Science in Christian Perspective

The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis*
Department of History University of California, Los Angeles, California

From: JASA 21 (June 1969): 42-47

Comments by Wayne Frair (43-44), E. S. Feenstra (44-46), and Donald W. Munro (46-47).


What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny that is, by religion. To Western eyes this is very evident in, say, India or Ceylon. It is equally true of ourselves and of our medieval ancestors.

The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture. It has become fashionable today to say that, for better or worse, we bye in "the pos-Christian age." Certainly the forms of our thinking and language have largely ceased to be Christian, but to my eye the substance often remains amazingly akin to that of the past. Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian teleology. The fact that Communists share it merely helps to show what can he demonstrated on many other grounds: that Marxism, like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy. We continue today to live, as we have lived for about 1700 years, very largely in a context of Christian axioms.

Impact of Christianity

What did Christianity tell people about their relations with the environment?

While many of the world's mythologies provide stories of creation, Green-Roman mythology was singularly incoherent in this respect. Like Aristotle, the intellectuals of the ancient West denied that the visible world had had a beginning. Indeed, the idea of a beginning was impossible in the framework of their cyclical notion of time. In sharp contrast, Christianity inherited from Judaism not only a concept of time as nonrepetitive and linear but also a striking story of creation. 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 and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. Cod planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes. And, although man's body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God's image.

Modern Western science was cast in a matrix of Christian theology .........Somewhat over a century ago science and technology-hitherto quite separate activities-joined to give mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecologic effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.

Christian Anthropocentrism

Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. As early as the 2nd century both Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when God shaped Adam he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the Second Adam. Mao shares, in great measure, God's transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions (except, perhaps Zoroastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.

At the level of the common people this worked out in an interesting way. In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirt. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree,
ined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.

It is often said that for animism the Church substituted the cult of saints. True; but the cult of saints is functionally quite different from animism. The saint is not in natural objects; he may have special shrines, but his citizenship is in heaven. Moreover, a saint is entirely a man; he can be approached in human terms. In addition to saints, Christianity of course also had angels and demons inherited from Judaism and perhaps, at one remove, from Zoroastrianism. But these were all as mobile as the saints themselves. The spirits in natural objects, which formerly had protected nature from man, evaporated. Man's effective monopoly on spirit in this world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.

When one speaks in such sweeping terms, a note of caution is in order. Christianity is a complex faith, and its consequences differ in differing contexts. What I have said may well apply in the medieval West where in time technology made spectacular advances. But the Greek East, a highly civilized realm of equal Christian devotion, seems to have produced no marked technological innovation after the late 7th century, when Greek fire was invented. The key to the contrast may perhaps be found in a difference in the tonality of piety and thought which students of comparative theology find between the Greek and the Latin Churches. The Greeks believed that sin was intellectual blindness, and that salvation was found in illumination, orthodoxyt hat is, clear thinking. The Latins, on the other hand, felt that sin was moral evil, and that salvation was to be found in right conduct. Eastern theology has been intellectualist. Western theology has been voluntarist, The Greek saint contemplates; the Western saint acts. The implications of Christianity for the conquest of nature would emerge more easily in the Western atmosphere.

Christian Creation

The Christian dogma of creation, which is found in the first clause of all the Creeds, has another meaning for our comprehension of today's ecologic crisis. By revelation, God had given man the Bible, the Book of Scripture. But since God had made nature, nature also must reveal the divine mentality. The religious study of nature for the better understanding of Cod was known as natural theology. In the early Church, and always in the Greek East, nature was conceived primarily as a symbolic system through which God speaks to men: the ant is a sermon to sluggards; rising flames are the symbol of the soul's aspiration. This view of nature was essentially artistic rather than scientific. While Byzantium preserved and copied great numbers of ancient Greek scientific texts, science as we conceive it could scarcely flourish in such an ambience.

