Day 28 Blog Post
It seems that environmental ethics has a facet in almost every corner of our lives. After all, the ethics of interacting in one’s environment are really the ethics of conduct in every situation known to us, since we cannot escape our environments – both natural and man-made. So, since an environmental ethic is so pervasive, one would ask if it can be related to theology? What does religion say about the environment?
The idea that something something’s life has an end in mind, or lives to serve a purpose, is called its “telos.” Taylor’s biocentric theory that extends moral standing to all living things sees plants as “teleological and perspectival centers of life,” though he didn’t see inanimate natural entities, like oceans and mountains, as having the same kind of telos. E. O. Wilson thought that if you infuse natural science, ecology, and environmental concern into religion, you can help the environmental movement, and thus the world, immensely. Then there’s spirituality, as in the sense of a less institutionalized form of cosmology. The sense of mysticism, beauty, and magic in nature is a sort of theme we’ve seen reoccurring in “Last Child in the Woods” and in E. O. Wilson’s “biophilia” concept; both of which illustrate the natural love we have for nature and the natural world, as well as our wonder in the presence of nature that is shared by all people. But in our modern society it is easy to point anywhere and say that this sense of reverence for the natural, this appreciation for nature’s beauty, is lost in our post-capitalist, resource-hungry world. In the west, we are dealing with the cultural runoff of Descartes’ dualistic notion that man and nature are two separate entities, rather than the concept of nature being all inclusive. Is there no institution that can back up this seemingly newfound love for nature?
Aside from some nature-praising poetry and songs in the Old Testament, it can be argued that much of the world’s oldest religions originally revered what we call “nature.” The Christian idea of stewardship, that man is called to tend to earth and god’s creation as custodians of the divine, is perhaps the most direct relationship we can squeeze out of a religious mentality. The idea that we are a part of nature has historically been more favorable for the secular. In ancient times, secular Greeks like Protagoras said that “man is the measure of all things,” Aristotle created a hierarchy that placed plants and animals beneath man since they “served” him, and this was also the guiding theme of the human-centered thinking of the Renaissance. The following Scientific Revolution would try to promote the idea that only humans have minds, Descartes actually believed that animals were amoral mechanical automata, on top of inventing more math. I really don’t like Descartes.
Lynn White Jr. says that science and technology have fundamentally changed human ways of interacting with nonhuman nature, and that the unity of science (the brain) and technology (the hand) was what actually sewed the seeds that led to the development of democracy. White illuminates how man’s relation to the soil was profoundly changed when the development of the plow lead to the distribution of land being based no longer on the needs of a family but now on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth. “Formerly, man had been part of nature; now he was the exploiter of it.” The 11th century reclamation of Greek texts that were saved by Islamic scholars led to Latin universities, science and technology, and inventions that allowed for higher standards of living. With the hand of the church becoming the guiding force behind pretty much all areas of life in the medieval times, Christianity would crush paganism and most of the pre-christian western religions and philosophies. The most notable surviving memories we have of those today are Christmas trees (in which we brought “nature” into the home for the holy time of Christ’s maesse), Halloween (where we celebrated the harvest season), and nature-based folklore like fairies and witches, as well as the rebirth of the Wiccan religious movement and various other European cultural traditions that have taken the backseat in our modern societies. Back then, science and religion worked together. But at some point in the 18th century the hypothesis of god became unnecessary to many scientists. Today, White says, “with the population explosion, the carcinoma of planless urbanism, the now geological deposits of sewage and garbage, surely no creature other than man has ever managed to foul its nest in such short order.” “The present disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the western world,” says White, and he opts that we mimic the teachings and styles of St. Francis of Assisi, who conversed with the animals and rebelled against this dichotomy so well. “Hence, 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.” Those of us who study ecology and environmental science know this to be certain.
Andrew Linzey is the founder of the Christian vegetarian movement and reminds us that “while god’s love is free, generous, and unlimited, we Christians have been all too good at placing limits on Divine Love.” His more religious discourse asks us to love the world as god does, and that “we must not hate even those who hate animals, those who hate the church, nor those who hate one another,” but rather, “we must love the world or we shall perish with it.” This is a good example of religion and environmentalism working together again.
Robert Gordis offers the promising view that Judaism has on the environment that the “true genius of Judaism has always lain in specifics.” He tackles that whole “dominion” problem in Genesis by saying that “the verb ‘subdue’ was interpreted to relate to the previous statement ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ meaning that the obligation to propagate the human race falls upon the male rather than the female.” He also gives two fundamental Jewish concepts that “shape and direct humankind’s action, thinking, and outlook on their fellow creatures, their environment, and their role on earth.” One is that we must be mindful of “the pain of living creatures,” in a way that is very reminiscent of the Aristotelian virtue ethics in an effort “to spare the feelings of living creatures and inculcate the spirit of mercy in human beings.” It means that one cannot slaughter an ox or sheep together with its offspring on the same day. It’s also where the Jewish people get their kosher practices to reduce the pain of slaughter as much as possible and to not allow the eating of blood because blood is the “seat of life.” The other concept is “do not destroy.” In ancient times one could not destroy a fruit-bearing tree in wartime, and “the recognition that every natural object is an embodiment of the creative power of god and is therefore sacred” meant that, by extension, “whatever has been fashioned by human beings and is the product of their gifts and energies is equally a manifestation of god’s creative power, one step removed, since we are the handiwork of god.” Apart from Buddhism and the Eastern traditions, this is arguably one of the more kind expressions of religious consideration of the natural world that I’ve come to know.
While it is interesting to see how monotheistic religions once had somewhat of an environmental ethic, lost it during the human-centric self-obsession of the Scientific Revolution, and are now being used to psychically combat ecologically destructive forces at work now (alla the National Religious Partnership for the Environment), other world religions have been very green the whole time. In “The Emerging Alliance of Religion and Ecology” lecture by Mary Evelyn Tucker of Yale University, she comments on how we don’t know how to talk about religion as comfortably as we would sometimes like to because “that language has been co-opted by a media who is by-and-large rather uneducated about religion per se, and sees religion within a framework of monotheisms, dancing through their particular claims to truth and their particular fundamentalisms.” This reductio ad absurdam formulation of religion is what makes the American public so dualist and dissecting, that we cannot see the varieties and spectra of ideals and messages that not just the three main monotheisms but rather the entirety of the world’s spiritualities have to offer. As a matter of fact, she says, the preoccupation with absolute truths is not a main concern for most of the world’s religions. They just don’t get hung up over it. Rather, eastern religions and philosophies like Buddhism and Confucianism, Daoism and Hinduism, are more concerned with how we should live the life we’re currently living, more focused on the here and now rather than one what happens when you die, more peace-oriented. If you ask me, these philosophies are practically perfect. What I really like about her speech is that it confirms something that I’ve been thinking about for a while in this class, she says something that is all too true: we need an ecological culture.
As someone who is not very religious but understands the power that religion can exert across time and space, I can’t agree more with this statement. My favorite lesson taken from another philosophy class is that it is the fruits, not roots, of a philosophy that are truly important. Because religion is a part of culture, it can serve as the spiritual engine that a culture would need to become motivated to actually do something about the current degradation of the environment. It would help people see the natural world as not just something that exists apart from us, but rather something that encompasses us, something we are inextricably linked to. It would give us the sense of duty we would need in every day life to make the small and large changes that are required to end the constant blasphemous toxification of the biota. An ecological culture fueled by a religious fire that burns green would reverse this dichotomy of man and nature and bring us back together to focus on what’s really important – helping the planet that’s helped us the whole time.