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Land Ethics, Animal Rights, and Process Theology

by Jay B. McDaniel

Jay B. McDaniel is director of the Marshall T. Steel Center for the Study of Religion and Philosophy and associate professor of Religion at Hendrix College (Arkansas). He is the author of Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence for Life and Earth, Sky, Gods, and Mortals: Developing an Ecological Theology.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 88-102, Vol. 17, Number 2, Summer, 1988. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Traditionally many Christian theologies have recognized that humans are called by God to care for the world. Theologies of ecology emphasize that such care rightly includes among its subjects animals, plants, and the land. Philip Joranson and Ken Butigan, the editors of Cry of the Environment: Rebuilding the Christian Creation Tradition, a multi-authored theological study of the environmental crisis, speak of such inclusive care as "creation consciousness" (CE). For them the phrase intentionally suggests that all earthly creatures are parts of God’s creation, that all are recipients of God’s care, and hence that all merit our own appreciation and moral regard. I begin this essay by sharing the assumption of Joranson and Butigan, namely that creation consciousness is a needed attitude on the part of Christians if, in relation to the abuse of nature, Christians are to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.1

As the twenty-eight authors of Cry of the Environment show, there are numerous resources from which Christians can draw as they seek to embody creation consciousness. They can turn to underemphasized traditions within the Judeo-Christian heritage, both biblical and post biblical, highlighting the motif of stewardship; they can turn to contemporary developments in any and science; and they can turn to feminism and to other world religions. The value of Cry of the Environment is that it contains individual essays which, taken collectively, employ all of these resources. One weakness of the book, however, is that it fails to take advantage of an additional resource that can be very important to the task of encouraging creation consciousness. It fails to include resources from philosophy, or, more particularly, from that contemporary movement in philosophy called "environmental philosophy," which, as articulated in a journal such as Environmental Ethics, has a growing number of advocates in Western Europe, the United States, and Australia.2

The task of this essay is to indicate resources in contemporary environmental philosophy that can contribute to a Christian embodiment of creation consciousness. My aims are (a) to review the major movements that have emerged recently in environmental philosophy, (b) to suggest some of the implications of these movements for creation consciousness, and (c) to show how process theology provides a perspective for integrating the truths of these movements, thereby encouraging creation consciousness.

The paper is divided into five sections. In the first I deal with the land ethics tradition as initiated by Aldo Leopold; and in the second with the animal rights movement as exemplified by Peter Singer. I show how these two movements are, at face value, conflicting: the first emphasizing the rights of ecosystems, the second those of individual organisms. In the third I discuss the philosophy of Whitehead and its environmental ethic as developed by Birch and Cobb as a potential resource for resolving this conflict. Using Whitehead’s philosophy, I argue that the truths of the land ethics tradition and the animal rights movement can be jointly affirmed. In the fourth section I discuss Heidegger and the Deep Ecology movements as additional resources for Christian creation consciousness. And in the fifth section I discuss process theology (influenced as it currently is not only by Whitehead but also by biblical and liberation perspectives) as a contemporary Christian tradition in which aspects of each of these diverse philosophical resources -- land ethics and animal rights, Heidegger and Deep Ecology -- can be synthesized.

I. Land Ethics

Chief among the forerunners of environmental ethics is Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), forest and game manager for the U.S. Forest Service and later professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin. In his well-known A Sand County Almanac, Leopold argued that ethics should move beyond anthropocentrism toward a land ethic. He was among the first to coin the phrase "land ethic," and to this day his understanding of the phrase’s content serves as a resource for environmental philosophers.3

Leopold believed that ethical codes and aptitudes can and should evolve. What in one generation may seem unworthy of moral consideration can in the next generation seem worthy, and rightly so. Consider, for example, our attitude toward Greek ethics as the latter are illustrated in the Odyssey. "When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars of Troy." Leopold reminds us, "he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave girls." For Odysseus the hanging "involved no question of propriety." After all, the girls were suspected of misbehavior, and something had to be done to prevent further occurrences. But such behavior on Odysseus’ part should not lead us to think that ancient Greece was without concepts of right and wrong. "Witness the fidelity of his wife through the long years before at last his black-prowed galleys clove the wine-dark seas for home." From Odysseus’ perspective as from that of any aristocratic Greek, relationships with slaves were not matters involving ethics. "The girls were property," and "the disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expedience, not right and wrong" (SCA 201).

In modern times many readers of this essay would judge Odysseus’ actions to be reprehensible. We realize that those who have been called "slaves" are human beings with integrity of their own, and that they have rights of their own, including the right not to be enslaved. We know, of course, that this realization is still not universally shared, and that more subtle forms of enslavement still exist even in societies, including our own, where blatant slavery is condemned. Nonetheless, our own disdain for Odysseus’ actions illustrates what Leopold would call an evolution in ethics, at least in principle. Our care, or at least our understanding of the appropriate scope and implications of care, has become more inclusive than it was in ancient Greece. According to Leopold, ethical progress occurs when beings once regarded in merely utilitarian terms -- that is, as property -- come to be regarded as appropriate subjects of moral regard, and codes of conduct follow. As Leopold puts it in discussing the transition from Greek society to our own: "During the three thousand years which have since elapsed, ethical criteria have been extended to many fields of conduct, with corresponding shrinkages in those judged by expediency only" (SCA 201).

Leopold’s argument in proposing a land ethic is that it is time to expand even further our horizons of ethical regard. Our circle of concern must extend beyond the human sphere to the biosphere, cognizant of the fact that we are part of a "biotic community." The problem, Leopold writes, is that "there is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property. The land relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations" (SCA 201). Leopold’s aim is to remedy this situation.

