Reflexe křesťanství a ekologické krize

Teodor Münz


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Reflections on Christianity and the Ecological Crisis

2011-12-05 20:30:02

Teodor Münz

The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.

John 3:8


One of the ways in which human beings have separated themselves from nature is that they have lost many of their instincts. Those which remain (such as hunger, sexuality, and fear) have been weakened, or else reason is able to control them, or largely to suppress them, even to the point of self-destruction. Reason indeed actually takes the place of instincts, at least in the sense that it guides human beings instead of them. But if this is so, it is an inadequate replacement. Instinct leads in only one direction, and to some extent indicates to animals what they should do in the future (for example, it tells them how to prepare for winter). But reason leads in several directions, and is not a reliable guide to the future. There are few subjects about which reason will not create several theories, and so far as the future is concerned, too, it does not recommend just one way forward.

The way forward! The right direction to take! This is one of the things which is always uppermost in our minds, because we are constantly obliged to move towards the future, and as a rule there are a number of possibilities open to us. We frequently move in the wrong direction, even after sober and rational reflection - and this applies to science and technology too. But we do not realize that we have chosen the wrong path until after the event, when we run headlong into some obstacle and end up with a bloody nose. Our history is full of mistakes and of wrecks which ran aground during voyages into the future. And yet in every case they started out with good intentions.

Many branches of human culture search for, and, as they like to say, even find reliable ways forward into the future. From prophecies based on dreams, reading palms, and interpreting the flight of birds, to popular predictions and scientific forecasts, all these methods attempt to discern the future. The paths to follow are indicated by religion, philosophy, and science. But the results of all this are insubstantial. The ecological crisis facing us today is the result of well-meant, but badly undertaken steps which are leading to catastrophe, paths which were taken primarily by science and technology, but along which they were accompanied by religious, philosophical, and other trends of our Western civilisation, not only over the past few decades, but over centuries, indeed millenia. I would like to illustrate this by looking at our most influential world philosophy, Christianity, with particular reference to its ethics. What were its virtues, what were its shortcomings, what can we still gain from it today, and in what areas do we need to amend or complement it?

There are few words, which appear more often in the Bible then the word "way". One of the reasons for Jesus' enormous influence over the masses was the fact that be could discern the right, and direct, way towards the future, towards good, and towards salvation. In the past, at a time when no criticisms were levelled against their naive reflections, the various religions invariably defined this correct way forward into the future with much greater certainty than science and philosophy, which were full of scepticism, reservations, and caution. "Tao" means "way", so that Taoism even contains this certainty within its title. Jesus, too, recognises the right way forward very clearly, and often likes to affirm this. "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). He is the bread of life, but the gate is narrow and the way is hard which leads to life; many are called, but few are chosen. He is the light of the world, which came for a short time among those who were wandering in the darkness; he is the gate to the sheepfold and the good skepherd, the comforter, the liberator; he is the guarantee of resurrection and eternal life, because he is the only one to know the secret of the true way. "Even if I do bear witness to myself, my testimony is true, for I know whence I have come and whither I am going, but you do not know whence I come or whither I am going" (John 8:14). Every other way except his leads to ruin and perdition. But here he does not speak for himself, but for God the Father, with whom he is one, and who sent him to save people of good will.

In this way it was God himself who spoke directly to believers and offered them what they and all people needed most of all: the right way forward into the future; the guarantee that they will not run headlong into obstacles, and that they will not be bleeding unnecessarily. With the ease given by faith, this way is able to overcome all the hindrances and traps which are set for reason, and will provide all that is best, everything that human beings desire. Because faith is precisely this subjective certainty about objective uncertainty, it is the emotional, willed and imaginative grasping of things, which reason is unable to grasp, and so it means the elimination of all uncertainties. It is absolute knowledge about what we know least; it spurns reason, and places itself above it.

But which way forward was it that Jesus offered? On the one hand, it was the way of moral salvation, of a new moral relationship between human beings and with one's neighbour and on the other hand, the way of spiritual salvation, coming closer to God and obtaining his grace. It was this way, which had to be followed if believers were to enter the kingdom of God, which all at once had come so close, that those living at the time were able to enter it. It was the kingdom of the spirit, of the spiritual cleansing of every believer from all evil, not to mention the body, which was not destined to enter the kingdom at all; or only as a spiritual body. For although the body in itself is not evil - it is not what goes into the mouth which is evil, but what comes of it - nevertheless it is mainly the body which leads us into sin. According to the Apostle Paul, our members are full of passions and various sins; a law prevails there which is at war the law of our mind, and bears fruit in death (Rom. 7:5,23). Jesus commands us not to worry about our body, but about our spirit, and he recommends restraint and moderation. It is true that he does not openly condemn wealth - the rich and the poor will always be in the world - but he does refer to the difficulties the rich will have in entering the kingdom of God.

