20 September 2011

Christianity and Ecology

Another old review of mine from Science and Christian Belief:

Christianity and Ecology
edited by Elizabeth Breuilly and Martin Palmer
Continuum, 1992

This volume forms part of a series sponsored by the World Wide Fund for Nature with the overall aim of exploring how different world religions have viewed the natural environment and the relevance of religious beliefs for our handling of the current ecological crisis. If this volume is typical of the series as a whole, it is designed as a semi-popular presentation for the benefit of parish discussion groups and, perhaps, for use in schools.

The editors have divided the contents into four main sections tackling respectively the ecological crisis, the roots of Christian attitudes to the environment, historical case studies and practical contemporary Christian responses.

The first section consists of a single paper by Freda Rajotte (a former member of the WCC Church and Society Unit). She moves rapidly and uncritically from a summary account of the ecological crisis itself to a statement of Christian culpability which reflects the secular environmentalist consensus rather than the views of informed Christian theologians. One is left with the distinct impression that the Church, as she sees it, is a conservative institution hell-bent on maintaining the status quo over a wide variety of issues (she even implies that Christianity resisted the movement to abolish slavery!).

By contrast with the shrill and tendentious opening section, the three papers on the roots of Christian attitudes are balanced and helpful pieces of work. ‘The Bible and the Natural World’ and ‘The Influence of the Bible on Christian Belief about the Natural World’ are by Dr Ruth Page. She presents a positive view of biblical teaching in relation to the environment and also offers a counter to Rajotte’s suggestion that Western Christianity must bear much of the blame for the present crisis. The third paper is a prĂ©cis of lectures given by John Zizioulas at King’s College London. Serious students of the theology of nature will want to read the original version (published in King’s Theological Review) but the editors are to be thanked for making this important material more widely available.

Turning to the historical case studies, we encounter first an excellent study of Benedictine monasticism by Sister Joan Chittister. She summarises the Benedictine ideal in terms of hard work, respect for the land, simplicity, care and stewardship and examines its implications for environmental ethics. This is followed by a study of St Francis by Father Peter Hooper of the Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury. Hooper presents an interesting but, I suspect, anachronistic picture of Francis. He admits, but fails to explain, the consistent failure of Franciscans to live up to the ecological ideal he portrays. Could it be that there were other facets in Francis, warring with his love of nature? That was certainly true of St Bonaventure, the first great theologian of the Franciscan Order. The concluding contribution in this section claims to tackle the Protestant tradition. However, its author Martin Palmer seems to be more interested in launching a tendentious attack on Calvinism than in giving a fair account of what is, after all, an extremely diverse family of Christian traditions. He accepts Max Weber’s correlation between Calvinism and capitalism uncritically, apparently unaware of the serious questions which have been raised regarding Weber’s thesis. Calvin himself is presented as a religious fanatic who did not believe that God cared for his creation (apart from the elect)! Now it is certainly true that Calvin shares the Augustinian ambivalence towards the natural world which runs throughout Western Christianity. But Palmer’s suggestion that Calvinism was ‘a major contributor to the growth of an exploitative attitude to nature’ (p. ix) is errant nonsense. On the contrary, Calvin was the first Reformer explicitly to assert our duty of responsible stewardship with respect to the natural world.

The concluding section, like the opening, is by Freda Rajotte. In it she offers a variety of suggestions for individual Christians and churches seeking to make some kind of genuine response to the ecological crisis.
People seeking to use this book as a resource for parish or classroom discussion will be much helped by the questions which are interpolated into the text at frequent intervals. However it has two serious weaknesses: the lack of bibliography and the tendentious nature of the contributions by Rajotte and Palmer. A book which presumes to be a teaching resource should enable readers to look elsewhere for complementary (or contradictory) perspectives. And it should eschew the temptation to perpetuate ill-informed prejudices.

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