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Ecofeminism, Reverence for Life, and Feminist Theological Ethics

by Lois K Daly

Lois K. Daly did her Ph.D. under James Gustafson at Chicago Divinity School, studying the theologies of Karl Barth and Albert Schweitzer. Her more recent interests are in the areas of Latin American liberation theologies and feminist theologies. She is director of the Reinhold Niebuhr Institute of Religion and Culture. This essay originally appeared as chapter 7, pp. 86-110, in Charles Birch, William Eaken and Jay B. McDaniel (eds.) Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches in Ecological Theology, published 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Feminist theologies are among the most promising of contemporary theological options. As these theologies often make clear, the ways of thinking that have led to a destruction of the earth and an exploitation of animals are often the very ways of thinking that have led to an exploitation of women. To overcome male-centeredness is also to overcome human-centeredness.

Speaking as a feminist, Lois K. Daly reviews the argument that male-centeredness and human-centeredness have gone hand-in-hand and then proposes a new ecofeminist alternative to both, drawing on the perspective of Albert Schweitzer. She suggests that Schweitzer’s theme of reverence for life provides a helpful antidote to the dualisms that have dominated patriarchal culture in the West and that have contributed to the subjugation of nature and women to men. Inherent in Daly’s appropriation of Schweitzer is the advocacy of an ethical absolute: that we affirm and treat compassionately and nonviolently all life. Such an imperative takes life-centered ethical and theological thinking to its utmost possibilities.

Feminist theological ethics claims to be informed by an analysis of the interlocking dualisms of patriarchal Western culture. These include the dualisms of male/female, mind/body, and human/nature. In fact, as feminists argue, none of these dualisms will be overcome or transformed until the connections between and among them are named and understood. This means that we cannot rest with examining the consequences of subjugating body to mind or female to male. We must also look at the ways in which the distinction between what is human and what is nonhuman authorizes the widespread destruction of individual animals, their habitats, and the earth itself. And, in doing theological ethics, we must also explore what this means for understanding the relationship between human beings and the divine. In other words, feminist theological ethics must ask about the implications of a transformed human/nonhuman relationship for understanding the human/divine relationship.

This essay will describe the connections between feminist concern about the status of women and the status of nonhuman nature, point to a theological ethic that reconsiders the relationship between human beings and other living beings, and explore the theological and ethical implications of those two steps. Reverence for life, as articulated by Albert Schweitzer, will serve as a primary resource in this project. Though decidedly not feminist in any self-conscious way, Schweitzer’s position does provide resources for reconceptualizing the relationship between human beings and the nonhuman, or "natural," world and for examining the theological implications of such a reconceptualization. This theological task, the task of conceptualizing the relationship between human beings and God in light of a different way of thinking about human life in relation to the nonhuman world, is critical for feminist theological ethics.


Ecofeminists, or ecological feminists, are those feminists who analyze the interconnections between the status of women and the status of non-human nature. At the heart of this analysis are four central claims: (1) the oppression of women and the oppression of nature are interconnected; (2) these connections must be uncovered in order to understand both the oppression of women and the oppression of nature; (3) feminist analysis must include ecological insights; and (4) a feminist perspective must be a part of any proposed ecological solutions (Warren, 4). A closer look at each of these claims will illuminate the concerns of ecofeminism.

The Oppression of Women and the Oppression of Nature Are Interconnected.

One way to talk about the connections between women and nature is to describe the parallel ways they have been treated in Western patriarchal society. First, the traditional role of both women and nature has been instrumental (Plumwood, 120). Women’s role has been to serve the needs and desires of men. Traditionally, women were not considered to have a life except in relation to a man, whether father, brother, husband, or son. Likewise, nonhuman nature has provided the resources to meet human needs for food, shelter, and recreation. Nature had no purpose except to provide for human wants. In both cases the instrumental role led to instrumental value. Women were valued to the extent that they fulfilled their role. Nature was valued in relation to human interests either in the present or the future. Women and nature had little or no meaning independent of men.

A second parallel in the treatment of women and nature lies in the way the dominant thought has attempted "to impose sharp separation on a natural continuum" in order to maximize difference (Plumwood, 120). In other words, men are identified as strong and rational while women are seen as weak and emotional. In this division of traits those men who are sensitive and those women who are intellectually or athletically inclined are marginalized. They are overlooked in the typical (stereotypical) description of men as opposed to women. The same holds true for distinctions between what is human and what is not. The human being is conscious, the nonhuman plant or animal is not; the human is able to plan for the future, to understand a present predicament, the nonhuman simply reacts to a situation out of instinct. These distinctions are drawn sharply in order to protect the privilege and place of those thought to be more important.

These parallels are instructive but they do not explain why they developed. Two theologians were among the feminists who first articulated the link between women and nature in patriarchal culture. They were Rosemary Ruether, in New Woman, New Earth (1975), and Elizabeth Dodson Gray, in Green Paradise Lost (1979). Both of them focused on the dualisms that characterize patriarchy, in particular the dualisms of mind/body and nature/culture. In her work Ruether traces the historical development of these dualisms in Western culture. She points to the way in which Greek thought, namely dualistic thought, was imported into ancient Hebraic culture. The triumph of this dualism came in the development of a transcendent or hierarchical dualism in which men

master nature, not by basing themselves on it and exalting it as an independent divine power, but by subordinating it and linking their essential selves with a transcendent principle beyond nature which is pictured as intellectual and male. This image of transcendent, male spiritual deity is a projection of the ego or consciousness of ruling-class males, who envision a reality, beyond the physical processes that gave them birth, as the true source of their being. Men locate their true origins and natures in this transcendent sphere, which thereby also gives them power over the lower sphere of "female" nature (Ruether 1975, 13-14).

