3.3.2 A patron saint for ecology

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Unit 3 Contents



In fact, Lynn White’s article was itself not as relentlessly negative about the Christian tradition as the impression which I think the discussion in Henning’s chapter gives.  White recognized that there had been a few voices in Christian history which had given a different view of how humans and the rest of nature are related.  In particular, White made the case for St Francis of Assisi, who is famous for talking with animals and birds as well as for the Canticle of Brother Sun.  At the end of White’s article, he said:

The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, Saint Francis, proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it; he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation. He failed…  The profoundly religious… sense of the primitive Franciscans… may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists (p. 1207; for reference see next reading).

You may like to read White’s whole article.  It isn’t long but is quite demanding as it assumes some prior knowledge of western history and in particular the history of science.  But in light of your study of the module so far, you are likely to be in a good position to get to grips with it.


Optional reading (c.12pp)

Lynn White Jr, ‘The historical roots of our ecologic crisis

Originally published in Science, vol. 155 (1967), pp. 1203-07


White’s use of ‘man’ to refer to ‘humanity’ throughout this article may be jarring, but 50 years ago that was still standard practice in academic writing.


Twelve years after White’s article, Pope John Paul II did exactly what White had called for!  In 1979 the Pope made St Francis the ‘patron saint of those who promote ecology’.  The next reading is a very short article about St Francis.  It outlines a Franciscan approach to ecology and how this differs from approaches that are anthropocentric (human-centred) and therefore leave God out the picture.


Reading (4pp)

‘Francis and Nature’

Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit in the Province of Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia


However Lynn White’s main charge against Christianity is not fully answered by Francis being made Patron Saint of Ecology.  White’s claim was that inherent in Christian theological understanding of the place of humanity in the world was a very strong assertion of human superiority to all other creatures, and that the rest of creation is there for humans to exploit as they wish.  Central to this is the issue of what it means to say that human beings are ‘made in God’s image’ and are given ‘dominion’ within creation.

We need to give some careful attention to this.  The next few screens form a very important part of this unit.



End of 3.3.2

Go to 3.3.3 Scriptural texts relating to ecological responsibility


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