The disgracing of nature

'We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.' Thus Lynn White concludes on the contribution of Christianity to the ecological crisis.11 Briefly summarised, White's thesis is that modern science and technology, although now international, have their origins in the West. To this development, Christianity makes no small contribution particularly through its creation story which, according to White, decisively introduces the notion of historical development, stresses the transcendence of humanity over nature and, last, claims that nature has been created by God for the benefit of humanity. Thus Christianity makes an important contribution to the disgracing and subsequent mastery of nature.

A veritable industry has grown up in theology to respond to White's thesis.12 The best way to join the debate is, it seems to me, to set out Christianity's case for the affirmation of nature across its many dimensions. Such - with a focus on the interdependence of social humanity and nature - is the purpose ofthis book. In this section, I want to affirm only part of White's thesis: the attempted mastery of nature in the West involves the separation - indeed, alienation - of humanity from nature, and, further, that Christianity makes a contribution to this alienation and yet also seeks to overcome it. Indeed, theologically, the issue of the alienation of humanity from nature is graspable only in terms ofdevelopments in the relation between nature and grace through modernity. It is simply not the case that the fate of nature as the object of the dominion of humanity can be traced to Christianity. Instead, Christianity, as the history of the relation between nature and grace in the modern period demonstrates, has its own difficult passage, making along the way both positive and negative

11. Lynn White, 'The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis', Science 155 (1967), 1203-7.

12. Whatever the merits of White's case, it has, as James A. Nash notes, a wider public resonance thereby placing Christianity on the defensive in the discussion of environmental matters. See James A. Nash, LovingNature:Ecological Integrity and ChristianResponsibility (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), p. 70.

contributions.13 Yet, in keeping with the general thrust of the argument of this book, I see no way beyond the alienation of humanity from nature, except dialectically. If the nature/grace distinction informs the alienation of humanity from nature, the way forward is through the theological criticism of the political-ideological structures and processes which support this distinction in order to present again the interrelation of humanity and nature as creatures before God.

The story of the disgracing of nature is often told as part of the history of the modern natural sciences.14 From a theological point of view, at issue here is the failure of Christianity to incorporate the new account of nature given in the natural sciences into its own thinking. As Louis Dupre writes: 'Having failed to incorporate the world picture presented by modern science, theological doctrine withdrew [through the seventeenth century] from one bastion after another without making new intellectual conquests.'15 Moreover there is, on Dupre's view, a more fundamental point: in the failure to incorporate the findings of the sciences into Christian doctrine, 'theology gradually withdrew from its millennial task of defining the fundamentals of the world view'.16 The separation of nature, humanity and God (which Dupre explores in terms of the contrast between nature and grace) is thus one form of the retreat of theology from the contestation ofand contribution to public meanings and concepts. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes from prison, in its long march through modernity Christianity eventually becomes associated with the themes of metaphysics, partiality and inwardness.17 These three are interrelated in that the construal of Christianity in terms of partiality means that Jesus Christ is Lord not of all of life, but only of part of it. The restriction of Christianity to a part of the world connects with Bonhoeffer's assertion that religion is to do with the individual, in his or her inwardness. The address to the individual is validated and stabilised in terms of a metaphysical God who 'appears' at the margins of the world in the form of a supernatural realm. Bonhoeffer traces the marginalisation of the theological account of the world partly to the failure of theology to address the issues posed by

13. See Louis Dupre, Passage toModernity:AnEssay in theHermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993).

14. See John Hedley Brooke, Science andReligion (Cambridge University Press, 1991).

15. Dupre, Passage to Modernity,p. 247. 16. Ibid., p. 69.

17. The list of letters which gives credence to this summary is long, but see especially those, collected in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (London: SCM Press, 1971), dated 30 April 1944, 5 May 1944,29 May 1944,8 June 1944 and 16 July 1944, and the important sketch, 'Outline for a Book'.

the new cosmology of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: 'As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, "God" is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.'18

Thus the theologian is faced with a double difficulty: the separation of humanity and nature and the marginalisation of God are aspects of the same tendency. The overcoming of the displacement of God requires the articulation of a world view. Or, better, attention to the presence of God requires the theological reconstruction of the concepts of God, nature and humanity. Paulos Mar Gregorios has suggested that the modern conception of nature as other than humanity emerged as the stress on nature as related to God's grace receded.19 If so, the theological response must take the form of a public argument in favour of a common realm of God, nature and humanity.

We may agree, as a matter of historical record, that nature, meaning that which is other than humanity, emerges at the beginning of the modern period.20 Unsurprisingly, Karl Marx captures modernity's objectification of nature in the hope of its mastery by humanity:

Subjection of nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground -what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?21 Yet the theological way forward cannot be a strategy of mere reversal. If the modern period has stressed the otherness of humanity to nature ('the subjection of nature's forces to humanity'), a sound strategy cannot be a stress on the proximity of nature. For the displacement or eclipse of God remains in place for both strategies. Instead, the problem which needs to be addressed is to overcome the separation of nature and grace in such manner that the concept ofGod is constitutive ofa liberative understanding ofnature.

The disgracing of nature thereby involves the marginalisation of the concept of God from an account of humanity-in-nature. Thus when

18. Bonhoeffer,Letters andPapersfromPrison,p. 326.

19. Paulos Mar Gregorios, The Human Presence:Ecological Spirituality and the Age of the Spirit (New York: Amity House, 1987; orig. 1978), pp. 19-20.

20. Even so, the emergence of modern meanings of nature has been a complex affair: the work of Keith Thomas suggests that in popular culture the divide between humanity and non-human nature has persistently been crossed. See Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), pp. 80f.

21. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (London: Verso, 1998; orig. 1848), pp. 40-1.

Gordon D. Kaufman writes of the standard Christian metaphysical schema as God-humanity-world, we should not agree too easily.22 Although Kaufman's account may be a true description of the Christian schema, it makes no reference to the interaction between these terms towards the formulation ofa theological concept ofnature.

Yet it is clear, as Louis Dupre has argued, that there is an intimate relation between nature, humanity and God. Indeed, Dupre contends that from the end of the Middle Ages and through the early modern period there is a profound alteration in the concept of nature on account of changes in its relations to God and humanity. The direction of this tendency has the theological accent falling on God and humanity. The origins of this stress are not to be found in the Reformation. Rather the Reformation is a partly modern attempt to reunite nature and grace. However, the attempt is not wholly successful, leading to a partial restriction in Protestant theology to the theme of the-anthropology.23

Yet this restriction has been long in the preparation. Louis Dupre argues that patristic Christianity took further certain tendencies present already in Stoic and Epicurean thought: 'The Christian doctrine of individual salvation further detached the person from the cosmic context in so far as it made each individual responsible to God. Each person stood in direct relation to God rather than to the cosmos.'24 However the crucial pre-modern theological moment is late nominalism. In the fourteenth century, the concept of nature becomes decisively detached from its context in grace (as had been the position of Augustine and Aquinas, for instance). What nominalism sets in train is the unravelling of our three themes: God, nature and humanity. The distinction between the potentia absoluta and the potentia ordinata permits an interpretation of nature as given, yet without a specific theological context. The telos of nature, as given in the actions of the creator God, is hereby denied. Although there are a number of efforts to rejoin nature to grace - the Renaissance, the Reformation and Jansenism - none is persuasive. The way is then open

22. Gordon D. Kaufman, 'A Problem for Theology: The Concept of Nature', Harvard TheologicalReview 65 (1972), 337-66 (349).

23. For example, the weaknesses of Barth's account of non-human nature are carefully explicated by Santmire: see H. Paul Santmire, The Travail ofNature:The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 148-54. A comment by the early Bonhoeffer confirms Santmire's reading of Protestantism: 'The inadequacies of nature and history are God's cloak. But not everything corporeal, not all nature and history, is meant to be sacramental. Nature as such does not symbolise Christ. His presence is confined to the forms of preaching and the two sacraments.' Christology (London: Fount, 1978), p. 54. For Dupre, see Passage to Modernity, chapters 7 and 8.

to the development of the notion of technically graceless natura pura in the sixteenth century, the separation in Protestantism of philosophy and theology and the divorce between the sciences and theology.25

A specific account of the Christian involvement in the environmental crisis emerges. The objectification of nature, with the alienation of humanity from its natural conditions, is thus supported by the attention given in Protestant theology to grace in relation to humanity.26 The result is the steady attempt to describe grace in terms ofa salvation history from which, it seems, nature is excluded. Theological interest in nature recedes further, especially in the ambivalence over natural theology,27 together with a steady withdrawal by theology from attention to the institutional and social processes of natural humanity.28 Writing in 1933, Bonhoeffer notes that 'nature' is not often treated in studies on Chris-tology: 'There has been little consideration of this question in Protestant theology in the past.' Later, in Ethics, he writes: 'The concept of the natural has fallen into discredit in Protestant ethics.'29

Given such developments, perhaps it is not surprising that Lynn White could write: 'Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.'30 Yet, we must also note that the modern period in the West is

25. Ibid., pp. 174-81. The emergence of'new' natural theology can, according to Dupre, also be traced to this juncture.

26. Of course, this account is intimately related to the claim that the development of the natural sciences is permitted, at least, by the disenchantment of nature: nature is transcended by God and yet is ordered. Nature thereby becomes available as an 'object' of human inquiry and systematic classification. For two rather different accounts of the drive of modernity towards the classification of nature, see Thomas, Man and the Natural World, ch. 2; Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989; 1991 pbk.), pp. 66-72. The emergence of the natural sciences is, in fact, not the primary and determining moment of the separation of humanity and nature, for such emergence presupposes the separation of humanity and nature (Dupre, Passage toModernity, ch. 3). The emergence of the contrast humanity/nature is, arguably, a wider anthropological development.

27. As Dupre points out, the different valuations placed on natural theology by Protestant and Catholic theology can be related to responses to the common factor of the separation of nature and grace in the late medieval period. See Louis Dupre, 'Nature and Grace: Fateful Separation and Attempted Reunion', in David L. Schindler (ed.), Catholicism and Secularization in America (Notre Dame, IN: Communio, 1990), pp. 52-73 (p. 61). Hence, although the rejection of natural theology reaches its greatest point of intensity in the twentieth century -see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 11 /1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), pp. 128-78 - such a rejection had been a common theme in nineteenth-century Protestant theology. Indeed, such rejection is prefigured by the separation in Protestantism of theology and philosophy: see Dupre, Passage toModernity, pp. 215-16.

28. Political judgments were, in Protestantism, derived from an approach which distinguished between Church and State together with an emphasis on 'orders of creation': see Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (London: SCM Press, 1955), pp. 254f., 271f. The natural conditions of human life are not important in this view.

29. Bonhoeffer, Christology, p. 64; Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 120.

30. White, 'The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis', 1205.

the mostanthropocentric period the world has seen. The important question is therefore whether or not a dialectical reading of Christianity can be sustained: given the context (including Christianity's contribution to that context), is a political theology of nature possible which might offer a liberative account of un/natural humanity.?

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