which can in principle be explained by known mechanisms—and we are trapped in the machine. God has become not so much impossible as unnecessary. On this interpretation, Adam Gifford’s bequest to ‘Promote, Advance, Teach and Study the Knowledge of God… and the knowledge of the Relation which men and the whole universe bear to him’ can be regarded as having hit the rocks, particularly if God has been dissolved into an impersonal life force without relationships.
Is this so? Is God still credible, and is it orthodoxy which has failed by misunderstanding the nature of God revealed (or excluded) by advancing knowledge? I feel sure Adam Gifford would have approved of the idea that his bequest should be applied to exploring how and if human aspirations and divine reality can meet. Is there common ground between God and the Way(s) of the world religions, and the yearning of men and women for ‘meaning’? Do the assumptions and practices of the New Age meet in any way the reality of the world as understood by science (accepting that it may be impossible fully to comprehend reality)?
These questions can be approached from either end, asking:
- How has orthodoxy responded or how should it respond to the gap revealed by the successes of the New Age?
- How does the New Age justify itself in terms of our understanding of scientific processes?
A Sharing and Suffering God
There are those in all religious traditions who argue from society to God, seeking ways to bring their God to meet the needs of the poor, the oppressed, the sick. Such a God has to be one who can come alongside those with problems to share and suffer together. The Christian tradition is that God came to society: Christ is the one who lived with us and who has sent his Spirit to work in human communities (as well as in non-human ones: Romans 8.19–23 [‘The created universe is waiting with eager expectation for God’s sons to be revealed. It was made subject to frustration, not of its own choice, but by the will of him who subjected it, yet with the hope that the universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality… Up to the present, as we know, the whole created universe in all its parts groans as if in the pangs of childbirth’]). This does not necessarily involve any alteration in God himself, although there are those who argue that God cannot be impassive to suffering and therefore must change with time and experiences (Fiddes, 1988).
The notion of process in theology (associated particularly with the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, Edinburgh Gifford Lecturer, 1927–8, and the theology of Charles Hartshorne) was introduced into environmental debate in a book by John B. Cobb, Is It Too Late? (1972). Cobb argued like Lynn White that ecological problems arise through treating nature as a commodity, and that they can only be dealt with by overcoming the twin dualisms of God and nature, and humankind and nature. Cobb’s solution was a sort of re-divinisation, that we should regard matter and the organisms from which we have evolved as having intrinsic value, because these sub-human elements existed ‘in themselves as something for themselves’. Instead of the normal assumption that human experience is the measure of our existence, Cobb suggested that a better yardstick would be the degree of richness of each event in the evolutionary process. The events in this process are guided by God at every point. God is in every event and is affected by, suffers of is enriched in all that happens, and consequently coerces and compels the processes of life in certain directions. This is a very different understanding of God from the transcendent God of Christian tradition, as Cobb recognises. We might, he says, be better to abandon the word ‘God’ and speak instead ‘of Life, of Nature, or of Creative Process’.
Cobb has developed his ideas in later books, particularly with the Australian biologist Charles Birch (Cobb and Birch, 1981) where they claim that ‘Life may be called God, and that God and the world—by which is meant the universe—are coterminous because “God includes the world” and “there is no God apart from some world”’.2
Cobb’s theology is a radical departure from traditional Christian theism, and approaches the holism and mysticism of the New Age on the one hand and the attempts of evolutionary ethicists like G. G. Simpson, Julian Huxley and C. H. Waddington to derive ‘human-ness’ from evolution on the other. None has found widespread sympathy in Britain. The problem is that Cobb’s immanent suffering God is by definition also a God who is the progenitor of all evil and suffering. He is diminished when species become extinct or when the oceans and the air which sustain life are polluted or when animals are subjected to pain by our insensitivity. A God who is totally identified with all life is a God who has to be seen as committing a tremendous amount of harm, including not only natural evils such as parasitism but also human evils such as genocide and species extinction. This poses much greater problems for theodicy than historic Christian theism, for the traditional Christian belief that humanity and the world are in some ways corrupted by the fall means that humanly originated evil does not have to be seen as part of God’s original good will and design of the cosmos.
