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Disenchantment and the Environmental Crisis: Lynn White Jr., Max Weber, and Muhammad Iqbal

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image of Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology

“The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” by Lynn White Jr. poses specific challenges to Islamic metaphysics and theology that have yet to be adequately addressed by Muslim scholars. I argue that the transition from a panentheistic view of God to an increasingly supernaturalist one is indicative of a larger shift in worldview that White had failed to emphasize. Reading White’s essay in light of Weber and Iqbal, I argue that a worldview dominated by rational thought is consistent with supernatural theism. The challenges posed by White’s essay can be met through Iqbal’s postmodern reconstruction of Islamic theology in panentheistic terms.

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35. fn1 1) I am grateful to Dr. David Johnston, whose probing questions compelled me to develop a clearer articulation of my views; and to my colleagues in the Religion department at Concordia College for the insightful comments they offered on an earlier draft of this paper. I would also like to thank Dr. Laurel Kearns (Drew University), whose course on “Religion and the Earth” in the fall of 1999 was the context for my original encounter with Lynn White Jr. This paper would not have been written without her persistent support and encouragement.
36. fn2 2) Even though White does not mention Islam as being responsible for creating the modern world and for contributing to the ecological crisis, it does not take too big a leap to make that connection. Islamic monotheism has come to dominate in the Middle East and large areas of Africa and Asia, and this has frequently come about at the expense of various animistic forms of indigenous traditions. Furthermore, Islamic cultures have typically developed in close association with Jewish and Christian traditions, and all three of them have been thoroughly soaked in the Greek heritage. An Islamicist notes: “Islam cannot deny its own foundations and live; and in its foundations we have seen that Islam belongs to and is an integral part of the larger Western society. It is the complement and counterbalance to European civilization, nourished at the same springs, breathing the same air” ( Gibb 1932: 376). Only a few years after White’s essay, Arnold Toynbee published a similar critique of monotheism, entitled “The Religious Background of the Present Environmental Crisis” (1971). Toynbee notes that Judaism and Islam are considerably more uncompromising in their stress on monotheism than Christianity, for the latter is alone in diluting “its monotheism by giving God the Father two associates and equals in God the Son and God the Holy Spirit” (Toynbee 1971: 144). If this analysis is to be accepted, the greater stress on God’s unity in the Islamic tradition makes it more, rather than less, susceptible to White and Toynbee’s ecological critique.
37. fn3 3) By saying this, I am not suggesting that contemporary Muslim scholars have been indifferent to the ecological crisis. There is a growing body of both scholarly and popular writings that emphasizes Islam’s eco-friendly heritage and offer creative ways of putting that heritage into practice; cf., Nasr 1968; Pervez 1984; Haq 2001; Foltz, Denny, & Baharuddin 2003; Abdul-Matin 2010; etc. There is no doubt, however, that there is an urgent need to expand the discussion on the ecological relevance of Islamic teachings. Contemporary attitudes toward science and technology in countries with sizeable Muslim populations are hardly distinguishable from ecologically destructive attitudes found in the more industrialized, Western nations. While concerns about the negative influence of secular modernity and Westernization frequently occur in Islamic discourse, there is relatively little cognizance of the abuses and excesses of modern science and technology, let alone of any problems that might be inherent in these practices.
38. fn4 4) I use the phrase “modern condition” to denote in a general way the long-range impact of the Enlightenment on human societies, with particular reference to rationalization and disenchantment. I realize that the “modern condition” is neither a monolithic nor a static phenomenon, though a detailed exposition of its various facets is beyond the scope of my paper. See note 13, below.