However, in the Latin West by the early 13th century natural theology was following a very different bent. It was ceasing to be the decoding of the physical symbols of God's communication with man and was becoming the effort to understand God's mind by discovering how his creation operates. The rainbow was no longer simply a symbol of hope first sent to Noah after the Deluge: Robert Grosseteste, Friar Roger Bacon, and Theodorie of Freiberg produced startlingly sophisticated work on the optics of the raibow, but they did it as a venture in religious understanding. From the 18th century onward, up to and including Leibnitz and Newton, every major scientist, in effect, explained his motivations in religious terms. Indeed, if Galileo had not been so expert an amateur theologian he would have got into far less trouble: the professionals resented his intrustion. And Newton seems to have regarded himself more as a theologian than as a scientist. It was not until the late 18th century that the hypothesis of God became unnecessary to many scientists.

It is often hard for the historian to judge, when men explain why they are doing what they want to do, whether they are offering real reasons or merely culturally acceptable reasons. The consistency with which scientists during the long formative centuries of Western science said that the task and the reward of the scientist was "to think God's thoughts after him" leads one to believe that this was their real motivation. If so, then modern Western science was cast in a matrix of Christian theology. The dynamism of religious devotion, shaped by the Judeo-Christian dogma of creation, gave it impetus.

An Alternative Christian View

We would seem to he headed toward conclusions unpalatable to many Christians. Since both science and technology are blessed words in our contemporary vocabulary, some may he happy at the notions, first, that, viewed historically, modern science is an extrapolation of natural theology and, second, that modern technology is at least partly to he explained as an Occidental, voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma of man's transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature. But, as we now recognize, somewhat over a century ago science and technology hitherto quite separate activities-joined to give mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecologic effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.

I personally doubt that disastrous ecologic backlash can be avoided simply by applying to our problems more science and more technology. Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man's relation to nature which are almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim. The present Governor of California, like myself a churchman but less troubled than I, spoke for the Christian tradition when he said (as is alleged), "when you've seen one redwood tree, you've seen them all." To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly 2 millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.

Man-Nature Relationship

What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship. More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one. The beatniks, who are the basic revolutionaries of our time, show a sound instinct in their affinity for Zen Buddhism, which conceives of the man-nature relationship as very nearly the mirror image of the Christian view. Zen, however, is as deeply conditioned by Asian history as Christianity is by the experience of the West, and I am dubious of its viability among us.

Saint Francis of Assisi

Possibly we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi. The prime miracle of Saint Francis is the fact that he did not end at the stake, as many of his left-wing followers did. He was so clearly heretical that a General of the Franciscan Order, Saint Bouaventnra, a great and perceptive Christian, tried to suppress the early accounts of Franciscanism. The key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility not merely for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God's creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a sign of the thrust of the soul toward union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his.

Later commentators have said that Francis preached to the birds as a rebuke to men who would not listen. The records do not read so: he urged the little birds to praise God, and in spiritual ecstasy they flapped their wings and chirped rejoicing. Legends of saints, especially the Irish saints, had long told of their dealings with animals but always, I believe, to show their human dominance over creatures. With Francis it is different. The land around Cubbio in the Apennines was being ravaged by a fierce wolf. Saint Francis, says the legend, talked to the wolf and persuaded him of the error of his ways. The wolf repented, died in the odor of sanctity, and was buried in consecrated ground.

What Sir Steven Ruciman calls "the Franciscan doctrine of the animal soul" was quickly stamped out. Quite possibly it was in part inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by the belief in reincarnation held by the Cathar heretics who at that time teemed in Italy and southern France, and who presumably had got it originally from India. It is significant that at just the same moment, about 1200, traces of metempsychosis are found also in western Judaism, in the Provencal Cabbala. But Francis held neither to transmigration of souls nor to pantheism. His view of nature and of man rested on a unique sort of pan-psychism of all things animate and inanimate, designed for the glorification of their transcendent Creator, who, in the ultimate gesture of cosmic humility, assumed flesh, lay helpless in a manger, and hung dying on a scaffold.

I am not suggesting that many contemporary Americans who are concerned about our ecologic crisis will be either able or willing to counsel with wolves or exhort birds. However, the present increasing disruption
of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the Western medieval world against which Saint Francis was rebelling in so original a way. Their growth cannot be understood historically apart from distinctive attitudes toward nature which are deeply grounded in Christian dogma. The fact that most people do not think of these attitudes as Christian is irrelevant. No new set of basic values has been accepted in our society to displace those of Christianity. Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.

