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In the Beginning: A Theological Foundation for Environmental Ethics

By Will Brown

Come now, I will tell thee—and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away—
the only two ways of search that can be thought of.
The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for it not to be,
is the way of belief, for truth is its companion.
The other, namely, that It is not, and that it must needs not be,—
that, I tell thee, is a path that none can learn of at all.
For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible—
nor utter it; … for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. —Parmenides of Elea

In How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (Penguin, 2018), Michael Pollan quotes a scientist who participated in a study of psychedelic drugs at Johns Hopkins University in 1999. The experience changed his life.

[Brian] Turner is now an ordained Zen monk, yet he is also still a physicist, working for a company that makes helium neon lasers. I asked him if he felt any tension between his science and his spiritual practice. “I don’t feel there’s a contradiction. Yet what happened at Hopkins has influenced my physics. I realize there are just some domains that science will not penetrate. Science can bring you to the big bang, but it can’t take you beyond it. You need a different kind of apparatus to peer into that.”

The Book of Genesis makes a similar point: an impenetrable veil lies at the bedrock of creation, and the domain God inhabits lies beyond that veil — or perhaps just that God is our name for that unutterable Being beyond being: “In the beginning, God.” There is thus at the very heart of the orthodox Christian consensus this remarkable claim, that this is all that we can know by means of positive knowledge, even when it is aided by divine revelation: In the beginning, God.

Yet sense experience, empirical science and deduction, cannot take us even that far. The natural sciences are, by definition, concerned with nature, and the doctrine of Creation is the doctrine of the creation of nature. The question of what is anterior to created nature thus rules itself out of bounds when it comes to the discourse of the natural sciences. This is not a peripheral insight with respect to Christianity, but sits at the very center. In the eighth century, St. John of Damascus, Doctor of the Church, wrote:

In the case of God, however, it is impossible to explain what He is in His essence, and it befits us the rather to hold discourse about His absolute separation from all things. For He does not belong to the class of existing things: not that He has no existence, but that He is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself. For if all forms of knowledge have to do with what exists, assuredly that which is above knowledge must certainly be also above essence: and, conversely, that which is above essence will also be above knowledge. (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 1:3)

It is curious to think that intellectual technology has made so little fundamental advancement not just since the time of John of Damascus, but since the Eleatic philosophers of the sixth century B.C. We begin therefore in the company of Parmenides: “thou canst not know what is not — that is impossible — nor utter it.” The fact that What Is Not should utter itself, though, and that such an Utterance should be wrapped up intrinsically with the discourse of What Is, can be known, only not by an empirical way.

We must begin then with the data of being, the data of created nature. We must begin with the acknowledgment of nature’s givenness. I mean this in the philosophical sense of its being a fact of the matter: “The world,” said Wittgenstein, “is all that is the case.” I also mean the data of nature in the related theological sense of nature’s being a gift. Both senses of nature’s givenness are facets of what I mean by the data of nature — the word data being derived from the Latin dare — “to give.”

Next we may contend with the question of who gave this gift, and to whom. And of course, as Christians, we must attend to the witness of Scripture, with Genesis as our lodestar. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1); and “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it,” (Gen. 2:15). Thus, while there may be other recipients of the gift of nature, it is at least given to man, who is also enmeshed within it, both to cultivate it and to care for it — which is what tilling and keeping connote. Tilling means a concern for nature’s flourishing, and keeping means that we are to be invested in this undertaking as stewards and heirs, not slavishly as bondsmen, let alone as rapacious usurpers.

Here arises a vexing question. Why? Why did God create the heavens and the earth, human beings, and all the rest? In the Christian account, at least, it costs him an awful lot of grief, and would it not have been better for him to have saved himself the trouble? Myriad answers might be given — indeed they have been given — to this question. But at the most fundamental level, we can say that God created the world because he wanted it to be created, he desired that it should be. He, as it were, affirmed it in its being, said Yes to it, assented to it. And it is precisely this divine Yes that brings the world to be, as it were in the same gesture. God makes the world because he wants it made. The Being beyond being desired that being should be.

We may infer from this fact alone that nature is good, and Genesis says so explicitly, in case there were any doubt:

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. (Gen. 1:31-2:2)

Completing the circle, then, God has made this world because he wanted it made, because in some sense he delights in it. He has set us in the midst of it, as a part of it, and has given it to us, to cultivate it and to care for it. This cultivation and care are thus duties and obligations for which we are answerable to God, to whom the world always belongs, because God has never relinquished his claim to what he made. Actions, habits, ways of thinking (ideologies), and ways of life that are incompatible with this mission are therefore wrong. They are derelictions of the highest kind of duty, the kind that we owe to God. Such derelictions are thus, one may say, serious sins.

This, for Christians, must be the foundation for environmental ethics.



  1. Fantastic work, Father Brown. Please continue this. I’d love to see it worked out further. I would particularly welcome a discussion of the tension in which this foundation must stand to Genesis 2 and 3, which flesh out the Biblical metanarrative around ethics; indeed, the “givenness” of the world as we experience it today is by definition not entirely the same “givenness” of which we read in Genesis 1. Where will this philosophical path lead after the Fall of Man?

    One almost hates to see the word “environmental” in the last sentence: you’ve laid a foundation that can support much more than just one arena of ethical thought.

    • Thanks, Father! Glad you like it. And I agree with your assessment: the doctrine of creation is indeed the foundation of ALL ethical discourse. I’ve focussed on environmental ethics here just because I intend for this piece to be one part of a broader discourse on eco-theology – a truly appalling word, yet the one that has stuck for now.


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