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AN ANTHROPOCENTRIC PERSPECTIVE IN CHRISTIAN ENVIRONMENTAL ETIDCS-THE ROLE OF THE STEWARD IN SAFEGUARDING CREATION Dr. Cathriona Russell" Abstract This paper critically evaluates three types of response in Christian theology and ethics to environmental anthropocentric, ecocentric and theocentric. An anthropocentric approach to non-human creation is the assumed default worldview oftraditional Christianity. In this sense, the God-given dominion ofhumanity as the steward of creation is uncontroversial. Environmentalists, however, have argued that this religiously-motivated presumption in favour of humanity is responsible for the human insturnentalising and current degradation of our shared natural world. Christian theologians have sought to revise Christian ethics towards both a more naturefriendly approach (ecocentric) and a more explicitly theological approach (theocentric) as altematives to a destructive anthropocentrism. isı;ues:

In contrast to some ecotheologies, this paper defends a human-centred approach that evaluates human autonomy and creativity positively for environmental ethics. The role of the steward in safeguarding creation is validated and reconstructed on the basis of an anthropology of 'embodied freedom'. Shaı·ed perspectives in Christianity and Islam on creation and on stewardship, and the contribution that theological ethics makes to environmental philosophy and ethics in the public realm, are outlined. 1. Defending a human-centred environmental ethics An anthropocentric approach to non-human creation is the assumed default worldview of traditional Christianity. In this sense, the God-given dominion ofhumanity as the steward of creation is uncontroversial. This is a perspective that is shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam 1• There is a persoıialism in the monotheistic faiths that resist seeing the human person just asa bitplayerin the great cosmic drama of creation2• Enviromnentalists, however, have argued that this religiously-motivated presumption in favour of humanity is responsible for the human instumentalising and current degradation of om shared natural world. In reply, Christian theologians have sought to revise Christian ethics towards both a more naturefriendly approach (ecocentric) and a more explicitly theological approach (theocentric) as alternatives to a destructive anthropocentrism. These revisions have prompted, on the positive side, a much-needed retrieval of Christian sources and a reconstruction of Christian ethics from an environmentally conscious perspective. On the down side the drive towards holism (ecocentrism) and monism (ecclesial homogeneity) brings costs too for Christian ethics. Rather than being redundant categories these distinctions in fact already prefıgure how environmental issues will be debated. Ecocentric ethics and theologies of embodiment

Ecocentric ethics argues that the human-centred approach to the natural environment is responsible for the instrumentalisation of non-human nature. It argues against hierarchical systems which place the human person at the top of the created order and in favom of a position defıned by interconnectedness, relationship and holism. And this has obvious appeal for environmental ethics. Its very strength is that it is a reminder of the reality of that interconnectedness. In particular it has prompted a positive re-evaluation of what it means to be embodied. So rather than salvation being seen, as it traditionally has been, as 'salvation from the body' it is now reenvisaged as 'salvation with the body'.

• School ofReligions and Theology, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. 1 Although the emphasis on the role of human reason and freedam before God plays out differently in their respective anthropologies. 2 Michel Meslin, "The Anthropological Function ofMonotheism" Concilium 1 (1985): 28-37.

Ecofeminism, for example, stresses our interrelatedness and our liberation in the world (and not just from the world) and as such is a welcome corrective to an overly spiritualised tradition that at its best failed to thematise our bodies at all but which at its worst denigrated the body 1• However, inherent in some feminist approaches to body theology is an explicit critique of dualisms and an implicit assumption that all monisms are good. Herein lies the danger-where ecocentrism collapses the distinction between the human person and the rest of creation it can be ambivalent on the dignity and irreplacability of the human person2• Early advocates of environmentalism claimed to focus specifically on the welfare of the nonhuman world, yet misanthropic attitudes emerged in, tpeir writings 3• A radical ecologist, it seems, would rather shoot a man than a snake and would consider it immoral for a rescuer to put her life at risk to save another4• Of course it might be too easy to condemn ecocentric ethics by definition. Who could not endorse the worthy correctives in ecocentric critiques? However, I part company with ecocentrism where it undermines hard-won protections for the human person. Ironically it can do so without ensuring any pathway to an 'environmental dividend', for example in the debate about population, food and freedam which I will take up in the last seetion of this pape~. What is sufficient to note here is that in downplaying the role of the human person as steward, ecocentrisİn ironically also levels our obligation for the non-human creation. Without that obligation we can hardly be found culpable for our actions. Theocentric ethics

