Christianity, ethics, and ecology

Augustine’s ethical ideas are, like much Christian thought of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, largely an update of Plato’s ideas combined with elements of Jewish and early Christian thought. Just as Plato did, Augustine proposed an eternal order by which the affairs and attitudes of individuals and societies could be measured and to which these microcosms should seek to conform. His unique contribution was to identify this eternal and perfect order as the “Kingdom of God” of the thought of ancient Jews and early Christians. According to Augustine’s Christianized update of Plato, the City of God is the eternal order which transcends and yet pervades the City of Man, the temporal order of human society and government.

Interestingly and in a rather bizarre manner, Augustine applied his ideas of the City of God and the City of Man to his ideas about women. As in his various other unique ideas in which he differs from earlier and contemporary Fathers of the Church, such as original sin and predestination, Augustine’s thoughts on women are a strange, haphazard mix of Platonism, ancient Jewish thought, early Christian belief, and his own ideas. For Augustine, drawing, it appears, on St. Paul’s words on marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33, but adding his own twist on the ideas expressed there, man is the “City of God” to woman’s status as “City of Man.” In a clear reference to Plato’s ideas concerning the tripartite nature of the human soul, Augustine asserts in his Confessions, for instance, that woman is “subject to the sex of her husband, as the appetite of action is subjected by reason of the mind.”

In his De Trinitate, Augustine’s bizarre mix of Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity is even more evident in his views on women. There, he draws simultaneously on Plato’s Republic, the opening chapters of Genesis, and 1 Corinthians 11:3-12 to reach his rather strange conclusion that a woman herself does not bear the image of God but is the image of God only in conjunction with her husband. While this is the logical conclusion of Augustine’s comparison of the relationship between man and woman with his conception of the City of God and the City of Man, there is no justification for this in either of the scriptural texts he draws upon to make his point and the assertion clearly runs contrary to the thrust of both Jewish and Christian, if not Platonic, thought.

Unfortunately, it is the Platonic element in Late Antique and Medieval Christian thought, most notably in the thought of Augustine, which has attracted the most attention from modern feminist critics. The criticisms of Deborah Mathieu, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Eleanor McLaughlin, to name three of the most popular such feminist critiques, for example, have all aimed their attacks at this Platonic element in Christian thought. As a result, there has been little meaningful criticism of or commentary upon elements of Christian thought from that period that are truly unique to Christianity but much criticism has been directed at the Church of that period for its continuation of some elements of earlier Greco-Roman thought.

Similarly, much of the multicultural criticism that has been directed against Augustine and his contemporaries in the Christian Church more often springs from misunderstandings and distortions of early and medieval Christianity than from an accurate assessment and meaningful engagement with it. Jorge Valadez’s criticisms of Christian ethics, for instance, are largely inspired by his concern for two elements which he finds, whether rightly or wrongly, are emphasized in the thought of certain pre-Columbian traditions of the Americas but believes are lacking in Christianity, namely a belief in the bisexuality and the all-pervading presence of the Divine. That Valadez sees these elements as missing, however, is more an oversight on his part than on that of the Christian thinkers of any generation.

In his criticisms of the lack of bisexuality in the God of Judaism and Christianity, for example, Valadez makes the very strong statement that the God of Christianity “has traditionally never been spoken of in female terms.” While it is true that masculine terminology predominates in both Christianity and Judaism in order to emphasize the active and “penetrating” nature of God, it is untrue, and obviously so to anyone with a decent knowledge of Christian theology and history, that these faith traditions have indeed used feminine terms; two very prominent examples are the concept of the Shekinah, or Divine Presence, in Judaism, and the concept of Sophia, the Divine Wisdom, a very important concept in Christian theology which is viewed as synonymous with Christ (the Second Person of the Trinity). Here we have the Presence (in Judaism) and Wisdom (in Christianity) of God, both central concepts in the respective faith traditions which possess them, being identified as feminine.

Similarly, Valadez claims that because of the Christian ideas of God’s transcendence and separation in essence from the created order, Christianity lacks the theoretical basis for an “ecological culture” such as he ascribes to the Maya. On the contrary however, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all long emphasized the all-pervading presence of God. One prayer that has been in common use in the Eastern Christian churches since at least the early Middle Ages, and which makes up part of the standard beginning to nearly all Eastern Christian church services and personal prayers, explicitly refers to God as “everywhere present and filling all things,” thereby exclaiming a clearly panentheistic position.

