Christianity and the Environment

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

The scientific and technological revolutions that have transformed the earth over the past three centuries began in western Europe and were spread quickly across the globe by European migration, colonisation, trade and imperialism.  They were accompanied by a secularisation of thought in reaction against a Christian clerical intellectual monopoly, and when the secular mind came to consider in the late twentieth century the origins of the environmental catastrophe then threatening, one available option was to scapegoat the Judeo-Christian tradition for the rapacious aspects of western expansion and power.

Had not Genesis exhorted humans to ‘increase, multiply and subdue the earth’ ?  Had not Christendom exterminated a European paganism more in harmony with nature?  Had not European capitalism been grounded in the Protestant work ethic?  Had not the industrial revolution been funded by the proceeds of Christian imperialist expansion, driven by a Christian missionary as well as a commercial zeal?  Wasn’t the global western empire that provided the global market essential for mass production born initially out of a Christian evangelical sense of global mission?

There is a little truth in some of this, but it would be far more true to say that the wellspring of western spirituality, the Jewish and Christian texts we know as the Bible, were both a forewarning of the crisis now upon us, and the only diagnostic tool the human family possesses that can take us to the root of the problem, and provide a solution.  For the fact is that we humans have always been rapacious and acquisitive, and this has always caused us problems.  It is not merely coincidental, but providential, that the West’s central repository of spiritual insight should so clearly identify the source of that rapacity, and the most likely means of escape from it.

First, the essential theme of Genesis, and of the Bible throughout, is the goodness of Creation.  This stands in opposition to much of the mythology of mankind which suggests that Creation is malevolent.  It is now believed that Genesis was Judaism’s response to the Babylonian myth, the Enuma Elish, whose primary God was worshipped for matricide.  Tiamat, mother of all the Gods, had plotted their destruction for the noise they made, only to be thwarted by Marduk, whose dismemberment of her created the cosmos.  This central theme of a malevolent origin to everything is what lies behind much human violence – including much of the subjugatory rhetoric of western expansion.

For the fact is that Christendom represented not the victory of Christianity in the west, but a fateful compromise between Christianity and violence.  It was the gift of Constantine and other military despots, not of Christ – and Constantine was far closer to Marduk than Yahweh, the Jewish God (as Constantine well illustrated by asphyxiating his wife in a steam-filled room).

Not only does Genesis repetitively insist upon the goodness of creation – it tells us also that the fate of the earth is bound up with the fate of humankind – and that human goodness alone can save it.  As the level of the global ocean rises with the melting of the icecaps we do indeed need, like Noah, to look to the problem of rescuing as much of the biological inheritance as we can, and of developing lifestyles that lean least heavily upon our biosphere.

So Genesis insists that Creation is interested in us, cherishes us and looks to us for the salvation of the earth.  And the rest of the Old Testament insists that Creation will make and remake covenants with us to that end.  The text that most powerfully expresses the creative power of God – the book of Job – suggests that this alone is sufficient to reconcile us with our own sufferings and humiliation, the pain of being.  So overwhelmed is Job by the fertility of the creative process that in the end he falls silent, taken out of himself.

So Creation is, first, good, and, second, patient – unwilling to leave us to our fate.  But, third, it reveals to us the source of our rapacity – our unwillingness to be less than Gods.

In the ancient world, long before capitalism developed the power to overwhelm the earth, military conquest was the quickest route to glory, the sign of Godhood.  Living as he thought upon a planar disc with boundaries – the ends of the earth – Alexander drove eastwards to find them, conquering as he went.  His military successes convinced him of his own divinity.

The positive legacy of the Alexandrian epic has concealed the negative: the identification of heroism with violence.  This has plagued western culture ever since.  Yet the Jewish texts clearly identify the spiritual fault that lies behind it: the desire to be ‘as Gods’, that is to have what Gods have – including power and adulation.  Named as covetousness in the Decalogue, this desire for the possessions of another is based upon the unarticulated perception that we can somehow acquire the being, or dignity, or worth, of another by possessing those things that appear to distinguish that other.  To emphasise that we are not simply talking about ‘greed’ it’s best to call this problem mimetic desire – desire based upon unconscious imitation.

That violence should be a more striking consequence of mimetic desire in the ancient world than environmental destruction is due to the simple fact that modern mass production was both impossible and inconceivable then.

But the Decalogue makes clear that covetousness has to do with envy of our neighbour, and that we can covet any of his possessions.  It is against this backdrop that we need to place the New Testament story of Jesus – the man who would not reign as king.  His very birth was beset with danger, as it threatened Herod with the loss of what gave him his self-esteem, his priority as King.  This repetition of the story of Saul demonstrates the fact that mimetically inspired violence was the key feature of ancient culture – a flaw so repetitive and predictable, yet so unobserved, that it might well have plagued this planet forever.