Having found anthropocentric and ecocentric positions unsatisfactory many Christian environmental theologies have argued for a third way, for an explieit theoeentric ethic. The intention is to establish a prior claim and an intrinsie value for non-human creation by virtue of it being the ereation of a good God: to discover how "God has a history with nature that is independent of God's history with humanity" 6• More speeifically, a theocentric ethie is defined as one that "relates all things ina manner appropriate to their relationship to God"7• It is argued that through a renewed relationship to God we find a path to a noninstrumentalist approach to non-human nature that at the same time does not devalue the human person. Now, it would seem eontradictory for a Christian theologian to argue against 'theocentrism' since ina sense all theologieal ethics is theoeentric but that is what I intend to do here. Theoeentrie ethics rightly affirms the goodness of our creatureliness and dependency on God. But it is far fro~ 'cıear that a turn to God-talk, however worthy, will encourage more environmentally harmonious living in and of itself. Faith eommunities have failed too to recognise the demands of good stewardship. In Christian ethics theocentrism in fact has a tendeney to get sidetraeked into eeclesiology and is often cbaraeterised by an exaggerated valorisation of traditional societies and faith communities. The British neo1

Anna Peterson, "In and of the World? Christian Theological Anthropology and Environmental Ethics" Journal · ofAgricultural and Environmental Ethics 12 (2000): 204-26. 2 On the question of the irreplacability of the human person cf. Junker-Kenny, Maureen "Valuing the Priceless: Christian convictions inthePublic Debate asa Critica! Resource and as 'Delaying Veto"(J.Habermas)''. Studies in Christian Ethics 18, 1(2005): 43-56. 3 Laura Westra and Peter Wenz, eds., Faces ofEnvironmental Racism (London: Rowınan & Littlefield Publishers, Ine., 1995). 4 Elliot Sober, "Phllosophi2a1 Problems for Environmentalism," in Environmental Ethics, eC!. Robert Elliot (Oxford: Oxford university press, 1995), 241.. . . 5 Amartya Sen, Development as Freedam (Oxford: University Press, 1999). 6 Paul Santmire. In: Peterson, "In and of the World? Christian Theolögical Anthropology and Environmental Ethics": 256. 7 Michael S. Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). check page number


orthodox for example, and I would count Michael Nartheort among them, hanker after an ideal Christian past that never existed. Northcott's desire to recreate ecologically harmonous living in a renewed 'parochial' ecology represents a retreat from the challenge of 'transforming unjust institutions' at the national and internationallevel. In. addition theocentric ethics is not always immune to utilitarianism. Ethicists might rightly ask how far theocentrism is willing to sacrifice the individual for the well-being of the community. Could a theocentric ethic for example candone the use of coercion to limit family size? 1 It is not clear at all what it means ethically to "relate all things in a manner appropriate to their relationship to God'"2 • Not all political, scientific and social discourse is improved by being overtly theological. We need to be more explicit about how theology contributes to the debate in the public realm. In summary I want to defend the anthropocentric approach to environmental ethics precisely because, and not despite the fact that, it conceptualises important distinctions and tensions: the distinction between God and creation; and that between the human person and the non-human creation. The distinction between humanity and non-human nature is based not on physical discontinuity (indeed we need to do more to recognise the continuity) buton cognitive (reason) and moral (freedom) discontinuity, the capacity for self-reflection and self-transcendence. Anthropocentric ethics is not by defınition instrumentalist, although it still needs to take full account of the significance of our embodiment and continuity with the natural world. There may be an environmental cost in defending human dignity that we cannot deny, but the concept of stewardship in the Abrahamic tradition gave a role to the human person that can be evaluated positively for environmental ethics. There is always a tension between a positive view of stewardship and the concept of human fallenness, frailty and failure. But there is warrant on philosophical, theological and environmental grounds for defending a human-centred approach in the environmental ethics debate in the public realm.

