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Hill – Environmental Theology: A Judeo-Christian Defense

P.J. Hill

Wheaton College

and PERC, Bozeman, Montana

"Environmental Theology:

A Judeo-Christian Defense"


When one examines the history of the environmental movement, one is struck by two major
phenomena. First, the environment is relatively new as a major political and economic force. The
relationship of humans to their natural environment has always concerned some members of society
but only in the last several decades, and largely in the West, has concern for the environment
expanded to be a matter of intense public discussion. In the process environmentalism has also
become for the first time a major driving force in economic and political matters.

However, a second ideological revolution has also taken place, namely the rising influence of
religious concerns in environmental issues. There are two major stands to this new religious
consciousness. The more radical is the effort to develop whole new theologies of humans and
nature to replace existing religions that are viewed as having been responsible, in a significant way,
for the environmental degradation of the world. The second, less radical approach is the alteration
of traditional theology to better take account of environmental concerns.

Whatever the particular religious response to the issue, it has become increasingly clear that simply
discussing the environment in terms of costs and benefits and trying to make rather narrow utilitarian
arguments about the efficacy of particular environmental policies is insufficient. Environmental
arguments are not value free. We can attempt to assess the efficiency of a particular activity, but the
question arises, efficiency in achieving what ends? The whole issue of who counts in the social
calculus is a fundamental one that every society must answer. Just the members of my tribe or
ethnic group, or some larger concept of humanity? Do animals and fish have rights? What about
plants? And rocks? Can we use nature to expand human happiness? If so, are there limits on that
use? What about economic growth and technological change? Each of these questions involves a
host of normative and theological issues and more and more the participants in the environmental
debate are framing that debate in religious terms.

The religious community’s response to the increasing concern about the relationship between
humans and nature has been vast and varied. In some cases it has been simply to form bodies to
explore ways of raising environmental consciousness. In June of 1992 a conference lead by Carl
Sagan and Senator Al Gore issued the "Joint Appeal by Religion and Science for the Environment."
Scientists and religious leaders signed the declaration. Their fundamental concern was to increase
cooperation between the religious and scientific communities. In other cases the alterations of
traditional theology have been substantial. Matthew Fox, a former Dominican priest, has argued for
an end to dualism, in which humans and nature are seen as separate, and instead insists on a
"creation-centered spirituality," in contrast to the usual Christian emphasis on the fall and
redemption. In other cases Christian worship services have been altered to include more explicit
emphasis on nature. The leader in this has been the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. John the
Divine in New York City, which now encourages animals to be brought to be blessed on the feast
of St. Francis. It also sponsors the Gaia Institute, whose purpose is to expand and explore the Gaia
hypothesis, namely that the earth is a living, self-regulating entity.

However, others have argued that Christian theology is at the very heart of the environmental
problem, and only a completely new theology of nature that rejects anthropocentrism and dualism is
adequate to the task at hand. The Gaia hypothesis represents one strand in that effort, but others
have moved to a straight-forward biocentrism. George Sessions and Bill Devall, in their book
Deep Ecology argue for the "basic intuition …that all organisms and entities in the ecosphere, as
parts of the interrelated whole, are equal in intrinsic worth."

Even what we might think of as completely secular messages about the environment have religious
overtones. Joseph Sax, who has argued for lessening the human presence in our national parks sees
himself and other environmentalists as "secular prophets, preaching a message of secular salvation."
Even the language of many environmental appeals is couched in terms that are clearly reminiscent of
salvation, defeating evil, and returning to a paradise similar to the Garden of Eden.

Thus it is clear that is becoming increasing difficult to separate religion and the environment. Too
many of the issues surrounding the environmental debate are ethical in nature and too many of the
participants in the debate have chosen to phrase their arguments in explicitly religious terms.
However, to say that religion is important is not to say that all religious perspectives are of equal
value for interpreting environmental questions. I shall argue that we do not need so much to revise
our spiritual heritage with respect to the environment as to rediscover it. We do not need a
brand-new spirituality, and in fact, efforts to create one are fraught with danger. A return to the
orthodoxy of the Jewish and Christian faith offers our best hope for a healthy and internally
consistent perspective on environmental matters. Thus, we find in the Judeo-Christian tradition a
theology with regard to nature and humans’ relation to that nature that is superior to the modern
efforts to either develop a brand-new theology or to revise the old along paths that parallel these
new theologies. I offer below several reasons why the orthodox theology of Judaism and
Christianity yields appropriate insights for environmental matters.

