Finding a Theology of Nature: With animal rights advocates wary of religion and many environmentalists practically deifying nature, theologian and author Stephen Webb '83 advocates a middle path from a surprising source--a Jewish and Christian view of the natural world and a call to the Church to become more involved in animal rights issues.
thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
Those words from Aldo Leopold's classic A Sand County Almanac have become the ethical maxim for many ecologists, environmental educators, and an increasing number of theologians and religious writers as well. Author and Wabash Professor of Philosophy and Religion Stephen Webb '83 challenged that view in an essay entitled "Ecology vs. the Peaceable Kingdom: Towards a Theology of Nature," published in 1996 in the journal Soundings. This maxim, Webb claimed, "reflects an old theodicy that tries to see this world as the best it could possibly be." He asks readers to consider the question: Should we really accept the idea that nature as it is now coincides with God's ultimate intentions?
Wabash Magazine asked him to discuss his essay and his beliefs:
WM: What were you trying to accomplish in writing this essay?
Webb: I think there were two groups of people with whom I wanted a dialogue: animal rights supporters, who often don't think that religion has anything to contribute to our understanding of nature; and certain environmentalists who tend to deify nature. I wanted to articulate the middle path between those two groups of people.
WM: What is that "middle path?"
Webb: The rich heritage of stories and reflections on nature found in Judaism and Christianity. That heritage includes a respect for nature, but not a romanticization of nature. It says that humans are in charge of nature and have a special role to play in God's plan for the world. That special role does not entail violence to or exploitation of nature. That special role entails doing unto nature as God has done unto us--taking care of nature and being the stewards of nature.
WM: You've taken exception to Aldo Leopold's statement that "a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community." What are the theological roots of a statement like that?"
Webb: I suppose some would say you'll find something like that more in non-western religions than in the Jewish and Christian tradition. That's not really true. A lot of people today want to say that Eastern religions have a much more holistic approach to nature, but I think that holistic approach is really an invention of Western intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries--romantic poets like Wordsworth who were still religious, but were increasingly alienated from traditional Christianity and the institutional church. They wanted to have a sense of worship, to have an experience of the Divine, and increasingly they looked to nature to take the place of the Church. They wanted nature to be their Church. So you get, in the romantic poetry, philosophy, and theology, a real emphasis on nature as the abode of the Divine--nature itself is deified.
One of the strengths of Christianity is that it looks at nature as something distinct from God and distinct from humanity; it gives nature it's own distinct place. It has its own integrity, reality, and history. And humans have a role to play in nature; humans are stewards.
WM: You say that nature is "fallen from grace." What tangible evidence do you see of this?
Webb: Life lives off life in nature. Animals have to eat each other. There's a proliferation of life that leads to competition for scarce resources.
When I look at nature, I see death more than I see life. Death is the necessity that makes life possible. Many people don't want to think about how much pain and suffering nature does involve--they'd rather think of it as a self-correcting system. But it's not. Nature does get out of balance, even without humans making things worse.
WM: Your essay expresses a deep concern for animals that seems compatible with the views of those concerned with the rights of animals. My guess is you'd part company with them at some point?
Webb: Animal rights activists want to extend to animals the same rights that humans have, so they base their ethical treatment of animals on the notion of rights--that animals have certain absolute, inviolable rights. They want to protect animals from us. I think that that is a wrong way of contextualizing the issue.
Humans are involved in the life of almost every animal on this planet in one way or another, and you can't wish that fact away. So I think we have to think of humans and animals in terms of a partnership, not in terms of protecting animals from humans. And I think we have to emphasize the special role that humans do have on this planet-that humans are created in the image of God and do have a special responsibility to creation and have been given the rationality and power to implement those responsibilities.
WM: Yet a lot of the havoc wreaked upon nature has occurred with, at best, little resistance from the organized Church and, at worst, the blessing of the Church.
Webb: Where Christianity really went wrong in its view of nature was with Thomas Aquinas, who adopted Aristotle's position that animals are irrational and are to be used as a means to the end of human benefit. Aquinas thought that we have no direct moral duties to animals. Through Aquinas that whole Aristotelian tradition gets passed down to the Christian West.
Within the Church there was a counterforce to this in St. Francis, but...he represents a sort of ecological pantheism that is a bit on the margins of Christian tradition.
St. Francis is the patron saint of many environmentalists today trying to develop an ecological world view because they want to see all of nature, all of matter, as sacred. I think that is a dangerous position.
WM: In what way?
Webb: For example, one who takes a kind of pantheistic approach to the environment would not end up as a vegetarian or in an animal rights position because that person would say that the fact that animals live off of each other is what makes nature work. So animals eating animals is natural-that's part of the sacrality of nature. So that position in effect justifies violence as something that is natural.
That reveals a big gap between the animal rights camp and the environmentalists. Environmentalists tend to not treat animals as having absolute value. [For environmentalists], animals have value according to their species, how they fit into ecological systems.
Animal rights thinkers tend to say that each individual animal has the same kind of value that each human being has, so that each animal has a unique and infinite sacred value.
Those two positions are actually quite at odds with each other.
WM: That's where your position comes in?
Webb: My essay is really an attempt to make a middle path between those two. But my real goal is to recover for Christians today confidence that the biblical Christian tradition has distinctive things to say about nature. Most of us raised in the 1960s and 1970s were taught that Judaism and Christianity are completely bankrupt when it comes to the issues of environmentalism and animal protection--that those two religions are not environmentally friendly.
WM: When, in fact, they are?
Webb: Look at the Hebrew scriptures, where there are countless laws that regulate the use of animals and use of land. In fact, in both Old and New Testaments there is a real longing for the restoration of nature to its pristine and harmonious state in the Garden of Eden. You have the prophet Isaiah talking about the lion laying down with the lamb. You have the Book of Revelation portraying animals worshipping God. And, of course, Jesus himself is born in a stable.
There is a lot more in the biblical tradition about nature and animals that's more positive than most people think. The story of Jesus going out to the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights is interesting in this regard. The New Testament doesn't tell us exactly what he did during that time period, but a lot of early Christian theologians thought that he went out there to live in harmony with nature--that this was his time to restore peace to nature and to be with the animals.
In fact, the early monks who founded the monastic tradition in Egypt looked at that story as an inspiration. They went into the desert themselves to live frugally off the land and to co-exist with the animals there. They thought they were literally following in the steps of Jesus when they did that.
The early monks were definitely radicals when it came to treating the environment. They were some of the most progressive thinkers about how to best co-exist in harmony with nature that ever lived.
WM: You've said that we should not look to nature for moral principles. What are the dangers of inferring moral principles from nature?
Webb: You can look around at nature and see it's a dog-eat-dog world, and you can therefore infer that there is a certain level of violence that God may have intended for us--that the kind of competitiveness and violence we see in nature is acceptable.
I think it's important for Christians to keep in mind that the world is not now how God intended it to be. That's the moral principle that Christians should keep in mind--that the world is, as Paul says, "groaning for release from its travails and hardships."
WM: You also write that we "should not try to protect nature from us, as if nature's ultimate value is to be self-contained and isolated."
Webb: Certain romantic elements in the ecological movement want to blame everything bad in the world on human intervention and want to protect nature from humans. My argument is humans and nature are inextricably connected already and that nature can be properly managed and we can learn to manage it better. But we can't withdraw from nature, as if nature would be a good thing if only we weren't there.
WM: What's the model for that relationship with nature?
Webb: One of the models is the way we should take care of domesticated animals--the ways we've learned to live with these animals for centuries, the ways in which we've learned to work them but also to treat them well...I'm talking about pets--cats and dogs.
Just as pets are an example of human-animal partnership, a garden is an example of human and nature partnership. Look at Yellowstone, for example. Every acre is managed, however well or poorly. But we know we are responsible for that area, and I think that's going to happen to most of the wild areas. You need ecological experts. You need scientific data. You need to be managing and taking responsibilty for those wild areas..
