Chapter 4: Some Points from Epistemology and Philosophy of Science To Help Us Think

4.2 Returning to Terms

In the last chapter, we looked at definitions of “environment.” Loren Wilkinson [1] noted that several names have been popular for the Earth [2] at different times. “Nature,” he said, is the “first (and oldest) of such words. It is related to words referring to birth (like natal and nativity), and reflects the mysterious fertility of the earth, which seems to bring forth life of its own accord. (‘Nature’ religions worship the earth and worship fertility.)” Earth as “mother” tends to fit this concept, or here you could include “Gaia,” the Greek name for the goddess of the earth.

“Resources” is a more modern way of thinking about earth, as “something to be used.” Wilkinson says “the trouble with thinking of the earth as resources is that it implies that its main purpose is for human use.” Similar to Lynn White’s concerns, this word became popular when the “new world” was discovered by Europeans and was seen as a great source of riches. Scientific and industrial revolutions then gave us new knowledge to gain power. Coal, iron ore, falling water, uranium, plants, and animals are no longer seen as part of creation, but as resources for our use.

“Environment” is a more recent term – it emerged mostly as a reaction against damage done by “earth as resources” notions. It reflects an interconnected world made of many things. Wilkinson says the “problem with ‘environment’ is that is says either too little or too much. It says too little when we mean by it ‘our’ (human) environment. Then we are back to regarding things simply as resources for use. But it means too much when it means ‘everything connected to everything else’ in an equal and undifferentiated web.” Here, we have no place or purpose; we’re just one among many, part of the web and acting on it. “But one part of a web can hardly be ‘steward’ of another.” Here we get a sense of Wilkinson’s Christian view, where humans have a role or significance more than just being a part of nature like any other part; this view is clearly not bio- or eco-centric, but neither is it anthropocentric (it is theocentric). Wilkinson is holding out for a term that isn’t as prone to extremes.

Better than this, says Wilkinson, is to think about the human role on Earth in terms of “stewardship.” [3] The greek root of “stewardship”, oikonomia, means “keeper of the household,” and the term is also translated as “economics.” This bears some unpacking, because many of us think of “economics” as mainly a monetary or financial concept. Wilkinson explains that “In Greek, the word contains oikos, which means household, and shows up in a more recent word ecology, coined to describe the science of the relationship of living things to their environment: the whole ecumene, or earthly dwelling place.” From this view, “‘economics’ not only means stewardship but is closely related to ecology: both deal with the whole oikos or household of creation.” This helps explain why Wilkinson and co-authors like the term “‘earthkeeping,’ which suggests not just everyday “housekeeping” but also the breadth of our larger home, the whole created earth.” These terms, then, would suggest a holistic linkage between our economic systems and our ways of caring for all of creation.

Within the context of this discussion, it has been interesting to see which words people use in their captions in the Religion-Environment Photo Gallery. Comment from photographer Jackson Howard: “At Camp Albermarle, God and environmental stewardship are one. Students who volunteer for the North Carolina Coastal Federation through Buck-I-SERV are fortunate to stay at a beautiful campground whose roots are deep in stewardship for all types of creation. Being an environmental steward gets one closest to creation, and at Camp Albermarle, it seems even that much closer.”

Those are some ways of thinking of “environment” – note that many faith-based environmental programs and literatures have not focused on “environment” but on “creation” or “Earth” or “green.” I use “environment” in the title of this book in deference to its general and popular usage to refer to sustainability issues. I also opt for “environment” because it may well be “environmentalists” who have the most to gain (and the most to learn or re-learn) from a better understanding of religion and the environment. Note how complex these terms get, even when we merely scratch the surface – “nature” has many potential meanings.

One example of this complexity is Gordon Kaufman’s discussion of nature as “wilderness” v nature as “cosmos,” [4] which highlights the potential for people to talk past each other when discussing these concepts and underlines the importance of attending to the scale and scope of whatever commentary we intend to make.

