Since the 1960s, many people have realized that our planet does not possess endless resources and cannot continue to be a life-giving environment unless human beings quickly become much more responsible and ecologically sensitive stewards of the created world. In an epoch-making address delivered to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1966, Lynn White placed the burden of the global environmental crisis squarely on the shoulders of Christianity. He singled out Catholic and Evangelical theology as major forces that have shaped Western environmental attitudes. 'By destroying pagan animism', White stated, 'Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.'108 As a result, White insisted, humanity lost its ability to contemplate nature as God's handiwork, and deemed it less and less worthy of respect. The teaching of Genesis 1: 26—7 about God's making humanity in the divine image, White argued, has been misused to reinforce the idea that human beings can act like 'gods' and behave in any way they like. Such a reading has gone along with a habitual misrepresentation of the mission to multiply and exercise dominion over all things (Gen. 1: 28). Humanity, White concluded, has turned things into mere objects, resources to be exploited and squandered at will.
Despite criticisms directed at White's cry of alarm, his fears of an impending ecological disaster seem justified. Although environmental concerns feature on current international agenda, little has been done to safeguard our earth. But did White read correctly the texts of Genesis and later Christian tradition?
The Catholic tradition, as White admitted, has produced a Francis of Assisi, 'the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history', who proposed 'an alternative Christian view of nature and man's relation to it'.109 In his Canticle of Brother Sun (also called the Canticle of the Creatures), Francis praised God as revealed in the natural world and expressed love for all creatures. The monastic tradition, initiated centuries earlier by
108 Lynn White, 'The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis', Science , 155 (10 March 1967), 1205; id., 'Continuing the Conversation', in I. G. Barbour (ed.), Western Man and Environmental Ethics: Attitudes toward Nature and Technology (Menlo Park, Calif.: Addison-Wesley, 1973), 55—64.
109 'The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis', 1207.
Benedict of Norcia, saw God's glory in the whole cosmos, and invited human beings to 'pray and work' in response. The Benedictine tradition, followed by innumerable men and women, cultivated the earth and fostered agricultural customs that respected the local eco-cycle. They encouraged their contemporaries to marvel at God's glory in creation, and express thanksgiving in work, prayer, and song. Such a tradition looks quite incompatible with the innumerable ways in which humanity has abused its God-given 'home': from the unnatural fodder that has spread mad cow disease to uncontrolled deforestation and the squandering of fossil fuels.
Sadly, Catholics have often forgotten the Benedictine and Franciscan traditions that might have helped them fulfil their God-given mission to care for the earth and carry forward God's creative work. In neglecting and destroying nature, Catholics, like millions of others, have been neglecting and destroying themselves and their environment. Human beings have so often forgotten that they form the self-conscious, responsible part of created, interconnected nature. What message might encourage an ecological consciousness and responsibility? The themes of (a) stewardship' and (b) 'the sixth day' suggest two ways of responding to the current ecological crisis.
(a) Stewardship implies a relation on three different levels: towards God first, and then towards the present and the future creation. As God's representatives on earth, human beings can govern in God's name only if they deepen and develop a personal relationship with the creator. Such a relationship, therefore, means recognizing that the earth can never be one's personal possession: it is God's gift to humanity and to infra-human creation as a whole. Economic progress should not mean, for example, that one-fifth of the world's population continues to use four-fifths of the planet's resources and condemns millions to perennial poverty. In 1965 the Second Vatican Council called attention to such a 'wretched' state of affairs:
At the very time when the development of economic life could mitigate social inequalities (provided that it be guided and coordinated in a reasonable and human way), it is often made to aggravate them; in some places, it even results in a decline of the social status of the underprivileged and in contempt for the poor. While an immense number of people still lack the absolute necessities of life, some, even in less advanced areas, live in luxury or squander wealth. Extravagance and wretchedness exist side by side. While a few enjoy very great power of choice, the majority are deprived of almost all possibility of acting on their own initiative and responsibility, and often subsist in living and working conditions unworthy of the human person. (Gaudium et Spes, 63)
Besides calling for a Franciscan-style of sharing brotherhood that works here and now for the good of all, stewardship towards God's creation implies a third relationship: towards those created beings that will exist in times to come. A right use of creation remembers the human and non-human 'neighbours' that form the future generations to whom we will bequeath the planet we have inherited. The OT prophets dreamed of a future harmony for the whole of nature, a time when 'the wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them' (Isa. 11: 6; see Ezek. 47: 1—12). What would Isaiah and Ezekiel have made of a world in which human ravages threaten to wipe out wolves, leopards, and lions, and have already destroyed hundreds of species?
(b) In terms of the first chapter of Genesis, humanity's mission is to situate itself fully in the 'sixth day of creation', and co-operate with the God who has been at work on all the earlier days. Such teamwork continues what until then has been God's task alone, and will attain its goal on the 'seventh day' of 'rest', when God will be manifested as the Lord of all creation. In the meantime humanity is called to preserve its eco-system and not turn the world into an ecological time-bomb, ready to explode at any time. Thus we can reach the Lord's seventh day and share in the final 'banquet', when God will be 'all in all' (1 Cor. 15: 28). Irenaeus contemplated humanity as made in the image of the uncreated, tripersonal God and progressing under divine guidance towards the 'seventh' day:
Man, a created and organized being, is rendered after the image and likeness of the uncreated God,—the Father planning everything well and giving his commands, the Son carrying these into execution and performing the work of creating, and the Spirit nourishing and increasing [what is made], but man making progress day by day, and ascending towards the perfect, that is, approximating to the uncreated One. (Adversus Haereses., 4. 38. 3)
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