The fact that humankind is facing an ecological crisis of unprecedented proportions is becoming increasingly harder to deny. Groans of a creation in pain are heard from virtually every direction. Steven Bouma-Prediger catalogues some of the dimensions of our ecological crisis: ‘exploding population growth, hunger and malnutrition, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, water scarcity and impurity, land degradation, waste production, energy misuse, air pollution and acid rain, global climate change.’
The Accusation against Christianity
Many have attempted to identify the complex roots of our current crisis. One of the most popular accounts of the crisis has involved laying a large measure of blame for the problem at the door of Christianity. Perhaps the most influential articulation of this position is that presented by Lynn White. Christianity, it is contended, as a monotheistic religion, justifies domination over and exploitation of creation. Bouma-Prediger summarizes the case against Christianity, observing a number of strands of argumentation. (1) Christianity establishes or perpetuates dualisms (soul/body, spirit/matter) that lead to the devaluation and misuse of creation. (2) By teaching an otherworldly eschatology it is argued that Christianity has lessened people’s concern for nature. (3) Finally, Christianity bears a burden of guilt due to its role in the inception of modern science and technology, which are causes of many of our problems. By ‘desacralizing’ the earth by its belief in a God outside creation, Christianity leaves the door open to increasingly utilitarian attitudes towards the created order.
The cogency of the accusation levelled against Christianity has been called into question. The accusations, Bouma-Prediger claims, fail on a number of grounds. They do not pay sufficient attention to the character of the relationship that man bears with the earth and the rest of the created order as it is presented in Genesis. They also abstract the ideas of subduing and exercising dominion over the creation from a larger explicating context.
The other accusations are also worthy of closer examination. Can we really claim that soul/body and spirit/matter dualisms are Christian in origin? Whilst such dualisms have certainly been influential in Christian thought, it can be argued that they largely represent a hangover from certain forms of Hellenistic philosophy. That the OT and NT advocate such dualisms is more generally assumed than it is demonstrated. For the place of dualism in Jewish and Christian thought I recommend reading something like N.T. Wright’s treatment of the subject in The New Testament and the People of God. Similar observations can be made on the issue of eschatology. The Christian Scriptures robustly teach the resurrection of the body and the restoration of the creation. This truth is retained to some measure or other in all of the major Christian eschatological schemes.
Finally, the claim that Christianity’s involvement in the rise of science and technology makes it partly responsible for the present crisis is not a convincing one. The argument rests on the assumption that our current problems are principally caused by science and technology, rather than recognizing a variety of different contributory factors. Furthermore, the role played by Christianity in the rise of modern science and technology may not be as great as White and others have argued. Finally, Christian-influenced cultures hardly have a monopoly on ecological problems.
As regards Christianity’s ‘desacralizing’ of the earth and the proposed solution of reendowing it with sacral value, John Milbank well observes that ‘to offer this as a cure-all ignores the fact that, while primordial sanctifications of nature often accidentally imposed limits on the instrumental use of nature, they had no necessary moral, nor ecological intent. On the contrary, such a consciousness often consorted with, celebrated, sought to appease, the terrors of nature through the counter-terror of sacrifice.’
The Roots of the Crisis
Perception and Reality
Where then do the roots of our crisis lie? I believe that, at the most fundamental level, the crisis results from a particular perception of the environment (I recognize that the term ‘environment’ is not unproblematic) and our relationship to it. (The crisis, of course, is not merely a matter of perception). To a great extent most of the proposed solutions to our environmental crisis continue to operate in terms of the episteme that led to the problem in the first place, presenting us with little more than an inversion of the seductive themes that have bewitched the modern mind; the conflict is already situated within a more basic agreement.
The reality that we encounter is always a culturally-constructed one, shaped by particular narratives, metaphors and bound up in certain forms of practice. [Even though cultural constructs are inescapable, we need not adopt a form of constructivist relativism. As John Proctor observes, not just any construct will do. Our constructs must somehow run ‘with the grain of the universe’ (to borrow an expression from Stanley Hauerwas).] Our reality is mediated to us by our media, technology, language and in various other ways. In apprehending our reality we inescapably—and almost invariably unreflectively—construct it. The reality that we interact with is necessarily a collective representation, rather than some reality as it is ‘in itself’.
