Saturday, June 5, 2010

Review of Diversity and Dominion: Dialogues in Ecology, Ethics, and Theology by Kyle S. Van Houtan

According to the introduction, Diversity and Dominion is the fruit of a series of inter-disciplinary lectures which took place at Duke Divinity School in 2005. The motivation behind the lectures was the belief that purely descriptive science is inadequate to protect the environment from continued degradation. What society needs it the coupling of the descriptive elements of science with the motivational power of human-attitudes and values. Since human beliefs encompass a broad range of ideas, the lectures, and resulting articles, centered on Christian beliefs in the American context.

Space doesn't permit comments on every article, I have focused on a few articles deemed to be the most significant.

William H. Schlesinger's article, Eyes Wide Shut, decries the lack of urgency in the contemporary environmental movement. He blames our passivity on a continually "shifting baseline." Like the proverbial camel, every concession to expanding urbanization is minimized as "it's just an acre" that when seen over time becomes vast swaths of land.

Lisa Sideris attempts to harmonize the role of suffering and death within evolutionary development with Christianity's view of redemption and individual significance. Put another way, "How can a good God allow so many creatures to die (as Evolution teaches) for no apparent reason?" Sideris suggests two options: 1. the ecosystem is greater than the sum of the individual creatures within it and 2. humans should be humble and recognize that our concerns and judgments should not be the final word on environmental and environmental ethical issues.

Norman Wirzba identifies the vice of ingratitude as the reason for our continued neglect and abuse of the environment. He notes that years of environmental teaching have failed to produce proper motivation to act on what we know. More importantly, he provides a suggestion as to how schools can work to inculcate gratitude amongst our students.

Finally, Michael Northcott accuses Millennial theology for its anti-environmental views. As the most strident of all the articles, readers, particularly those within the Christian Right, should be prepared for a host of critical words. As a Christian, with Conservative political views, I was disappointed at Northcott's simplistic treatment of the adherents of Millennial theology. This is not say that his accusations are completely wrong as I have personally heard comments like, "Why worry about the environment, Jesus is coming soon." However, it is to say that Northcott would have been more convincing if he confronted the thought of the Acton Institute which shares many of the ideas held by Millennialists. I consider myself a rather radical environmentalist (my modest proposal is to ban the construction of new roads), however, I know that liberals are not innocent of loving big corporations (just ask Hollywood, Harvard, Yale, and most universities). The only difference is that liberals love different corporations than conservatives. It seems to me that answer lies in the Christian notion of personal responsibility. Systems may reduce evil behavior, but evil people can always manipulate the system. The answer still lies in a regenerated heart.

While elements of this book are worthy of engagement, its value was ultimately hindered by trying to address too many diverse ideas (most of which are too abstract to apply) and failing to engage Christians with alternative visions of environmental protection and use. Speaking of the latter issue, the writers of this volume essentially espoused the same mantra: capitalism is evil, the world has too many people, and humanity should stop seeing itself as separate from creation. Perhaps most disheartening was discovering how their appeal to theology was bereft of solid Scriptural reflection and practical application. Encouraging the recognition of guilt for wrongful deeds is important. But without practical ways to 1. Be forgiven that guilt and 2. Demonstrate improved behavior with concrete benchmarks, readers are left with feeling bad and with no hope.

Stephen M. Vantassel, author of Dominion over Wildlife: An Environmental Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations (Wipf and Stock, 2009) is an environmental-theologian who is also an expert in wildlife damage management. He is a tutor of theology at King's Evangelical Divinity School in the U.K.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comments.