2. Models of Stewardship in Christian Envirorunental Theologies Popular environmental theologies have not in fact emphasised the model of stewardship at all in their reconstruction of the tradition. Rather they have recalled the image of the medieval ascetic for a Christian ecotheology. The Franciscan monastic rule of poverty and nature appreciation is hailed as exactly the countercultural model needed to subvert the acquisitive attitudes of this age (and indeed previous ages). This 'pilgrim' model it construed as non-interventionist and 'egalitarian' and carries with it a profound trust in as well as response to the giftedness of creation3 . It draws on the ideals of monastic living exemplifıed by poverty chastity and obedience and has long been an important model of counter-values and counter-cultural critique. And yet, paradoxically, it has same serious limitations as a model for environmental ethics. Rather than emphasising our continuity with all creation it assumes that the human person is a stranger in the world and on a journey or pilgrimage away from embodied reality. Secondly, although it may be a good model for the profligacy of the one-third world, the Franciscan ascetic path is hardly an appropriate one for the material poverty of the two-thirds world4• Clearly, different model:ı for environmentally harmonious living have resonance in 1

As Gustafson appears to advocate: Jean Porter, The Recovel)' of Virtue: The ReZevance ofAquinas in Christian (London: SPCK, 1994), 26. 2 lbid., 27. 3 Margaret Atkins, "Flawed Beauty and Wise Use: Conservation and the Christian Tradition" Studies in Christian Ethics; Ethics and Ecology 7, no. 1 (1994). 4 1 refer to material poverty rather than to any geographic divide here. There is a transnational consumer class. The Worldwatch Institute for example observes that more than 350. million Chinese and Indians enjoy the same affluence !eve! as the average European, North American and Japanese consumer with the associated environmental impact. cf. Etlıics

-------------------------;, 157

different contexts; we have to recognise for example that developing countries have a legitimate need to improve the well being of their people. The model of asceticism, as a choice not a necessity, can resonate with a degree of duplicity in that cantext So how then should we understand stewardship? Traditionally it is interpreted as human creativity in the service of human needs, society and God 1• Clearly in same environmental theologies stewardship stili bristles with the worst excesses of anthropocentrism and human hubris. We presume to remake the world that we have been given despite the fact that there is overwhelming evidence of our failure. And we cannot deny that there is same evidence that, in the history of its recep tion, the Genesis creatiÖİitext (Gen 1:28) was use d in colonial propaganda and self-justifıcation to take the land of indigenous peoples in the Arnericas and Australia for example. Hidden behind this (mis)use of the text lies the arrogance of the colonist, the presumption of intellectual and technical superiority and the claim to be the legitimate stewards of creation. Yet for almost all ofthe history of reception ofthat Genesis text the word dominion is better interpreted as the human call to service to God and to fellow creatures rather than to exploitation. Indeed nature was to be known in order to shed light on the moral and spiritual m eaning of human existence, more than in and for itself. It was precisely when canfidence in the role of the human person was waning and nature came to be viewed as hastil e that the language offorce was applied2 • It is perhaps already clear from tıie preceding analysis that I am not arguing here for utilitarian, economistic, instrumentalist or neo-colonial model of stewardship. Nor am I arguing that nature is to be valued only for the sake of hurnanity. Rather nature is valued because it is the cantext in which embodied human freedam lives and operates. The underlying assumption is that nature is not alien or external to but constitutive of the human person.

