In 1971, I published In Defense of People, the first book-length critique of “the ecology movement” that was then in ascendancy and that pretty much shaped the arguments that continue to swirl around the varieties of environmentalism today. There are significant differences between then and now. Then there was a thing called “the movement” (often capitalized as The Movement), which was a frequently confused mix of agitations coming out of the civil rights movement, joining up with opposition to the war in Vietnam, and linking hands with a “counterculture” that embraced everything from pharmaceutical ecstasies to flirting with revolutionary violence. The movement with which I was identified had to do with racial justice and peace. I and others of like mind criticized the drug culture and related antics as a self-indulgent distraction from the goals of racial justice and peace, and worried that the new enthusiasm for “ecological consciousness” was in fact a conservative ploy designed to turn the movement away from the cause of the poor.
Put differently, by the end of the 1960s environmentalism was applying for full membership in the movement. Although there was no tidy definition of the movement’s leadership, it was understood that the movement had the power to certify what was legitimately liberal—remembering that in those tumultuous days liberalism routinely called itself radical. In Defense of People was my argument that the ecology movement, if admitted at all, should be admitted on probation. I pointed out, among other things, that environmentalism had historically been an aristocratic and decidedly conservative cause. It had unsavory associations with anti-immigration and even eugenic enthusiasms, and betrayed a distinct distaste for common people whom, as Lincoln observed, God must love since he made so many of them. Hence the title of the book, In Defense of People.
My editor at Macmillan worried that the book might be making too much of the phenomenon, that all the talk about ecology was “a flash in the pan.” Reviewers of the book in the New York Times and elsewhere opined that ecology was little more than a commonsensical concern for global housekeeping, and quite innocent of the far-reaching and rather alarming implications about which I warned. That, of course, was before the full-blown philosophies of “deep ecology” and “radical environmentalism” that are so much with us today. Suffice it that my argument did not carry the day, and environmentalism was admitted to full membership in the movement as an integral part of that cause of all causes, Social Change. Also in circles such as the World Council of Churches, environmentalism was patched on to the quilt of peace and justice, and presented as a seamless garment of progressive commitment.
In Environmental Ethics and Christian Humanism, Thomas Sieger Derr nicely summarizes the concern set out also in In Defense of People:
Beyond their misunderstanding of the facts, beyond their tolerance of draconian solutions, the [environmental and population] controllers are finally accused of regarding people, at least when found in great numbers, as a kind of pollution. There is among them that dreadful elitist assumption of the wealthy and comfortable that lesser lives are not worth living. There is more than a touch of “first world” imperialism here, and it may explain why environmentalists are more excited about habitat and species protection than about human health in the poor nations: the human species is not endangered, and could use a little thinning out.
Over the years, Derr has demonstrated an almost heroic patience in attending to the literature of radical environmentalism, and responding to arguments point by point. It takes great patience because in fact the arguments have not substantively developed all that much. There is regular change of rhetoric, and the tocsin of environmental alarmism is sounded in different keys and with reference to different scientific (or pseudoscientific) claims, but the shape of the argument has not changed that much in the past quarter century. It was all there, at least in nascent form, in 1971 and, in fact, much earlier.
Readers who have not been paying close attention to these controversies may think that critics such as Derr are excessively harsh or unfair. On the contrary, they are charitable, almost to a fault. How should one respond to writers such as Paul Ehrlich whose stock in trade is reckless hyperbole and outright prevarication? What attitude should we take to the Garrett Hardins who claim to be intellectually and morally courageous in urging that we brace ourselves for the deliberate elimination of millions of expendable human beings? I fear it is a mark of the corruption of our intellectual and academic discourse that it is deemed necessary to respond to such people as though they are making arguments that intelligent and decent people must take seriously. In a saner world we would be less hesitant to say that some people are inveterate liars and moral barbarians, denizens of fever swamps far removed from the civilized world for which we are responsible. Regrettably, however, the fever swamps press in upon us, and we must attend to the dikes if the possibility of a human and humane world is to be preserved.
Yet there are also some urgent truths that are being badly mangled in the confused agitations of radical environmentalism or, as it is called, deep ecology. My purpose here is to attend to some of the philosophical and theological questions that inform, and deform, current debates.