In this way, transcendent dualism incorporates and reinforces the dualisms of mind/body and nature/culture as well as male/female. In addition these distinctions are read into other social relations, including class and race. As a result, ruling-class males lump together those whom Ruether calls the "body people": women, slaves, and barbarians (Ruether 1975, 14; see also Plumwood, 121-22).

While agreeing with the reasons for the development of transcendent dualism, Dodson Gray’s response to it differs from Ruether’s. Ruether’s tack is to reject transcendental dualism outright; Dodson Gray appears to embrace the dualism but to reevaluate the pairs. In other words, she maintains the distinction but insists that being more closely tied to nature does not detract from women’s worth. Instead, for Dodson Gray, it enhances it. As others have pointed out, Dodson Gray "come[s] dangerously close to implicitly accepting the polarities which are part of the dualism, and to trying to fix up the result by a reversal of the valuation which would have men joining women in immanence and identifying the authentic self as the body" (Plumwood, 125).

A similar division of opinion can also be traced in other feminist writings. It is the difference between the nature feminists and the social feminists (Griscom 1981, 5). The nature feminists are those who celebrate women’s biological difference and claim some measure of superiority as a result of it. The social feminists are those who recognize the interstructuring of race, class, and sex, but who tend to avoid discussing nature exploitation precisely because it invites attention to biological difference. Both kinds of feminists have positive points to express, but another sort of feminism, one that transcends these, is needed in order to understand the connections between the oppression of women and the oppression of nature.

These Connections Must Be Uncovered in Order To Understand Both the Oppression of Women and the Oppression of Nature.

Feminist analysis of the transcendent dualism identified by Ruether shows that there are three basic assumptions that govern the way the dualism’s elements are treated (see Ruether 1975, 1983). These assumptions lie behind the parallels between the oppression of women and nature described above. First, the elements in the dualism are perceived as higher and lower relative to each other. The higher is deemed more worthy or valuable than the lower. Second, the lower element is understood to serve the higher. In fact, the value of the lower is derived in instrumental fashion. Third, the two elements are described as polar opposites. That is, "the traits taken to be virtuous and defining for one side are those which maximize distance from the other side" (Plumwood, 132). In other words, men are "not women" and women are "not men." The same holds true in traditional conceptions of human and nonhuman nature. These three assumptions lead to a logic of domination that repeatedly identifies differences and controls them in such a way as to protect the "higher" element in the dualism. In this way, from the point of view of the "higher," difference automatically implies inferiority.

In patriarchal culture these three assumptions are at work in a "nest of assumptions" that also includes (1) the identification of women with the physical and nature. (2) the identification of men with the intellectual, and (3) the dualistic assumption of the inferiority of the physical and the superiority of the mental (Plumwood, 133). Once this nest of assumptions is unpacked the differences between the social feminists and nature feminists and the deficiency of each become more clear. On the one hand, the social feminists simply reject the identification of women with nature and the physical and insist that women have the same talents and characteristics as men. These feminists focus on the interaction of sexism, racism, and classism (Griscom, 6). On the other hand, the nature feminists embrace the identification of women with nature but deny that nature or the physical is inferior. But neither of these responses represents a sufficient challenge to the dualistic assumptions themselves since both leave part unquestioned. Social feminists do not ask about the assumed inferiority of nature, and nature feminists do not ask about the assumed identification of women with nature. In this way, both "remain within the framework in which the problem has arisen, and . . . leave its central structures intact" (Plumwood, 133).

A thoroughgoing ecofeminism must challenge each of the dualisms of patriarchal culture (see King, 12-16). The issue is not whether women are closer to nature, since that question arises only in the context of the nature/ culture dualism in the first place. Rather, the task is to overcome the nature/ culture dualism itself. The task can be accomplished first by admitting that "gender identity is neither fully natural nor fully cultural," and that neither is inherently oppressive or liberating (King, 13). Second, ecofeminists need to learn what both the social feminists and nature feminists already know. From social feminists we learn that "while it is possible to discuss women and nature without reference to class and race, such discussion risks remaining white and elite" (Griscom, 6). And nature feminists remind us that there is no human/nonhuman dichotomy and that our bodies are worth celebrating (Griscom, 8).

Feminist Analysis Must Include Ecological Insights.

One result of the way the oppression of women and the oppression of nature are linked in these dualisms is that feminist thought and practice must incorporate ecological insights. To do otherwise would not sufficiently challenge the structures of patriarchal domination. The most direct way to illustrate this is to discuss the repercussions of the feminist assertion of women’s full humanity in light of the interlocking dualisms described above. The fact that male/female, human/nature, and mind/body dualism are all closely linked together means that feminism cannot rest with proclaiming women s full humanity. To do this without also raising the question of the human/nature relationship would be simply to buy into the male-defined human being. In other words, if women and men are now to be reconceptualized non-dualistically, the choices available are either to buy into the male definition of the human (as the social feminists tend to do) or to engage in a reconceptualization of humanity as well. But, as soon as we begin to redefine humanity, the question of the human/nature dualism arises (Plumwood, 134-35). This is also the case when we ask about the status of race or class. Thus, any thorough challenge to the male/female dichotomy must also take on the other dualisms that structure Western patriarchy.

