Homage to Lynn White [Revised]

A discussion of the destructive effects of the Christian attitude toward Nature

Why does Western culture believe it has the right if not the mandate to exploit nature? Why is this attitude so deeply rooted in our psyches that some of us can’t even imagine any other way of relating to nature? What is the root of this attitude? Human greed, human perversity? A biologically determined human nature?

According to historian Lynn White, Jr., Western society’s exploitation of nature is the logical working out of Christian teaching; it is, ironically, moral conduct in action. Simply put, the historical roots of the ecological crisis can be found in Christianity itself.

In his remarkably prescient and to-the-point essay, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis (Science, 1967), Lynn White, Jr., traced the cause of the then newly emerging environmental crisis directly to Christian attitudes toward nature, specifically to the Christian doctrine of transcendence.

White’s logic is sound and the argument convincing, and if read from a non-Christian perspective, obvious on the face of it. The chorus of disagreement and howls of outrage which greeted the publication of White’s essay and which have continued to pour forth from theology and philosophy departments over the past almost forty years lead me to believe that White’s critics are “protesting too much,” and that criticism of White’s essay should be viewed as a testimony to the truth — rather than the error — of his observations.

White’s argument goes something like this –

The proximate cause of the ecological crisis is science allied with technology, which has given Western culture an unparalleled capacity to impose its will on Nature and maximize and optimize the results for its immediate benefit — regardless of future consequences to itself, other humans, and other species.

The ultimate cause of the ecological crisis is the Christian attitude toward Nature, which assumes a natural division between Man and Nature and further assumes that it is the natural order of things for Man to exploit Nature for his benefit.

As White so eloquently puts it –

Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man’s relation to nature which are almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.

[T]he present increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science ….[whose growth] cannot be understood historically apart from distinctive attitudes toward nature which are deeply grounded in Christian dogma. The fact that most people do not think of these attitudes as Christian is irrelevant. No new set of basic values has been accepted in our society to displace those of Christianity. Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.

We would seem to be headed toward conclusions unpalatable to many
Christians. Since both science and technology are blessed words in our contemporary vocabulary, some may be happy at the notions, first, that viewed historically, modern science is an extrapolation of natural theology and, second, that modern technology is at least partly to be explained as an Occidental, voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma of man’s
transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature. But, as we now recognize, somewhat over a century ago science and technology–hitherto quite separate activities–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.

Genesis is replete with evidence that Christianity is, indeed, the guilty party. It teaches –

(1) that Nature was created for Man.

Christianity inherited from Judaism … a striking story of creation — [a story in which] God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.

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.

(2) that Man is made in God’s transcendent image

And, although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image….

Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen…. Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature.

In our culture, the word “transcendence” is imbued with powerfully positive connotations. We use it to describe our most beautiful and deeply felt experiences. Our experiences of art, music, religion, love, etc. carry us outside our bodies and beyond the mundane. Transcendence has these positive connotations because it is so closely associated with our out-of-this-world God — the symbol of ultimate value. God, Christianity’s Superhero, is super-natural and meta-physical. He exists outside of and above Nature and the material world. He alone is truly free. He controls — is not controlled by — the laws of Nature. As an all powerful, all knowing Transcendent Being, He represents the ideal of ultimate freedom and ultimate power which those made in his image yearn for.

To transcend, therefore, means to go beyond, to be separate from, to be superior to, and through this separation and superiority, to control. To transcend is to be God-like. Man, taught that he is made in God’s image, images himself as transcendent — and the more he can demonstrate his transcendence, the more God-like he becomes. Given this seductive message, is it any wonder that we strive to prove our transcendence on a daily basis? It governs how we image ourselves at the deepest levels of our being; it governs how we image our relationship with nature. Given our drive to transcend, is it any wonder that we are in the midst of an environmental crisis?

What are we to do about it? Where can we go for answers? After all this time and given the worsening of the crisis, is anyone taking White seriously? Well, not really. In fact these transcendent delusions or delusions of transcendence seem to be getting even more entrenched.

Given Christianity’s return to a radical right-wing fundamentalism, we can hardly look to it for any soul-searching. Fundamental Christianity proudly asserts that God gave Man the mandate to dominate Nature, and continues to joyfully and unabashedly support Nature’s continued exploitation. It is God’s will. End of subject. Those who place too much value on the Earth when all hearts, thoughts, and minds should be focused on Heaven, are suspect. In some fundamentalist circles environmentalism is just a step away from Satanism. This openly aggressive Christian hostility to Nature — and those who value it — seems to prove White’s assertion that Christianity is indeed the culprit. But, in spite of this compelling evidence, many who are concerned about the state of our earth are loathe to place the blame on Christian transcendence. Is it because this image of ourselves as transcendent is just too enthralling?