The Validity of Anthropocentrism

If there is any one significant theme throughout recent theologizing about the environment, it is the
claim that our anthropocentric views are at the heart of the environmental crisis, and that historical
Judaism and Christianity are the main causes of this anthropocentrism. Thus, efforts to move
towards a biocentric view of the universe are applauded, and any vestiges of anthropocentrism are
seen as evidence of our failure to adopt a correct environmental theology. However, efforts to
ground any humanly designed pattern of thought in anything else than anthropocentrism is doomed
to failure.

In defending an anthropocentric view of the world however, I am not arguing for a narrow,
utilitarian interpretation of that position. Some have interpreted the passages of scripture that call for
human dominion over nature (Genesis 1:26, 1:28) as giving humans unlimited power over nature
and they have also perceived nature as worthy only if it is used to satisfy the material needs of
humans.

Scripture gives a different view however, in that even before the creation of humans, God honored
other parts of the order by calling them good (see Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). The fact that the
created order also gives glory to God (Psalm 19:1) completely apart from humans and what they
do with creation, would further indicate that nature serves something beyond human purposes and
as such must be respected and honored. Passages such as Job 38-41 also emphasis how vast and
mighty creation is in relationship to humans’ understanding. Thus the Judeo-Christian position is
anthropocentric, but not in the sense that there is nothing above humankind that holds it accountable
for its actions toward the created order. Appropriate dominion means acting as responsible
stewards of creation; we are creatures "made in the image of God," which surely involves respect
and appreciation for nature, for seeing it and treating it as God would.

Attempts to move beyond anthropocentrism to a more biocentric view neither fit with our moral
sensibilities nor yield useful policy prescriptions. For one thing, the various attempts to derive a
biocentric theology have been stymied in their efforts to find an agreed upon stopping point for
rights for nature. Early efforts concentrated on such concepts as sentience, but philosophers and
theologians have been unable to present a workable definition of what that includes. Edward
Abbey, a leading deep ecologist said in 1975, "unless the need were urgent, I could no more sink
the blade of an ax into the tissues of a living tree than I could drive it into the flesh of a fellow
human." Rene Dubos, a prominent bacteriologist, believed that just as people and wolves should
coexist, so should people and germs. But even the granting of rights to living creatures doesn’t solve
the problem since several leading figures in the environmental movement now argue, in the words of
Michael J. Cohen in his book Prejudice Against Nature, "rocks and mountains, sand, clouds,
wind, and rain, all are alive. Nothing is dead …."

In contrast, the creation account of Genesis gives a clear distinction between humans and the rest of
the created order. We alone are made in the image of God, and therefore there is a meaningful
difference between humankind and nature. Again, this is not to argue that there is a single purpose
for nature, namely the service of humankind. However, because people carry God’s image it is
appropriate to speak of rights and responsibilities for humans that do not extend to other parts of
the natural order.

One test of a moral theory is its fit with common sense notions of right and wrong. This is not to say
that morality is subject to ratification by majority vote, but if sophisticated ethical theories fly in the
face of what the person on the street thinks of as right, one must ask if those theories are correct.
Most humans do want to draw a distinction between the well-being of their child and that of the
diphtheria bacteria that is competing with that child for life. The fact that even the most ardent fans
of biocentrism eat spinach salads and walk on grass should also reveal something about the internal
consistency of a claim that, in the words of Devall and Sessions, "all things in the biosphere have an
equal right to live and blossom and to reach their own individual forms of unfolding and
self-realization …"

At the policy level anthropocentrism is also essential. Every call for action to save the environment
is predicated upon humans doing something. We are asked to respond to stories of environmental
disaster, to evidence that nature is being altered in unfortunate ways, to appeals to alter the damage
that humans are doing to the natural order. But every one of these is a call to change, and it is
humans that are being asked to change. This presupposes that humans are the reasoning creatures
of the universe and the ones who respond to moral arguments. This is a very human-centered
perspective and one that depends upon a human-centered view of the universe.

