Vol 3, Num 10 :: 2004.05.07 — 2004.05.20
Why is Christianity being blamed for the rape of the environment and seen as the cause of the ecological disasters we seem to be bringing upon our planet? We are not talking individual greed and the failure of individual Christians here but the more serious charge that it is Christianity itself—or more precisely, the Bible—and therefore God himself who is to blame. This book shows among other things that the charge is incorrect and that those who make such claims just have not done their homework properly.
Alister McGrath is well qualified to write a book such as this. He first trained as a scientist at Oxford and continued to do research in molecular biophysics. While there he encountered thinking Christianity and eventually, as he says, “I followed in the footsteps of my fellow countryman C. S. Lewis and gave in to what I regarded as the coherence and attraction of the Christian faith. This unexpected and not entirely welcome development completely threw me. I found that my rather comfortable and settled mental world was shaken, forcing me to wrestle with new questions and reopening questions I thought I had settled long ago.” He subsequently moved to Cambridge to undertake research in the relationships between science and Christianity from a theological perspective, in particular from the viewpoint of historical theology. After twenty years of research he says, “I felt I had achieved a competency in that field.” With doctorates in both molecular biology and divinity, he is now Professor of Historical Theology and also Principal of Wycliffe Hall in Oxford.
As he turned his expertise to the problems of the environment he became concerned at the level of misinformation about the Christian view of the natural world and in fact, downright bias against Christianity. The positions that Christians are reported as taking were not to be found in the theology that he knew and had made a study of. So where did they come from?
The answers to this question and the resulting analysis of why such a distortion has occurred are dealt with throughout this book. However, McGrath is not just concerned with the diagnosis of this problem, with identification of this anti-Christian error and the sources of it. He is also concerned to identify the root problem behind it, of why humanity is actually making a mess of this planet. His intention is to provide not only diagnosis but prescription as well, to suggest a way or ways out of the dilemma in which we find ourselves.
The claim that it is the creation ordinance in Genesis “to subdue” the earth that causes the disasters we see was most powerfully made by Lynn White of the University of California in an article published in 1967, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.” A short article but extremely important in its influence, its basic message was that “we shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no purpose save to serve man.” If that is the Christian position then one can only agree with White. However, very little critical thought has been given to White’s premise of what the Christian position is and his assertion has been uncritically accepted as true by many people (including, I have to say sadly, some modern day evangelicals who one would have hoped to be more discerning than to allow non-Christians to interpret the bible for them). McGrath, using his knowledge of historical theology demonstrates firstly that this is not and never has been the viewpoint of traditional Christianity. One only has to think of St Francis to see this, and more recently Faraday, Lord Thompson and C.S. Lewis.
There are two different problems here. Firstly, there is the actual problem of the damage to the natural world and the environment. Secondly, there is the perception that Christianity causes this problem. So where do these problems come from? McGrath traces the disregard of nature to the Enlightenment, more specifically to humanity’s rejection of the restrictions placed upon mankind as a creature and the belief that science would enable man to be his own creator. Science would give us the tools, would enable us to make the world as we want it to be. This leads to a lowering of our respect for the natural world. If nature is merely something we can manipulate to our advantage and we have also thrown off any restraints that the “shackles of religion” (a typical Enlightenment phrase) impose upon us then there is nothing to stop us doing just what we want to.
One of the glories of science but also one of the problems with science is that it works, at least to a great degree. The scientific method has given us deep understandings into the way things work. We can observe, measure and predict with impressive accuracy. Herein lies its seduction. It works. And leads us to another problem. The fact that science works should not come to mean that it is the only way of seeing things. That only what we can observe and measure is real.
One of the observations we are able to make is that many of the great disasters of the twentieth century, the death of the Caspian Sea, Chernobyl, the Gulags, and the Holocaust were caused by avowedly atheistic regimes, not by Christians. What we should be doing is drawing the appropriate conclusions and not merely listening to people like White, who simply ignore such evidences in favor of their own anti-Christian ideas.
So to the second problem: If the cause of the problems themselves cannot fairly be laid on the Christian doorstep, why then are we blamed? At least part of the appeal of White’s message to the non-Christian is the explicit rejection of religion as having anything of value to say about matters of science. Richard Dawkins jumped on this bandwagon with alacrity and proceeds with what McGrath describes as “indecent haste” from the proposition that religion is not an appropriate vehicle for discussing matters of science to the conclusion that all religions are false in everything they say about anything. More basically; logically, the two statements
“A” cannot be proved
Therefore “A” is false
are not connected except in the bias of the mind. This is a conclusion derived not by logic from the proposition but from Dawkins’s own preconceptions and prejudices. Indeed, as McGrath points out, by seeing things in such a black and white way, by drawing the line where he has, Dawkins has ensured that he has nothing valid to say about anything other than the scientism he professes. Scientism has a narrow view of the universe; that only what we can observe and measure are real and have value. This view denies almost the totality of human desires and aspirations and it is surprising to find anyone still holding it today.
