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The Bible and anthropocentrism: putting humans in their place

Abstract

Can religion contribute to a better, more ecologically balanced treatment of the environment? Since a seminal essay by Lynn White, this question has often been answered in the negative. There he exposed the dominant anthropocentric reading of the biblical tradition that has characterized the worldview of Western Christianity. This worldview provided the conditions for human exploitation of the environment. This paper will challenge the common anthropocentric reading of the Bible, arguing instead that the Bible is the product of a theocentric worldview. Humans may be singled out in the Bible for particular attention, but they are not separated out from the natural world in which they live. In the theocentric worldview of the Bible, humans and all other creatures are dependent upon God for creation and subsistence, and all alike are valuable to God as part of his creation. The world, inclusive of humans and animals, trees and plants, land and seas, belongs to God because it is God’s creation, and it is in relation to God that each part of creation has its value and worth. A non-anthropocentric reading of the Bible—putting humans in their place—provides an appropriate framework for valuing the natural world, not simply as resources for human use, but rather as the creation of God.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Neither Rolston nor Berry denies that the Bible expresses anthropocentric concerns, but such concerns do not translate into the thoroughly anthropocentric worldview that environmental activists often denounce. Instead, they recognize that such anthropocentric concerns are set within a larger worldview, in which humans are but one of God’s many creatures and concerns. As Rolston (1996: 26) nicely summarizes this stance: “So biblical writers put humans in their place; there is a people-to-people ethic of concern for any viable human ecology, and this takes place in a sphere swarming with creatures that are also of concern. Depending on the focus, this ethic is anthropocentric, or biocentric, or theocentric, but it is environmental at every scale”.

  2. 2.

    The focus of this paper is on the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, though the argument could be extended to also include the New Testament.

  3. 3.

    In 2009, the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture hosted a forum discussing and critiquing an essay by James A. Nash, where he argues against using the Bible as a moral authority in environmental debates. For Nash, the Bible is simply too historically and culturally bound to its ancient context and concerns to function as an adequate moral authority today, though he does argue that the Bible should be included in the dialogue. Nash’s essay is followed by both appreciative and critical responses from Robb (2009), Northcott (2009), Childs (2009), Davis (2009), Faramelli (2009), Deane-Drummond (2009), Zaleha (2009), and McDaniel (2009).

  4. 4.

    Berry (1993: 156) interestingly reverses the argument made by White. Rather than the Bible being the ideological and religious justification for environmental abuse, he argues that neglect and abuse of the environment leads to a misuse of the Bible: “The misuse of the Bible thus logically accompanies the abuse of Nature: if you are going to destroy creatures without respect, you will want to reduce them to ‘materiality’; you will want to deny that there is a spirit or truth in them, just as you will want to believe that only holy or ensouled creatures are human or only Christian humans”.

  5. 5.

    Although Bron Taylor often criticizes Christianity as being inherently anthropocentric, the religion expressed in the biblical tradition, when taking its premodern, prescientific context into account, would correspond to his definition of “dark green religion.” According to the biblical religion, all creation is sacred (though not divine; see Berry 1993, who emphasizes its holiness), and all creatures have intrinsic value, which is imputed by God. Using Taylor’s own criteria, the biblical value system is “(1) based on a felt kinship with the rest of life …; (2) accompanied by feelings of humility and a corresponding critique of human moral superiority …; and (3) reinforced by metaphysics of interconnection and the idea of interdependence …” (2010: 13). Although not the focus of the essay, some of these characteristics of deep green religion will be addressed in the argument below.

  6. 6.

    The Hebrew term behemah may refer to wild or domestic land animals, or to all land animals generally, but when it occurs in contrast to \( \underset{\raise0.3em\hbox{$\smash{\scriptscriptstyle\cdot}$}}{h} \) ayyah (v. 11), it usually refers to domestic land animals. The contrast that is made in v. 14, however, is not between wild and domestic animals, but between animals that eat grass (\( \underset{\raise0.3em\hbox{$\smash{\scriptscriptstyle\cdot}$}}{s} \) ir) and humans that eat plants (‘eseb). In this case, behemah may refer to all herbivore land animals, whether they are wild or domestic.

  7. 7.

    William Brown (2010: 141–159) argues that Psalm 104 offers a correction to the anthropic principle: Humans may have their place, but the creation was not designed around them. “If there is a ‘principle’ at work in creation according to the psalm, it is inclusively ‘biotic’ rather than anthropic” (2010: 153).

  8. 8.

    Limburg (1994: 344) claims that the “orientation of this psalm is not anthropocentric but rather geocentric, earth-centered”. Indeed, the psalm emphasizes that God’s activity encompasses the earth rather than simply focuses on humans. It is a misnomer, however, to characterize the psalm as “geocentric,” for it is God’s activity that is focus of the psalm and it is dependence on God that all creation shares. The psalmist’s worldview is theocentric rather than geocentric, and it is certainly not anthropocentric.

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Correspondence to Ronald A. Simkins.

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Simkins, R.A. The Bible and anthropocentrism: putting humans in their place. Dialect Anthropol 38, 397–413 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-014-9348-z

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Keywords

  • Anthropocentrism
  • Bible
  • Lynn White, Jr.
  • Environment
  • Theocentrism