By “nature” as wilderness, Kaufman means the immediate natural world that we experience, say, when walking in the woods. This is the sort of nature that we can relate to directly, and might invoke our wonder, perhaps even worship. How a forest works or how the parts of ecosystems interact in the processes of this “nature” is the study of ecology and biology and other fields, and the experiences and inspiration gained here is the focus of poets and writers and naturalists. This is a different concept, and at a different scale, than what Kaufman calls “nature” as cosmos. This term has to do with our idea of the whole of existence, the nature of things – the universe. [5] Since the whole universe is not observable as such – we cannot take it all in with our limited human perspective — it is not so much an object of our experience as it is a concept, a notion, an idea that we have developed to help explain and bring together all things as we think we see and understand them. As such, nature as cosmos is a creation of human minds, and while extraordinary and commendable as such, Kaufman says it is not therefore worthy of our worship. When we speak of what we know of nature as wilderness, we speak at a different level of knowledge and understanding than when we speak of nature as cosmos. How “nature” works at the wilderness level doesn’t necessarily directly translate to the cosmos level, and vice versa. For example, the inexhaustible expansiveness of the universe and how it might have come to be is not the same as the wideness of an ocean, which can seem unlimited to the viewer. Newtonian laws apply at the physical level, but they don’t at the sub-atomic level – the basis (underlying sub-atomic order) of what we see is not operating by the same sense as the sensible matter of our normal, daily experience. So too ideas of cosmology and of what brought all things together and continues to hold things in existence. We can’t say when discussing nature that what “is” in the wilderness is the same sort of thing that “is” about the cosmos. That is semantic slippage.

The point is this: semantic slippage happens, and scientists may be guilty of this when they try to make metaphysical comments about the nature of reality (cosmos) based on what they “know” only from physical reality (wilderness). [6] Similarly, religious authorities can mis-apply knowledge about metaphysical and spiritual realities and impose it unhelpfully on physical realities. [7] To complicate things further, this is not to say that spiritual and physical realities are unrelated or cannot be connected (after all, perhaps it is the case that all physical reality is just an expression of a larger or deeper spiritual reality, or, perhaps what we perceive as spiritual reality simply emerges from the fundamental physical reality of the universe, or — to shift perspective — separating the two may only seem to make sense at a shallow level of inquiry, while more careful inquiry and reflection may reveal deeper connections or a unity of truth that transcends these surface distinctions!); rather, this is to say that some of the typical modes of seeing these issues may involve more confusion than is usually noted, and these distinctions are often missed.

Another reason why such distinctions can be hard to see is that sometimes the discussion of them is too heated to think clearly. As a result, the famous adage: “never discuss religion or politics in polite company” often makes good practical sense. Especially where religion and science are seen to oppose one another or be in heated conflict, it can be challenging to avoid getting drawn into an emotional ideological fight, even among polite company. Part of the goal of this chapter is to invite us into the space of collegial (if not polite!) company, where curiosity and respect for sincere ideas hold sway, so as to avoid some of these pitfalls that limit understanding.

  1. All Wilkinson quotations are derived from his book, “Caring for creation in your own backyard,” pages 14-15.
  2. Often, “Earth” is capitalized as a proper name for a planet; at other times is is not capitalized, suggesting a sense of the term related to soil, the ground upon which we walk, or the life and ecosystems of the planet. These different usages are not always consistently applied.
  3.   To add some layers: some thinkers who favor eco-centric views have criticized “stewardship” as being too human-centric. Alternatively, Pope Francis more recently softly indicated a preference for the term “care” by only using the term “stewardship” twice in his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, since humans, he said, might be good stewards by doing the right environmental things, but still not actually “care,” and Francis feels caring is essential to successfully addressing degradations of creation.
  4. Gordon Kaufman, "A Problem for Theology: The Concept of Nature", Harvard Theological Review, 1972
  5. Note that the former is mostly about observables, and the latter is more like a theory to make sense of what we can observe. Our discussion of laws and theories below will tread similar ground.
  6. A good example of this was astronomer Carl Sagan’s claim that “the cosmos is all that ever was or ever will be”; some might also see semantic slippage in applications of E.O. Wilson’s concept of “consilience,” which seems to want to extend the sort of knowledge that works for natural sciences to all of reality, making other forms of knowing subservient to the dominant form of scientific knowledge.
  7. One supposes, for instance, that some cases of illness that may once have been attributed to demons or sin were actually simply caused by bacteria or viruses whose existence was not yet known. This is not to say that spiritual health is irrelevant to physical health (excessive confidence in modern medicine might miss the point in the other direction!), but to indiscriminately declare spiritual causes for physical phenomena where knowledge of the physical processes is lacking can cause error.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America Copyright © 2019 by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.