“Deus, Dominus, Dominance”
Lynn White Jr. published in 1967, in the magazine “Science”, an article entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”. This article proved to be a game changer and effectively opened the field of religious ecology that is blooming today. In this essay I am going to explore this article and the implications of White’s thesis. I will then explain how this constituted a break in the scholarship in what concerns religious studies. And last I will explore what could be possible steps for the future in what concerns this courtship of religious sciences and ecology and how it may evolve, giving the study of ecology of religion today a central role both in academia as well as in the political policy arena.
In 1967 the Vietnam War was ragging, the Cold War and nuclear warfare preparations were at their peak, in the United States reactions with race riots and the Flower Children were springing. It was a time when, in a conflict between the lumber industry and citizens who wanted to protect redwood forests, Ronald Reagan as governor of California took the position that large redwood forests were not necessary; at one meeting he said, "If you've seen one redwood tree, you've seen them all." It was a time when the abuse and destruction of nature was coming into focus and it was during that time that White published an opinion that in order to address the impeding ecological crisis humans first need to examine their relationship and attitudes towards nature. “No creature other than man has ever managed to foul its nest in such short order.” White claimed that Christianity was the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. “Christianity in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions, not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it was God’s will to exploit nature for his proper ends.” And while “in antiquity every tree, every spring, every hill had its own genius loci, its own guardian spirit” Christianity replaced animism with the cult of Saints. These beliefs upset the balance and made it possible to exploit nature, to dominate in the name of Dominus. “Man’s relationship to the soil was profoundly changed. Formerly man had been part of nature; now he was the exploiter of nature.” Moreover the technological revolution that had given dominance of the Western World over the rest of the people was portrayed by White as an offspring of the Judeo-Christian belief that God gave dominion of the Earth to man. “By the end of the 15th century the technological superiority of Europe was such that its small, mutually hostile nations could spill out over the rest of the world, conquering, looting, colonizing.” White’s thesis was effectively that “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt for America’s degraded environment.” “the triune of capitalism, science and technology had become gods unto themselves, the masters of society rather than the servant of humanity”
White’s paper had implications far outreaching his expectations. Traditional scholarship up to this point with its colonialist heritage had been ignoring the issue of the environment. The fact that “Science Journal” had published a paper linking science to religion was a breakthrough in itself. Religious scientists and theologians alike took an active interest in the topic of the relationship of religion and science. Shelvey (2001) asserts that “the assumption that linked Christian principles to anti-environmentalism was illustrated well by the way in which Christian responded to the ideological conflict over the Earth and humanity’s place on it.” “Immediately after White’s paper a burgeoning of Christian scholarship” emerged and Christian theologians made it a point to show a green image of the Church. “Since the 1850 Christians had been largely unconcerned with the environment and had utilized a misinformed theology developed in medieval times to exploit and degrade God’s good creation” In parallel in the 1960s First Nations claimed their union with nature, and Native American spiritual ecology, aided by the limitations that they imposed upon themselves for the sake of nature, became “familiar symbols for young environmentalists movements. “Bear People”, “Fish Nations”, “Mother Eart” became the first environmentalist groups to promote ideas of utopian original societies, to show the alternative to the Christian norm. Buddhist, Taoism, Confucianism followed in the footsteps to promote their ideals of a peaceful symbiosis with nature.
The last significant new development that originated with White’s paper is that, as the essay concluded, our attitudes toward nature are rooted in our religious beliefs. White expressed his conviction, "What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny -- that is, by religion.” More importantly he gave a staggering new direction by stating: “I personally doubt that disastrous ecologic backlash can be avoided simply by applying to our problem more science and more technology…. 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.” Specifically he suggests for the Western Christian Church to consider the staggering example of one of its favorite Saints, Saint Francis of Assisi, and the Franciscan order ideals. Pope Francis, who took the name of the Saint to honor Him, today is a prime candidate to show the world the revamping of the Catholic Church’s relationship to nature and in fact he does just that. White notes that the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church had always held a view of appreciation of nature and its beauty.
Other defenders, many Christians including former Vice President Al Gore are exploring ways to defend the environment and heal the relationship with the Church. Al Gore, who states “my own faith is rooted in the unshakable belief in God as creator and sustainer, a deeply personal interpretation of and relationship with Christ”, in his book Earth in the Balance shows that the true message of Genesis is the Union with nature. Human stewardship of creation is a central theme in the Genesis stories of creation "God saw everything that had been made and indeed, it was very good." (Gen 1:31). Al Gore adds ““The transformation of the way we relate to the earth will of course involve new technologies, but the key changes will involve new ways of thinking about the relationship itself” Prominent politicians are rethinking the relationship of “Earth”, “Science and Technology” and of “Religion” and in that sense the hope is that the exploration of this new field of religious ecology would spring a new era for how we perceive our relationship to our planet.
In conclusion the article that White wrote in 1967 brought to the forefront of scientific and religious studies fields alike the possibility for a new and rich symbiosis. It was a clear innovation in the scholarship and it provided the starting point for new fields of inquiry. The new and exciting field of ecotheology and ecological religious science are bringing together religious environmental ethics, Eastern Belief Systems, Pagan Nature Worship, and others, and they are giving rise to new frontiers in religious evolutionary biology, ecological anthropology, and ecological sociology. Today we are re-examining the nature of God, God’s relationship to the World and humanity’s place in the Earth complex and fragile ecosystem.
Gore, Al (1992) Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit Rodale Press
Shelvey, Bruce (2001). Christian Thought in the Age of Ecology: Historical Roots of a Religious Crisis. Historical Papers.
White, Lynn Jr., “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” Science 155: (10 March 1967): 1203-120
I would like to add here that White differentiates the gentler artistic approach that the Eastern Orthodox Church of Byzantium took so it was not Christianity per se nor the message of Jesus that was the root of this proposed arrogance, it was the interpretation of the message by the Western catholic and later protestant churches. Of course that made Byzantium vulnerable to the Western expansion as was seen with the Crusades, that is the topic for another paper.