At this point it becomes clear that ecofeminism is not just another branch of feminism. Rather, ecofeminists are taking the feminist critique of dualism another step. What ecofeminism aims for transcends the differences between social and nature feminists. What is needed is an integrative and transformative feminism that moves beyond the current debate among these competing feminisms. Such a feminism would: (1) unmask the interconnections between all systems of oppression; (2) acknowledge the diversity of women’s experiences and the experiences of other oppressed groups; (3) reject the logic of domination and the patriarchal conceptual framework in order to prevent concerns for ecology from degenerating into white middle-class anxiety; (4) rethink what it is to be human, that is, to see ourselves as "both co-members of ecological community and yet different from other members of it"; (5) recast traditional ethics to underscore the importance of values such as care, reciprocity, and diversity; and (6) challenge the patriarchal bias in technology research and analysis and the use of science for the destruction of the earth (Warren, 18-20).

A Feminist Perspective Must Be Part of Any Proposed Ecological Solutions.

Just as feminism must challenge all of patriarchy’s dualisms, including the human/nature dichotomy, ecological solutions and environmental ethics must include a feminist perspective:

Otherwise, the ecological movement will fail to make the conceptual connections between the oppression of women and the oppression of nature (and to link these to other systems of oppression), and will risk utilizing strategies and implementing solutions which contribute to the continued subordination of women [and others] (Warren, 8).

In particular, two issues in the ecological movement and environmental ethics need to be addressed in the context of ecofeminism: the status of hierarchy and dualism, and the place of feeling.

As already indicated, ecofeminism works at overcoming dualism and hierarchy. Much of current environmental ethics, however, attempts to establish hierarchies of value for ranking different parts of nature (Kheel, 137). It does this by debating whether particular "rights" ought to be extended to certain classes of animals (Singer). This is another way of assigning rights to some and excluding them from others and of judging the value of one part as more or less than that of another. These judgments, then, operate within the same framework of dualistic assumptions. As a result, this debate merely moves the dualism, as it were; it does not abandon it. Human/nonhuman may no longer be the operative dualism; instead, sentient/nonsentient or some other replaces it.

Another way in which environmental ethics has perpetuated traditional dualist thought lies in its dependence on reason and its exclusion of feeling or emotion in dealing with nature. The dualism of reason/emotion is another dualism under attack by feminists. In this case environmental ethics has sought to determine by reason alone what beings have value and in what ranking and what rules ought to govern human interactions with nature (Kheel, 141). This procedure is flawed according to ecofeminists since "the attempt to formulate universal, rational rules of conduct ignores the constantly changing nature of reality. It also neglects the emotional-instinctive or spontaneous component in each particular situation, for in the end, emotion cannot be contained by boundaries and rules" (Kheel, 141).

Ethics must find a way to include feeling, but including feeling does not mean excluding reason. Again, the task is to overcome the exclusive dualism.

Ecofeminism, then, involves a thoroughgoing analysis of the dualisms that structure patriarchal culture. In particular ecofeminists analyze the link between the oppression of women and of nature by focusing on the hierarchies established by mind/body, nature/culture, male/female, and human/nonhuman dualisms. The goal is to reconceptualize these relationships in nonhierarchical, nonpatriarchal ways. In this way, ecofeminists envision a new way of seeing the world and strive toward a new way of living in the world as co-members of the ecological community.

What ecofeminism lacks, however, is an analysis of what Ruether and Dodson Gray agreed was hierarchical or transcendent dualism, the dualism that they think undergirds the others. Ecofeminists, largely philosophers and social scientists, have not attended to the specifically theological dimensions of patriarchy. Meanwhile, feminist theologians and ethicists have focused primarily on the interrelationship of sexism, racism, and classism without sufficiently articulating or naming the interconnections between these forms of oppression and the oppression of nature. Yet the analysis of these critically important social justice questions would be strengthened when it is understood that the same dualistic assumptions are operative in each of these forms of oppression.

Furthermore, feminist theology needs to explore the relationship between human beings and God in light of those dualistic assumptions and the impact of the new way of seeing human beings that results from linking the oppression of nature with other forms of oppression. When reconceptualizing the male/female dualism entails reconceptualizing the human/nature relation because male/female is embedded in human/nature, as ecofeminists argue, then the human/divine relationship also needs reworking, since male/female is also embedded in human/divine. In other words, if feminist theology is serious in attempting to transform patriarchal dualisms, it must go further than reworking the dualistic imagery used to refer to God; it must discover how the images themselves support a dualistic relationship between human beings and God with the same assumptions as the traditional male/female and human/nonhuman dualisms.

Two contemporary theologians, Isabel Carter Heyward (1982) and Sallie McFague (1987). have begun this task. They contrast their respective conceptions of God with the traditional idea of a God "set apart from human experience... by the nature of ‘His’ impassivity" (Heyward, 7), or the idea of a "monarchical" God (McFague, 63-69). In other words, both challenge the dualistic assumptions that typically characterize the relationship between human beings and God. They argue that human beings are not simply subordinate to God but are co-workers with God, and consequently, that human beings are not simply instrumentally related to God and that God and human beings are not polar opposites. For Heyward, God is the "power in relation" (Heyward, 2), while for McFague, God is more appropriately conceived using the models of mother, lover, and friend within the context of the image of the world as God’s body (McFague, xi).