With Jesus, the spirit clearly has priority over the body, and also over nature and matter in general. Jesus' miracles demonstrate the supremacy of the healthy spirit over the sick spirit and the sick body. By the purity of his word he drives devils out of possessed bodies, makes the blind see, makes the lame walk, comforts the oppressed, and even raises the dead to life. He walks on water, commands the elements, the wind and the waves, and changes water into wine. The fact that he works these miracles means that he is interfering with matter, and that by his will he is setting aside the laws of nature. But he does this to manifest his divine power to those who do not believe and to those, whose faith is weak, not so as to demonstrate the supremacy of spirit over matter. Because to be God means to be spirit, to be in control over matter and to deal with it according to one's own will. Human beings also have the gift of God's spirit, but they are weak, because they are subject to matter, to the flesh, being half-angels, half-devils. Apart from this, Jesus is not interested in nature. He does not talk about it, does not interfere with it, and does not order others to do so. The power, which he invests in his disciples so that they can carry on his work, is the power to convince people. If humanity had acted according to his example, nature would have remained perfectly intact, and we would not be faced with an ecological crisis today. And yet! This crisis was caused by the Christian world alone, not by any other. How did this happen?

The basis for the Christian Tradition of placing spirit above matter and regarding matter as being of secondary importance can be traced back to the Jewish religion and to Greek philosophy. Influenced by the ancient Egyptian Echnaton, the Jews were also monotheists, who removed God from nature and placed him above it as the one, who creates it, sets it in motion, and gives it life. This was a reaction against the polytheism of the surrounding nations, for whom God, or the gods, were still seen as part of nature, and worshipped in the form of living or non-living objects. From the moment the Jews raised God above nature, they degraded it to something without inherent value, unmoving, dead, which could, if necessary, be destroyed so as to further the aims of human beings. For it had been created out of nothing, and therefore had no inherent value! The God of the Old Testament himself manipulated nature in accordance with his will, and in his wrath at human beings almost destroyed the entire world by the flood.

The ancient Greeks were polytheists, but within their philosophy, which enriched European culture, was born a monotheism, which was another precursor of Christianity. Plato and Aristotle still regarded matter as eternal, but already it was seen as being of less value and shaped by the Demiurge according to spiritual ideas - models or a form deriving from the ultimate form, God. Christianity, which contained many elements of Judaism, later created its own particular philosophy out of these pagan philosophies.

The life of mediaeval Christendom was, on the whole, based on Christian principles. This was not due solely to the merit of Christianity, but also to the interplay of circumstances. The Middle Ages were poor and feudal. They did not possess any science or technology, nor did they try to foster them. Their spiritual orientation was towards the otherworldly. This orientation was on the whole maintained until the advent of humanism, and then the inevitable reaction occurred: a reversion from the preoccupation with the otherworldly to concentrating on the contingent world. Renaissance people came to look more and more into the forbidden thirteenth chamber: they discovered the Greco-Roman pagan world, its art, philosophy, science, technology, its secularism and its hedonism. They started by copying it like apprentices, with the result that they themselves soon become masters and were successful in disseminating the heritage of the classical world right down today. They came to know earth, nature, and matter. The followed up ancient Greek natural science, and very soon found a much more effective key to open up the secrets of nature than that possessed by the Greeks. In the recent industrial centuries, particularly in our own century, this has manifested itself in the form of an ecological crisis.

At the same time as the Renaissance, the Reformation came into being, and the unity of the Middle Ages began to disintegrate on the religious front as well. Many Protestant churches and sects split away from Catholicism, and not only did they have doctrinal reservations about its teachings, but also a different attitude towards life. Although Catholic scholasticism, by founding schools, spreading education, and making the Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle more widely known, had contributed in no small measure to the advent of the Renaissance and of the modern era in general, it cannot be said that Catholicism accepted these developments. On the contrary, it tried to obstruct them and essentially it still tries to obstruct them today. It emphasizes its own world-wide unity, it suppressed the Reformation by means of the Counter-Reformation, and for a long time resisted the scientific developments, social movements, and currents of thought of the new age. At the end of the last century it even recommended Catholic philosophers to return to Thomas Aquinas, in whom it saw a weapon against modern heresies. For a long time, the Church and Catholic countries remained feudal in character; industry, together with liberalism and capitalism, took root in them only slowly, and even today Catholic countries are poorer than Protestant ones.