The American theologian Jay McDaniel (1988) has attempted to answer this charge of inadequate theodicy within process theology by arguing that natural evil and predation, and the life process which underlies them, are not under God’s domain or control. For McDaniel, the events which make up the evolutionary process are inherently creative and spontaneous; there is a creativity in matter and in life, which is not predetermined or ordered by God. This independence from God is inherent in the original chaos of energies from which God fashioned the world. God creates order out of this chaos, but the universe and each individual energy event retain the possibility of novelty, and hence of choosing either an harmonic or a discordant path. God’s intention for all matter and life is relational harmony and integration, but this intention is merely offer of possibilities. The creatures themselves—from atoms and cells to mammals and humans—must make the choice. McDaniel’s model means that God was unable to prevent animals and humans from evolving in ways which lead them to cause pain to one another, because of a ‘necessary correlation’ in the very nature of life between the capacity for intrinsic good and the capacity for intrinsic evil.
The problem is that McDaniel gets rid of the theodicy problem by introducing a dualism, which is what Cobb sought to avoid in the first place. Indeed, McDaniel’s approach is reminiscent of early Christian Gnosticism where matter was regarded as inherently evil, and which in turn led to the Docetic need to disallow the embodiment of God in the human person Jesus Christ. Redemption in McDaniel’s schema is a long way from a traditional Christian understanding of it.
The theologies of Cobb and McDaniel are panentheist; that, they are based on ‘the belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in Him but (as against pantheism) that His being is more than, and is not exhausted by the universe’ (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church definition). It is a concept particularly associated with process theology, but is used by other theologians in an attempt to hold together the transcendence and immanence of God in relation to the world (Peacocke, 1993:371–2). It is probably better avoided because of the danger of confusing it with pantheism, which is a creed, in C. S. Lewis’s words ‘not so much false as hopelessly behind the times. Once, before creation, it would have been true to say that everything was God. But God created; He caused things to be other than Himself’ (Lewis, 1947:86). Process theology makes a problem for itself by postulating an association between creator and creation which is both contentious and unrequired on an informed theistic understanding of God’s ways of working (p. 27).
A more traditional exponent of panentheism is Jürgen Moltmann, particularly in his 1984–5 Edinburgh Gifford lectures published as God in Creation (1985) and his subsequent work The Spirit of Life (1992). His central theme is that God as Spirit is indeed in creation; he inhabits the world of matter and ecosystems, plants and birds, animals and humans. But this immanence does not mean that God is entirely identified with the creation; although God as Trinity is related to the creation as Son and Spirit, he is distinguished from it as Father. This Spirit-driven cosmology is consonant with the mechanistic approach of modern science, and has the advantage of helping understand less mechanistic and more developmental and holistic interpretations of life on earth Thus the immanent Spirit can be said to work through matter and organic life by creating new possibilities of being, and at the same time the Spirit is the holistic principle, which creates and harmonises the interactions of life forms into a community of life (Bauckham, 1995:182–98). The Spirit is thus the principle of both individuation and of differentiation, guaranteeing the ontological significance of all the myriad life forms in the cosmos and their relation to the one holy and transcendent God.
However, Moltmann’s ideas generate their own problems, particularly when we try to assign values to creation and the environment since, according to Moltmann’s avowed ‘panentheism’, God as Spirit is in everything, including presumably the smallpox virus and the louse. Moltmann comes very close to biocentrism in his way of stating the relation of the Spirit to life on earth, though at other times he appears very humanocentric (as, for example, when he discusses the image of God).
If Moltmann is a relatively orthodox exponent of panentheism, Matthew Fox is a highly heterodox one, providing a link (albeit a convoluted and contentious one) between the mysticism of some forms of traditional Christianity and that of New Age syncretism. Fox’s starting point is God’s blessing on all life at creation. To him, all forms of dualism are anathema; dualism he identifies as original sin, and transcendence as the worst sort of dualism. His solution is ‘synthesis’. Redemption is not overcoming evil, but uniting good and evil. Consequently, syncretism is to be welcomed. Fox argues that environmental abuse arises from the desacralisation of nature; a particular bête noire for him is Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, which he regards as condemning creation and humanity as inherently sinful. Fox suggests that the primary Christian doctrine with regard to creation and life ought to be original blessing (Fox, 1983). Such a doctrine would encourage us to take pleasure in our bodies and in the earthiness and fertility of creation: it releases in us the power of Eros and fertility to order our own lives without the numbing power of priests who gain control over the lives of the faithful under the guise of providing a solution to original sin; this freedom enables us to reorder our relations with nature and so share in its cosmic harmony, beauty and justice. Participation in the original blessing and justice of creation is Fox’s key to human fulfilment. We are not called to transform nature but rather to integrate our life and society into the prior order and harmony of the cosmos.
Fox rejects what he calls ‘fall/redemption’ theology because he sees in it a false dualism between subject and object, human and non-human, body and soul, God and nature, blessing and sin. Instead of dualism Fox proposes relationality, balance, harmony and blessing as the real basis of the cosmos and of human life. This leaves him with the problem of both human evil and natural evil. He resolves this with a new kind of dualism, or as he prefers to call it, dialectic: he opposes good and evil, harmony and disharmony, life and death, pleasure and pain, interpreting these as equal options created by God for the creation to follow in all its parts. Fox identifies these options with the two traditional paths of spirituality, the Via Positiva and the Via Negativa. The Via Positiva emphasises blessing, awe, harmony, fertility, pleasure, beauty; the Via Negativa affirms the reality of pain, suffering, nothingness and death, which are the shadow-side of God and of original blessing. God is both light and darkness, the creator of blessing and of nothingness.
For Fox, the biblical God is a sadistic ‘fascist’ deity. In his thinking, ‘we are we and we are God’. Our divinity is awakened through ecstasy—drugs, sex, yoga, ritual drumming or Transcendental Meditation; ‘the experience of ecstasy is the experience of God’. Crucifixion and resurrection are transferred from the historical Jesus to Mother Earth; Easter is the life, death and resurrection of Mother Earth, a constantly sacrificed paschal lamb. Fox’s religion is one in which Christ becomes just one among many players on the world’s stage. Fox asserts a pantheism where everything is holy and therefore to be worshipped, although he continues to insist that his God is bigger than the universe and that his faith is really panentheistic.
Fox’s affirmation of joy, pleasure and praise in the wonder, fertility and diversity of creation is a powerful corrective to the corrosive pessimism of so much Christian worship and doctrine which emphasises the corrupting potential of natural instincts and the joyless suspicion of pleasure. Perhaps for this reason, it has attracted considerable following, particularly in North America. However, Fox’s theology has fundamental problems: the duality of good and evil which is read into the being of God; the location of salvation in the balancing of these tendencies in human and non-human life rather than in the redemption of both humanity and nature in the life, death and resurrection of Christ; the adulation of erotic power as exemplified in Fox’s frequent references to the writings of Starhawk and Wiccan ritual with their embrace of eroticism and pain, and their worship of nature as representations of God; and the sacralisation of the created order as the body of God. Fox’s version of panentheism, like that of McDaniel, reduces God to an almost entirely immanent entity whose identity with the cosmos is so complete that we cannot really distinguish his good will for creation and human life from the occurrence of ever-present evil and suffering.
The ethic which emerges from Fox’s creation spirituality is primarily an aesthetic one, where we are charged as co-creators to participate in what he sees as harmony in the natural order. He is rarely explicit about precise environmental issues and conflicts, or about the relative rights of different orders of life.
The ecotheological tradition of panentheism has keen advocates amongst theologians who propose that the most effective cosmological model for our ecologically endangered times is to conceive of the world as the body of God. Many of these are feminists. For example, Grace Jantzen rejects the traditional Christian distinction between an eternal, immaterial, invisible, timeless God and a contingent, material, embodied cosmos: ‘the model of the universe as God’s body helps to do justice to the beauty and value of nature’ (Jantzen, 1984:150). She argues that we need to re-sacralise the world of matter to counter the Western Christian tendency to oppose divine being and material substance.
But it would be wrong to take this Christian understanding as diagnostic of ecofeminists. There are many who ground their beliefs in specifically non-Christian religions, often seeking a sort of primitive romanticism. In this they link with a common New Age emphasis on medicine women—women of power and wiccans (witches who do not wish to harm others and who practise so-called ‘white magic’). Since these approaches, often incorporated in anthologies of ecofeminist writing, are based on animism or animalism (spirits or supernatural beings appearing in animal form), one might assume they have abandoned all social and divine hierarchy, but this is not always the case.
