Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic
and Medieval Concepts
reviewed by R. V. Young
The aim of Jame Schaefer’s new book is wholly admirable: She sets out to show that Christian theology of the patristic and medieval periods can provide a basis for ethical behavior in the face of a widely acknowledged abuse of the natural environment common among modern societies. To this end, she has compiled a good deal of information from contemporary scientific sources about ecology, biological evolution, and cosmology. In addition, she has explored the work of a substantial number of theologians and the lives of what might more properly be called devotional figures from the first 1,400–1,500 years of Christianity.
Apart from the good intentions and the amassing of data, however, it is difficult to find any other positive attributes of this book. The treatment of both theological concepts and scientific issues is at best banal and at worst misleading; the structure of the argument is mechanical and repetitious; and the style is likewise repetitious, verbose, and awkward. Getting all the way through the 300-plus pages of text and notes is a mind-numbing experience; rather than a treatment of environmental degradation, the book is a negative exemplum of academic degradation.
Theology for Dummies
In the first place, it is difficult to imagine for what conceivable audience this book is intended—except perhaps a tenure committee (Dr. Schaefer is identified on the back cover as an associate professor of systematic theology at Marquette). In one respect, the tone is hortatory, a plea to the faithful to regard careful, indeed loving, treatment of other species and their habitats as a religious obligation; and in some ways it looks like a volume designed for the unlearned for whom science and theology are both novelties.
There are, for instance, labored explanations of terms like ecosystem and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle on the one hand, and of hagiography and sacrament on the other. Introductions to St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Thomas Aquinas are provided, along with their birth and death dates—not just once, but repeatedly at the outset of successive chapters.
The discourse—here is a sample chosen randomly from among many like it—generally proceeds at this level:
Nevertheless, a book comprising such theology-for-dummies observations is buttressed by a massive scholarly apparatus: the first chapter, for example, consists of slightly more than 15 pages of text followed by 128 notes taking up more than 10 pages. Chapter 6 runs to nearly 28 pages of text and adds 213 notes in another 15 pages. The bibliography takes up more than 25 pages.
The annoying, politically correct stylistic tics are also typical, and eventually—after endless pages of such clotted prose—altogether exasperating: In the quoted passage, “God” or “God’s” appears five times in three sentences because Dr. Schaefer never uses “he,” “him,” or “his” as pronominal substitutes for the name of the Deity, and “men” and “women” are always “humans.” Likewise, there is never mention of a “doctrine” or “dogma” or even of “faith”; patristic and medieval theologians always write from their “faith perspective.” Dr. Schaefer hopes that these “faith perspectives” will help alter the “behavior trajectories” of modern Christians.
From any reasonable Christian perspective, the theological method of argument is dubious. Rather than provide a thorough exposition of the moral theology of, say, St. Augustine or St. Thomas, to show how it provides a more comprehensive and coherent basis for establishing an ethical relationship between man and nature than what is offered by secular environmentalism, Dr. Schaefer takes that latter as the standard. She forages through various medieval and patristic writers seeking bits and pieces that will somehow accord with—or to use her term—“cohere” with the rather inconsistent pronouncements of contemporary science and the “Green” movement.
Her handling of the older writers in this quest is not always scrupulous. For example, she tells us that in De planctu naturae,
But Alan’s “Nature” is most assuredly not an allegory of “the physical world,” but rather the rational principle holding the world together ( vinculum mundi, stabilisque nexus); and her “complaint” deals not with littering or with air and water pollution, but with sodomy— unnatural vice—a point that will elude most of Dr. Schaefer’s unsuspecting readers.
St. Thomas Aquinas, not surprisingly, is the most frequently cited medieval theologian, and Dr. Schaefer is especially egregious about misrepresenting his teachings. In her third chapter, entitled, “Reverencing the Sacramental Universe,” she maintains that for St. Thomas, the “entire universe” is sacramental: “Creatures take on the characteristics of sacramental signs of something holy, especially divine wisdom and goodness, Aquinas taught”; and she cites Summa Theologiae 3.60.4 and 3.60.2 for support.
In Article 4, however, St. Thomas argues that “sensible things are required for sacraments” ( res sensibiles requiruntur ad sacramenta), and in Article 2, he argues that “every sign of a holy thing should be a sacrament” ( omne signum rei sacrae sit sacramentum). From the proposition that every sacrament requires a sensible sign of a holy thing, it does not follow that all sensible things are sacramental and holy. Dr. Schaefer’s argument requires that she commit what used to be called the fallacy of the converse.
In Chapter 9, “Loving Earth,” she refers to “the love of desire” that God has for physical creatures other than men and women, here citing Summa Theologiae 1.20.2; but the term St. Thomas uses is concupiscentia, which can only properly be rendered as “desire” in a qualified sense.
Moreover, in the cited article, Thomas is answering the objection that God cannot love all things because irrational creatures cannot be loved, either with “the love of friendship” ( amor amicitiae)—because they are incapable of “returning love” ( redamatio)—or with the “love of desire” or appetite, ( amor concupiscentiae)—because God “lacks nothing outside himself” ( nullius extra se eget). Still, he loves them, St. Thomas maintains, with a “love something like appetite” ( amor quasi concupiscentiae), “not as if he has need of them, but on account of their own goodness and our benefit” ( non quasi eis indigeat, sed propter suam bonitatem et nostram utilitatem).