The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, Saint Francis, proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man's relation to it: he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man's limitless rule of creation. He failed. Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.

*An article by this title was published in Science, 155, 1203 (1967), copyright 1967 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The present article is a reprint of only the second half of this original article. It was the subject of a Panel Discussion at the Annual Convention of the ASA, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan on August 21, 1968, and will be republished in its entirety in a collection of Dr. White's less technical essays in Mochino ex Deo: Essays in the Dynamism of Western Culture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge. Massachusetts. Included with this reprint are the comments of three members of the Panel.


I understand the essence of Dr. Lynn White's paper to consist of the following four main ideas:
1. Modern science is an extrapolation of Christian natural theology which realizes man's transcendency of and mastery over nature.
2. With the wedding of science and technology four generations ago man attained new powers over nature.
3. These powers are out of control and so we find ourselves in a serious ecological crisis.
4. The solution which is essentially religious involves:
a. recognition of the guilt of Christianity;
b. rejection of the Christian axiom that nature exists solely to serve man; and
c. realization of a more Franciscan position which taught a spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature.
According to God's revelation it is true that man is the pinnacle of creation and that he has been given dominion over other forms of life. I agree, too, that Christianity provided a climate for development of modern science and technology. It appears to me that Christianity was necessary but probably not sufficient in itself for our great material progress. Many conditions within the Christian climate needed to be right for the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to occur.
In many cases where there has been serious damage to the balance of nature (e.g., the loss of species or destruction of land by over cutting or unwise farming), these have occurred because man was unaware of the
effects his actions would have. Many individuals, companies and nations have exercised wise control over nature, for instance, by crop rotation with fertilization, reforestation and wise stocking of species.

Causes of the Crisis

Our present ecological crisis is due to several possible causes-ignorance, inertia and irresponsibility:
1. People were, and in some cases still are, unaware that their exploitation practices would be on a large scale and in the long run detrimental.
2. As a result of former procedures, instituted at a time when a future tragedy would not have been expected, it now is too late or the inertia of the program has become so great that there appears to be little opportunity to reverse a trend.
3. Some people have acted with irresponsibility, preferring to ignore or disregard the balance of nature, the welfare of a species, and the interest of their fellow man for selfish reasons. As a result of modern technological advance, selfish men have had greater opportunity to exploit resources at the expense of others.
It seems that we will need the cooperation of science and engineering for the wise exploitation of nature, which includes the animals and plants over which God has given man dominion. Our goal should be to optimize utilization of resources so that no unutilized excess capacity remains beyond that which is required for perpetuation.

Answer to Crisis

The answer to the present crisis lies not in the abandonment of man's God-given prerogative to have dominion over nature. White suggests that man should denounce this doctrine which has provided the climate for modern advance and that man should move toward the heretical position of Francis. The human race would be unwise indeed to abandon its throne; rather it should rule nature wisely, realizing its responsibility to toil for the glory of God.

What can he done now? Firstly, effort should be made to understand the present conditions, whether due to ignorance, inertia or irresponsibility. Each situation will have its own body of data, and proper understanding will require cooperation of many people, including the scientific community. Secondly, education is essential for present and future generations regarding past history, present conditions and advisable future tactics. Thirdly, we should embark on courses leading to active programs which will result in optimal utilization of resources. Fourthly, evangelization should be stressed in order that man properly may relate to God the Creator and to His creation.

