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God is no argument for ecological claim

24 October 2011

Natural disasters. Photo Credit: raccems.files.wordpress.com

Peter Knauer SJ, 76, has been a professor of fundamental theology at Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt, Germany and is now working as pastor of the Spanish-speaking community in Brussels, Belgium. He is a well renowned theologian and in this occasion Peter shares with Ecojesuit his vision on the connection between theology and reason in the context of the current environmental crisis.

Peter, what do we learn about God when we are faced with current ecological challenges?

Ecological challenges are, as ethics is in general, an object of reason and not of faith. Faith neither makes them more urgent than they already are nor gives them a more obligatory character than they already have. But faith liberates us from the power of that anxiety for ourselves which is connected with our human condition: vulnerable and mortal. In faith we experience the freedom that definitely permits us to follow our conscience.

The entire universe, including its being created, is an object of reason. Only God’s self-communication is an object of faith. It is not possible to make use of God as an argument for ecological claims.

How can we articulate the vision of God’s kingdom, which is a vision of community building, in our circumstances of environmental turmoil?

The kingdom of God consists in the community of faith; faith relativises the power of the anxiety for ourselves which otherwise hinders us from following the reasons given by our ethical conscience. In a subsidiary way, faith is also active in contributing in favour of the obligations of reason themselves, but they remain obligations of reason and do not borrow from faith any higher status.

In which way can the Bible strengthen our commitment to care for the earth?

Certainly even in the Bible we find arguments for acting reasonably. But we should not try to give such arguments from theology a sort of “higher quality.” This would mean that we did not take seriously the arguments of reason itself.

Which spiritual expressions could help us to respond to the reconciliation with nature?

We may always praise God for the beauty of His creation. But this does not change the fact that ecology remains a question of reason. It would rather be an abuse of the word “God” to try to give theological reasons for ecology. But knowing oneself loved by God sets us free from those roots of egoism. The founding principle of ethics is the principle of proportionality, which gives us the criterion for the badness of an action, and that it is, in the last analysis, counterproductive and destructive in the long run. Indeed, more than any faith-related or spiritual consideration, sustainability is the real argument for ecology.

Peter Knauer, SJ

If you are interested on Peter Kanuer perspectives you would like to visit the website http://peter-knauer.de/ . You may also contact him at peter.knauer(at)jesuiten.org.

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3 Responses to God is no argument for ecological claim

  1. John Moore on 2 November 2011 at 11:24 am

    I agree with most of the arguments put forward by Peter Knauer to support the position in environmental ethics often referred to as ‘anthropocentric’; however I find that one sentence stands out like a sore thumb, since it goes against all that I stand for as a Catholic ecologist. I find it very hard to accept his statement that “It is not possible to make use of God as an argument for ecological claims.” I would like to claim that, not only is it possible to use our (admittedly inadequate) notions of God in ecological pleading, but that in certain circumstances it is even necessary.

    The arguments put forward by Knauer apply well in most areas of ethics, but I claim that in Environmental Ethics we need some extra principle. It was Arno Naess and the followers of his “Deep Ecology” in the 1970s who highlighted the fact that standard consequentialist ethical arguments as applied to ecological problems were largely ineffectual, or mere oratorical ‘scare tactics’ such as the well-publicised slogan “better reduce our CO2 output or there will be big trouble”.

    The Deep Ecology principle “The wellbeing and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have a value in themselves” sounds very plausible until we start probing – “how do you know?”, “how does a thing get a value?”. In the ordinary world of commerce we accept the judgement of an expert, unprejudiced valuer: for example ‘This diamond is 3 times more valuable than that one’. But when we are dealing with ecological matters, is there any unprejudiced valuer available? I may value highly a woodland plot where I can walk and relax, where I can wonder at the complexity of the interactions between the different species making up that ecosystem. My next-door neighbour knows its value also: “the timber alone will yield $10,000 and I can resell the cleared plot at a considerable profit”. He may counter my arguments by suggesting that I pay an outlandish annual rent if I wish to continue enjoying my esoteric interests.
    If I try to convince him: “BUT, each creature in there has a value in itself – (he may not know what the word ‘intrinsic’ means) – he can reply “Prove it.”

    Where can we get an expert and unprejudiced valuer not just for my woodland plot but for all those 10 million or more living species? Even the ecologists cannot be trusted – I kill mosquitoes regularly! Anyone from the West is automatically excluded from being appointed, due the centuries of brain-washing we have been exposed to from the Judaeo-Christian ethic in its greed-coloured interpretation of the verses of Genesis “let them (humans) have dominion …. over all (these creatures) and subdue them”. When Lynn White analysed ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” in the early days of environmental ethics (1967) and claimed that the culprit was our Judaeo-Christian ethic, many of us Christian ecologists were outraged and sprung to the defence of our theology with slanted exegesis of the words of Genesis or the building up of a “Theology of Stewardship.” Re-reading White’s essay now after all the controversy has died down, it is obvious that it was a very perceptive piece of writing. White was writing as a historian who had specialised in the Medieval Period in Europe. He is reporting on how things were. Technology and Science did combine; exploitation of the world around us and the conquering of ‘Nature’ was the accepted scripture-supported morality.

    So it was obvious from White’s analysis that human beings were excluded from being expert and unprejudiced valuers of the intrinsic worth of creatures. So our only possibility of an unprejudiced, knowledgeable valuer is God the Creator himself, and He tells us clearly that they are all good.

    Such a theocentric ethic is, of course, of no relevance to the atheist or the agnostic. But should that force us, who have been given the gift of faith, to refuse to use it in case we might abuse the word ‘God’ as Knauer puts it? For me, my belief in God does far more than just free me from the roots of my greedy egoism (delightfully described as ‘anxiety for ourselves’ by Knaur). It is the very root of the protective and caring attitude I try to have towards every element of our ecosystems.

    Lynn White’s concluding remark in his “Roots” paper, makes eminent sense to me: “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not”.

    John J. Moore, S.J.
    Jesuit Novitiate,
    Airport Road
    Lusaka.

  2. Peter Knauer on 27 October 2011 at 8:22 pm

    When we distinguish reason and faith, not only in the way of knowing but also in the object (cf. Vatican I, DS 3015), reason is just the way of treating the world in a sustainable way. And faith (that we are assumed in the love between the Father and the Son) is the certitude which makes us not to give after to the anxiety for ourselves which is at the root of all unhuman behaviour and which hinders us to follow our conscience (= reason!). All unhuman behaviour is lacking proportionality: it is counterproductive in the long run and seen under an unrestricted viewpoint (which is the viewpoint of ethics).

    But there are no different “reasons”. What may then be the meaning of the question “but which reason?”?

    Reason consists in being attentive to reality, in whichever culture you live. And the revelation of God does absolutely not substitute the necessary use of reason nor does it in any way substitute arguments of reason, even not in subsidiary way. Faith helps reason, not by new arguments, but by delivering us through our communion with God from under the power of anxiety for our own little self.

    Theological arguments for ecology may often seem very pious; they cannot be but bad arguments and may be even a misuse of the word “God”. One cannot “utilize” God for arguments, if he is greater than all we can think. That God doesn’t fall under our concepts makes it impossible to make use of him in syllogisms.

    By the way, reason itself is created by God, but this is no argument to give more force to the arguments of reason. They must convince by themselves.

  3. Francesco on 24 October 2011 at 9:15 pm

    ‘Ecological challenges are, as ethics is in general, an object of reason and not of faith’, ok; but which reason?
    The revelation of Jesus, the Logos, the Mediator of creation and lover of human kind, has but a subsidiar word to say about what reason is and what is reasonable?

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