by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Modern Believing Vol 54:4

The Earth is the Lord's

This was the title of Modern Church’s annual conference in July 2013. There is a well-established scientific consensus that human activity, especially modern western industry, is destroying the natural processes we all depend on. Best known is climate change but soil erosion, extinction of species and pollution are also reducing our planet’s ability to provide a healthy environment for us and our descendants.

It is possible to think of this as nothing to do with theology. From an atheist perspective a natural default position would be that our existence is the chance result of laws of nature operating without any plans or intentions. They may wipe us out at any time, perhaps through a meteor or natural climate change. If anybody is to guard our future, we shall have to do it ourselves.

Yet from pretty well any spiritual perspective it is precisely this mindset that has produced the mess we are now in. The more we study natural processes—whether gases or plants or ant colonies or brains - the more complex we find them to be. Science, which a century ago was still being hailed as the means to total control, has shown instead that control is beyond us. We only understand a tiny part of what is going on. Modern technology at its best cooperates with nature; when we try to supplant nature, we end up doing more harm than good.

It was in the 1960s that the scientific evidence first attracted public concern. How did western attitudes to nature become so destructive? The debate is often dated from the publication of an article by Lynn White in 1967.1 White accused Christianity of encouraging human dominion over nature, as expressed in Genesis 1:26. Not being sacred, nature did not deserve any respect which would limit our treatment of it. Science and technology became appropriate expressions of dominion and the idea of progress (as opposed to a cyclical view of history) encouraged us to move further and further away from nature.

Subsequent commentators have contrasted this approach to non-western societies where spiritual perspectives have set limits to exploitation of the natural environment. To this extent western Christianity has failed where other spiritual traditions have succeeded. Why?

White dated Christian instrumentalism from the eighth century when new ploughing techniques were developed in western Europe. Subsequent commentators have focused on later developments. Much attention has been paid to early Enlightenment thinkers, especially Francis Bacon and René Descartes.

By their time Europe had been riven by plagues for two centuries and many thought of nature as hostile. The traditional doctrine of the Fall had described humanity as fallen; but Bacon applied it to nature, citing the curse of nature in Genesis 3:14-19 (others have cited Romans 8:18-23). God, he believed, has enabled us to re-establish the original perfection of nature by means of scientific discovery. The dominion given to humans in Genesis 1:26 was yet to be realised and greater knowledge would make it possible.2 Thus the purpose of knowledge was power over nature.

His language was aggressive and sometimes violent.3 At a time when many thought of nature as something to be feared, no doubt his aggressiveness would have sounded optimistic, but it set humanity against nature.

Descartes introduced a radical dualism between mind and matter. The mind—or soul—is immaterial and continues to exist after the death of the body. Matter is a lifeless machine, an entirely passive creation of God.4 Descartes’ account of it combines two notions which are often confused. One is that the physical universe is determined and so predictable. This is the basis on which scientists could expect to find regular, unbreakable laws of nature; it remains one of the philosophical presuppositions of all modern science. The other is a value judgement presenting the physical universe as bare substance, with no intrinsic value and therefore available for use by humans. Everything in the world was to Descartes and the early mechanists what an electric kettle is to a modern householder—something potentially useful which can be used, stored away or destroyed if no longer needed. Humanity did not owe anything to it. To respect or venerate it came to look like superstition.

What follows? With a mechanistic nature lacking value or purpose, to describe something as good can only mean that it is good for humans. Moral values become human projections onto the world. Meaning and purpose must therefore inhere in humans and only in humans. By the nineteenth century this could seem obvious, at least to educated atheists. To Auguste Comte, ‘Civilization consists, strictly speaking, on the one hand, in the development of the human mind, on the other, in the result of this, namely, the increasing power of Man over Nature.’5 Karl Marx, not noted for praising capitalism, could approve of it to the extent that it treats nature not as a power in its own right but only as ‘the object of consumption or as the means of production’.6 To T. H. Huxley, ‘the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it’.7 Once the notion of God is removed from dominion the logic is simple enough: better to have our living conditions planned by human minds than by no minds at all. In 1991 an American mathematician even suggested blowing up the moon in order to enhance fertility.8

How then should we relate to nature? Should we, as many complained, ‘go back to living in mud huts’? Again, from an atheist perspective the question takes us immediately to a string of practical assessments: how many parts per million to preserve this, that or the other. From a more spiritual perspective there is an additional step on the way: what kinds of attitudes to humanity and our planet will lead us to do the right things and avoid the wrong things? How should we conceive of our relationship to nature?