Clearly there is more than one model for Christian living in environmental theologies. And stewardship, like discipleship, has to be interpreted for every age. But I would like to suggest that environmental theology is concerned to show that the human person, as embodied, fıts into the world and that nature is the true cantext of human life. The theological model of stewardship that I want to advocate is one rooted in a renewed appreciation of that creatureliness, which implies being embodied and being morally free, with all the possibilities and risks that that implies. An 'autonomy' perspective3 in ethics is positive about human rational and moral capacity, but it can at the same time conceptualise human fınitude and contingency. Creatureliness does alsa mean being needy, historically limited, insecure, and easily led astray: ·Yet we must not miss the potential in the human capacity to be both receptive and reconstructive. Being 'creı:ıted' in Christian anthropology implies both a gift and a task. From a theological perspective it is not reason, or intellectual ability, but the destination for fellowship (with God and with all creation) that gives humanity dominion in the time-bound world of creatures. It is possible therefore to be more positive about human achievements than the pilgrim path allows, without elevating the human person to the rank of co-creator with God4 . Stewardship from an 'autonomy' perspective in theological ethics explicitly thematises the tension in Christian anthropology; the positive role for the human person in creation sits alongside the idea that even our best intentions might come to nothing. Given this canception 1

Stewardship understood as service, has also migrated from its theological cantext into professional codes of ethics, where it is inteıpretediıs 'service to humanity' rather than to God. • 2 cf.Peter Harrison, "Subduing the Earth: Genesis 1, Early Modern Science, and the Exploitation of Nature" Journal ofReligion 79 (1999). 3 Cathriona Russell, Autonomy and Food Biotechnology in Tlıeological Ethics. (Oxford: Peterlang Publishers, 2008 ). {Forthcoming) 4 'Created co-creator' is a concept put forward by Philip Hefner and explored by Peterson. cf Gregory Peterson, "The Created Co-Creator: What It Is and Is Not" Zygon 39, no. 4 (2004).


of stewardship we have to ask how this theological understanding of stewardship resonates in interreligious encounter and in the wider public realm. 3. Creation and stewardship as shared categories in Christianity and Islam It could be said that tbere are at least two sbared perspectives in Islamic and Jewisb and Christian theology that are directly relevant in environmental etbics. First is the shared faith in the goodness of creation. Nature is the creation of a benevolent God and is destined for salvation and fellowsbip. The creation perspective is a reminder that we do not construct created reality in the first instance but rather we encounter the shared natural world as the context for human life. Secondly, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all thematise the task given to the human person to steward the creation. Stewardship is a category shared by the three Abrabamic faiths. The human person is affirmed as God's representative on earth (steward) in Christian and Jewish reconstructions. In Islam too God chose imperfect man to be his representative or vice-regent on earth (Khalifa)-rather than his angels, who are his obedient servants 1• The dignity of the human person has a central role in theological antbropology in ethical monotheisms, even if the emphasis on the autonomy of creation and the human person might differ in the respective faith traditions2 • The modern consciousness of nature in environmentalism does not capture the · significance of 'createdness' that is at the heart of creation theology. The idea that creation is given to the human person as good and that the human creature 'fits' into the world as the one responsible for it goes far beyond any relationality conceptualised in the natural sciences for example. Creation theology already prioritises the 'giftedness' of created reality. Apart from these shared perspectives there have also been two moves in environmental theology that Christianity and Islam have both made, if with differing emphasis. There has been a welcome retrieval of the sources (Biblical or Qur'anic) in the interests of a renewed creation theology. Christian eectheology has sought to retrieve the biblical and theological sources for envirorunental theology 3 . There isa paraHel move too in Islamic ecotheology that also seeks to retrieve the sources for a renewed model of relationship with the non-human creation4 . What these retrievals signify is that the sources are deep wells and repositories for environmental ethics that we have only begun to explore. Alongside this positive development there is also a more contentious move, the call to a renewed theocracy , whether Christian or Islamic, in the interests of good governance on environmental and other moral issues. Rather than hankering for some kind of monolithic idea of church or a monistic concept of citizenship or public space I want to examine, as a more fruitful line of enquiry, the contribution that theology can make in a pluralist public realm. 4. Theological contributions to environmental ethics inthepublic realm If theology is to resİst retreating into cburcb-based communities or indeed ballkering after a renewed theocracy, a new Christendom5 then we have to say sometbing about bow 1

