Saving Creation: Nature and Faith in the Life of Holmes Rolston III
by Christopher J. Preston
Trinity, 256 pages, $25.95
I have long admired, with a few caveats, the work of Holmes Rolston III, an environmental philosopher distinguished for a gifted pen, a thorough grounding in the biological sciences, and a genuine Christian sensibility. When he was invited to give the Gifford lectures and then received the Templeton prize, I thought the honors richly deserved. If the prize was to go to an environmentalist, this was the man.
Now comes Christopher Preston’s biography, a generous testament. Rolston’s life is traced from cradle (literally) to retirement and gray eminence. The intellectual story is interesting and significant, and Preston tells it in clear, plain language. We follow Rolston from his southern Presbyterian childhood, through college physics, to an abrupt change to theological education, culminating in an Edinburgh doctorate and thence to the rural Presbyterian ministry in Virginia. There are problems with the theological conservatism of his parish, and he leaves for further education in philosophy, eventually landing a teaching post at Colorado State University, where he would remain for the rest of his career. And always, from childhood onward, he remains fascinated with the natural world, absorbing deeply its lessons, acquiring an intimate and detailed acquaintance—which is probably better than that of any environmental ethicist writing today.
According to Preston, the key to Rolston’s thought, his “breakthrough,” is his conviction that nonhuman nature has moral significance. “Rolston challenged the notion of a human-centered value system and looked deeper to embrace the intrinsic value of plants, animals, and ecosystems.” Thus he succeeded in making the passage from facts to values, from science to ethics. The link is “information transfer via genes.” Nonhuman nature does what humans do when they create culture and values. “On the back of this one powerful idea, the field of professional environmental philosophy [was] born.”
A second piece of Rolston’s thought, which follows from this first, is his delight in the goodness of the earth and its vibrant biotic life. Nature’s harshness is in the end beneficent because it drives evolution to find new ways to survive. Destructive events “create openings and opportunities for nature’s productive powers to work their effects.” There is a “creative tension” at work with “opposites propelling earth’s history dramatically forward.” Suffering and loss produce greater gain in the natural world, a better ability to thrive and reproduce. Death and suffering are not the last word (as they are not with humans); they are the way to higher and nobler life—indeed maybe the only way. Suffering, natural and human, is redemptive, and is the theme of Christianity, of Christ’s passion. Nature is “cruciform.”
Preston describes Rolston’s evolving theology, after his original revolt from fundamentalism and his careful avoidance of theological language or speculation for decades in his environmental writing, as a new journey to harmonizing science and religion. After brief interest in the anthropic principle and intelligent design, he reaches a point where he discerns a creative force behind evolution’s apparently chaotic process, an upward trend: “progress,” in biodiversity and complexity, culminating in the astonishing capacities of the human brain. “Some force is present that sucks order in superseding steps out of disorder”—thus a divine power at work. “God is the atmosphere of possibilities, the metaphysical environment in, with, and under first the natural and later the cultural environment.”
Preston presents his hero as the pioneer correcting the faults of entire ways of thinking, as almost single-handedly changing the course of intellectual history. Physics would have to learn from him not to be so deterministic. Theology would have to learn to see God in the intricacies of ecology, of nature’s smallest workings. Science, philosophy, and religion would learn to collaborate. Public opinion would have to learn from Rolston that nature has value apart from human interests. “The old assumption that all value required a human valuer appeared now implausibly parochial.” And, most grandly, “contemporary Christianity will not make sense without knowing” Rolston’s work, for “he succeeded in weaving” the biological sciences, Christian theology, and philosophical ethics “together more tightly than anyone else has done before.”
These are extravagant claims, and surely some tempering is in order. Rolston is imaginative and hard-working and has earned the right to his opinion by his long and careful research in the biological sciences. But his thought is not without antecedents, and as a student of theology and philosophy he certainly knows that. His account of evolution, for example, “embedded in a larger theological story about creative possibilities continually being made available” by the divine force that leads us forward, is reminiscent of process theology. His approach to the problem of natural evil and theodicy has a long and distinguished lineage. And Preston’s claim that Rolston almost by himself created theological environmentalism, that he is truly the “father of environmental theology,” is really unfair to those who have gone before.
