What is man’s relationship to nature? Does he have an ethical responsibility to the world he lives in? Is he justified in controlling other forms of life? There are many answers given to these questions, reflecting a wide variety of worldviews. But in order to understand the environmentalism of today’s popular culture, it may be helpful to examine some of the major streams of thought that have built it.
Unlike other religions, Judaism and Christianity made a strong distinction between God and his creation. Nature was not divine (Schaeffer, Pollution 49). Both man and the world he lived in were created by God for his glory. This gave them both intrinsic value. But nature was not sacred, not something to be revered or worshiped (Passmore 10). It was man’s duty to God to worship and obey him alone. Man’s relationship to nature was, for the Jew or Christian, based on God’s instruction to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (Gen. 1:28). In the Biblical view, not only was the Creator clearly distinguished from what he had made; man was distinct from the rest of creation as well (Schaeffer, Pollution 50). Man was under the authority of God, and, in turn, had been given authority over nature. The world’s wealth was at his disposal, to be used for his ends.
Yet the Biblical Christian recognized that he was not free to abuse the earth. Just as the human race had value because it was made by God, the rest of creation was to be treated with dignity because of its origin (Tarnas 180). To consider an animal to be "low," or of little value, insulted its Maker (Schaeffer, Pollution 55). Cruelty toward animals was condemned.
The Christian also regarded the dominion mandate as a command to care for the earth on behalf of its rightful Owner, until, when his work was done, he would return it to God and give an account of his management. Under the authority of God, then, man was responsible to be a wise steward of his natural resources (Black 46).
When God created Adam, he placed him in the Garden of Eden, to tend and keep it. Man’s first employment was to care for nature. But the Garden was perfect. When Adam and Eve sinned, God punished them by altering their environment: "Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you . . ." (Gen. 1:17-18). No longer did men live in harmony with a perfect world; now they must struggle to produce food from the unyielding ground. The fallen world required improvement through man’s efforts (Beisner 13; Worster 8).
Therefore, the Biblical Christian approached nature considering himself its rightful master, but concerned for its welfare and mindful of his responsibility to the Creator. He did not believe that nature was best left alone, but attempted to amend it through wise development.
But the Biblical teaching was often corrupted as Western Christianity absorbed elements of Greek thought. A Neoplatonic influence was present from an early date. Plato’s belief in the preeminence of the archetypal, eternal Forms over their particular physical manifestations appeared in the Christian context as a rejection of the created world in favor of the spiritual or heavenly realm. Nature was at best unimportant, if not evil and an impediment to the soul’s pursuit of holiness (Tarnas 140). The result of these ideas was not only asceticism, but indifference toward nature and science, and in the extreme, abuse of animals (Schaeffer, Pollution 41). This Neoplatonic antiphysical stance also encouraged an exaggeration of the Christian sense of being "pilgrims and strangers" in the world. In this view, it mattered little how nature was treated, since it was expected that Christ would soon return to release his followers from this corrupt earthly prison and take them to their heavenly reward (Tarnas 140). This did not foster good stewardship or conservation. But these ideas did not reflect the Biblical teaching on nature.
It was no accident that modern science was born in the West, out of a surrounding consensus of Christianity. Christians believed that the universe had been created by a rational God, so they expected that they could understand the natural world through reason. For the Christian, the physical world was real, it was not a delusion, or an extension of God’s essence, as Eastern religions claimed (Schaeffer, Pollution 48). But neither was it sacred; therefore, it could be investigated (Passmore 11).
Nature was also regarded as worthy of study. As we have seen, this was not the case for the Neoplatonists, and had Platonic ideas continued to dominate, modern science would never have emerged. But beginning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, an important shift was made in western thought from Plato to Aristotle (Tarnas 176). While Plato had seen the basis of reality as lying in the transcendent Forms, and distrusted knowledge gained through the senses, Aristotle had rooted reality firmly in the material, and believed that sense perception is the only way for man to learn about the world (Tarnas 57-59). As Aristotle’s works and ideas were rediscovered by the Western universities, medieval man found new interest in the order and beauty of nature. With Aristotle as their patron philosopher, Christians began to study nature, and also to enjoy it for its own sake. They believed that the expansion of their knowledge of the world would result in greater reverence for and knowledge of God (Tarnas 179).
