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A Publication of

From The Ark No. 193 - Spring 2003

A Question of Survival

A young German Jesuit, in an article specially written for The Ark,
expresses his concerns for all living creatures as a consequence of
human-driven environmental destruction

By Christoph Albrecht SJ

‘Preach the Gospel to every creature (all Creation)’ (Mark 16: 15)

In the face of global destruction of the foundation of life, not only for the human race but also for the greater part of the animal and plant kingdom, the question of respect and regard for living creatures comes to the fore in a new manner of looking at the history of the world.

Western Civilization has in recent centuries, indeed decades, developed technology which significantly alters the biosphere. On the one hand, this has only been possible where people have put aside their traditional respect for all forms of life. On the other, technological advances have created a state of mind which assumes total domination over all life forms. A deep chasm has opened between mankind and all other living creatures and they have been regarded and treated as mere objects. There is the cynical caricature of the Judeo-Christian God of all creation, who at the time of the second Flood, turns away Man and Woman from the Ark which could save them and allows only the animals in. Above the Creator’s head, which is turned away from the human pair, appears a speech bubble with the saying, ‘This time we will try it without you.’ The fact is that we have come to be the greatest threat not only for individual animals and plants but also for whole species, indeed for the biosphere itself. No animal, no living entity is as dangerous as man. From the viewpoint of animals and plants, man must seem an immensely powerful, violent species.

The Dilemma of the Laws of Nature

Clearly there is no living creature which does not take nourishment from other living organisms. Seen against this background, all living creatures appear violent, as even a plant takes another's space, light and nourishment. Albert Schweizer grasped this dilemma in a particularly impressive sentence ‘I am Life, which wants to live, in the midst of more Life which wants to live.’ Obviously each living creature is obliged to keep itself alive at the expense of other living creatures. Beasts of prey tear apart their quarry with great brutality.

For us this means - and this Albert Schweizer also grasped - that the natural course of events in plant and animal worlds cannot serve as a model for our ethical code. In nature, the different species are driven by their own laws of self preservation. Various kinds of plants and animals are in competition with each other. Through a systematic network, all come together to form a dynamic equilibrium - the biosphere. On the one hand, all forms of life have their so called ‘natural’ enemies. On the other, it is precisely these ‘natural enemies’ which preserve the balance in the biosphere and thereby render possible for both the survival and the further development of the different species.

Technological Advance and Ecological Alienation

We humans are part of this biosphere, a party to this global struggle of mutual threat to life as also to its mutual fostering. Yet through technological development (tools and machines which deliberately use up and change the available energy and resources) we have not only learned to protect ourselves from dangerous beast of prey, but can distance ourselves from other threats such as hunger, cold, heat, floods etc.

The principal drive towards technological progress, from the invention of the catapult up to micro-electronics, has been the search for military superiority. By means of the development of weapons and tools, the life and death struggle between individuals and nations was forged. By means of universal armament (not just weapons but all sorts of tools, materials and robots) the might and power of mankind as against all other forms of life has grown.

Four attitudes/viewpoints against Nature

There are two diametrically opposed views of the value of non-human species:-

1. The one sees mankind as the acme and pinnacle of creation, and nature as only making sense in relation to man. This view is official teaching in the Christian Churches, and to support it biblical texts are quoted in evidence (e.g. Genesis 1:28 and Psalms 8: 5-7). It allows two differing positions:

l a. Over the centuries, the predominant idea in Western Society has been to subdue, to control and to conquer nature so that mankind can survive - this viewpoint we could call the struggle for mankind against nature.

l b. The second position is only a few centuries old. Actually, as early as the 19th century there were a few pioneers, the Swiss foresters for example, who recognised early on that, in the long term, a forest produces more if it is managed with care. These days there is the widely held opinion that we should not be fighting against nature but work with and for nature on her behalf so that man can live. Nature has, from this point of view, a completely functional value which is to preserve itself for the sake of mankind.