Many of us were writing in this field before Rolston and have at least a partial claim to be among the pioneers—Lynn White Jr., for instance, (whom Preston nowhere mentions), a most humane and Christian man, whose famous 1967 essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” set off the whole environmental theology discussion.
In correspondence with me, White once wrote of “the theology of ecology—of which, of course, I claim to be the founder,” a phrase to be read with an amused smile, as he intended. There are other predecessors, too, whom Preston might have noted, such as the thorough theologian Paul Santmire (who gets but a passing minor allusion), with whom I have enjoyed jousting over the years.
Saving Creation is celebratory without reserve—hagiography, really. Except for one brief paragraph about Rolston’s early and soon outgrown social conservatism, there is not a disapproving word in it—not even when Preston comes to the moment when Rolston publishes an article revealing what looks like a misanthropic streak, arguing that nature is to be preferred above human need in extreme cases.
Even then, Preston does his best to sand off the rough edges: softening the impact, contextualizing the argument, and finishing up by extolling Rolston’s private charity toward the poor of the third world.
It is a pity that Preston does not take the critical task seriously, for there is much of interest to evaluate and debate. Instead of treating the opposition as having reasonable views worth considering, he treats them as “hardnosed,” obdurate, and presumably needing to be enlightened by Rolston. Take the linchpin thought of Rolston’s system, “that there [is] moral and religious significance to nature independent of its contribution to human well-being.” It is perfectly plausible to claim the contrary, that there is no such thing as intrinsic value, that value always requires a valuer. Rolston’s statement that “only organisms that contained their own value could be used as value sources by others” is hardly obvious, though Preston considers it to be so.
Consider, as well, Rolston’s unrestrained celebration of the earth’s blessings. Preston cites repeatedly Rolston’s delight in the fecundity of the earth, but he misses an opportunity to deal seriously with the earth in its really unfriendly phases.
We get a one-sided view of nature as beneficent, where even storm and disease are part of upward progress because nature’s processes bring rejuvenation. But would this be an adequate answer for the Black Death of the Middle Ages, or a massive cataclysm like a large asteroid strike? When record wildfires destroyed most of Yellowstone’s forest, Rolston championed the “let it burn” philosophy of natural regulation.
But Yellowstone has something worse in store for us: the possibility of a volcanic eruption of such magnitude that it would wipe out most life in North America, and maybe more. Yes, nature would return in some fashion. But should we celebrate that as a moral value? The inevitable return of an ice age? A lifeless planet when the sun burns out? I think not. The goodness of nature collapses before such prospects, and a theodicy of rejuvenation fails us.
Then there is the awkward matter of human need. The intrinsic value imputed to the natural world gives it rights before which humans must restrain their needs. Many of us think that rights language is an intrahuman matter, but neither Rolston nor his biographer will accept that. To them nature appears to be a coequal claimant when the use of resources is at issue, conservation often trumping human need.
Rolston as environmental activist seems (from Preston’s examples) like the familiar type who opposes all economic development, reflexively. If he ever considered a project on the merits of its usefulness to humans, that doesn’t appear in Preston’s telling: “Rolston remained firm in his view that there were some occasions when the interests of people, even the vital interests of desperately poor people, should be sacrificed to the interests of nature.”
This is the point where Preston’s apologetics are most needed. He defends Rolston by pointing out that such a hard choice—people vs. nature—would be exceedingly rare, that some way both to feed people and to save wild nature would almost always be possible, and that, in his private life, Rolston was generous with charitable gifts to help the world’s poor.
Nevertheless, Rolston finds the brutal ethic of nature “homologous” or “analogous” to the human situation and is dismissive (in an essay not cited by Preston) of “those humanistic ethics no longer functioning in, nor suited to, their changing environment.” And so he belongs, uncomfortably, to a harder, firmer breed of environmentalism whose insistence on the intrinsic value of nature can and does lead into moral danger.
These are issues worth extended examination, but this is not that kind of book. It is no invitation to join the discussion. For Preston, the debate is over, and Rolston has vanquished the doubting and the ignorant. A regrettable conclusion, for Rolston’s considerable accomplishment deserves more careful scrutiny.
Thomas Sieger Derr is a member of the editorial board of First Things and the author of Environmental Ethics and Christian Humanism.