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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Holmes Rolston, III

Holmes Rolston, III, (See also his web pages at Colorado State University, which are extensive, and include course syllabi, many of his publications, and some video of lectures that he has given.) is arguably the most important figure in the development of environmental ethics, the study of what we should and should not do with the organisms, landscape, communities, bodies of water, geological features, and atmosphere around us. I recently had the privilege of reviewing Saving Creation: Nature and Faith in the Life of Holmes Rolston, III, by Christopher J. Preston. (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2009) The book told Rolston's story quite well, covering his professional life, and his personal life, where it fit. (Rolston is still alive.)

I knew of Rolston as an environmental ethicist. He wrote the first paper in the first issue of the journal, Environmental Ethics, which said, in part:
We need wild nature in much the same way that we need the other things in life which we appreciate for their intrinsic rather than their instrumental worth, somewhat like we need music or art, philosophy or religion, literature or drama. But these are human activities, and our encounter with nature has the additional feature of being our sole contact with worth and beauty independent of human activity. We need friends not merely as our instruments, but for what they are in themselves, and, moving one order beyond this, we need wild nature precisely because it is a realm of values which are independent of us. Wild nature has a kind of integrity, and we are the poorer if we do not recognize it and enjoy it. Holmes Rolston III, "Can and Ought We to Follow Nature," Environmental Ethics 1:7-30, Spring, 1979. Quote is from pages 22-23. This paper was the first one in the initial issue of this journal. (Also found here)

I went to a conference on environmental ethics with a philosophy professor from my university, at the University of Georgia, in 1981. Rolston was there. We spoke with him. My friend, more perceptive than I, guessed that Rolston had been a Presbyterian pastor. He was exactly right. Rolston's first professional post was as a pastor in a Presbyterian church in Virginia. He had an undergraduate degree in physics from Davidson College (and once saw Albert Einstein close up, although he didn't speak to him), and a seminary degree from Union Theological Seminary, followed by a doctorate from New College, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Preston's book reminded me of something that I had forgotten. I had read Rolston's Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987) about twenty years ago. I had forgotten that it is a powerful plea for a cooperative relationship between science and Christianity. Like Ian G. Barbour's When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000), Rolston believes that science and Christianity should be compatible. Rolston argued for a view of God as being involved in the suffering that goes along with the struggles of life, including for non-human creatures. Clearly a believer, he wrote:
When one is caught in the anguish of the struggle, as in a fight against disease, insanity, infertility, or moral evil, one may still cry out for strength and meaning to the strong son of God, beyond all recourse to biochemistry, beyond all description of the evolutionary struggle. (p. 145)

Preston's biography describes how Rolston found that he wasn't connecting as well with his parishioners as he might have wished. He perhaps, showed too much of his intellect and education to them. At any rate, he pursued an academic career, eventually ending up at Colorado State University in the Department of Philosophy, where he has been based since 1968.

Preston's subtitle indicates what the author believes, namely that Rolston has integrated his study of nature (he is an accomplished naturalist, as well as a philosopher) with his faith. He says that Rolston early saw, however, that he would need to put forth ideas that would be acceptable in a secular world, and he did that, achieving such prominence that he was asked to author that first article in Environmental Ethics.

Rolston had influence outside of academic circles. He participated, with his writing, in acting to preserve the environment in certain conflicts in Virginia, and also in the West.

The answers in environmental ethics are not always obvious, or are controversial. How important is it to preserve a species from extinction? Can feeding human beings from the land used by that species override our stewardship responsibilities? How important is it to preserve wilderness in close to its pristine state? Can we do so? Why should we? Rolston has made important contributions to our thinking about environmental stewardship, and other areas.

One of Rolston's most lyrical works is his essay, "The Pasqueflower," in Natural History, April 1979, pages 6-16. (Also available here.) Rolston has often seen pasqueflowers blooming through the snow in the mountain west. Natural History is a secular publication, not a religious one. But Rolston included this statement:
Perhaps it may not be so fanciful but rather entirely realistic that this pasqueflower should in its limited and natural way come to serve as a symbol for what Jesus in his unlimited, supernatural way represents to the Christian mind, a hint of the release of life from the powers that would suppress it. The pasqueflower is of a piece with the rose of Sharon, which blooms in the desert, and the shoot budding out of the stump of Jesse, for here we have an earthen gesture of the powers of resurgent life. (p. 14)

He deserves the honors that he has received.

Thanks for reading. Read Rolston.

This being Earth Day, you may wish to read my own post, from 2006, on "Environmental Stewardship in the Bible."

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