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In the Beginning was the Image: Revisioning Christianity as Mythopoietic Environmental Ethics

Presented at the Mid-Atlantic Region of the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference, New Brunswick, NJ; Mar. 2010

In Memory of Edward C. Fritz (1916-2008)

Discussions about the origins of our environmental predicament inevitably revert to the ongoing polemic created by Lynn White, Jr., in “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” first published in Science in 1967, which blamed the Bible—specifically Genesis—for its exhortation of humans to populate and subjugate nature. On one side of the debate are those who support White’s thesis that “dominionism”—the belief that humans have the God-given right to do with nature as they please—represents an inherently anti-environmental attitude that White claims pervades Christianity. On the other side are Christian apologists who view the directive to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1.28) as a mandate rather for benevolent stewardship that they believe embeds an ethical view of nature. Stewardship, however, has been criticized by radical ecologists as merely a slightly less anthropocentric perspective that still places humans at the top of a hierarchy instead of within an ecocentric paradigm that stresses the interconnectedness of all components of the cosmos.
     What commentators on both sides often overlook, however, is the role played by biblical interpretation in the formation of environmental attitudes and how hermeneutic approaches vary widely—from allegorical to literal—among the Christian traditions. Such interpretive multiplicity suggests that the style or even degree of environmental awareness has to do with whether the Bible is understood metaphorically as a mythopoietic work of art or literally as “the Word of God.” Those who apply a literal interpretation to the Bible—or 31% of Americans (78% if those who believe it is the “inspired word of God” are included), according to a 2007 Gallup Poll (1)—tend to see the environment as “desanctified” and to be dominated (hereafter called “dominionism”). On the other hand, those who read it as a metaphor-laden mythology are more likely to see divine immanence in all aspects of place. The findings of many social scientists who have studied the influence of religion on environmental attitudes and behavior seem to support the notion that the most ethical Christian stances toward nature are associated with those who read the Bible as a compilation of allegories that point to greater, invisible truths beyond their literal meanings, whereas the least concern about the environment comes from those—primarily Christian fundamentalists—who insist on strictly historical, literalist readings (Eckberg and Blocker 1996: 343). Why this might be so and how it might be remedied will be the focus of this paper.
      One of the problems with White’s critique of Christianity as “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen” (1967: 1205) is that in railing against dominionism, he fails to distinguish between Orthodox and Protestant interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. By conflating Catholicism and Protestantism under the overarching “Christianity,” White neglects the fact that “[f]or the first fifteen hundred years of the Christian era there is little in the history of interpretation of Genesis to support [his] major contentions,” says Peter Harrison, who further maintains that “[p]atristic and medieval accounts of human dominion are not primarily concerned with the exploitation of the natural world [but rather represent] a powerful incentive to bring rebellious carnal impulses under the control of reason” (1999: 90-91). Instead of dominion over the external environment, early Christian exegetes posited it as being over internal nature: the self. Patristic interpretation from the first four centuries of the Common Era thus epitomizes “an allegorical approach to texts which became universal practice during the Middle Ages” (Harrison 1999: 91). As a result, Catholics today are among the least literalist or dominionist interpreters of the Bible.
On the other hand, Conservative Protestant Christians—who are identified as Mormons, Southern Baptists, the Church of Nazarene and Pentecostal Holiness congregants, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses—display the most literalist but least environmentally concerned views, according to Michelle Wolkomir et al. (1997: 343) and Jeanne Kay (1989: 228). These findings support the results of Douglas Lee Eckberg and T. Jean Blocker, who determined that “high sectarianism,” or belief in a literal, dominionist interpretation of the Bible in which nature is desanctified, corresponded with the lowest “greenness” (1997: 348).
     Moreover, studies indicate that belief in “sanctified nature”—places considered to possess sacred meaning—has been linked to greater pro-environmentalism. By virtue of their sacredness, such places are “treated with more reverence and respect,” according to Nalini Tarakeshwar et al. (2001: 389), who “identified specific religious and/or spiritual beliefs (i.e., beliefs that nature is sacred) that were predictive of pro-environmental beliefs and behaviors” (2001: 402). Concomitantly, they found “that theological conservativism [linked to dominionism] was associated with lower pro-environmental beliefs, decreased willingness to invest personal funds to protect the environment, and lower involvement in green activities” (2001: 402). The latter findings are borne out by the evangelical Discovery Church’s proposal to build a 2,000-seat megachurch, 1500 parking spaces, and athletic fields totaling about 165,000 square feet for church use only on property zoned as open space near Simi Valley, California (2010: 1). Discovery Church members believe that as a religious institution they should be exempt from zoning laws, even though the open space ordinance was approved by the voters and hailed as a step toward environmental preservation of undeveloped places.
     Such disparity in Christian attitudes toward nature reflects not only differences in their reading of scriptures but changes wrought by the Reformation and techno-scientific revolution. In contrast to the patristic era, the seventeenth century saw “‘dominion over the earth’ […] as having to do with the exercise of control not in the mind, but in the natural world,” according to Harrison, who says it was a shift that involved