His proposed "land ethic" is decidedly communitarian or systemic in emphasis. As we extend our horizons of concern, Leopold suggests, our actions can be guided by the following principle:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. (SCA 224-225)

As is observed by J. Baird Callicott, a contemporary environmental philosopher and defender of Leopold, what is noteworthy about this principle "is that the good of the biotic community is the ultimate measure of the moral value, the rightness or wrongness, of actions" (AL 318).

Leopold’s emphasis on community has concrete implications for action. His principle suggests, for example, that it might be acceptable to hunt and kill white tail deer in order to protect a local ecosystem from the disintegrating effects of excessive population growth. And yet the principle also implies that it would be obligatory to protect individual members of an endangered species from extermination, since they are part of the integrity, stability, and beauty of a biotic community. In Callicott’s words: "In every case the effect upon ecological systems is the decisive factor in the determination of the ethical quality of actions" (AL 321; my emphasis).4

With Leopold’s interest in expanding ethical horizons beyond the human arena, of course, the ecologically oriented Christian will be naturally sympathetic. Indeed creation consciousness involves precisely such expansion. And yet two questions naturally emerge from an encounter with Leopold. The first concerns value in nature. In what sense, after all, is the land valuable apart from its usefulness to human ends? The second concerns the status of the individual nonhuman organism. Given the emphasis on ecosystems or biotic communities that is so central to the land ethic, what is the moral status of the individual organism? Let us deal with the first question at this point and then turn in the next section to the second.

An environmental philosopher who has thought much about the issue of value in nature is Holmes Rolston, III (PGW). Rolston laments that many influenced by the mechanistic worldview of industrial civilizations think of nonhuman nature as something devoid of value until assigned importance by human beings. The common but problematic assumption is that humans are the only creatures within creation with inherent value: "loci of value lost in a worthless environment" (AVN 151). Yet Rolston does not counter this denial of nature’s value, as might some Christians, by proposing that nature has worth because assigned it by God. Rather he suggests that nature has value in itself, God or no God. He proposes that if we analyze our own experience of nature carefully, we will see that in many instances we experience nature, not merely as a recipient of value assignments, but as a "carrier of values" (VN 113). If we are phenomenologically honest, we realize that nature carries values which supersede our own invention.

Rolston realizes that nature does not disclose its values to us apart from our subjective interpretations of it. With Kant and most philosophers since Kant, Rolston argues that our experience of nature is inevitably interpretive. Yet Rolston does suggest that, amid our interpretations, there is a receptive component. We do not simply create the nonhuman realities -- plants, animals, and inorganic materials -- that we interpret; rather we experience these realities as given to us for interpretation, and in their givenness values are disclosed. Some of these values are aesthetic: "the mist that floats about an alpine cliff, spitting out lacy snowflakes, tiny exquisite crystals" (VN 120). Some have to do with the unity and diversity of life and material forms: the macroscopic web of diverse life-forms that is matched by the unity revealed by the electron microscope or the X-ray spectrometer. And some pertain to the value living beings have in and for themselves: like that of the "tarantula at the Grand Canyon in 1896" whom the American naturalist and conservationist John Muir refused to kill (VN 121). If we attend to and reflect upon our own experience and knowledge of nature, we see that "values are actualized in human relationships with nature, sometimes by (human) constructive activity depending on a natural support, sometimes by a sensitive, if an interpretive, appreciation of the characteristics of natural objects" (VN 121).

Rolston is representative of most environmental ethicists in encouraging us to recognize the inherent worth of nature. Yet he, like Leopold and his advocates, warns against understanding it in atomistic or excessively individualistic terms. When people argue for the "intrinsic value" of a natural entity -- that is, the value a natural entity might have for what it is in itself -- Rolston is troubled. From his perspective "the ‘for what it is in itself’ fact of intrinsic value becomes problematic in a holistic web." It is "too internal and elementary; it forgets relatedness and externality." It neglects the fact that everything is good "in a role, in a whole" (AVN 146). Rolston’s point is that individual mountains, plants, and animals do indeed have value apart from their usefulness to humans, but not in isolation from their environments. Their own intrinsic value is that of being organic parts of biotic communities, and ultimately, of nature as a whole.

As to why nature as a whole has value, Rolston does not say. Certainly his silence on the matter suggests that, in the last analysis, the appeal is to intuition. But perhaps it is important to note that another environmental philosopher, Mary Ann Warren, believes silence of this sort betrays an as yet unanswered question among environmental philosophers. Asking what sorts of value nonhuman creatures might have, Warren writes: "The environmentalists’ answer is that they are valuable as organic parts of the natural whole." This is indeed Rolston’s perspective. "But," she says, "this answer is incomplete, in that it does not explain why we ought to value the natural world as a whole, except insofar as it serves our own interests to do so." To the question of why we ought to value the web of life in the first place "no clear and persuasive answer to this more basic question has yet been given" (RNW 128).

On this matter a momentary aside is in order. For a Christian drawn toward creation consciousness, the answer to "this more basic question" will undoubtedly involve God. The Christian will affirm that at any given moment the natural world as a whole is gathered into the experience of a single ongoing Life, a divine Self, who feels the whole, "declaring it good," or at least potentially so, both in its particulars and in its complex unity. Some, those in a Calvinist tradition, for example, may emphasize that God assigns the world its value, and hence that the God’s declaration of the world’s goodness is itself an imposition of worth. Others, process theologians for example, may say that God does not assign the world its value, as if the world would not have value otherwise, but rather that God recognizes the world’s value, and invites us, who are part of this world, to do the same. For process thinkers the world is God’s creation, not in the sense that it emerged ex nihilo from God, but rather that, from out of a beginningless past, it was lured toward its own forms of order and intrinsic value by God. Both theological perspectives will emphasize God as having a point of view from which the value of the world is recognized and affirmed.

