Extinction and Sin

[1] Ambrose, mentor to Augustine, puts the question. His was another audience and time but seventeen centuries later the question still serves us well.

Why do the injuries of nature delight you? The world has been created for all, while you rich are trying to keep it for yourselves. Not merely the possession of the earth, but the very sky, air and the sea are claimed for the use of the rich few…Nor from your own do you bestow on the poor man, but you make return from what is his. For what has been given as common for the use of all, you appropriate for yourself alone. The earth belongs to all, not to the rich.1
[2] Augustine shared his teacher’s suspicions of the imperial rich and their treatment of earth. In a well-known City of God passage on the bitter experience of empires without justice, he asks rhetorically, “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?” Augustine goes on to note that the “ranks of the demoralized” themselves are the source of “many recruits” who in turn acquire territory, capture cities, and subdue peoples for their leaders. The title of “kingdom” is then “conferred on it in the eyes of the world.” The bishop adds a caveat: the title of “kingdom” is conferred “not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity.”2 He then borrows an exchange from Cicero to clinch his own point.

For it was a witty and a truthful rejoinder which was given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, ‘What is your idea, in infesting the sea?’ And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, ‘The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I’m called a pirate; because you have a mighty navy, you’re called an emperor.’3
[3] “Why do the injuries of nature delight you?” is the question for these pages. Or, using Augustine, Why do you “infest the earth?” There are not the same questions as that of Ishmael in Daniel Quinn’s book. But they are close enough to frame the discussion. In Quinn’s fanciful account, a gorilla, Ishmael, becomes teacher to a disillusioned young man whose hopes for a transformed world have all but expired. The young man is as demoralized by injustice and unhappiness as the citizens in Augustine’s description of rich and poor in empires shorn of justice. Ishmael initiates an exchange with the young man.

Ishmael thought for a moment. “Among the people of your culture, which want to destroy the world?”
“Which want to destroy it? As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world.”
“And yet you do destroy it, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world.”
“Yes, that’s so.”
“Why don’t you stop?”4
[4] “Why do the injuries of nature delight you?” (Ambrose) “Why don’t you stop?” (Ishmael) Either way the question probes deeply, given the fact we have more than sufficient sound scientific knowledge that we are wreaking havoc on innumerable lives and their habitats. We have become imperial unCreators in the Community of Life, terminators who deal death to birth itself. The sixth great wave of extinction, and the first at human hands, happens as we speak.

[5] The reason is not shrouded in mystery. No giant meteor has struck recently, no ultra-dramatic climate change cycle has completed its millennial round, no Krakatoa5 explosion from middle earth has blotted out both sun and life. Species now disappear for other reasons: encroaching human habitat and the toxic consequences of human industry.

[6] To put the matter theologically: if the genocide of creatures, witting or unwitting, isn’t sin, what on earth qualifies? If this isn’t rancid offense to nostrils of the Triune God, what is? “I believe God has created me, together with all creatures,”6 Luther says in both the Small and Large Catechisms. Faith itself is “a living, busy, active mighty thing” that renders us “glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures.” Killing nativity itself must count somewhere as worthy of repentance. To say the least, it plainly violates the vow made weekly to “dedicate our lives to the care and redemption of all that you [God] have made.”7

[7] So why don’t we stop?

[8] We don’t stop because we don’t consider this genocide “sin.” Or so it seems, to judge from all manner of explanation.

[9] My favorite stems from a comment of Alphonse the Wise, King of Castile and Lyon (1221-84): “If the Lord Almighty had consulted me before embarking on the Creation, I’d have recommended something simpler.” “Simpler” we did not get. Instead, creation is a riot of life infinite in all directions. “The whole creation is one lunatic fringe,” writes Annie Dillard, who then unknowingly echoes Alphonse. “If creation had been left up to me, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the imagination or courage to do more than shape a single, reasonably sized atom, smooth as a snowball, and let it go at that.”8

[10] While we didn’t create a single, reasonably sized atom, and let it go at that, we humans did simplify. We did so, and do so, mightily. “Something simpler” is in fact the flow of the traffic in the human tale since the advent of settled society itself (the Neolithic Revolutions). For the last dozen millennia Homo sapiens have been relentless about cutting and pasting biodiverse and geodiverse nature to fit the purposes of society; or, more precisely, to fit the purposes of the more powerful forces in stratified societies. Agriculture, and especially industrial agriculture; industry, and especially mass production industry; and human settlement, especially city living, change plant and animal life and transform eco-systems and landscapes by rendering more as less so that less might be (humanly) more.