It is unclear how, in a world of humans trying to conceive of an appropriate perspective on nature,
it is possible to have anything but an anthropocentric perspective. A standard definition of
anthropocentrism is interpreting the world in terms of human values, and that human centered view
of all of life is what many are trying to expunge from our thinking. But when people call for a
recognition of rights for nature they are suggesting that humans, through their thought processes or
through their actions recognize those rights. If there are rights embodied in nature, they will only be
meaningful in our world because humans choose to recognize them. Any rights that have any
significance in terms of human institutions will be conceived of and acted upon by humans. Thus it is
difficult to see how one can have meaningful policies or ideologies that have any practical impact on
nature unless they are seen through human eyes.

Laurence Tribe, the Harvard law professor, has written that we should choose "processes … which
… avoid a premise of human domination." But the very process through which Tribe chooses to
express the rights of nature, namely the legal system, has no way of removing human domination. In
fact, the claims that he makes for nature to have rights independent of any human influence are
really claims that particular people or groups who have certain views about nature should be given
special voice and others with different views should have less influence. Thus Tribe and other
biocentrists are really making arguments about human claims, and about which claims should have
precedence.

Once one recognizes that there is no realistic way in which nature can speak for itself, one is left
with the issue of who does speak for nature? Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder has
suggested that poets are "uniquely positioned to ‘hear voices from trees.’" But what if poets
disagree over what the trees are telling them? And who qualifies as a poet sensitive enough to hear
such voices? Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, in Sierra Club v. Morton, has given us an
additional criteria: "those who have that intimate relation with the inanimate object about to be
injured, polluted, or otherwise despoiled are its legitimate spokesmen." Again, Douglas is not
specific about how one resolves competing claims of intimacy.

Some have even suggested that nature should have direct representation in the political and judicial
process. In 1978 a small Hawaiian bird, the palila, was the plaintiff in a judicial hearing (Palila v.
Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources
). This is the first time in U.S. legal history that a
non-human was accorded such status. However, the palila was strangely incoherent when offered
the opportunity to speak to the court and relied upon the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and the
Hawaiian Audubon Society to represent its wishes. It’s not clear how these organizations obtained
authority to represent the palila.

Likewise, the possibility of granting voting rights to nature has been seriously entertained.
Christopher D. Stone, a University of Southern California law professor and one of the early
advocates of rights for nature has said:

Yet could not a case be made for a system of apportionment which did take into account the
wildlife of an area? It strikes me as a poor idea that Alaska should have no more congressmen than
Rhode Island primarily because there are in Alaska all those trees and acres, those waterfalls and
forests.

Again the human-centered nature of such a proposal is obvious. Humans who live in Alaska should
have more than proportional representation in Congress because there is more nature in Alaska.
Regardless of the worth of such an idea, to claim that such a concept removes "the premise of
human domination" is silly. Until we devise a system for rocks, waterfalls and trees to vote their
preferences, our political and judicial systems will be anthropocentric. The explicit recognition of
this fact by Judaism and Christianity represents an honest statement of reality.

An anthropocentric view also resolves another contradiction in modern environmental theology.
Such theology treats nature and the natural processes as good, but condemns humans when they
act in their own self-interest in a way that is "natural." In the natural order, one species cannot be
asked to accept responsibility for the survival of another species. However, in an anthropocentric
order one can request that responsibility of the human species. Humans can be held accountable for
their actions, and this accountability is a reflection of the human-centered nature of our political
system and our political philosophy.

Separation of the Created and the Creator

The Judeo-Christian position sees creation as worthy of our respect and as evidence of the hand of
God in the world. Thus, the natural order reflects God’s handiwork but is not the full measure of
God. One can see evidence of him in creation, but one does not worship the creation itself. This is
in contrast to much of the modern environmental theology, which sees the natural order as the
actual embodiment of God, or nature as representing all that is good and pure in the world. That
perspective views humankind as less than "natural," and everything that humans do to alter nature as
a move from the perfect to the less perfect.

