Dominion over nature — Is traditional Christianity really the eco-villain?

Dominion over nature — Is traditional Christianity really the eco-villain?
Robert Brennan, August 2014.


Rev. Dr Robert Brennan PhD, MAppSci, BA (hons), BTh, BSc is an ordained Uniting Church minister with a background in industrial physics and theology.
His doctoral thesis is entitled ‘Augustine, perfection and inspiration: a stumbling block to the dialogue between theology and science’.


One of the enduring and commonly held notions in environmental discussions is expressed in Lynn White’s 1967 comment, ‘… we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man’. While this statement is regularly cited in the literature and has an air of plausibility, the question needs to be asked whether White’s hypothesis has historical validity.
This paper examines the historicity of Whites’s claim. Surprisingly, the rise in the frequency of discussion of the notion of domination over nature post-dates a similar rise in discussion of the ecological crisis in the early 1960s, follows publication of White’s article. Richard Whybrow argues that while the biblical notion of mastery of nature arose with the development of modernity it was understood by Bacon to be an intellectual mastery, in which humans are able to understand nature in laws and pattern. This was part of a major change in human intellectual appreciation of nature, and was distinct from the idea of nature domination which others including Jim Mason and Peter Schouls trace to secular industrialism and social ideology in the 19th century.
Further, this paper argues that rather than being the eco-villain, traditional Christian thought, from Augustine to the present, has encouraged the careful understanding of nature, its stewardship and the exercising of humility with regard to the limits of human ability when confronted with nature.


Key words

Mastery of nature, dominion over nature, environment, image of God, Christianity, Lynn White




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