Ultimate Needs

With knowledge, active programs and education we may expect to handle pretty well all problems except the nature of man. For this we need the power of God. So evangelization is the primary responsibility of the Christian as an answer to human selfishness. The answer lies not in rejection of one Biblical teaching but rather in acceptance of entire Biblical doctrine.
Mao has acted selfishly not because he wrongly believed that he was the master over the world, but rather because of his own sinful nature. Thus he has put personal interests ahead of God and of his fellow man.
What is needed is the transforming power of Jesus Christ in individual lives. This includes cleansing for sins of selfishness. Also the Bible should he accepted as Cod's revelation. By living with his Christian faith
an individual will love God first and other men secondly. With this proper orientation toward God and His revelation man is most likely to exercise wise control over the whole of creation.
Wayne Frair, Professor of Biology, The King's College, Briarcliff Manor New York 10510


writer can raise questions he did not articulate consciously, and thus by writing can bring a harvest he did not anticipate. Possibly a thought something like this would go through the mind of Lynn White, Jr. if he became aware of the thought and discussion generated by his article. He did write at a time when many men of diverse backgrounds and perspectives were becoming concerned about the ecological crisis. It is fortuitous that the current annual publication of the Department of Interior is "Man ... An Endangered Species". Possibly, Lynn White's partially confused description of the teachings of Christianity has caused more of us to think about the impact of Christian thought on the understanding of man's relationship to the natural universe. In spite of my resentment of the misrepresentation of the Christian position relating to God, man and the natural universe I do not hesitate to acknowledge my debt to Lynn White, Jr. for raising the problem not only of the crisis but also of its roots and also for reminding us of the importance of the life of St. Francis. Indirectly, he has reminded us that the most crucial aspect of the historical root is theological.

False Notions of Christianity

One unfortunate aspect of Lynn White's article is that it may spread or reinforce some of the false notions about Christianity and the supposed irrelevance or even harmfulness of the church in the world today.

All the article's erroneous statements seem to stem from White's main heretical concept that there is a "Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man". Such a statement could result from a study of the behavior of "Christianized" peoples, but I would rather have White point to the disparity between behavior and the Biblical truth which should form the basis for the behavior of man. More helpful would be a reminder for all men that Christianity has something positive and constructive to say about the relationship of God, man and nature and that the gospel has implications of good news for nature as well as for man.

Why has Christianity communicated such confused testimony to the world and to itself? I suspect that the basis is in one of our heresies that has separated "spiritual" from "material" with the resultant error that only the soul of man has value in the eyes of God and, therefore, we should have concern for the salvation of souls with little or no concern for the body. The corollary is that if the body of man is of little or no concern the natural universe deserves even less concern. This heresy in its many subtle forms has done and is doing great harm to the church of Jesus Christ by misleading many who are in the church and confusing and repelling many who are outside. It is an unbalanced or incomplete gospel. One would gain the impression that the Cultural Mandate was cancelled at the Fall and that the implications of the good news of redemption in Christ was limited to man alone.

The Cultural Mandate

I could wish that our theologians had probed the breadth and depth of what the Bible teaches about the relation of God, man and natural universe; not only the universe "out there" but the natural environment in which we live, the animate and inanimate stuff around us. However, time has run out and we must move forward on the basis of Biblical concepts to guide thought and action concerning the natural universe. I believe that the Cultural Mandate which places responsibility for care of the universe squarely on man continues in force until the end of time. The Fall perverted man's view not only of himself and his neighbor but also of nature. In seeking to serve self above all, man "uses" not only other people but also misuses nature.

In Jesus Christ God established redemption of man in soul and body. What can we say about the redemption of the natural universe that fell with man? We can say that redeemed man should be the natural caretaker of a universe given hope by the Redeemer. Paul seems to say that nature must groan and travail until the end of time even though we know that all things have been renewed in Christ. In a sense, man also must groan and travail as he works out, in fear and trembling as well as in joy and expectation the salvation given him. It is clear that this salvation cannot be a self centered thing. It must be a new creative relationship with God and man conditioned by the love of God.

What can we say about a natural universe created and affirmed by God to be good? Just as man is appointed coworker with Christ in reconciling the world of people for God so man must redeem the universe for God. Man is not saved for himself but is saved by God for others and for the universe. Man may not assume an attitude toward nature other than that shown by God any more than he may assume an attitude toward persons not shown by Cod. Can we doubt that Cod loves His natural universe that He called "very good"?
Lynn White's challenge stays with us in his words, "Our ecologic crisis is the product of an emerging, entirely novel, democratic culture. The issue is whether a democratized world can survive its own implications. Presumably we cannot unless we rethink our axioms." Let us respond with appropriate thought and action.
E. S. Feenstra The Upjohn Company Kalamazoo, Michigan


With the advent of freer discussion in our society, the orthodox Christian church can expect to be publicly blamed for some of the ills of society. Dr. White's article concerns the effect of socalled Christian teachings on our attitude toward nature and the use of nature. There is nothing wrong with an airing of these views and such discussion may actually result in positive thinking by evangelical Christians. It is necessary, however, that the blame ascribed be carefully examined and rightly placed.

