In Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana the dissolute but not, he emphatically insists, officially “defrocked” Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon has been “collecting evidence . . . of man’s inhumanity to God.” When asked what he means by that. Shannon indicates that he refers to the “pain we cause Him. We’ve poisoned His atmosphere. We’ve slaughtered His creatures of the wild. We’ve polluted His rivers. We’ve even taken God’s noblest creature man and brainwashed him into becoming our own product, not God’s.” It is a powerful and poignant moment in a very sad tale of our humanity and inhumanity.
I thought about the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon quite a lot during all the to-do surrounding Earth Day last spring. To be sure, many of the pronouncements and festive events were more than a little precious and a tad smug, separating the environmentally aware from all those benighted souls who keep the water running as they brush their teeth. But I knew I was more with the event and the concerns it surfaced and displayed in such a variety of ways than I was agin’ it.
And so, it seems, are the vast majority of my fellow citizens. The survey data shows a startling rise in the number of Americans who say they agree with the statement that “protecting the environment is so important that requirements and standards cannot be too high and continuing environmental improvements must be made regardless of cost.” In September 1981, 45 percent concurred with that sentiment; by Earth Day (this April), fully 74 percent identified with efforts to save what can be saved and to reverse many current trends. A strong 64 percent said they would be “willing to change their lifestyles to better the environment.” This is about as close to consensus as politics ever gets.
Politicians are getting the message. Translating it into viable public policy is another matter, of course, but the point I want to make is that a responsible “green politics” and Christian commitments can, and do, go hand in hand. The Hebrew and Christian traditions hold that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; that God beheld the world and declared it good. Unlike gnostic disparagement of created matter, Christians rejoice in creation, in the great chain of being. In contrast to Pelagianism’s hubris concerning man’s ability to control and shape his affairs, Christians are appropriately humble and prepared to acknowledge the limits to man’s power over himself and all others, including non-human living things.
One need not in holding this view fall into cloying nature-worship or a hopelessly romanticized vision of the natural world as benign and beautiful until man messed it up. Rather, one fights the nature conquerors because of their arrogance, their ongoing sin of pride. Wondrous creatures not made by man are being made to disappear because of man’s reckless disregard of his vocation as steward of the earth. For example, amphibians all over the world are disappearing. One should be both saddened and alarmed over this—remorseful because of the destruction of irreplaceable, unique beings; concerned because this is a sign of the times that bodes ill for other beings and habitats. One sees another malign sign of the times in the ongoing genetic manipulation and recombination that is moving with great rapidity from the field of animal husbandry to the human domain. “Texas Researchers Develop 4 Gene-Altered Calves,” reports the New York Times, going on to detail how genes are being spliced by chemical and drug companies hoping to perform all sorts of wonders in the name of science but with profit on their minds and precious little concern over the implications of their actions.
Man may be a wondrous beast, but he was not meant to play God. Surely that is a lesson we ought to have learned. But it seems not. It seems we must continuously be taught it the hard way. More than ever, we need preachers of responsibility, appropriateness of scale, decency of ambition and aim. The Christian tradition is filled with prophets and saints who rejoiced at creation—Thomas à Kempis, Meister Eckhart, or Ignatius of Loyola, who spoke of wonder and “surging emotion” as he beheld God’s creation. St. Augustine’s reactions were similar. He marveled at the many blues of the sea against the sky and at the apparently gratuitous beauty of the flower’s bloom. St. Francis’ kinship with all creatures undoubtedly made him look pretty silly sometimes, but he appears, well, saintly, compared to the hubris-ridden scientists cooking up the genome project for genetic mapping and alteration of the human species.
Pope John Paul II spoke on the ecological crisis as his theme for World Peace Day this year. He called for a new environmental solidarity to deal with ecological issues that transcend national jurisdictions and he insisted that a “right to a safe environment” be included in the Charter of Human Rights. He expressed foreboding at biological research and “indiscriminate genetic manipulation.” The ecological crisis, he declared, is at its base a moral crisis. Because it is a moral crisis, Christians have the right and the responsibility to speak out and to act—presumably from the principle of stewardship which rejects and resists any redescription of man’s powers relative to God’s such that the earth is seen as man’s to do with as he will.
A second great voice for green philosophy and prophecy is that of Czechoslovakia’s philosopher-playwright President, Vaclav Havel. Havel has scored the destruction of the environment as one of the most unforgivable depredations of state socialist rule. For Havel, we are in the midst of nothing less than a “crisis of human integrity,” for we have lost the horizon against which meaningful human action can take place. Instead, we find “the desolation of things torn from their context, the arrogance of conquerors who expect that the captives and the vanquished will clean up after them, the despair of those who do not relate to eternity, but only to the present day.” The loss of a concrete, transcendent horizon is exacting a terrible price: destroyed forests, rivers, creatures; man deprived of “his human integrity” because he has lost responsibility for himself and towards others within his world.
In a world in which production and consumption reign supreme, rather than being kept in their appropriate place, we lose, quite literally, a homeland. In one of his Letters to Olga, Havel writes:
Not long ago, while watching a report on cows on the television news, I realized that the cow is no longer an animal: it is a machine that has an “input” (grain feeds) and an “output” (milk). It has its own production plans and its own operator whose job is the same as the job of the entire economy today: to increase output while decreasing input. The cow serves us quite efficiently, really, but at the cost of no longer being a cow, in the same way that Northern Bohemia is an important source of fuel . . . at the cost of ceasing to be a part of our homeland and becoming something between the surface of the moon and a garbage dump . . . . Man has grasped the world in a way that has caused him, de facto, to lose it; he has subdued it by destroying it . . . . By robbing the cow of the last remnants of her autonomy as a cow, man has, at the same time, robbed himself of his human identity and thus become like a piece of livestock himself.
How much longer, with the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, must we “collect evidence” of man’s inhumanity to God? If Havel is right that we are in a crisis of responsibility and identity, then Christians can and should turn to the rich creation symbolism within their own tradition, suffused as it is with imagery of water, air, sky, and earth. One doesn’t have to rub crystals and bay at the moon to advocate green politics as part of an anti-gnostic, anti-Pelagian ethic of responsibility.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Centennial Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. Her most recent book Women and War. A collection of her essays entitled Power Trips and Other Journeys will be published next month by the University of Wisconsin Press.