The churches must renew their care for the earth and work with
scientists to fight the destruction of our environment, argues Fr
Imagine a trip with explorer Thor Heyerdahl in one of his rafts
through the rivers and lakes of our countries and continents and out
into the oceans. If on that journey you kept a log on pollution you
would see an ever growing volume of human, agricultural, chemical,
industrial and nuclear waste - much of which is toxic and
non-biodegradable - being flushed into our rivers and oceans. The
sheer scale of the filth and the fact that it is increasing rapidly
each year makes the question which Thor has asked in recent years
understandable - will human beings kill and poison all life in the
It is one thing to describe the scale of what is happening to the
living systems of the planet. It is another thing - and much more
crucial in our present plight - to understand why humankind is
heading at full speed down this suicidal road and why so little is
being done about it.
Since the emergence of homo sapiens, human beings
have altered the natural environment to provide food, clothing and
shelter for themselves.
But the quantum leap, in terms of destructive impact on the web
of life, can be dated from the beginning of the industrial
revolution - 150 years ago.
Successive stages of the industrial revolution based on steam,
petrochemical, electrical and nuclear energy have followed quickly
on the heels of each other during the past century. Each phase has
delivered into our hands more awesome power to dominate and change
Unfortunately the wisdom to use this power in ways which would
enhance all life on earth did not follow in the wake of increased
technological muscle. Simple greed, acquisitiveness and
short-sighted goals have played their part in the drive to tear
apart and process the whole planet.
But this is only symptomatic of a deeper malaise which allowed
the western world to lose touch with nature and superimpose a
mechanical model on all reality. At the moment when the
technological revolution was taking off, western people had lost any
comprehensive story of the earth to help them evaluate the impact of
their behaviour on the environment.
The western world has not always been so impoverished. During the
Middle Ages the Genesis story of creation, interpreted through the
framework of Greek philosophy, provided a vital link with the
environment. It also situated human beings and all the realities of
this world within a larger cosmic canvas from the lowliest creature
reaching right up to the Divine. However, beginning in the 16th
century the very scientific insights which gave rise to the
technological revolution of the nineteenth century were interpreted
as chipping away at this comprehensive and sustaining tapestry.
The disintegration of this story cut the human adrift from the
rest of the natural world. It also widened a dualism between matter
and spirit which was already present in European consciousness, and
facilitated the emergence of a mechanistic science.
The growing antagonism between religion and science did not help
either. Each new tussle between scientific and religious thinkers -
from the condemnation of Galileo in 1633 to the publication of
Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 - drove a further
wedge in the divide between the scientific and religious world-view.
Unwilling to meet the scientific world on its own ground
religious thinkers withdrew into their own little world and had
nothing to say about the wider historical, cultural and planetary
discoveries which had grasped the imagination of many thoughtful
people in Europe at that time.
Because they cut themselves off from the mainstream of
intellectual life, religious thinkers had no base from which to
evaluate the mechanical approach to the natural world at the very
moment when the planet needed it most.
There was and is a dire need for a relevant theology of creation
to reflect on all that was happening and to guide human
inventiveness down creative paths. To be credible this theology can
no longer be based on an exegesis of the Genesis text taken in
isolation. It has to be grounded in the immense journey of the
universe and particularly on the emergence and story of life on
It took the genius of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Christian
mystic and scientist, to tell this story in a way that attempted to
bridge the gap between the scientific and religious communities.
Teilhard's synthesis sweeps away the traditional dichotomy
between the sacred and secular which is so deep-seated in western
consciousness. He forges new relationships of interdependence with
the natural world.
*Fr McDonagh is author of 'To Care for the Earth'. He has studied
theology and anthropology and is a Columban missionary in the
From the Catholic Herald dated 12 may 1989.