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Retrieving an Ancient Sacramental Ecology, Part 1

Last year, on the 50th anniversary of the first “Earth Day,” Pope Francis delivered an impassioned address, pleading with his audience to protect the environment. He even proclaimed that the coronavirus pandemic is partly the result of our abuse of the environment. “We see [in] these natural tragedies […] the earth’s response to our maltreatment,” Francis said. We have not only “sinned against the earth,” but also our neighbors, and thus “ultimately against the Creator.” Pope Francis made a similar impassioned plea in his famous encyclical of 2015, Laudato Si, where he critiqued consumerism, irresponsible industry, and lamented the destruction of ecosystems as a result.

According to the Pope, Christians must respond to the charge that the Bible—particularly Genesis—grants man “dominion” (Gen. 1:28) over the earth, which has allegedly encouraged the domineering, unbridled, and destructive exploitation of nature. The claim that Christianity encourages exploitation of the earth has become unquestioned orthodoxy in the environmental movement. Indeed, many both inside and outside the church accept the charge. In 1967, for instance, professor of medieval history Lynn White, Jr. (1907-1987) wrote a notorious article on “the historical roots of our ecological crisis” for the journal Science. White, who also earned a Master’s degree at Union Theological Seminary, argued that the Western Christian worldview supports and encourages humanity’s aggressive project to dominate and exploit nature. “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt,” he wrote, “for the exploitation and destruction of the natural world.” He believed that Christianity desacralized nature, made humanity think that it did not really belong within the natural order at all, and took much too literally the charge to humanity in Genesis to “subdue” and “have dominion over” creation, resulting in destructive technologies and our current ecological crisis.The accusation that the Judeo-Christian tradition has led to our current ecological crisis is ultimately based on selective reading. Click To Tweet

White’s arguments have long since been repeated time and time again, reprinted or uncritically incorporated in numerous textbooks, anthologies, and etiologies of environmental movements. They are also implicit in Pope Francis’s own recent address on the environment. But is our current ecological crisis really rooted in Christian thought? While there is a smattering of truth to the claim, like all historical events things are much more complicated. Ultimately, the accusation is based on both a misreading of Scripture and a misunderstanding of how some ideas developed, which, unfortunately, we see in environmental activists both among non-Christians and Christians. But if one wishes to understand things, as that ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle once taught, one must watch how things develop (Politics, I, 2, 125).

In a series of articles for Credo, I want to clarify the “cultural mandate” set out in Scripture, outline the pre-modern Christian view toward nature, and argue that the notion of “dominion” or “control” over nature is a fairly modern view, and one found among natural philosophers of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientific revolution. The accusation that the Judeo-Christian tradition has led to our current ecological crisis is ultimately based on selective reading. It may indeed be questioned whether it was not Christian civilization, but rather its gradual dilution and dissolution leading to the so-called Enlightenment’s theologically liberal and mechanistic worldview that provided the foundation for the exploitation and gradual destruction of God’s creation.

The Sacramental Ecology of the Early Church

In his classic Christian apologetic, Orthodoxy (1908), English writer and lay theologian G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) spoke of the need for a “democracy of the dead.” What he means is that we cannot ignore the voices of those who came before us. Listening to the voice of tradition prevents us from submitting too quickly to “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Similarly, as Christians, we live and move and have our being with the “communion of the saints.” Oxford Inkling C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) more than once urged Christians to keep in touch with the classics. “It is a good rule,” he wrote in a preface to a modern English translation of Church Father Athanasius’s (c. 296-373) great treatise On the Incarnation, “after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” The Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) also observed near the end of his life, “in order to serve the community of today, theology itself must be rooted in the community of yesterday.” With a better sense of our theological heritage, Christians today may be afforded a way to see beyond the tragic divisions and confusions within the Christian family, to what Lewis called “mere Christianity,” the shared theological commitments that have defined the parameters of Christianity since the early church. But this “standard of plain, central Christianity,” as Lewis suggests, “can be acquired only from the old books.”

We would do well to listen to those who came before. When it comes to our current ecological crisis, the early church encouraged a view where man and nature are in harmony. This holistic view towards God, nature, and humanity was preached widely. Ancient authors credited the great ascetics and desert monks with retrieving a paradisical state while still living in the here and now. Because the universe was created through the Logos—God’s “word,” “logic,” “reason” (John 1:1, 14)—it reflects God’s order and character. Thus to contemplate creation was to contemplate the Creator.

For instance, the early Christian apologist Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), taking his que from Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria (c. 25-50), called on Christians to contemplate the fingerprints of God on the universe, the sun, angels, and humanity. The great Egyptian hermit Anthony the Great (251-356) similarly did not seek escape from the “world” but rather false “worldliness,” away from man-made cities and into the landscapes of God’s design. “My book is the nature of created things,” he said, “in it…I can read the words of God.” Basil of Caesarea (330-379), founder of Eastern monasticism, called on all Christians to meditate on blades of grass and specks of dust. According to Basil, reflecting on the “beauty and grandeur” of creation—“earth, air, sky, water, day, night, all visible things”—is “training ground” for the soul to “learn to know God, since by the sight of visible and sensible things our intellect (nous) is led, as by a hand, to the contemplation of invisible things.”“Observe the beauty of the world, and praise the plan of the creator. Observe what he made, love the one who made it. Hold on to this maxim above all; love the one who made it, because he also made you, his lover, in his own image.” Click To Tweet

The great bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine (354-430), perhaps the most influential figure of the early church, called on readers to “Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?” Even in his sermons, Augustine proclaimed:

“Observe the beauty of the world, and praise the plan of the creator. Observe what he made, love the one who made it. Hold on to this maxim above all; love the one who made it, because he also made you, his lover, in his own image.”