In any case Rolston, as I have said, is silent concerning God. What is important for our purposes is to recognize that he is in the tradition of Leopold, emphasizing systems rather than individuals in his treatment of nature’s value. And it is in this Leopoldian vein that he opens the door, perhaps unwittingly, to the second question mentioned above: What, if anything, is the ethical status of individual nonhuman organisms, as they exist in and for themselves?

II Animal Rights

Some proponents of the land ethic -- Callicott, for example -- are suspicious of ethical preoccupations with individual nonhuman creatures. They see it as symptomatic of a Western individualistic bias. Callicott does not deny that individual creatures can have a place as individuals in the sphere of ethical regard. But he says that when we are concerned with them, it is not their well-being as individuals that should be our concern. Rather it is the well-being of the biotic community of which they are a part and to which they contribute. Taking Leopold’s land ethic as paradigmatic for environmental ethics as such, Callicott insists that "environmental ethics locates ultimate value in the ‘biotic community’ and assigns differential moral value to the constitutive individuals relative to that standard" (AL 337).

Here we cannot settle the question of what rightly or wrongly belongs within the purview of environmental ethics understood as a sub-discipline within philosophy. But we can highlight those traditions in philosophy that point toward a postanthropocentric ethic, and in this context it is important to recognize that there exists a tradition that is interested in the interests of individual creatures, in particular animals under human dominion Though not all its advocates prefer the language of "rights" in proposing that we recognize our obligations to animals, many do. For that reason we can call it the "animal rights" movement, or, alternatively, the "animal liberation" movement, borrowing a phrase from Peter Singer (ALNE)] 5

If Aldo Leopold is the mentor of the land ethic tradition, so Albert Schweitzer could be that of the animal rights movement. Perhaps one reason Schweitzer has not played this role is that, in point of fact, the rights of animals have been defended by minority traditions in philosophy at least since the eighteenth century.6 Nevertheless, in advancing his reverence-for-life ethic In the early part of our century, Schweitzer well anticipates the concerns of contemporary animal rights advocates. Schweitzer writes:

When abuse of animals is widespread, when the bellowing of thirsty animals in cattle cars is heard and ignored, when cruelty still prevails in many slaughterhouses, when animals are clumsily and painfully butchered in our kitchens, when brutish people inflict unimaginable torments upon animals and when some animals are exposed to the cruel games of children, all of us share in the guilt.7

Schweitzer’s interest in eliminating the unnecessary suffering of individual animals is at the heart of the animal rights movement.

Singer is among the movement’s most articulate spokespersons. His well-known Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals (New York: Avon, 1975) deals specifically with the suffering inflicted on individual animals in scientific experimentation, agribusiness, and industry. The examples he gives -- ranging from pain experiments on rhesus monkeys and dogs, through the inhumane conditions in which pigs and cattle are reared for food consumption, the blinding of rabbits in the testing of cosmetics -- are staggering both in terms of the pains suffered by the animals and in terms of the numbers of animals affected.8 He argues that there is no reason in principle why the suffering of our fellow creatures should matter less than our own. The fact that some animals cannot reason or talk in language we understand should be as irrelevant to us as is the fact that some humans in relation to whom we have ethical obligations -- severely retarded children, for example -- can neither reason nor talk. Quoting Jeremy Bentham, the late eighteenth-century utilitarian philosopher, Singer writes: "the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but Can they suffer?" (PML ch. 18, sec. I).

Singer’s answer, of course, is yes. Not only do animals act as if they experience pain, he says, biology shows that the higher animals -- our fellow mammals, for example -- are equipped with neurophysiological mechanisms for pain similar to our own. Because animals can suffer, we have ethical obligations not to inflict upon them more pain, relative to their capacities for sentience, than we would inflict on creatures of our own kind, relative to our capacities. We are obliged, not necessarily to treat all creatures equally, but rather to give all sentient creatures equal moral consideration (ALNE 3). To neglect such consideration is to fall into a bias that is just as unacceptable in its own way, and analogously destructive in its consequences, as racism or sexism. Singer calls it speciesism.

In helping us to move beyond speciesism, Singer proposes several forms of action. In addition to ending unnecessary experimentation in science and the unnecessary infliction of pain on animals in industry and agribusiness, we should end many other practices that society currently sanctions. For example, we should stop "hunting for sport or furs; farming minks, foxes and other animals for their fur; capturing wild animals (often after shooting their mothers) and imprisoning them in small cages for humans to stare at; tormenting animals to make them learn tricks for circuses, and tormenting them to make them entertain the folks at rodeos; slaughtering whales with explosive harpoons; and generally ignoring the interests of wild animals as we extend our empire of concrete and pollution over the surface of the globe" (ALNE 23). "We should write to our political representatives urging them to pass legislation that obstructs these activities; make our friends aware of the issues; educate our children to be concerned about the welfare of all sentient beings; and protest publicly on behalf of nonhuman animals" (ALNE 163).