39. fn5 5) The nature of worldview has been discussed at least since Immanuel Kant (cf. Naugle 2002). As expected, there is no single, agreed upon definition. Some understandings of worldview overlap with those of myth, ideology, and culture, thereby adding to the semantic confusion. In the present paper, I am using the term “worldview” to denote the sum total of our pre-cognitive dispositions or commitments, as opposed to “beliefs” which are more or less consciously held cognitive commitments or convictions. Specifically, I take worldview to be a set of assumptionswithout which we cannot think or believe as we do, assumptions that most people in a given society or epoch take for granted, simply because they live in a particular time and place. For the vast majority of people, such assumptions remain at a subconscious level, almost never taking a verbal or propositional form. As soon as one of these assumptions rises to conscious awareness in a given society or epoch and becomes an issue of debate and inquiry, it can no longer be presumed and must be either “believed” or “disbelieved.” I am indebted to Wilfred Cantwell Smith for my understanding of the relationship between beliefs and worldviews (cf. Smith, 1979/1998).
40. fn6 6) This situation, of course, is not at all unique to Islam. In his analysis of the religious climate in Indonesia and Morocco in the 1960s, Clifford Geertz describes what must be a typical phenomenon in any religious community that first experiences the shock of the modern worldview: “What is believed to be true has not changed for these peoples, or not changed very much. What has changed is the way in which it is believed. Where there once was faith, there now are reasons, and not very convincing ones; what once were deliverances are now hypotheses, and rather strained ones. There is not much outright skepticism around, or even much conscious hypocrisy, but there is a great deal of solemn self-deception” ( Geertz 1968: 17).
41. fn7 7) Perhaps no Muslim intellectual in the last one hundred years has shown greater awareness of these challenges to religion than the South Asian poet, philosopher, and theologian Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938). In the preface to his major philosophical statement, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal argues that religious life is ultimately based on religious faith, which, in turn, rests on a “special type of inner experience.” Since modernity has rendered obsolete many of the traditional methods for cultivating such experiences, fresh methods appropriate to the modern “cultural outlook” are needed to inspire and sustain religious faith. Consequently, the younger generation’s “demand for a scientific form of religious knowledge is only natural” ( Iqbal 1996: xxi). It is important to note that Iqbal’s agenda was far from parochial. By making a major contribution to this project, Iqbal was aiming not only to help meet the religious needs of modern Muslims but also to rectify the serious flaws that he found in modern ways of thinking. Iqbal viewed these flaws as representing not simply a Muslim problem but a humanproblem―as obstructions in humanity’s spiritual evolution and moral progress ( Iqbal 1996: 142).
42. fn8 8) While modern Muslim intellectuals, including those in the Western academia, often focus on juristic reforms, I am suggesting that metaphysics and theology ought to be the first order of business. This is because the problems we are encountering at the level of beliefs and behaviors (such as those associated with the ecological crisis) are symptoms of a deeper problem that exists at the level of worldview. Even though Iqbal concerned himself with numerous issues relating to Islamic law and jurisprudence, his main project was ultimately philosophical. He writes: “With the reawakening of Islam … it is necessary to examine, in an independent spirit, what Europe has thought and how far the conclusions reached by her can help us in the revision and, if necessary, reconstruction, of theological thought in Islam” ( Iqbal 1996: 6). Recognizing the enormity of the goal, Iqbal emphasizes the inevitability of innovativethinking: “The task before the modern Muslim is, therefore, immense. He has to rethink the whole system of Islam without completely breaking with the past… . The only course open to us is to approach modern knowledge with a respectful but independent attitude and to appreciate the teachings of Islam in the light of that knowledge, even though we may be led to differ from those who have gone before us” ( Iqbal 1996: 78).
43. fn9 9) In a nutshell, White’s argument consists of the following steps: He begins by contending that the origins of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions can be traced back to the advancements of science and technology that began in Western Europe in the eleventh century, and that these, in turn, were made possible by the slightly earlier “victory of Christianity over paganism” ( White 1967: 1205) that replaced the indigenous “pagan” beliefs with Christian ones. The latter included the idea that God has planned everything for “man’s benefit and rule” and that nature exists solely “to serve man’s purposes” ( White 1967: 1205). White notes that “Christianity … 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 ends” ( White 1967: 1205). Since Western science and technology “got their start” and “acquired their character” during the European Middle Ages ( White 1967: 1204), these particular Christian beliefs became the fundamental principles guiding the practice of all science and technology. White concludes that “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt” ( White 1967: 1206) for contributing to the ecological crisis. While being critical of the Christian tradition, White is also optimistic that Christianity can become ecologically friendly by recalling some of its own forgotten or suppressed teachings. In fact, White argues that “[s]ince the roots of our troubles are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious … .” In order to redress the crisis, White suggests that “we” (i.e. Western Christians) must “find a new religion, or rethink our old one” ( White 1967: 1207). The final section of his essay discusses the legacy of St. Francis as one way of rethinking Christianity.
