An Ethics of Biodiversity: Christianity, Ecology, and the Variety of Life

By Kevin J. O'Brien | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
Christian Care for Biodiversity:
Moral Formation as Conservation

Scholarly discussions of the relationship between Christianity and en- vironmentalism invariably engage Lynn White Jr.'s famous essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” and this book is no exception. White's essay has served as a source and foil for theologians and ethi- cists ever since it was published in Science in 1967 because it provoc- atively claims that Christianity is “the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen” and, as such, is a prominent foundation of environmentally destructive social structures. The prevailing Christian mentality, White writes, is this: “Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemp- tuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.” White presents this as the fundamental belief system of Western culture, a belief sys- tem that has trained us to separate ourselves from our environments and therefore “bears a huge burden of guilt” for environmental degra- dation. He suggests that the best way to overcome this guilt-inducing Christian doctrine, and thereby to reverse environmental degradation, would be to recover more nature-friendly traditions within Christianity itself. White concludes by proposing St. Francis as “the patron saint of ecologists.”1

Many thinkers and scholars have accepted White's basic argu- ment and used it to call for a fundamental restructuring and rethink- ing among Christians, an “ecological reformation” toward a faith that will remind us in a new way that we belong on Earth and are a part of its systems.2 Others have worked to refute, or at least to compli- cate, White's argument and therefore to demonstrate that Christian tradition has long been far more environmentalist and far less guilty than he suggested.3 While I am not as interested in assigning exclu- sive “guilt” to the Christian tradition, my own approach in this book has been similar to, and inspired by, White's: I believe that the Chris- tian tradition is complicit in environmental degradation, and I seek

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