[11] This tenacious habit of simplifying habitat identifies a major cause of the sixth great period of extinction. Yet even when this issues in the stark reality James Martin-Schramm and Robert Stivers open with in Christian Environmental Ethics, we don’t call it sin. “Until recently the great ecological systems of the earth were a problem for human beings,” they write. “Now the reverse is true.”9 Nor do we stop, even though this “problem” now translates as a vast unplanned and uncontrolled planetary experiment.

[12] Another kind of explanation for our “delight” of injuring nature follows trails in moral philosophy. These track the fate of human subjectivity and agency in recent centuries. The outcome for ethics-who has moral standing and on what terms-can be distilled to a sentence: all God’s creatures other than humans are bereft of moral citizenship. This is, to be sure, no longer argued in the crass terms of the stark anthropocentrism and mechanistic cosmology of an earlier day when Bacon, Newton, Kant, Locke, and Descartes took no prisoners and offered no apologies. Ours is something else-“eco-modernity.”10 That is, we are keenly aware that humans belong to a common, complex, interdependent creation marked by waves of biological evolution and vast cosmic processes ages in the making. Yet despite this shift from the Enlightenment’s mechanistic world to the ecologist’s and cosmologist’s metabolic one, the moral universe remains strangely unchanged. Human beings remain the decisive agents who are the sole judges of their actions, without reference to any court of appeal beyond them, and in keeping with ends they desire and choose. All the real action still runs on modernity’s same old axis. Human mind and agent, powered by sophisticated science and technology, is laid out on one end, with complex, living nature construed as information and resources laid out in waiting on the other. This, for all practical purposes, is the death of nature in this moral universe. But that doesn’t seem to register with us. Or, if it does, it doesn’t seem to matter. We are not about to name such free and exhilarating moral agency “sin” or let our imperial subjectivity and sovereignty be taken down a notch or two. Instead we will call it “stewardship,” with attendant “responsibility.” Alas, it expresses the kind of creative beings we are, and we cannot do much about that except rule more wisely.

[13] A third reason the mass death of creatures is not sin falls closer to home for serious Lutherans. The great Protestant insights, those timely elaborations on the insights of Ambrose and Augustine, are not carried to their own logical conclusions. It’s as though we amputated a lobe of our own brain. Luther’s depiction of sin as cor curvatum in se is about the human heart, not only the pope’s or some random individual’s. His is, in other words, a species analysis. So is Calvin’s: the center of life in God is twisted in such a way by humans that our hearts carry on a thriving business in self-serving idol-making. Sin here is to affirm oneself and one’s confreres, but not “the other,” as a value, and to acknowledge others only in relation to oneself. “We” are ranged over against the indiscriminate, objective “they,” with norm-making firmly in the hands of the collective “we.” In some centuries this has meant normative “whiteness” as the basis for judging other “races;” or European and neo-European society as the basis for judging other civilizations; or Christianity as the measure of true religion, male status as decisive for female, heterosexual for homosexual, etc.

[14] Protestants have elaborated this arrogance as “pride” in a dazzling display of subtle forms, including humility. Reinhold Niebuhr’s acute analysis of sin as overweening individual, social, moral, and religious pride remains worthy of daily attention.11 Like Luther and Calvin, Niebuhr, too, meant pan-human nature, not simply the eccentricities of the particular neighbor we don’t like. Yet we Protestants have consistently failed to draw the logical conclusion and provide the needed analysis; namely, the elaboration of pan-human sin as species pride. The “we” that sins is set over against a “they” that is sinned against, but the sinned against goes unrecognized as holding any moral claims upon us (all those “creatures” of Luther’s catechisms). Indeed, we don’t even conceive ourselves in species’ terms, with one exception: we as a species are distinctive, set apart and over. We thus end up in a very odd place morally, theologically, and in daily practice: a contracting earth is jeopardized by its acclaimed stewards who don’t even wince at the reality that they have become its unCreators. The Reformation’s profound analysis of sin simply falls silent about our species being and cumulative human threats to the Community of Life. Some theo-ethical black hole evidently ate it. Some unseen void swallowed it whole. A lobe has gone missing.

