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Can Christian Theology Let the Trees Do the Talking?

In 1958, an eighty-seven-year-old Stoney Indian by the name of Walking Buffalo spoke to an audience in London, England. The question before him that day was something like: “Why, in the end, could white Americans and native Americans not get along?” He gave this extraordinary answer:

We were lawless people, but we were on pretty good terms with the Great Spirit, creator and ruler of all. You whites assumed we were savages. You didn’t understand our prayers.… We saw the Great Spirit’s work in almost everything: sun, moon, trees, wind, and mountains. Sometimes we approached Him through these things.

Did you know that the trees talk? Well, they do. They talk to each other, and they’ll talk to you if you listen. Trouble is, white people don’t listen. They never learned to listen to Indians, so I don’t suppose they’ll listen to other voices in nature. But I have learned a lot from trees: sometimes about the weather, sometimes about animals, sometimes about the Great Spirit.1

Our purpose in this essay is not to explore this difference of cultures for its own sake. We are interested, rather, in what has become a widely held opinion about its significance, particularly for modern environmental theory, for it is very common nowadays to find serious people who believe that Walking Buffalo’s account (or something very like it) is also an elementary account of our modern environmental crisis. Moreover, the theory in view is famously anti-Christian in its analysis (even if old Walking Buffalo himself was not), so it is important for Christians to offer a credible defense against it. In the context of Walking Buffalo’s answer, then, with its implied criticism of Euro-American religious culture, our purpose is to offer the broad outline of just such a defense.

Whether we prefer to call it the Gaia Hypothesis, as is commonly done, or something else, the regnant environmental view consists of at least three parts. The first simply is that our way of treating the environment grows quite directly from our metaphysics. And, indeed, we take this part of the thesis to be true. The second part, however, is somewhat more controversial. It is that Euro-American society generally has the wrong sort of metaphysics. The worldview we do have, so the argument goes, is so human-centered and so thoroughly utilitarian at its core that it cannot but lead to environmental problems. It follows, then, that for the right sort of environmental solutions to emerge, we must replace–or seriously revise–the dominant worldview. For the sake of argument, we shall not dispute this part of the theory, either. One might dispute it on several levels, but in a very general way it is obviously true to say that the wrong sort of environmental metaphysics has spread pretty widely throughout our society. Our interest, however, is more basically in the alleged underlying causes of this mentality and in what may be done about it, which leads to the third and (for us) most crucial part of the theory.

The Challenge of Environmental Metaphysics to Christian Theology

The last and main part of the theory, then, owes its essential form to the work of Lynn White, Jr., who made it famous in his 1967 Science article, “The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” His thesis has since become an almost unquestioned dogma in the global environmental movement. Its main point is that for modern societies to redeem the environment, they must adopt in their deep cultural worldview something akin to the intuition that Walking Buffalo’s answer enshrines. The intuition is that nature is no mere thing to be exploited by humans but something sacrosanct or even sacred (provided one has room for religion). The idea is that we humans must learn to treat nature more as we would treat a person (so Gaia, “Mother Earth,” becomes a working metaphor even for spiritually hardened scientists). At the same time, we must also learn new (actually quite old) intuitions about ourselves. We must stop this Cartesian Enlightenment nonsense of viewing ourselves in the abstract as the rational masters of nature and must somehow come back to the ancient understanding that we are but a part of the larger ecological whole. We must replace our destructive, human-centered, utilitarian worldview with some updated version of this redemptive, quasi-aboriginal one. In sum, we must, at long last, get together with the trees and have a talk.

Now there is much here to invite discussion. What most concerns this essay, however, is the way in which theorists such as White elaborate this thesis into a wholesale critique of Christianity. What they argue is that the destructive, human-centered, utilitarian consciousness is built right into the Judeo-Christian tradition. According to White and his supporters, the roots of our environmental crisis sink deeply into the worldview of ancient Judaism. On the one hand, as is well known, the Hebrews socked it to all the neighboring myths by de-mythologizing nature, extracting from it all vestiges of divine being and agency. On the other hand, as is also well known, they elevated themselves to a status heretofore not enjoyed by the human species: God made human beings in his own image and gave to them dominion over the earth and everything in it (Gen. 1:26). From this status follows the extraordinary license to go forth, to fill the earth, and to subdue it (Gen. 1:28). The rest, as they say, is history. At any rate, the conclusion is that the core metaphysics of Christianity is really just the destructive, human-centered, utilitarian one in an ancient narrative form. If we are to get rid of that destructive metaphysics and replace it with a redemptive worldview, we must also get rid of Christianity and replace it with some other ideology. The rest of this essay, then, shall mainly focus upon this critique of the Christian faith.

The larger thesis has, in the background, two assertions on what our environmental metaphysics must include. First, we must believe that nature has something like a spiritual or sacred standing, value, dignity (even rights), and so on. Second, we must believe that we humans do not have a status that makes us transcendentally superior to nature. We must believe, that is, that the strong notion of human supremacy that has shaped Western civilization is mistaken. Instead, we must adopt some version of human non-supremacy, or severely weakened supremacy, or the like (recommendations are notoriously unclear on this point). And in doing this, of course, we must believe that Christianity is false, or at least incompatible in its metaphysics with these requisite environmental notions. How ought Christians to respond?