Our ‘collective representations’ are our participation in and sole means of engagement with reality. It is in them that we know reality. Once we appreciate this we will recognize that any solution to our ecological crisis must address the manner in which we have represented nature and establish the degree to which our ecological problems stem from a deficient symbolic ordering of reality. In other words, I am suggesting that the ecological crisis may primarily be a result of the poverty of our collective representations of nature and that the most fundamental solution may be one of the imagination. Only by re-imagining nature will we be able to move towards the healing of the creation. Exchanging flawed collective representations for new ones that go ‘with the grain of the universe’ will enable us to engage with nature in a far healthier manner.
Attempts to solve the ecological crisis apart from any re-imagination of nature will only have short-term success at best. Milbank writes:—
Scientific ‘fixes’ may well be found for those problems that most starkly endanger our current notions of wealth and essential well-being, but this will not necessarily prevent their constantly mutated re-emergence, nor, emphatically, will it deal with our subjective, aesthetic sense of despoliation.
It is easy to assume that we understand the character of the problem and its solution and fail to appreciate that the very paradigms that we use to identify the problem and propose possible solutions may themselves have caused or contributed to the crisis.
Nature and its Attendant Dualisms in Modernity
Modern concepts of ‘nature’ are extremely limited in a number of respects and generally present us with attenuated, potentially exploitative and spiritually corrosive models of engagement with the creation; I will argue that these models are largely responsible for the current crisis. Having observed some of the deficiencies of modern accounts of nature, I will present an alternative Christian account.
John Milbank argues that the genesis of modern concepts of nature and their attendant dichotomies is principally to be found in a political development, which replaced the complex and hierarchical inter-human relationships of the medieval era with a more absolute understanding of rule. Whilst such medieval relationships had persisted the complex and hierarchical character of inter-human relationships had been expressed in and constituted by ‘complex’ environmental space, preventing ‘a lone sovereign rule through the reduction of space to a single abstract medium.’ Milbank writes:
[T]he exigencies of social order which required the rule of spatial equivalence, and the possibility of an objective, totalizing comprehension of space in terms of quanta of extension and energy, involved also an instrumentalization of nature, and a more emphatic version of humanity as its spiritual master.
As Milbank observes elsewhere, this movement served to establish the realm of the ‘secular’, in part through its re-conception of Adam’s dominium in terms of an absolute sovereignty, rather than as a dominium utile. It should also be noted that the movement away from the concept of ‘complex space’ is related to a movement away from the centrality of the Trinity in reflection on such subjects. Understanding the authority of God in a Trinitarian manner will encourage the development of a society of complex places.
As man sought to extricate himself from ‘complex space’, nature came to be constructed as objective and man was positioned over against nature in a subject-object relationship. The destructive dualisms that shaped modernity’s understanding of nature have been observed by a number of contemporary ecological thinkers (see, for example, Jamison, 32ff. and Lash et al). Modernity tended to replace a relational ontology with individualistic and atomistic ontologies, which denied the mutually constitutive relationship that obtains between man and nature. Non-relational ontologies, which neglect the fact of man’s essential participation in nature, can easily be used to support exploitative relationships to nature as the intrinsic bonds of participation that once bound man to nature are replaced with extrinsic bonds of power-relations.
For example, even though it might be argued that the theory of evolution undermines the man/nature dichotomy (as John Proctor does), one could also argue that it fails to provide a sufficient basis for a truly relational ontology, given its tendency to operate primarily in terms of agonistic relationships (competition for survival). Whilst, on one level, the theory of evolution provides for continuity between man and nature, lacking a true ontology of peace man’s relationship to nature will be a fundamentally agonistic one, in which man seeks to subdue nature to his will for the purposes of his survival. Man must dominate his environment and all other creatures.
Related to this nature/man dualism is a nature/culture dualism; both of these dualisms are connected to the objective/subjective dualism. That which is produced by man is sharply distinguished from that which is not. As both Proctor and Milbank observe, this distinction is in many respects a hangover from distinctions made by such Greek philosophers as Plato and Aristotle. Milbank also observes the agonistic relationship that existed between culture and ‘sacralized’ nature in ancient society, as man sought to relate to the terrors of nature by means of the counter-terrors of sacrifice.
Furthermore, nature and culture are presented as if they were locked in a struggle, culture seeking to overcome the priority of nature and nature reasserting that priority. Even when moderns sought to turn to nature, they tended to retain this dichotomy. Romanticism often presented the solution to the culture-nature breach as one in which culture was to ‘efface itself before an affronted nature’ (Milbank).
