International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

This Sacred Earth

by Roger Gottlieb

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

The ecological crisis – global warming, loss of biodiversity, pollution of the land and the seas – is, with the possible exception of the world’s nuclear stockpile, the greatest threat facing humankind today. Many think that religion (Christianity in particular), with its anthropocentrism, is a major causal factor in today’s dilemma. This Sacred Earth, a large and very comprehensive set of readings on and around the crisis and the involvement and relevance of religion (not just Christianity), provides absolutely vital background reading for anyone wishing to learn about these issues.

Divided into seven sections, the book begins with historical readings, including passages by the American transcendentalists Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as more recent writers like Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand Country Almanac. We move next to the ways in which religions traditionally have viewed nature.  Particularly valuable here is the wide range of positions offered, not just Christian and Jewish, but Eastern (Hindu, Buddhist), Ancient (Greek), New World (Aztec), and more.  From here, we arrive at critiques of the religious traditions as well as attempts to move religious thinking forward in profitable ways. The well-known criticism of the Christian tradition, The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis, by historian Lynn White, is included here as well as stimulating suggestions for rethinking the topic by Catholic theologian John F. Haught, whose piece, Christianity and Ecology, shows his deep indebtedness to process philosophy.

Midway through the collection we get to ecofeminism, a collection of approaches based on the common belief that much wrong with the environment is a reflection of the patriarchal nature of society, particularly Western society. Reflecting the eclectic or ecumenical nature of this movement, the collection includes not just Christian-inspired critiques and discussions, but also thinking that comes from neo-pagan sources together with Third World perspectives, e.g. The Chipko Women’s Concept of Freedom, by Indian activist Vandana Shiva.

Next come pieces on or about the “deep ecology” movement, a program that makes the earth and its ecosystems central and refuses to accord humans any special status.  Showing the interconnectedness of many of the discussions in the collection, the ideas of this section should be contrasted with an earlier piece, the very careful (although somewhat critical) comparison with Christian thinking, Protestant Theology and Deep Ecology, by the process theologian John B. Cobb Jr. That essay demonstrates that, although a concerned Christian will share many of the concerns and premises of the deep ecologist, essentially these are two very different philosophical approaches to nature.

The penultimate section, on religious practices and rituals, is followed by a final section dealing with the overall societal implications of the religious approach to ecology.  Included here are several official statements by particular religious denominations. I note that evangelicals are not greatly represented and suspect that this is no mere chance, since denials of global warming often emanate from those convinced that God gave us the world for our use and that He will protect us no matter what we do or exploit. 

Overall, this collection is indispensable. It will be of very great value as a pedagogical tool but primarily as a very good way for the individual to get acquainted with the major issues about the ecological crisis and its implications for and connections with religion.