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was a principal proponent of the new scientific study of nature. He was certain that man, by a rational exploration of the world, could discover truth on his own, apart from God’s revelation (Tarnas 180). He had an incomplete concept of the Fall. He believed that while the will of man was fallen, his intellect was not (Schaeffer, Escape 11). Therefore he could find truth by himself. This autonomous view of man’s reason was to have far-reaching consequences. Although the new scientific study of the world afforded to nature much more value than had the Neoplatonic position, the Aristotelian influence was not entirely benign. Both Aristotle and the Stoics believed that everything in nature was designed for the use of man. In his Politics, Aristotle argued that "plants are created for the sake of animals, and the animals for the sake of men, the tame for our use and provision, the wild, at least for the greater part, for our provision also, or for some other advantageous purpose, as furnishing us with clothes, and the like" (Passmore 14). This anthropocentrism eventually replaced, in the minds of many Christians, the Biblical teaching that God created everything for his own glory, and that therefore each creature had value on its own account, not merely by virtue of its usefulness to man. The Genesis mandate gave man the right to make use of nature, but it was the Greek influence that introduced the idea that nature exists only to serve his interests (Passmore 17). When Western man adopted this idea, he began to see himself as the absolute master of the world, with the right to use or abuse it in any way he chose. Gone was the sense of responsibility to God that had guided the Jews and Biblical Christians in their relationship to his creation. Man became a tyrant.
The goal of early modern science was expressed by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who said that although man at the Fall lost his dominion over nature, the sciences could in some part restore it (Schaeffer, Escape 31). "Let the human race recover that right over Nature," he wrote, "which belongs to it by divine bequest" (Passmore 19). So the scientific conquest was considered a religious duty (Schaeffer, Escape 31). But although the objective of bringing the world under man’s mastery was based on the Genesis mandate, the effects of Aquinas’ ideas were visible in Bacon’s theories. Bacon believed that man’s autonomous reason, through science, could bring about a utopian world in which man would once again be the true ruler over creation (Tarnas 273): "The end of our foundation is the knowledge of all causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible" (Passmore 19). Here again was Aristotle’s pragmatism, unfettered by concepts of stewardship.
René Descartes (1596-1650) shared Bacon’s utilitarian view of science, but little of his Christian faith. He aspired to "a practical philosophy by means of which, knowing the force and the action of fire, water, the stars, heavens, and all the other bodies that environ us, as distinctly as we know the different crafts of our artisans, we can in the same way employ them in all those uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature" (Passmore 20). For Descartes, nature was merely a complex, impersonal machine, made and set in motion by God, but now running on its own according to its innate mechanical laws (Tarnas 278). An animal was entirely without awareness, purpose, or even the capacity for pain; for all practical purposes it was lifeless. This mechanistic world could be manipulated by man without scruples. Man was lord of nature by virtue of his rationality, which, contrary to the Bible, but in accordance with Aquinas, Descartes did not see as having been perverted by the Fall (Passmore 21).
The Modern Age
In Descartes, the anthropocentrism introduced by Aristotle came to its full expression in modern thought. No longer was God ultimate; man’s autonomous reason reigned supreme. Through science, man hoped to reach an ideal state—a second Eden. This was the doctrine of the Industrial Revolution (Passmore 21). Man’s harnessing of nature’s laws was greatly improving his life in many areas, with no end in sight. Businessmen had no qualms about using their natural resources to the fullest in order to supply the burgeoning industry and expanding population of the West (Worster 40).
As the modern age progressed and science explained more and more natural phenomena, the supernatural and miraculous bases of Christianity seemed increasingly implausible to the modern mind. By the mid-nineteenth century, with Darwin’s theory of evolution providing a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life, modern man no longer felt a need for God, nor did he wish to be bound by religion (Tarnas 304). Science was the faith of the age.
The abandonment of belief in God had two profound effects on man’s view of the world. The first was the disappearance of the last vestiges of a foundation on which to base moral treatment of nature. If there was no God, there was no way to judge one action to be right or good and another bad. Man was now in the place of God, and whatever he could do, he did (Schaeffer, Pollution 91). But in spite of the loss of moral base, this humanist belief was usually optimistic. Man’s future was in his own hands, and he had the power to make the world what he would (Tarnas 319). This was the full extension of Bacon’s faith.
But this optimism could not last long. The second effect of the rejection of God was determinism. Until this time scientists had believed in the uniformity of natural causes in nature. They had even come to see nature as a machine. But they had always reserved two things outside the machine: God, its Creator, and man, God’s image-bearer and deputy (Schaeffer, Escape 32). Now that God was gone, man had nowhere from which to derive his identity or special value. He could no longer view himself as separated from nature by his relationship to God; now he was just another animal, controlled by instinct—merely the greatest form of life the evolutionary struggle had yet produced. He had no "higher purpose"; he was tied to this world (Tarnas 327). He became part of the machine.