According to Italian medievalist Umberto Eco, in his The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, by the sixth century authors such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite presented “the universe as a cascade of beauties springing forth from the First Principle, a dazzling radiance of sensuous splendors which diversify in all created being.” According to Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), famed Dominican friar who taught theology in Paris, “God brought things into being in order that the divine goodness might be communicated to creatures and be represented by them…Thus the whole universe together participates in divine goodness more perfectly and represents it better than any single creature whatever.” This Edenic relation to creation, one of “sympathy and friendship,” was entirely typical of Christian authors from the very beginning, as is documented by innumerable accounts and legends.

Central to humanity’s relationship with creation in the early church is the doctrine of the Imago Dei, man as God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27, 5:1; James 3:9). This “image” (tselem) endured even after the Fall (cf. Wisd. Sol. 2:23; Sirach 17:3). Apostolic father Clement of Rome (d. 99), in his epistle to a Christian congregation in Corinth, says that God formed man in the impress of His own image, and thus shares in great measure God’s transcendence over nature. In this sense, man, as the Imago Dei, must conform to God’s will. To disobey God’s will is to do everything that breaks the relationship between God, man, and nature. While they referred to this image as man’s “dominion” over nature, this should not be interpreted as exploitation. Indeed, God does not exploit His subjects, and therefore neither should those who reflect God’s image. None of the church fathers thought the Imago Dei gave humanity unlimited authority over nature. God may have given this authority to man, but there is nevertheless a law that prescribes how to rule. Early Christian theologians compared man’s dominion over nature with a king’s rule over his kingdom. For a king to have dominion does not mean that he can play the role of an arrogant despot, exploiting and destroying the people over whom he rules. On the contrary, to have dominion means to exercise responsible care for that people. To exploit, rather than to care for, is to misrule.Humanity, therefore, is commissioned to rule nature as a benevolent king. And in this sense, humanity’s dominion should resemble God’s dominion. Click To Tweet

Humanity, therefore, is commissioned to rule nature as a benevolent king. And in this sense, humanity’s dominion should resemble God’s dominion. The Byzantine monk John of Damascus (675-749), for example, says that God furnishes man with counsel, glory, eyes, conscience, and knowledge in order to exercise his rule properly. The Cappadocian bishop Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395) similarly argued that God has appointed us as “lords” (kurios) over the earth, to fill the earth with “reason” (logos). For St. Augustine, humanity should not be an “exploiter” of God’s gifts of nature, but rather an “explorer” who conforms to God’s will. Indeed, St. Augustine vigorously affirmed the inherent goodness of the world against the Manichean attempt to denigrate it, and frequently invoked the beauty of nature as evidence for its God’s goodness. Man, therefore, must rule over creation as God rules over man. As master of creation, God calls man to be a good ruler, not by exploiting nature for his own purposes, but caring for it. Thus while the early church fathers did say that earth has been made for the benefit of man, they never suggested that the earth should be exploited for our benefit.

Sacred Creation in the Medieval and Reformation Periods

During the Middle Ages, the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) continued to emphasize the spiritual education of working in the outdoors, “in the noonday heat, under the shade tree, things that you have never learned in schools.” But the medieval figure best known for his appreciation of nature is undoubtedly Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). His famous “Canticle of the Sun” or “Canticle of the Creatures” (c. 1224) has long been considered a love letter to God’s creation. As one of Francis’s followers, Bonaventure (1221-1274), wrote “In things of beauty, he contemplated the One who is supremely beautiful, and, led by the footprints he found in creatures, he followed the Beloved everywhere.” Bonaventure himself spoke of the progression of prayer in our ascent to God, beginning with the contemplation of the physical world. For Bonaventure, the whole universe displays the glory of God. Throughout the Middle Ages, then, there arose an elaborate system of emblematic correspondences between heaven and earth, which would endure even into the Renaissance, with everything in nature referring to something sacred and eternal. Creation is thus pictured as a theophany, a visible manifestation of the divine, with humanity serving as a cosmic priesthood, consecrating the study of nature as an essential task to our vocation as servants.

Even among the Protestant Reformers, the stewardship of creation is important. John Calvin (1509-1564), for example, interpreted “dominion” in Genesis to mean responsible care, a keeping that does not neglect, injure, abuse, degrade, dissipate, corrupt, mar, or ruin the earth. “The custody of the garden,” he wrote, “was given in charge to Adam to show that we possess the things that God has committed to our hands, on the condition that being content with a frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care of what shall remain.” According to Calvin, God created nature as “the theater of his glory” in which his invisible qualities would be magnificently displayed. But in this “economy,” man is to regard himself “the steward of God in all things which he possesses,” and therefore to “neither conduct himself dissolutely, nor corrupt by abuse those things which God requires to be preserved.”Pre-modern Christian theology, in short, saw the natural world as revelatory of the Creator Click To Tweet

Pre-modern Christian theology, in short, saw the natural world as revelatory of the Creator, the goodness and especially the beauty of nature marking it as both original and ongoing revelation of the divine, preceding Scripture and prophets, and thus as importantly sustaining religious piety. Nature is understood, and esteemed, as a divine epiphany. God’s original purpose for creation was that it should reflect his glory. The “cultural mandate” of dominion, as we shall discuss in more detail in the next post, did not encourage the early church to exploit nature or sustain a mood of indifference to the natural world.

James C. Ungureanu

James C. Ungureanu (Ph.D., University of Queensland) is an intellectual historian and research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He is the author of Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Retracing the Origins of Conflict (UPP, 2019). His writing has appeared in such journals as Fides et HistoriaChurch History, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, Science & Christian Belief, and Zygon, among others. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and two children.

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