Christianity, anthropocentrism and reframing the narrative

By Charlee New 29 Nov 2018

Christians face a paradoxical challenge: we need to act on climate change, whilst (at the same time) we must face our reputation as the religion that cares least about the environment.

For some of our readers, this claim Christians care little for the natural world or its animal inhabitants might seem odd. And yet, the current cultural narrative places much of the blame for environmental destruction with what is known as anthropocentrism—the worldview that places man at the centre of the universe (literally, ‘human being’— ‘centre’). Much of this began with historian Lyn White Jr.’s 1967 paper, The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis, which had a lasting impact on conservation and environmental studies. White claimed that, “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen”, and that (Western) Christianity's interpretation of the creation narrative insists that it is “God’s will that man exploits nature for his proper ends.” White’s idea has gained currency and Christianity now faces the charge of carrying inherent problems with the environment. Namely, Christianity fosters an instrumentalist view of nature and animals, and promotes man’s superiority in a way that is incompatible with attempting to live sustainably and compassionately on the planet.

Christians must be quick to reflect honestly on such criticisms, however it is also crucial to affirm that Christians do not need to shuffle shamefaced towards environmental activism, leaving their biblical thinking 'at the door'. Firstly because the Christianity of the industrial revolution was tied to other parts of the culture (causal relationships between ideology, culture and historical events are always complex) and secondly, because we can insist that the theologies of stewardship, brothership with animals and responsibility reflect a more accurate biblical perspective which provides immense impetus towards care for the environment.

However, the debate around Christianity's role in the degradation of the environment is also a key example of the power of framing a narrative. This power is neatly articulated by Nigel Cameron:

 'Who frames the conversation?  Frame it and you win; that’s where the leverage lies. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury managed to. We rarely do.'

In this instance, framing the conversation around the environment has created a space (particularly in secular environmental organisations and certain areas of the university) where individual Christians might be tolerated in activism, but Christianity as a whole isn’t needed—rather, it is considered antithetical to the aims.

As well as firming up our theological basis for creation care, one of the ways that Christians might reframe the narrative around Christian environmental reform is to recover the lost historical involvement of Christians in these causes. In fact, this method may allow us a key opportunity for bridge-building as it can offer a surprise to those individuals who are most set against Christian involvement. Indeed, it often creates a moment of surprise among Christians too!

For example, when you hear the name William Wilberforce, what comes to mind? The campaign against slavery perhaps, or maybe the 'reformation of manners'? However, a lesser-known fact is that Wilberforce was a founding member of the RSPCA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Moreover, the informal network of individuals concerned about the treatment of animals that included Wilberforce and became the RSPCA, was spearheaded largely by the efforts of the Reverend Arthur Broome. Indeed, many of the founding members were Christians or clergy, and they attempted a change of popular opinion through methods that included publications, tracts and sermons against cruelty. Consider also the Society's sponsorship, in 1837, of an essay-writing competition where the essay had to 'morally illustrate, and religiously enforce, the obligation of man towards the inferior and dependent creatures' and demonstrate compassion to animals is 'harmonious with the spirit and doctrines of Christianity'. Many of the entrants went on to publish their essays for wider readership, and the winner, Revered John Styles published a longer work entitled The Animal Creation: Its claims on our humanity stated and enforcedAlthough others in the founding group were not as explicitly motivated by their faith, there was a strong Christian effort and reasoning behind some of our earliest attempts at anti-cruelty legislation. Despite appearing to be a thoroughly secular organisation today, it is encouraging to remember, recapture and reframe the Christian efforts behind the RSPCA, which is, after all, the oldest and largest animal welfare organisation in the world.

Uncovering these stories from the past can (and should) give us hope and inspiration for dealing with today's challenges with the environment. Crucially, it also allows us to resist the oversimplification of the narrative of Christianity's involvement in the current environmental crisis (see last week's blog on the dangers of oversimplification). Christians have been wrong on the environment, but they have also, at times, been right, acting justly and humanely—and with results that we still benefit from today.

For more biblical thinking on this topic, see our 2014 Cambridge Paper The Bible and Biodiversity by Dave Bookless. The paper's bibliography also offers a further set of resources.

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