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Response to a reader's question about environmentalism

Environmentalism has several aspects. The most justifiable is the view that the natural world is a complex evolved system that we depend on but can’t understand and control completely, so we should respect it the way a traveler respects local customs or someone sailing a small boat respects the sea. The point can be extended a bit: we can view the natural world as an object of admiration that we should respect for its own sake, somewhat as we respect historical remnants or works of art.

I agree with those forms of environmentalism. The practical conclusion is that we should watch for problems, and in general prefer to interfere with nature less rather than more. How you apply those principles and how far you go with them is a matter of practical judgment about which I have no special insight.

The respect for nature can of course be exaggerated and become a religion that is somewhat like pantheism: the earth is alive, and our life is part of the greater life of the earth and has its meaning as such, so we should revere or even worship the earth and strive to become ever more in tune with it. That view seems to be motivated by the boredom of secularized industrialized human existence: man in profane, nature is sacred, so let’s reject man and support the trees and fishes. It’s not an intelligent view. If Western life as it is now creates religious problems (and I think it does) there are better religions to go to.

To round out the catalog, it also seems that environmentalism can become its conceptual opposite, a sort of super-technocracy that says that human activities interfere with natural functioning on a global scale, so there has to be a global expert authority with unlimited irresponsible power that runs everything and keeps the rainforests, ocean currents, and coral reefs in their proper condition, while also eradicating prejudice, deciding international disputes, providing healthcare and economic security, etc., etc., etc. That kind of environmentalism is an extension of the left/liberal view of things that acquires (somewhat illogically) a religious aura from Gaia worship, the sacrament of recycling, and so on. It deserves to be opposed, but not by claiming that environmental issues don’t exist.

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The sort-of-pantheism of environmentalism fills a vacuum left by versions of Christianity which see the natural world as God’s creation, but not itself alive: meely humans and God with nothing in between. A more traditional (and truer) Christianity sees nature as animated by angelic intelligences. Of course Peter Kreefts has written wonderfully well on this. And the world view is memorably described by CS Lewis in The Discarded Image. Also, Rupert Sheldrake has done valuable work on the subject, which conceptualizes angels and intelligences in ways that moderns may find more comprehensible: a causality acting more like a field (magnetism, gravity etc) rather than the ‘colliding billiard balls’/ chains of causes and effects type of causality which we habitually employ. His book The Physics of Angels is well worth reading - but I would strongly advise ignoring the contributions of the co-author Matthew Fox; which are merely New Age mush when they are not actively demonic (I deleted Fox’s words with a black marker to allow for easier reading!).

Apart from the angels, traditional Christianity (a.k.a. Christianity) is based on the doctrines of Creation and Incarnation, and on the sacramental principle, all of which make nature an expression and vehicle of the divine life.

I admire the way you dealt with Fox’s contributions, by the way, not because I know anything specific about them but because of the take-charge attitude (which seems to have been appropriate in this instance).

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

“The point can be extended a bit: we can view the natural world as an object of admiration that we should respect for its own sake, somewhat as we respect historical remnants or works of art.”

I just want to clarify something. Nature has own value independent of its value as an object of contemplation for humans. Nature has a sacred value independent of man. To that extent I think Christians can agree with the deep ecologists.

However, under the Christian view, this sacred value of nature does not mean:
1. That it is an appropriate object of worship.
2. That its flourishing always takes priority over human flourishing, for humans are also sacred, in much the same way as nature is, perhaps even more so, and thus human needs may sometimes legitimately take priority over those of nature.