Ethicists have offered a variety of visions. Utilitarians have argued that the well-being of humans is not the only kind of well-being that should be enhanced: animals9 or even the environment as a whole10 should be objects of concern. Rights-based ethicists have extended the notion of rights to animals.11 Some have asked why we should stop there: what about trees?12 Should we think in terms of a hierarchy of value, depending on the richness of life in each living thing?13 Or do these options put too much emphasis on individual beings rather than the system as a whole with all its interactions? So arose ecocentric ethics,14 the best known of which was James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis.15 Lovelock argued that the earth is a self-regulating system, a living organism maintaining a homeostatic state favourable to complex life. Like other living organisms it can recover from damage, but only within limits. It may eventually throw off the human race just as a diseased body throws off an invasive organism. Similarly feminist ethicists argued that ethical discourse should be less individualistic and more relational.16

Ecotheologians were equally diverse in their proposals. What is the proper relationship between humans and the rest of nature? Do we have a duty to be stewards of nature,17 or simply to live within it without ruining it? Should we see in the Bible a covenant between God and humans which affects the state of nature? Can we learn from the Orthodox tradition of seeing humanity as priests to creation?18 Should we see ourselves as the part of nature which has developed consciousness and, therefore, a duty to care for it?19 Is the notion of a primeval fall and the need for atonement part of the problem, as Matthew Fox argued in his celebrated Original Blessing,20 or part of the solution?21 Does the problem lie, as many ecofeminists have argued, in the dualistic thinking which separates out differences into opposites (male and female, mind and body, humanity and nature) and then expects the ‘lower’ to serve the ‘higher’?22

Concern for the environment peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s; our 1989 conference on the theme, ‘The State of the Ark’, was one of our best attended ever. Since then interest has declined. Maybe the mass media got bored. Or the extra work of recycling things put people off. Or governments and business leaders feared declining incomes. However, the concerns of scientists have not gone away. Some fears now seem to have been overstated but others were understated. Nor will it do to say that we should postpone environmental progress until we have sorted out the economy: one of the central questions is whether our attitudes to the economy—and human well-being in general—are themselves the cause of environmental destruction.

So an issue of Modern Believing focusing on the environment is timely. Kurt Remele explores how the concept of the common good can be applied to environmental issues. Traditionally it has been used, especially by Roman Catholic theologians, to explore the relationships between individuals and communities: should the primary responsibility of society be the well-being of each individual or of the community as a whole? More recently the principle has been used to defend the interests of animals and the environment. Animal liberationists and environmentalists often support each other, but between them there is tension between the common good conceived as the good of the community as a whole, and the good of individual living beings within it. Should wild animals be left to their own devices or managed in the interests of the environment? In the final analysis the good of the whole and the good of each individual being must be closely connected.

Jackie Turvey examines the theological ethics of Germain Grisez, a conservative Roman Catholic theologian, and applies his method to climate change. The Roman Catholic Church has for a long time acknowledged a crisis in the way we relate to the environment, which raises questions about our lifestyles and general outlook. Grisez’s approach to natural law ethics is explained and described as a type of theological virtue ethics. Although he has been criticised for being anthropocentric, Turvey argues that this is to overlook the relevance of his creation theology, in which other creatures have inherent meaning and value besides any use to humans. Disciples of Grisez are in a position to make common cause with other Christian advocates for climate justice and environmental protection.