Finally, Singer argues, we should become vegetarians. "Whatever the theoretical possibilities of rearing animals without suffering may be, the fact is that the meat available from butchers and supermarkets comes from animals who did suffer while being reared" (ALNE 165). The people who profit by exploiting large numbers of animals on factory farms "do not need our approval. They need our money" (ALNE 166). It is only by our boycotting meat that animals can cease to suffer under the conditions of contemporary factory farming.

Not all advocates of animal rights endorse all the solutions Singer proposes. For example, process theologians, who are among the few within the contemporary theological community to be concerned with animal liberation, and to whom I will turn shortly, accept the eating of meat under certain conditions. But one way or another all advocates of animal rights, process thinkers included, lament the fact that so many domesticated animals can and do suffer unnecessarily at the hands of humans. Believing that the infliction of such suffering is immoral, their hope is that in the future such suffering will cease, either because humans have been morally persuaded or legislatively coerced.


From what has been said so far, it should be clear that land ethicists and animal rightists differ. Whereas land ethicists are systems-oriented, animal rightists are individual-oriented; whereas land ethicists are concerned with the stability, integrity, and beauty of ecosystems, animal rightists are concerned with suffering; whereas land ethicists are concerned with the fate of flora, rivers, and mountains, animal rightists emphasize fellow fauna. Must the creation-conscious Christian choose between these two traditions?

A better approach, I believe, is one suggested by John B. Cobb, Jr. and L. Charles Birch in The Liberation of Life: From Cell to Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). Recognizing that the concerns of animal rightists pertain for the most part to animals subjected to human captivity, Birch and Cobb demonstrate that these concerns can be combined with those of the land ethicist into a single environmental ethic. From the animal rightist, so Birch and Cobb suggest, we rightly learn to be sensitive to the sufferings of individual animals under human dominion, affirming and insisting that they not be subjected to unnecessary suffering. And with the land ethicists we rightly learn to be sensitive to ecological wholes, including as these wholes do, plants and inorganic realities of value in their own right. Once the inherent value of nonhuman realities is recognized, we can learn to be attentive both to individual creatures and to the biotic wholes of which they, and we ourselves, are a part.

Both authors -- Birch as a biologist and Cobb as a theologian -- are influenced by the philosophy of Whitehead. Their conclusions follow from a Whiteheadian worldview which they describe in their work as "ecological" and which Bernard Loomer describes in Cry of the Environment as "process/relational." This use of Whitehead is illustrative of the fact that an environmental ethic, like a Christian faith perspective, will inevitably rely on a vision of reality of one sort or another, thus acknowledged or not. As Christians, Birch and Cobb believe that in many respects the Whiteheadian vision of reality is more compatible with biblical points of view than are other visions, Platonic for example, on which Christian in the past have relied. But they also believe that it is more ecological, which confirms the fact, attested by Bernard Anderson in Cry of the Environment, that biblical perspectives, too, often have a strong ecological dimension. As Ian Barbour notes in the foreword to Cry of the Environment, "a recurrent note" of the volume is "the potential of process theology for expression both of biblical and ecological understanding" (CE ix).

Let us consider for the moment the nature of the Whiteheadian vision and its implied ethic. What is valuable about Whitehead’s philosophy is that it is both Schweitzerian and Leopoldian. With its emphasis on nature as a vast web of interdependence that is alive through and through, it affirms with Schweitzer that individual creatures, human included, have intrinsic value. Yet it also recognizes, with Leopold, that creatures never exist in isolation; they always exist in and through relations to others and to the biotic whole. Indeed Eugene Hargrove, the editor of Environmental Ethics, points out strong parallels between Leopold and Whitehead, although Leopold seems to have arrived at his perspective independently of any reading of Whitehead.

Most interesting of all is the similarity of some of Whitehead’s comments and those of environmentalist Aldo Leopold. There are long passages in the last chapter of Science and the Modern World, for instance, which could easily have served as the source of some of Leopold’s ideas, and which suggest that Leopold’s notion of community could be derived from Whitehead’s theory of organism without much difficulty. In one place especially Whitehead speaks of ‘associations of different species which mutually cooperate,’ and he refers to the forest environment as ‘the triumph of the organization of mutually dependent species.’ A few lines further on he adds that ‘every organism requires an environment of friends, partly to shield it from violent changes, and partly to supply it with its wants.’ (HFA 239)

It is a small step, Hargrove tells us, "from Whitehead’s ‘environment of friends’ to Leopold’s ‘biotic community"’ (HFA 239).

From Whitehead’ s vision of reality as informing and informed by insights from biology, Birch and Cobb develop a distinctively "process" environmental ethic. "The general ethical principle," they say, "is that we should respect every entity for its intrinsic value as well as for its instrumental value to others, including ourselves" (LL 152). One feature of this ethic is that it proposes a criterion for action when the sacrifice of life is required. Birch and Cobb propose that, when decisions must be made between the taking of various forms of life, say that between a cancer cell and a woman in whom that cell resides, such decisions can be made on the basis of degrees of intrinsic value. Along with Teilhard they believe that evolution displays a gradual trend toward more complex forms of organization, that with these more complex forms there emerge living beings with greater capacities for sentience or awareness, and that with these greater capacities there are greater degrees of intrinsic value.

To be sentient is to be able consciously or unconsciously to take into account, and thus enjoy, environmental influence. All living beings, including cancer cells, do this to one degree or another; hence all living beings have intrinsic value. But some, the more complexly organized, enjoy amid their sentience greater harmony or intensity -- greater "richness of experience" to use Birch and Cobb’s phrase -- than others. By virtue of this richness, they have greater intrinsic value. If a life must be taken, and if instrumental considerations are equalized, it is best to take the life of the being with the lesser capacity for sentience, and hence the lesser degree of intrinsic value. Thus, in choosing between a cancer cell in a woman and the woman herself, the cancer cell can be sacrificed.

