When it comes to discussing how a particular religion responds to ecological crises, it is important to outline ecologically relevant theological postulates of this religion and to define the qualitative aspects of how it reflects upon psychological/behavioral leanings of its adherents. In my paper, I will aim to explore the validity of this suggestion at length, while promoting the idea that whereas Christianity’s stance on the issue of the natural environment preservation can be best referred to as somewhat arrogant, the ecological implications of Buddhism continue to represent a discursively legitimate value even today.
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Once the religion of Christianity is in question, the earlier mentioned task will not represent much of a challenge. After all, the reading of the Bible leaves very few doubts as to the fact that it does promote the idea that, in their relationship with the nature, people should never cease positioning themselves as those who have the preordained right to exercise a complete mastery over the representatives of this world’s flora and fauna, “God blessed them [humans], saying to them: ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it.
Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living animals on the earth” (Holy Bible: King James Version, Gen. 1.28). The environmentally unfriendly undertones of this Biblical commandment are quite clear – people, assumed to be the ‘masters of the world’, may have no morally-binding obligations towards nature by definition.
Therefore, there is nothing particularly surprising about the fact that Christianity has traditionally been considered as one of the world’s most ecologically arrogant religions, which encourages believers to think that, while dealing with the nature, all they have to be concerned about is how they can exploit the latter, without giving much thought to what would be the possible consequences.
As Nash noted, “In most mainstream Christian traditions… Nature is seen as a composite of ‘things,’ ‘raw materials,’ or ‘capital assets,’ that have only instrumental value for human economic production and consumption” (6). In full accordance with what the ‘good book’ prescribed them with, Christians are supposed to treat the nature in a rather inattentive manner, while expecting that this will win them God’s favor.
There is another aspect to Christian dogma, which eliminates even a theoretical possibility for its affiliates to consider treating nature with respect – the fact that Christianity is a thoroughly apocalyptic religion. While being encouraged to strive for reunion with God in the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and assuming that it is only the matter of time before this world will come to an end, Christians do not have objective motivations to behave in an environmentally conscious manner. After all, if this world is nothing but a bleak shadow of the invisible ‘divine world’, why would anyone be willing to apply a time-consuming effort to ensure nature’s preservation?
Nevertheless, it would be inappropriate to suggest that Christianity’s environmentally egotistical stance is of a solely theological nature. The rationale behind this suggestion is quite apparent – the discursive subtleties of Christianity correlate perfectly well with the White people’s psychological predispositions, which explain why, despite having originated in the Middle East, this religion thrived in the West. The validity of this suggestion can be explored in regards to these people’s endowment with the so-called ‘Faustian’ (Western) mentality.
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According to Greenwood, ‘Faustian’ existential values, professed by the majority of Westerners, are based on the assumption that, “Individual’s will-power must never cease combating obstacles… and that the conflict is the essence of existence” (53). It means that Westerners are predetermined to seek to attain full control over nature, as they derive emotional pleasure from subjecting the surrounding reality emanations to their willpower.
Even though, as of today, White people grow progressively secularized, their environmental stance remains fully consistent with how the Bible wanted them to treat nature. Once they experience an urge to be able to choose from hundreds of different kinds of sausages, they invent chemicals that facilitate the cows’ growth. Once they realize that mice are endangering their crops, they use other chemicals to exterminate these rodents. Once they find cats particularly cute, they deploy breeding techniques to alter these animals’ appearance – hence, making them even cuter, etc.
Therefore, it is fully explainable why, throughout the course of its history, Western civilization had faced a number of environmental crises – White people’s belief that they are the nature’s masters created objective preconditions for this to be the case. However, the same overconfidence on these people’s part, which reflects the ‘Faustian’ nature of their psyche, established prerequisites for them to be able to push forward the technological progress.