Critics like Derr do not hesitate to describe their position as “anthropocentric.” Against those who hold humanity in contempt, I, too, want to declare myself a humanist and join in the most elevated and elevating tradition of a culture that celebrates man as “the crown of creation.” That humanism is a great and fragile achievement, the result of a long, bloody, and tortuous process that reaches from the end of slaughter of virgins in appeasement of vengeful gods to the abolition of slavery to the recognition of Auschwitz and the Gulag Archipelago as icons of the evil of which human beings are capable. Upon the historical achievements of this humanism depends the sustainability of a liberal democratic social order and the philosophy of human rights that undergirds that order. But I do not think we should call this humanism “anthropocentric.”
Better we should speak of a theocentric perspective or, better yet, a theonomous perspective. The “theos” in question need not, at least in the first instance, speak of the One whom Christians call God. It does speak of that which transcends the human, of that which, to put it more cautiously, is not exhausted by the human. There is a correct intuition that wants to “situate” humanity within something greater than humanity. Man is not the only thing in the universe, and is not the greatest thing in the universe. Environmental thinkers are right about that. Humanity’s dignity and grandeur are derived. The religious impulse, evident also in radical environmentalism, rightly recoils from making an idol of humanity. The “theos” points to the “other” from which human dignity and grandeur (and responsibility!) are derived.
In refusing to make an idol of humanity, some species of environmental thought make an idol of the universe itself. Nature becomes the theos, the other, the god (or, more frequently, the goddess). This is the result of a legitimate religious impulse gone astray. The Protestant ethicist James Gustafson keeps that impulse within a tighter discipline by his accent on the theocentric as distinct from the anthropocentric. Although the argument needs much more development than I can give it here, I would suggest that Gustafson’s approach is insufficiently Christ-ian. Classical Christianity provides a more adequate way of “situating” humanity by reference to the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Theocentrism and anthropocentrism give way to Christology, the understanding that Jesus Christ is both true God and true man. In this Christocentric view, humanity is fully participant in an order best described as theonomous, a reality ordered by God and to God.
Nor is nature in any way left out of this theonomous order as it is Christocentrically constructed. This is evident in the New Testament passages found in Romans, Ephesians, Revelation, and elsewhere that underscore the “cosmic Christ.” It is not simply Eastern Orthodoxy but the legacy of all Christians that lifts up the promise of the “deification” of all things. In Colossians 1:15-20, for instance, St. Paul dramatically situates God, man, and nature in Christ:
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
We must strongly challenge those polemicists who blame the Judeo-Christian tradition for our environmental problems because it allegedly teaches an idea of “dominion” that excuses unlimited exploitation of our natural habitat. The ideas of stewardship and delegated dominion impose very real limits on what we can do. But those ideas, as important as they are, do not adequately “situate” man environmentally; they fail to convey the full force of our participation in the destiny of all things. One of the problems, I suspect, is that contemporary Christians do not take as seriously as we should our human embodiment and our hope for the resurrection of the body. Although she is not specifically addressing environmental thought, this is an argument pressed by Caroline Walker Bynum in her recent and remarkable study, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity.
Among both Protestants and Catholics today, there is a growing literature on the theology of the body. The vision proposed, a vision that radically situates humanity in the drama of creation, is addressed by Dominican theologian Benedict Ashley:
Thus in the physical universe, to the infinite creativity of God corresponds the infinite potentiality of matter. And in that ocean of matter, in the ever shifting and transient forms that cross it, we can see the face of God reflected, in what the medievals called the Mirror of God. Yet that metaphor of the mirror is too Platonic, because God’s epiphany in the world is not through mere surface shadows, but is in the coming to be, development, and passing away to make room for novelty of primary natural units, each of which truly exists and acts in its own right and according to its own nature and structure for its time, and interacts with other units in a process of mutual actualization and eventual replacement. The physical universe is not a mere shadow, it is a drama of billions of actors, some minute, blindly moving atoms, some living plants and moving animals, and some intelligent body-persons enacting an evolutionary history whose scenario still remains open to the future.
The avenues of thought explored by Ashley and others are reminiscent of the earlier work of the Jesuit theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard, of course, was suspected by some of deviating from Christian orthodoxy, and his notion of the “hominization” of the universe has been interpreted—unfairly, I think—as a truly relentless form of anthroprocentrism. His accent, rather, was on the “Christification” of all things along the lines suggested by the passage from Colossians cited above. In any event, it seems to me more than probable that the promptings of environmental thought, combined with intensified interaction between science and theology, might well produce in the coming years an efflorescence of Christian reflection that unfolds as yet undeveloped truths that are latent in cardinal doctrines such as creation, redemption, and the promise of bodily resurrection.
