This past fall, I have been teaching a seminar about the history of science and religion entitled “Wonderment and the World.” Dr. Jay Smith kicked off these classes with a presentation challenging Lynn White Jr.’s controversial article, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” first published in Science in 1967. White’s piece blames the Christian notion of dominion, among other factors, for environmental destruction.
Much attention has been devoted over the past fifty years to analyzing as well as refuting White’s piece, and I find it of particular interest. Dominion is a tricky issue and one hotly debated, but how much does it really influence western culture’s relationship with our world? Where are the places in the history of science where we see evidence of humans exerting dominion over nature?
St. Francis of Assisi: Love of God, Love of Creation
In his article White proposes, as an antidote to dominion, that we look to other Christian traditions and influences, such the relationship that St. Francis of Assisi (1181[?]–1226) had with the world. This leads one to ask: Can wonder, awe, and amazement confute the notion of supremacy? Francis was so in love with creation that he regarded the birds, fish, and even earthworms as brothers and sisters. His view of other organisms—even rocks, the sun, and the moon—was that each form shared commonality in the manifestation of God. The things of the Earth were not for human domination, but rather they were relational; they were kin. Adopting the Franciscan idea certainly shifts our human perception and encourages a compassion for life outside our own species.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II named Francis the Patron Saint of Ecology. This is lovely, but certainly not accurate. Francis would have had no idea what ecology meant. His love of nature stemmed from his love of God and creation. He was not a scientist; he was in love with the wonder of the world. Ordering the world would fall to his successors (as it had to his predecessors), most of whom were much less interested in reverence towards the world than in cracking its codes.
Losing Wonder in a Mechanistic World
Over the years and into the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution, scholars known as Natural Philosophers sought understanding of natural systems and engaged in ongoing debates about how involved God was in natural phenomena. Robert Boyle (1627–1691) coined the term “mechanical philosophy,” because he like many others had come to see the workings of nature as akin to that of a machine. Wonder (awe and veneration) was regarded as sentimental, a trifle to these philosophers, who sought to understand the nuts and bolts of earthly processes and the mechanics of creatures. Clearly, dominion was a prevailing mindset in the era of Boyle. These physicists, chemists, and naturalists of the seventeenth century worked to subvert nature in order to break down processes. Boyle was reputed to have said nature should be “bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets.” Of course, this demonstrates, in addition to the idea of dominion, an astonishing dualism at play—nature tortured by humans as though humans themselves were not part of nature.
Christianity: Offering Love Rather Than Dominion
During week 5 of the seminar, we discussed Gilbert White, an English pastor and naturalist who studied the plants and animals that lived in his parish. White is considered a pioneer in the study of ecology. Greatly influenced by John Ray, another pastor-naturalist, who wrote The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation, White’s writings and observations reflect a compassion for living beings and a deep interest in their comings and goings in his town of Selbourne. Ray and White were devout members of the Anglican clergy, enthusiastic in their wonder over creation and their genuine interest in understanding God’s handiwork. White was one of Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) influences. Before his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin very much imagined himself in the role of English pastor-naturalist.
Three decades after Lynn White’s article, in 1997, the then-president of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope, admitted that he had initially misinterpreted White’s intentions in publishing his piece. Christian ideology wasn’t, in itself, an impediment to conservation. In fact the role of religion was important, powerful, and necessary to engaging people in the effort to protect our world. According to an article in the LA Times, Pope admitted to what he called a “profound error” in neglecting to understand the role religious traditions can play in protecting creation. Love rather than dominion is what Christianity can offer to this world. And what’s not to love? As God points out in Genesis, what He created was good.
Remembering Humanity’s Place in the Natural World
By the time Darwin put forth his theory of evolution by natural selection, his own belief in God had faded. But his devotion to the natural world and his wonder over its processes invite our attention. He has been blamed for dividing religion and science with his discovery, but this is most unfair. In fact, although he may not have believed in a creator or in creation, he certainly believed in the beauty of the world that Francis, John Ray, and Gilbert White so loved. In The Descent of Man Darwin wrote, “Disinterested love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”1 Although he lost his faith in God, he remained true to his wonderment toward the world. And he put us, human beings, squarely back in our place—intertwined in the whole of nature. And that too is good.
My point is that Christian beliefs do not uphold subjugating and disregarding nature. And Christians can embrace, rather than eschew, the idea of being enmeshed within the very stuff of the world. We are part of nature, and rather than dominate, we can take great pleasure in wondering over and tending to nature. Philosopher, farmer, and conservationist Wendell Berry, a Baptist who attends church when he’s not walking in the woods, wrote in the Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays, “…the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.”