Over the past few weeks I’ve been making my way through Planetwise, by Dave Bookless, National Director of A Rocha UK, a Christian environmental conservation charity.
Early in the book, Dave Bookless reminds us of the historian Dr Lynn White’s accusation, made in 1967, that Christianity was the most human-centred religion. You can read White’s paper, published in Science, here. What White wrote was that ‘[e]specially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.’ He also concluded that:
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 master 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.
However, White saw hope not outside of Christianity, but within it. In his paper he appealed to St Francis of Assissi and his attitude to the creation.
His view of nature and of man rested on a unique sort of pan-psychism of all things animate and inaminate, designed for the glorification of their transcendent Creator, who, in the ultimate gesture of cosmic humility, assumed flesh, lay helpless in a manger, and hung dying on a scaffold.
That’s fair enough. But the idea that all creation is made not for man, but for God, and the idea that man is a steward of all that God has made – exercising rule over it in trust, on behalf of God – these ideas are not Francis’. They are found in the scriptures. Right there in Genesis 1 and 2. However, the Christian church has (sometimes wilfully) misread these scriptures, or not noticed them in its rabid desire to defend a literal reading of the biblical account of creation. So bent on proving Genesis 1 against science, the Church has been blind to the great theological messages contained in it. These messages rise to their full glory in the NT, where we are told that in fact creation is not merely for humanity, but for Jesus Christ – and hence properly for humanity only in Him. He is for creation, and creation is for him.
When the Church as a whole sees that the creation has a future in God’s purposes, that we are created as God’s image to be stewards of its glory on His behalf, and that our calling to this stewardship is being realised in Christ, then perhaps we will take ecology seriously and White’s well-founded critique will begin to be addressed.