In addition, as history indicates, it is specifically the development of newly invented technologies that allowed Westerners/Christians to effectively address the periodically recurring environmental crises. For example, by the end of the 18th century, there were virtually no forests left in Britain and France, because almost all the trees had been cut down to build ships. Until the beginning of the 19th century, the windows in the building of the British Parliament had to be closed due to the proximity of the Thames River, which was London’s sewer at the time. Nevertheless, the outset of the Industrial Revolution provided an effective solution to the earlier mentioned environmental problems.
It is needless to mention that Christianity played only a marginal role in the context of how its affiliates went about ensuring Western societies’ environmental sustainability in the past. As Wright pointed out, “Western man’s utilitarian approach to nature in recent history is not a testimony to the all-pervading influence of Christianity… Rather, it is the result of the working out of potentialities of a species making use of its environment in the same sense that other species of animals” (852). After all, there may be a very little discursive difference between the process of people cutting down trees to build ships and the the process of beavers doing the same thing, while trying to build a dam.
Nowadays, discussing the manner in which Christianity responds to the ecological crisis, associated with the realities of the 21st century, does not make much sense. The reason for this is apparent – even the very term ‘ecology’ is nowhere to be found in the Bible, which was written at the time when people believed in the Earth’s flatness. This partially explains why Christianity is no longer being in a position to influence the introduction of new environmental policies in Western countries.
While elaborating on the dialectical causes of the Christianity’s decline, Durkheim stated, “Religion (Christianity) no longer thrills us (Westerners), because many of its aspects have passed into common usage to such a degree that we are no longer conscious of them, or because they do not meet our current aspirations” (Durkheim 43).
There are, of course, still many Christians who believe that there is nothing utterly wrong about polluting the environment, as God is keeping things under control and will make sure that the nature will continue remaining intact, regardless of the amount of damage it sustains from people. Hence, their criticism of the idea that all countries should make efforts to slow down the pace of Global Warming. However, given the fact that their stance, in this respect, has rarely been considered by the policy-makers in Western countries, it will only be logical to suggest that, as of today, Christianity has indeed ceased exerting influence on ecological discourses in the West.
Given the fact that Buddhism has traditionally dominated the region of South East Asia, it will only be logically appropriate to assume that there is nothing accidental about it. Apparently, just as Christianity correlates with the ‘Faustian’ psychological phenotype of Westerners, Buddhism correlates with the psychological phenotype of East Asians, commonly referred to as ‘Apollonian’. Bower outlined the discursive implications of this particular phenotype as follows, “In a variety of reasoning tasks, East Asians take a ‘holistic’ approach.
They make little use of categories and formal logic and instead focus on relations among objects and the context in which they interact… they direct their attention into a complex, conflict-strewn environment” (57). Unlike the case with Westerners, East Asians perceive themselves thoroughly objectualized within the surrounding environment which, in turn, causes them to experience the sensation of a holistic interconnectedness with nature. It explains why Buddhism’s stance on what should account for the morally sound relationship between people and nature, is being diametrically opposite to that of Christianity.
Whereas, Christianity implies that people should exploit the nature as a commodity, Buddhism prompts them to coexist with the nature peacefully, because, according to the Buddhist quasi-religious/philosophical doctrine, humans are themselves nothing else but the nature’s integral elements. Therefore, under no circumstances may they presume their ‘superiority’ over the nature, “While separating himself from Nature, Man is still a part of Nature, for the fact of separation itself shows that Man is dependent upon Nature” (Suzuki 183).
Hence, it is fully explainable why Buddhists suggest that people should follow the rule – ‘do not and never indulge in the activities that may harm the natural environment’. In its turn, this explains why it represents a commonplace practice among Buddhist monks to wear little ring-bells on their ropes, while walking through the woods, so that even the smallest insects would be aware of the monks’ presence – hence, increasing their chances of not being stepped upon.
The motif of interconnectedness between the reality’s observable emanations defines the very essence of Buddhist life-philosophy, “The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, moon, and stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the earth” (Buddhadasa 35). Moreover, it also serves as a theoretical foundation upon which the Buddhist vision of karma rests.