David Foreman, a leading spokesman for deep ecology, in an interview with Sports Illustrated
said:

A human life has no more intrinsic value than an individual grizzly bear life. If it came down to a
confrontation between a grizzly and a friend, I’m not sure whose side I would be on. But I do know
humans are a disease, a cancer on nature."

Similarly, Paul W. Taylor, another leading deep ecologist, has suggested that if all humankind were
to disappear from the earth it would not be a catastrophe but rather something that the rest of the
community of life would, if it were able, applaud, saying "good riddance." Much of the reaction to
anything created by humans is captured in David Foremen’s desire to free shackled rivers. He says,
in Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, "The finest fantasy of eco-warriors in the West is the
destruction of (Glen Canyon) Dam and the liberation of the Colorado (River)."

A more realistic view sees both nature and humans as imperfect, as marred by sin. Thus there is a
creative role for humankind to play in interacting with nature, and not all human action is
categorically evil. Even though physical resources are limited in this world, the thoughtful application
of creative effort by humans can keep those limitations from impinging upon us. The fact that
resource prices keep falling in modern times (in real terms) would indicate that human creativity has
been at least partially successful in removing these physical limitations.

In addition, this perspective also does not automatically condemn economic growth as evil, nor all
technological change as a force that desecrates the perfect natural order. Thus biblical theology
sees no reason to exalt nature over humankind. We can capture a glimpse of the glory of God in a
flower, in a mountain stream, or in a symphony. Creative acts by humankind are just as much a part
of God’s plan and bring glory to him in the same way that the natural environment does. Likewise,
human relationships: a father holding his son’s hand as they walk through a park, the joy of a family
reunion, the bliss of a happy marriage, also represent God’s good work on this earth. This is in
sharp contrast to much of the environmental theology that argues that only in a state of nature is true
happiness realized, and that human activities are clearly of secondary importance.

Utopianism and Trade-offs

Both Judaism and Christianity are non-utopian in that commitment to their theology does not solve
all the problems of human frailty. Both understand that humans, even those fully committed to that
worldview, will lack adequate information about the world around them to make sound judgments,
and will still often lapse into sin and act in ways that are neither good for them nor for their fellow
human creatures. Thus, the Judeo-Christian position sees ample room for human institutions that
will generate information and channel human activity in socially productive directions

Again, this is in contrast to modern environmental theology, which implies that if only people will
adopt an appropriate perspective with regard to nature, then environmental problems (and all other
problems) will end. This prescribed unity with nature brings humans into perfect harmony with the
world around them, and thus eliminates the need for any concern about appropriate institutional
structures. Charles Reich, in his 1970 book The Greening of America wrote "There is a revolution
coming… Its ultimate creation will be a new and enduring wholeness and beauty – a renewed
relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature, and to the land." An even more
radical utopia is pictured by the Church of the Earth Nation:

Everywhere, all over the earth, human beings have gathered in small groups, laying down their
differences and focusing on their common wisdom. They call themselves communities … coming
into unity … for a new age on earth which shall be the embodiment of every positive thought we
hold in our minds, just as the old age embodied our fears. The construction has begun, of a new
reality, where the mysteries are revealed within each human being as s/he comes into harmony with
the planet as a whole. We celebrate this sunrise … and the building of one earth nation (quoted in
Nature Religion in America).

In contrast, the Judeo-Christian position does not anticipate an utopian world evolving out of
environmental consciousness. Nor does it rely entirely upon religious reformation to make the world
better. Instead, it looks to human creativity in designing institutions that improve human interactions
and protect, when appropriate, environmental quality.

The importance of institutional design is even more important when one realizes that in a modern,
complex society individuals simply do not have enough information to be good stewards of all of
the resources that they use and affect. Good intentions are not adequate to ensure that people can
appropriately manage resources and prevent environmental degradation. Given that much of what
we see in the world is the unintended consequence of human interaction, simply reforming our
intentions is an inadequate policy prescription.

