Christians are torn between plundering nature and protecting it
Paul Kingsnorth is the deepest of deep greens. And yet he became a Christian. Should that surprise us?
In a remarkable piece for First Things, Kingsnorth tells the story of his conversion — and why it took him most of his life to get to that point:
Yes, that’s the problem right there. Christianity, as the religion of the West, is perceived as the ideological foundation of westernisation — including industrialisation and the despoliation that has followed in its wake.
The Bible can be read for passages that appear to justify our impact upon the natural world. Most obviously there is the Biblical passage (Genesis 1:28), to which Kingsnorth alludes, where God says to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Over-population, exploitation, habitat destruction and human arrogance. It’s all in there.
Except that it’s not. To rip this verse out its context is perverse. Read the chapter in full and you see that God had just created the world and pronounced it “good” — He is clearly not exhorting mankind to destroy it, but to look after it. Read on and things get greener still. For a start, there’s the message that the world as God intended it to be was vegetarian — indeed, vegan (“I have given every green herb for food”). The meat-eating that comes later is a symptom of The Fall — i.e. a profound disturbance of the created order that is caused by and bound up with human evil.
Obviously, it can’t be denied that the first countries in the world to industrialise — and thus wreak environmental havoc on an industrial scale — were Christian in culture. So perhaps one can understand why so many environmentalists in our own time have looked to eastern religions — or to the paganism of the pre-Christian West — for inspiration.
However, that is to ignore the global history — and pre-history — of humanity’s impact on nature. Yes there are examples of pre-modern societies living in harmony with the environment. But there are many others to the contrary. We were remaking entire landscapes before the Bronze Age. Just look at the disappearance of so many giant mammals and flightless birds: mammoths, woolly rhinos, giant sloths, cave lions, and elephant birds — our pre-modern ancestors hunted them all to extinction.
Humanity’s dominion over the Earth is a fact. Whether or not that leads to complete environmental destruction depends upon us accepting the constraints of a higher truth. Or, as Paul Kingsnorth puts it: