Last week, I taught the final class of my undergraduate course at Birkbeck. The class is titled “Science and Religion: From Galileo to Global Warming.” Soon after I proposed the course, I started questioning whether it would have been better to call it “From Galileo to the God Particle” because the discovery of the Higgs Boson had just recently been announced. In the end I decided to keep it because: 1) Global warming has a lot more impact on people’s daily lives than the Higgs Boson; 2) “Galileo to the God Particle” might imply that the course is all about physics and astronomy, whereas the other title also suggests a spectrum of sciences taking in physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, and ecology; and 3) it was too late to officially change the name with the Department and the College.
For several weeks, I’d been starting the lecture by asking the students if there was anything of note science-religion-wise in the news. And of course, on the last week of the course the ‘God Particle’ was news again, as the news came that the particle discovered last year was now confirmed to be a Higgs Boson.
So God particle it was, or almost was. Because the morning of my class was the inauguration of Pope Francis. In his inaugural homily, the Pope discussed religious obligations towards the environment. At least in the English translation of his address, this was brought under a discussion of the idea of being a ‘protector’ of creation. The theme recurs quite a bit in the homily, but one moment in the speech in particular struck me as noteworthy.
Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!
There has been quite a debate in recent decades among different religious groups over questions of environmental conservation. There are several issues involved. One argument raised is that it seems absurd to claim that human beings have the power to damage the Earth in a way that’s beyond God’s power to restore it, which would suggest that humans are (in this way) more powerful than God. The idea that humans could cause irreversible climate change seems to be intricately bound up in this question. That’s an oversimplification of the range of voices on this issue, but this question also impacts discussion of whether humans have the right to consume and exploit the created world and whether, having the right to do so makes such consumption moral.
Also lurking in the background of many of these environmental debates is the question of whether human beings can have moral obligations towards parts of creation that are not also moral beings. That is, if you take the position that nonhuman created things (e.g. animals, plants, ponds, ocean currents, the Greenland ice shelf) don’t have their own free will, then can you really have a moral duty towards them? Put another way, can they have rights?
And that’s why Pope Francis’s homily is so interesting. Because he entwines the idea of environmental protection with the care of human individuals and human societies, including provision for economic well-being. In a way, this sidesteps the issues of moral obligations towards the rest of creation. If the destruction of the environment affects the ability of human beings to live safely and to improve their social political and economic lives, then it becomes a moral question at the point of moral obligation towards other human beings. For that reason, a religious environmentalism that is also framed as an issue of social, political, and economic justice has the power to achieve more than a position that is rooted solely in claims of obligation to the environment as such.
Another important clause in that one statement (in a homily that is deeply and carefully laden with them) is the notion of us as “protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature” the idea of a divine plan has frequently been invoked by recent opponents of evolution, who insists that evolution is “random” and undirected and leaves no room for God. Some supporters of evolution agree with this, but many others insist that an evolutionary history of life on earth does not negate the possibility of God. (This issue will be the subject of several future posts.) Those who would see the Pope’s invocation of God’s plan as a possible rejection of evolutionism miss the point. The more important claim nestled into that sentence is the claim that the plan is “inscribed in nature.” While certainly not a new idea, it is a declaration in the core tenet of natural theology — the idea that understanding nature can inform understanding of God and God’s plan.
Historically, natural theology has not only been invoked as an argument against atheism, but also against the claim that individual personal experience of God or the scriptures alone are the only true pathways towards understanding God. this is not at all new. The idea that the Bible alone was sufficient for understanding God was a core tenet of the Protestant Reformation, and in some ways, pointing out that the Pope has invoked a form of natural theology is as insightful as stating the Pope is Catholic.
But the explicit connection between natural theology and environmentalism is—if not new—then historically underdeveloped. This may be because natural theology has been widely regarded as obsolete since the late nineteenth century(partly because of the myth “That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology“) And most histories of environmentalism would claim to see only antecedents of modern environmentalism that early.
At the very end of last week’s class I suggested that maybe, after more than 150 years of debating Darwinism, perhaps evolution might cease to be the definitive issue of the science-religion relationship. Recent antievolution legislation in the United States, such as last year’s law enacted in Tennessee has drawn together the debates over teaching about evolution and teaching about climate change under an umbrella of teaching “scientific weaknesses to scientific theories.” Putting evolution and climate change on equal footing (even as equally objectionable) might be a transitional moment when one issue gradually overtake the other in public importance. Of course, understanding evolution is critical to understanding environmental impact, and what’s more likely is that the issues will become more and more fused, rather than one simply eclipsing the other.
If that fusion does continue, then what might prove to be most interesting is the possibility that eco-theology might be able to extend arguments from natural theology that natural theologians themselves did not make even in the early nineteenth century, but which might find purchase in the twenty-first. The Pope’s homily offers glimpses of what that might entail.
And there’s something rather enjoyable about being able to finish a course by bringing the class up to the history of just 7 hours earlier. Happy end of term!