THIS strong collection of scholarly essays by 18 university teachers from the United States, the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and Germany explores the wide-ranging interactions between (mostly Western) Christianity and “nature”, “creation”, “the environment”.
The authors, who met for two workshops together, cover disciplines primarily of philosophy and history, together with some theology. The tone is academic, and each chapter is geared for university-level readers. Several chapters include a critical conversation with Lynn White, whose influential 1967 paper charged Christianity with being the “most anthropocentric” of all religions.
The editors, Alexander Hampton from Toronto, specialising in metaphysics, poetics and nature, and Douglas Hedley, Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at Cambridge, have divided the work into three main sections: first, some Christian concepts; second, key periods in history; and, third, specific issues related to the environment. Recognising how Christianity has shaped our cultural context, and the different ways in which Christians have understood God’s creation, they say: “The present crisis is deeply bound up with a now globalised version of the modern Western subject-centred social imaginary,” which ultimately can lead to “an instrumentalist, utilitarian, commodified view of nature, whose basic logic must be reversed if our environmental crisis is to be seriously addressed”.
The first section, “Concepts”, opens with an essay on naturalism and supernaturalism, and then a chapter “From Disenchantment to Enchantment”. Charles Taliaferro looks at the intrinsic value and moral significance of non-human animals. Robin Attfield clarifies concepts such as anthropocentrism, biocentrism, stewardship, and co-creation.
I particularly appreciated Andrew Davison on “Participation in God”, drawing on Aquinas and Aristotle, and arguing that all things are derived from and participate in God. The first section ends with a discussion of how the book of nature has been understood.
I found it disappointing how very few modern theologians get a look-in. Barth, Moltmann, and even Rowan Williams are each mentioned just once. The most frequent conversation partners seem to be thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Nietzsche, Teilhard de Chardin, Goethe, and Emerson.
The second section on “Histories” takes us from Ancient Greece, by way of the medieval “discovery of nature”, to “early modernity”: Francis Bacon, and the “mechanisation” of nature.
Questions are raised about the conversation between early science and theology, the value of experiment, and shifts in biblical hermeneutics. Mark Stoll takes us back to Calvin and the Puritans and on to Protestantism’s concern for moral responsibility in humanity’s use of nature, and nature’s ecological limits. The section ends with chapters on Romanticism, and Transcendentalism, focusing on the relationship between humanity, nature and God, and on contemporary religious ecology.
The concluding third section covers various “engagements” between some Christian reflections and constructive possibilities that these raise. Emily Brady explores “The Sublime and Wonder”. Michael Northcott discusses “ecological knowledge”. James Schaeffer offers a stimulating exploration of three “Sacramental Perspectives”, and God’s presence in creation.
Alexander Hampton draws on central aesthetic concepts to “explore the productive focus on nature’s own inherent value and meaning, as expressed in poetry, painting, music and architecture”. Douglas Hedley explores various traditions of Wisdom. The book concludes with Willemien Otten’s theological appraisal of the relationships between creation and gender, listening for what she calls nature’s “prophetic voice”, and pointing to “interreligious endeavours for climate justice”.
This very varied and wide-ranging book is for academics and for university and college libraries. It is not easy reading for busy parish priests looking for help with sermon preparation. It might, though, be a good companion for their next study leave.
Dr David Atkinson is an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Southwark.