WM: You've also suggested that we should not encourage or enhance violence in nature?
Webb: This is probably the most controversial aspect of my essay. So many people today romanticize the wolf, and I have a real problem with that. I have nothing against the wolf, and I certainly wouldn't encourage anyone to go out and wantonly kill wolves as men used to do. On the other hand, I think there are ways to manage wildlife parks like Yellowstone without introducing predator animals like the wolf back into the park.
I'm not saying we can so recreate nature that we can eliminate predation. Obviously, predation is a central aspect of nature. All I'm saying is that we shouldn't romanticize predation. If there are alternatives to predation, we should pursue them in our attempts to create well-managed habitats.
WM: Listening to all these ways to "control" nature makes me wonder if we aren't getting dangerously close to developing arrogance or hubris: do we really believe we can successfully control all of this stuff?
Webb: That's the first reaction most people have to this position. They say it's hard enough to make human institutions compassionate and fair and just, so how are we possibly going to make nature itself just and fair and God-like. Isn't this just foolish and arrogant to think that we can do this?
Unfortunately, we have to do it. The world is shrinking, and human involvement in nature is such that there is no choice. It's not a question of whether we're going to affect and control nature, but how we're going to manage these animals. All animals will one day be under the domain and control of human responsibility.
WM: All this isn't really going to work though, is it?
WM: Let me rephrase that: Is the point so much that this is the most effective approach or that it is the right, even righteous approach?
Webb: I think that the effective way coincides with the Christian way. Christianity teaches that the fate of all animals is to be subjugated to a right and proper relationship with humans anyway.
WM: That sounds prophetic rather than prescriptive.
Webb: It does. It is. What I'm trying to say is that Christianity has a vision of animals in harmony with humans at the beginning of time in the Garden of Eden and a vision of the lamb and the lion laying down with humans at the end of time, at the eschaton, in the world to come. So I think Christianity and Judaism actually anticipate what's going on right now and it gives us guidance about that.
The Christian and Jewish prophets always knew that it was not the destiny of animals to be separated from people but was the destiny of all animals to come into harmony with humans.
That's why I think vegetarianism is so important--because it is the most potent symbolic expression of God's restoring the world to God's original intentions.
WM: You've been a vegetarian for some time. Is it your view that Christians should be vegetarians, and should Christians be protesting factory farming?
Webb: The vegetarian movement as we know it today has its roots in people who were alienated from traditional religion, so that nowadays we think of vegetarianism as a sort of New Age, pagan, almost anti-Christian movement. I think vegetarianism is merely a powerful anticipation of that day when God will restore the world to its original harmony and in that restoration there will be no violence--animals will not kill animals and humans won't kill animals either. So we should start preparing ourselves for that time right now.
I think it's unfortunate that churches in this country say very little about the animal rights movement, about how to treat animals. I'd like to try to get a discussion on this going in the churches and synagogues. Right now, most Christians and Jews think of the animal rights movement as something quite alien to their Western religious beliefs. But it really just got hijacked, and I'd like to bring it back.
The moral problem we need to give most attention is the treatment of domesticated animals. They are dependent on us. We need to protest against the way many food animals are treated by not participating in the meat industry in this country.
WM: Why should any graduate of a liberal arts college care about what a theologian has to say about nature and the natural world, subjects which are normally the realm of scientists?
Webb: Because nature is not natural. What we think of nature is actually a social construct. What we think of nature is informed by philosophical, literary, and theological traditions.
Secondly, because we are confronted all the time with ethical choices about how to treat nature. What to eat, what to wear, how to develop and manage land. And scientists can contribute to the answers to those questions, but can't answer them completely. They are really in the realm of philosophy and religion. We need to think about what moral principles are operative here and what traditions and heritages can best inform our moral outlook in terms of how to make these complicated and important decisions.
Professor Webb is the author of the soon-to-be published book On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals (Oxford University Press, Fall 1997). He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org; or at the College address.