The Judeo-Christian position also differs from much modern environmental theology in that it sees a
whole host of goals to which humans can aspire. Rather than the preservation of nature as the only
end, numerous others are also worthy of our attention. The reduction of poverty, the creation of
societal conditions so all humans can live in dignity, the promotion of a political regime that allows
for liberty, and numerous other goals are to be striven for. However, whenever a multiplicity of
goals exists, trade-offs must also exist. Thus, the careful application of human reason is necessary
to adjudicate between these sometimes conflicting ends. What if a certain amount of environmental
degradation is necessary for economic growth? How does one balance environmental purity and
jobs? The environmental answer is usually one of two types. The first is to argue that there are no
conflicts, and that maximizing environmental quality also creates jobs and stops the exploitation of
poor people. But other environmentalists would argue that nature has more value than humans and
that one should always maximize environmental quality whatever the cost. David Foreman, in
Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, argues: "Human suffering resulting from drought and famine in
Ethiopia is tragic, yes, but the destruction there of other creatures and habitat is even more tragic."

Neither of these positions is realistic, and a careful balancing of goals is necessary in order to
achieve a just and prosperous society. In this balancing, the institutional framework looms large. If
trade-offs are to be made the costs of decisions need to be appropriately reflected in prices.
Property rights must be such that decision makers have good information and are rewarded when
they take actions that fit with societal judgments about what is important and what is unimportant.
Because most environmental theology has evolved with the sole purpose of saving nature, there is
little recognition of the necessity of good institutional design, nor is there any discussion of
competing goals. Rather, human actions are almost always characterized as simply right or wrong,
with the basis for the judgement being the impact on the environment.

Because Judaism and Christianity do recognize a multiplicity of human goals, there is room in their
theologies for a changing of the ranking of goals over time. Much of the modern environmental
consciousness has developed because of rising incomes and growing opportunities. We can now
afford to be concerned about the environment because we are no longer struggling to maintain a
bare subsistence. The wilderness is no longer a foe that stands in the way of our survival and thus
needs to be conquered; it now is a haven for the harried urbanite. The Judeo-Christian perspective
does not require reworking to accommodate such changes. There is a vast amount of room for
different subjective evaluations among individuals as to what is important, and these evaluations can
change over time. Because the ultimate meaning of life is determined by one’s relationship with
God, the temporal world and one’s perception of the values of its various components can change
dramatically without the necessity of altering one’s basic theology.

Again, given the singleness of purpose of the new religions of the environment, and since these
religions have been developed with the sole purpose of saving the natural order, no such alteration
of a ranking of goals can occur without a whole new theology. Thus, even though these new
religions seem to be offering a definitive theological statement that is supposed to endure, they may
prove to be quite transitory in the face of changing values and aspirations.

Scientific Inquiry and the Search for Truth

One of the interesting aspects of modern environmentalism is how susceptible many in the
movement are to ecological hysteria. The news is continually filled with stories of where the next
disaster is coming from and how we are on the brink of destruction from one catastrophic event or
another. Pesticide poisoning, global warming, acid rain, asbestos, radon, and electromagnetic
radiation are among the many dangers that are about to overtake us. American citizens have been
only too ready to accept the worst case scenarios and many regard careful scientific inquiry into the
extent of these dangers as irrelevant.

The case of Alar, a growth regulator that is used on apples provides an interesting illustration of this
point. Alar, or daminozide, had been subjected to numerous tests that found it to be
noncarcinogenic. However, a 1977 test yielded results that appeared to show that Alar presented a
serious cancer risk. When a group of scientists nominated by the National Science Foundation and
the National Institutes of Health reviewed this study they concluded that it was so seriously flawed
that the results were invalid. Among other things, the experimental animals receiving Alar were
dehydrated and the doses were equivalent to a human’s consuming 50,000 pounds of Alar-treated
apples per day for a lifetime.