The Mediating Structures of Modernity
Within modernity reality came to be mediated in new ways, by new paradigms of thought and praxis. I have already briefly commented on the breaking down of the complex space of the medieval era. This is one part of a larger re-conceptualization and reorganization of space within the modern milieu.
Within modernity space came to be reduced to a simple, ‘single abstract medium’ (Milbank), whereas formerly it had been regarded as complex, ‘symbolically designed and allegorically interpreted’ (Graham Ward). The concomitant re-imagining of body, matter and substance is particularly significant for our present purposes. Graham Ward writes:
The created order takes on an autonomy, governed by mathematical configurations and geometrical relations. It becomes a timeless construct, a machine to be interpreted according to the laws of mechanics. The world is not gifted and given, but an accumulation of entities owned or waiting to be owned, property to be arranged, labelled, evaluated (according to the market and demand) and exchanged.
Modernity did not merely change man’s relationship to spatiality on a conceptual level, but came with technologies, techniques, social structures and systems which fundamentally re-orientated man in his relationship to his particular place. Anthony Giddens claims that the ‘ecological crisis as one of the intrinsic consequences of the economic and cultural forms of late modernity, and in particular of capitalism’s tendency to disembed human life from prior attachments to place, custom and tradition which in the past helped to conserve the environment’ (cited by Michael Northcott).
The effects of globalization are especially important to notice in this area. Globalization ‘enacts a universal mapping of space typified by detachment from any particular localities’ (William Cavanaugh). It leads to an attenuation of the power of mediating institutions that bind the universal to the local and entails a general devaluation of the particular in favour of the universal, relegating differences and particularity to the surface only. Globalization militates against the local and particular and has a homogenizing effect. Globalization has also increased the scale of our impact on the environment, whilst at the same time allowing us to escape much of the ‘feedback’ from our actions as their immediate effects may be located on the other side of the globe. In such ways, globalization has contributed to a new mastery of space.
Many other causes of a changing sense of place and spatiality could be listed, city design and developments in telecommunications and transport being just a few examples.
Technology and its Hegemony in Late Modernity
Neil Postman observes that ‘every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.’ To the extent that we use it, technology mediates our relationship with reality. Within the contemporary world much of our technology has become ‘mythic’, being perceived as part of the natural order of things. When this takes place, our technologies cease to be mere tools and become controlling mediators of our reality. Within late modernity, a reality mediated by physical engagement and honed bodily sensibilities has been largely exchanged for a reality mediated by technological devices (as Marva Dawn argues in Unfettered Hope).
The last few centuries have witnessed the ascendance of what Postman has termed ‘technopoly’, the state in which culture becomes subservient to the goal of technological progress. Technology and science per se are not the problem; the problem is that technological and scientific progress has become a self-justifying end in itself. The ‘focal concerns’ that would enable us to curb and resist the totalitarianism of the technological paradigm (to use Dawn’s terminology) are gradually lost.
Technopoly prizes efficiency above all else and seeks to extend its control as much as possible. It is at war against diversity, inefficiency and the unpredictable. Such values prevent the flourishing of our humanity. They also encourage the exploitation of the environment. Technopoly has the tendency to seek to subdue all other economies, including the natural economy, to its own hyper-rationalized economy. The subduing of the natural economy by the technological economy has already taken place in principle when technology becomes the controlling mediator of our reality.
The marketplace is another social system that moulds our relationship to the creation. As David Hart recognizes, the ideology of the modern marketplace is mischaracterized as ‘materialism’. The marketplace deals in abstractions, not in the material and the concrete. The actuality of wealth is no longer found in concrete palpable wealth, but in acquisitive power. Subdued by the totalitarian logic of the marketplace particularity is robbed of value. The natural tendency of the marketplace is to exchange reality for the virtual and the simulacrum. The relationship between the real and the virtual in the market of cyberspace is illustrative of this tendency. This will have a huge effect on our posture towards creation. To the degree that the logic of the marketplace progresses unchecked we become ‘consumers’ of creation, rather than those who value creation in itself, in its concrete particularity.
The logic of the marketplace encourages us to think of ownership in a different way. A ‘commodity’ is an interchangeable item to be consumed and then disposed of. We ought not to develop any especial attachment to it. As Brian McLaren has claimed, to the degree that the marketplace determines our values, rather than remaining subordinate to them, we will seek to possess things as those who ‘consume’ and ‘dispose’ commodities, rather than by developing attachments to particular things by deepening engagement with them.