For example The Medicine Woman trilogy by Lynn Andrews (1981, 1984, 1985) inverts the myth of the priests of the ‘good’ sky god who destroy the sacred groves of the ‘bad’ or ‘weak’ mother goddess, and instead tells tales of righteous women who protect nature through disciplined magic. For Andrews environmental care is a male-female power battle, where good medicine women struggle against depraved men who do not have a proper respect for nature or for spiritual power. Any transcendent form of the divine disappears in a horde of animist spirits. Andrews is not a theologian, but she represents a common form of ecoreligious reaction against Christianity.
Another goddess-feminist is Starhawk, a wiccan who sometimes uses theological language, although she advocates earth-based spirituality. Proclaiming herself improbably as a practitioner of a religion going back to the last Ice Age, more ancient than Judaism or Christianity, Starhawk rejects any image of a god external to nature in favour of a goddess who is the world, and who ‘fosters respect for the sacredness of all living things’ (Starhawk, 1989:10). Her goddess is not transcendent; she cannot rule ‘over’, because she is the earth itself. The planet, as in the Gaia hypothesis (p. 120), is a living being. For Starhawk, ‘witchcraft is the religion of ecology’, which strives to develop interconnectedness and community, both among humans and between humans and the natural world. Perhaps because she has a strong interest in heterosexual activities, Starhawk’s cosmology incorporates both the goddess and the god, the latter taking the form of the ‘horned god’ of witchcraft, whom she claims has been distorted as the Christian devil.
Not all worshippers of such a goddess are wiccans, and some have abandoned the supernatural so that the goddess becomes an extension of their own femininity. Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen (1984), for example, uses archetypes of Greek divinities such as Hera to help women investigate their own psyches. For her, the divine is neither transcendent nor immanent because it is a product of the human mind.
In contrast to the wiccans and women of power, there are ecofeminists who profess to remain within Christianity or Judaism, whilst reinterpreting its theology. Anna Primavesi (1991), for example, wants to keep the canon of Christian Scripture whilst engaging in ‘deconstruction’, by which she means inserting feminist alternatives to sexist or otherwise unjust language, social structures or human relationships. Primavesi proposes ‘reimaging transcendence’, which she believes is necessary because ‘we view transcendence through the distorting lens of a certain Christian conception of reality as a hierarchy of being. Through this, Jesus is regarded not only as a normative human male, but as the normative divine male.’ According to Primavesi, this can best be countered by getting rid of the hierarchy and recognising ‘all beings live in a relationship with God’ (Primavesi, 1991:152).
Another Christian ecofeminist is Rosemary Ruether (1992). She rejects the idea of an Eden ruled by a goddess, and concentrates on the ‘domination and deceit’ which she sees embedded in the culture of Europe and North America. She suggests this has developed in three stages: the male ‘co-opts’ the power of his mother and of the earth by making himself ‘king of the universe’; then he separates, as in Platonic thought, ‘the immortal soul or spirit from the mortal body’; finally, he attempts to sterilise the power of nature altogether, treating it as dead stuff wholly malleable in the hands of men in power.
Ruether believes that this ‘competitive alienation’ can be overcome by incorporating covenant and sacrament from the Christian tradition, and here she rejoins more orthodox understanding. Both Ruether and Primavesi want to target the weak social responses of conventional organised Christendom. Primavesi wants to dissolve all hierarchy by ‘resouling’ nature, and portrays this as an addition to human spiritual status. Ruether could also be said to be ‘resouling’ nature, but for her this requires removing the possibility of any dominance in relationships by redefining the notion of soul as something that is completely shared, and not something that belongs to an individual. She also wants to replace the idea of divine purpose with cosmic recycling; in doing so, she abandons the concepts of final judgement and of Christian ‘saints’. Ironically, although Ruether blames Platonism as a source of dominance, her notion of the Great Self is reminiscent of Neoplatonic mysticism.