the collapse of the ‘symbolist mentality’ of the Middle Ages and the radical contraction of sacramentalism, which resulted in a denial of the transcendental significance of the things of nature, the appearance on the religious landscape of this-worldly Protestantism with its attendant work ethic, [and] the new hermeneutics of modernity, which looks to the literal sense as the true meaning of the text. It is this last factor in particular which brings about new readings of the biblical imperative “have dominion.” (1999: 96-97, emphasis added)

Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin both provided “much of the impetus for the literal reading of texts,” says Harrison (1999: 97f), “which meant that natural objects were no longer to be treated as symbols” (1999: 97). This preoccupation with text greatly conflicted with Origen’s earlier teaching that “this visible world teaches about that which is invisible” (1957: 218). In antiquity “the fundamental presupposition of allegorical interpretation meant that natural objects could function, like words, as signs [i.e. metaphors]. A word in scripture would refer to an object, and the object in turn would refer to some theological or moral truth” (Harrison 1999: 97). With the advent of the Reformation, however, “Protestant insistence that only words and not things have referential functions was a major contributing factor [in the] disintegration of this symbolist mentality” (Harrison 1999: 97).
      The result of this approach to scripture, Harrison argues, was to read the “injunction to exercise dominion over birds and beasts” as a literal call to the domination of nature, with

its sense no longer being distributed across allegorical, anagogical, or tropological readings. […] With the turn away from allegorical interpretation, the things of nature lost their referential functions, and the dominion over nature spoken of in the book of Genesis took on an unprecedented literal significance. (1999: 97-98)

The Protestant literalist impulse was influenced by another factor that was perhaps even more significant than science: the dearth of sacred religious iconography that had formerly sanctified nature. Prior to the emergence of a widely literate population and scientific advances that enabled the mass production of the Bible, the Church relied upon iconography to dispense its message of salvation through Christ. Elaborate stained glass windows, priestly accoutrements, and rituals such as Mass were designed to impart a sense of sanctification of the natural world and the communitas necessary to maintain public support of the Church. However, in the Protestant eschewal of the rich imagery, celebrations, and rituals of the Church, a void was created, which was in turn filled by words—specifically, the Word. Without a pope or history of allegorical approaches to guide them, Protestants were forced to rely upon essentialist, literal readings of the text for meaning.
     Calvinism, which, according to Rosemary Radford Ruether, “dismembered the Medieval sacramental sense of nature,” was particularly at fault during this period for promoting “iconoclastic hostility toward visual art” that resulted in the smashing of stained glass windows, statues, and carvings and the stripping from the churches “of all visible imagery. Only the disembodied Word, descending from the preacher to the ear of the listener, together with music, could be bearers of divine presence” (1996: 328). In doing so, Calvinism “maintained and reinforced the demonic universe. The fallen world, especially physical nature and other human groups outside of the control of the Calvinist church, lay in the grip of the Devil” (1996: 328).
     In their hysteria to distance themselves from all Church-related imagery, Protestant reformers hastened to dump the saints and sacred rites as well, demoting them to symbols of demonic paganism. The consequence of this dismantling was that Protestantism, as psychologist C. G. Jung says,

