Would God frack?

There’s an excellent article on fracking by Paula Clifford in today’s Church Times.

The article summarises the arguments on both sides and then raises theological questions:

The interdependence of God, human beings, and the created world is uniquely in jeopardy… A theology of climate change demands that we consider our relationships with one another, as well as with the natural world… The injustice of fracking makes an additional demand: that we consider whether we are further damaging our relationship with God and his creation.

Supporters of fracking argue that it does what people have always done, digging into the earth to get what they want. This is one in a long list of ‘industry v nature’ debates. New motorways spoil the countryside (remember Swampy?), the HS2 railway will carve up the Chilterns, lots of new proposals come up against Sites of Special Scientific Interest. These debates are going to carry on and get more intense until we face up to the philosophical contradictions in our society.

There are two conflicting visions of the good life. One sees it in terms of new technologies. Progress means depending less and less on nature as we create better conditions for ourselves. Humanity against nature. The first person to articulate it clearly was Francis Bacon in 1620:

For man, by the fall, lost at once his state of innocence, and his empire over creation, both of which can be partially recovered even in this life; the first by religion and faith, the second by the arts and sciences.

In other words by eating the apple Adam and Eve messed up nature, but we can put it right:

That the state of knowledge is not prosperous nor greatly advancing, and that a way must be opened for the human understanding entirely different from any hitherto known, and other helps provided, in order that the mind may exercise over the nature of things the authority which properly belongs to it.

Bacon’s view of the Fall was a minority one, so it’s not surprising that his project got detached from its religious origin. To Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century,

Civilization consists, strictly speaking, on the one hand, in the development of the human mind, on the other, in the result of this, namely, the increasing power of Man over Nature.

Later Thomas Huxley claimed that

the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process… but in combating it.

This notion of the good life, and the meaning of progress, is now so well established in western society that it is integral not only to our bureaucracies but to our thought patterns.

The other vision sees the good life as harmony with the natural environment. Our lifestyles should operate with, not against, the grain of nature. We enjoy life more when our bodies do what nature has designed them to do. We depend on nature and cannot improve on it; the most complex new computer is nowhere near as complex as an ordinary blade of grass. It doesn’t follow from this perspective that we should never drill into the earth to get things out of it, but the destruction of countryside will seem a higher price so more questions will get asked about whether it is really necessary.

This clash of visions has been around for 500 years. What is the connection to theology? I think Clifford is right to say there is one but precious few people are good at explaining it. I’ll try to keep it simple.

Traditional Christianity, like many other religions, believes the world has been created by a God who deliberately made it a good place to live in. This means we’ll be doing ourselves a favour if we live the way God intends us to live. How do we know how God intends us to live? These religions have an assumption in common: if we think of the world around us as designed to be a good home for us, then we’ll value it as it is. We’ll be more careful about changing it. We’ll use it – and that may include digging things out of the ground – but the way we use it will always have an eye to not spoiling its natural goodness.

The other vision works better under atheism. Suppose the world was not designed by any mind at all. Suppose it’s all atoms and laws of nature, and nothing else, that produced this complex environment we live in. Human minds are the only minds. What humans decree to be the good life is by definition the good life; we’re only inventing value judgements and priorities for ourselves and there is no authority above us to tell us we’ve got the wrong answer. If we think a new iPad every year is the top priority for world progress, so it is.

It’s easy enough to pick holes in this philosophy. The point I want to make here is that believing in a God who has made a good world for us ought, logically, to affect the way we respond to proposals like fracking. For a long time western Christians have learned to keep their religious beliefs separate from public issues. We now need to reaffirm the connections. How we evaluate the world around us has become an important issue.

This entry was posted in Economics, Society and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.