But the general emphasis of a Whiteheadian environmental ethic is on life rather than death. A Whiteheadian environmental ethic is, as Birch and Cobb put it, an "ethic of life" that intends to be responsive to the God who is "Life" itself (LL chs. 5 and 6). All things considered, it is always best to allow life to flourish in its diverse expressions, respectful of the fact that each living being has intrinsic as well as instrumental value. Just as God is appreciative and affirming of life, human and nonhuman, so an "ethic of life" is appreciative and affirming.

Birch and Cobb propose that to live out such an ethic one must act personally and politically to promote two complementary ideals: ecological sustainability in our relations to the rest of nature, and social justice among humans. Sustainability involves living within the limits of the planet’s carrying capacity in terms of population and resource usage, reducing pollution, and allowing other living beings to flourish and enjoy existence. As we seek to live sustainably, our fellow creatures are appropriately understood as valuable ends in their own right and as contributors, along with us, to God’s own enjoyment. They, like we, are part of God’s body. Justice involves the promotion of economic equity, political participation, and personal liberties among and between humans. If the interest in sustainability is enriched by creation literature in the Bible, so justice is enriched by prophetic literature. The challenge of our time, so Birch and Cobb suggest, is to find ways of living, both personally and as communities, that are both just and sustainable. The Liberation of Life offers concrete proposals for just and sustainable public policies in the areas of agriculture, economics, and transportation.

IV. Heidegger and Deep Ecology

I will return to process theology in the next and final section of this essay. At this stage, however, it is important to note that in addition to the literature of land ethics, animal rights, and Whiteheadian philosophy, there are numerous other resources within philosophy from which Christians interested in creation consciousness can learn. For one, there are excellent works at the interface of environmental ethics and public policy, such as K. S. Schrader-Frechette’s Nuclear Power and Public Policy (Boston: D. Reidel, 1980), and her Environmental Ethics (Pacific Grove, CA: Boxwood Press, 1981). Furthermore, there are other visions of reality from which to learn: visions that, like Whitehead’s perspective, can serve as philosophical underpinnings for a responsible environmental ethic.

In searching for these underpinnings, philosophers turn to a host of sources from which Christians, too, can draw. Some turn to the East, particularly to Taoism; some to Native American perspectives and other primal traditions; some to emerging feminist visions; still others to neglected themes or traditions within the Western heritage, ranging from materials in Pythagorean philosophy to neglected themes in Plato to Leibniz or Spinoza; and still others to twentieth-century philosophers such as Heidegger or to philosophical movements such as the Deep Ecology movement.9 As one would expect in an age characterized by a split between religion and philosophy, few environmental philosophers turn to sources in the Bible or Christian theology for help, though some -- Robin Attfield, for example -- argue that Christian history has been wrongly maligned by environmental philosophers, and that it can serve as a better resource than some might expect (WTEE 201-230). 10 In any case, Christians interested in creation consciousness can learn from these other sources.

Consider, for example, Heidegger. Of course, existentialist theologians like Tillich and biblical scholars like Bultmann have already drawn upon Heidegger’s early writings, particularly Being and Time, in developing doctrines of God and human existence. But it is the later writings -- written in a more meditative style and with greater attunement to nature -- that philosophers of ecology such as Michael Zimmerman, George Cave, and Bruce Foltz find helpful (THE 99-131).11 For in his later philosophy Heidegger moved beyond a preoccupation with Being as instantiated in human existence to an interest in Being as disclosed throughout nature and beyond. For Heidegger, Being is the ultimate reality, though not itself a thing or substance which can be grasped with certainty by the mind or relied upon as a metaphysical ground. It is not identical with God, rather it is that underlying and yet all-encompassing Happening -- itself not a being at all -- of which even God would be an expression. As Heidegger journeyed more and more deeply into his intuition of Being, it became ever more clear to him that a central problem in Western culture is the forgetfulness of Being, and that this forgetfulness is symptomized by the will-to-power: that impulse to dominate and subjugate the world in light of human projects. He became critical of that humanism which attempts to measure all things in terms of human design, and which can never ‘let beings be’ in their own right. It is this Heidegger, who recognized the human obligation to let things be, whom ecological philosophers find important.

A central emphasis of Heidegger’ s later thought is dwelling. To dwell is to live in and amid the whole of the world, seeking to preserve and care for the beings within it. For him, authentic human existence lies in dwelling in harmonious relation to entities as they gather into unity four modes of Being: the earth, the sky, the gods, and fellow mortals. (Whether or not Heidegger’s gods represent the general sphere of the holy, and might thus be different faces of a single divine reality, is a question left open.) Consider, for example, an ordinary jug filled with wine. As Zimmerman explains, "a jug draws together earth, which provides water for the grapes in wine, sky, which provides the sunshine for the ripening fruit, gods, to whom we offer a libation for the gift of wine and life, and mortals, who enjoy the liquid refreshment and who are somehow aware of the mystery of thing and world" (THE 112). To dwell authentically in relation to the jug, or to any being for that matter, is to be sensitive to the way it assembles the Fourfold. It is to see a being as a shining of Being in the latter’s four expressions. In Zimmerman’s words, "the crucial point here is that the world is not constituted by a transcendental subject but instead is a luminous realm drawn together by the things that shine forth within" (THE 113).12