The Reenchantment of Nature contains a clear explanation of the differences between a “model” and a fact. A model is a way of looking at a fact, not the fact itself. As an example, when one considers the gas laws it is very convenient to think of atoms as billiard balls, hard and incompressible. That is one model. However, when considering atoms from the viewpoint of chemical interactions, it is convenient to consider an atom as though it were a solar system, a central nucleus surrounded by electrons following orbital paths around the nucleus—somewhat as the planets do around the sun—and therefore an atom consists mostly of “nothingness.” That is another model. Each is appropriate and tells us something of how an atom reacts, but neither is the fact of what an atom is. McGrath warns that one of the problems with modeling is that a model can come to be regarded as the only way of seeing something. As he says: “The simple truth of the matter is that the more complex a system the more models are required to describe it—and hence the greater the distortion and degradation that results through the wooden insistence that only one of these may be used.”
The author pleads with his readers that different ways of seeing are available and can complement each other rather than being mutually exclusive. He makes some interesting suggestions as to how we might approach this problem. In particular, he uses Zwingli’s approach to the bread in the Lord’s supper—namely that it achieves importance from its surroundings; it achieves significance because it is the Lord’s Supper—to suggest that in a similar way nature has a significance because it is created. “The basic theme of this book is simple. It suggests we reclaim the idea of nature as God’s creation and act accordingly to bring attitudes and actions in line with beliefs.”
What do you think of when you see a rainbow? Do you think of prisms and boring old physics classes or do you think of splintered light and crocks of gold? The Reenchantment of Nature seeks to wean us away from a dreary utilitarian way of viewing things to a rediscovery of the wonder of nature. Its engaging approach includes a scholarly analysis of the roots and limitations of scientism and a vigorous defense of the fact that more than one model of reality is necessary because there is more to this world than we can merely observe. Ultimately, looking at a rainbow, we should remember, as Genesis 9 says, that God is looking at it too.
This book is excellent in its analysis and diagnosis of the problem and those who are troubled by Richard Dawkins will find adequate refutation of his stance. McGrath is less strong on exactly what we put in its place and how we are to do it. In one way this is only to be expected because it is the individual who has to acknowledge God in his or her own life. I suspect that the author also wishes to get his message across to as many people as possible and thus does not wish to be seen to stand too tightly in any one position. For instance, to find a Christian book on nature that avoids even mentioning the evolution-creation debate is, to say the least, surprising. There is such a thing as being too uncommitted.
This is a somewhat post-modern weakness. In reality, not everything can be true and some things must be excluded. I do not think that a plea for tolerance in our understanding and use of models can be used to include some things. For instance, the use of the Zwingli image of the Lord’s supper and the Roman Catholic concept of transignification to understand nature is to my taste much too close to Tielhard-de-Chardin’s concept of the “sacrifice of the world” in the Mass. Some things are just plain wrong: “the sacrifice is once offered, once for all time,” we are told, and I think that some limitations and warnings about the possibility of misusing models, and of this model in particular, needed to be included.
I also question whether Lynn White’s objection to Christianity has been adequately dealt with. The fact that the abuse of nature is not part of historic Christian theology says little to those who are making it a part of today’s theology. The plea to rediscover our enchantment with nature does not in itself suffice to overcome bad theology and the abuses that arise from it. Neither does it speak to our sinful condition. We are all far too capable of staring in awe at a sunset while leaning on the axe we are using to destroy the forest around us.
However, my expressing such concerns should not discourage people from reading this book. It is well researched, yet not too technical. The need to take a fresh look at the way in which we view the world is very important. McGrath is an engaging writer, and this is an impressively readable book that will take you from creation into the present via Faust, Freeman, Dyson and Frankenstein; via Prometheus, Aquinas and Douglas Adams; via Star Trek and Pandora’s Jar. Read it.
John Barrs lives in the UK and has degrees in science and theology. He has lectured and researched taxonomy and ecology and has worked at L’Abri UK. He is a husband and father of three sons.
An excerpt of this review originally appeared in Ransom Fellowship’s Critique #6 – 2003. You can view many more wonderful articles at Ransom’s web site.