In a brief article in an unassuming 1967 edition of Science, a medieval historian from the University of California argued a now infamous thesis in my own field of religion and ecology.
“Christianity, “ Lynn White wrote, “is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” The notion of “dominion,” he argued, allowed human beings to exploit the ecological world in unprecedented ways.
White’s argument set off a decades-long firestorm, engaging activists, environmental ethicists, and Christian theologians alike.
But what most people generally forget about that now-canonical article is in the final eight paragraphs. After charging the cultural influence of Western Christian thought, White then argues for an equally religious response. “Possibly,” he offers, “we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi.” The 13th century saint, who preached to birds and wolves, who referred to cosmic and elemental entities like fire as “Sister” might serve as a model, White argued, for a different kind of Christianity, a kind that can care for the earth seriously, in humility.
Like many scholars in my own field of religion and ecology, I woke up yesterday morning with another Francis—this one a Pope—on my mind. The Vatican had just officially released Laudato si, Praise Be to You—the first official papal encyclical to address the reality of climate change.