Thursday, August 25, 2011

Who are we?

In March, 1967, the historian Lynn White Jr. published an essay in the journal Science called "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis." Ecology and environmentalism was just coming to public consciousness and the essay caused something of a stir.

White blamed our environmental crisis on Christian theology.

He called the victory of Christianity over paganism "the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture." According to White, Christianity offered a progressive, rather than cyclic, view of history that emphasized man's dominion over creation: "No item in the physical universe had any purpose save to serve man's purposes."

The pagan spirits of trees and brooks were banished by Christianity, said White. By destroying pagan animism, humans were set free to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings or rights of natural objects.

In the long Christian tradition, White found only one exception to the theology of divinely-sanctioned exploitation of nature: St. Francis of Assisi. The key to understanding Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility, said White, not merely for the individual but for humans as a species.

He wrote: "Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God's creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a sign of the thrust of the soul towards union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his."

In place of humanity's exclusive dominion over creation, Francis proposed an equality of all creatures, including humans. For his efforts, White proposed that Francis be honored as patron saint of ecologists. The roots of our ecological troubles are religious, White claimed, and the remedy must also be religious, whether we call it that or not. We must reestablish ourselves as part of the fabric of nature.

Did Lynn White Jr. get it right? Christian theology is perhaps not as uniformly anti-nature as he claimed. Nor is Francis so pure an ecologist; in the traditional story of Francis preaching to the birds, the saint gives the birds permission to leave at the end of his sermon -- not exactly what you'd expect in a democracy of equals.

Nevertheless, White was right that a solution to our ecological crisis must be essentially religious, whether you call it that or not; we must rethink who we are in the cosmic order, what we want, and how we might get it.

(Meanwhile, our island of Exuma is being battered by Hurricane Irene. If anyone on the island is reading this, let me know what's going on.)