Ecology, Theology, and Judeo-Christian Environmental Ethics
"Well, Lynn White is dead. I think we can safely say that."
With these words the moderator dismissed February's conference on "Ecology, Theology, and Judeo-Christian Environmental Ethics" held at the University of Notre Dame. For four days scientists, theologians, ecologists, conservationists, philosophers, historians, and students from around the country had gathered to share papers, talk over coffee, and learn about one another's work. The starting point for the meeting was the modern ecological crisis and the belief that this is a problem for which all must share responsibility and the burden of finding an appropriate response.
In 1967, the medieval historian Lynn White published the now infamous paper "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." White posited that the Christian tradition is largely responsible for the gross misuse of land and resources, the ever-increasing pollution of the atmosphere, the unchecked over-consumption, and, in general, the ethic of dominance that have characterized western society's relationship to the natural environment for hundreds of years. Genesis 1:28, God's initial blessing of humans following their creation, is a particularly significant verse in addressing the Judeo-Christian understanding of humanity's role within the created order:
"God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.'"
Read as an isolated passage, the verse indeed appears to justify absolute human freedom with respect to creation, free from consequences of any kind.
White's critique of the Judeo-Christian tradition spawned a dialogue that continues into the present time: as the state of the environment worsens with a sickening inevitability, must western religion be excluded from the search for a responsible course of action? Is Christianity in fact responsible, and, even if the answer is no, does it have anything to offer to the dialogue?
February's conference had the benefit of being able to draw from nearly forty years of rich arguments, research, and discussion of these matters. Many have already presented a wide variety of arguments in favor of the Judeo-Christian tradition's compatibility with modern environmentalist thought and action. While this question continues to receive attention from a number of perspectives, much of the discussion has shifted from whether the tradition is valid to just how it is valid. The scientific approach to the ecological crisis, characterized by identifying possible concerns, conducting research, drawing conclusions, and making suggestions for necessary and appropriate response, differs greatly from the spectrum of ethical/religious approaches. In addressing an issue of such universal human significance as the ability to sustain life on the planet, can these perspectives inform and complement one another?
The conference sought to bring chiefly these two perspectives into dialogue, and the challenge was met with surprising success. Columbia University's Stuart Pimm spoke on the paradigmatic shift in science from a fundamental understanding of nature in terms of "balance" to an understanding in terms of "flux": increasingly scientists are coming to view the natural world not as a static, ordered, and balanced machine, but rather as a fluid and ever-shifting series of complex interactions among all its components, living and otherwise. The ramifications for religious belief are obvious enough. All presenters found themselves responding to this important scientific change in some fashion, but notable among them was Georgetown's John Haught, who spoke on "Theology and Ecology in an Unfinished Universe." For Haught, the idea of a universe in flux translates into a world that is itself, like humans, on a journey or pilgrimage of promise. Humans must then see themselves not as simply tenants in, but rather as fellow travelers with the natural world toward a common redemption.
Similar discussions and invitations to interdisciplinary cooperation took place throughout the conference. What conclusions can we draw? Western religion cannot be written off as anti-environmentalist with the citation of a single Biblical verse: the traditions are rich and complex and indeed have much to offer. Yet they must remain vital and dynamic in addressing the needs of a particular time. The work of science is of the utmost importance in confronting the ecological crisis, and in order for the religious community to address the issues with clarity and legitimacy, it must be responsive to the claims and work of science. Similarly, the scientific community must heed the invaluable work religionists and ethicists as it continually redefines its spheres, limitations, and work of research and problem solving.
After four days of optimism and engagement in the continuing efforts
toward unity in the midst of the ecological crisis, it went without saying:
Lynn White is most certainly dead.