Christianity and western attitudes towards the natural environment

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  • Pergamon

    History of European Ideas, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 513-524, 1994

    0191-6599 (93) EOl71-V Copyright @ 1994 Elsevier Science Ltd Printed in Great Britain. All rights reserved 0191-6599/94 $7.00 + 0.00




    Apologists for Christianity and Judaism have argued that their religions do not support an exploitative attitude towards the environment. L.H. Steffen, in particular, argues that it is the Hellenic rather than the (Judaeo-Christian tradition which promotes the instrumentalist view of nature. In contrast, I argue that Christianity is and has been an amalgam of the Hellenic and Hebrew traditions. In the course of this paper I indicate certain salient Hellenic influences which were prominent in medieval Christianity. I subsequently point out that, contrary to Steffens allegations, these influences originally contributed to a non- exploitative attitude to the natural world by the very nature of their anti- materialist prescriptions. However, with the Renaissance and the Reformation, religious attitudes shifted and a new religious morality was generated, one which associated morality and spiritual achievement with intense engagement in the material world and the exploitation of this world in the end of personal prosperity. In part I demonstrate this alteration in perspective by reference to the shifting religious attitudes towards ownership and property.

    It has been argued that the conflict between European settlers in North America and the Indians already there was rooted partly in different religious understandings concerning property and nature. As one writer has observed,

    and so ignoring and desecrating the Indians reverence for the land, the white settler spread across the plains with his more exploitative ideology. His attitudes were shaped by an anthropocentric religion which demanded that man exercise dominion over the earth and all the lesser creatures. For the Indian, however, the land was incapable of human domination. The Indians did not consider that the land belonged to them. On the other hand, the white man believed that god created the earth and gave it specifically to man for his domination.

    In Genesis man is told to multiply, fill the earth, subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea, birds of the air and every living thing that moves upon the earth. In the present century this Western religious perspective has been seen to have environmental implications. Both Lynn White and Ian L. McHague have argued that the worsening ecological crisis can be attributed to the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.*

    *Department of Psychology and Philosophy, University of Papua New Guinea, Box 320, Papua New Guinea.


  • 514 David R. Lea

    However, these accusations have not gone unanswered. Jeremy Cohen in his recently published book, Be Fertile and Increase, Fill the Earth andMaster It: The Ancient and MedievaI Career of a Biblical Text, seeks to dispel and exorcise the notion that the Genesis story must bear responsibility for Western insensitivity to the natural environment.3 L.H. Steffen, in particular, writing recently in Environmental Ethics, has added his support to this view, claiming that this command found in Genesis does not license exploitation of the earth and its resources, and in fact, he claims that the exploitation/domination interpretation is a distortion of this command .4 Steffen argues that the instrumentalist perspective associated with an exploitative view of nature is not particularly a Christian nor a Biblical notion but is more properly attributed to the Greeks.5

    In his explanation Lloyd H. Steffen argues that both critics and advocates of Genesis dominion have associated the biblical concept of dominion with an instrumental view of nature according to which it is a tool to be used and possesses no integrity of its own. Such a view, he claims, distorts radah (the hebrew word for dominion) by turning it into a domination concept.6 Domination specifies opposition, power relations and power imbalances resolved by force. Dominion, in contrast, is an intimacy concept, a concept of interrelatedness. In Genesis 1:28, man is given the job of subduing nature, but Steffen claims that subdue (kabash) means preservation and maintenance. Adams activity is restricted to keeping the garden and not destroying the earth. He states that the Yahwist account shows how the human quest for power, which brings disrelationship to God, distorts dominion with negative consequence for the natural world.

    Steffen concludes that the biblical notion of dominion points to actions and to the distinctively human capacity for action of a certain sort-obedient action-and is opposed to the Greek model of human agency which is a manipulative model. The author associates this Hellenic model with the rise of Greek philosophy and science which did not occur in Palestine. In contrast, the Hebrew model of human agency is seen in accordance with the command obedience model of action found throughout Genesis.@

    Steffens analysis is interesting enough but does not accurately reflect the reality, that Christianity is an amalgam of Hebrew and Hellenic influences which evolved together and continue to evolve in the present day. This means that one cannot go back to particularly Hebrew concepts and thinking and argue that these represent the essence of Christianity, without offering an exceedingly truncated version of Christianity. Furthermore, when Christianity and its various embodiments are considered objectively, it has to be admitted that, in part, they supplied the ideology which contributed to the current environmental crisis. This is particularly the case with respect to certain modifications to Christian religious thought which occurred with Renaissance humanism and the subsequent Reformation. If these developments are taken into account, it is clear that Christianity offered a moral and religious rationale for the intense subjugation of the natural environment.

    In the course of this paper I will begin by indicating certain salient Hellenic influences which were prominent in medieval Christianity, and point out that these influences originally contributed to a non-exploitative attitude to the natural world by the very nature of their anti-materialist prescriptions. However,

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    with the Renaissance and the Reformation, religious attitudes shifted and a new religious morality was generated, one which associated morality and spiritual achievement with intense engagement in the material world and the exploitation of this world in the end of personal prosperity. This alteration in attitudes can be best demonstrated and reflected by attention to the shifting religious attitudes towards ownership and property.