Meslin, "The Anthropological Function": 28. Cathriona Russell, "The Principle ofPatient Antonamy in Christian, Jewish and Islamic Medical Ethics" (paper presented at the Penser Dieu en Europe Conference, Institut de Catholique de Paris, 2005). 3 Sean Freyne, Jesus, a Jınvish Galilean: A New Reading ofthe Jesus St01y (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2004). 4 The Islamic garden tradition, for example, provides models for the 'good life' that is appreciative of peopled, urban environments, where indeed many of us live and work. The urban cantext is too often ignored in environmental ethics, which tends to focus on pristine wildemesses or on the impact of agriculture on the 'natural' environment. 5 Dietmar Mieth, "Considerations Beyand the Birtb-Control Controversy" Concilium 1 (2008): 126. 2


theology legitimately contributes to the ethical debate in the public realm, a public realrn characterised by religious and ideological pluralism. I want to suggest that it contributes to ethics inthepublic realrn and to environrnental ethics in fıve interrelated dimensions 1• Theology intensifıes our sensitivity to the issues. A perspective on the world that takes creation as its starting point is signifıcantly different from one that imagines the universe as hostile or indifferent. Secondly it motivates us to transiate and critically appropriate other perspectives and disciplines. It helps us sustain our comrnitrnent, even in the face of failure, anticipating and exploring ethical possibilities even i(~w~ cannot complete our best projects ourselves. It is not just that we hope to fınd resources to resist instrurnentalising nature and to persist in our attempts to transform unjust institutions, it is that we continue to be motivated to do so. Thirdly a faith-based ethic provides heuristic potential-it alerts us to what is morally relevant and it points to acbievements and rnistakes of past paradigrns. So although we can say that we are working in a new context, that of climate change, environrnental degradation and most recently a structural shift in global food prices, the central issues remain the same. How do we respect the dignity of the each subjective other? What do we mean by justice and how do we promote it? What models of the good life truly reflect our creatureliness, our embodied freedom? · Fourtbly theological ethi~s helps us to integrate our principles and practices in domaincontexts. Theological ethics, for example, has to critically evaluate the con:flict between sustainability (securing noi:ı-renewable resources over time) and development (meeting broad humanitarian goals such as the alleviation of injustice, inequality and poverty). In this cantext we can say that stewardship, as it has been defıned here, is related to sustainability but adds to it ina specifıc way. It builds on sustainability by including a wider view of who benefıts from the management of environrnental resources2 . In prioritising the irreplaceable dignity of the human person, stewardship demands that distributive justice and capacity building as routes to sustainable development are built into environrnental management from the beginning. specifıc

And lastly theological perspectives relativise ethical questions. Theology points beyand ethics. The idea that we are creatures of a good God captures much more than nature appreciation or environmentalism would allow. It reminds us that the human person fıts into the world as the one responsible for it, and that this realisation isa 'graced moment', evenin the face of current hardships and privation. The liberation and salvation of humanity is not incidentally bound up with nature or the environrnent. Faith relocates the human person not ina casmos of 'ornnipotent matter rolling on its relentless way' butonefor which the human person is destined, in liberation and fellowship. 5. Participation not instrurnentalisation of the human person Sustainability has become a guiding theme in environrnental ethics. The tendeney is usually to focus on the descriptive aspects of this concept-usually on the needs of current and future generations-and less on the question of values or on the normative aspects of sustainability-that is i ts social and ethical foundation 3• Achieving environmental sustainability may well require, not top-down paternalism, but just the opposite: more participation and invohrement by citizens in environrnental policies (taxes. on petrol or These five were first outlined in Mieth, D. "Autonomy of Ethlcs-NeJ!~lity of the Gospel? Concilium, 18 (1982): 32-39. . . 2 . Amartya Sen, "Why W e Should Preserve the Spotted Owl," London Review of Books 26, no. Feb 5th (2004), Ol .html. 3 Paul Thompson, The Spirit ofthe Soil: Agriculture and Environmental Ethics (London: Routledge, 1995). 1