The evolutionary model encouraged the pragmatic view of nature that had characterized the scientific age. If man was just another species striving to survive in an impersonal or even cruel world, he had no special responsibility to any of his fellow combatants. If survival of the fittest was the method by which nature worked, man was justified in doing whatever was necessary to continue his existence. Of course, this did not mean that he always exploited nature; much of the time it was in his best interest to let things run their natural course, or carefully manage them so they would serve him better. But the key principle was that man did everything for his own benefit. This was the logical conclusion of modern scientific beliefs (Tarnas 376).
Loss of Faith in Science
But the twentieth century brought a weakening of man’s faith in science. Several factors contributed to this trend. The first was a challenge to Newtonian science. This came in the form of a number of new ideas in physics, chief among them Einstein’s theories of relativity and the formulation of quantum mechanics. These ideas were contrary to the principles of classical modern science which had long been regarded as certain. Newton’s Laws, which had defined man’s understanding of the world for nearly two and a half centuries, were no longer applicable to all of nature (Tarnas 355). Kant had believed that man could not know the real world, but that all phenomena he observed were not only digested and organized by his mind’s interpretive structures, but changed by his very act of studying them. This was now confirmed by new doubt of science’s foundational belief in cause and effect, together with studies of an observer’s effect on the phenomena observed (Tarnas 356). So the certainty of empirical knowledge, the major basis of science since Bacon, was called into question. As the classical concept of the world became outdated, people felt the loss of a coherent scientific cosmology. Contradictions within the new physics abounded, and added to this was the utter unintelligibility to the layperson of the quantum-relativity theories. Man felt increasingly alienated in a world that was intuitively inaccessible to him, as well as impersonal, unconscious, and purposeless (Tarnas 358).
Yet while it was viewed more tentatively than in earlier times, science continued to be valued for its practical applications, which proved the validity of its models and methods. It was only when the results of those applications were no longer judged as overwhelmingly positive that man was forced to withdraw his trust in science.
Criticism of Technology
By the mid-twentieth century, criticism of technology was widespread. It was dehumanizing man, people said, uprooting him from his proper relation to nature and placing him in an artificial environment. The world was characterized by impersonality, complexity, and a disorienting rapidity of change. And now man began to recognize the damaging effect that he, from his scientific viewpoint, had on nature (Tarnas 362-363).
In the face of all this turmoil, generated in large part by the advance of modern science, people began to turn in great numbers to the Romantic worldview.
Romanticism was not new; it had grown out of the Renaissance together with the modern scientific outlook. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Romanticism’s founder, was a philosopher who could not accept the mechanism of the scientific view. He would not give up the idea of total freedom for man that had preceded determinism. So he rejected the concept of nature as a machine (Schaeffer, Escape 34). He also had an optimistic idea of human nature. He believed in the natural goodness of man, and explained sin and evil as the result of the negative influence of urban civilization. If man was returned to his proper natural environment, apart from the artificialities of society, he would reveal his true, benevolent character. This led to the idea of the noble savage: the less a person has been tainted by civilization, the better he is, so peasants and children are held in high regard. And it is among savages that we must seek an example of the original, uncorrupted man (Herrero 5). It is easy to see the appeal of these ideas for twentieth-century man, disenchanted with the science that had for so long been the more dominant view of the two. The scientific or Enlightenment concept of the world held some things in common with Romanticism they had both sprung from the same humanistic foundation
but in many ways they were mirror images (Tarnas 366). Rousseau and his followers were reacting against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which had led to the hated mechanism. Scientists had come to the conclusion through reason that man had no basis for freedom. But this the Romanticists could not accept, so they rejected the reason and logic of science and placed the highest value on emotion and imagination instead (Tarnas 368). They felt that science was narrow-minded in accepting only information gained by empirical observation and emphasizing the exclusion of subjective interpretations of evidence based on preconceived beliefs. On the contrary, they said, truth can be discovered only by using the emotions together with reason. In this way the epistemological limits of reason alone could be transcended (Herrero 5). Yet the Romantics scorned the Enlightenment’s search for monolithic, objective truth. It was impossible to find one correct way of looking at the world, one single truth (Tarnas 368). By using all his faculties—his emotions, imagination, will, and faith, as well as his reason, man could create truth. He must shape the indeterminate world and give it, and himself, meaning. Man was, or was becoming, God (Tarnas 370-371).
