Some Significant Texts in an Ecotheological, Cross-Disciplinary Thesis
Rev Dr David Reichardt
My recently completed PhD thesis in ecotheology reinforces a trend to cross-disciplinary research. As the very term “eco-theology”, ecological theology, indicates, this discipline forms part of a renewed discussion between theology and science. In my thesis, an ecotheological reading of how humans have affected the Murray-Darling Basin’s waterways, a number of the “natural” sciences, “human” sciences and history, inform several sub-disciplines within theology and biblical studies.
Accordingly, the thesis’ bibliographical “catchment area” is itself large, and the bibliography kept growing after I had completed the initial drafts of the literature review chapter. That chapter was itself not uncontroversial among my markers. Having realised that I could not comprehensively review the literature in each of the disciplines and stay within the word limit I adopted an approach that Paul Santmire calls “probes” , looking in some detail at vital contributions to each of the particular disciplines relevant to my thesis. Although this was not the traditional approach to a literature review I felt it was a practical solution to a consequence of engaging in cross-disciplinary research, and that it was appropriate to the thesis’ methodology. For the whole thesis turned on appraising whether the argument presented in one short journal article made sense in a particular geographical area.
That journal article is The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis , by American medieval historian Lynn White Jnr. In this paper I shall stay almost entirely with White’s crucial article and the books and articles, related to ecotheology, that I discussed in my thesis’ literature review chapter. That leaves out, through lack of space, the science of chapter 3, the insights on Aboriginal people of chapter four, the history of European colonization of chapters 5 and 6, the field study and the qualitative research methodology of chapter 7, the theological “heavy lifting” of chapters 8 and 10, and the biblical studies of chapter 9. Perhaps they can be for another occasion. Having outlined my chapter structure, and before going into detail about White’s article and some of the other key books and journal articles I should really let you know what my thesis was about!
The thesis’ title is “Release the river! An ecotheological reading of how the Murray-Darling Basin’s human inhabitants have affected its waterways.” Not simply a theological reading, it is an ecotheological reading of a case study in human ecology that explores whether the argument advanced by Lynn White in his article is supported by the effects humans have had on the waterways of Australia’s Murray Darling Basin. One of the progenitors of the modern environmental movement, and an irritating voice who stimulated the modern discipline of ecotheology, White claimed that Christianity, as it has developed in the West, has formed the worldview responsible for the ecological crisis afflicting the world today. After reading ecotheologically the Aboriginal societies and the development of European settler society that supplanted them in the Murray-Darling Basin in regard to spirituality, worldview and the ways in which each has affected the Basin’s waterways; and having conducted a field study that explored how participants connected with a number of Uniting Church congregations around the Basin relate their Christian faith with the environments in which they live, I conclude that this ecotheological case study supports White’s “ecological complaint” against western Christianity.
The rich ecotheological resources of the Bible and Christian theology invite the question of how this complaint can be sustained. I argue that in western theology God’s transcendence dominates God’s immanence, allowing the Bible’s and Christian theology’s high view of humankind to be distorted into an anthropocentrism inimical to the rest of creation. The world-wide ecological crisis provides the Church with an impetus to restore an integrated understanding of the Trinitarian God who is both transcendent and immanent, and of the Gospel which is theocentric, biocentric and enriched by the insight that “God’s kingdom is creation healed” , rather than anthropocentrically focused upon some form of human salvation. Starting from the exhortation “Release the river!” in the thesis’ title I outline an “ecotheology of rivers” that, centering on the biblical motif of “the river of the water of life” and Jesus’ invitation at Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, to drink from Him, argues that a proper understanding and acceptance of the Holy Spirit helps humans to experience God immanently and to release to God the many things that we, in our desire for control over creation, have dammed.
The state the Basin’s waterways is a prominent Australian example of what Lynn White termed “ecologic crisis”. White famously took the western form of Christianity to task for “bearing a huge burden of guilt” for this crisis. His paper has had a profound impact on ecological awareness and discussion and his identification of the roots of ecological crisis as being theological in nature stimulated the emergence of the discipline of ecotheology. Reprinted in numerous volumes, treated with deference by many in the ecological movement from the 1970s onward, but greeted with criticism and even derision by a number of scholars and church writers, it nevertheless calls to mind for the Lutheran pastor and theologian Paul Santmire “the influence of Martin Luther’s ’95 Theses” , and continues to be cited in ecological and ecotheological circles to this day.