The critical divide in these debates is not between Christian and “secular” accounts of nature. Typically, radical environmental accounts are not really secular but are religious or quasi-religious in character. As with what we usually call religion, they attempt to provide a “meaning system” or an “explanation of everything.” It is true that, for some people, environmental philosophies, and even environmental spiritualities, are a replacement for Marxist and other meaning systems that no longer seem plausible. Thus the recoloration of ideologies from “Red” to “Green.” But I expect that other forms of “deep ecology” do indeed go deeper than that. They are intuitive and frequently confused probings toward a comprehensive construction of reality. Call it a construction of reality, a narrative, a myth, or whatever—it is a movement of sensibilities and ideas that gropes toward an encompassing account that tries to make sense, not least of all moral sense, of human culture that is neither lost in the cosmos nor at war with it.
These questions are not new to Christian thought, but today they press with renewed urgency. There is a formidable Christian intellectual tradition addressing these questions; it includes, inter alia, figures so estimable as Origen, Irenaeus, Thomas Aquinas, Teilhard, and, in our own day, thinkers such as Wolfhart Pannenberg. In view of this impressive intellectual tradition, it seems odd that so many environmental thinkers (some of whom call themselves eco-philosophers or eco-theologians) seem to think that they are starting from scratch, sniffing about in the ruins of god and goddess myths, piecing together the venerated shards of primitive worldviews, or frankly inventing new world-stories such as sundry versions of the Gaia hypothesis.
On second thought, however, it is not so completely odd that people think they are starting from scratch. We can hardly overestimate the consequences of the fact that most intellectuals today are religiously illiterate, and are most particularly innocent of any knowledge of the Christian intellectual tradition. They may say that modern (or postmodern) thought has “moved beyond” what Aquinas, for instance, had to say about the interaction of nature and history, but in fact they typically have not the foggiest notion of what Aquinas said, or even whether he said anything at all on the subject. I have a fondness for Occam’s razor, and one should not look for additional explanations for the foolish things people write when ignorance suffices. Of course there are exceptions, but the excesses of eco-philosophy and eco-theology current today (many of which defy parody) generally represent excitements untempered by education.
An inquiry into the causes of this widespread illiteracy would require an extended discussion of the state of what we persist in calling higher education. But there are several factors that can be noted briefly. The phrase “Christian intellectual tradition” is thought by many to be oxymoronic since they have been led to believe (frequently with the encouragement of misguided Christians) that Christianity has to do with faith while the intellectual life has to do with reason, and these are two different ways of speaking about reality that cannot speak to one another. In addition, in our current academic ambiance it is widely established as a matter of dogma that “Western culture” is the source of the ills that plague humanity and planet earth. In environmental circles, that dogma is powerfully reinforced by the conventional polemic against the biblical language of domination. Never mind that the Christian intellectual tradition is more than “Western” in the usual use of the term, and never mind that there is nothing more uniquely Western than the pattern of self-criticism that easily turns into self-denigration, it is true that Christianity is undeniably and foundationally entangled with the West, and that is enough, in the minds of many writers, to put it beyond the pale.
Nor, because it is so obvious, should we underestimate a more personal factor. The enthusiasts of deep ecology typically come out of a Christian background. “Come out of” and “background”—the terms are telling. Christianity is something in their past, something they have outgrown; no doubt many would say something that they have escaped. That is the past. Been there. Done that. Ideas must be new; they must be about change, about the future. In the realm of ideas, the myth of linear progress has an unbreakable hold also on the minds of conservationists who understand themselves to be at war with the myth of progress. To seriously entertain the possibility that the Christian tradition may hold some of the answers for which they are looking would be to go backward, even though for most of these writers it would be going back to where they had never been except as children with a Sunday School impression of Christian doctrine.
Moreover, for a certain kind of writer on the left, ideas must bear a revolutionary panache, and there is a frisson of defiance in taking one’s stance with, say, the Druids of old (reinvented and sanitized, to be sure, without, for instance, the burning of human sacrifices). This intellectual posture of fancied defiance is tiresomely familiar in our intellectual history. As someone has remarked, everything changes except the avant garde. Even the most eccentric reconstruction of presumably primitive myths can provide the avant garde with a place to stand in opposition to Christianity and Western culture, which are, at the same time, declared to be both thoroughly discredited and powerfully holding humanity in thrall.
