GUEST EDITORIAL by Professor Tim Gorringe: The Christian attitude to nature

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Christian theologian Tim Gorringe argues that “To trash or seek to dominate this Creation is not simply unethical but is ‘the most horrid blasphemy’”

In his recent blog “Fellow Creatures” Colin Tudge suggests that the traditional Christian attitude to the natural world is inadequate, not to say flawed. Christians, he says, take their lead from Genesis1:26-31 which tells us in the King James Version that God gave us 

“ … dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” 

The best that Christians can do, says Colin, is to interpret “dominion” to mean “stewardship”. But stewardship too implies an “us and them” relationship with the rest of nature. What we really need, he says, is to cultivate the sense of “Oneness”, as found in all the formal religions of the East and in many indigenous cultures. 

I personally have difficulty with the concept of oneness – what exactly does it imply? Much more to the point however – I fear that Colin (along with a great many other people) has seriously misconstrued and underestimated the Christian attitude. 

For the metaphysic of Christianity is based on relationship: the doctrine of the Trinity maintains that the beginning and end of all things (“God”) is relationship in Godself. The only definition we have of God in the Christian Scriptures is that God is “love”, and, Trinitarian thought goes on, love cannot be the “Alone with the Alone”, as Plotinus thought, but must be love in relationship. And God is not a dyad, which would be an infinite egoisme à deux, but threefold, the “Spirit” standing for God’s radical and eternal openness to otherness, which is the reason there is anything rather than nothing.

The American biologist and politician Barry Commoner (1917-2012) taught that ecology was premised on the fact that everything is related to everything else. Precisely. For Christianity the paradigm form of relationship is personal – the relationship of love between persons. But then it goes on to say that the whole of creation must be understood as an innumerable (rather than infinite) pattern of analogous relationships – chemical, physical, biological – articulating the whole of creation, in which everything is related to everything else. These types of relation are not the same, but they exist by analogy. If you wanted a neologism to describe this it might be “bio-diversity” – the whole exuberant, infinitely various world in which we find ourselves.

The doctrine of the Trinity – blasphemous polytheism to both Jews and Muslims – says that God is both Three in One and One in Three. The unity it has in mind is the oneness of love, which cherishes difference, which is only possible when difference is allowed, and which is opposed to every attempt to homogenise, tyrannise and reduce everything to the same. I think permaculture is the agricultural correlate.

Sixty years ago a medieval historian (meaning a twentieth century historian who specialised in the middle ages) published a paper in the Journal Science which claimed that it was Christianity’s adherence to Genesis 1.28 (“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”) that stood at the root of the ecological crisis. The article was both methodologically naive and hermeneutically ignorant, which is perhaps the reason that it will be repeated as received fact until the day of judgement. The author, Lynn White, had never heard of Marx, who pointed out in late 1845 or early 1845, as a riposte to Hegel’s conceited claims for the realm of Ideas, that “it is not consciousness which determines life, but life that determines consciousness”: 

“The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men…Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas etc. that is, real active men as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces”. 

(From The German Ideology, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. 

Two things can be said on the basis of this. First, although White had written on monasticism he evidently had not understood it. The Benedictine order, founded in the 5th century AD, read Scripture seven times a day, in the Offices, and was committed to studying it. The doctrine that “to work is to pray” was also a fundamental part of the rule, and this meant manual labour, agricultural work. This order played a huge part in the growth of European agriculture in the dark and middle ages. As the 19th century French Catholic historian of Western monasticism, Charles Montalambert commented: 

“Everywhere we see the monks instructing the population in the most profitable methods and industries, naturalising under a vigorous sky the most useful vegetables and the most productive grains, importing continually into the countries they colonised animals of better breed, or plants new and unknown there before; here introducing the rearing of cattle and horses, there bees or fruit; in another place the brewing of beer with hops; in Sweden, the corn trade; in Burgundy, artificial pisciculture; in Ireland, salmon fisheries; about Parma, cheese making. They taught the necessity of letting the land be fallow for a time after several years of continuous cropping; they practised rotation of crops, using clover as the last in the series; they improved the different varieties of fruits and learned the art of grafting, budding and layering; they taught by precept and example the value of drainage and irrigation”.

(From Monks of the West, 1872). 