Probably the most influential ecofeminist theologian is Sally McFague (1993, 1997). Like most feminists, she argues that the relationship of God to the world is best envisaged as ‘embodiment’, although she specifically distances herself from the materialist immanentism of ecofeminists such as Grace Jantzen. She suggests that both God’s immanence and transcendence can be conceived as being embodied in the world: God is an ‘embodied spirit’, the ‘inspirited body of the entire universe’. She adopts this model because it is consistent with and sustains an organic model of the world in which all the parts of the world are interconnected, and hence (she believes) it is more likely to produce ecological respect for the environment than a cosmology which conceives mechanistically of the world and its inhabitants, with God outside and distant from the material and embodied cosmos.
Such an ecological theology of God’s embodiment interprets sin as not so much rebellion against God as a refusal to ‘stay in our place, to recognise our proper limits so that other individuals of our species as well as other species can also have needed space’. Consequently, ecological sin causes us to devalue and harm animals and inanimate nature, and to misunderstand the distinction between us and the rest of creation. The recognition of the legitimate otherness of nature should lead us to restrain our demands and hence allow the rest of creation space to be.
A key element in ecofeminism is its approach to the immanence-transcendence tension. Immanence is seen as truly feminine, while transcendence is characteristic of distant managerial males. Susan Bratton (1994) has identified a series of problems with ecofeminist approaches, particularly as they seek to deal with this divide.
First, both New Age and goddess thinkers are selective in their use of religious systems (such as those of native people), ignoring either the relationship of gender to the spirit world in those systems, or whether the original deities in these systems were transcendent. For example, creative acts in different religions often employ both male and female imagery, with some emphasising the feminine, others the masculine. Many cosmologies portray the earth as mother, but cultures with an Earth Mother creation myth usually have numerous other environmentally oriented myths that do not identify all portions of the non-human world as feminine. Non-Western cultures do not necessarily identify women as ‘nature-wise’ and men as ‘nature-stupid’, or women as being primary defenders of spiritual good.
Attempts to justify the goddess as the most ancient and universal deity have often resulted in oversimplifications of complex cosmologies. For example, among Native Americans, the Wind River Shoshoni recognise an Earth Mother in the sun dance, but in their original Great Basin mythology, they had a supreme being called ‘father’ who ‘supervises the world’, either in human form or as a wolf; the Seneca belief system has creator twins, both male, who bring good and evil into the universe; among strongly agricultural tribes, mythologies of female, earth-oriented deities are more common (Baring and Cashford, 1991).
Secondly, in their eagerness to get rid of patriarchal hierarchies, many ecofeminists de-divinise virtually everything and end up with demi-gods or earth spirits. Rosemary Ruether’s concept of the divine has converged to such an extent with scientific cosmology, that her earth goddess appears to be an analogue of day-to-day biophysical functions. Susan Bratton describes this deity as ‘a stolid male process philosopher trying to squeeze into a dress’. Ruether’s appeal to biblical covenants and her concern for human gender sit uneasily with a cosmological position verging on monism. In adopting a very modern process model, she loses the lure and environmental attachment of the ancient goddesses, who had strong associations with places, seasons or social and economic activities, such as planting and weaving.
Thirdly, ecofeminists tend to use ‘immanence’ to describe everything from biophysical processes to animal spirits and human desires. The immanent goddess is presented as several different beings, some spirit and some not. This creates an ecotheological tangle, especially when applied to biblically oriented western religion.
Fourthly, by divesting God of transcendence, goddess worshippers and animists effectively ignore the possibility of an omnipotent deity, whom they need to please or placate. The goddess is not able to express herself independently of her followers. The personal, loving, all-powerful deity of Christianity and any divine entity similar to the Holy Spirit, are absent, together with any need for human repentance or appreciation of divine grace.
Fifthly, ecofeminist theologians tend to conflate gender as it operates in nature with the question of determining what God is like. They are so interested in human gender issues that they spiritualise sexuality and ignore actuality. The argument that hierarchical ranking degrades both women and nature (since women and nature are either of lower status or mere instruments of males) is common, but the conclusion that all hierarchies must therefore be disposed of does not follow. Whilst it is true that ecological hierarchies, like food chains, have been used to justify abusive human behaviours, we cannot therefore assume all food chains in (say) a marsh or forest have a valid human social match.