Marva Dawn’s exploration of the difference between a ‘device’ and a ‘thing’ (borrowing Albert Borgmann’s terminology) is very helpful here. A ‘device’ is designed to produce a particular commodity and nothing more and requires little or no skill of us, attenuating our engagement with the particular reality that it mediates. A ‘thing’, on the other hand, brings with it a whole world of relationships and engagement, tasks and skills and produces multiple goods. The contrast between central heating and a fireplace is one helpful example that is given.
Consumption as a form of possessing is ultimately dissatisfying. Man hungers for a far deeper form of possession. Commodities do not slake our thirst and so we consume ever greater amounts. The commodification of reality, the constant seeking for satisfaction in more, has placed an unbearable burden on the earth. Our inability to ‘possess’ the creation in any other way than as ‘commodity’ has also made us less able to appreciate the value of preserving and beautifying the creation for reasons other than economic ones.
All of the above cultural forms and societal systems lead to exploitative relationships to nature. Space is to be mastered and nature is an object over against us to be subdued and consumed, rather than a realm of personal encounter.
A Christian Response
It is my conviction that the Church is uniquely equipped for the task of re-imagining reality that our current ecological crisis necessitates. I will seek to argue that this re-imagining of reality is most clearly to be found in the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist.
Mankind as Homo Adorans
Vigen Guroian observes that ‘the presiding metaphor’ that contemporary theologians use for mankind’s role in the creation is that of ‘stewardship’. Guroian argues that this fails to escape the ‘hidden possibility of the objectification and alienation which are the root causes of the sickness of our civilization’ and claims that mankind’s role within the creation is far better understood in terms of the metaphor of priesthood.
Alexander Schmemann makes a case that the primal sin took place when Adam ceased to be a priest and became a ‘consumer’. Rather than relating to the world as the sacrament of God’s presence, Adam treated it as a thing in itself. The creation, detached from the divine gift economy of worship, became subject to an economy of death and was unable to satisfy the hunger for life that man brought to it.
Re-imagining mankind’s relationship to the creation through a liturgical lens is profoundly illuminating. In Blessed Are the Hungry, Peter Leithart argues that the Eucharist provides us with an epiphany of the way things ‘really ought to be’. In the remainder of this essay I will use the Eucharist as a model for the re-conceptualization of our relationship with the natural order.
Mark Searle’s work on liturgy and the imagination informs my argument at this point. Searle writes
Discipline might be defined as the kind of self-control which frees one from distraction and preserves one from dissipation. Ritual behaviour is a prime example of such discipline. By putting us through the same paces over and over again, ritual rehearses us in certain kinds of interaction over and over again, until the ego finally gives up its phrenetic desire to be in charge and lets the Spirit take over. The repetitiousness of the liturgy is something many would like to avoid; but this would be a profound mistake. It is not entertainment, or exposure to new ideas. It is rather a rehearsal of attitudes, a repeated befriending of images and symbols, so that they penetrate more and more deeply into our inner self and make us, or remake us, in their own image.
A number of theologians have presented the Eucharist as an alternative model to those provided by modernity for engagement with creation.
Participation in a Redeemed Creation
The Eucharist—the central act of Christian worship—is a meal. Within it, eating, the most ‘mundane’ of human activities, becomes an action in which the reality of the kingdom of God is manifested. How does eating model the way that things ‘really ought to be’? In the act of eating man takes the creation into himself. The act of eating expresses our dependence upon the creation for our continued existence and our superiority within creation as omnivorous bipeds. It is in the act of eating that our necessary participation in nature is most clearly seen; the fact that we are embodied souls is hard to deny at the meal table.
Leon Kass’s work demonstrates the deficiencies of positions that assimilate mankind to the rest of nature and of positions that detach him from nature by focusing on the manner in which we humanize our most animal action, that of eating. As John Zizioulas observes, we do not merely have bodies; we are bodies. However, in eating we seek to satisfy far deeper hungers than merely biological ones. The soul and the needy body can never be detached from each other.
The Eucharist presents us with the act in which the nature/man dichotomy is hardest to sustain.
Thanksgiving and Communion
In the Eucharist Christ gives Himself to us in bread and wine. Creation is revealed to be the gift of divine presence, rather than anything that can be apprehended in itself alone. As we celebrate ‘Eucharist’ we are taking part in an act of thanksgiving (it is important to recognize that in drinking wine, we express the truth that creation is not merely to be used, but also to be enjoyed and rejoiced in). Schmemann writes:
As the world was created by the word of God by blessing—in the deepest, ontological significance of this expression—so it is saved and restored by thanksgiving and blessing…
The Eucharist is also Communion; in its celebration we enjoy restored relationship and communion with and in God, each other and the creation. The Eucharist reveals the primacy of the economy of divine gift, an economy that all other economies must be subordinate to. Mark Searle argues that creation finds its fulfilment when it becomes the means by which God communicates Himself to us and we communicate ourselves to each other in the form of gift. Rather than detaching us from creation like modern ‘consumption’ does, the consumption of the Eucharist is a means by which we are knit into the new creation.
Glorification of the Creation
If creation is only fulfilled as it becomes the mediator of human and divine relationships, it should be clear that the nature/culture divide is quite suspect. Creation’s value is always one that must be ‘completed’ by mankind. It cannot achieve its full telos outside of the worshipping community.
Within the Eucharist we eat bread and wine, neither of which occurs naturally. Bread is a ‘uniquely human food’ (as Leithart observes). Man does not merely consume the creation, but transforms and transfigures it. Bread and wine production are products of established cultural forms of interaction. The Eucharist has connections to the OT tribute offering. In the Eucharist we offer products of our cultural transformation of nature to God in thanksgiving, giving tokens of our labours (in the form of money) along with the bread and the wine. We are to incorporate all of our work into the salvation that is in Christ. The Eucharist reveals culture’s task as that of transforming and glorifying nature, not just that of preserving it. It ‘culturalizes’ nature by presenting nature as a form of divine speech and means of establishing fellowship with mankind; it ‘naturalizes’ culture by presenting culture as a glorification of creation from within.
Spatiality, Technology and Economy
Within the Eucharist we find a different model of spatiality. William Cavanaugh argues that, rather than ‘simple, universal space uniting individuals directly to a whole’, ‘the Eucharist refracts space in such a way that one becomes more united to the whole the more tied one becomes to the local.’
The celebration of the Eucharist is one of technological simplicity. Within the Eucharist our reality is mediated to us by an act of gathered worship and celebration and by our own bodiliness. Given the centrality of the Eucharist, above all other acts it is most clearly intended to mediate reality to us. Whilst other meals might be seen as ‘devices’ for biological sustenance, the Eucharist defies any attempt to conceive of it in such a manner. As we celebrate the Eucharist we will be trained to be people who apprehend reality on a level deeper than that which technology permits us to, as the gift of God’s presence.
The Eucharist also defies the hyper-rationality and efficiency of the technological world, as Pahls recognizes. In the Eucharist the free gift of the eschaton is known in the midst of time by the work of the Holy Spirit, in a manner that undermines the commodification of time by our society. We enjoy the gift of rest from our labours, the glorious inefficiency of Sabbath peace. The fact that the central activity of our existence is a non-utilitarian and inefficient one serves to chasten the ambitions of a technopolistic society. It also reminds us that our primary purpose is not that of using the creation.
The portions that we receive in the Eucharist are small, training us to be ascetic people, people who seek to ‘own’ the creation more deeply, to learn to savour it, rather than simply to consume and possess more of it. The gift that we receive in the Eucharist is not made less by virtue of its being broken and distributed. We all receive the whole Christ.
As part of the Eucharist we give money and other tokens of our labour to God. In so doing we make our money work for us, rather than working for our money and break the control that money can have over us. We proclaim the existence of a realm outside of the economies of the marketplace and technology and the existence of something greater than exchange value, acquisition and efficiency.
The relevance of the Eucharist to the problem of deforestation, for instance, may not be immediately obvious. However, if my argument is correct and the ecological crisis is in large measure a result of deficient ways of ordering and engaging with reality, the solution to our ecological crisis must essentially be an indirect one, involving a re-imagining of our world. For the purpose of re-imagining our world reason and logic can only take us so far. It is for this reason that I have focused my attention on the celebration of the Eucharist, which primarily educates our imaginations rather than our minds. In the Eucharist we are trained into the ethos that is the only genuine solution to the present ecological crisis.