Another resource within philosophy from which Christians can learn is not itself a thinker or historical tradition but rather a movement. It is called the "deep ecology" movement, and it has itself been influenced by many of the sources identified above (see DEM). The phrase "deep ecology" comes from one of the founders of the movement, the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (SD). His distinction is between "shallow" and "deep" environmentalism. According to Naess, along with other members of the movement such as American philosophers Bill Devall and George Sessions, a "shallow" environmentalism adopts a managerial perspective toward nature, assuming that nonhuman nature must be conserved or preserved for the sake of future human use. It is rooted in that humanistic ethos which assumes that humans are apart from, and more important than, the rest of nature, and that nature should be protected and conserved only for human ends. By contrast "deep" environmentalism -- that is, deep ecology -- adopts a cooperative perspective, believing that human beings are inseparable from that web of life of which they are a part, and that other members of the web are equally as valuable as humans. A deep ecologist seeks to live cooperatively with nature, not simply because such living is in human interests, but because he or she allows nature itself to serve as the paradigm for human self-understanding.

Deep ecologists are, or at least they conceive themselves to be, the most radical of environmental philosophers. They differ from those environmental philosophers who see environmental ethics as a subdiscipline of traditional philosophy. They believe that environmental ethics, rightly understood, points to an alternative discipline and an alternative way of thinking in its own right: one that recognizes without equivocation the radical interconnectedness, and the equal value, of all beings. The metaphysical underpinnings of this new perspective have been compared by Devall to the philosophy of Spinoza. As with Spinoza, nature is identified with the ultimate, and a human being appropriately understands himself or herself as but one of many equally important and interrelated expressions of God: a "temporary and dependent mode of the whole of God/Nature" (SD 310).

V. Creation Consciousness and the Prophetic God

How can Christians interested in creation consciousness respond to Heidegger and the Deep Ecology movement? There are things to learn from each.

In the case of Heidegger, Christians can be open to the intuition of Being. In part such openness can be facilitated by a recovery of certain mystical traditions in their own past, such as those discussed by Matthew Fox in Chapter Four of Cry of the Environment (CCS). Yet whereas the mystical traditions identify Being Itself with God, Christians can also take seriously Heidegger’s claim that Being is not God, and that the realm of the holy, symbolized by Heidegger’s term "the gods," is but one manifestation of Being. Here process theology can be helpful, for John Cobb and others show that what Heidegger means by Being is generally analogous to what Buddhists mean by Emptiness, or Whitehead by Creativity. Indeed Being is not God, but rather that of which God and the world are expressions. Being is the ultimate reality, not itself a sentient agent, of which all actualities, God included, are actualizations; and God is the ultimate actuality, indeed a sentient agent who loves and cares for the world, who is the primordial embodiment of Being. In the words of Cobb: "The direction is to accept without hesitation or embarrassment the distinction between ultimate reality and God, and to recognize that the God of the Bible . . . is a manifestation of ultimate reality -- not the name of that reality" (Quoted in BPM 120). Heidegger’s philosophy well shows us how an intuition of Being, alongside faith in God, can contribute to ecological consciousness and promote that "dwelling" which lives in harmony with the earth.

In the case of the deep ecologists, Christians can recognize that in many instances a Christian environmental ethic -- often called stewardship -- has been shallow rather than deep. Christians have sometimes equated stewardship with the prudent management of natural resources for human consumption. Furthermore, when we have thought of stewardship in relation to future generations, we have often thought only of future human generations, forgetting that an appropriate ethical stance must be directed toward the well-being of future nonhuman generations as well. Deep ecologists remind us that stewardship, too, must be deep. We rightly preserve wilderness areas, not simply so that future humans can enjoy them, but so that future species with value in their own right can dwell in them. From deep ecology we learn both to affirm our kinship with fellow creatures and to allow evolutionary history -- past, present, and future -- to serve as a frame of reference through which we understand ourselves.

Yet clearly, at least in some respects, both Heidegger and Deep Ecology contravene ideas important to the biblically influenced Christian, and this in two ways. First, in biblical Christianity at least some distinction between a God and the world has been affirmed, and God has been understood as having personal characteristics such as feeling, thought, and will. By contrast, deep ecologists disparage such a distinction and its attendant personalistic imagery, and in Heidegger intimations of a loving God remain quite undeveloped. Second, in biblically influenced Christianity it has usually been affirmed that humans are of distinctive value in the scheme of creation, and indeed that they are made in God’s image. Heidegger sometimes leans in this direction as well, but deep ecologists deny such a distinction.

Are these two traditional affirmations, which we ultimately derive from the prophetic biblical heritage, worth retaining? Among other reasons, I suggest that they are worth retaining in the interests of justice. The ideas (1) that there is a personal and loving God, and (2) that as made in God’s image we have distinctive responsibilities to God, serve as resources for challenging injustice. Having learned from the prophetic traditions of Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Jesus, Christians rightly recognize the resourcefulness of biblical perspectives. Only a God who in some way transcends the world, who has special care for the downtrodden, who calls humans (if among the oppressors) to practice justice, and who calls humans (if among the oppressed) to demand their rights -- only this God can or will say no to oppression and invite others to do as well. If this God were too immanent, too identified with either the powers of nature or the socio-political status quo, or too impersonal, there would be no divine judgement, no divine care, and hence no hope for the disenfranchised and downtrodden. After all, the powers of nature care little for particular victims of racism, repression, or rape. For such victims, the cost of giving up God’s call for justice in the interests of proclaiming ecological holism is too great.

