Gaia and God
Rosemary R. Ruether’s book, Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing presents a thorough look at the relationship between Christianity, patriarchal society, and the destruction of the environment. She argues that the Christian concept of sin is at the root of the domination of women, the environment, and the need to dominate other humans. In order to overcome this destructive tradition, Ruether argues that as a society we must learn to move toward “earth healing, a healed relationship between men and women, between classes and nations, and between humans and the earth” (1). A number of practical suggestions that derive from the ethical implications of Ruether’s thesis provide a solid basis for changes in public policy.
In Gaia and God, Ruether offers a critique that is solidly based upon Christian theology. In examining three cornerstone creation stories of Western thought (the Enuma Elish, Plato’s Timeaus, and Genesis), Ruether argues that early Christianity’s melding of these three sources has resulted in the formation of two assumptions. The first is that nature was originally an untouched paradise that was a benign human environment. The second was that human sin brought about human mortality. Further, she argues that these two assumptions have created an environment were human attitudes of domination over nonhuman creation are inextricably linked with the Christian concept of sin. Ruether sees sin as the improper relationship that exists between humans and the remainder of nature, and that sin itself is at the root of many human concerns like sexism, racism, political and economic injustice, as well as the human desire to subjugate nature.
Ruether’s book is unique and valuable in its ability to successfully integrate criticism of Christian ecology with some hard scientific information. She is equally at home discussing concepts of population growth, pollution, extinction and poverty as she is in her theological discussion of the roots of human sin. She argues convincingly that the Christian assumption that humans originally lived in harmonious groups in a benign environment is incorrect, and that sin must be distinguished from finitude, the good conditions of human life that were created by God. Further, she is adept at identifying and criticizing many of Christianity’s historic acts and attitudes that have resulted in damage to human society and the environment.
Ruether argues that male domination of nature and of women are closely connected. It is this attitude of patriarchal domination that is the root cause of the destruction of the environment, the subjugation of women, and human acts of domination over others, whether this domination is social, economic, or political.
Ultimately, Ruether asserts that relentless human abuse will cause the destruction of the ecosystem.
There are a number of ethical implications that emerge from the theology within Gaia and God. Ruether clearly argues that humankind’s subversion and domination of the earth is a sin against God. Further, the domination of humans by each other is a sinful act.
If the author’s thesis is true, it holds several important implications for human behavior. Ruether herself is clear about the actions that need to be taken in accordance with her theory. She is strongly committed to the concept of “earth healing,” which involves creating a healed relationship between men and women, between classes of humans, between nations, and even between human beings and the earth we inhabit.
Ultimately, Ruether argues that human relationships with both each other and the environment itself need to be fundamentally changed. She notes, “Only by understanding how the web of life works can we also learn to sustain it rather than destroy it. This is not simply a task of intellectual understanding, but of metanoia, in the fullest sense of the word: of conversion of our spirit and culture, of our technology and social relations, so that the human species exists within nature in a life-sustaining way.”
Ruether is specific in many of her suggestions for change. These are varied and include both wide-sweeping suggestions for societal changes, and smaller, more personal changes in behavior. Ruether argues for eating less meat, creating towns where work and services are within walking distance, developing agriculture and industry that is self-sufficient, and rejecting the patriarchal world view and adopting a commitment to earth healing.
Ruether’s thesis, the ensuing ethical implications and their implications for human behavior are somewhat problematic. Specifically, her argument that earth healing “is only possible through recognition and transformation of the way in which Western culture, enshrined in part in Christianity, has justified such domination” (1) brings up some interesting issues. Many countries that do not share a Christian tradition share many of the patriarchal traditions and environmental and societal injustices that Ruether attributes to being rooted in Christianity. Clearly, a better understanding of the recognition and understanding of how Western culture (and Christianity) have justified domination will be of relatively little value to these societies.
In addition, this brings up a further problem with Ruether’s thesis: domination and environmental degradation occur commonly outside the realm of Christian influence. Today, Buddhist countries often have poor environmental records, and social, political, and economic injustices. Similarly, many animistic societies, as well as societies based on Hinduism (like India), and have shown a clear pattern of patriarchal dominance. This is largely inconsistent with Ruether’s assertion that the Christian concept of sin lies at the root of patriarchal dominance of the earth and its peoples.
Overall, despite these problems, the behaviors and actions that are a natural outgrowth of Ruether’s thesis should become public policy. The actions that result from her thesis are largely positive, and will likely go a great way to resolve many inequalities and injustices among humans, and protect the environment.
However, Ruether’s thesis and suggestions may prove difficult to adopt worldwide. Patriarchal world traditions are deeply entrenched, and difficult to change. In addition, the applicability of her Christian-based thesis to the non-Christian world is debatable.
In conclusion, Rosemary Ruether’s Gaia and God is a valuable addition to the environmentalist feminist literature. She marries an understanding of Christian theology with an analysis of environmentalism in a way that ultimately produces a number of workable, helpful suggestions for better human interactions with each other and the environment.
Ruether, Rosemary R. 1994. Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. Harper SanFrancisco.
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