…immediately began to experience the disintegrating and schismatic effect of individual revelation. As soon as the dogmatic fence was broken down and the ritual lost its authority, [humanity] had to face [its] inner experience without the protection and guidance of dogma and ritual, which are the very quintessence of Christian as well as of pagan religious experience. (1958: ¶33)

Consequently, Protestantism “intensified the authority of the Bible as a substitute for the lost authority of the Church” (Jung 1958: ¶34). With no single entity to provide the “last word” then or now, Protestantism has devolved into hundreds of denominations, each vying for position as the “truest” interpretation of the Word while demonstrating an utter lack of interest in the manifold meanings underlying the biblical allegories.
     The Reformation thus has held important ramifications for the natural as well as spiritual world, especially as pertaining to the American environment. By eliminating Mary’s divine status, Protestantism demonized all that is feminine, including the earth, a perspective that the Puritans brought with them to the New World. Armed with a capitalistic work ethic that attempted to replace the loss of spiritualism with materialism, the Puritans looked upon America as God’s “providence” to them in the form of “virgin land” to be conquered and controlled. In return for their hard work, the faithful believed that God would grant them material wealth. Paradoxically, however, it was this Puritan anti-spiritualism that spawned both the nature-based Transcendentalism of the nineteenth century and Protestant fundamentalism of the twentieth. While the Transcendentalists, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and his protégé, Henry David Thoreau, represented what is perhaps the first environmentally ethical American religious impulse, their lack of dogmatism and collective rituals combined with a strong esoterism ended in the demise of Transcendentalism, a fate that ultimately befalls all mystical traditions.
     Yet, despite Christianity’s excoriation by White and his supporters, Westerners must not overlook what contemporary Christian traditions have to offer in the way of informing more pro-environmental attitudes. Such a study might begin by looking at the Puritan spinoff, Unitarianism, which itself spawned Transcendentalism and eventually merged with Universalism. The Unitarians were the most liberal of Protestant sects during the eighteen-hundreds, having rebelled against the extreme repressiveness of their Puritan heritage. In disdaining dogma, the Unitarians have developed a worldview of tolerance toward all religious traditions that appeals to environmentalists, as evidenced by the rationale given me by my late uncle, Ned Fritz, a life-long environmental activist and contributor to passage of the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, who once said that he joined the Unitarian church years ago when he stopped believing in the Christian God of his Methodist upbringing. In contrast to other sects, Unitarian Universalism takes the focus off Christ and puts it on Christian, or Christ-like—where Jesus arguably wanted it all along.
     All the same, it cannot be denied that Unitarian Universalism would not be where it is today without its Puritan parentage and Bible-based background. It stands to reason, therefore, that we might continue to plumb allegorical depths of scripture for greater awareness regarding our environmental problems. Similarly, Jeanne Kay notes:

As a root of our Western intellectual tradition, the Bible and its great religions have some practical advantages in formulating personal environmental ethics for Americans and Europeans that alternative environmental belief systems cannot. […] From a purely pragmatic point of view, the advantage of Christian environmental ethics to Christian or even post-Christian individuals is that Christianity provides them with an entire, self-reinforcing life-world that secular or Eastern beliefs in this country have not fully developed. (1989: 230)

