Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book review: "Pollution and the Death of Man", Francis Schaeffer

Pollution and the Death of ManPollution and the Death of Man by Francis A. Schaeffer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1960s, awareness was growing that humanity could have impacts on the planet's life systems that were profound and long-lasting. What did Christian faith have to say about this? A highly influential article by White, "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis" (Science 10 March 1967: 1203-1207; available online) set the agenda for eco-theology for the next half century. White argued that Christianity itself bore a heavy responsibility for humanity's destructiveness towards the natural world: "By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference".

Schaeffer's book, first published in the early 1970s, was perhaps the earliest evangelical response to White - at that time few evangelicals showed much awareness of ecological issues. (A brief personal observation. When I became a Christian in about 1973 I devoured Schaeffer's works, and they were mind-expanding - opening my eyes to art and literature and general culture and ecology and much beside. He had his ears and heart open.) The book reprints White's article in full, so that readers can engage with it on its own terms.

The book begins with a personal example about DDT in birds' eggs, and formulates ecological questions in terms of "pollution" (remember, this is just after "Silent Spring") - living peaceably on the earth without damaging it. Picking up on White, Schaeffer asks what fundamental ways of thinking shape the way that humanity treats the natural world. Is Christianity the problem? He does not defend Christian practice - indeed, one of the most memorable things about the book is its passionate indictment of the ugliness and shallowness of much Christian practice, its false spirituality which despises the body and the earthly. But rather than taking a pantheistic turn, Schaeffer argues that a right Christian theology will honor the natural creation without worshiping it: "Christians, of all people, should not be the destroyers. We should treat nature with an overwhelming respect... Saint Francis' use of the term 'brothers to the birds' is not only theologically correct, but ... to be thought of ... to be practiced ... to be *felt* as I face the tree, the bird, the ant.... If I love the Lover, I love what the Lover has made."

A basic question about all of Schaeffer's thought is whether "getting our worldview right" is really as important or as effective as he believed. The last paragraph of the book begins, "When we have learned this - the Christian view of nature - then there can be a real ecology; beauty will flow, psychological freedom will come, and the world will cease to be turned into a desert." Strong words. At any rate I think it can be said that how we worship forms who we are. If our worship articulates the understanding of and joy and awe in creation that suffuses this book, we will become people who are closer to God and who more deeply respect what God has made.

View all my reviews

No comments: