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  • Revealing the Origin of Human-Nature Dualities in Christian Political Structures
  • Martha L. Henderson (bio)

Presidential Address delivered to the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, 74th annual meeting, San Francisco, CA, October 1, 2011

The study of political ecology, the politic of ecological relationships, often investigates political power as inserted into ecological relationships so that both the environment and the human public is transformed. In this paper, I report on my inquiry into the political capacity of the Christian Church in 300 AD to create the primary way in which Western societies have created a relationship with the environment. I follow a debate about human relation to the environment into the present, with emphasis on a growing sense of secularism that embraces a wider set of relational possibilities than the historical church established in its 325 AD statement of belief. I end the paper with two examples of human-environmental relationships that embrace a transformation of the Dominionist view (that humans are separate from nature). I hope to inspire a renewal in religious and secular structures that embrace a unity between humans and the environment.

There is a history of investigation of the relationship between Judeo Christian beliefs and the environment in American geography, with occasional articles in the Annals and other peer-reviewed journals (Kay Guelke 2007, Proctor 2004). I do not examine personal belief systems nor condemn the institutional Christian Church. Instead, I hope to reveal the social and historical conditions that have set the stage for a separation between humans and the environment in dominant social structures in the western and northern parts of the globe. I suggest that this duality may be passing away as Western society embraces a form of secularism that promotes a richer social space inclusive of environmental justice. [End Page 15]

A Trail Guide through Interdisciplinary Claims of Knowledge

Beginning in 2004, I participated in a two-year seminar funded by the Templeton Foundation at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The seminar, titled "Nature, Science and Religion," was organized by the geographer James Proctor, now a faculty member of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. The goal of the seminar was to seek a new vision, a new language, and a new perspective on the relationship between the culture of science, constructions of nature, and the role of religion as a vehicle for creating interrelationships between these powerhouses of Western culture. The seminar group was made up of international scholars including the geographer David Livingston. The other scholars included anthropologists, mathematicians, theology scholars, philosophers, ecologists, and environmental scientists. Our common interest across these disciplinary boundaries was to seek out a richer understanding of the interrelationships that bind the physical, social, and mental constructs of nature and humanity.

The seminar's emphasis on re-envisioning the space of a socially constructed environment follows the instruction of Judith Gerber in her 1997 Progress in Human Geography article titled "Beyond dualism—the social construction of nature and the natural and social construction of human beings" (Gerber 1997) to explore the practices and beliefs that construct nature. Her ultimate goal was to "dissolve the dualism between nature and society (or culture)" (Gerber 1997, 1). Citing a number of geographers who have devoted a portion of their work to understanding the relationship between humans and nature, she identified most cultural geographers as seemingly ignoring nature except as a social construction, while environmental historians treat nature as an agent equal to human action to create environment. Gerber attempts to unite nature and humans only to conclude that a new language and vocabulary is necessary to liberate mutual (nature and human) constructivism.

The power of the Christian Church to demote nature to a separated, subservient role in Western culture has also been investigated by environmental historians. Carolyn Merchant's work in this area set the standard for examining the demotion of nature and women to powerless locations in the Western milieu. In exploring the demotion of women and nature, Merchant and some eco-feminists trace the demise of feminine authority to specific attributes of the male and female identities. According to Merchant and other feminist and environmental scholars, the feminine goddess was [End Page 16] abandoned for...


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