The situation was different in the Protestant countries, particularly in the Lutheran and Calvinist ones. The Protestant religions belong to modern times, and are more flexible than Catholicism. They originated during the early capitalist era, and to some extent were a consequence of capitalism, but also in their turn stimulated its development. Adherents of the Lutheran and Calvinist faiths stand face to face with God, without the mediation of the priest or the intercession of the saints. For God, it is not their good deeds which are important, but their faith alone, by means of which they may - although this is not automatic - obtain God's grace. The Calvinists, moreover, believe that some people are chosen by God - although there is no means of knowing who - while others are consigned to perdition. The result of all this is on the one hand freedom of thought and action, a feeling of independence and dignity for the individual, and on the other hand greater isolation and responsibility for one's own destiny, greater fear for one's own existence, and greater anxiety about life. This in turn leads to greater industriousness, to being forced to provide for oneself, to economy and thrift out of fear for the future and general insecurity, to entrepreneurship, the desire for success, and then to competition, the attempt to maintain a high profile, to do better than others, to egoism, and so on. The Protestant countries are capitalist and industrialised, and science and technology are highly developed in them. They are as a consequence very much implicated in the contemporary ecological crisis. This is the more so, in that today they are among the extravagant and wasteful societies, which have lost their sense of proportion in the use of this world's goods, exploiting their own natural resources, and, even more, those of the Third World, which pays for their wealth with its poverty.

In a word, while Catholicism tried in the new age to preserve the moderation and restraint of the Middle Ages, and while it scorned superfluous worldly goods and pleasures (today it has of course to a large extent accommodated itself to capitalism), Protestantism plunged right into the life of the new age, more than once surrendering itself to pagan hedonism, and betrayed many of the original Christian moral virtues. Christianity, of course, originated partly out of a negation of the worldliness, hedonism, moral laxity, and social injustice of antiquity, and this was one of the reasons why it emphasized bodily restraint, modesty, and the superiority of spirit over matter. The people of the new age, half-pagan and half-Christian, returned to some extent to the pagan virtues. They no longer made a virtue out of necessity, as did mediaeval Christians, who had no choice but to be poor, because they did not yet have any science or technology. But the moment they started to make use of these things, the constraints of the mediaeval virtues burst open. Does not the God of the Old Testament say to the first human beings in paradise (and later once again after the flood): "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Gen. 1:28)? Was it feasible to fill the earth without really subduing it, in other words without the use of science and technology, which were intended to secure humanity a life of dignity? Was it possible to carry out the subjugation of creation simply by working "by the sweat of one's brow", to which God condemned the first human beings when he drove them out of paradise?

Even if the Protestantism of the new age became unfaithful to the original Christian morality in a number of respects, it did not betray it so far as the idea of the supremacy of spirit over matter was concerned. At least not in a certain sense. Jesus does not understand spirit as being simply reason, he is silent about science, and he commends spiritual poverty and simplicity, which worldly wisdom cannot provide. The Apostle Paul already affirms clearly that "The wisdom of this world is folly with God" (1 Cor. 3:19). The reason why the first human beings were driven out of paradise was because they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which had the power to make human beings into rational creatures. So God did not want human beings to be rational like gods, who "know what is good and what is bad" (Gen. 3:5). Even less did he want them to have some sort of scientific system. Nevertheless he breathed the breath of life into Adam, his soul and his spirit. The new age came to understand this spirit as being reason, as it had been understood in the philosophy of antiquity and of the Middle Ages, and it started to "subdue the earth" using science. And it was only then that the full destructive force of the supremacy of spirit over matter became apparent.