What broke the spell was the unprecedented resistance to mimetic desire of Jesus himself.  His humble birth did not set the scene for a subsequent rise to fame and glory – the basic plot of many another ancient tale.  It established a pattern of rejection of mimetic behaviour from first to last.  The refusal of the offers of promotion to the summit of either the religious or political pyramids of the ancient world – the temptations in the desert – was followed by a teaching mission that led ultimately to the accusation ‘we know you do not regard the rank of anyone – so tell us is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’  And those teachings refer far more often to the problem of spiritual presumption, which was linked then with social status, than to what later became the fixation of hierarchs: sexual sin.

If we emphasise the humanity of Jesus, we also emphasise the mystery:  from where did he acquire the psychological strength to undertake so suicidal a mission, ending in a lonely and shameful death?   And even more imponderable – from where did his followers, who had deserted him in the end, receive the strength later to advance his cause, at similar cost to themselves?  The answer to both questions is the same:  all were equally free of that need for other-esteem that underlies all mimetic desire.  It was this that ensured that the mission of the early church was directed to ‘the poor in spirit’ of the Roman Empire – those who thought least of themselves because the world too thought so little of them.

And this in turn is why covetousness became the ‘lost sin’ of the post-Constantinian Church.  The promotion of Bishops to wealth and social influence meant that for the next sixteen hundred years the role of successor to the apostles became itself a covetable title.

How then could those bishops generally convey a spirituality centred upon the equal worthiness of all, and God’s solicitude for the least regarded?  Instead, Augustine’s spirituality of dread of sexual weakness won primacy, and how convenient that was for men who need only practice sexual discretion and aristocratic aloofness to remain worthy of social respect.  The table fellowship of Jesus and the original apostles – the most important social sacrament of the early church – passed into history, while episcopacy became part of the patronage of the social elite.

This transition is vital if we are to understand why it was that the Christian churches, and especially the Catholic Church, came so late to the addressing of the problem of the environment.  For centuries churchmen supposed that Christ’s primary purpose was to rescue the human family from ‘concupiscence’, rather than to challenge the human pyramid of esteem that arises out of, and is sustained by, mimetic desire.    This fixation stayed with most of the Christian missionaries who followed on the heels of Columbus and the other merchant adventurers who made the global ocean a European lake in the period 1480-1660.  The baptism of slaves would somehow make up for their exploitation, and the exporting of European covetousness around the globe need not be radically challenged.  Especially since this would challenge the ‘order’ created globally by European power.

Inevitably the theology of the Middle Ages had distanced the God who for Jesus and the Apostles had dwelt within – which meant in turn that the spirituality that had grounded the egalitarianism of the early church was also almost lost.  Abba was scapegoated with the crucifixion by the Anselmian doctrine of atonement, and ‘salvation’ became merely an after-death experience.  To achieve it one merely must not die in sexual sin – while covetousness simply didn’t measure up as a moral problem, and its true meaning was virtually invisible.

This applied equally to the Protestant Reformation, with the result that England and Holland could pioneer the basic institutions of capitalism and plough energy into an industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The ability to mass produce goods held out the prospect of wealth for all.  The rise of secularism in this era also diverted the churches from the need to ponder the acquisitive drive and its origins – which came to be attributed to ‘materialism’ – an ideology – and therefore something to be combated intellectually rather than spiritually.  And of course, because of this misperception, the assault upon ‘materialism’ has been a total failure.

This remains the situation to this day.  Modern advertising discovered mimetic desire before the churches did – associating all consumer products with social success, with celebrity, or with an enviable ‘lifestyle’.  The cloned images of celebrities wearing or using or driving or consuming this or that regale us at every turn, while ecclesiastics housed mostly in palaces maunder on about materialism to nil effect.  Their problem is that were they to divine the real source of mimetic desire – lack of self-esteem – and to remember that Jesus resolved this problem by joining the people of low self-esteem – the poor in spirit – they would be obliged to do likewise.  (It is good to see the beginnings of a realisation of this among a minority of bishops.)

The basic foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that the only secure sense of our own value comes from a spiritual relationship with God.  The history of the Jewish people seems to prove that they learned more about God from hardship, exile and privation than from worldly success – and this suggests that the environmental crisis may grow much deeper before many will begin to address its cause.

Yet the man who invited us to consider the lilies of the field, who assured us that we are loved whatever we own, must eventually be seen as the one who did more than anyone else in human history to question the basic irrationality of considering some people more ‘worth it’ than others, and of amassing wealth to prove it.  We cannot add a cubit to our height, and the sun and rain fall on rich and poor alike.  God’s love is unconditional, and it is from the experience of his love for us as individuals that liberation from mimetic desire will eventually flow.

This is crucial to tackling all of today’s major problems – including the environmental crisis.  Over-consumption is directly related to the dearth of self-respect that media consumption inevitably creates – as it prepares the viewer for the advertisements that intersperse the celebrity coverage, the advertisements that tempt us to believe that personal significance can be purchased.

It is above all the Christian Gospels that offer the best hope of mass discernment of the trap of mimetic desire – before the environmental catastrophe becomes unstoppable.  More clearly than any other texts they address the very fault upon which western ambition is based, and point to our salvation – the triune God who honours simplicity by dwelling within.

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