If anyone knew the “dominion” verse it was the Benedictines. Did it lead to a practice of domination? No it didn’t. Rather, what we might call “kindly use” — or “Enlightened Agriculture”. Incidentally, I find it a wonderful piece of serendipity that the farm founded on the principles of permaculture by Perrine and Charles Herve-Gruyer at Bec Hellouin in Normandy in 2006, is on land farmed by Benedictines for a thousand years, and bought from them.  Perrine and Charles Herve–Gruyer are the new Benedictines, or at least they are farming in a Benedictine spirit. [Editor’s note: Perrine spoke at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in 2019 and again, online, in 2021]

The American historian and critic Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) understood things much better than Lynn White. In The Pentagon of Power (1970) he argued that for millennia, human needs were restricted by the means of energy available and also by a whole range of non-utilitarian factors. In the wake of the new forms of energy, however – coal, electricity, and finally nuclear energy – a new set of postulates took precedence:

“First: man has only one all-important mission in life: to conquer nature. By conquering nature the technocrat means, in abstract terms, commanding time and space; and in more concrete terms, speeding up every natural process, hastening growth, quickening the pace of transportation, and breaking down communication distances by either mechanical or electronic means. To conquer nature is in effect to remove all natural barriers and human norms and to substitute artificial, fabricated equivalents for natural processes. 

“From these general postulates a series of subsidiary ones are derived: there is only one efficient speed – faster; only one attractive destination – further away; only one desirable size – bigger; only one rational quantitative goal – more. On these assumptions the object of human life, and therefore of the entire productive mechanism, is to remove limits, to hasten the pace of change, to smooth out seasonal rhythms and reduce regional contrasts – in fine, to promote mechanical novelty and destroy organic continuity. Cultural accumulation and stability thus become stigmatised as signs of human backwardness and insufficiency.” 

A culture built on the denial of limits arose based on the idea of “conquering” nature. This meant, according to Mumford’s analysis, that human functions and values which had emerged over millennia – gifts of love, mutuality, rationality, imagination, and constructive aptitude which had enlarged all the possibilities of life –  were replaced by subjection to the machine.

So White’s account of historical causality is way out, missing the most elementary understanding of the relation of ideas to means of production. But it is also the case that he was entirely ignorant of biblical hermeneutics. In the first place the verb translated “have dominion”, radah, is very variously understood. Some argue that it goes back to Assyrian texts, and is therefore certainly about dominion and subjection. Others say that it was used to speak of tending sheep, and though sheep may end up in the abattoir, you very definitely cannot have dominion over them. Just try it! 

Secondly, the basic hermeneutic rule is that “Redactor is Rabbenu” – in other words, the unknown people who stitched together the millions of fragments which make up the Jewish and Christian Scriptures are our teachers. There are two accounts of creation, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and the second chapter is put where it is to qualify the first. According to Genesis 2.15 humans are set in the world to serve (abad) and to keep (shamar) it. Serving, according to whoever it was who wrote the “Servant songs” of Isaiah, and according to Jesus, is the true vocation of humanity – that way of acting in which we find our humanness. In putting Genesis 2 after Genesis 1 what might be meant by “have dominion” is decisively qualified. Service of the earth is manifested in “kindly use”.  The verb shamar, which can mean to keep (as in, “Keep my commandments” or “Am I my brother’s keeper?”) can also mean “observe” and Ellen Davis  suggests that this includes the idea that human beings have not only to keep the garden but “to learn from it and respect the limits that pertain to it”. (Ellen Davis Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge: CUP 2009). Davis points out that the earliest prophetic writings likewise presuppose an understanding of land as gift and that they read from that the idea that misuse of the gift of land, including maltreatment of those who work the soil, will ultimately undo every political structure, no matter how sophisticated, stable, and powerful it appears to be. A lesson that neither of the two main parties in British politics even begins to understand.

In brief, the heart of the Christian ethic is, in Wendell Berry’s words, that 

“We and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate, for to every creature, the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God.”

To trash or seek to dominate this creation is therefore, not simply unethical but “the most horrid blasphemy”.

Back, for a moment, to the Trinity. The Athanasian creed used to be said on the first day of Lent each year, and as choirboys we were taken out of school to do that. In this creed (which, by the way, ends by telling you that unless you believe every word of it you are damned eternally – so caveat lector!) we read that in the Trinity “none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal”. The Victorian Christian socialists used to put that up in the Church porch, preceding the reminder “in whose image we are made” – drawing attention to human equality. 

But of course, for most of Christian history – and up to today – nobody has believed in that. At roughly the same time the creed was written, in the 6th century AD, an anonymous Syrian monk, who used the pseudonym “Dionysus the Areopagite” wrote a notorious book on “the celestial hierarchy”. Medieval writers believed he was the person mentioned in Acts 17, converted by Paul, and they took from him the doctrine that the universe is hierarchically ordered, from God to the tiniest microbe. This doctrine underwrote the feudal system, according to which your rank determined how much you counted. If you had the bad luck to be a serf or a villein you counted hardly at all. We know that this idea was challenged in the Middle ages (“when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman” – the watchword of the Peasants’ Revolt) but ideas of equality only really spread from the 17th century onwards. Even then, the egalité of the French Revolution did not, after all, include either women or people of colour. 

