Jame SCHAEFER, Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic and Medieval Concepts. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2009. pp. 280. $29.95 pb. ISBN 978-1-58901-268-4.
Reviewed by Alice L. LAFFEY, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA 01610

Schaefer’s introduction sets forth the goal of the volume which is to read the reconstructed Catholic patristic and medieval tradition through an ecological lens. To do this in nine chapters she explores nine concepts appropriated from the works of patristic and medieval theologians—the goodness of creation; the beauty of creation; the sacramentality of creation; creation’s praise for God; the unity and integrity of creation; the kinship of creatures; the restrained and grateful use of creation; living virtuously, and loving Earth. The final chapter, using Aquinas, calls humans to be virtuous cooperators in an age of ecological degradation.

Schaefer employs a five-step method in each chapter with each concept. 1) She explores the concept to ascertain whether and/or to what extent the concept may be promising for addressing ecological concerns. 2) She takes into account the various theologians’ views of the world and their philosophical underpinnings so as to understand their intended meanings within their own historical contexts and according to their pre-scientific understandings of the world. 3) She attempts to determine the coherence of the theologians’ concept for our time and the ability of their work to have contemporary intellectual appeal. 4) She attempts to determine the relevance of the theologians’ concept to ecological concerns, and 5) She seeks to evaluate the helpfulness of the concept in addressing ecological concerns.

Each chapter identifies patristic and medieval scholars who weigh in on the particular concept being explored. Then, having provided some sense of their understanding of the concept, she offers a reconstruction of their Neoplatonic or Christianized Aristotelian worldview for a contemporary audience. In chapter one, for example, she discusses Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, and Thomas Aquinas all of whom produced texts (De Trinitate, Homilies on Genesis 1-17, and Summa theologia 1.47.2, respectively), that consider the goodness of the physical world. Aquinas reasoned to degrees of goodness among creatures while affording greater goodness to the totality of the physical world; Chrysostom characterized Earth as “mother and nurse,” while Augustine saw humans’ valuing of the physical world to be connected to their limitations and self-centered tendencies. Schaefer attempts the reconstruction of these ideas for the twenty-first century, and concludes that while the intrinsic value of Earth’s constituents originates with God, goodness must be attributed to the cosmological-biological process out of which all natural entities have emerged over a period of 14 billion years.

Among others, Schaefer draws on Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Hugh of St. Victor, Bonaventure, and Albertus Magnus to explore the beauty of creation (chap. 2). Clement of Alexandria, Ephrem, John Scotus Eriugena, Saint John of Damascus, Bernard of Clairveaux, Hildegaarde of Bingen, Alan of Lille, and Saint Gregory Palamas speak to the sacramentality of creation (chap. 3). Francis of Assisi and John of the Cross address creation’s praise for God (chap. 4). Pseudo-Dionysius affirms the unifying action of God’s love toward all creation (chap. 5). Maedoc, Godric, John Moschus, Marcarius of Alexandria, Kevin of Ireland, Thomas of Celano, and Jerome demonstrate a kinship of human beings with animals (chap. 6), while Tertullian, Origen, Theodoret, Benedict of Nursia, and Symeon affirm the gratitude and restraint that humans should have toward creation (chap. 7). According to Aquinas, the moral virtues of prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude should be practiced toward the earth community (chap. 8). And, finally, for Julian of Norwich God was not only the Creator and protector but also the lover of all created things (chap. 9). Bringing each of these patristic and medieval writers into the twenty-first century involves a restructuring of their ideas to meet the assumptions, contexts, and understandings of contemporary culture.

Consistent with Schaefer’s effort to emphasize the positive (p. 8), her final chapter presents the model human being as a virtuous cooperator, even in this age of ecological degradation. Those who nurture a positive relationship with other species and the physical world have the greatest potential for achieving sustainable development.

Sometimes in the reading, probably because of the precision with which Schaefer executed her method, I found the book predictable. However, I also found the content important and very helpful. Ever since Lynn White’s1967 article, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” that situates humans’ domination of creation in their interpretation of Gen 1:26 and 1:28, ecologists have sought an alternate biblical and theological tradition of stewardship and sustainability. Schaefer’s monograph has not only successfully searched the sources; methodologically she has provided a bridge between the relevant ancient texts and the twenty-first century. The book is very much worth your time and consideration.


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