You might have heard the joke about the city-dweller who becomes lost while walking in the countryside and begins to despair of ever finding his way home. He stumbles from field to field, but his eyes light up when he sees a local out walking her dog. Mustering a jovial tone he asks whether he should turn left or right to reach the nearest town, but his optimism soon turns to despair when he receives the underwhelming reply “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.”

That particular piece of navigational advice may be unhelpful for disoriented urbanites, but it can be very sound and even indispensable when it comes to engaging with aspects of contemporary culture. Every culture provides certain structures that help us understand the world, and those structures often take the form of oppositions and dichotomies. We frame a response to a particular issue in terms of a choice: “The problem is such and such. Is the answer A, or B?” There is a certain comfort in these dichotomies of course, because they can lend a complex question the illusion of simplicity.

Christians can all too easily accept these dichotomous choices and begin rummaging through our Bibles to find out whether A or B is the more Christian position, when in truth neither option captures the nuance and complexity of the biblical witness. In many cases it would be much better to say “I wouldn’t start from here”, and let the Bible reconstruct the categories of the debate in a way that cuts across comfortable cultural dichotomies.

Christians can all too easily accept these dichotomous choices and begin rummaging through our Bibles to find out whether A or B is the more Christian position.

This is the move that, in Thinking Through Creation, I call “diagonalisation”: the way in which time and again the Bible disrupts the oppositions that structure much of our culture’s understanding of everything from the nature of fundamental reality and human beings to politics and work.

Let’s look at a concrete example taken from the world of ecology. Christianity has not infrequently been denounced as offering a license to abuse the environment, and nowhere more so than in the influential article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” that appeared in the journal Science in 1967 and has been widely quoted since. The article’s author, Lynn White Jr., argues that the Christian tradition is to blame for destructive attitudes to the environment:

In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. […] By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects. […] The newly elected Governor of California, like myself a churchman but less troubled than I, spoke for the Christian tradition when he said (as is alleged), “when you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all.” To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly two millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.[1]

We are presented here, as is so often the case, with a choice between two options, neither of which is biblical. Either we return to a pagan environmentalism in which groves are considered sacred because they are inhabited by spirits, or we consider trees as no more than physical facts. We can represent White’s dichotomy in the following diagram:

Sacred Trees

White may or may not be right about the Governor of California, but he could not be more mistaken about the Bible if he tried. To begin with, the Bible presents trees not as facts but as part of the creation over which God gives Adam the charge to “subdue” and “have dominion”. Do those commands provide an exploiter’s charter? Not a bit of it. Adam’s dominion is to be patterned after God’s rule over his world, and we must let God’s own creative action flesh out the content of what “subduing” and “having dominion” means. Is God’s own ordering work a raping and pillaging of the world he has created? Of course not, and there is no mandate in Genesis 1 for Adam’s to be, either. Secondly, to the Christian who has read his or her Bible carefully, the tree that White evokes in his article declares the glory of God. It is for the modern, post-Cartesian world of dichotomous facts and values, not for the Bible, that the tree’s existence is a bare fact. Does this mean that Christians worship sacred groves? By no means. The command to Adam to “subdue” the earth diagonalises the dichotomous choice between the worship of creation and its ruthless exploitation:

Sacred Trees Diagonalisation

Creation is neither divine nor neutral, neither the object of our veneration nor “mere matter.” It is neither to be worshiped nor reduced to a mere “object” upon which human “subjects” can exert their will with impunity. For these reasons alone (and more could be offered), the Bible provides us with a schema for creation care that is subtler than many contemporary environmentalisms.

To diagonalise, then, is neither to be a cultural refusenik—assuming that any cultural idea must be straightforwardly opposed. Nor is to be a cultural echo-chamber—sticking a biblical label on the latest cultural fashion. It is constructive, but critical; positive, but probing. It contributes to important debates rather than denouncing them, and does so in a way that brings genuinely fresh and innovative thinking to the table. This biblical freshness and innovation remains hidden, however, if Christians unthinkingly accept the dichotomies and oppositions that structure many cultural debates.

[1] Lynn White Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in Earthcare: An Anthology in Environmental Ethics, ed. David Clowney (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 59, 61.