I recently re-read an old essay (1967) by Lynn White, one of my favorite historians, entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” Yes, people were talking about danger to our planet over 55 years ago. Discouraging, isn’t it, that the trajectory is still so dismal? That so little has been done? In his essay, White details how the West and Christianity “defeated” paganism (wherein everything has a spirit – think of Native American culture) and put in its place the anthropocentric culture (check out Psalm 8:6 or Genesis 1:26) which is ruining the planet.
It is clear from reading their “documents of origin” that religions of the past evolved to solve or ameliorate the problems of their day. The Old Testament lays out rules for neighbors (if not tribes) to live in peace and incentives for taking care of the poor and widows. It prohibits foods likely to cause disease and provides for the quarantine of the contagious. It gives authority to an ordained leader to keep civilization on a stable footing. But these sacred documents were spawned of the era out of which they were created. When Genesis gave man dominion over the rest of the creation, no one in that era would have imagined where such ascendancy would lead.
In detailing Western religion’s complicity in the fouling of our planet, Lynn White makes one exception – St. Francis, “the greatest radical in human history.” The key was humility:
…the virtue of humility – not just for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a sign of the thrust of the soul toward union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his.
According to White, Francis was lucky to have escaped the stake – maybe he should be the patron saint for ecologists.
We haven’t made much progress since White’s essay was written in 1967 – but we do now have a pope who chose the name of the humble saint. In his encyclical “Laudato Si” (“Be Praised), Pope Francis does address climate change and other threats to our planet: “These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.” He is to be commended; I only wish he were heeded.
In any case, Lynn White thinks that “more science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion or rethink the old one.” I agree. “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.”
I don’t think that there is much help in “rethinking” the old religion. But neither do I see where the new one will come from. It needs to be entirely different. Instead of “go forth and multiply,” we need to recognize the holiness of restraint and decrease. Instead of giving man dominance over creation, man should get on his knees in gratitude for the creation that makes his life – all life – possible.
A whole segment of society has given up and assumes we will go through the hell with our environment and, hopefully, come out on the other side. There is a popular (and good) website called Post Doom, which defines the “post doom” mind-set as “what opens up when we remember who we are, accept the inevitable, honor our grief, and prioritize what is pro-future and soul-nourishing.” The site promotes “a fierce and fearless reverence for life and relative equanimity even in the midst of abrupt climate mayhem, a global pandemic, and collapse of both the health of the biosphere and business as usual.” A variety of guests have interviews on the site; many (like Richard Rohr) come from a religious perspective. It is fairly pessimistic, but it is also realistic. We need to face the truth to even begin to cope with it.
For there is one more thing that any religion must do. It must provide some level of assurance and comfort that “all will be well,” as Julian of Norwich put it. Otherwise, as we have seen all to vividly and often of late, the fearful draw of anachronistic fundamentalism will continue. Again, I am verbalizing a hope and not a prescription, projecting a possibility that I cannot quite imagine. But if individual efforts have failed (and they have), if governments fail to act, if collective efforts seem noble but futile, a new religion, which starts a fervent crusade to save the planet and changes the cultural paradigm, seems the only hope. Perhaps a desperate hope.
My story this week, “Baptismal Rights,” is about a grandmother who despairs for her grandchildren and wants to give them some method to cope with the damaged and threatening world they will grow up in. She is grasping at straws, as are we all.