The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian group founded in 1973


Religion to the defence of creation

The churches must renew their care for the earth and work with scientists to fight the destruction of our environment, argues Fr Sean McDonagh

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 oceans?

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 the biosphere.

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 earth.

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 Philippines.

From the Catholic Herald dated 12 may 1989.

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