What I am suggesting is a position that goes further than these authors even while it shares certain characteristics with them. The main difference lies in the extent to which Heyward and McFague have really reworked their conception of the relationship between human beings and the nonhuman world. In Heyward’s case it is clear that she wants to include the creation in the relationships effected by God as the power in relation; however, this desire appears to be qualified. For example, Heyward writes:

In relation to God, as in any relation, God is affected by humanity and creation, just as we are affected by God. With us, by us, through us, God lives, God becomes, God changes, God speaks, God acts, God suffers and God dies in the world. . . . The constancy of God is the activity of God in the world wherever, whenever, and for whatever reason, humanity acts to create, liberate, and bless humanity (Heyward, 9).

Creation, including the nonhuman elements, may be included in what affects God, but what happens to it in the talk about God’s activity in the world? Is it only God’s activity when the activity benefits humanity? Even more absent is any discussion of the kind of behavior toward the nonhuman world required of human beings in order to "incarnate God."

McFague goes further than Heyward when she discusses the necessity of adopting an "evolutionary, ecological perspective" due to our interconnections and interdependence with aspects of the world (McFague, 7-8) and when she includes in her descriptions of the models of mother, lover, and friend an explanation of the ethic which follows from the model. These are, respectively, the ethics of justice, healing, and companionship (pp. 116-24, 146-56, 174-80). What is missing in these ethics is a frank discussion of the hard decisions that confront us as soon as we begin to see "ourselves as gardeners, caretakers, mothers and fathers, stewards, trustees, lovers, priests, co-creators, and friends" of the world (p. 13). In other words, how far does McFague’s transformation of the dualistic relationship between human beings and the nonhuman world go?

Finally, neither Heyward nor McFague does what ecofeminists claim must be done, namely, to articulate the links between forms of oppression, especially the oppression of women and of nature. Heyward’s and McFague’s concentration on the transformation of the human/divine relationship away from dualist assumptions is extremely helpful, but it needs to be joined with concrete descriptions of and efforts to transform the other dualisms that structure Western patriarchy. In other words, Heyward and McFague appear to reconceptualize the divine/human dualism without sufficiently exploring the consequences for other powerful dualisms, including but not limited to male/female and human/nonhuman.

Reverence for Life

Albert Schweitzer’s notion of reverence for life provides some clues for feminist theological and ethical efforts to reexamine the relationship between human beings and the nonhuman world and between human beings and God despite the fact that he offers no analysis of oppression. Instead, what Schweitzer does is begin with a description of human beings that links us both with nonhuman nature and with God in a way that does not appear to presuppose those dualistic assumptions of subordination, instrumentality, and polarity. For this reason, his position is highly instructive.

Schweitzer begins with a description of the self as "life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live." This, he says, is the "the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness" (Schweitzer 1949/ 1981, 309). As will-to-live, the self is volitional, free, driven to perfect itself, and living in relation to others who will to live. More important, however, is the fact that Schweitzer refuses to describe the self simply as "life," for "life continues to be a mystery too great to understand" (Schweitzer 1936/ 1962. 182-183). He knows only that life is good since the self continues to will to live.

Ethics, for Schweitzer, emerges with thinking about the experience of the will-to-live. There are two kinds of knowing for Schweitzer: intuitive and scientific. The intuitive is an inward reflection on the contents of the will-to-live. By living out these ideas, the self finds meaning and purpose in its actions (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 282). Scientific knowing, the second kind of knowing, is knowledge of the world. Science describes "the phenomena in which life in its innumerable forms appears and passes"; it may sometimes "discover life where we did not previously expect it." Hence, scientific knowledge "compels our attention to the mystery of the will-to-live which we see stirring everywhere" (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 308). Together, the two kinds of knowing allow the self to describe what science finds by using an analogy with itself as will-to-live. In this way the self knows and, for Schweitzer, feels that "the will-to-live is everywhere present, even as in me" (Schweitzer 1936/1962, 185). The self, therefore, becomes aware of its inward relation to the wills-to-live present in the world.

Schweitzer gives one important qualification to both kinds of knowing: neither one can explain what life is. "We cannot understand what happens in the universe. . . . It creates while it destroys and destroys while it creates, and therefore it remains to us a riddle" (Schweitzer 1934, 1520). As a result human beings have no grounds for placing themselves at the center of a moral universe or at the apex of moral order in the universe. "We are entirely ignorant of what significance we have for the earth. How much less then may we presume to try to attribute to the infinite universe a meaning which has us for its object, or which can be explained in terms of our existence!" (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 273).

Because no purposiveness or prioritizing of phenomena is evident in the events of the world, no hierarchy of meaning and value can be constructed from the evidence of intuitive or scientific thought. As Schweitzer points out, "we like to imagine that Man is nature’s goal; but facts do not support that belief" (Schweitzer 1936/1962, 181).

The inability to find meaning in the world and the recognition of the interrelationship of all wills-to-live lead to what Schweitzer calls an ethical mysticism. This mysticism is a mysticism of the will. The volition found in the will-to-live becomes an activist ethic. As Schweitzer explains:

Ethics alone can put me in true relationship with the universe by my serving it, cooperating with it; not by trying to understand it. . . . Only by serving every kind of life do I enter the service of that Creative Will whence all life emanates. I do not understand it; but I do know (and it is sufficient to live by) that by serving life, I serve the Creative Will. This is the mystical significance of ethics (Schweitzer 1936/1962, 189).

Union with the Creative Will, or infinite will-to-live, Schweitzer’s philosophical name for God, is achieved through active service and devotion to all that lives. Hence as an ethical mysticism, Schweitzer’s is directed toward those particular manifestations of the infinite will-to-live that come within the reach of the individual.

