Re-conceptualization of Christian Anthropology

Re-conceptualization of Christian Anthropology

by Felix Wilfred

A programme of ecological reform may not prove to be effective unless more basic things are set right. In the case of ecology, it is a question of right anthropology. In his widely discussed article, The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis, Lynn White laid squarely at the door of Judeo-Christian tradition the culpability for the present day ecological mess. For him, it is the anthropocentrism of this tradition that is to blame.

In his words, Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. As early as 2nd century both Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when God shaped Adam he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the Second Adam. Man shares, in great measure God’s transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions (except, perhaps, Zoroastrianism) not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends1.

Let me not enter into the details of Lynn White’s thesis here. Even without his thesis, common sense tells us that with traditionally interpreted Christian anthropocentrism we may not be able to come to terms with the present ecological crisis. There is the need, so to say, for a “sanatio in radice “ – a healing in the root – of this anthropology. It is this pope Francis has tried to do in his Laudato Si. He has introduced a welcome corrective to a misguided Christian anthropology which saw the human beings as the crown of creation. It chimed with the anthropocentrism of Western philosophy,

Renaissance culture and the Enlightenment. From a philosophical point of view, as René Descartes expressed, human beings are “masters and possessors of nature”2. European Renaissance and Enlightenment were the secular versions of Christian anthropocentrism. They fed on mutually. I have been struck by the fact that in Renaissance art, nature figures little. Great Renaissance masters like Michael Angelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian and Caravaggio tried to study the human anatomy, emotions and behaviour very closely and created great works, but not the rhythm of nature and how it works. If at all, landscapes were used only as backgrounds to highlight the human figures. The male dominated art of the time paid scant attention to nature in itself. Like women, nature was viewed as a subjugated object (natura naturata) and not a creative force (natura naturans).

This Western Christian, Renaissance and Enlightenment tradition stands in contrast to the larger Asian vision and its understanding of the world of the humans as intertwined with nature. The life of the humans in Asian tradition is one with the elements of nature. Therefore, when Pope Francis attempts to correct a deeply embedded Western theological and anthropological tradition and speaks of integral anthropology, Asians can understand him immediately without difficulty. For, what he says, reverberates with the Asian experience; reflects the vision of Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist traditions; and the way Asian tribals and indigenous people see the reality as interconnected and bonded together. One of the thoughts running through Laudato si is the interconnection of the entire reality.

In the encyclical, there is an effort to move from a hierarchical ordering of creatures, to a more teleological understanding in which both human beings and other creatures journey together. We appreciate the novelty of this approach, if we set it against the Western understanding of “chain of beings” (scala naturae), of Aristotelian vintage. We could further differentiate it from the Neoplatonist frame of hierarchy of beings that moulded the Christian thought of the Middle Ages, including that of Thomas Aquinas.

According to this philosophy, the less perfect is contained eminently in the more perfect; the less perfect is in service of the more perfect. To put it more concretely in terms of our present day experience, the local superior of a religious house is eminently contained in the provincial; and the provincial is eminently included in the general! So, also the vegetable life is contained in the animal life, and the animal life in the human. Hence, all of nature in a less perfect state is in service of human beings, the crown of creation. This understanding of nature through the hierarchical lens fails to capture the value of each reality in its uniqueness; nor is it able to appreciate the richness of plurality and diversity.

Pope Francis seems to challenge this kind of philosophy and theology and draws our attention to the truth that the value of anything in nature is not to be judged in hierarchical fashion of high and low (secundum sub et supra) , but rather from a mystical perspective of unity of all in God. In his words, “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God.” (LS 83). These words of Pope Francis evoke the symbol of pilgrimage, so dear to Asians. The thought of Francis cannot but strike the Asian readers who are accustomed to see and deal with nature not from a hierarchical perspective but from a mystical perspective of unity of all reality. The sense of bondedness and cosmic solidarity with nature brings forth the spirit of non-violence (ahiṃsā) and compassion (karuṇā).


  1. Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, in Science, (March 10, 1967):189.
  2. René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by Elizabeth S. Haldane (Stilwell: Publishing, 2005):28.