    Though interpreters like Steffen claim that there are incompatibilities between Christian and Hellenic thought, there were at the same time significant syntheses and syncretic blendings of Christian and Hellenic philosophies throughout Christian history, and this was especially the case during the Middle Ages. Anders Nygren has demonstrated that religious cosmology of the Middle Ages demonstrates a domination by the simple pictorial model of the Alexandrian world scheme. According to this scheme the cosmos exhibits motion in two directions-the procession of everything from God to levels of lesser perfection toward the material world and then a returning ascent from the material and lesser realities towards the higher spiritual levels and ultimately God himself. The Alexandrian world scheme was a creation of the Neoplatonists but of course was derived from the Hellenic tradition, specifically the Platonic doctrine of the Two Worlds, the world of ideas and the material world, and the Aristotelian notion of the ladder. According to one aspect of the latter notion, the Divine exercises an attraction while remaining itself unmoved and unchanged. At the same time the whole material universe bears the mark of eros, the lower reaching out after the higher striving to become like it. In general, the ladder signifies the lower realities striving everywhere upward towards the higher spiritual reality.

    Among other things, the notion of the ladder of being dominated the medieval Catholic cosmological perspective, in which the universe is arranged according to an ascending and descending scale of being with higher spiritual existences closer and more proximate to the Godhead. Salvation was thought to consist in closer association with the higher rather than the lower forms of spiritual existence. In the quest for perfection, the individual soul then engages in a striving for the higher forms of existence and in so doing becomes like those forms.i2

    This vision exercised a powerful influence on the Christian moral perspective and the received relation between the human being and the material universe. During the Middle Ages, Christianity and the philosophies derived from Classical thought like Neoplatonism shared the common view that the realm of the material and the world of the flesh occupied the lower levels of existence which were to be abjured in the pursuit of the higher spiritual form of existence. When this was effected one would actually ascend to a higher level of being. It follows as a corollary that the powerful Neoplatonic and Aristotelian influences in Christian thought were decidedly antithetical to the view that the individuals rights over material reaity could be a matter of religious or moral concern. Indeed Neoplatonism implied quite the opposite, that is, that spirituality required unconcern for conventions which governed material holdings and the devolution of material estates. Indeed, it would be contrary to moral perfection to pursue the protection of those rights which fix and reify our relations with the material world.i3

    The Renaissance, however, brought about two intellectual developments

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    which reduced this influence in Christian thought and modified the Christian attitude towards involvement in the material secular realm. With these modifications we can see the creation of an intellectual framework which both formed the basis for certain of the conceptions which inform our modern principles of property and gave a moral justification for those principles. The two developments of which I speak are the birth of modern humanism and the Reformation.


    Curiously enough, the most striking philosophical articulation of humanism is to be found in the Florentine revival of Neoplatonism which occurred in the middle of the fifteenth century. At that time Marsilio Ficino was the central figure of the Platonic Academy in Florence under the patronage of the Medici. Ficino, a cleric, was an outstanding figure of the Italian Renaissance and was active in promoting a philosophical shift from Aristotle to Plato. With respect to Neoplatonism itself, it should be appreciated that Ficino is singly responsible for the transmogrification of Christian Neoplatonism into an anthropocentric philosophy, an event which is viewed as the genesis of a distinct humanist philosophy.4

    Kristeller and Nygren have both underlined that Ficinos writings exhibited a new anthropocentric emphasis which promoted man or humanity to the centre of the universe in contrast to the medieval emphasis on God. This was effected through a reorientation in the perspective of traditional Neoplatonic thought.i5 Traditional Neoplatonic thinking emphasised mans distance from the One and the necessity to make a spiritual journey of return. In contrast, Ficino emphasises mans resemblance to the One or God and his superiority to the other creatures and things in the created existence. Earlier forms of Neoplatonism did not espouse the unique centrality of the created human being. Origen, for example, thought that the universe was filled with many other rational spiritual beings who had powers and responsibilities which were much greater than those associated with the human race.16 Above all, earlier forms of Neoplatonism held that we become Godlike when we effect a form of union with the One who is either our transcendent source or in some sense immanent within us.]

    However, my preceding remarks might be interpreted to indicate that Ficino has simply shifted the centre of Neoplatonic thought closer to something resembling the Sankara system of Vedantism.* Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. As Anders Nygren points out, Ficino does not identify immanent divinity but rather conceives the Godlike qualities in empirical earthly man himself. We will see that this new emphasis upon the importance of the human being in his/her worldly context gains monumental importance when adopted by the principal thinkers of the Reformation.

    If, however, one could make the distinction between the One and earthly man and still distinguish the incomparable superiority of the One or God, how could Ficino make a case for the essential centrality of the human being in the created universe? This attitude can only be ascribed to Ficinos belief that man indeed represented the universe in microcosm, that is, that he contained elements from

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    all the spheres of existence in his very substance. In his own words Ficino claimed that man repeats the life of all other beings as in an image.O This can be interpreted to mean that man could experience the life of the vegetative and animal souls and even the Divinity itself. Man, according to Ficino, had this capacity to penetrate intellectually and experience a wide spectrum of different existences.20 From this aspect, man contained the very image of the One as the being who contained in unity the highest and lowest levels of existence.

    This new-found emphasis on the importance and dignity of man, typical of the humanist flowering, also leads Ficino to underline mans pre-eminent role within the created order of language which often shakes to terms of dominance. Ficino talks of mans creative capacities, his ability to understand the forces of the universe and indeed produce with genius likened to that of the Creator. This divine intelligence elevates him to a position of dominance with respect to the other members of creation and Ficino mentions that the animals are to be subject to his command as that of a head of a family or the state. Furthermore, he speaks of the activity of the Soul (the human soul) as one which attempts to master the universe, as he says, to produce all, dominate all and penetrate all.] The upshot of this, of course, is an explicit notion of humankinds Godlike nature and superiority which equips man to rule the material universe. Nygren, who is himself critical of Neoplatonism, points out...


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