Schweitzer’s mysticism, then, provides him a way to combine the drive for self-perfection, which is contained in the will-to-live, and devotion to others. Self-perfection in the context of this mysticism becomes a drive to attain union with that which the human will-to-live manifests, namely, the infinite will-to-live (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 301-2). In human beings, as Schweitzer points Out, "the craving for perfection is given in such a way that we aim at raising to their highest material and spiritual value both ourselves and every existing thing which is open to our influence" (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 282). That is, I make a reality of my own dedication to the infinite only by devoting myself to its manifestations. "Whenever my life devotes itself in any way to life, my finite will-to-live experiences union with the infinite will in which all life is one" (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 313). Self-perfection, or self-fulfillment, is therefore, reciprocally related to devotion to others.

In addition, Schweitzer’s mysticism provides another way into his refusal to place human beings at the center of the moral universe. The self as will-to-live is not the source of its own value. Instead, the will-to-live given in the self has value as a result of its relationship to the infinite. The source or origin of value is the universal will-to-live or infinite being. As Schweitzer points out, through the will-to-live

my existence joins in pursuing the aims of the mysterious universal will of which I am a manifestation. . . . With consciousness and with volition I devote myself to Being. I become of service to the ideas which it thinks out in me; I become imaginative force like that which works mysteriously in nature, and thus I give my existence a meaning from within outwards (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 305).

Meaning comes not simply from my own estimation but also from the fact that my will-to-live is a manifestation of the universal will-to-live. At the same time, all other wills-to-live are also manifestations of that same universal. Hence their value and my value have the same source. The fact that the self cannot discern the meaning of any of these lives from the world as it is experienced means that it cannot determine that any one manifestation of the will-to-live is more important or more valuable than any other manifestation. The mystical and mysterious relatedness of every will-to-live in the universal will-to-live prohibits assigning gradations of value to individual manifestations of the will-to-live, whether in humans or viruses. The will-to-live establishes value but not distinctions in it. Therefore, Schweitzer insists, all attempts to bring ethics and epistemology together must be renounced (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 289).

The ethic that follows from thinking about the will-to-live is the ethic of reverence for life. The self lives in the midst of other wills-to-live. Hence Schweitzer says, "If I am a thinking being, I must regard other life than my own with equal reverence" (Schweitzer 1936/1962, 185). Actions in accord with my will-to-live, such as upbuilding, deepening, and enhancing the optimism, value, and affirmation given in the will-to-live, are required in relation to other manifestations of the will-to-live (Kraus, 47). "Ethics consist . . . in my experiencing the compulsion to show to all will-to-live the same reverence as I do to my own" (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 309). In the language of Schweitzer’s mysticism, "reverence for life means to be in the grasp of the infinite, inexplicable, forward-urging Will in which all Being is grounded" (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 283).

According to Schweitzer, the ethic of reverence for life cannot foster, condone, or excuse injuring or killing of any sort. Three reasons support this judgment. First, reverence for life is what Schweitzer calls an absolute ethic. That is, its claim is absolute because it arises from the inner necessity of the will-to-live to be true to itself. Second, reverence for life is a universal ethic. The inner compulsion to show reverence to life extends to all that can in any way be considered as life.

The absolute ethics of the will-to-live must reverence every form of life, seeking so far as possible to refrain from destroying any life, regardless of its particular type. It says of no instance of life, "this has no value." It cannot make any such exceptions, for it is built upon reverence for life as such (Schweitzer 1960, 187.88).

Neither species nor sentience presents a barrier that qualifies this universality.

The third reason why the ethic of reverence for life does not justify killing or injury is its refusal to allow human beings to locate themselves at the center of a moral universe, its inability to base any ranking of value on information about the world that comes from external sources. There is no moral hierarchy that says that decisions to destroy infectious bacteria in human beings or other animals are the right decisions. There is no sure way to judge any being, human or not, as less worthy and therefore insignificant enough to allow it to be killed.

The ethics of reverence for life makes no distinction between higher and lower, more precious and less precious lives. It has good reasons for this omission. For what are we doing, when we establish hard and fast gradations in value between living organisms, but judging them in relation to ourselves, by whether they seem to stand closer to us or farther from us. This is a wholly subjective standard. How can we know what importance other living organisms have in themselves and in terms of the universe? (Schweitzer 1965, 47).

Universality, absoluteness, and the absence of any clear objective moral order "out there" prevent Schweitzer’s reverence for life from condoning any form of killing or harming of life. His ethic will not compromise; it points to limitless responsibility.

These reasons clearly do not mean that choices to kill are not made. Schweitzer knows that human beings as well as other forms of life depend for life on killing and that, in many situations, decisions to save one means death to another (Schweitzer 1965, 22-23). This is all part of what he calls the "dilemma" of the will-to-live (Schweitzer 1949/1953, 181).

According to Schweitzer we must recognize that "the universe provides us with the dreary spectacle of manifestations of the will to live continually opposed to each other. One life preserves itself by fighting and destroying other lives" (Schweitzer 1965, 24-25). Conflict in the world prevents Schweitzer from being able to find a basis for ethics in the patterns and purposes seen in the world. Hence, he turns inward to the will-to-live. It is precisely Schweitzer’s realistic description of the world in terms of conflict that drives him to the ethic of reverence for life. The only sure meaning and purpose for activity comes, for Schweitzer, in the certainty of the volition of the will-to-live found and experienced in the self.