According to Buddhists, there is a cosmic law of justice to which people never cease being subjected, throughout the cycle of their rebirths. Those that have led the ecologically unfriendly lifestyles will be reborn as the affected animals/insects in their next lives. This is exactly the reason why Buddhism is being commonly referred to as the most environmentally friendly religion of all.
The validity of this statement may not only be illustrated in regards to what accounts for the theoretical aspects of how Buddhism encourages its affiliates to treat the natural environment, but also in regards to how Buddhists go about addressing the current ecological crisis. After all, it is specifically due to the Buddhists’ willingness to admit the acuteness of this crisis that many of them decide to embrace the so-called ‘engaged’ version of Buddhism, founded by the Buddhist monk Nhat Hanh during the sixties (Adorjan and Kelly 40).
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According to the practitioners of Engaged Buddhism, it is utterly wrong to think that the key-solution to the current ecological crisis is being concerned with the governmental officials’ ability to realize the acuteness of the issue in question, and to consequently take steps towards reducing the scope of the crisis’s negative consequences. Instead, ‘engaged’ Buddhists suggest that people should contribute to the protection of the environment on a deeply personal level. For example, they may well consider picking up cigarette butts, which can be commonly found laying on sidewalks.
They may also consider switching from riding cars to riding bicycles, filing lawsuits against companies that pollute the environment, adopting homeless cats and dogs, etc. By doing it, people will be able to not only contribute to the nature’s preservation, but also ‘purify’ their souls and strengthen the extent of their interconnectedness with the universe, “To understand our place in the world, we must begin by grasping our interbeing… This recognition is the necessary ﬁrst step toward socially and politically engaged action, which is inseparable from both personal well-being and an environmentally sound paradigm” (Gregory and Sabra 56).
It may be argued whether the people’s decision to follow the environmentalism-related commandments of Engaged Buddhism will result in lessening the severity of today’s ecological crisis. What cannot be argued, however, is the fact that, unlike the rest of the world’s major religions, Buddhism did in fact react to this crisis in a thoroughly practical manner. Therefore, there is nothing odd about the fact that today more and more environmentally conscious Westerners decide in favor of addressing their spiritual needs within the conceptual frame of this specific religious philosophy – even despite their endowment with the ‘Faustian’ mentality.
I believe that the earlier provided line of argumentation, regarding the subject matter in question, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. It appears that, as a religion, Christianity is indeed being ill-equipped to be able to effectively address the current ecological crisis. At the same time, however, the religion of Buddhism may well be referred to as the ‘way of the future’, for as long as providing the cause of environmental protection with the spiritual overtones is being concerned.
It is needless to mention, of course, that this point of view is far from being considered as such that represents an undeniable truth-value. What cannot be doubted, however, is that the time has come for humanity to begin taking active measures, meant to ensure the environment’s preservation. Given what has been said earlier, it appears that it is specifically the religion of Buddhism that is being adapted to the purpose of providing environmentally conscious individuals with a spiritual guidance, as to how they should go about addressing the current ecological crisis.
Adorjan, Michael and Benjamin Kelly. “Pragmatism and ‘Engaged’ Buddhism: Working Toward Peace and a Philosophy of Action.” Human Architecture 6.3 (2008): 37-49. Print.
Bower, Bruce. “Cultures of Reason.” Science News 157.4 (2000): 56-58. Print.
Buddhadasa, Bhikkhu. Buddhists and the Care of Nature. Bangkok: Komol Thimthong Foundation, 1990. Print.
Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: The Free Press, 1954. Print.
Greenwood, Susan. Anthropology of Magic. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2009. Print.
Gregory, Julie and Samah Sabra. “Engaged Buddhism and Deep Ecology: Beyond the Science/Religion Divide.” Human Architecture. 6.3 (2008): 51-65. Print.
Holy Bible: King James Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1996. Print.
Nash, James. “Toward the Ecological Reformation of Christianity.” Interpretation 50.5 (1996): 5-15. Print.
Suzuki, Daisetsu. Studies in Zen. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1955. Print.
Wright, Richard. “Responsibility for the Ecological Crisis.” BioScience 20.15 (1970): 851-853. Print.