44. fn10 10) In the following quote on Islam’s possible guilt in the ecological crisis, one can hear the echoes of White’s original thesis: “The awakening of ecological consciousness since the 1960’s has had an immediate effect on Islamic theology … . The criticism begins from the argument that Islam, much like other monotheistic religions, is anthropocentric, and concludes that the pursuit of an ecologically-minded theology must necessarily transcend these religions in search of alternative traditions and belief systems. According to this line of criticism, Islam is anthropocentric because it takes human value and importance as its starting point; man is given dominion over nature and its other creatures and these have value only in their use to human beings who are bestowed with stewardship ( khilafah) by the Almighty. What is criticized here are the Qur’anic ideas of nature as a tool, resource, favor, or even a trust ( amanah), and its doctrine of creation which mandates the human subduing of the earth. Deemed as entirely utilitarianist, these ideas are traced to the theological dualism of man and nature, and to the corollary axiom that nature as God’s artifact has no purpose save to serve man” ( Afrasiabi 1995: 33).
45. fn11 11) In the passage from Afrasiabi quoted in the footnote above, the author is applying the three most obvious components of White’s critique to the Islamic tradition, viz., anthropocentrism, the dualism of humanity and nature, and the human privilege of dominion. What is missing from Afrasiabi’s analysis is the less obvious but no less important question of the worldviewthat determines the plausibility and significance of the beliefs in question and therefore the direction of their impact.
46. fn12 12) White does mention at one point that “[o]ur daily habits of actions … are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress” which comes from “Judeo-Christian teleology” ( White 1967: 1205). His reference to an “implicit faith” that determines our everyday actions without our conscious awareness accurately captures the sense in which I am using the term “worldview.” The idea of progress and its alleged relation to Biblical religion is beyond the scope of this paper, but see my discussion of rationalization and disenchantment below.
47. fn13 13) Marshall Hodgson has used the term “The Great Western Transmutation” to denote the unprecedented economic, intellectual, and social changes that took place in Western Europe between 1600 and 1800. The scale and scope of these changes were so enormous that the five thousand years old agrarinate culture of the Afro-Eurasian Oikoumene gave way to an entirely new arrangement, consisting of the “technicalist age” and worldwide European hegemony ( Hodgson 1993). While this “Transmutation” was underway, another massive and equally unprecedented shift was taking place in humanity’s worldview — the traditional worldview that had dominated all premodern societies in one form or another for almost five thousand years was losing its unquestioned authority as it was gradually replaced by the modern worldview, initially in Western Europe but increasingly in the rest of the world. Numerous authors have documented this shift in worldview from a variety of angles, e.g. Berger 1967 & 1979, Merchant 1980, Tarnas 1991, Dupré 1993, Spretnak 1997, Smith 2003, and Appleyard 2004.
48. fn14 14) The terms “modern worldview” and “modernity” are far from synonymous; I am using them interchangeably because the distinction is not crucial for the purposes of this paper. Historically speaking, “modernism” and “modernity” have emerged more or less simultaneously as interdependent phenomena.
49. fn15 15) Here, I am obviously drawing upon Clifford Geertz’ definition of religion ( Geertz 1973).
50. fn16 16) I take these models not as actual belief systems or theological outlooks but only as ideal-types, in the strictly Weberian sense of the term. For this reason, I do not expect to find these models in their pure form in the history of theological reflections. Any actually existing belief system or theological outlook is likely to fall somewhere betweenthese two conceptual extremes, perhaps closer to one end of the spectrum than the other. In addition, for a tiny intellectual minority, i.e. theologians, these models may operate as consciously held beliefs; but for the vast majority of adherents, they are much more likely to remain subconscious assumptions at the level of worldview.
