Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ecology and Dominion

Are Christians really responsible for our current neglect of the natural world? Many environmentalists think we are. Some even go so far as to blame Christians for the entirety of the environmental crisis. Controlling a river, mining a mountain, or felling a forest, they say, are just so many ways of “filling the measure of” – or exercising “dominion” over – the Creation, or so it is claimed.

Much of this thinking stems from a 1967 article written by medieval historian Lynn White entitled The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis. White's article was published in the premier American science journal Science and received a great deal of sustained attention. My teachers were still making me read it in graduate school in the 1980's. White's claim is that the many scientific and technological advances in Europe over many centuries owe more to the ideology of Christianity than they do to the more recognized events of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In particular, White claims that the Christian belief in an inanimate world enabled it to break free of disabling pagan fears of the supernatural and to "exploit nature for [God's] proper ends".

This has been fairly convincing in many quarters, especially to that academic species that claims to be so disinterestedly critical of Christianity. One of the problems with all this is that White pays little regard to Christian theology. In fact he uses the wrong word. Maybe he does so intentionally, then again, maybe not. The correct word is dominion not exploitation - two words I might add that are a long way from being synonyms.

The King James Bible tells us that on the Sixth Day of Creation “God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth…” Now at first glance, this “dominion” might seem to carry a sense of arbitrary power, or a call to coercion. But this is a biased view and one that, perhaps unavoidably, is constrained by linguistic history.

If someone is a lord or a master today, he might be able (given enough power) to destroy a hillside, a forest, or even a country. In ancient times, this was not the case. A master of a nomadic tribe might be able to control his extended family and perhaps a herd of cows but not much else. Having dominion over the earth couldn't mean much more than the burning of a few roods or the partial diversion of a local stream.

"Well," you might say, "the Bible was written for our time as well as for previous times and God must have known about the power we would have today." Maybe so, but consider where the word dominion actually comes from and what it used to mean. Its root is the Latin dominus meaning lord or master of a household. In fact the word dominus itself comes from the simpler domus which literally means house, or home.

Isn't it interesting (and not a little ironic) that this same regard for the hearth was the intent of early ecologists when they coined the word for their own science (using Greek instead of Latin). They joined the words oecos (meaning house or home) and the traditional logos (referring to words or study) into our English ecology, or the study of the household. Only in this case the "household" was understood to be the environment.

Without realizing it, both environmentalists and Christian traditionalists are fighting over the same household. Or at least they should be. Both the provenance and the importance of these diagnostic words are much more similar than we are recognizing them to be. If we could see this and stop fighting each other we might be able to start fixing some of our failing landscapes.

Christians might start by thinking more seriously about the Biblical meaning of dominion; which as we have seen, is much more about taking care of where we live than it is about arbitrary and extractive rule. This Biblical sense is one of stewardship and the Christian conception of the Creation is one of sustainability, much like the agrarian ideal of today's resurfacing nostalgia. It is also a practical sustainability.

Consider how it is used in the creation story. God has just intended to make mankind in His own image. Then (in the same verse) mankind is told to have dominion over the earth. It should seem obvious that reading a destructive form of dominion into this verse is forced. In fact such a reading implies that the Creator is Himself an exploiter of His own creation – like a French chef preparing dinner for the pigs. Clearly the Creation means more to Him than that. It was an act of beauty and of love.

And this brings me to another complaint I have with White’s essay. White (correctly) pointed out that the Latins (read early Christians) found salvation in doing things rather than just dreaming about them. This he contrasts with the Eastern theological preference for merely contemplating religion. But White should have known that the reality is much more nuanced than this.

For starters, Christianity was originally given to both orthodoxy (emphasizing correct doctrine) and orthopraxy (given to correct works). It did inherit from Judaism a strong sense of practical religious involvement in one's own salvation. And White is right that "Western theology has been voluntarist". But Christianity was also preoccupied with correct doctrine. Religions that do so (emphasizing doctrine) tend to evolve several splinter groups - call them heresies if you will. Anybody even faintly familiar with early Christianity can see that this was an oft-occurring reality.

And later, following the Reformation, Protestant groups strongly favored orthodoxy. They still do. And it is this branch of the Christian family, more so than the others, that is driving the capitalist exploitation of the environment. So for White to claim that our ecological woes are being foisted on us by the purveyors of Latin works-centered religion leaves one embarrassed by his history and perplexed by his logic.

What this means for environmentalists is that they should stop blaming Christians for our many environmental problems. Of course there are guilty Christians. There are also many guilty corporations but this doesn't make all Christians and all corporations unilaterally evil. Christian doctrine has always been environmentally responsible even if individual Christians have not been. And if you happen to be watching, there is a growing drive in the business community to make earth-friendly products. In fact some of our biggest retailers are requiring their suppliers to prove a level of ecological regard if they plan to continue doing business. It is very likely that the biggest contributors to a sustainable future will come from the corporate sector.

So let me end by giving a bit of advice to all you belligerent environmentalists who take such joy in brow-beating your Christian neighbors. Many of us are just as concerned as you are about the fate of our planet. After all, we are in this “home” together and it’s time to stop living like a dysfunctional family. Dominion, after all, is ecology – only with a bit more responsibility thrown in for good measure.


White's infamous article The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis was published in the March 1967 issue of Science (Volume 155: 203-207). For a discussion on orthodoxy and orthopraxy see Daniel Peterson's Abraham Divided.

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