Most people probably give only a passing thought to the worldview through which they interpret the world around them. It’s simply there, a basic orientation of mind and heart absorbed from their culture, shared by their peers, and confirmed or modified by experience. For people of faith, good religion will inform and enhance their worldview, bad religion will distort it. That’s also true for those who reject religion: their worldview will be shaped by whatever takes its place.
Till recently, two distinct religiously-based worldviews have moulded westerners’ view of the relationship between human beings and the planet that sustains them.
The first is that the world is there for humans to use to their advantage, a stance rooted in the opening chapter of Genesis. There God is depicted as a divine being over and beyond creation, a supernatural artist, superb designer, supreme craftsman, inventive physicist, masterful chemist, innovative biologist – in sum, maker of all that is.
The chapter is a resounding poem of praise, affirming the world as good in every part, from the sun and stars to plants and trees, birds and fish, beasts and humans.
Then Adam and Eve, symbolic of men and women in every age, messed up. Despite that, it was to humankind that God had given dominion over every other creature. They were to fill the earth and subdue it (though always within the constraint of their responsibility to God). That was the natural order of things.
By the Middle Ages, however, this rosy view of the world and humanity’s place in it had gone sour. In stark contrast to that emphasis on Earth blessed by the goodness of God, the church had burdened everyone with the appalling horror of sin. Earth had become a vale of woe, a sink of iniquity, the basest part of the universe. One medieval writer lamented that we humans are “lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst and deadest part of the universe”. Human fulfilment lay not here, but in the soul’s release from this squalid dump into the everlasting bliss and purity of heaven. Of course Earth had its uses in providing food, clothing and shelter, but beyond that, why bother?
In the modern world that grim view has faded, but it hasn’t disappeared. Some fundamentalist Christians, especially in the United States, have given it new life. They see the biblical injunction to exercise dominion over nature as the green light for exploiting it without restraint. By way of example, an American Secretary of the Interior during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, James Watt, wanted to give developers unlimited access to national parks and resources. His reasoning was that the earth “is merely a temporary way station on the road to eternal life. It is unimportant except as a place of testing to get into heaven. The earth was put here by the Lord for his people to subdue and to use it for profitable purposes on the way to the hereafter.” That is execrable theology.
More recently, President Obama gave the green light to take advantage of the retreating northern icecap by drilling for oil in Arctic waters. European companies are also staking out oil and mineral prospecting interests in ice-bound Greenland and the surrounding sea. Meanwhile the New Zealand Government has approved research to establish what mineral resources lie buried in our national parks. It would be naive to imagine this is simply to add to the sum of human knowledge.
Of course the big mining and manufacturing companies don’t rely on a theological argument to pursue their interests. Making money for their shareholders is reason enough. But common to both the medieval attitude and that of many international corporates is the view that nature has no intrinsic value: it is there to be exploited and serve its human masters in whatever ways they wish. In today’s world, that mindset is dangerous. Earth is suffering from massive population growth, portentous climate change, the pollution of air, land and water, and extinction of species. Unprecedented technological power is being applied to achieve exponential industrial growth. This is making a few people unbelievably rich, while depleting Earth’s resources and threatening not only our human future, but the earth’s.
Lump all this together, and it is obvious that the relationship of the human species to the earth has changed radically – and in the new environment, those old Christian perspectives that helped produce the crisis are overdue for a paradigm shift.
That is happening: more next time.