“Environmental Ethics” – A Response

Dr. Mark Neuzil, Director of the Office of Mission at the University of St. Thomas

Dr. DeWitt is one of the most thoughtful commentators on environmental ethics working today. His perspective emphasizes the primacy of scripture as formative for Christian environmental ethics. I have heard him speak of the “book of God’s Words” and the “book of God’s works” – a two books worldview.

In this tradition, God is the ultimate provider and caregiver. He is also the ultimate artist, the creator, and the designer. As such, his works deserve respect, but more than that, they deserve to be taken care of – to put it simply, stewardship.

We might think of this stewardship as an anthropocentric view – this is in line with the great Western religious tradition, after all – but some, such as the famous essay by Lynn White Junior, argue that the Judeo-Christian tradition created the environmental problems we have.

Rather than trod on that well-travelled path, I would like to propose a different way to think about this idea of environmental ethics. In many ways, Dr. DeWitt, in his emphasis on Genesis today, is calling for a return to an older way – the patristic or perhaps medieval period when the church incorporated the whole of society with the natural world.

I think of Isaac of Nineveh, the 7th-century Assyrian bishop and theologian, who – and this is not a coincidence – is the last saint chronologically to be recognized by every apostolic church – Church of the East, the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox. You can’t do much better than that. It’s like four sports halls of fame.

After dedicating his life to God, Isaac was an administrator at a monastery and then a bishop, but he had the hermetic Jones. So he moved from Nineveh to Mount Matout, (now in Qatar) where he lived for years eating three loaves of bread per week and only raw vegetables. What I love about Isaac is his references to the world around him in his writing: “A handful of sand, thrown into the sea, is what sinning is, when compared to God’s Providence and mercy.”

Tonight’s supper, by the way, is three loaves of unleavened bread and some raw kale. Dr. DeWitt signed off on that.

What happened between medieval times and now? How did our thinking change? This is the broken triangle of Dr. DeWitt’s presentation. One argument is that Protestant Reformers abandoned nature to science (scienca); it was among the important eras of scientific discoveries, after all. Consider that a few years before Martin Luther’s Reformation (1517+), Copernicus placed the sun in the middle of the solar system (1508).  In the following century, scientist such as Gallileo, Kepler, William Harvey, Newton, van Leewanhoek, Robert Boyle and Liebniz were all hard at work. And Calvin was writing in the same century.

The doctrine of creation that previously connected Christian thought to the whole of nature was reinterpreted. Suddenly – well, not so suddenly – the individual was dependent on God, without the God’s environment part that Dr. DeWitt mentioned. Subsequent Protestant thinkers and writers – here I have in mind Emerson and Thoreau, perhaps barely Protestant – continued to find God in the natural world. Emerson famously and explicitly rejects the view of God as separate from the world; Thoreau was asked by an aunt on his death bed, ‘Did you make peace with God?’ and he replied, ‘I didn’t know we had quarreled.’  But when was the last time a theology department taught Emerson or Thoreau? I would argue that, while very influential in environmental ethics circles, both had little influence on the Protestant church. Or any other church.

But Christianity is not static. It may have some static thinkers, but the religion is more dynamic. In the Protestant tradition, for example – and here is what I think Dr. DeWitt is getting at – Protestants are best at recovering neglected Biblical themes and here we can return science and nature to faith. Restoring stewardship – now we are back to Genesis – is where we need to be headed in environmental ethics. WE are to serve and to keep (avad and shamar). This is the dynamic of keeping the garden.

I remember what one of the farmers I used to work for in Iowa used to say: “Jesus got his hands dirty.”

And the doxology mentioned by Dr. DeWitt “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” was a text by the Anglican churchman Thomas Ken, who was the son-in-law of the first great environmental writer, Isaac Walton. It was Walton’s book, The Compleat Angler, that has gone through more editions than any other book in publishing history with the exception of one – the Bible. It’s a book about fishing, but it’s not about fishing.

Walton connected his Anglican religion to fishing and the environment. Let’s continue to think of ways to connect faith, farming and the environment.