In addition, the traditional, and especially Eastern, Christian tradition of iconography, which views the material elements of wood and paint as worthy objects of worship insofar as they stand as symbols for and conduits of the divine figures whom they are used to depict, as well as the traditional sacramental view of Christianity, which sees objects of the material world used as conduits for God’s presence, as in the wine and bread of the Eucharist becoming the Body and Blood of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, and the water and oil of baptism and chrismation becoming the vehicles for the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, give lie to Valadez’s assertions concerning the separation of God and world in Christian thought. Of more value than Valadez’s criticism of Christianity is Catharine P. Roth’s more informed critique of Western Christianity’s loss of iconographic and sacramental focus: “Because God was not seen in any … material objects, the world was understood as mere matter. Where there is no ‘sacramental consciousness,’ there is no restraint on scientific analysis and technological exploitation of the cosmos”. In other words, the ecological basis Valadez is seeking is not something foreign to Christianity which must be found in such troubled and fundamentally flawed traditions as the Mayan and Aztec systems, but something that is quite natural to Christianity and is waiting to be rediscovered in its roots.

What Plato forgot

Plato bases his ethical theory on the idea that the microcosm (man) should seek to conform to and imitate the macrocosm (the State and, more generally, the cosmos and the eternal order of things). This is why he uses the State as his primary point of exploration and reference in The Republic. To this end, as he begins his discussion of justice in that work, he proposes “that we enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them.” From this macrocosmic perspective, he claims, it will be easier to view justice and injustice and to associate these to the lives of individuals. In this way, the macrocosm acts as both an allegory for and a source of morality in Plato’s thought.

A problem arises in Plato’s thought, however, when he subjects the microcosm of man to the macrocosm of the State in a way that determines man’s value based solely on what he can contribute to the State from his position of subservience to the State. Interestingly, the same criticism applies equally to the ethical ideas of Confucius, Plato’s near-contemporary in China, whose ideas similarly subject man to the State. This is the heart of the objection raised by Julia Annas in her feminist critique of Plato; according to Annas and in opposition to other modern thinkers who have seen Plato as a feminist because of his argument that men and women of the guardian class in his Republic should be given equal roles, Plato, in continuity with Greek thought of his time, sees women as inherently inferior to men but desires their equality within a certain class because he sees such equality as a benefit to the State, although even this conclusion is rather self-contradictory and perplexing when Plato’s thought is considered as a whole.

This problem of the subjection of man to State (or even to cosmos) has been discussed in a more general way by other thinkers, such as Bertrand Russell, who have also pointed out how troubling Plato’s position is. Its flaws are particularly evident for people today, who live in the shadow of ideologies such as Nazism and Soviet Communism which subjected man to State and viewed him only in terms of what he could contribute to that collective. To modern eyes, as a result, Plato’s ideas more often appear as an oppressive regime of terror than as a perfect utopian society. As Russell pointed out once, Plato modeled much of his thought on the ideal State on his impressions of the Greek polis Sparta as it existed in his own day and, had Plato’s utopia ever become a reality in Syracuse, where Plato attempted to make it real, or anywhere else, the effect would have been essentially the same as what actually happened in ancient Sparta: a city-state that produced no great philosophy, no great art, no great literature (very much unlike democratic Athens for which Plato held such disdain and which yet made his career possible) and which was perpetually in a state of war both within and without.

Where I believe that Plato was correct is in his belief that the temporal values of man must be based on eternal values in order to have lasting, meaningful values that are context-free. One need only look at nearly any of the great movements for human rights in the history of Western civilization (or the similar movements Western ideas have inspired throughout the non-Western world) to see the effect, and, I would aver, the necessity, of the need for a concept of eternal values. Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is one short work which exhibits this reliance of the movements of human rights on the ideas of eternal, transcendent values and a “natural law” that stands above man’s laws and can be used to measure, and to oppose, the particular values of any particular society or individual. It is this idea which inspired and gave the intellectual basis, as King points out, for the various movements against infanticide, against oppression of women, against economic exploitation, against slavery, against segregation, and in favor of the equality and universal dignity of human life.

Where Plato went terribly wrong was in his forgetting that each individual has value and must, to adopt Kant’s terminology if not his ideology, be seen as an end in himself (or herself) and not as the means to an end. While man must, in a sense, conform to the macrocosm of the cosmos in its eternal values and in natural law, he must never become merely a cog in the machine; rather, each microcosm, in order to be a perfect microcosm, must retain value consonant with the macrocosm as a whole rather than merely a portion of it. In short, while Plato discovered an important source of values, his great mistake was to forget the purpose for which he was searching for this source of values to begin with.