Margaret Barker is well known for her work on Temple Theology and the theory that early Christianity revived a creation-centred theology which had characterised the worship at Solomon’s temple but was repressed in the Second Temple.

In this article she describes biblical understandings of creation, and reminds Christians that they should speak of creation rather than the environment. The Hebrew understanding of creation was expressed in the shape of the Temple, with its relationship between God and creation, time and eternity, the visible and the invisible. The eternal covenant encompassed the visible world, human society and the invisible world of the angels, holding everything together with God at the centre; it was eternal not only in lasting for ever but also in that it joined the world of time and matter to the timeless state of God. Actions which broke the bonds of the covenant were sins and caused the system to collapse. Restoring the bonds was the agenda of the Day of Atonement, part of the new year festival. Natural law and moral law were both part of the covenant system.

Barker concludes by noting that in this system there is only one God, and the offer of a life independent of God is idolatry. One idolatry of our own times is the Market, offering us a false knowledge.

Alex Evans describes his experience as a British Government special adviser on global sustainability. The challenges are global, but it is in the west that most needs to be done. Our politicians are not unconcerned but they understand that the public mood is not yet serious about the need for change. This means that the key changes needing to be made are at the level of values and mind-sets. We are short on narratives about meaning, belonging and purpose. The idea of the purely rational self-interested individual is coming under increasing fire, but we have no idea what will replace it. We need a myth, a narrative about who we are and how we relate, along the lines of the eternal covenant Barker describes, something that can relate a vision of transcendent holiness to concern about what we should be doing here and now. It will need to apply not only to the environment but also to justice issues. We need to develop the ideas now, because when public discourse does acknowledge the critical situation, how we respond will depend on the ideas available at the time.

Jeffrey Newman examines The Earth Charter, the document produced in the light of the United Nations Earth Summit of 1992. It is based on religious and ethical values familiar to the Abrahamic faiths, and relates environmental issues to issues of justice and globalization. However the wording has been adapted to be consistent with other world faiths and indigenous communities. There is an emphasis on the ‘ethic of care’. No document can on its own bring about far-reaching change, but if there is to be such change it is important to offer visions of a better future, as this document does.

What can we do in our local area? Helen Hutchison, the Diocesan Environment Officer for St Albans Diocese, argues that parish churches can make a real difference. To stabilise the climate, local co-operation is needed as much as global co-operation. The programme Living Lightly offers local ways to engage with the issues. Among the concerns emerging is the extent to which children are being disconnected from the natural world. This raises the question of how well they can empathise with it, as well as raising mental health issues for them as individuals. One response is outdoor liturgies. Hutchison seeks to encourage a sense of the sacredness of nature, and provides an appendix suggesting possible activities.

Thus the articles in this issue begin with theological analysis of our duties towards the natural world and end with practical suggestions for local action. A strong case has been made for relating the two to each other. Action is needed as well as theory, but it is not enough to just get on and do things: unless we reflect attentively on the natural world around us, understanding it as creation rather than just environment, we shall end up doing the wrong things.

To some, Helen Hutchison’s suggestions may seem more pagan than Christian; but perhaps we have allowed the western Christian tradition to become too anthropocentric, too obsessed with our inner selves and how they relate to God. To some, The Earth Charter as described by Jeffrey Newman may seem too faith-neutral, treating Christianity as just one religion on a par with others; but perhaps cooperating with other faiths on an urgent common task, without waiting until doctrinal differences have been resolved, is itself a Christian thing to do. To some, the idea of treating the worship in Solomon’s temple, premised as it was on protecting the world order against divine, not human, disruption, may seem unconvincing as a model for us today; but it does remind us that the Earth is the Lord’s, and that the proper response is not exploitation but gratitude.


