The Cambridge Companion to Christianity and the Environment
Series: Cambridge Companions to Religion
- ISBN: 9781108816823
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: August 2022
The Cambridge Companion to Christianity and the Environment is a thorough and timely collection of papers. Edited by Alexander J.B. Hampton and Douglas Hedley, this anthology brings together eighteen authors of diverse scholarly backgrounds, and builds on the increased attention towards our environmental and economic crisis, which was made more acute by the pandemic. The book makes a case for why Christianity has much to offer in addressing the matters of biodiversity loss, food security, and species extinction we face today.
Hampton’s introductory chapter, in addition to outlining the scope and contents of the work, primarily addresses the legacy of Lynn White Jr.’s 1976 paper “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” White’s scathing critique of Western Christianity, which he charges with being “the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen,” motivates much of the framing of the volume (4). Hampton notes that a primary goal of the anthology, in service to the scholarly studies of religion and the environment, is to further contribute to the many voices who have already extensively problematized and contested White’s claim, and to serve as an aid for understanding the relationships between those critiques (6).
The book is divided into three sections. The first, titled “Concepts,” explores how different conceptions of the environment within Western Christianity have influenced its theology. Notably, Robin Attfield disputes White’s critique—as well as John Passmore’s modified form of the same argument—contending that the tradition of stewardship within Christianity presents a nurturing, biocentric approach to the environment. Even though White “may have misdescribed Christian theology,” Attfield observes that his thesis may still yield some fruit “when applied to the property-oriented individualism and capitalism of the Christianity of the period from the seventeenth century onwards,” and he draws (66).
Andrew Davison’s chapter is a remarkable undertaking. Using the concept of participation, he attempts to develop a position that is both God-centered and environmentally attuned. Drawing heavily on Aquinas, he argues, using participatory terms, that if all of creation shares in and derives its form from its creator, then admiring the wonders of nature may “equally well be a cause or vehicle” to admire the creator; likewise, a belief in God may entail a duty to care for his creation (81). Davison’s reframing of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) in participatory terms is especially insightful, showing how if all of creation is derived from and dependent on God, then it is a gift—not a metaphysical necessity—and a continued one at that. Its present existence in form, matter, and spirit rely upon the enduring care of its maker (83).
The second part, “Histories,” considers how key periods in the Latin West have understood humanity’s relationship with nature, and how these trends have shifted with time. This is an especially rich section, moving from Crystal Addey’s excellent analysis of how Christian thinkers engaged with Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Aristotelian articulations of nature in formulating their own understandings of creation, and Kellie Robertson’s consideration of the revival of the “discovery of nature” and the divine chain of being within the medieval encyclopedic tradition, through to examinations of the 17th century advent of mechanist philosophy and the American Transcendentalists’ engagement with Romanticism, Idealism, and Protestantism (131, 135). Mark Stoll’s analysis of American Puritanism’s concerns with resource conservation and industrial growth provides an especially helpful grounding of the volume’s themes in a North American case study (164). Likewise, Sean J. McGrath’s survey of contemporary religious ecological movements ties a number of interreligious discussions, from neo-paganism to ecological monotheism, together under the theological call to action for humanity to address the anthropogenic climate crisis (197–198).
Finally, “Engagements” addresses key concepts and themes concerning the relationship between Christianity and the environment. Michael S. Northcott’s chapter on indigenous forms of traditional ecological knowledge is especially notable, seamlessly addressing how understandings of “creaturely agency” within these ontologies may best assist in the rediscovery of similar Christian perspectives (243). Hampton’s own chapter evaluates the contributions of aesthetic realism to conceptions of the inherent value of nature. His framing of the history of these understandings provides an especially constructive overview of the importance of art in spurring efforts to appreciate and conserve nature (283). Willemien Otten’s concluding chapter provides a much-needed discussion of gender and hierarchy, and how creation came to be gendered masculine and nature feminine. The specter of gender haunts much of the volume, and so it was especially fruitful to have a chapter dedicated to its analysis at the end, with Otten carefully proposing two interrelated ways forward: a reconceptualization of “gender roles in creation as ‘created’,” being “humanly constructed rather than divinely made,” and by drawing on Maximus the Confessor and Eriugena’s rediscovery of the voice of nature to forward a view of nature’s role in creation as a “religious force in its own right” (315–316).
From the outset of the introduction, Hampton remarked that if “circumstances allowed, a more expansive title, such as ‘Christianity, Nature, Creation, and the Environment in the West’ might have been more suitable,” acknowledging the focus on the Latin West across the chapters (5). In fulfilling its goal to aid scholars across disciplines in further appreciating Christian contributions to critiques of what Hampton calls the “now globalised version of the modern Western subject-centered social imaginary,” and its reinforcement of wealth inequality, destabilization of indigenous forms of natural knowledge, and anthropocentrism, this volume is a significant triumph, casting its analytical net wide but remarkably deep (7). What is especially impressive is that so many of the authors manage to eloquently speak across traditions, firmly grounded in Christian philosophy while still creating ample breadth for interreligious dialogue—further emphasizing the weight of what faith traditions may contribute to ecological and conservation efforts. We may hope that similar anthologies, both within Christian spheres (focusing on Eastern Orthodox perspectives, for example) and beyond them, may be inspired by this volume’s ambitious and successful achievement.
Katarina Pejovic is a doctoral candidate in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.Katarina PejovicDate Of Review:June 28, 2023