reductions in the production of greenhouse gases) 1• Sustainable development is about more than econoınic growth, it also involves participation and citizenship, which are valuable in and of themselves. Present trends of consumption are unsustainable, at least in relation to non-renewable resources. What we need to fınd are ways to judge the policies and possibilities open to us, ways that are not imposed by coercion or necessity but by building capacity and freedoms. Amartya Sen, a Nobel-Prize-wining economist, takes the example of the use of coercive state policy to control population growth in China since 19792• I want to briefly rehearse his arguınent here because I think it is an illuminating test case for the model of stewardship and environmental ethics that I have presented above; one that argues that it is by defending human dignity that we will fınd better ınechanisıns, than coercion, for inforıned participation to achieve sustainability. Conventional wisdom has it that China leads the world in population control through its one-child policy. This is of course notwithstanding the fact that there are severe social consequences of such a policy-neglect of children and sex-selective abortion to name but two. Yet this analysis may indeed be a false picture of the 'acbievements' of this coercive policy. Other societies (Sen cites Kerala in India) have ınade similar progress without coercion and have had comparable or even larger reductions in 'fertility' 3 . In fact the Chinese achievement has to be seenin the cantext of other social trends 4 • The. reductions China has achieved are in line with what might be expected due to the influence of social factors that tend to lead to a spontaneous reduction in birth frequency: expanding education for men and women; providing more job opportunities for women; and stimulating rapid economic growth, for example. And China has made progress in that regard5 . Blacking opportunities for inforıned participation is already a significant loss of freedom6. Contrary to the received wisdom Sen's work provides convincing empirical evidence that a model of environmental citizenslıip that expands freedoms is more likely to deliver a population dividend, and thereby an environmental dividend, than is coercion. Conclusion In contrast to some ecocentric and theocentric theologies, this paper deseribes and defends a human-centred ethics and the dignity of each human person in . the changing cantext of instability in the global climate system and structural shifts in the production of food and other agricultural commodities. The role of the steward is reconstructed on the basis of an anthropology of 'embodied freedom' which positively evaluates human creativity, while also acknowledging our contingency, frailty and failure. Christian theology shares with the Abrahamic religions a deep appreciation for the goodness of creation, into which humanity 'fıts' as the one responsible for it. And this appreciation, I suggest, goes far beyond any relationality conceptualised in environmental ethics or indeed the natural sciences. 1

Sen, "Why We Should Preserve the Spotted Owl."

2 --, 3

Development as Freedom.

lbid., 204-26. 4 - - , "Why W e Should Preserve the Spotted Owl." 5 Undeniably population growth creates a challenge to the goals of sustainability. However, three things are very significant in this regard; food production is weJI ahead of population growth, hunger is a product of structural inequalities not food scarcity, and lastly there is evidence to show that the rate of population expansion is slowing. The prediction of mass famine that will ensue with population growth, that is so persistent in the popular imagination, is not new and like many misconceived theories can kill. As Sen says, this 'Malthusian perspective ... has much blood on its hands'. --,Development as Freedom, 209. 6 - - , "Why W e Should Preserve the Spotted Owl."


Theological ethics contributes to environmental ethics in the public realm in five dimensions. It intensifies our sensitivity to the issues. It motivates us to engage in dialogue and interdisciplinarity. It helps us to discover what is morally relevant. It allows for the integration of principles with context-specific evidence. And lastly, it relativises ethics in that it encourages us to consider, beyond questions of justice and freedom, the foundational questions of meaning, and of fellowship. Bibliography

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