51. fn17 17) There is a third possible model, pantheism, in which divine transcendence is completely or partially denied. God is immanent within the empirical reality or is identical with it. This model is unusual for either Christianity or Islam.
52. fn18 18) My choice of these two models is not arbitrary, for the polarity of divine transcendence and immanence is a theme that can be traced all the way to the Scriptures of the Christian and Islamic traditions―the Bible and the Qur’an. Historically, one of the main tasks of theology in these traditions has been to articulate the proper balance between these two poles. Indeed, supernatural theism may be understood as a theological position that privileges divine transcendence while diminishing or disregarding the significance of divine immanence; on the other hand, panentheism can be understood as a theological position that seeks to embrace the implications of both divine transcendence and divine immanence. Panentheism, of course, comes in many different forms. I am using the word in its most generic sense. Cf., Hartshorne & Reese (1953), Clayton & Peacocke (2004), Cooper (2006), etc.
53. fn19 19) While a comprehensive treatment of this issue would require a book length study, one important piece of evidence is immediately available to us. It has been widely accepted in both the Christian and Islamic traditions that an authentic religious experience can, indeed, allow a person to have a direct encounter with the divine. The presence of a rich and diverse mystical dimension provides the most straightforward argument against the prevalence of supernatural theism in either of these traditions. With this background in mind, it is interesting to note that many contemporary adherents of supernatural theism are skeptical of the entire mystical dimension, towards which they often adopt a negative and denigrating attitude. This modern opposition to mysticism has most likely been the result of a hostility towards divine immanence within the empirical reality.
54. fn20 20) Stephen Kaalberg, one of the foremost Weber scholars, provides a detailed examination of the four types of rationality. The first type, practical rationality, has to do with aligning means and ends with the aim of maximizing one’s pragmatic and everyday interests. This kind of rationality “accepts given realities and calculates the most expedient means of dealing with the difficulties they present” (Kalberg 1980: 1152). The second type, theoretical rationality, “involves a conscious mastery of reality through the construction of increasingly precise abstract concepts.” The third type, substantive rationality, is concerned with the ordering of action into regular patterns on the basis of “value postulates” or clusters of values (Kalberg 1980: 1155). For Weber, the choice of a particular value postulate is not subject to rational determination but depends on one’s “ultimate point of view.” The fourth type, formal rationality, involves the ordering of actions on the basis of a means-ends rational calculation that is similar to practical rationality, but differs from it in its legitimization through appeals to universally applicable rules and laws (Kalberg 1980: 1158). According to Weber, formal rationalityis seen most clearly in the functioning of modern businesses and bureaucracies.
55. fn21 21) It is important to note that these attitudes are not necessarily warranted by any empirical evidence.
56. fn22 22) Describing Weber’s sense of an earlier, enchanted time, Alkis Kontos writes: “The world was a place of mystery and wonderment; human activity and calculation, creativity and energy, knowledge and practice could not, nor were they presumed able to, either prevail over the world or exhaust its mystery. The world, Nature, stood before the mortals as inexhaustible, mysterious, imbued with spirits, unconquerable” ( Kontos 1994: 224). Interpreting Weber’s view of the relationship between humanity and the nonhuman nature within this enchanted world, the same author notes: “The enchanted world … is treated by Weber as one in which a symbiosis, an organic unity, is struck between humans and Nature. In an enchanted world, Nature provides a meaningful, stabilizing foundation to existence; it moderates and gives orientation to life activity; it secures existential satisfaction. Mental and psychological anxiety does not prevail. Satiation, and, above all, meaning reign supreme” ( Kontos 1994:228). The history of civilization can therefore be seen as the history of humanity’s movement out of, and away from, the primordial experience of enchantment.
57. fn23 23) The recognition that theoretical rationalization does not eradicate all possibilities of enchantment has stimulated new scholarship on Weber, e.g. Jenkins 2000, Green 2005, and Koshul 2005; as well as on alternative forms of enchantment, e.g. Griffin 1988 & 2001, Bennett 2001, Saler 2006, Landy & Saler 2009, and Sherry 2000.
