In today’s society, religion is viewed in varying lights and opinions, but if one is religious, their personal beliefs about God usually influence their perspectives on a multitude of issues in their lives. One example of this is a person‘s attitude towards nature or their environmental ethic. Based upon history and a person’s own religious convictions, a belief in God can influence how someone views and interacts with nature, and this can shape their environmental ethic. However, a belief in God does not mean that there is one concrete environmental ethic shared among common believers; on the contrary, there is a wide range of environmental ethics that a person can choose to believe in, ranging from anthropocentric to biocentric, based upon their interpretation of God and the scriptures.
Historically, people have used God and the scriptures to form environmental ethics; through the years, this allowed God—fearing people to base their perspectives on nature around their belief in God Before Christianity expanded in the world, paganism was one of the most prominent religions.
Even with its varying views throughout the world, most pagan religions believed in animism, or the belief that living, nonhuman beings had spirits similar if not equal to humans. Animism, while not centered on God, was a religious way to describe a person’s feelings for nature. When Christianity overcame paganism later in history, animism was crushed by the church, and religious language focusing on God became more prominent in expressing ethics in general (408). This religious language, since science had not yet advanced enough to allow more religious-neutral terminology, was an effective way to get a point across that normal, everyday people could relate to; this led to religious language and beliefs becoming an important aspect for a majority of people to consider in their ethics, especially environmental ethics.
The religious language used when forming an environmental ethic varies among time period and God-fearing people, but there is one main selection from scripture that is constantly used: the creation story. In this story spanning the first couple of chapters of the scriptures, the almighty God created the world and everything in it. “By gradual stages a loving and all-powerful God had created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the earth, and all its plants, animals, birds, and fishes. Finally, God created Adam (humanity). This is the basic foundation of the creation story in the Bible, and in a God-centered environmental ethic, it has been interpreted to fit many perspectives on nature. One environmental ethic, one that is usually associated with the historic or traditional church, takes the creation story and interprets it to mean that humanity is above the natural world and has the power to do as they please with it.
A more modern word to describe this environmental ethic would be anthropocentric or centered on what is best for humanity this is most of the time associated with economic or social gain. Going back to the creation story, this God-centered environmental ethic recognizes that God created all the earth and the natural beings and entities in it, but the order and prominence in everything were created has significance. In the words of the philosopher Lynn White, “Finally, God had created Adam.l,Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them” (407). Humans were made last in creation, and this is viewed as a stepping stone for humanity to be the most important out of all living things. “Although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image”. White, while arguing for the opposing side, is saying that humans may have come from the earth, being made of clay, but scripture says humanity was made in God’s image; this is then taken to say that no other living creation was made with such an intent so humanity, like God, has absolute control over nature.
To put this whole God-centered anthropocentric environmental ethic in perspective, white explains saying it “.uestablished a dualism of man and nature…“ and “insisted that it is God‘s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends”. A portion of people who believe in God do not agree with this historical approach to a God-centered environmental ethic and approach nature from an opposite extreme based upon their own interpretation of the creation story; these God-fearing people believe that nature is equal to humanity and that we should all live as equal citizens within the natural spheret. One of the most well—known and earliest God-fearing believers who openly accepted and promoted this kind of God-centered environmental ethic was Saint Francis of Assisi (411) “Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures” (411). Saint Francis believed that animals had spirits, and that animals, like humans, were made to glorify God (411); Saint Francis actually talked and preached to animals.
Saint Francis was only one person who held to this environmental ethic; this environmental ethic can be best described with a modern term: biocentric, or centered on what is best for nature A God-centered biocentric environmental ethic also uses the creation story as a fundamental part of its backing. Unlike a God—centered anthropocentric environmental ethic, the prominence of humans in the creation story and their being “made in God’s image” is very low and downplayed (407). Instead, creation is viewed as a total process that has equality among all of its parts. In the words of a late 19‘” and early 20’h century philosopher John Muir, “From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo Sapienst From the same material he has made every other creature” (88); while humans were created at a specified moment in the creation story, they were made with the same materials as every other living being making them the same as all other living natural things.
While not as radical as Saint Francis, Muir believed that humanity did not fully comprehend or even try to understand God’s creation, especially animals. On the topic of alligators, Muir states, “Fierce and cruel they appear to us, but beautiful in the eyes of God” (86); applying this to all creatures, humans only think of what animals can do for them, and if an animal doesn’t have any economic or social advantage for humanity, it is worthless In the lens of a God-centered biocentric environmental ethic, Muir best describes humanity’s pathetic nature when saying, “How narrow we selfish, conceited creatures are in our sympathies”. Between the two extremes of a God-centered environmental ethic, anthropocentric and biocentric, there does lie a middle ground; however, this middle-ground does not have one cemented set of ideas but a mixture.
Pulling from both extremes, this middle-ground environmental ethic digs deeper into the creation story. Philosopher Calvin DeWitt, instead of just looking at the surface of the creation story in the scriptures, examined the text in its original language; in the context of the creation story, Hebrew, the language that the Old Testament was written in, is a much more dynamic and engaging language then English (921) Looking at a totally different aspect of the creation story, DeWitt focuses on where God instructs humanity “to keep” the garden, In a God—centered anthropocentric environmental ethic, this passage is deemed as nothing but a continuation of humanity’s dominion over nature (407). DeWitt says, however, that that interpretation is not taking into account the original intent of the passage the verb “to keep” has several synonymous verbs in Hebrew. One Hebrew word would be nastar; nastar means to keep as in preservation (921), In the creation story in Genesis, however, the Hebrew word shamar is used; shumar means to keep something in its “dynamic integrity,” like a blessing.
With this interpretation, the God-centered middle-ground environmental ethic says that nature is not equal to humanity, but humanity has a responsibility handed down from God to care for and take care of nature and to keep it as close to its original integrity as possible. Depending on a person’s religious convictions and their interpretation of the scriptures, a person can form an array of God-centered environmental ethics based upon their belief in God. While there are a plethora of aspects to consider in a person’s environmental ethic, a person’s God-centered environmental ethic can fall anywhere between an anthropocentric and biocentric viewpoint. These extreme God-centered environmental ethics, along with all of the environmental ethics that fall between them, differ in huge ways, but they, along with a person’s views and interactions with nature, are all influenced by a person‘s belief in God.