My thesis’ methodology is to assess whether the claims Lynn White made in The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis hold true in the Basin. White’s thesis, written at a high level of generality, provides a “generative framework”, an “ideal type” of which Max Weber has written:
“The more sharply and precisely the ideal type has been constructed,
thus the more abstract and unrealistic in this sense it is, the better it is able to perform its functions in formulating terminology, classifications, and hypotheses. In working out a concrete causal of individual events, the procedure of the historian is essentially the same.”
Weber’s theory of “ideal types” has, therefore, provided the methodological and theoretical grounding for my approach. By arguing at a global level of generality, or at least at that of the whole of western civilization, White provided Weber’s ‘ideal type” against which the specific and local case study could be appraised. I evaluated White’s claims in the local, or at least regional context of the Murray-Darling Basin which was settled by Europeans during the time period crucial to White’s argument. My thesis does not an attempt to prove that “White was right”. Rather, the purpose of this case study in contextual theology is to provide material for further biblical and ecotheological reflection in the final two chapters.
Because White’s article is so seminal for ecotheology and so central to my methodology I shall review it and the academic community’s polarized response to it in some detail. This, I think, is as good a way as any into the discipline of ecotheology. The issues raised by White have, for example, been raised once more in James Cameron’s hugely successful film Avatar.
“All forms of life modify their contexts”, wrote White and, “ever since man became a numerous species he has affected his environment notably.”
That word “affected” is vital to my purpose, forming the past participle of the verb in my thesis’ title. White’s premise is that humans, like all other species, affect their contexts but, in contrast to, say, coral polyps, whose effects he describes as “spectacular and benign”, up until the last third of the twentieth century the effects that humans have had on their ecological contexts have been spectacularly deleterious.
White attributes the huge increases in “man-induced changes” to ecology to the “marriage between science and technology” about four (now five) generations ago in Western Europe and North America. He dates the widespread acceptance of this “Baconian creed” whereby scientific knowledge means technological power over nature to about 1850, and rates its acceptance as a normal pattern of action as
“the greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in nonhuman terrestrial history as well.”
This is because
“the impact of our race upon the environment has so increased in force that it has increased in essence.”
Through science and technology humans can now completely change the ecology of the planet.
“…surely no creature other than man has ever managed to foul its nest in such short order,” White remarked.
Addressing the question of what to do about this crisis White suggested that we
“begin by looking in some historical depth at the presuppositions that underlie modern technology and science.”
His first point was that these fused, quite suddenly, towards the middle of the 19th century, a development
“surely related to the slightly prior and contemporary democratic revolutions which, by reducing social barriers, tended to assert a functional unity of brain and hand.”
White wondered whether
“a democratised world can survive its own implications,”
and concluded that
“presumably we cannot unless we rethink our axioms.”
Next White pointed out that although both endeavours have taken much from all over the world, in their present form modern science and technology are both distinctively occidental, and that the West has led in these areas for longer than is generally thought. White put a tentative date of as early as 800 CE on the beginnings of the West’s use of technology in industry, and argued that the distinctive Western tradition of science began in the late 11th century
“with a massive movement of translation of Arabic and Greek scientific works into Latin.”
Since the roots of Western dominance in both technology and science are therefore medieval White examined
“fundamental medieval assumptions and developments.”
He argued that the development, in northern Europe, of the heavy plough suitable for the heavy soils of the region meant that
“distribution of land was based no longer on the needs of a family but…on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth.”
Man’s relation to the soil was profoundly changed from being “part of nature” to “the exploiter of nature.” He detected the same exploitive attitude to nature in Frankish calendars from before 830 CE, signalling that
“Man and nature are two things, and man is master.”
At this point White made the connection with religion:
“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.”
Like the word ecology, coined only in 1866, “human ecology” is a recent concept. It is “an emergent science of relationships between people and the natural environment” which investigates how “humans change and are affected by their environment”. The link between humans and the environment was not obvious to many steeped in the tradition of Western Scientific Experimental Method. Under the influence of Descartes’ Meditations
“reality came to be viewed as a strictly mechanical realm whose laws of operation could only be expressed in mathematical analysis. A clear distinction had been made between the mechanical and human worlds.”
As if it were not enough, in the 1960s when the natural sciences still reigned supreme in the western mindset, to invoke the new human science of human ecology, White boldly linked it with religion. In so doing he laid a foundation for another emergent discipline – ecotheology.
The western scientific tradition that resulted in the Enlightenment and was epitomised by scholars such as Descartes and Francis Bacon succeeded so thoroughly in separating westerners’ perceptions of religion and science that White pointed to eastern culture to support his argument. That human ecology was very influenced by religion was evident to westerners when they viewed overtly religious eastern cultures such as India or Ceylon, but is
“equally true of ourselves and of our medieval ancestors.”