As far as the Bible is concerned, creation is seen as a whole, from the creeping things to the great whales and human beings. Noah included both genders in the Ark (in pairs, no precedence being given to males). The creation in Genesis 1 is instigated by Yahweh’s ‘Word’ (masculine) and also by ‘the spirit’ (ruach—feminine) that moves over the waters.
Sixthly, ecofeminist thought is so obsessed with gender roles that it touts gender where divine neutrality might be better. The principle dualism in Christian theology is creator-created, not male-female. The basic theological problem is whether there is a god who is separate from the biophysical universe and/or the human mind; the key environmental issue is whether God must be ‘in nature’ for nature to be properly valued. One does not have to give God a gender for God to be found in nature; many forms of pantheism do not bother to gender-type the divine. Conversely a transcendent God does not mean a misogynist one.
From a Western religious perspective, transcendence is better defined as ‘wholly other’ or completely ineffable, than as necessarily masculine. Although both Jewish and Christian theology portray God as an independent creator who maintains prerogatives concerning the creation, both traditions also portray God as loving or sympathetic.
Finally, a common ecofeminist interpretation of history treats transcendence as a recent, sexist innovation in religious thought; the primitive idea (it is claimed) is of a ‘matriarchal paradise’. The irony here is that religions with primarily or exclusively immanent deities in sources of spiritual power or enlightenment often do not have large numbers of (or any) women in their upper echelons of leadership. In practice, both Buddhism and Hinduism have as many sexist practices and social structures as Christianity. Major religions of all types, including those with an immanent deity or deities, have oppressed women in the name of God, especially when the religious hierarchies become aligned with ‘worldly’ power and pursuits.
In general, ecofeminists seem more attracted by revisionist ideas of God and associated problems, than with the specifics of environmental care. Feminism is largely fuelled by concerns of injustice, and hence with the development and maintenance of proper attitudes. Susan Bratton suggests the way for ecofeminists to
make a real difference environmentally is to seriously attack the actual environmental problems and deconstruct unjust gender relations as they get in the way of getting things done… Ecofeminism is often ecologically facile and unrealistic about the function of natural and social hierarchies. Ecofeminism makes a major contribution, however, when it is sensitive to destructive social structures and to environmental abuses. (Bratton, 1994)
One of the patron saints of environmentalism is the economist Fritz Schumacher. Although he is best known for his arguments that ‘small is beautiful’ (and for the book of that name ), his other persistent call was for some kind of ‘metaphysical reconstruction’. He was convinced that major reorganisations of perspective are needed if the world is to have a viable future. In an epilogue to Small is Beautiful he quotes a UK Government Report written for the Stockholm Conference (Pollution: Nuisance or Nemesis? ) which talked about the need for ‘moral choices’ since ‘no amount of calculation can alone provide the answers [to effective pollution control]. The fundamental questioning of conventional values by young people all over the world is a symptom of the widespread unease with which our industrial civilisation is increasingly regarded.’
But how is it to be done?3
What are the ‘moral choices?’ Is it just a matter, as the report suggests, of deciding ‘how much we are willing to pay for clean surroundings’? Mankind has indeed a certain freedom of choice: it is not bound by trends, by the ‘logic of production,’ or by any other fragmentary logic. But it is bound by truth. Only in the service of truth is perfect freedom, and even those who today ask us ‘to free our imagination from bondage to the existing system’ fail to point the way to the recognition of truth. (Schumacher, 1973:248)
Oeschlaeger (1994) has tried to identify the components needed for Schumacher’s ‘metaphysical reconstruction’. He compares what he calls the ‘Dominant Social Matrix’ with a ‘New Social Matrix’. Both have six components. The dominant matrix comprises:
- Nature has instrumental (anthropocentric) value only; biocentric values, such as the preservation of endangered species, are meaningless.
- Short-term economic interests override long-term issues like intergenerational equity; future generations of human beings will be able to fend for themselves.
- If environmental risks caused by habitat modification, consumption of resources, and the emission of pollution are economically beneficial (as measured monetarily), then they are acceptable.
- Environmental risk poses no limits to growth, just problems that require engineered solutions (for example, restoration of habitat, resource substitution, and pollution-control technologies).
