I’ve expressed my disappointment with the majority of theological engagements with ecology and that disappointment has come up again as I’ve been preparing my lectures for Environmental Ethics and Religious Thought. It seems that a lot of theologians focus in on the “split between nature and culture” as the underlying idea driving the ecological crisis. It isn’t just the high-church orthodox ones either. Lynn White’s famous essay that locats the “psychic foundation” for the ecological crisis in the turn from paganism to monotheism is really about what more contemporary thinkers refer to as the split between nature and culture. For White sees in Christianity the enthroning of humanity over and above nature. You then have Northcott responding to this claim with the counter that it was “the wrong kind of Christianity” that created this split. So, rather than dealing head on with the charge (which could be spurious anyway), Northcott moves around it, all the while leaving the underlying thesis regarding nature and culture in place.
This so-called dualism really doesn’t bother me though. I don’t think that positing distinctions in reality lead to the ecological crisis. Nor do I think that a nature/culture split leads automatically to viewing the earth as just a collection of things to be used. I know you get this in Heidegger, the change from a river into the power that a river can provide, but that is part of the river. Even from a phenomenological perspective we don’t find any foundation for the rampant nostalgia present in the theologians’ insincere lamentations for a bygone era. I’m not the biggest fan of Latour’s work, but his theory of nature/culture hybrids does reveal something. Essentially, neither nature-as-that-which-is-but-is-not-human and culture-as-that-which-is-human-and-part-of-nature have priority. There is something univocal at work underlying nature and culture (with these definitions, since they are slippery terms). We can call that Nature’s character as One. But positing a dualism helps us to think the real immanence of Nature-as-One, for it is a formal and abstract separation, rather than a real one.
I think if theologians could get to grips with the truth of immanence they would be less terrified by death, by nature, by genes, and the like. It may help them get past their psychopathic ethics; the kind where you say things like “there is no death outside the church” or you’re living in fear that you don’t know what life is. For the truth of immanence is not naturalism, scientists don’t even believe in naturalism now days, but gnosis. Rather than thinking it is all occluded, all a paradoxical mystery supported by the hand of the Creator who humiliates his creatures, you just know.