Human Nature

Dr. White seems to feel that Christian doctrine has made the average Christian a self-centered individual when it comes to nature's provisions and that the Christian thinks that since he has dominion over something this releases him to exploit it according to his own will. Indeed, the nature of man is such that we must enact strict laws to keep what natural resources we do have. When free to do so, most men will take whatever they can get and often call themselves Christian while doing it. Are these men influenced to do this because of Biblical teaching, a culturally inspired form of Christianity, or for some other reason? Does this action stem from their world and life view or emanate from a source inherent within the man? Does a Christian really have dominion in the sense of exploitation?

A Non-Christian Trap

It is true that Christianity did attempt to destroy the idea of animism (or in a sense pantheism) and thus released man from his superstitious fear of nature. This allowed what we now consider to be progress to take place so one would have to blame Christianity for this progress as well as the "destruction" of nature. The early settlers arriving on the shores of America soon after its discovery were faced with so many resources that the end was not in sight. There was little tension between people for possessing things because there was so much for all. Nature was to be warred against. A man was to work hard to reap what he could and the lazy man was not "Christian". The workers trapped, dug, and cut. This fit in well with man's nature and the drive to better himself. Somewhere along the line there no longer was an abundance of natural resources for all, but the nature of man and his basic drives remained the same. It became culturally acceptable for the Christian to continue in this way and the minister never told him otherwise. It was a trap that was not really Christian.

There is no way that an evangelical Christian can biblically justify an indifference to the exploitation of nature. True Christianity is supposed to free a man from his natural self-centeredness and turn his mind toward the welfare of others. The Christian should not be interested in the exploitation of the here and now. Having dominion over or control of something, should mean its protection rather than the improper use of it. Therefore, those who think that Christianity is a cover for the self-centered use of any part of nature, be it another man, a forest or a stream, need to rethink their position to see whether this attitude stems from God's nature or their own. Furthermore, since we believe that God acted in the creation of nature, we should be expected to he the proper keepers of the vineyard. The motivation for properly protecting something that was a gift from our Lord and Savior should be far higher than that of a man who believes that it all happened by accident with no intervention by God.

Understanding and Action

Some, such as White, suggest that we need to rethink our religion and allow it to evolve to a more tenable position about nature. I would say that we need a proper understanding of the basic tenets of our faith and a willingness to abide by them. An improper use of our resources does not fit in with the nature of God as revealed in the total picture of the Bible. We need to rake from our minds the culturally inspired tenets that do not really express the essence of Christianity and scrape off the veneers from our own self-interests to expose them for what they really are. We need to correct the erroneous ideas about nature that we have allowed onlookers to gather from us after we have shed them ourselves.

How can we begin to do some of these things? Our evangelical ministers should start reminding the believers that we need God's power to overcome our bent toward using nature selfishly. Some courses designed to make the students in our evangelical colleges and seminaries more aware of the problems facing man as he lives with nature would be helpful in this matter. Church groups ought to be willing to discuss what part they might have in protecting their immediate part of the world from those who would misuse it. This can be done without neglecting the main thrust of the church in winning the lost. In fact, it may help the latter thrust. The liberal Protestant churches are now spending time discussing these matters to try to make a man act good in his own right, but without God's power in his life that man soon reverts back to his true nature. The changed nature that God gives us is our asset. Evangelical Christians can join and be active in one of their local conservation groups out of a heartfelt desire to watch over God's universe rather than just being a good citizen or joining because all the "right" people are members. Since we share the guilt of improper attitudes toward our surroundings, do we not need to help set the record straight? Perhaps we have made some start in the ASA.

Donald W. Munro Department of Biology Houghton College Houghton, New York 14744