The question, then, is this: As Christians "rebuild the Christian creation tradition," to quote the subtitle of Cry of the Environment, can they learn from philosophy and the Bible? Can they develop theologies of ecology that affirm the intrinsic value of all life, as do the deep ecologists and most others within environmental philosophy, and that also affirm the care of a compassionate God for the poor and oppressed, as do prophetic biblical traditions? As Birch and Cobb would put it, can Christians develop ways of thinking about God and the world that encourage ecological sustainability and social justice?

Hopefully there are many ways of doing this, several of which are indicated in Cry of the Environment. Christianity today is in need of many theologies of ecology, not just one.

Still, among the most promising to date is process theology. During the latter decades of the twentieth century process theology has itself been in process, and it has become more than Whiteheadian theology. While retaining an ecological point of view characteristic of Whitehead, it has also become -- with the help of process thinkers such as Marjorie Suchocki, John Cobb, Delwin Brown, Catherine Keller, and Sheila Davaney -- a political theology, deeply resonating with feminist points of view and liberation perspectives. Indeed, in its own way it has become a prophetic biblical theology (see PT).

Consider, for example, the way in which process thinkers image God. While they believe that the world is God’s body, such that what happens in the world happens in and to God, they also believe that God, as the psyche of the universe, is more than the world. God is not simply the totality of worldly events; God is a living subject, with consciousness in God’s own right, who feels these events and responds to them. In this sense God is personal: a sentient Thou rather than an insentient It. Moreover, there are things that happen in the world that are not willed by this Thou, just as there are things that happen in our own bodies that are not willed by our psyches. Social injustices are among these occurrences, as are instances of ecological unsustainability. In relation to these occurrences God transcends the world and feels that divine disharmony in relation to unjustice -- or perhaps better, that divine pain -- so central to prophetic traditions.

In response to injustice and unsustainability, God provides possibilities for creative transformation and inclusive love. And indeed, as theologian Charles McCoy emphasizes in discussing the biblical idea of covenant, God is always faithful (CCE 355-375). Like a Buddhist bodhisattva, God never gives up. When all seems hopeless, God provides possibilities for hope; when all seems unjust, possibilities for justice; and when all is unsustainable, possibilities for sustainability. We may or may not respond to these possibilities, and the possibilities may or may not be what we would have hoped for all things considered, because their content is relative to what is possible for the situation at hand. But we can trust that they are always available. Creation consciousness is itself a possibility offered by God.

The point here is that in its conception of God, process theology is indebted, not only to the ecological dimensions of Whitehead’s philosophy, but also to the traditions of Moses. Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Jesus. It is shaped by the covenant traditions. This is no accident. McCoy suggests that Whitehead, too, may have been shaped by biblical ways of thinking: "Indeed, it is highly probable that the process philosophies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries emerged from contexts influenced by the covenantal or federal tradition and thus are in part intellectual progeny of covenantal theology and ethics" (CCE 360).

But what of the second idea mentioned above, that humans are made in God’s image? Here, too, a process theology of ecology assents in its own way. Along with biblical ways of thinking it affirms a special significance of humankind within the context of creation, recognizing, as Conrad Bonifazi puts it in the context of explicating Teilhard de Chardin, that "in human beings evolution has revealed its profoundest energy and significance" (TNE 311). It does indeed seem evident that, at least in evolution as it is seen in life on earth, homo sapiens have evolved capacities for sentience unparalleled by other creatures.

Yet a process theology of ecology is quick to point out that this energy and significance -- this greater degree of intrinsic value -- is no warrant for arrogance. Rather it is warrant for tenderness and responsibility. There is intrinsic value, or richness of experience, in every living creature, human or nonhuman. Human life is not the only end toward which evolution has been called by God. Nonhuman life, too, embodies ends called by God, distinctive ends not necessarily shared by human beings. Nevertheless, with our unique opportunities for inclusive love, we mirror the Supreme Sentience. We are made in God’s image, and we can mirror that image. To do so is to feel the world as God feels it, to revere life as God reveres it. It is to be as richly related to the world, in our way and given our limitations, as is God to the world.


AL -- J. Baird Callicott. "Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair." Environmental Ethics 2:4 (Winter 1980).

ALNE -- Peter Singer. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals. New York: Avon, 1975.

AVN -- Holmes Rolston, III. "Are Values in Nature Subjective or Objective?" Environmental Ethics 4:1 (Spring 1982).

BPM -- Huston Smith. Beyond the Post-Modern Mind. New York: Crossroad, 1982.

CCE -- Charles McCoy. "Covenant, Creation, and Ethics: A Federal Vision for Humanity and the Environment."

CCS -- Mathew Fox. "Creation-Centered Spirituality from Hildegard of Bingen to Julian of Norwich: 300 Years of an Ecological Spirituality in the West." CE 85-106.

CE -- Philip N. Joranson and Ken Butigan. Cry of the Environment. Rebuilding the Christian Creation Tradition. Santa Fe, NM: Bear and Company, 1984.

DEM -- Bill Devall. "The Deep Ecology Movement." Natural Resources Journal 20 (1980): 298-322.

HFA -- Eugene C. Hargrove. "The Historical Foundation of American Environmental Attitudes." Environmental Ethics 1:3 (Fall 1979).

LL -- Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, Jr. The Liberation of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

PGW -- Holmes Rolston, Ill. Philosophy Gone Wild: Essays in Environmental Ethics. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1986.

PML -- Jeremy Bentham. The Principles of Morals and Legislation. (1789).

PT -- John B. Cobb, Jr. Process Theology as Political Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984.