Like it or not, Christians have an ingrained monotheistic worldview that cannot be easily shed. Yet, perhaps they can somehow make it work for rather than against them. The Tarakeshwar et al. study shows that not all biblical interpretations are anti-environmental; indeed, “many modern leaders in the church are able to integrate a concern for the environment within an ‘ecotheology’ that emphasizes the sacred quality of the natural world” (2001: 401). Christian ecotheologist James A. Nash encourages an “alternative method for Christian ethical evaluation [that] is rational reflection on the fullness of human experience, in dialogue with the Bible and Christian tradition, on the one hand, and cultural wisdom, especially the relevant sciences and other religious, moral and philosophical traditions, on the other” (2009: 232, emphasis in orig.). In articulating what environmentalist Bernard Daley Zaleha calls a “Christian Deep Ecology,” Nash contributes to “the emerging naturalistic spiritualities that are variously labeled as naturalistic pantheism, religious naturalism [and] Gaian naturalism,” and establishes what may be termed “Christian pantheism” (2009: 283, 286). Christian pantheism is in some ways a response to the anti-environmentalism of fundamentalist sects, according to Zaleha, who says, “We can now realize with confidence that a Christianity that is genuinely faithful to the teachings of Jesus will having nothing to do with a blind faith in an atoning death of an incarnate God through which we attain some blissful state in a hereafter. This tragic accumulation can now be tossed aside” (2006: 2). Zaleha argues that the view of life and nature as profane allows Christian fundamentalists to disregard the environment. By reinterpreting Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as a call “not to turn away, as we are doing, from a dying Mother Earth,” Zaleha reimagines, and consequently resanctifies, nature (2006: 3). Like the Unitarian Universalists, who have revisioned Protestant Christianity by deemphasizing the figure of Jesus and focusing on his teachings, Zaleha’s Christian pantheism re-creates it as a more ecoethical tradition.
     Such biblical revisioning demands metaphorical reading with a mythological perspective. Brian J. Walsh et al. concur in saying that metaphors “are world-formative, they engage in world-construction [and] mediate the worldviews by which we live; they function, therefore, both as visions of the world […] and as visions for the world” (1996: 432, emphasis original). In the contemplation of metaphor one enters the realm of imagination where archetypal images reign supreme. As archetypal psychologist James Hillman says, such “imagining which sees through an event to its image [releases] events from their literal understanding into a mythical appreciation” (2004: 39).
     Clearly, then, imagination is vital in order to experience the numinosity of the world and humankind’s place in it, and it will ultimately point to a more environmentally ethical worldview that resanctifies nature, leading “to greater care and investment in its protection,” as the Tarakeshwar study suggests (2001: 389). Cognizant of the connection between the reverence for and the desire to protect nature, church leaders have begun integrating “a concern for the environment with an ‘ecotheology’ that emphasizes the sacred quality of the natural world” (2001: 401). In doing so, they are acknowledging that if Christianity is to remain alive and relevant—that is, sustainable—its metaphors must be resurrected, reinterpreted, and reimagined mythopoietically as environmental ethics. For, in the beginning was not the Word; in the beginning was the Image.

Works Cited
Bakalis, A. 2010. “Discovery Church can move forward on megachurch proposal.” Ventura County Star. Posted February 11, 2010 at 12:24 p.m.; updated February 11, 2010 at 3:08 p.m. Acc. 11 Feb. 2010. > can-move-forward-on-megachurch/<.

Eckberg, Douglas Lee and T. Jean Blocker. “Christianity, Environmentalism, and the Theoretical Problem of Fundamentalism.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 35(4) (1996): 343-55.

Gallup. Ed. “One-third of Americans Believe the Bible is Literally True.” May 2007. 20 Nov. 2008. < Bible-Literally-True.aspx>

Harrison, Peter. “Subduing the Earth: Genesis 1, Early Modern Science, and the Exploitation of Nature.” Journal of Religion 79(1) (Jan., 1999): 86-109.

Hillman, James. Archetypal Psychology. Putnam, CT: Spring, 2004.

Jung, C. G. “Psychology and Religion.” The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 11. Bollingen Series 20. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1958. 1-168.

Kay, Jeanne. “Human Dominion over Nature in the Hebrew Bible.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 79(2) (Jun., 1989): 214-32.

Nash, James A. “The Bible vs. Biodiversity: The Case against Moral Argument from Scripture.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture 3(2) (2009): 213-37.

Origen. The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies. Trans. R. P. Lawson. London: Longman’s, Green, 1957.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. “Ecofeminism: Symbolic and Social Connections of the Oppression of Women and the Domination of Nature.” This Sacred Earth. Ed. Roger S. Gottlieb. New York: Routledge, 1996. 322-33.

Tarakeshwar, N., A. B. Swank, K. I. Pargament, and Annette Mahoney. “The Sanctification of Nature and Theological Conservatism: A Study of Opposing Religious Correlates of Environmentalism.” Review of Religious Research 2(4) (2001): 387-404.

Walsh, Brian J., Marianne B. Karsh, and Nik Ansell. “Trees, Forestry, and the Responsiveness of Creation.” This Sacred Earth. Ed. Roger S. Gottlieb. New York: Routledge, 1996. 423- 35.

White, Lynn, Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203-07.


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