Dr. Schaefer’s omission of “ quasi” is telling, and this passage makes nonsense of her assertions that “Aquinas taught that God loves the orderly universe through which all creatures are ordered ultimately to God more than God loves the human or any other type of creature,” and that it is “Aquinas’s teaching that humans can also love the entire world of diverse beings with the highest kind of love— maxime et caritate.”
For the latter proposition, Dr. Schaefer cites De Caritate 7 ad 5. Article 7 takes up the issue of “whether the object lovable out of charity should be the rational nature,” to which the fifth objection is that “among all created things the good of the universe, in which all things are included, is loved to the highest degree by God. Therefore all things are to be loved out of charity.” The Angelic Doctor’s reply to this objection is that “rational nature, which is capable of blessedness, to which all other creatures are ordained [emphasis added], is contained in the good of the universe as in a principle; and according to this, it is suitable to God and to us to love the good of the universe to the highest degree out of charity.”
Again, Dr. Schaefer has elided a crucial qualification and represented the text of St. Thomas as saying the opposite of what he argues, namely, that rational nature is the intrinsic object of charity. St. Thomas provides no basis for the idea that “loving nonhuman creatures with the love of friendship accords well with this sacramentality of creation concept,” much less for the notion of “Catholic theologians Michael J. Himes and Kenneth R. Himes” (which Dr. Schaefer cites with apparent approval) that “humans have no more claim to intrinsic value than a plant or an animal, a star or a stone.”
Swollen & Slipshod
Such instances of dubious logic and problematic scholarship are not anomalies; I could cite multiple examples throughout the book. There is, however, little purpose in refuting specific elements, because the book as a whole is so badly argued, organized, and written. The point that Dr. Schaefer has to make could be handled in an article of 30–40 pages, but it has been padded out to more than 300 pages, including text and apparatus.
To illustrate the point simply, the same passage from Augustine’s De Trinitate 8.3.4 turns up in Chapter 1, “Valuing the Goodness of Creation,” and again in Chapter 9, “Loving Earth,” precisely because the concepts of the two chapters are not really very distinct. One passage from St. Thomas turns up in almost every chapter. Even the wording is repeated: On page 22 we read in an exposition of St. Thomas that “all types of beings . . . are instrumentally valuable to one another for their sustenance and, as a totality, to God through which God achieves God’s purposes”; and then on page 25, “For Aquinas, the universe is God’s instrument for achieving God’s purposes for it.”
As these excerpts indicate, the style is virtually unreadable, and I can only wonder how many others will get through the entire text. Evidently, neither the expert readers commissioned by Georgetown University Press nor the press’s own editors managed it, for it is hard to see how they could have actually read the manuscript and left in so many banalities and barbarisms. Dr. Schaefer uses “disposition” when she means “disposal,” “ascribed” when she means “subscribed,” and “unintelligible” when she means “irrational.”
“The virtue of temperance,” she writes, “inclines the human to act according to what prudence dictates by curbing irrational desires and passions for bodily pleasures and material goods that are contrary to reason,” and Hildegard of Bingen’s “sense of God’s immanence in the world was deeply profound.” No doubt her ideals were also loftily high. This kind of redundancy, banality, and solecism can be found on virtually every page of Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics.
Granting that the book is poorly argued, organized, and written, one may yet ask, does Dr. Schaefer nonetheless offer any specific suggestions on how Christians might respond to environmental degradation? Here is a sample: “The sacrament of confirmation could provide an opportunity for recipients to make their commitments in a ceremony set in the wilderness and geared toward . . . facilitating reflection on how the gifts of the Holy Spirit can be applied to environmental issues.”
That is as concrete and particular as it gets. For the most part, however, Dr. Schaefer’s prescriptions take the form of passive-voice, wishful thinking: “Steps will be taken to ensure the availability of clean water, air, and land for present and future residents.” “Supported by members of the virtuous community, virtuous individuals will be able to endure the difficulties they may encounter and the criticism that may be leveled against the practice and promotion of virtuous living in the Great Lakes area.”
Dr. Schaefer voices her support for the poor: “The needs of the most vulnerable and powerless will be met. Nonrenewable resources will not be depleted by some at the expense of others.” Nevertheless, she seems oblivious to the genuine dilemma we face in sustaining economic growth to raise the living standards of “the most vulnerable and powerless” while curbing ecological decline. Her only solution is, again, wishful thinking in an evasive passive voice: “Among the renewable sources to which switches can be made are the sun, wind, and geothermal energy to generate electricity, passive solar power to heat homes, biomass for fuel, and hydrogen for fuel cells. Efforts to tap these renewable energy sources lag.”
An Educational Crisis
This book thus provides no fresh insight or edification regarding the environmental crisis; rather, it is further indication of an educational crisis. The shoddy scholarship, incoherent argument, and awkward writing it manifests are on offer in university classrooms—as well as in academic books—throughout the country. As more and more students are “educated” in superficial scientism, diluted religion, and distorted thinking, our capacity as a society to deal with any of the numerous problems we face will inexorably diminish.
Or to borrow Dr. Schaefer’s inimitable phrasing about her fellow “humans”: “Failure to use their ability to reason and to seek the common good explains why evil is a majority occurrence in one species.” •
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
“Academic Degradation” first appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Click here for a printer-friendly version.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.