Guest Preacher Dr Emily Colgan

Guest Preacher Dr Emily Colgan

Em Colgan

Sun 07 Oct

In 1967, an historian by the name of Lynn White Jr. published an article entitled ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’.[1] In this paper White made a compelling case arguing that a causal relationship exists between Christianity and the contemporary ecological crisis. Among the accusations levelled against (Western) Christianity is the charge that it ‘is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen’.[2]

White points to the first creation story in Genesis to support his argument. According to Genesis 1, humans are created in the image of God and are commissioned to ‘be fruitful and multiply… to fill the earth and subdue it… [and] to have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth’ (Gen 1:27-28). White argued that this well-known text places humanity at the pinnacle of the created order and diminishes the value of all other aspects of creation. In Gen 1, human beings are instructed to dominate – to harness nature, to tame creation, and to rule in God’s place on Earth.

Genesis 1 is used by White as an obvious and very well-known example, but there are numerous other examples from the Old Testament and the New that seem to reinforce the idea that creation exists to serve human interests. White suggested that it is this kind of thinking that underlies the science and technology that has had such a devastating impact on our environment. ‘Our science and technology’, he claimed, ‘have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man’s [sic] relation to nature. We are superior to nature… willing to use it for our slightest whim’. In essence, White argued that the Bible shapes our attitude to the world around us and affects our interaction with creation. Christianity, he claimed, bears a huge burden of guilt for the kind of behaviour in the world that has been so ecologically disastrous. The ecological crisis is a religious crisis.

But White’s argument did not stop here. ‘What we do about ecology’, he wrote, ‘depends on our ideas of the man-nature [sic] relationship.’ More science and more technology, he argued, are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis. Rather, since the roots of this crisis are largely religious, the ‘remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not’.[3] We need to find a new religion, he claims, or rethink our old one.

As you might imagine, White’s challenge proved particularly provocative.

And although White’s article was published almost fifty years ago, it seems there might be some truth to what he is saying here. Because for more than three decades now, scientific leaders have warned that climate change is real and it is already causing damage to the planet. Yet despite these warnings, questions remain as to whether the will exists to address the problem of climate change quickly and effectively. Scientific fact alone does not seem to be enough to counter the kind of thinking that enables humanity to cause such damage without thought of long-term consequence. Scientific fact, it seems, must be paired with the religious and philosophical foundations that underlie the way that we think about ourselves, and our relationship to the surrounding environment. The theological stories we tell ourselves about where we come from are disconnected from the story of plants and animals and oceans. They are removed from the grand context of the cosmos, the planets, the stars and space. We need to find a new theological anthropology – new stories about who we are in the world.

So if, as White suggested, the Bible can be read to support humanity’s domination of creation, can it also provide the motivation for the transformation of human attitudes towards our planet? Now, I hear what you’re thinking: why even stick with the Bible if it is so problematic from an ecological point of view? Eco-feminist theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruether, insists that in our ecological thinking, those of us working in Christian contexts need to keep working with the Bible because the vast majority of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians will only be persuaded of an ecological consciousness if they see that it grows from the soil in which they are planted.[4] So, does this text contain alternative stories about who we are in the world? To explore this question, I want to focus on the readings that we have heard this morning.

In the reading from the OT, Job has been crying out to God for an explanation for his suffering. He has demanded that God appear and provide an explanation for his predicament. God does appear, but God does not address matters of human suffering or justice. Instead, God directs Job’s attention to the wonders of creation, first to the magnificence of the universe and then to some of the animals that are part of Earth itself. God questions Job about these animals, but Job is unable to explain aspects of their behaviour.

Mountain goats live amid high, inaccessible cliffs. Far from human habitation, their normal behaviour is unknown to Job, to say nothing of the manner in which the female gives birth! Job is both ignorant of the habits of the mountain goat and cannot provide the resources to care for and protect it. But there is no need for human care, because these new offspring fend for themselves almost immediately. Job neither understands nor controls this elusive creature.

Next we hear of the wild ass, which is characterized by its freedom. It cannot be confined and domesticated by human beings. It thrives in the wilderness, far from human habitation, where it can roam freely, without danger of being ensnared by human hunters. Like the mountain goat, this animal is also outside the realm of human control.

The same is true for the hawk and the eagle that soar into the upper regions of the sky. They have no need of human guidance, and Job has no control over them. Job can only gaze in amazement at these beautiful creatures.

Job’ experience of human existence is precisely the opposite of that depicted in Gen 1. In Job, God shows Job that creation follows patterns that he cannot even begin to comprehend, over which he exercises absolutely no authority. Interestingly, this alternative way of thinking that we find in Job – a way of thinking characterized by humility, wonder, and awe – has generally been ignored in Christian worship. But it’s not the only place in the Bible that we find this kind of thought.

In the Gospel reading today, we hear of the Earth quaking as the stone that seals Jesus’ tomb is removed, revealing an empty space. Along with the two Marys who go to see the tomb, the Earth is also witness to the resurrection. Neither women nor Earth can keep silent. This is, as James Jones writes, a ‘seismic response from the [E]arth’s heart’.[5] Power is present in this scene – it is not human power, but the power of Earth and the power of the heavenly, of the cosmos.

Creation is not under human control. It does not need human beings in order to survive or thrive. Creation is not dependent on us, rather, we are dependent on creation for every aspect of our being, and such teaching should give us pause for thought. Earth’s fruits nourish our bodies; its waters keep us alive; its beauty inspires our imaginations. We have known this from a scientific perspective for many years. What we find in texts such is Job, and indeed Matthew, is a way of thinking that is congruent with what science is continually affirming as our place in the world. Within these biblical texts we find an ecologically sensitive narrative tradition that stands in contrast to those texts that have historically been understood as upholding human superiority and domination. It is a narrative tradition that can be comfortably paired with scientific discourse and can be used to reconfigure the way we think about ourselves, and our relationship to our world. It is our job to reclaim and retell these narratives in that hope that in rediscovering ways of thinking ecologically, we might begin to behave in a more ecologically sensitive manner also.


[1] L. White Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203-1207.

[2] White Jr., “The Historical Roots,” 1205.

[3] White Jr., “The Historical Roots,” 1207.

[4] R. R. Ruether, Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 207.

[5] J. Jones, ‘Jesus: Savior of the Earth,’ in The Green Bible (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2008), I-69.