2. The other view has it that man is only a part of creation along with the other living creatures. This view regards other living creatures as entities with their own value/worth independent of human value judgment. This belief is older than the Western way of thinking, but was dislodged, suppressed and ridiculed by the West. Here too there are two differing opinions:- one stemming from fear/anxiety the other from love.

l c. This view does not seek to subdue nature at the whim of man nor does it see care for the environment as a function for man’s well-being. In peoples with nature based religions, this view still survives and in Western Societies, there exist alternative movements which see a certain deity in all creatures in a more or less nostalgic or esoteric way of thinking. Fear of gods and other spirit powers causes respect for living creatures and for nature.

l d. Francis of Assisi has become the figurehead of the fourth viewpoint. He understood that the love of God extends to all His creatures. If God lets mankind call him Father, then all other creatures are our brothers and sisters. Even this view can be explained as rooted in Christianity. The Judeo-Christian belief in one God liberates man from fear of other powers, but does not mean they can behave inconsiderately towards the rest of creation.

There are some historians and sociologists who are persuaded that this liberation is in itself a process of man’s separation and alienation from nature, which first made possible the view outlined in a) the struggle against nature. Nevertheless, the gospel is a message about the limitless love of God and therefore, of universal unity. For even the human task in the story of creation (Genesis 1:28) should not lead to a misunderstanding. ‘Dominion’ and ‘subdue’ are to be taken in the sense of exploitation. This expression has nothing to do with destruction or oppression but refers to the obligatory responsibility of man for everything of which he makes use.

Heirs and heiresses (inheritors) of God (Gal. 4: 1-7)

At the inner core of the Christian message is the radical freedom from fear. Young Martin Luther’s question ‘How can I endure a gracious God?’ must not go on paralysing our powers. For God has in Jesus uttered his unconditional Yes to us men and to all creation. (Mark 16: 15) Only against this background can the theological statements of Paul be correctly and meaningfully understood.

The freedom described in Romans 8 is made plain through the concept of inheritance in the Epistle to the Galatians. As an heiress or heir, I do not have to live with the question: what do I have to do, so that I don’t lose my position? But I should concern myself with the same domestic duties around the house as does the owner. Because God tells us we are heirs and heiresses, the freedom we attain when we are grown up means that we should strive with equal attention and responsibility to care for the house (in Greek oikos, hence Oeko-logie) of creation, as does the Creator himself (Gal 4: 1-7).

Universal Cooperation against the mentality of globalisation

Awareness of death as an important stage in a life which leads to God’s grace is very important for our material way of life. In our day-to-day existence we are, unwittingly, too much governed by the fear of death. People today are more stressed than they used to be years ago because, years ago, people only lived for thirty years before eternity - today we live until we are ninety. Do we realise that our unbridled appetite for consumption, using the treasures of the world, is for the most part only the fear of missing something, thus not extracting the most out of life?

It is not just that we are ourselves consumed by the thirst for life; under its influence we ourselves destroy our entire environment. Greed is one of the most dangerous drives in human society. But it is precisely greed which, above all other human qualities, is being promoted by the mechanics of the capitalistic system. Since the advent of Adam Smith, greed has been praised as the engine for economic growth. The capitalist game of globalisation is fateful for the whole planet, as the global market can only function if it can grow. The ecological threat exists for us in all spheres of life, because globalisation is extending in every direction. Thanks to our inveterate greed, we ask only about the respective market price. Even in our relations with one another, in our relation with nature, we will soon be asking only what the yield is, how much profit we can make.

However, the ethical question for free Christians to ask should be:- ‘What can I contribute to maintenance and care so that the world is preserved for all life?’ Therefore, as Christian men and women, we should not dismiss ecological concerns as simply a problem from the past. And conversely, as ecologists, we should also stand up for our Christian beliefs.

Translation by Wanda Oberman

Return to The Ark No. 193

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