Thoughts for our discussion: January 15
First published in 1859, Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species argued against the prevailing theory of creation, the ‘argument from design’. Darwin concludes his book with with the following paragraph:
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us…
Stop reading for a moment to visualize your own ‘entangled bank’ –
a favorite place in nature, or
a corner of your own backyard.
Take time to contemplate its beauty, mystery, and meaning.
In 1802 William Paley (a prominent English philosopher and cleric) had published his influential book, Natural Theology. The most celebrated advocate of the ‘argument from design’, Paley argued that we can infer the existence and attributes of a divine Creator by observing the natural world around us: the plants and animals we encounter give compelling evidence that they were fashioned by a supernatural intelligence and power. In other words, Elizabeth Johnson writes, “design implies a Designer”.
Paley’s argument became the entrenched scientific position. But now, in On the Origin of Species, Darwin sought to explain the existence of all living beings by showing how they had emerged naturally – over millions of years and thousands of miles – through the interplay of law and chance. Darwin had concluded that the prevailing theory did not explain the varieties of new species he found in his travels around the globe.
Darwin’s theory had many implications but one of the most controversial (especially when Origin was first published) was that human beings exist on a continuum with other animals. Yes, humans are more advanced than other animals – they can think symbolically and act with free intent – but they are still related to all other living beings. Once we accept that humans are not specially created to dominate the world but are part of ‘the entangled bank’, then we need to develop a new ethic – an ethic that includes plants, animals, and the whole earth as worthy of our care.
Environmental ethics is the part of environmental philosophy which extends the traditional boundaries of ethics from how humans treat each other to include the non-human world. Here are a few of the many choices environmental ethics raises:
• Should we continue to clear-cut forests for the sake of human consumption?
• Why should we continue to propagate our species, and life itself?
• Should we continue to make gasoline powered vehicles?
• What environmental obligations do we need to keep for future generations?
• Should humans knowingly cause the extinction of a species for the convenience of humanity?
In ASK THE BEASTS Elizabeth Johnson notes that scientists and environmentalists are calling on religious groups to make a bold commitment – to work with them to safeguard the earth, to share an environmental ethic whether we are religious or secular. And so Johnson’s book raises fundamental questions for Christians:
Can Christians build a theology that supports and drives an ecological ethic?
Can Christians and all people of faith learn to work with others on behalf of ecojustice?
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