Hebrews Removed Nature’s Divinity But Not Its Sacredness

The Christians who have responded do so in two typically distinct ways. One approach is to reject both of the above claims and to argue that some concept of human dominion or supremacy is, in fact, compatible with sound environmental ethics. Perhaps we may classify this common sort of approach as benign utilitarianism, in much the way certain people once defended the notion of a benevolent monarchy. (See, for instance, Geoffrey Lilburne’s A Sense of Place.) The disadvantages of this otherwise quite coherent approach thus resemble those of that defense of royalty. The trees will not so much talk, according to this view, as just hope for the best.

The second sort of approach, however, is to downplay the notion of human supremacy. This approach is typical of the Christian “green” movement. As far as we can tell, its representatives offer nothing like a defense of the notion of human dominion but, instead, ignore it to the extent that the uninformed person might never know it existed in biblical tradition, much less that it is at its metaphysical and moral core. The deficiencies of this second approach are thus as great as the extent to which that notion of human supremacy is, in fact, important to our Christian worldview. On this one, we agree with White. The notion of human supremacy is basic to our Christian metaphysics and ethics. Without it, we cannot but weaken our claim that human beings have value, dignity, and rights that are transcendentally greater than whatever value, dignity, and rights we may confer upon non-human beings. This weakening is the cause of great confusion in the environmental movement at large (one needs to read but a few lines of any contemporary animal rights theory), and, to an extent, the “green” countercultural Christians invite that confusion into their own engagement of the culture.

It would be best if Christians had a coherent environmental view that contained two sorts of beliefs. The one would be that nature has a status, value, and dignity that is much greater than what one instinctively confers upon a mere thing. The second would be that the biblically correct notion of human supremacy, or dominion, is consistent with the first one. Is that plausible? It is. In fact, the biblically correct notion of human dominion actually entails something very like the intuition we need about the sacredness (not just goodness) of the natural realm.

Let us first consider the claim that, in Hebrew religion, nature is downsized from a “Thou” to an “it.” Everyone in the discussion knows that the Hebrews did take the divinity out of nature, but did they also take away its sacredness, or even its agency? In brief, two large themes of the biblical text make us think otherwise. The one is the famous narrative of Creation in Genesis 1, where God declares the things he has made to be “good,” and then declares the whole of his creation to be “very good.” Of course, this language includes the protecting notion that God did not build evil into the world. But it goes deeper still. The mode of the language is undoubtedly not just philosophical or ethical but religious. Many studies support the common Jewish understanding that it expresses a blessing, which means that it refers to something holy, something sacred. Furthermore, this intuition about nature gains strength in other contexts, such as in Psalm 19, where nature “declares” God’s glory, or in Romans 8, where it “groans” in a disposition of agonized faith that Christ’s kingdom will come to set it free. Whatever else they mean, both passages prove that personal agency contains useful analogies for how to think rightly about nature. On this view, then, the trees do, in fact, engage in something that, by analogy anyway, we may consider as “talking.”

Second, however, as J. Richard Middleton has shown beyond controversy, the strong notion of human dominion is indeed at the core of Scripture’s vision of human being and purpose. He writes, “As my own survey of the field of Old Testament studies has revealed … there is a virtual consensus among Old Testament scholars concerning the meaning of the imago Dei in Genesis.“2 So how can the Christian most plausibly refute White’s and others’ charge that this notion entails–or is the root of–license to exploit the earth? How, indeed, may we understand this notion as consistent with the previous one, that nature is holy?

The answer is in the biblical idiom that Middleton and many others present. In that idiom, and in ancient Near Eastern idiom in general, the expression image of God indeed referred to the monarch and conferred upon the monarch royal status. However, it also expressed the monarch’s proper function, which was to be a true representative, or agent, of divine rule. This is the part of the idiom that White and others have failed to take into account. It implies that ruling is a polymorphous concept, or a task-verb. That is to say, it refers to a task that may be accomplished by quite a variety of means, so we need to know by which means it is supposed to be executed. If one is the Pharaoh of Egypt, the task will take one form, but it will take quite another if one is the ruler of Assyria. If one is, however, an Israelite (or a modern Christian), in this context it means something remarkably obvious once one thinks about it.

Representing God Entails Seeking the Good of Creation

The God to be represented has identified himself in and through these narrative actions of creation. This God has used his vast power for the unambiguous good of other beings. By giving them the status of being “beings,” he has done for them the greatest good of all. Moreover, he has spoken and made clear that these beings are not just good in the utilitarian sense, or even in the moral and aesthetic senses of goodness. He has declared his view of them as good in the religious sense. They are, as parts and as a whole, sacred. Now from all this it follows that representing this God must include representing precisely these beliefs about creation, this metaphysics of the environment, as it were. So it is, then, that the correct concept of dominion (precious as it is for other reasons), for Christians, entails the view that nature is sacred. Of course, we must take care to work out in precise detail what this general claim might mean. But as we do so, we may at least stop carrying on, every so often, and let the trees do some of the talking. We might be pleasantly challenged by what they have been waiting to say.

Notes

  1. Cited in T.C. McLuhan, Touch the Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence (New York: Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, 1971), 23.
  2. J. Richard Middleton, “The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago De in Context,“ Christian Scholars Review 24 (September, 1994): 11.