- The strategy of managing planet Earth is feasible: through biotechnology and other sciences, humankind will ultimately be able to control biophysical processes on the planet.
- The politics of interest is sufficient to guarantee that the best available technology to restore habitat, devise resource substitutions and control pollution will be employed.
The new matrix is very different:
- Nature has intrinsic value (value in its own right apart from human interests) as well as instrumental value; a healthy economy cannot be sustained by a sick environment.
- Long-term issues, such as intergenerational equity, are at least as important as short-term economic interests; sooner or later someone pays the costs associated with short-term greed, and that someone is our children and the infra-human species adversely affected by actions motivated solely by economic self-interest.
- Economic activity always entails risks, but risks that entail either unpredicted or irreversible ecological consequences are not acceptable no matter how profitable; when in doubt—and especially when human action affects fragile ecosystems, endangered species, or has global implications—act conservatively.
- There are biophysical limits to growth that no human technology can overcome in the long term, though these limits can be exceeded in the short term; accepting limits to growth does not mean that human beings live in degraded conditions of poverty. A life of relative plenty is possible even in delicate ecosystems.
- Creating a sustainable society is a feasible alternative to the modern project that attempts to manage planet Earth; the modern project is in fact driving the Earth towards ecocatastrophe. Hubris sustains the illusion that humankind can control the biophysical processes that govern life on Earth.
- A citizen democracy, attentive to local geography and environmental issues as well as to global issues, is required to build a sustainable society that is also consistent with democratic life.
We have already touched upon some of these points. We will return to them in more detail in the following chapters. For the moment, my purpose is to agree with Oeschlaeger that the differences are not single issues, but are elements in a multifactorial whole, which means that reconstruction rather than a serial technological fix is needed.
For some, the reconstruction is an aesthetic process, seeking inspiration from some of the ‘ecological saints’ of old, like Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart or John Ray, or more modern gurus like John Muir, Henry Thoreau, Richard Jefferies, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson or Peter Scott. There is indeed much to be learned from such people, especially the ways they faced dilemmas and solved problems. Their experiences show clearly that reason by itself is inadequate for ‘metaphysical reconstruction’. As Richard Austin wrote in his biography of the pioneer American conservationist John Muir:
Knowledge alone will not protect nature, nor will ethics, for by themselves they do not arouse motivation strong enough to transform the exploitative patterns to which we have become accustomed. The protection of nature must be rooted in love and delight—in religious experience… Muir’s own religious ecstasy and the depth of his communion with nature challenge our capacity to follow. (Austin, 1987:3)
‘religious experience’ must be grounded in reason.4
Our subjective awe and wonder relate to real animals and plants, real ecological and geological and biogeochemical processes. Passion without rationality is insufficient. Muir himself moved from a Calvinistic Christianity as a boy to a pantheism close to Buddhism in later years (although his wife remained a devout Methodist). In contrast Fritz Schumacher moved from a fascination with Buddhism to Roman Catholicism.
Albert Einstein famously said: ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.’ As we have seen, Lynn White wrote at the end of his 1967 paper: ‘Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be religious.’ Six years later he returned to the point:
Christianity… recognises the progressive unfolding of truths inherent in an original doctrine of revelation. The Christian wants to know what Scripture says to him about a puzzling problem… In my 1967 discussion I referred to St. Francis’s abortive challenge to the anthropocentric concept of God’s world. Scattered through the Bible, but especially the Old Testament, there are passages that can be read as sustaining the notion of a spiritual democracy of all creatures. The point is that historically they seem seldom or never to have been so interpreted. This should not inhibit anyone from taking a fresh look at them. (White, 1973)
Such an approach is not so far different from the need for continuous reinterpretation of the Bible which John Calvin called accommodation and about which preachers have always agonised in their search for integrity in hermeneutics5
And this is the challenge. American biologist Fred van Dyke has written:
In his call for a new ethic toward the biotic community, Aldo Leopold portrayed Judeo-Christian ethics as a ‘primitive deficient system which could not speak to environmental dilemmas…’ Christians have been lazy, ignorant and apathetic about environmental concerns. But only Christians possess an ethical system strong enough to bring conviction, courage, correction and direction to the environmental dilemma. (van Dyke, 1985)