Because of its absolute and universal character, then, the ethic of reverence for life cannot provide any specific guidelines for making life-and-death decisions even though it knows these decisions must be made. The fact that reason and the will-to-live can find no objective moral ordering means that there are no objective moral standards by which to judge. Reverence for life

knows that the mystery of life is always too profound for us, and that its value is beyond our capacity to estimate. We happen to believe that man’s life is more important than any other form of which we know. But we cannot prove any such comparison of value from what we know of the world’s development. True, in practice we are forced to choose. At times we have to decide arbitrarily which forms of life, and even which particular individuals, we shall save, and which we shall destroy (Schweitzer 1936/1962, 188).

The decision, for Schweitzer, is always subjective, arbitrary:

In ethical conflicts man can arrive only at subjective decisions. No one can decide for him at what point, on each occasion, lies the extreme limit of possibility for his persistence in the preservation and furtherance of life. He alone has to judge this issue, by letting himself be guided by a feeling of the highest possible responsibility towards other life (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 317-318).

No one else knows the limits of one’s ability to aid and protect another. The ethic of reverence of life means limitless personal responsibility. In decisions to harm or destroy one "bears the responsibility for the life which is sacrificed" (Schweitzer 1949/1953, 181).

Schweitzer’s restriction of ethics to activity that does no harm reveals the extent to which reverence for life is not an unbreakable rule or law.

In the conflict between the maintenance of my own existence and the destruction of, or injury to, that of another, I can never unite the ethical and the necessary to form a relative ethical; I must choose between ethical and necessary, and, if I choose the latter, must take it upon myself to incur guilt by an act of injury to life (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 324).

The necessity of killing or harming does not challenge the authority or validity of reverence for life. As absolute and universal, reverence for life continues its demands even in the face of overwhelming odds, namely, the fact that the will-to-live is divided against itself. It may be, for example, that it is better to kill a suffering animal than to watch it slowly die (see Schweitzer 1960, 83-84). The tension between the ethical and necessary is maintained by facing the reality of conflict. "We are living in truth, when we experience these conflicts more profoundly. The good conscience is an invention of the devil" (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 318).

A pressing issue facing individuals who must kill is the intensity of guilt incurred in actions that kill or harm and the possibilities there are to alleviate that guilt. For Schweitzer the principal way to do this is to increase service to others: "Some atonement for that guilt can be found by the man who pledges himself to neglect no opportunity to succor creatures in distress. . . . When we help an insect out of a difficulty, we are only trying to compensate for man’s ever-renewed sins against other creatures" (Schweitzer 1965, 23, 49).

His answer, then, is renewed determination to reverence all forms of life. Again, the reality of destruction does not compromise the demand. Part of the reason for this is the mystical nature of reverence for life. "The more we act in accordance with the principle of reverence for life, the more we are gripped by the desire to preserve and benefit life" (Schweitzer 1965, 31). "Reverence for life means to be in the grasp of the infinite, inexplicable, forward-urging Will in which all Being is grounded" (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 283).

According to Schweitzer, the ethic of reverence for life has a profoundly religious character (1949/1953, 182). This is most clearly seen in his mysticism. Reverence for life is a way of relating to the "multiform manifestations of the will-to-live," which comprise the world. Only through action in devotion to others do I come in contact with the infinite will-to-live, God. Religion is not, for Schweitzer, a matter of accepting creeds or knowing the history of dogma. Instead, it is the ethic of reverence for life (Schweitzer 1934, 1521).

In a letter to Oskar Kraus, one of Schweitzer’s early critics, Schweitzer explains his use of language with respect to philosophy and religion.

Hitherto it has been my principle never to express in my philosophy more than I have experienced as a result of absolutely logical reflection. That is why I never speak in philosophy of "God" but only of the "universal will-to-live." But if I speak the traditional language of religion, I use the word "God" in its historical definiteness and indefiniteness, just as I speak in ethics of "Love" in place of "Reverence for Life" (Kraus 1944, 42).

Schweitzer’s philosophy is at the same time his theology. The universal will-to-live manifest in the world and in my will-to-live is Schweitzer’s way of speaking philosophically about God. And reverence for life is the ethic of love, the ethic of Jesus. In fact for Schweitzer, "Christianity, as the most profound religion, is to me at the same time the most profound philosophy" (Schweitzer 1939, 90).

Schweitzer defines Christianity as an "ethical theism" (Schweitzer 1939, 80-81). But Christianity’s theism, Schweitzer argues, is ambiguous: "It presupposes a God who is an ethical Personality, and who is, therefore, so to speak, outside the world . . . [and] it must hold fast the belief that God is the sum total of the forces working in the world -- that all that is, is in God" (Schweitzer 1939, 81).

This ambiguity is not resolved in Christian faith. As Schweitzer puts it: "In the world He is impersonal Force, within me He reveals Himself as Personality. . . . They are one; but how they are one, I do not understand" (Schweitzer 1939, 83). Theism and pantheism remain unreconciled. This ambiguity in the conception of God is not something that concerns Schweitzer. Attention to intellectual conceptions of God is, for Schweitzer, an abstraction. Concern about the particular relation of theism to pantheism leads one away from active devotion to the individual manifestations of the will-to-live in the world. Christianity, according to Schweitzer, is more a way of acting in the world than a way of knowing, and this way of acting is not dependent on a full or complete understanding of how the world works or of God’s intrinsic nature. Piety, according to Schweitzer, "depends not on man being able to subscribe to a historically traditional conception of God, but on his being seized by the spirit and walking in it" (cited in Langfeldt, 52-53). Ultimately, "theism does not stand in opposition to pantheism, but rises out of it as the ethically definite of the indefinite" (cited in Langfeldt, 51).