Eco-friendly liberal Christians, themselves an endangered species, try to have it both ways, i.e., they are desperately trying to reconcile Christian transcendence with eco-consciousness. They comb through scripture to find eco-friendly images. Envisioning a more eco-friendly Christianity has led to the development of a whole new academic field — eco-theology. But even eco-theologians dare not give credence to White’s argument, for they cannot disavow the Christian doctrine of transcendence. It is the central tenet of their faith. As a result, they have gotten thoroughly tangled up in a variety of contradictory and convoluted theological re-imaginings which have essentially gotten us nowhere and done nothing to address the environmental crisis. So, while eco-theologians are busy developing competing theories and trying to keep afloat in a world where the term liberal Christian has become an oxymoron, the destruction continues.

Philosophers also have been of little help. They tend to dismiss White as “superficial” — his analysis too simple, too obvious. They deny the significance of the role religion has played in the Man/Nature relationship and ignore the issue of transcendence altogether, choosing to see the environmental disaster as resulting from a lack of an “environmental ethic.” Philosophy’s solution to the environmental crisis, therefore, has been to create a new and complicated environmental ethic which attempts to extend ethical systems to include human attitudes toward Nature. But philosophy, like religion, has had a longstanding and cozy relationship with transcendence, making it ill-suited to face up to the real nature of the problem. It, too, has been seduced by the image of Transcendent Man. And the destruction continues.

Economists and sociologists also don’t buy White’s analysis. Following the logic of social Darwinism, they place the blame squarely on human nature — theorizing that the human exploitation of nature is the natural order of things — “survival of the fittest” and all that. It is our nature to exploit everything exploitable for our own benefit, therefore, there is nothing to be done about it. We are doomed to continue in our self-destructive behaviors until we do ourselves — and everything else — in, and the human experiment fizzles out. But since when has self-destructive behavior equalled survival? And have these people never encountered societies where sustainability rather than exploitation is the rule? The logic of this argument escapes me. And the destruction continues.

Scientists also reject White’s theory. Of course scientists would, as they above all have a great deal invested in a transcendent self-image — specifically, the transcending and control of nature through knowledge. Some scientists, like fundamentalist Christians, are unwilling to even acknowledge that there is an environmental crisis; it hasn’t been scientifically proven. Others, who accept that there is a problem, cannot bring themselves to accept the notion that religion still exercises so much power over the human psyche. The biggest problem scientists today have with White’s theory, however, is that they are offended by the very idea that science — the epitome of rational thought — could ever be seen as a working out of religious attitudes toward nature. They, therefore, continue to look to science for answers. And the destruction continues.

I, however, think White nailed it. And I am amazed and humbled by his brilliance and perspicacity. Forty years ago he understood the seriousness of the problem and understood its causes. Forty years later the truth of his analysis is stunningly clear. It is clear that the human exploitation and destruction of nature will never end until Western humanity makes some radical changes in its understanding of itself vis a vis Nature — or until we succeed in bringing about the extinction of the human species altogether. In White’s words –

Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny.

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.

In 1967, as a means of solving the ecological crisis and ensuring our survival, White suggested that we (the West) find a new religion or rethink our old one. Liberal Christianity has tried to rethink Christianity, but has failed, stumbling repeatedly over the issue of transcendence. But, realistically, how can we rethink our old one when White proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that within Christianity, the image of man as the exploiter of nature is axiomatic? And how can we rethink our old one when the exponential worsening of the environmental crisis coupled with the dramatic and frightening lurch to the religious and political right over the past forty years has proven White’s contentions concerning the evils of transcendence.

I believe White never thought for a second that Christianity could be rethought, but he had to throw in that option because to do otherwise at that time was unthinkable. I believe that if White were alive today he would unequivocally suggest that we abandon Christianity and all ideas of human nature based on the concept of Christian transcendence. To paraphrase Bishop Spong, I believe White would say that Christianity must die in order for us to live, in order for us to make the attitude adjustments necessary for our survival. We must “refeel” our nature based on a new image of ourselves as part and parcel of Nature. To think otherwise is to participate in a collective insanity that will surely result in the extinction of the human species.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.