  1. ‘The historical roots of our ecologic crisis’, Science, 10 March 1967, pp. 1203-7.
  2. ‘That the state of knowledge is not prosperous nor greatly advancing, and that a way must be opened for the human understanding entirely different from any hitherto known, and other helps provided, in order that the mind may exercise over the nature of things the authority which properly belongs to it’ (Preface to The Great Instauration, 1620). See also the closing lines of the Novum Organum, 1620.
  3. Nature was to be ‘hounded in her wanderings’, ‘bound into service’, made a ‘slave’ and ‘put into constraint’. Scientists were to ‘torture nature’s secrets from her’. A summary is in Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point (London: Fontana, 1982), pp. 40-41.
  4. Sutcliffe writes: ‘What characterizes the men of the generation of Descartes is above all the will to dominate, to control events, to eliminate chance and the irrational. This attitude is present in every field: the political, the military, the scientific. But how can one control phenomena if one cannot foresee the way in which phenomena will behave? For Machiavelli chance still controlled over half of events, leaving us the control of the remainder. The elimination of chance becomes an indispensable condition of man’s supremacy. So in the domain of physics. By identifying matter with spatial extension and by explaining the difference between one thing and another by recourse to the idea of movement communicated once and for all by God in a quantity which is constant, Descartes creates the conditions in which man will be able to foresee. All things are reduced to identity by defining them by the one characteristic attribute which they have in common, namely, extension; strict causality becomes assured by the immutability of God’s action in a homogeneous world. In this way modern scientific experiment becomes a possibility: the laws which govern the physical world and which will continue to govern it to the end of all time may be discovered and used by man for his own ends.’ F.E. Sutcliffe, ‘Introduction’, Descartes: Discourse on Method and the Meditations, ed. Robert Baldick & Betty Radice, pp. 21-22.
  5. Quoted in John Black, The Dominion of Man (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1970), p. 30.
  6. Bernhard W. Anderson, ‘Creation and the Noachic Covenant’, Cry of the Environment, ed. Philip J. Joranson & Ken Butigan (Santa Fé, New Mexico: Bear & Co., 1984), p. 46.
  7. Thomas H. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays (New York: D. Appleton, 1914), p. 83.
  8. Alexander Abian, ‘Hate Winter? Here’s One Man’s Solution: Blow up the Moon’, Wall Street Journal, 1991, quoted in Michael Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), pp. 59-60.
  9. Peter Singer is the best known defender of this view.
  10. E.g. Robin Attfield, The Ethics of Environmental Concern (Georgia: University of Georgia UP, 1983).
  11. The best known defenders of animal rights are Andrew Linzey and Tom Regan.
  12. Christopher Stone, Should Trees Have Standing? Los Altos, CA: William Kaufman, 1974).
  13. Holmes Rolston, Environmental Ethics (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1988).
  14. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (Oxford: OUP, 1949; 1968).
  15. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford: OUP, 1979).
  16. Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993); Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981).
  17. There has been much debate about the notion of stewardship in the Bible. Some have made a great deal of it e.g. Black, Dominion of Man, pp. 53-57. For others, like Margaret Barker as indicated in her article in this journal, it depends too much on a small number of texts. The more anthropocentric tradition, which stresses humanity’s difference from nature and duties towards it, owes a great deal to the earlier thought of Teilhard de Chardin.
  18. Philip Sherrard, The Rape of Man and Nature (Ipswich: Golgonooza, 1987).
  19. This is the idea behind Thomas Berry’s ‘Universe story’. A brief account is in Thomas Berry, ‘The Spirituality of the Earth’, in Birch, Liberating Life (New York: Orbis, 1990), pp. 151-158.
  20. Matthew Fox, Original Blessing (Santa Fé, New Mexico, Bear & Co., 1983).
  21. Stephen R.L .Clark, How to Think About the Earth (London: Mowbray, 1993).
  22. Rosemary Radford Ruether and Sally McFague have written extensively on this theme. Lois Daly, ‘Ecofeminism, Reverence for Life, and Feminist Theological Ethics’, Birch, Liberating Life, pp. 88-108.

Jonathan Clatworthy stood down as Modern Church General Secretary in July 2013 after 11 years. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics. Jonathan edits the Modern Church theological journal Modern Believing.