This idea of the supremacy, indeed, of the absolute uniqueness of the spirit, and the worthlessness of matter took on a crystal clear form in the philosophy of the new age, which, of course, was based on Protestant ideas and was primarily German. However, although this philosophy found itself in conflict with the Christian religion, it only rejected "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" in anthropomorphic terms. It did not reject the essential idea of God, but replaced him with an abstract "God of the philosophers", substance, consciousness in general, the global "I", global spirit, global reason, global identity. The basic Christian pattern of things also remained: the God-spirit creates matter out of nothing, or out of himself, as his own perception, abstraction, externalisation, otherness. Out of this, and at the same time against it, he establishes and develops himself as spirit. For Leibnitz, matter is only the confused perception of a monade spirit. Berkeley's view is that matter does not exist at all. It is merely a set of ideas of the human spirit, participating in the ideas of the objective spirit-God. According to Kant, it is human beings who create matter and nature in general according to the dispositions of their spirits out of an unknown thing in itself (Ding an sich), and who impose laws on them arising out of themselves. Fichte's contention is that nature is that nature is the perception of the global "I" (the absolutisation of the human "I"), and is created by it so that, by means of the obstacles it presents, this global "I" can confirm and become more aware of itself as spirit. Hegel argues that nature is the world spirit (Weltgeist), reason, god, which is alienated from itself, and which in human culture returns to itself out of this alienation. Although this alienation is overcome, continues Hegel, nature does not cease to exist objectively, but it is now recognised, controlled, and revealed as spirit. Moreover, it is inherently nothing, unreal, it only seems to exist, because it is subject to the limitations of time and space, while on the other hand the only real and true things are eternal spirit, essence, and category.

And this philosophy even revealed the secret origin of the Christian (and of every) God: it was originally human beings who created God in their own image. The proud, self-confident people of the new age, the conquering and victorious scientists and philosophers - the Protestants - openly put themselves, their spirit, and their reason, in the place of the Christian God. They were masters over matter; they shaped it as a side-product of their spirit, made it devoid of any inherent value, and thus revealed it to be not matter, but spirit. This was only an idiosyncratic understanding of the biblical idea of the incarnation of the word as matter, of the fact that the word became flesh (and the flesh became word again, as this philosophy would add). Hegel considered Christianity as the ultimate and absolute form of religion, and wanted to serve the spirit under the flag of Protestantism.

What conclusions can we draw from all this?

The Christian idea of the supremacy of spirit over matter was not only a cause of the development of modern science and all that it brought with it, but also a consequence of it. Western civilisation, is more vital, dominant, and aggressive than any other, and it was this idea of supremacy which expressed and eventually came to codify this vitality. This was also the case, as we have already said, with Protestantism and contemporary capitalism. This however does not mean that Christianity (and especially Protestantism), as a world view influencing millions of people, should not cast a critical eye over itself and attempt to put right the current ecological crisis. In my view, it is necessary to return to some original Christian moral virtues, to restraint and moderation. This in no way necessitates a return to mediaeval times or to antiquity; it is sufficient to interpret these virtues in a new way. The fact that spirit dominates matter and manipulates it in various ways is inherent to human beings - it is this domination which makes human beings what they are - and it is only a question of maintaining the correct sense of proportion. Neither is it necessary to give up science. Science can be omniscient and technology can be omnipotent, and provided they are governed by the principle of restraint and moderation, they can bring well-being to humanity without entailing the destruction of nature. If it is forbidden to kill, persecute and destroy other human beings, then it is also forbidden to kill animals and to destroy nature. This is the more valid, as nature is also the work of God. In this regard, experts on ecology who are Christians have an essentially easier task than their atheist colleagues, who must try to justify respect or even love for life in ethical terms, a reasoning which may appear to them to be almost absurd. And even the fact that God commanded human beings to fill the earth and subdue it does not have to imply the population explosion and the destruction of the earth. It is possible to avoid this danger if moderation is employed when using resources and the fruits of the earth.

Science and technology do not have today's affluent and throw-away societies on their conscience, just as the knife which is intended for cutting bread is not responsible if it is used for killing. It is all simply a question of attitude, a sense of proportion, and the hierarchy of human values. And here Christianity has many options open to it without having to change its basic position. It is possible for it to become one of the most influential factors in ecology, because this is its moral obligation as a world view which aims to help humanity in its earthly existence. It is to the credit of Protestant countries that action has caused reaction, thus making them the most active countries on ecological questions today. But is this due to the merits of Protestantism, or is it simply an inescapable necessity of life? The way which Christianity took at its inception has essentially remained the right one; today it is simply necessary to expand and encourage it. Christianity must take up this theme, it must discuss it, evaluate it, and struggle for it. It is my impression that, in our country at least, this is not being done to a sufficient extent.


Teodor MÜNZ, Philosophical Institute,
Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava, Czechoslovakia