The BP oil spill and religious environmental ethics
Q: The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a widening environmental, economic and political crisis. Is it also a moral crisis? How does religion influence our use and abuse of the natural world? Does religion help or harm the environment?
It is a matter of interpretation.
Whether or not religious traditions influence us to use or abuse the natural world depends upon the meaning we choose to give to our texts and to our traditions. Whether or not religious logic has something useful to add to the conversation regarding environmental ethics depends upon whether or not we as human beings want to regard ourselves as outside or within nature. It depends upon whether or not we want to give nature intrinsic value, value in itself or instrumental value, value according to our ability to use it.
I say: the tragedy of the BP oil spill is a moral crisis that is the result of human estrangement from the Divine, from each other and from nature. A holistic spiritual morality, an environmental ethics rooted in religion can help us find our way back to wholeness and to holiness.
Environmental ethics says that one major reason for environmental degradation is anthropocentrism. This means that what is good for humanity is the primary ethical concern. Some place the blame for this on religion. Feminists say it is a function of male domination. Critical theorists say humanity has lost its enchantment with nature, that we no longer consider it sacred. Deep ecologists say that humankind has lost its sense of connectedness with the natural world, that we understand ourselves as atomistic individuals created and existing apart from nature. A different interpretation of religious texts and traditions can modulate the negative influence of anthropocentrism.
The Bible teaches evolution. Genesis 1:26 says: "Then God said, 'Let US make humankind in our own image, according to OUR likeness." (emphasis mine) Who is the "us"? Some say God is speaking to the heavenly hosts depicted in I Kings, Isaiah and Job. However, there is no mention of the heavenly hosts in the creation stories. There is nothing for God to speak to as "us" at this point other than the natural world, including living creatures of every kind. Let us be generous and say that the "us" in the text refers to God, the heavenly hosts and the natural world. Thus, humankind is the creature made from both heaven and earth. Humankind is the link between God and nature. We are the divine animal.
When we understand that the Bible teaches evolution, humanity is not a creature created outside of nature, but we are creatures of nature. We are ecological beings. This interpretation places humanity within a network of mutuality that not only includes human community, but includes the ecological community and communion with a transcendent God. Since humanity has intrinsic value and nature is a constitutive element of humankind, then nature also has intrinsic value. Nature is sacred because it is a creation of the same God that created humanity. Since humanity is the divine animal, it has an obligation to divinity that the rest of nature does not have.
Religion, therefore, does its work of revelation, of revealing to us the ligature, the connective tissue that binds us to God, to each other and to the natural world. With this revelation comes moral obligation. Does humanity exist for the sake of nature? Or does nature exist for the sake of humanity, thus having instrumental value? I say the answer to both questions is yes. But what is the character of this human moral obligation? Is it one of domination or care? Again it is a matter of interpretation.
Genesis 1:26 also says: "And let them [humankind] have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."
Dominion means control, sovereignty, to prevail against. It is a relationship of domination. Feminist thinkers have compared this domination to the domination of man over woman, that the earth, like woman, is considered feminine, passive, wild, unreasonable, and it ought to be tamed and made rational for the sake of the comfort of man.
However, there is another Biblical creation story with a very different moral imperative. Genesis 2:15 says: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it." Here the moral obligation of humanity to the natural world is one of care. To keep the garden means to guard, protect, attend to, be aware of, observe, preserve, reserve, regard, save and watch it. Human disobedience caused an estrangement from God and led to human exile from Eden. To return to God's favor requires repentance, faith and a rededication to justice, and justice is a due regard for the well-being of the Other, including the non-human Other.
The natural world is important in how God describes God's blessings and curses to humankind. In the prophetic book of Ezekiel God gives prophetic pronouncements that show his blessings through the health and fecundity of the natural world and his curses through the felling of trees. The prophet speaks of showers of blessings, or trees that yield fruit and an earth that yields her increase. (Ezekiel 34:25). Of the proud cedar the prophet writes:
"Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because it towered high and set its top among the clouds, and its heart was proud of its height, I gave it into the hands of the prince of nations; he has dealt with it as its wickedness deserves. I have cast it out." (Ezekiel 31: 10-11) The prophet gives a list of God's grievances against the people: bloodshed, idolatry, contempt for parents, extortion of aliens, injustice to widows and orphans, sexual immorality, adultery, incest, bribery, usury, oppression of the poor and needy, priests who make no distinction between the holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean. The prophetic pronouncement establishes the connection between act and consequence: "I have returned their conduct upon their heads, says the Lord God." (Ezekiel 22:31)
Ecological disaster is interwoven with other injustices. It results from a logic of ourselves as singular beings. We decide our morality based only on what we think is right for ourselves alone. (There is a virtue in selfishness, but that it another discussion.) We act out of a defective moral vision that says that our desires, needs, comfort, prosperity, hopes and dreams are the only important moral concerns. Such puts us in a state of estrangement with the divine, with human community and with nature. We fail to see that our individual selves are inextricably bound to Others, including nonhuman Others. Religion helps us to correct this vision.
Just as it is a hermeneutical and theological error to interpret religious texts and traditions to separate humanity from nature, it is also a mistake to think that environmental ethics is separate from other political, social, economic moral concerns. In the case of BP and the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico, it is important to see that we have made an idol of science and technology. We have assumed the capability to solve any engineering problem at any ocean depth. We have lost the necessary humility regarding what we know and what we can do. We have allowed our thirst for oil and the distance it allows us from each other to cause us to forget our moral obligations to be careful of its use.
Moreover, we have made an idol of the government, thinking that if only we call in the military, if President Obama were more emotionally engaged, if only there were stronger regulations, more ships sent to the gulf to vacuum up the oil, if only there were more of this or that, the problem would be solved. We have made that which is not ultimate, the government, ultimate. This is a tragic disconnect from the divine, from each other and from the natural world.
Religion calls us to wholeness. It calls us to relationality. Our holiness is our ability to see ourselves in the Other, to see the Other in ourselves and to see the sacredness of God's entire creation. It is a matter of interpretation, but an interpretation that can bring us to a place of healing.
Posted by: cecil4 | June 3, 2010 12:45 PM
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