Secularism and Violence to the Environment

I just finished After Modernity? Secularity, Globalization & The Re-Enchantment of the World, edited by James K.A. Smith. The book is a collection of essays and the ones by Smith, John Milbank, and Graham Ward alone are worth the price of the book. What makes this book different however from similar ones of this type is the diversity evident in the various authors area’s of expertise. The authors are not only theologians, but geographers, political scientists, economists, and philosophers who specialize in environmental studies. What brings them together, partly, is the recognition that the enlightenment/scientism paradigm (modernity) has brought destruction and violence, both socially and environmentally, on a scale really hard to imagine and is what happens when people and the world are no longer ‘enchanted.’

I was especially moved by the essay entitled, Agrarianism after Modernity-An Opening for Grace, written by Norman Wirzba. He starts off noting the problem:

In multiple ways the various trends of secularization, comodification, individualism, industrialism, urbanization, standardization, technological hype, and, most recently global markets have torn asunder the gravitational threads that bind us to each other, to the earth, and to God…A sense for the integrity of things, and for their beginning and end in God, is mostly gone. We do not know who we are, do not welcome and receive each other as gifts “from the Father of Lights” (James 1:17), nor do we know what the earth means—all because we have lost the “art” of being creatures. (Pg. 242)

The rest of the essay is a further commentary on those themes with the proposal of moving to local economies where producers, consumers, and the earth are all tied together in closer and more personal ways understood within the context of an enchanted universe where all is a gift we share.

Another interesting aspect he deals with is how we came to be situated in our current predicament, which of course many others have also dealt with. Here are a number of interesting quotes:

The scope and consequences of creation’s mutilation have now, except to the willfully blind and obstinate, become extremely difficult to overlook or deny. Legions of scientific studies and cultural analysis are making it plain that the grand experiment to exercise complete control over the earth—to have life on our own terms—is ending in disaster: as glaciers, polar ice caps, and the Greenland ice sheet melt owing to global warming, people alternately face drought, dehydration, starvation, or drowning…(Pg. 243)

And, of course, that “grand experiment” to exercise total control over the earth is what we call enlightenment/scientism. He goes on to note that this is what happens when we imagine the world as a “pure nature” that is “pure exteriority, only a surface, having no face or deep interiority (sanctity) that might challenge an idolatrous gaze or utilitarian grasp.” Most people believe that this “dis-enchantment” of the world equals a complete break with religion. But, rather, as Wirzba also points out, it is, quoting Szerszynski, a “technological sublime” that “exalts” the human ability to “dominate” and “manage” the natural world.

Thus, as many have pointed out, the technological becomes the external manifestation of a new civil religion of mastery (or what some have called gnostic scientism), wherein we become gods and “masters” of our own fates. Religion always returns. More to the point, the earth is then seen as something simply to map, control, and exploit.

Finally, there is this:

As we can now see, an understanding of the world as creation, as the concrete expression of God’s abiding and sustaining grace, is significantly at odds with modern forms of civil religion that establish human ambition as the center of reference. Indeed the religions of technology and economic expansion represent some of the most systematic distortions of the life of faith because they entail the eclipse of God and lead to the destruction of the earth. What began nobly as the Baconian dream to alleviate human misery and abolish superstition has resulted in unprecedented species and habitat loss and unparalleled ecosystem degradation. (Pg. 250)

One lasting impression we need to take away from this very fine essay is that not only has the secular-enlightenment-scientism-materialist paradigm brought untold suffering to humans (see here something to the tune of 85-100 Million Deaths–let that number roll around in your mind for a minute…and also see here), but it has also led to a violence toward creation, the natural world, in an equally almost unfathomable way. Secularism as the face of scientism/materialism is not green. It is red with blood—even the blood of the earth.

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3 Responses to Secularism and Violence to the Environment

  1. Burk Braun says:

    It is rather telling that your solution to the pending environmental problems is more god and more theology. One would have thought that you would be interested in fixing these problems, but apparently that is not the point. And anyhow, if god were real and cared in the slightest, one would think that we would not be facing this issue at all.The enlightenment advances you point to have made one overarching phenomenon possible, which is growth of the human population, along with growth in its knowledge, comforts and security. That is what is causing the current environmental crisis, and it is by no means a track record to be dissatisfied with, despite the looming problems.Now the question is how to address those problems- whether to remain in bed with one’s conservative corporate bed-fellows who spent the last decade casting aspersions on the very problems you point to, as they did other forms of hazardous pollution before that, and tobacco dangers before that. Or to take positive and effective action on the requisite national and global scale, promoting steep pollution pricing on fossil fuels, sustainable development in energy, agriculture, building, and other sectors, as well as rational population control (as contrasted with the control that will be coming otherwise, driven by starvation and conflict in the face of declining resources).It is all very well to fantasize about farmer’s markets, localized economics and down-sized corporations- many of these are worthy goals, though with a vaguely feudal air about them, I must say. But I do not plan to fly on an airplane built and operated by my neighbor … there are aspects of modern life that require large-scale organization. And at the top of that list is the effective political and regulatory organization required to stave off the worst aspects of the coming climate change.


  2. Burk Braun says:

    And how did you get to Rome, anyhow .. by oxcart?Incidentally, it should be “wreak”, not “wreck”, presumably.


  3. Darrell says:

    Burk, thank you for the grammatical correction…one of the hazards of blogging I suppose where most of mine anyway is done on-the-fly and, clearly, without enough proof-reading…as to your other comments, given the specific area addressed- agrarianism (and not building aircraft) – and the over-all nature of the essay, I don’t see that you raise any relevant points. It is obvious—the point you are trying to make—but it has little to do with the major themes of the essay or my post. No one was suggesting that if we moved to closer agricultural communities, it should logically entail local Jumbo-jet construction. However, if you are saying, then, that to have safe flight, we need to destroy people and the environment (one has to break some eggs to make an omelet?) on an unprecedented scale, please do.


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