And so there are many reasons why Christian wisdom has a hard time gaining a hearing among environmental thinkers who are in search of a religious or quasi-religious construal of reality that can comprehend their concerns. A change in this circumstance will require that, in the years and decades ahead, orthodox Christian thinkers demonstrate that Christianity provides a more plausible and promising account of the legitimate concerns raised by environmentalists. As with thinkers such as Teilhard, such efforts will have to, as they say, press the envelope, and they will sometimes be viewed as theologically suspect. As in any serious intellectual venture, there are risks of taking wrong turns. Such exploration should be undertaken within a community and tradition that provide necessary correctives by reference to the rule of faith (regula fidei) and teaching authority (magisterium).
The exploration must be undertaken, however. I have already mentioned some of the Christian thinkers who are engaging these questions, but much more needs to be done. It is too easy for orthodox Christians to parody and dismiss the more sensationalist popularizers of “creation theology” such as Rosemary Ruether, Matthew Fox, and Thomas Berry. The sometimes bizarre manner of their expression should not blind us to the legitimate concerns being raised. The fact is that Western Christianity, especially in the post-Reformation period, has been preoccupied with the question of individual salvation. That is, of course, a question of surpassing urgency for each of us. But the preoccupation with that question has contributed to a failure to do justice to the cosmic dimensions of the Christian message. Too many philosophers and religious thinkers, including serious Christians, have thought it necessary to look outside the Christian tradition for a way of understanding the nature and destiny of the universe, when a more convincing account can be developed from within the tradition. Such a development will require a fuller engagement with Eastern Orthodox theology, and with the rich and oft-neglected resources of the early Christian centuries as these are available to us in the patristic literature.
It is observed that every heresy is a truth that has lost its balance, and at present, as well as in the past, flirtation with heresy and heresy itself have attended much thinking about the relationship between God and his creation. There is, for example, the perennial temptation to pantheism. In the same breath that orthodox writers condemn pantheism, they frequently condemn panentheism as well. I would suggest that some distinctions are in order here. Pantheism is clearly incompatible with the Great Tradition of Christian thought. Pantheism is the claim that God is all there is or that all is God. It is a radical immanentism that denies the transcendence of God. Although there is some dispute about his teaching, it would seem that Spinoza, for example, equated God with the systematic perfection of the world order. In pantheism, God engulfs all, which theoretically results in negating what is not God. The practical result, somewhat paradoxically, is the negation of God as an unnecessary hypothesis. When all is God, there is no need for God.
Panentheism is crucially different. Pan-en-theos literally means everything in God. The coining of the term is usually attributed to the German philosopher Karl C. F. Krause (1781-1832), who wanted to articulate more clearly the position of Kant. In that idealistic tradition, but giving it a more mystical turn, Krause posited God as the primordial being who contains the universe but is apart from it and superior to it, with human consciousness being a participation in the mind of God toward which nature is evolving. Quite apart from Krause’s enterprise, one finds elements of panentheism in Plato’s being and becoming, in Nicholas of Cusa’s Infinite that reconciles all opposites, in the Absolute Spirit of Hegel, in Whitehead’s process theology, and in Teilhard’s understanding of creation evolving toward the Omega Point. Hans Urs von Balthasar has insightfully traced the ways in which the identification of God, creation, and human consciousness strongly shaped both the theistic and atheistic streams of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Romanticism. The second volume of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology is a particularly rich resource for understanding contemporary scientific and religious explorations into the meanings of pan-en-theos.
Just the mention of some of the schools of thought associated with it makes clear that panentheism has, to put it gently, a checkered history. And it may be that the term itself has suffered so much abuse that it is no longer usable. Nonetheless, the lines of inquiry connected with the term—combined with fresh study of biblical, patristic, and Orthodox thought—hold high promise, I believe, for a constructive response to the concerns raised by today’s environmental philosophers. I am persuaded that the truth in some of the arguments that eco-philosophers and eco-theologians wrongly direct against the Christian tradition can be better grounded from within the tradition.
At a conference some years ago, a noted Calvinist theologian declared, “Whatever else needs to be said about the transcendence of God, we can agree that God minus the universe is still and fully God.” I am not sure that I would want to flatly disagree with that formulation, but I think it is at least potentially misleading. Such an abstraction may be, to paraphrase Pascal, the God of the philosophers, but it is very doubtfully the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and God incarnate in Jesus Christ. The creation has, in the humanity of Jesus the Christ, been incorporated into the very Godhead—into, if one wishes to put it that way, the very being of God.
