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Lynn White.pdf


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What did Christianity tell people about their relations with the
environment?
While many of the world's mythologies provide stories of creation,
Greco-Roman mythology was singularly incoherent in this respect. Like
Aristotle, the intellectuals of the ancient West denied that the visible world
had a beginning. Indeed, the idea of a beginning was impossible in the
framework of their cyclical notion of time. In sharp contrast, Christianity
inherited from Judaism not only a concept of time as nonrepetitive and
linear but also a striking story of creation. By gradual stages a loving and
all- powerful God had created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the
earth and all its plants, animals, birds, and fishes. Finally, God had created
Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man
named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God
planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the
physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes. And,
although man's body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is
made in God's image.
Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most
anthropocentric religion the world has seen. As early as the 2nd century
both Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when God
shaped Adam he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the
Second Adam. Man shares, in great measure, God's transcendence of
nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's
religions (except, perhaps, Zorastrianism), not only established a dualism of
man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature
for his proper ends.
At the level of the common people this worked out in an
interesting way. In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every
hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible
to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their
ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook,
it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation,
and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it
possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural
objects.
It is often said that for animism the Church substituted the cult of
saints. True; but the cult of saints is functionally quite different from
animism. The saint is not in natural objects; he may have special shrines,
but his citizenship is in heaven. Moreover, a saint is entirely a man; he can

be approached in human terms. In addition to saints, Christianity of course
also had angels and demons inherited from Judaism and perhaps, at one
remove, from Zorastrianism. But these were all as mobile as the saints
themselves. The spirits in natural objects, which formerly had protected
nature from man, evaporated. Man's effective monopoly on spirit in this
world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature
crumbled.
When one speaks in such sweeping terms, a note of caution is in
order. Christianity is a complex faith, and its consequences differ in
differing contexts. What I have said may well apply to the medieval West,
where in fact technology made spectacular advances. But the Greek East, a
highly civilized realm of equal Christian devotion, seems to have produced
no marked technological innovation after the late 7th century, when Greek
fire was invented. The key to the contrast may perhaps be found in a
difference in the tonality of piety and thought which students of
comparative theology find between the Greek and the Latin Churches. The
Greeks believed that sin was intellectual blindness, and that salvation was
found in illumination, orthodoxy --that is, clear thinking. The Latins, on the
other hand, felt that sin was moral evil, and that salvation was to be found in
right conduct. Eastern theology has been intellectualist. Western theology
has been voluntarist. The Greek saint contemplates; the Western saint acts.
The implications of Christianity for the conquest of nature would emerge
more easily in the Western atmosphere.
The Christian dogma of creation, which is found in the first clause
of all the Creeds, has another meaning for our comprehension of today's
ecologic crisis. By revelation, God had given man the Bible, the Book of
Scripture. But since God had made nature, nature also must reveal the
divine mentality. The religious study of nature for the better understanding
of God was known as natural theology. In the early Church, and always in
the Greek East, nature was conceived primarily as a symbolic system
through which God speaks to men: the ant is a sermon to sluggards; rising
flames are the symbol of the soul's aspiration. The view of nature was
essentially artistic rather than scientific. While Byzantium preserved and
copied great numbers of ancient Greek scientific texts, science as we
conceive it could scarcely flourish in such an ambience.
However, in the Latin West by the early 13th century natural
theology was following a very different bent. It was ceasing to be the
decoding of the physical symbols of God's communication with man and
was becoming the effort to understand God's mind by dis covering how his
creation operates. The rainbow was no longer simply a symbol of hope first

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