For Schweitzer, Christians are called to surrender themselves to the ethical will of God. This surrender corresponds exactly with how Schweitzer develops the contents of the will-to-live: Service to other forms of life is also service to God. Christianity, therefore, appeals not only to the historical revelation but also to "that inward one which corresponds with, and continually confirms the historical revelation" (Schweitzer 1939, 83). Experience of the will-to-live corresponds with and confirms, then, the teachings of the historical Jesus. For Schweitzer, this means the teachings of the kingdom, especially as they are found in the Sermon on the Mount. These are Jesus’ teachings concerning love. In response to them the will-to-live as devotion to others becomes the will-to-love. Devotion to others construed as will-to-love is at the heart of Christianity, according to Schweitzer, in the same way that devotion to others is a necessary part of self-perfection in a philosophical construal. For both philosophy and theology, it is service to others as individuals that brings about union with the ultimate.

Christianity, according to Schweitzer, provides no more account of the world, its meaning and purpose, than reason. The inward revelation of God as universal will-to-love and the self as one of its manifestations does not reveal anything which makes life less mysterious or tells of the final destiny of human beings.

When Christianity becomes conscious of its innermost nature, it realizes that it is godliness rising out of inward constraint. The highest knowledge is to know that we are surrounded by mystery. Neither knowledge nor hope for the future can be the pivot of our life or determine its direction. It is intended to be solely determined by our allowing ourselves to be gripped by the ethical God, who reveals Himself in us, and by our yielding our will to His (Schweitzer 1939, 78).

Moreover, Christianity

assigns man a place in this world and commands him to live in it and to work in it in the spirit of the ethical God. Further, Christianity gives him the assurance that thereby God’s purpose for the world and for man is being fulfilled; it cannot, however, explain how. For what significance have the ethical character and the ethical activity of the religious individual in the infinite happenings of the universe? What do they accomplish? We must admit that the only answer we have to this question is, that thereby the will of God is fulfilled (Schweitzer 1939, 73-74).

Christian teachings do not give human beings a privileged place in relation to other manifestations of the will-to-live. What Christianity does is confirm what we already experience through our own will-to-live in its relations to others.

Toward an Ecofeminist Theological Ethic

Although I want to argue that Schweitzer’s position provides clues for feminist theological ethics, it is important to point out two places where his thought is seriously lacking. First, Schweitzer has little sense of the sociality of the self. Instead, his will-to-live is the radical individual, who, despite being related to other wills-to-live in an ethical mysticism, does not really live socially or communally. The human will-to-live works, according to Schweitzer, to better the situation of other wills-to-live as individuals. Furthermore, he focuses his attention so exclusively on the individual and the individual’s actions that the ways in which lives are shaped and affected by social structures are ignored. Significantly, justice is not a high priority for Schweitzer (Schweitzer 1939, 18-19). For feminists, particularly those who are schooled in the social feminist analysis of the structures of oppression, this is a serious failure. Schweitzer writes as if most suffering takes place as a result of individuals acting on other individuals. Feminist analysis insists, in contrast, that social structures and cultural expectations affect not only the conditions under which people live but also severely restrict the choices they perceive themselves to have.

The second problem is a consequence of the first: Schweitzer does no social analysis. For Schweitzer, human beings are ahistorical individuals, who learn to reverence life through self-reflection. There is no attention to social structures which limit or enhance those individuals. As a result, Schweitzer does not address institutionalized oppression in any way. For example, his position is a good example of the way in which man, as male, is taken as normative for both male and female without any hint that male experience is not normative for females. He makes no effort to rethink the meaning of the human (or man, as he would say) that experiences itself as will-to-live and that is one manifestation among others of the infinite will-to-live. In other words, although Schweitzer reworks the human/nonhuman dichotomy by using the will-to-live terminology, he fails to take seriously the destructiveness of the male/female dualism embedded in the traditional conceptions of human/nonhuman relationships. And, despite his home in Africa and his attention to individual patients, there is no analysis of two other destructive dualisms embedded in a traditional description of human beings: racism and classism.

Nevertheless, Schweitzer’s position clearly involves a reevaluation of the relationship between human beings and nonhuman forms of life along the lines suggested by ecofeminists. That is, despite the absence of any analysis of oppression, Schweitzer does attack the dualistic structure of Western patriarchy. The relationship between human beings and nonhuman forms of life is not characterized by subordination, instrumentality, or polarity. Schweitzer has no basis for judging that nonhuman lives simply serve human interests or that they have no value apart from their service to human lives. He refuses to construct a moral hierarchy with human beings at the top. And, his use of "will-to-live" as the description of all that lives means that the polarity assumption has also been discarded. Human and nonhuman cannot be polar opposites since both are manifestations of the same will-to-live.

Furthermore, Schweitzer’s use of will-to-live to describe not only all living beings but also the divine suggests a transformation in the divine/ human relationship away from the transcendent dualism feminist theologians criticize. Human beings and God are not conceived as polar opposites or as over against each other. God is not, according to Schweitzer, an external "other," external to the world or to human beings. As Schweitzer explains, "I carry out the will of the universal will-to-live which reveals itself in me. I live my life in God, in the mysterious divine personality which I do not know as such in the world, but only experience as mysterious Will within myself" (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 79). This idea of living life in God sounds very much like Isabel Carter Heyward’s notion that human beings "incarnate God" as they work to bring about justice in the world (Heyward, 159).

