St. Basil, Ecology, and Fellowship: Part 3

May we realize that they live not for us alone

but for themselves and for thee,

and that they love the sweetness of life.

-St. Basil, 4th Century

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The largely unexamined view of creation that exists within much of Evangelicalism is that nonhuman creatures and the rest of creation do not have intrinsic value, but derive their value from human usage.  This view towards creation goes hand in hand with traditional theism’s understanding of the dominion language of Genesis 1, and the hierarchical divides outlined in Part 2 of this series. In his book, For the Beauty of the Earth, Steven Bouma-Prediger examines seven realms of ecological thought on a continuum ranging from the “Conservation Movement” to the opposite end in the “Deep Ecology” movement (which we will look at another time).  It is my presumption that the “Conservation Movement” is the prevailing position of Evangelicalism.  It is also my presumption that faithfulness to God and to the earth requires Christianity to move beyond this realm of “Conservation,” the basic outline of which Bouma-Prediger states thusly:

“Nonhuman creatures do not have intrinsic value.  Their value is derived exclusively from their usefulness for humans––trees are for lumber, water for human consumption, the prairie for grazing cattle.  The natural world is valuable only as a means of serving human interests.  The scope of what is morally considerable is relatively small––only humans count morally, and usually only humans here and now.” [1]

What are your thoughts and reactions to this position?  Do you see it reflected within the Christian community today?  Does this position seem too human-centered?  Also, do you see it as a biblical position?  The questions raised by this ethic are: What is the value of a tree?  Of a wetland?  A mountain?  A spider?  Do they have value?  If so, how much value do they possess and at what point does the human community sacrifice its power for something nonhuman?

I purposefully made quite a jump from exploring the intrinsic value of nonhuman life to the competing interests between human and nonhuman life.  That logical jump is firmly rooted within the anthropocentric view of creation espoused by the “Conservation Movement,” assuming that valuing nonhuman life is a slippery slope towards the impediment to human progress and growth.

When we begin to examine these questions from just outside of our traditional Western (and dualistic) worldviews, we can evaluate them in a new light.  Recognizing the influence of modern science on the way we think, we often fail to process the individual entities listed above within their ecological contexts.  They remain isolated and examined within the realm of substance.  Stated another way, we fail to comprehend the relations that each of these entities engage in because we tend to extract individuals and valuate them apart from the community they exist in.  John Cobb asserts that,

“The effort to study things in abstraction from their relations is based on a misunderstanding.  This misunderstanding is that things exist as independent entities and only incedentally are related to one another.  This is the misunderstanding that lies at the base of the materialistic view of nature (which is shared by both the dualistic and the materialistic worldviews).” [2]

Cobb joins in the critique of Western dualism and its difficulty in viewing things in relation to one another.  The relational vision of all creation proposed here is what is precisely what is meant by the term ecology.  Ecology deals explicitly with relationships within ecosystems.  Everything is in relationship.  Nothing exists in a vacuum.  Once we remove objects, people, animals, or other components of creation from their relational context, we strip them of life.  Relationship is the language of creation.  Therefore, developing an ecological theology is in a sense, to borrow from St. Basil, part of enlarging our “sense of fellowship.”  This requires a shift from our understanding of nature and creation as the backdrop for human history to an understanding of nature and creation as intimately and indispensably related to human history.

As we finish our look at this ecologically minded poem from St. Basil, his final stanza places an intrinsic value on the nonhuman community.  His hope is wrapped up in a vision of an earth community that embraces all of life, eschews dominion as domination, and sees all of creation as possessing great worth because it was made by the hand of God.  Animals, plants, and the earth exists not for humanity alone, but for all of life in a great web of relationship.  Throughout history many prominent theological voices have proclaimed the beauty of creation as witness to God’s glory.  This is not merely an aesthetic beauty experienced upon creation as it is pleasing to the human eye, but the inherent beauty in the systems and cycles of creation that occur in transcendence to human experience and participation.  This is nothing new or radical.  However, the implications of recapturing an inclusion of the greater earth community (human and nonhuman life) within our enlarged sense of fellowship requires a shift in not only our environmental ethics, but also our political ethics, and our economic ethics as well.

Our attendance to the world’s current environmental situation is deeply connected to both our theologies of creation and anthropology.  These prophetic words of St. Basil that we have explored over the past three weeks speak arguably more loudly to us today than to their original audience.  Over the past three weeks, Basil has been the avenue through which I have laid down some statements, ideas, and thoughts that I am currently seeking to work out and explore in my own personal academic and spiritual journey.  I feel that these issues of ecology are deeply important to the Church today as it seeks to curate hope in a world desperately seeking purpose, community, and answers.  They are also intimately tied to our views of God, the Incarnation, and the restoration we hope for in Jesus, which makes wrestling with an ecological theology even more important for us today.

Dialogue, feedback, criticism, and amens are welcomed and encouraged.  Thanks for reading.

St. Basil, Ecology, and Fellowship: Part 2

St. Basil, Ecology, and Fellowship: Part 1

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Notes

1. Bouma-Prediger, Steven.  For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 128.

2. Cobb, John B. “Ecology, Science, and Religion: Toward a Postmodern Worldview,” in Readings in Ecology and Feminist Theology. Edited by Mary Heather MacKinnon and Moni McIntyre (Lanham: Sheed and Ward, 1995), 241.

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