But in spite of this idea, Romanticism, especially the modern type, has not been characterized by the same anthropocentrism as the scientific temperament. For the Romantic, the world is a unitary entity, a whole. Individual organisms are not like parts of a clock, that can be separated from each other and still retain their identity; nor can the whole, like a clock, be disassembled and then reconstructed (Worster 82). Nature is a system, all parts of which are permeated by the same creative spirit. This divine world spirit manifests itself in the evolving forms of nature (Rushdoony 11). Not just man, but all of nature, is an expression of the divine. If Christianity was theocentric and the Enlightenment was anthropocentric, Romanticism was biocentric. All forms of life are valuable, and because they are divine, they are also worthy of veneration. This is simply Eastern pantheism adopted by the West. Man and nature are one; all that is, is of one essence (Schaeffer, Pollution 25). This is why Thoreau could regard a muskrat as his brother, and a skunk as "a lowly human being" (Worster 84). The goal of Romanticism is the union of the human spirit with the nature-organism to which it truly belongs. Romanticists anthropomorphized the world, projecting man’s feelings and reactions onto a tree, or a chicken (Schaeffer, Pollution 30). These things are equal to man; man has no special rights, no elevated place in the community of life (Worster 85).
Obviously, Romanticism entirely rejects the idea that man has a right to exploit natural resources for his benefit, or to alter his environment to suit his convenience. What is more, this philosophy is against scientific research, for nature is mysterious and sacred; not something to be coldly and empirically examined, but rather something to be revered (Rushdoony 11). Theoretically, all life forms have value equal to man’s, and he should "step lightly" and avoid taking the lives of his fellow creatures. But in reality it is impossible for him to live this way. In order to survive, he must kill other life—plants and animals for food, trees for shelter, bacteria that threaten his health. And other animals do the same. So although Romanticism/pantheism promises to give value to nature, practically, in the real world, its system does not work (Schaeffer, Pollution 19). Not only does it remove man’s justification for taking other life in order to protect his own, but it gives no answer for the fact that nature is not always benevolent. If nature is ultimate, then it is normative. This is the same conclusion that is reached from the scientific viewpoint. If there is no God to make laws and give us moral absolutes, then we must look to this world. So whatever we find in nature is right (Rushdoony 11; Schaeffer, Pollution 31). But nature is not always kind; sometimes it is cruel. What then? The evolutionary scientists came to the conclusion that if nature worked through the method of survival of the fittest, then it was right for man to look out only for his own interests in his struggle to survive. The Romanticists, who do not accept this, must wrestle with the problem of why death and destruction are, apart from man, common in the natural community.
Today’s environmentalism is primarily influenced by Romanticism and its associated pantheism. Popular culture enjoins us to love Mother Nature and feel ourselves one with the earth. Animals are regarded as man’s equals, possessing rights similar to his, and worthy of respectful, even reverential, treatment. In fact, animals are thought of as in many ways man’s betters, since they supposedly exist in their proper relationship to the environment and do not pollute the planet or exhaust its resources. The evolutionary progression is denied; the world would be better off without mankind.
But an element of scientific pragmatism is also common, especially among more conservative environmentalists and the average citizen. It is not wise to abuse the earth; this is the only one we have. Many people fear the prospect of a ravaged, toxic wasteland as their grandchildren’s home. They believe that we must preserve the world in the form best suited to man’s continued prosperity. This same pragmatism is responsible for the concern about the rapidly multiplying human population, and support for birth control, including abortion. Human life in itself is of little value to those of this persuasion; all that matters is for us and the people we care about to be comfortable. We should note that for those who do not believe in God, the future is a frightening thing. When we have no assurance that God will take care of his creation, including humans, then we must do the best we can to take care of ourselves and extend our existence for as long as possible.
Today’s man commonly feels a certain responsibility to nature. As the most powerful being on earth, he feels he must protect the welfare of his world and all it contains. But apart from the certainties of Biblical truth, man’s existence, and that of the universe, is meaningless. Only by returning to his Christian roots and once again accepting his responsibilities both to God and creation can man find answers to his environmental problems.
1. Beisner, E. Calvin. "Are God’s Resources Finite?" World November 27, 1993: 10-13.
2. Black, John. The Dominion of Man. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970.
3. Herrero, David Estrado. "Romanticism and Christianity," Chalcedon Report, April 1991: 2-10.
4. Passmore, John. Man’s Responsibility for Nature. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974.
5. Rushdoony, Rousas John. "The Myth of Nature," Chalcedon Report, April, 1991: 11-12.
6. Schaeffer, Francis A. Escape from Reason. Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968.
7. -------- . Pollution and the Death of Man. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1970.
8. Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind. New York: Ballantine, 1993.
9. Worster, Donald. Nature’s Economy. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Harmony McPherson