Having demonstrated from his field of expertise in medieval history that medieval Europeans had an exploitative attitude towards nature White argued that this had its roots in our forbears’ religion:
“The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture.”
White began to justify this large claim by observing that although many feel that the scientific and technological age in which we live is post-Christian,
“to my eye the substance [of our thinking and language] often remains amazingly akin to that of the past.”
“implicit faith in perpetual progress…was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient”,
“rooted in, and…indefensible apart from…Judeo-Christian teleology”.
If atheistic Marxism, which White regarded as a Judeo-Christian heresy, shares both this teleology and the commitment to progress through science and technology it is not surprising that westerners who regard themselves as post-Christian or non-Christian westerners do the same. Although some have objected that other cultures have shared Christianity’s linear teleology White was simply trying to explain the causes of the worldview responsible for the development of the modern science and technology that are causing the ecological damage.
What did Christianity tell people about their relations with the environment, that is, about human ecology? White pointed out that as well as
“a concept of time as nonrepetitive and linear”
it inherited from Judaism
“a striking story of creation”.
White neglected to mention that the Bible contains several creation accounts and he conflated the first two of them, but his point remains that,
“…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.”
Now he explained his previous sweeping statement about Christianity’s victory over paganism:
“By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects…Man’s effective monopoly on spirit in this world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.”
Next, White further summarized the contrast between Eastern and Western Christianity:
“Eastern theology has been intellectualist. Western theology has been voluntarist. The Greek saint contemplates; the Western saint acts. The implications of Christianity for the conquest of nature would emerge more easily in the Western atmosphere.”
Even the Western doctrine of creation became a means of creation’s harm, according to White. Natural theology has always proceeded from the premise that
“since God had made nature, nature must also reveal the divine mentality…In the early Church, and always in the Greek East, nature was conceived primarily as a symbolic system through which God speaks to men…”
So, for example, the industrious ant became a sermon for sluggards, rising flames symbols of the soul’s aspirations. However, from the early 13th century onwards in the West natural theology ceased to be a decoding of the physical symbols of God’s communication with man. Instead it became an effort to understand God’s mind by discovering how God’s creation operates. From the 13th century to Newton and Leibniz every major scientist explained his motivations in religious terms. Not until the late 18th century was the hypothesis of God considered unnecessary by many scientists.
“Modern Western science,” concluded White, “was cast in a matrix of Christian theology.”
Therefore, that because of the conjunction of science and technology
“Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt”
for the ecological crisis. Baldly and controversially he stated that,
“We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.”
“that disastrous ecologic backlash can be avoided simply by applying to our problems more science and technology”,
for these very activities
“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.”
White described these attitudes of the species-selfishness called “anthropocentrism” in two ways:
“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.”
“more science and technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one.”
While sympathetic to the beatniks who have explored Zen Buddhism White doubted that religion’s ability to counteract western anthropocentrism precisely because it is not itself western in origin. Whether or not we are aware of it westerners are all the inheritors of two millennia of Christian theology that has profoundly formed our worldview. Accordingly, White advocated finding ecologically-friendly resources within the Christian framework. He suggested that the reader ponder
“the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi”,
and proposed Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.
The key to understanding Francis
“is his belief in the virtue of humility – not merely for the individual but for man as a species.”
Building on this quality of humility Francis sought to
“…depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures. With [Francis] the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a sign of the thrust of the soul toward union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his.”
Although White admitted that St Francis failed in his quest to democratise creation he proposed him as the patron saint of ecologists. For White the Franciscan sense of the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point to a better direction than humankind’s hegemony. Fundamentally, White argues that
“since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.”
White’s paper caused, to use a technical term, “quite a kerfuffel”! In the minds of many it came to represent, inaccurately, for this had been raised prior to White, the so-called “ecological complaint” against Christianity. Consequently, many defenders of the faith saw him as something of a betrayer while some opposed to Christianity used his paper to further their agendas.
White’s ecotheological heritage
This did have the positive effect of stimulating Christians to re-examine (or perhaps examine for the first time!) the ecological credentials of the Faith. The body of ecotheological literature is now so vast that I have, true to the methodology I employed in my thesis, preferred to treat White’s contribution in detail rather than examining, inadequately, a number of responses to it. Camden Theological Library has a growing, easily-accessed ecotheological corpus. However, Santmire’s The Travail of Nature, supplemented by his Nature Reborn, still serve as a good ecotheological introduction for theologians. Barry Leal’s The Environment and Christian Faith and Through Ecological Eyes, written by an Australian out of our local context, are good primers designed to be read by laypeople.