58. fn24 24) This is a key philosophical move, for it allows Iqbal to overcome not only the dichotomy between reason and intuition, but also the one between matter and spirit more generally: “The unity called man is body when you look at it as acting in regard to what we call the external world; it is mind or soul when you look at it as acting in regard to the ultimate aim and ideal of such acting” ( Iqbal 1996:122). Given that Cartesian dualism has also been implicated in our ecologically destructive beliefs and behaviors, this aspect of Iqbal’s work is also relevant for the problem of religion and ecology.
59. fn25 25) Once again, I am using these concepts strictly as ideal-types. In reality, any given worldview must include both ways of knowing and experiencing, since both tendencies are inherent in our psychological makeup.
60. fn26 26) In my view, the term “postmodern” is applicable to Iqbal’s work in the same sense in which it has been applied to the works of Charles Sanders Peirce, Alfred North Whitehead, and others ( Griffin 1993).
61. fn27 27) While a panentheistic understanding of God is by no means a novelty in the Islamic tradition, Iqbal’s contribution stands out for a number of reasons; not the least of which is his ability to bring the Qur’an and other classical Islamic sources in a fertile dialogue with twentieth century science and philosophy. The panentheistic quality of Iqbal’s view of God has been recognized as such by at least two Western scholars. Charles Hartshorne included a selection from Iqbal in the volume he edited with William Reese, titled Philosophers Speak of God. In this anthology, Iqbal appears in the section on “Modern Panentheism” along with Charles Sanders Peirce, Alfred North Whitehead, and Martin Buber. In their introductory note, the editors mentioned Iqbal’s significance as a modern Muslim panentheist: “It is a pleasure to be able to include a modern Mohammedan among our panentheists. True, there is a strong and fully acknowledged influence of Bergson and other Western European authors upon this writer; but the eloquence and sincerity of the numerous references to Muslem sources are no less striking” ( Hartshorne and Reese 1955: 294). Similarly, Robert Whittemore published an important paper on “Iqbal’s Panentheism” (1956), in which he emphasized Iqbal’s relevance beyond the Muslim world and called for an appreciation of his place within the Western intellectual tradition: “That God (whatever his nature) is One, that this universe is animated (for better or worse) by purpose, and that it has a positive character and value, that this value is evidenced by the testimony of God to man in Scripture―in these convictions Islam and the religions of the West find common ground. To ascribe, therefore, an extra-Islamic significance to Iqbal’s thought is to claim that his viewpoint contributes in important measure to the clarification and understanding of these common convictions, not only as regards their internal coherence but as regards their harmonization with secular knowledge as well” ( Whittemore 1956: 698).
62. fn28 28) We may recall White’s view that the dualism between God and nature is reflected in the dualism between human beings and nature. Iqbal is clearly making the opposite case. Both White and Iqbal are assuming a worldview in which knowing is primarily a matter of distinguishing, differentiating, and separating, but according to Iqbal it is our own experience of being distinct from nature that suggests to us the notion of God being separate from nature, and not the other way around.
63. fn29 29) Iqbal insists that his view does not require sacrificing the individual’s aspiration for eternal life as a unique, self-conscious being. Rejecting the ancient symbolism of a drop of water merging with the ocean, Iqbal uses the metaphor of a “pearl” to express the Islamic hope of a distinct selfhood for the human individual that continues beyond death. Amending a famous New Testament verse (Acts 17:28), Iqbal writes: “Like pearls do we live and move and have our being in the perpetual flow of Divine life” ( Iqbal 1996: 57-58).
64. fn30 30) Iqbal’s view of nature goes far beyond the central assumption of natural theology. Since anycreative work reveals the mind of its creator, to say that the empirical world reveals the mind of God is merely to state the obvious. The value of Iqbal’s work lies in the fact that he has something important to say about the relationshipbetween the Creator and the creation.

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Affiliations: 1: Assistant Professor, Religion Department, Concordia College, 901 8th St S, Moorhead MN 56562, USA, Email:


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