In 1967, historian Lynn White wrote an influential essay in which he blamed Christianity for the contemporary environmental crisis. White argued that Christianity, especially Western Christianity, "not only established a dualism of man and nature, but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends."
"Christianity is the most anthropocentric (man-centred) religion the world has ever seen," White intoned in his essay, Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis. "Somewhat over a century ago, science and technology . . . joined to give mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecologic effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt."
White's argument was built on slim foundations. But, regardless of its merit, it has had great influence on the environmental movement.
He maintained that the roots of the ecological crisis are religious and thus the solution had to be religious. White held up St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of ecology, one whose example would help us moderns see that animals have souls and provide an alternative Christian understanding of man's relationship to creation.
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The environment, says the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, should not be reduced "to a mere object to be manipulated and exploited."
At least some environmentalists, however, picked up on another strain White mentioned - the pagan view that every tree, every stream, every hill has a guardian spirit. Indeed, some even see nature itself as divine. Christians would call this confusing creation with the Creator.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church provides a Christian understanding of nature and the environment quite different than that of White's parody.
The Compendium is critical of "man's pretension of exercising unconditional dominion over things" (n. 461). The environment, it says, should not be reduced "to a mere object to be manipulated and exploited" (n. 463).
The Christian view grows out of the faith of Israel which understands nature not as a dangerous and hostile adversary that must be subdued, but as "the gift of God himself." God gave humanity responsibility for all of nature, "charging them to care for its harmony and development" (n. 451).
St. Paul's letter to the Romans provides a not-often-noticed view of creation. Just as humanity longs for salvation, so too does the material world. "The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now" (8:19-23).
The implication of this is that the ecological crisis is a crisis greater than what people can resolve. The paschal mystery inaugurates the liberation of creation, a liberation that will only be completed with God's unveiling of a new heaven and a new earth.
It also implies that attempts at human mastery of the whole of creation distort not only humanity, but also creation itself. Science and technology, to be sure, is "a wonderful product of a God-given human creativity," according to Pope John Paul II. They are not something opposed to God's power, but a sign of his grace.
But people must bow before God and use, not idolize, technology. If God is given the highest place, there is a chance technology – which can be used for either good or ill - will be properly applied.
In this sense, Lynn White was right. Respect for the environment is a religious issue. White was also right in noting that first charge of industrial development took place in what were Christian societies.
For decades, even centuries, Christian capitalists saw no sin in fouling the air and water with the foul byproducts of industry.
No one thought that such a thing as global warming was possible.
Today we have questions that we didn't have 50 years ago. We are asking those questions of the Bible and of the Christian tradition and getting answers quite different than those White claimed we had been supplying.
The pertinent issue now is what will we do with those answers.
Will Christians be a leading force in the environmental movement as we should be?
Or, will we comfortably feed off a system that has made us prosperous but which puts the future of the planet in jeopardy?