Religious roots of our ecological crisis
Author: Thomas Höffgen
Issue No: 93
From the deep nature worship of the pagans to the burgeoning demonization of it in the spreading Christianity to the ecological crisis of the present – a lot has happened in the relationship of man to nature in the course of time, and unfortunately this development does not bear beautiful fruits. The author contrasts the relationship to nature of pagans and Christians with each other and yet gives the reader a positive outlook on how we – accompanied by Goethe and Schiller – can rediscover the magic and soul of nature and its creatures….
“What people do for their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to the things around them. Human ecology is profoundly determined by beliefs about our nature and our destiny-that is, by religion.”
- Lynn White Jr.
Climate change, forest dieback, and plastic waste in our oceans – these are just a few examples of the great ecological catastrophe we find ourselves in the 21st century. About 150 species of animals and plants are becoming extinct every day: Although there have already been five such species extinctions on the planet, this time is different, because the current crisis is explicitly anthropogenic, that is, “man-made.” Hard to believe, but true, man is destroying his own basis of life. Reason enough to ask why he is doing this: What attitude and mindset – what worldview and view of nature – is behind the downright anti-natural behavior that modern man is currently displaying?
In order to get to the bottom of this question, a thesis in the history of the humanities and religion will be discussed here, which has been put forward again and again in the past, but which has never penetrated into the broader consciousness: We are talking about the serious assertion that with Christianization a paradigmatic change of world view – even a break in human consciousness – took place, in the course of which mankind radically turned away from its natural environment up to the demonization of nature, which finally led to the present crisis.
“Beautiful world, where are you?”
Already Friedrich Schiller states in his poem Die Götter Griechenlandes (1788), a poem on the philosophy of history, that with the change from animistic to Christian faith an alienation from nature of unparalleled proportions had taken place: With the displacement of the pre-Christian religion of nature < https://www.tattva.de/germanischer-schamanismus/> a “beautiful world had been lost in which the forests were pantheistically all-godly and ‘a Dryas lives’ in every tree.” In the wake of the monotheistic mission – “to enrich one, among all” – living nature had been de-goddized and disenchanted: “through the forests I call, through the billows, Alas! they echo empty!”
More recently, the U.S. historian of science Lynn White Jr. revisited the same thesis in his powerful essay The historical roots of our ecological crisis (1967): his remarks that the modern environmental crisis is rooted in the Christian imagination led to ecological reforms even within the Church and are inescapable in any serious ecosophical consideration of the subject.
Surprisingly, however, reflections on the religious roots of our ecological crisis have since then largely disappeared from the discourse, surprising because the crisis has since dramatically escalated and we are heading for problems whose practical solution requires theoretical understanding of their causes. To show the religious-spiritual background of our ecological emergency by means of a concrete cultural-historical example, but also to present a progressive approach to a solution, is the concern of the following remarks.
In every tree breathed a deity”.
In order to become aware of the influence of Christianity on the consciousness of nature, it is first necessary to recall the worldview that prevailed before Christianization. In Schiller’s classicist poem, this is done with the example of the ancient world of the Greek gods. But all other pre-Christian cultures in Europe could also be cited as examples, such as the Celts, Slavs or Balts. In the area of today’s Germany, the pre-Christian cosmology has been handed down above all in myths and fairy tales, which originate from the Germanic peoples.
The Christians later called these peoples pagans, and although it is a later foreign designation, which was applied by the church – as a religious demarcation term – pejoratively to all “non-Christians”, the designation is not at all inappropriate: It is a Germanic word, *haiþana-, with the meaning “belonging to the heath” or “inhabiting the forest area”, and obviously refers to the settlement method of the Germanic peoples to build their homesteads in the middle of untouched forests. Already Caesar reports that the Teutons lived in primeval forests (De bello gallico), and Tacitus describes that certain groves were even sacred to them (Germania).
The Germanic peoples were indeed pagans, not only because they lived in the forests, but also because forests and trees were at the center of their religion.
In fact, the Germanic religion was a decided religion of nature: To put it simply, the gods of the Teutons were even identical with the phenomena of nature; just think of the thunderstorm god Donar, whose mere name already corresponds to the Old High German word for thunder, or of the dwarfs Austri, Suðri, Vestri and Norðri, which obviously refer to the cardinal points. The father of the gods Odin-Wotan, that “Allfather” (Edda), who according to Jacob Grimm represents “the all-pervading creating and forming power”, which “gives shape and beauty to people and all things” (German mythology), takes a special position in this context.
Apparently, the Germanic peoples did not worship the material surface of all these phenomena, but the immaterial spiritual forces that reveal themselves physically in the same.
In this sense, then, the Germanic peoples were pantheists because in their worldview “God and living, creative nature coincide” (Dictionary of Philosophical Terms).
About the author: Dr. phil. Thomas Höffgen
Dr. phil. Thomas Höffgen, author and speaker, is known among other things as the author of the book “Schamanismus bei den Germanen”. His latest work is entitled “Der verteufelte Waldgott. The Christianization of the Germanic Peoples” (2022). He views the world from the perspective of pantheistic natural philosophy and argues for a spiritual ecology.
This article has also been published on the German Website: Die Verteufelung der Natur