Today we proclaim lip service to equality, whilst our economy gives us the greatest degree of inequality in human history. But all this was about equality between humans. What about the animals? What about the rest of creation? Jains have for two millennia acted on the assumption that all life is equal, and some Western ethicists have adopted the same principle, urging the necessity of complete veganism. Do not carnivores tacitly adopt a practice of domination? The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth took up Albert Schweitzer’s “reverence for life” and taught that human use of vegetable nourishment was “a sensible use of its superfluity”, whilst “the killing of animals…is possible only as a deeply reverential act of repentance, gratitude and praise on the part of the forgiven sinner in face of the One who is the Creator and Lord of man and beast” (Church Dogmatics III/4 1951). Rather than domination and lordship he wanted to talk about “responsibility”. 

Opinions will differ on this but it seems to me that we cannot get away from some distinctions in relation to the non-human creation. If, for example, we see both a cat and a child threatened by being run over, which do we pull out of harm’s way? Do we want to fund the veterinary service on the same level as the NHS, and if not, why not? These are compelling questions for many of our contemporaries. What all Christians, including the carnivores, have to accept, I suggest, is that, in Wendell Berry’s words, “We and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate, for to every creature, the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God.” To trash or seek to dominate this creation is, therefore, not simply unethical but “the most horrid blasphemy”.

Tim Gorringe is Emeritus Professor of Theological Studies at the University of Exeter. His most recent published books include Harvest: Food, Farming and the Churches (SPCK, 2006); The Common Good and the Global Emergency: God and the Built Environment (CUP, 2011); Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art (Yale, 2011); and Word, Silence, and the Climate Emergency: God, Ekklesia, and Christian Doctrine (Fortress Academic, 2021). 



One response to “GUEST EDITORIAL by Professor Tim Gorringe: The Christian attitude to nature”

  1. Colin Tudge avatar
    Colin Tudge

    Absolutely not am I qualified to discuss the Christian concept of the Trinity. I would just like to say simplistically that Tim and I seem to be using the term “oneness” in different ways, in different contexts, and with very different connotations. To me oneness remains a key concept that underpins in various ways the idea that humanity’s Goal should be to create “convivial societies within a flourishing biosphere” — and achieve personal fulfilment by helping to do so.
    Oneness to me does not imply homogeneity. Indeed, vive la difference. It is about relationship: the relationship between two or more entities within any one context; and the relationship between each entity and the whole of which it is a part.
    Thus (to begin at the beginning) Aristotle declared that we cannot adequately define or hope to understand anything simply in terms of its physical characteristics. We need also to take account of what it does, or has the potential to do. So for example a gene, looked at in isolation, is just a piece of chemistry – a length of DNA. Its structure is wondrous – indeed as the normally hard-nosed James Watson remarked, it is beautiful. But in the end, a length of DNA, however intricate its microarchitecture, is just a compound of five of the Earth’s most common elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus. It doesn’t become a gene, doing what genes do, unless it is part of a cell, interacting directly and indirectly with everything else in the cell. The cell, in turn, at least in a multicellular organism like an oak tree or a mushroom or a human being, has no real life of its own unless it is part of an organism, with billions or trillions of other cells operating in synergy. So the sequence continues all the way up: each organism is part of a society; every society is part of an ecosystem; all the ecosystems of the world together form the biosphere; and the biosphere as a whole is part of the solar system, energised mostly by the Sun and regulated largely by the moon.
    As James Lovelock pointed out, too, the biosphere as a whole, despite its endless intricacy and diversity – or rather we should say by virtue of its intricacy and diversity – acts as a unified whole. Indeed, the unified whole acts to some extent as if it were itself an organism. The biosphere is shot through with feedback mechanisms that tend to keep the overall conditions constant – or at least, far more constant than they would be if the fabric of the Earth was not naked, devoid of life, like the moon, and exposed to the full rigours of the cosmos. The biosphere as a whole, in short, practices a form of homeostasis, which is a prime quality of living organisms – the ability to maintain conditions that favour life. It acts indeed as a quasi-organism, which Lovelock felicitously called “Gaia”.
    On its own, no individual component of Gaia makes sense, has meaning, except when working in concert or sometimes in conflict with everything else around it – and “everything else” in the end means the whole biosphere, or indeed the whole cosmos. Everything is shaped by and is dependent upon everything else. Indeed it is only by its interactions with other entities, and only by being part of a larger whole, that any one entity, whether it’s an atom of carbon or a horse or a mushroom, can realise its own potential and so become itself. Everything is as it is — but everything also is part of a larger whole. As Ben Okri said, “ … we are inescapably part of one another”. Or as Satish Kumar put the matter (it is the title of one of his books) You are, therefore I am.
    Perhaps we need two different words for “oneness”: one to mean homogeneity, and one to mean relationship, with all its connotations. Be that as it may: the concept of “oneness” is a rich seam indeed. We must come back to it.

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