To those, fewer in number these days, who still consider ecotheology to be peripheral to the real concerns of the Gospel I recommend Jürgen Moltmann’s God in Creation. Moltmann wonderfully identifies the God who is Trinity as the God who is in Creation. A number of other scholars have also worked at locating ecotheology within theology. Ecofeminists such as Sallie McFague and Val Plumwood, Norman Habel and others named and opposed the Platonic dualities that underlie so much of our western worldview. For them the duality of humans over nature is of a piece with the duality of men over women, heaven over earth, white over black and so on.
Ecotheology, and my thesis, are also part of a move to contextual theology of which the Taiwanese theologian Shoki Coe was an instigator. More recently Stephan Bevans, Charles Kraft and Daniel Migliore have all written helpfully on this, while Clive Pearson, Neil Darragh and others have contributed Australasian perspectives.
Lastly, in the literature review chapter, I sampled 3 monographs from other disciplines that were helpful. Historians Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory and Paul Sinclair’s The Murray: A River and its People , and lexicologist Jay Mary Arthur’s The Default Country all contributed important insights for an ecotheological reading of a regional Australian context.
That leaves unmentioned about 400 monographs, journal articles, websites, interactive CDs, CD-ROMs, DVDs, posters and, vitally, a cartoon, a scene from a film and a poem. I hope, however, that I’ve given you a good appetiser. Enjoy!
““Striking the Rock” Alfred Deakin as Moses, the Deliverer.” Melbourne
Melbourne Punch, 1886.
Arthur, J.M. The Default Country: A Lexical Cartography of Twentieth-Century
Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press Ltd, 2003.
Bevans, Stephen B. Models of Contextual Theology. Edited by C.PP.S. Robert J.
Schreiter. 2 ed, Faith and Cultures Series. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis
Coe, Shoki. Contextualizing Theology. Edited by Anderson and Stransky. 2 ed,
Mission Trends. Broadway, N.Y.: Paulist Press, 1976.
Darragh, Neil. “Adjusting to the Newcomer: Theology and Ecotheology ” Pacifica
13, no. 2 (2000): 160 – 80.
Habel, Norman C. Readings from the Perspective of Earth, ed. Norman C. Habel, 1 ed.,
5 vols., vol. 1, The Earth Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).
Kraft., Charles H. Kraft with Marguerite G. Christianity in Culture: A Study in
Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross Cultural Perspective. Revised 25th
anniversary ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2005.
Jackson, Peter. “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” In The Lord of the
Rings, edited by Peter Jackson, 179 minutes. New Zealand: New Line
Küng, Hans. On Being a Christian. Translated by Edward Quinn. 1 ed. London:
William Collins, 1977.
Leal, Barry Robert. The Environment and Christian Faith: An Introduction to Ecotheology.
Strathfield, NSW: St Paul’s, 2004.
———. Through Ecological Eyes: Reflections on Christianity’s Environmental
Credentials. Strathfield, NSW: St Pauls Publications, 2006.
McFague, Sallie. “An Earthly Theological Agenda.” The Christian Century 108, no.
Masters, Frank. “The Pioneers.” In Arno Bay and District 1883 – 1983, edited by
Janice Clements, 258. Arno Bay: Arno Bay Centenary Committee, 1982.
Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian
Theology. 2 ed. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.
Moltmann, Jürgen God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of
God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.
Pearson, Clive. “Towards an Australian Ecotheology ” Uniting Church Studies 4,
no. 1 (1998): 12-27
Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. Edited
by Andrew Brennan, Environmental Philosophies. London: Routledge, 2002
Reichardt, David C. Release the river! An ecotheological reading of how the Murray-Darling Basin’s human inhabitants have affected its waterways. PhD Thesis, Charles Sturt University, 2009
Santmire, H. Paul. The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of
Christian Theology. 1 ed. 1 vols. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985
———. Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian
Theology. 1st ed, Theology and the Sciences. Minneapolis: Augsburg
Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. London: Fontana Press, 1996.
Sinclair, Paul. The Murray: A River and Its People. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne
University Press, 2001.
Weber, Mark Max Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, trans. J.C.B. Mohr, 2 vols. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978)
White, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science 155, no. 3767
(1967): 1203 – 07.
Rev Dr David Reichardt completed his doctoral thesis “Release the River! An ecotheological reading of how the Murray-Darling Basin’s human inhabitants have affected its waterways” through the Public and Contextual Theology Research Centre (PaCT) in 2009. He serves as the Presbytery Minister for the Parramatta Nepean Presbytery and is involved in presenting the WaterLines Project to Greater Western Sydney.