RNW -- Mary Ann Warren. "Rights of the Nonhuman World." Environmental Philosophy. Ed. Robert Elliot and Arran Gare. University Park: The State University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

SCA -- Aldo Leopold. A Sand Country Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949.

SD -- Arne Naess. "The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement." Inquiry 16 (1973).

THE -- Michael F. Zimmerman. "Toward a Heideggerian Ethos for Radical Environmentalism." Environmental Ethics 5:2 (Summer 1983), 99-131.

TNE -- Conrad Bonifazi. "Teilhard and the Natural Environment: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Contribution to the Christian Understanding of the World, and to Human Relationships within the Natural Environment." CE 311-320.

VN -- Holmes Rolston, III. "Values in Nature." Environmental Ethics 3:2 (Summer 1981).

WTEE -- Robin Attfield. "Western Tradition and Environmental Ethics." Environmental Philosophy. Ed. Robert Elliot and Arran Gare. University Park: The State University of Pennsylvania Press. 1983: 201-230.



1For an excellent survey of the ambiguous record of Christian thinking vis-a-vis the need for creation consciousness, see Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985).

2Environmental Ethics: An Interdisciplinary Journal Dedicated to the Philosophical Aspects of Environmental Problems is a quarterly publication of Environmental Philosophy, Inc. and the University of Georgia.

3 Even among those who do not agree with Leopold concerning the inadequacies of traditional Western ethics, as in the case of John Passmore, the first modern philosopher to write a systematic treatise in environmental philosophy, Leopold’s arguments serve as a standard requiring response. See John Passmore, Man’s Responsibility for Nature (London: Duckworth, 1974). For another critic of Leopold whose own understanding differs from the one presented here, see Scott Lehmann, "Do Wildernesses Have Rights?" Environmental Ethics 3:2 (Summer 1981): 129-146.

4In RNW, Mary Ann Warren points importantly to other thinkers who advocate a system or holistic approach. Her references include William T. Blackstone, "Ethics and Ecology" in Philosophy and Environmental Crisis,16-42; Thomas Auxter, ‘The Right Not To Be Eaten," in Inquiry 22:1-2 (Spring 1979): 221-230; Robert Cahn, Footprints on the Planets The Search for an Environmental Ethics (New York: Universe Books, 1978); Albert A. Fritsch, Environmental Ethics 2:1 (Spring 1980): 17-37; Eugene P. Odum, "Environmental Ethics and the Attitude Revolution," in Philosophy and the Environmental Crisis. 10-15.

5 See also Animal Rights and Human Obligations, ed. Tom Regan and Peter Singer (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976). in choosing the phrase "animal liberation" as paradigmatic of the animal rights movement, I am following Callicott, AL.

6William Blackstone argues for Schweitzer’s role as mentor in the animal liberation movement in "The Search for an Environmental Ethic," in Matters of Life and Death: New Introductory Essays in Moral Philosophy, ed. Tom Regan (New York: Random House, 1980). For historical precedents in the West to the contemporary concern with individual animals, see selections from Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Salt in Animal Rights and Human Obligations.

7Taken from Albert Schweitzer, The Teaching of Reverence for Life, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Holt and Rinehart, 1965). 9. Quotation taken from Blackstone. "The Search for an Environmental Ethic," 306.

8 Though Singer is particularly concerned with the infliction of suffering upon animals rather than the killing of them, it is important to note that in the United States alone 200 million animals, including dogs, cats, apes, horses, rabbits, and rats are killed in research each year. David Lamb, Review of Ethics and Animals (Clifton, NJ: Humana Press. 1983) in Environmental Ethics 6 (1984): 373.

9See, for example, Po-keung Ip, "Taoism and the Foundations of Environmental Ethics, "Environmental Ethics 5:4(1983): 335-343; Russell Goodman, "Taoism and Ecology," Environmental Ethics 2:1(1980): 73-80; 1. Baird Callicott, "Traditional American Indian and Western European Attitudes Toward Nature: An Overview," Environmental Ethics 4:4 (1982): 293-318; J. Donald Hughes, "The Environmental Ethics of the Pythagoreans," Environmental Ethics 2:3 (1980): 195-213; Walter H. O’Briant, "Leibniz’s Contribution to Environmental Philosophy" Environmental Ethics 2:3(1980): 215-220; George Sessions. "Spinosa and Jeffers on Man in Nature," Inquiry’ 20 (1977); ‘Feminism and Ecology," a special issue of Heresies: A Feminist Journal of Art and Politics 4:1 (1981).

10 See also Robin Attfield, "Christian Attitudes to Nature ," Journal of the History of Ideas 44 (1983).

11 See also George P. Cave, "Animals, Heidegger, and the Right to Life," Environmental Ethics 4:3 (1982): 249-254; and Bruce V. Foltz, "On Heidegger and the interpretation of Environmental Crisis," Environmental Ethics 6 (1984): 323-338,

12 There is an additional emphasis on the later Heidegger which Foltz recommends for appropriation, and which may well pose an important alternative to the Whiteheadian approach. Heidegger was interested not in developing a new metaphysical perspective, but rather in overcoming metaphysics so as to "let beings be." For him, Being was not a concept arrived at the conclusion of a metaphysical syllogism; rather it was something directly intuited once metaphysics had been left behind. He, and those such as Foltz who are influenced by him, see "metaphysics" itself as an expression of the will-to-power: the impulse to dominate and subjugate the world, if not physically, then at least with the mind. A fruitful interchange within environmental philosophy will be that between environmental ethicists who, like Whiteheadians, propose a metaphysical philosophy of ecology and those, like Heideggerians, who propose the dissolution of all metaphysics.

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