For the Beauty of the Earth — Chapter 3 — Complaint #4 and “Some Better Explanations”

“The ecological crisis is the fault of Christianity.”

I’m continuing to read For the Beauty of the Earth, by Stephen Bouma-Prediger.

The fourth complaint against Christianity given by environmentalists is that because the Christian worldview is largely responsible for the rise of science and technology, Christianity is to blame for the ecological crisis that is upon us. This idea was promoted by a widely reprinted essay by historian Lynn White entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Here is White’s summary:

We would seem to be heading toward conclusions unpalatable to many Christians. Since both science and technology are blessed words in our contemporary vocabulary, some may be happy at the notions, first, that, viewed historically, modern science is an extrapolation of (Christian) natural theology and, second, that modern technology is at least partly to be explained as an Occidental, voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of , and rightful mastery over, nature. But, as we now recognize, somewhat over a century ago science and technology—hitherto quite separate activities—joined to give mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecologic effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.

White’s thesis is accepted without question by most environmentalists, but Bouma-Prediger points out the weaknesses of the argument:

  • While Christianity had a role in the rise of science and technology, it was not the sole factor
  • “Ecological crises are not peculiar to Christian-influenced cultures. Non-Christian cultures have also caused severe or irreparable harm to their ecosystems.” — quoted from James Nash.
  • In general, environmentalists accept White’s critique of Christianity but ignore the section where White points out that there has always been a stream of thought in Christianity that affirms the value of the Earth. White proposes St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint for ecologists.

So, perhaps Christianity isn’t singlehandedly to blame for the ecological crisis. We may need, however, to admit that we have been partially to blame, either by our sins of commission, or our sins of omission. Bouma-Prediger goes on to suggest some causes of our environmental predicament.

  • The church is partly to blame.
    • “The church is captive to modern Western culture.” This includes being conformed to the world in the areas of consumption and wealth.
    • “The church has accepted the anthropocentrism of modernity.”
    • “We in Western culture have made technology into a god.”
    • “The church has forgotten creation.
  • Materialism:
    • “Success, therefore, is defined in terms of material possessions and economic productivity.”
    • The natural world has no intrinsic value or value irrespective of its usefulness to humans; rather, “a thing has value only when and if it serves some direct human use or can be exchanged for something else that has value.” (Adam Smith)
    • “The natural world is scenery, not habitat. Individual freedom is paramount. Self-interest is natural. Wealth is the greatest good. Nature has no value in itself.

In summary, the ecological crisis is not due to Christianity. There are many factors that have contributed to our current world of pollution, biodiversity loss, and resource degradation. Christianity has, at times, been part of the problem, but there have been other factors as well. When Christianity has been part of the problem rather than part of the solution, it is because Christians have been conformed to the world rather transformed by the Scriptures.

The rest of the book is focused on developing a Biblical perspective on the environment.

Grace and Peace

One thought on “For the Beauty of the Earth — Chapter 3 — Complaint #4 and “Some Better Explanations”

  1. I think you are confusing Adam Smith’s statements about exchange value (the ratio by which something exchanges for another) with something have a value (aesthetic, utility, beauty, symmetry, elegance, or whatever) in itself.

    Adam Smith was a moral philospher. His other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) would correct your impression of his ideas, which are not often represented well by vulgar modern interpretations by those who write about today.

    Gavin Kennedy


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