[15] But back to Ambrose and Augustine, and on to Niebuhr. Sin as extinction is more complicated than wayward species pride expressed in some smooth pan-human way. These theologians would all have recognized the truth in C. S. Lewis’s comment that what we call human power over nature is actually the power exercised by some people over others. Species pride is real, and the human heart is as the Psalmist called it-deceitful above all things. But the sinful consequences of species pride always play out in ways that are coupled with economic, social, and cultural privilege on the part of some peoples over others. All arrogance is not equal.

[16] In a word, the crisis of nature is a crisis of justice. If you want to know why the injuries of nature continue to delight in a globalized world, follow the money. Track the powers of privilege and you will understand why we don’t just say no and stop. “The earth belongs to all, not to the rich,” to recall the complaint of Ambrose.

[17] Not that this deadly simplification of the biological and geophysical world is itself simple, from a moral point of view. Character assassination of the affluent offers nothing at all in the way of good analysis or proper response, since malevolent character and personal intention has relatively little to do with, say, accelerated climate change and the death of coral reels and their nurseries. It isn’t malice of forethought or greed as a disposition that has brought ocean fisheries to the point of collapse, anymore than environmental racism is the vocation of urban rednecks. Virtue and vice as character ethics certainly won’t illumine Augustine’s observation that the ranks of the demoralized themselves supply the recruits for taking territory and unhappy imperious living. The play of privilege in the worlds it constructs brick-by-brick, law-by-law, and story-by-story encompasses far more than the moralistic “we’s” and “they’s” we use to negotiate those worlds and locate our enemies. The fact is that in a humanly-dominated biosphere, “they” don’t live here anymore. It’s only “we,” in varied and often dangerous combinations.

[18] To close. “The earth belongs to all.” Ambrose’s basic contention, present from Christianity’s beginning, is certainly no less true for our crowded world than one more generous by nature. But it is true with equal force that “all belongs to the earth.” This is our singular home, judging from all recent science. Perhaps when our moral emotions and religious convictions grasp both sides of this core belonging-the earth belongs to all and we all belong to earth-we will rightly name extinction “sin” and begin to take our eucharistic vow seriously.

End Notes

1 De Nabuthe Jezraelita 3, 11, but cited here from Rosemary Ruether, “Sisters of Earth: Religious women and ecological spirituality,” The WITNESS, May, 2000: 14-15.

2 This is a succinct anticipation of Max Weber on the modern nation-state. Its distinguishing mark is not the renunciation of violence but legal control of it.

3 Augustine cites as the source of this exchange, Cicero, De Rep., 3, 14, 24. The full passage is from Augustine’s The City of God, Book IV, Chp. 5, Section 4.

4 Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 25.

5 The largest volcanic explosion in modern times, in Indonesia (1883).

6 See Luther’s exposition of the First Article of the Creed in the Small and Large Catechism. In the exposition in the Large Catechism, Luther includes a passage not distant from that of Ambrose and Augustine on the imperious rich: “For if we really believed it [that we are a creature of God] with our whole heart, we would also act accordingly, and not stalk about proudly, act defiantly, and boast as though we had life, riches, power, and honor, etc., of ourselves, so that others must fear and serve us…” The citations on the nature of faith are from Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, ” in Luther’s Works, 35: 370-371. The emphasis given “all creatures” is mine.

7 Holy Communion: Setting One, Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1979), 68.

8 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Perennial Classic, 1998), 146.

9 James B. Martin-Schramm and Robert L. Stivers, Christian Environmental Ethics: A Case Method Approach (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2003), Chp. 1, p. 9.

10 The term is Aiden Davison’s in his Technology and the Contested Meanings of Sustainability (Albany: SUNY Press, 2001).

11 This is a recurring discussion in Niebuhr but concentrated analysis is most prominent in Volume II of Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943). See especially the chapter entitled “The Kingdom of God and the Struggle for Justice.”

Larry Rasmussen

Larry Rasmussen is ​Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York City