However, the flawed nature of the tests didn’t stop the National Resources Defense Council from
taking the data, hiring a public relations firm to market the story, and going forward with the charge
that Alar presented a significant danger to humans. Actress Meryl Streep joined the crusade and
numerous TV shows did "investigative" stories that played up the danger from apple consumption.
Any serious discussion of the scientific issues involved was dismissed as simply serving the ends of
the chemical and apple industries. Only months later, after Alar had been removed from the market,
did it become clear that the danger had been vastly overestimated and that any significant harm
from Alar treated apples was highly unlikely.

Similar scenarios describe the Environmental Protection Agency’s reaction to the problem of dioxin,
in which millions of dollars were spent trying to prevent a danger that never really existed, to the
asbestos problem, to acid rain, and, most recently, to the hole in the ozone layer. In each case
careful scientific research has shown that the dangers have been grossly overestimated and the
efforts at prevention or removal of the hazard have gone far beyond any sensible precautions.

However, we do live in a world of imperfect information and decisions must be made even when
we don’t have full knowledge. Is it better to err on the side of safety and prevent certain hazards
even if we don’t know the full range of the danger? The answer is complex because we live in a
world of risks and we will never eliminate all hazards. Resources spent to reduce one type of risk
are not available for other life enhancing expenditures. For instance, removing all pesticides from
food production would increase the price of fruits and vegetables dramatically. These food items
are crucial to a balanced diet and the reduction of risk from cancer. The decreased availability and
increased costs of those items could easily outweigh the benefits from fewer pesticides.

The real issue is why have Americans reacted so positively to environmental scares and why have
they been relatively uninterested in scientific inquiry to resolve issues of fact? Although it would be
wrong to attribute this susceptibility entirely to religious sentiments, the new environmental
theologies have had an impact. Since these theologies are nature-centered, their proponents have
tended to react with religious fervor to anything that alters nature. Because these beliefs see nothing
outside of nature that offers any eternal hope, any threat to nature is seen as a threat to God. Hence
attempts to deal carefully with issues of fact about environmental issues are dismissed as
hyper-rational and inappropriate.

If one knows by divine revelation that nature is endangered by human action, then all of modern
technology is suspect. Herbicides and pesticides are, by their very nature, an unwarranted alteration
of the natural order. The burning of fossil fuels or the construction of high-voltage power lines
represent the hubris of modern civilizations, and when these technologies are charged with fouling
the environment or threatening human health it is easy to believe such charges. From this
perspective, our salvation as a race lies in our returning to harmony with nature, and arguments that
modern technology is evil incarnate are not questioned.

The Judeo-Christian position is more sanguine about modern technology, seeing it as the result of
the God-given creative impulse in humans. This is not to say that one should trust completely in
science, but neither should one automatically categorize scientific endeavor as evil. The theologies
of Judaism and Christianity do not see science as solving all problems, but neither do they see it as
completely irrelevant or totally harmful.

Several other aspects of Judeo-Christian theology lead to a more positive position on science.
First, since these religions believe in an ordered universe, in which order is discoverable by human
reason, thoughtful use of the mind is an appropriate activity. Questions of fact about the impact of
various technologies are important issues, and careful pursuit of the truth by trained scientists is
crucial to resolving those questions. The Judeo-Christian position implies an obligation: careful,
responsible study of issues. Second, because the ultimate hope for Jews and Christians does not lie
in this world, they can be less emotionally involved in debates about the environmental impact of
certain measures. Nature does not represent all of reality and thus it is easier to deal more
dispassionately with issues concerning it.

Conclusion

The above is a decidedly instrumental view of Judaism and Christianity. The importance of these
religions has been presented entirely in terms of their efficacy in dealing with environmental matters.
This is not meant to imply that the question of their ultimate truth or falsity is irrelevant.
Nevertheless, seeing environmental issues thorough a normative lens is inevitable and appropriate.
However, I regard many present day lenses as yielding unsatisfactory results. We must, by
necessity be anthropocentric. A dualism between humans and nature fits our moral sentiments. We
must also not seek all answers to environmental problems in heightened religious awareness, but
must recognize trade-offs and the importance of institutions. And we should take science seriously
since it is necessary to solve perplexing questions about the relationship between humans and
nature. The Judeo-Christian position fits these requirements well and Jews and Christians should be
forthright about defending the relevance of their faith to current environmental concerns.

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