Citing, and affirming, the wisdom of the Athenians, St. Paul declares, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 7:28) And what is true of us human beings is true of all that is; the macrocosmic and microcosmic, the galaxies beyond numbering and the subatomic particles beyond discernment. In creation and redemption, God’s covenantal faithfulness holds all that is, was, and ever will be to himself. In the dynamic of creation, even the millions of species that have disappeared are not finally lost. This, I believe, is the sensibility that is consonant with Jesus’ words about every hair being counted and every fallen sparrow taken into Divine account. It is in this context, a context decisively shaped by God’s redemptive purposes in Christ, that we can join with St. Francis of Assisi in hymns of familial and filial piety toward nature. St. Francis is, of course, a great favorite of environmentalists, but, divorced from God in Christ, such piety toward the creation becomes a form of idolatry.
The great danger is an identification of God and humanity, or of God and creation. God always remains other, the Ultimate Other, infinitely more than we can think or say. All our thought and language about God is analogical, and we must ever keep in mind the caution of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) that “No similarity can be found so great but that the dissimilarity is even greater.” In sharp contrast to some religious proponents of “deep ecology” who betray a monistic passion to subsume all of reality into a conceptual tapioca pudding of undifferentiated Oneness, we know that neither we nor nature is God. As our inquiries proceed analogically, they are both enriched and disciplined by an awareness of what Eastern Orthodoxy calls the “apophatic” and in Western thought is known as the via negativa. God is not this and God is not that, and yet this and that are not without God. All of reality is theonomous, and we do not really know the most important truth about anything, whether macrocosmic or microcosmic, until we know it, so to speak, in God.
Much environmental writing is marked by a treacly sentimentality about nature, often combined, oddly enough, with a venomous contempt for the part of nature that is humanity. Such sentimentality finds expression also in patterns of Christian piety. For instance, the popular nineteenth-century hymn, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”: “What though the spicy breezes, Blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle; Though every prospect pleases, And only man is vile.” The late Ernest Becker offers a bracing antidote to such nature sentimentality:
At its most elemental level the human organism, like crawling life, has a mouth, digestive tract, and anus, a skin to keep it intact, and appendages with which to acquire food. Existence, for all organismic life, is a constant struggle to feed—a struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms they can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking. Seen in these stark terms, life on this planet is a gory spectacle, a science-fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh.
Such realism gives added force to our reading of St. Paul’s reflection on a creation that is not yet what it will be: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22,23) The bloody horror of nature’s ways, the destruction and tragedy, the manifest injustices and problems of theodicy—all these must be given full scope in any adequate Christian reflection on the world reality in which we are situated. Put differently, such a reflection must take full account of the cross in both its human and cosmic significance. As the previously cited first chapter of Colossians suggests, the peace for which we hope is through the blood of the cross.
The goal is a fuller understanding of nature, which entails a fuller understanding of the humanum. Those who rail against humanism are inevitability embroiled in a task that is humanistic and even, if I may use the term, anthropocentric. They can only persuade, convince, cajole, reproach, and hope to change the minds and actions of human beings. There are no other moral agents in the universe. Those who reach to include, for example, simian cousins in the community of moral agency only underscore the unavoidably normative status of humanity. The late Abraham Joshua Heschel was fond of saying that man is the cantor and caretaker of the universe. We will take care only to the extent that, as cantor, we sing the songs that bestow meaning upon the universe and our place in it.
And so what songs should we sing in order that we might take better care? First, the song of God’s sovereignty, and of our dignity derived from his caring for us. Second, the song of God’s delight in His creation, of which the Bible gives many examples, and of our being invited to delight in His delight. Third, the song of reason’s gift by which we understand the uses of nature to preserve and enhance the well-being of humanity—humanity being the part of creation that God became in order that we might become fully God’s. Fourth, the song of Francis, the song of fellow-feeling with all that is, and most especially with the animals of which we are forever one. Fifth, the song of wonder at a beauty that is always “other,” and that, for all its brutality, bespeaks the “fearful symmetry” of Blake’s abiding vision. Sixth, the song of obedience to the command to care, of faithfulness to the dominion that is delegated to us and that none other can assume. Seventh and finally, the song of redemptive hope, of the resurrection of the body; of our bodies that encompass the stuff of the creation of which we are part; of our bodies that participate in the body of Christ that is the Church, and therefore anticipate, already now, that perfect communion with God for which the whole creation waits with eager longing.
Along these lines, here only briefly sketched, we may better apprehend a creationally situated humanity, and develop an environmental theology and piety that is coherent, comprehensive, compelling, and true to the revelation of God in Christ.
Richard John Neuhaus was Editor-in-Chief of First Things. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Environmental Ethics and Christian Humanism, edited by Thomas Sieger Derr and published by Abingdon, 1997.