Reflections on Key Books and Articles, by Holmes Rolston III.
“Is There an Ecological Ethic?” (Ethics, 1975)
My first work of which anybody took serious notice was an article, “Is There an Ecological Ethic?” (1975). I had been educated by physicists to think nature was value-free, by Darwinians to think nature was a jungle red in tooth and claw, by theologians who claimed God was only to be found in Israel’s salvation history and in Jesus’ life and death. Philosophers disliked the neo-orthodox theology but agreed that nature is one domain, value is another–and anyone who moved from is to ought committed the naturalistic fallacy.
By now I had been experientially absorbed in wild nature for a couple decades, and what my teachers said did not ring true in the field. One of the Psalmists sings: “The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the badgers. … The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. … O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all” (Psalm 104.18-24). What the wildlands do “for us,” if we must phrase it that way, is teach that God is not “for us” humans alone. Philosophers needed to spend more time in the backcountry. Ecosystemic nature did not seem “wild” in any bad sense, nor was it “fallen,” nor valueless; to the contrary, it was a community of life with beauty, integrity, dynamic creativity persisting over millennia.
I wondered “Is There an Ecological Ethic?” one that is philosophically respectable, and wrote that article in reply. My strategy was beginning with analysis and ending with an invitation to love nature. I sent it at first to journals on the edges of mainstream philosophy, where I thought the chances of acceptance were better. It was rejected. I sent it, timidly, to Ethics, the leading journal in the field; and, to my consternation, it was accepted almost by return mail. The question seemed to strike a chord with which others could resonate; the article has been reprinted numerous times since and has been cited hundreds of times.
“The Pasqueflower” (Natural History, 1979)
I enjoyed the pasqueflowers in the Western
spring, which bloom about Easter, and wrote an article celebrating this flower,
a kind of disguised sermon. I sent it to
some religion journals. It was
rejected. I sent it to Natural History, the magazine of the
American Museum of Natural History. It
was accepted, and I found myself trying to persuade half a million readers that
the pasqueflower is a marvelous symbol of religious significance in nature.
Philosophy Gone Wild (Prometheus Books, 1986)
Environmental Ethics (Temple University Press, 1988)
I had a part in founding the journal Environmental Ethics and establishing environmental philosophy as a reputable subdiscipline within philosophy. I started a class by that name and students responded enthusiastically. I wrote a series of articles over a quarter of a century with a deepening conviction that one measure with which philosophy is profound is the measure with which it can appropriately respect nature as complement to culture. These articles were gathered into Philosophy Gone Wild. That in turn produced a systematic inquiry: Environmental Ethics: Values in and Duties to the Natural World. This latter book seems to be the one which has earned me the title “father of environmental ethics”–at least that used to be the way it was put. Lately the title seems to be: “the grandfather of environmental ethics”! That makes me realize that for a third of a century now I have been arguing that no one can really become a philosopher, loving wisdom, without caring for these sources in which we live, move, and have our being, the community of life on Earth. Philosophers need to keep nature and culture in tandem; and they may need religious insights to do this.
Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (Random House; Temple University Press, 1987)
All along, I really considered the dialogue between science and religion my first love. I had been teaching such a class for a decade, with increasing conviction that never in the histories of science and religion have the opportunities been greater for fertile interaction between these fields, with mutual benefits to both. So I undertook to survey the sciences to inquire what room they leave for religion, to show that the natural and social sciences are open to theological inquiry beyond. The sciences themselves address incompletely the ultimate questions and must be complemented by religious interpretations.
I sought, you could say, an evolutionary epic, the Earth story, the world history that science and religion both seek to assess. For most contemporary critics, this is too much of a “grand narrative.” But it seemed to me that Earth did have, if one wished to put it that way, a grand narrative. And I never liked piecemeal explanations. Over historical time, matter-energy has evolved life, which, in its most striking forms, develops mind, producing at length humans with their cultures. En route, information appears to form and reform matter-energy. Simple things have spun more complicated things; that is the narrative of creation. To get the big picture is a daunting task; and I was an apprentice at a craft in which there are no masters.
The religion that is married to science today will be a widow tomorrow–so went a theological proverb–since the sciences in their multiple theories and forms come and go. Yes, but science is here to stay; and the religion that is divorced from science today will leave no offspring tomorrow. Religion cannot live without fitting into the intellectual world that is its environment. Here too the fittest survive. So my Science and Religion was the result.
“A Forest Ethic and Multivalue Forest Management” (Journal of Forestry, 1991)
“Nature and Culture in Environmental Ethics” (Ethics: The Proceedings of the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, 1999)
“Natural and Unnatural, Wild and Cultural” (Western North American Naturalist, 2001)
Philosophers and theologians ought to be professionals, but I need to save the world. So I have always been glad for a larger audience–and maybe the Templeton Prize will help me there. I was as pleased to publish an article arguing for multiple values in nature in the Journal of Forestry–and including the spiritual values in encountering forests–as I was earlier to publish that article in Ethics. Most philosophers would put on their vita that they were invited to speak at the World Congress of Philosophy, as I was (resulting in “Nature and Culture in Environmental Ethics”). But I am as proud to have been invited to address the Yellowstone National Park Science Conference on the natural and the artificial and the park’s mission to provide and conserve experiences of wild nature (resulting in “Natural and Unnatural, Wild and Cultural”). I am much encouraged to get a sympathetic hearing, often from those I might first have taken to be religion’s cultured despisers.
Genes, Genesis and God (Cambridge University Press, 1999)
Concerned with value in nature, I was not only interested in saving it, practically. I was interested in understanding it, theoretically; and my finding of value in nature was problematic for the Darwinians. Physics had been my first love; but, over the decades of my career, the relations between physics and theology had become surprisingly cordial. Biology was my deepest love, dealing with earthen nature. The relations between biology and theology are more difficult. I loved both those disciplines, and so had a lover’s quarrel going on within myself.
Astrophysics and nuclear physics, combining quantum mechanics and relativity theory, have been describing a universe “fine-tuned” for life. Several previous Templeton prize winners (including Paul Davies and Freeman Dyson) have made much of this. But evolutionary and molecular biology have seemed to be discovering that the history of life is a random walk with much struggle and chance, driven by selfish genes. Biology is a stark contrast–at first at least. Molecular biology, discovering DNA, has decoded the “secret of life” (once ascribed to the Spirit of God). Evolutionary history has located the secret of life in natural selection operating over incremental variations across enormous timespans, with the fittest selected to survive.
The process is prolific, but no longer fine-tuned. To the contrary, evolutionary history can seem make-shift, wasteful, and cruel, at the same time that, within structural constraints and mutations available, it optimizes adapted fit. Natural selection is thought to be blind, both in the genetic variations bubbling up without regard to the needs of the organism, some few of which by chance are beneficial, and also in the evolutionary selective forces, which select for survival, without regard to advance. Further, since individual organisms are selected for their self-interested reproductive skills, in competition with others, selection favors “selfish” organisms. All this, they say, eliminates God.
My interests in value in nature brought me the invitation to give the Gifford Lectures, and these I devoted to the possibilities of an evolutionary theism: Genes, Genesis and God. Receiving the invitation, at first, I was shocked. I couldn’t get much attention even from the Eastern establishment, much less from the celebrated theologians of Europe. The manuscript on which I had been working had been turned down by prominent publishers. Here, nevertheless, was the invitation. Somebody seemed to be paying attention. This was the window of opportunity I needed to get my act together.
Genes, Genesis and God is my best effort to make sense of the Earth story. Much that has occurred on Earth is valuable (“able to be valued–if not “valuable in itself”), and this despite the fact that nature is often taken, alike by natural scientists and humanist philosophers, to be “value free.” All of the more systematic accounts of such appearance of the valuable remain contested. I tried to interpret the developing stories on this promising planet, as the genesis of value, for which, in biological evolution, the genes are critical in a set-up remarkably propitious for life. Later the story is equally remarkably as the culturing of value, for which the genes, however necessary, are insufficient. Humans have a unique “genius,” or “spirit,” or “Geist” (sometimes you need that German word). Humans are the sole species able to form complex cumulatively transmissible cultures. This is so well evidenced in science, ethics, and religion, which are the principal carriers of value. I conclude that, far from biology explaining religion (away), biology needs religion if it is to find the significance of this grand narrative that has taken place on this wonderland Earth.
“Disvalues in Nature” (The Monist, 1992)
“Does Nature Need to be Redeemed” (Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, 1994)
“Kenosis and Nature” (in The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, SPCK and Eerdmans, 2001)
“Naturalizing and Systematizing Evil” (in Is Nature Ever Evil? Religion, Science and Value, Routledge, 2003)
Darwinians struggle to get the big picture in nature, and they are quite right that there is a dark side to nature. This is the classical question of theodicy, but now in an evolutionary setting, and (I also discovered) now in an ecological setting. I have never sought to cast Darwinism down, only to cast it in a different light. To put it aphoristically, most Darwinians see the dark clouds, I see the silver lining. Perspective is crucial.
The idea of a “cruciform creation” was already a theme in my Science and Religion, elaborated further in: “Does Nature Need to be Redeemed,” “Disvalues in Nature,” “Kenosis and Nature,” and “Naturalizing and Systematizing Evil.” The fundamental claim is that this Earth is systemically prolific at increasing biodiversity and biocomplexity, and that the often real evils integrate into those powers. I have tried to see into the depths of what is taking place in natural history. My view is not panglossian; it is a sometimes tragic view of life, but one in which tragedy is the shadow of prolific creativity.
Jesus offers his disciples an abundant life, but also embodied a sacrificial suffering through to something higher. The Spirit of God is the genius that makes alive, that redeems life from its evils. I found that the cruciform creation is, in the end, deiform, godly, just because of this element of struggle, not in spite of it. Redemptive suffering is a model that makes sense of nature and history. Darwinians see this truth: there is a struggle for survival. But so far from making the world absurd, such struggle is a key to the whole, as a transformative principle, transvalued into its opposite. The capacity to suffer through to joy is a supreme emergent and an essence of Christianity. Yet the whole evolutionary upslope is a lesser calling of this kind, in which renewed life comes by blasting the old. Life is gathered up in the midst of its throes, a blessed tragedy, lived in grace through a besetting storm.