It may be argued, however, that Schweitzer retains at least one dualism even while he transforms others. In particular, Schweitzer is open to challenge concerning his apparently exclusive attention to all that lives. Using "will-to-live" as the primary category suggests that nonliving, nonhuman nature, such as rocks, air, and water, is excluded from the ethic of reverence for life. Feminists, in contrast, are increasingly calling for ways to include the so-called nonliving as morally significant (see Warren and Kheel). For the most part Schweitzer’s will-to-live refers to plant and animal life, although, in at least one place, he does include the crystal as a form of will-to-live (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 282). In addition, he uses the language of "Being" in several places as well (Schweitzer 1949/1981, 304-6). These suggest some attention to nonliving nature. A more fruitful way to look at this issue is to recall Schweitzer’s openness to science and scientific knowledge. As science through its investigations increasingly blurs the distinction between living and nonliving, will-to-live will become a less accurate way to describe what Schweitzer is trying to express.

One way for Schweitzer to include the nonliving as relevant is to emphasize the relatedness of wills-to-live, or the fact that "I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live" (emphasis added). This relatedness, or interrelatedness in the context of Schweitzer’s mysticism, in addition to his insistence that we do not know what life is (which means that we have no grounds for limiting it) moves Schweitzer in the direction of including the nonliving in moral discussions. Further, the possibility of seeing rocks and water as morally relevant tests Schweitzer’s insistence that the reason something has value is not its analogical proximity to human life but its relationship to the divine as somehow a manifestation of the universal will-to-live.

The weight of evidence concerning the retention of hierarchical dualism in Schweitzer’s thought suggests that he is more interested in transforming such dualisms. In addition to his use of "will-to-live" in the context of the human/nonhuman dualism, there are at least two other patriarchal dualisms that Schweitzer refuses to maintain. First, like feminists, Schweitzer does not divorce reason from intuition or affectivity. The two kinds of knowing for Schweitzer work in concert with each other to describe the self’s relations with others in the world and to allow the self to feel those relations. Moreover, one of the most important elements in Schweitzer’s ethic is compassion, and reverence itself is not a rational category. In these ways Schweitzer’s ethic embraces the feelings and affectivity of the agent. In like manner feminists insist that the whole person be involved in judging and acting (Harrison, 3-21). As Marti Kheel points Out, "We cannot even begin to talk about the issue of ethics unless we admit that we care (or feel something)" (Kheel, 144).

Second, Schweitzer’s position works to transform the dualism of mind and body. Schweitzer’s description of human beings as participants in the dilemma of the will-to-live, or its self-division, is done in such a way that he does not disparage the body. In other words, if Schweitzer was a firm supporter of a mind/body dualism, the fact that the body lives at the expense of other wills-to-live provides an occasion to deny bodily needs in favor of the "superior" mind. Schweitzer does not do this. Instead, it is the self as a whole as will-to-live that lives at the expense of others. And it is the self as a whole that must work to overcome the dilemma. Clearly feminist ethicists also attack the mind/body dualism.

In addition to overcoming these dualisms, Schweitzer’s articulation of the ethic of reverence for life shares certain key features with feminist theological ethics. First, he depends on experience for his description of the interrelatedness and interdependence of all of life. For Schweitzer, the experience of the individual will-to-live in the midst of other wills-to-live presupposes a network of relation and interrelation. In Schweitzer’s ethical mysticism, each being is a manifestation of the universal will-to-live and as such is related to every other being. More important, this experience of the self as will-to-live provides the only basis for understanding the self and others, including God. Feminists likewise depend on women’s experience of themselves in relationship to others for their description of the world. For both, then, experience is crucial.

Second, both Schweitzer and feminists refuse to systematize ethics. Neither proposes absolute principles, which must be obeyed no matter what the situation or consequences; nor do they propose a telos or utilitarian goal. In both cases there is attention to the situation and an attempt to respond to the situation as it presents itself. For Schweitzer, ethics cannot be systematized because reverence for life, including love and compassion, must attend to the situation in which it finds itself. For example, in one situation compassion may mean saving a bird at the expense of the worms and bugs it will eat. In another circumstance, however, it may mean allowing the bird to remain where it has fallen in order to protect some other life, whether the worms and bugs, an injured cow, or the starving child I am trying to assist. In either case reverence for life cannot be removed or abstracted from the situation. Schweitzer’s vision of ethics, then, sounds very much like the ethics of care that many feminists describe (see Warren and Gilligan).

Third, both feminist theological ethics and Schweitzer’s ethic are activist ethics. Feminists are not simply interested in theory; rather we are interested in transforming oppressive social structures and living in nonpatriarchal ways. That entails concrete activity. Similarly, Schweitzer’s reverence for life is far more than a way to reflect on the relationship between self and world. Reverence for life seeks to aid those in need and to transform the conditions of the will-to-live in the world. It does not accept present circumstances, especially the dilemma of the will-to-live as eternally or supernaturally given. The world as populated by manifold manifestations of the universal will-to-live is not static.

Fourth, Schweitzer’s ethic is life-affirming. This includes not only his optimism about the possibilities for constructive action but also his attention to this world. Schweitzer’s ethic does not support any form of nihilistic rejection of this world or any sort of religious otherworldliness. Individuals, for Schweitzer, come into contact with the divine not by withdrawing from others but by actively serving them in this world. This ethical mysticism lies at the heart of Schweitzer’s position. It supports the sort of world-affirming and life-affirming ethic insisted upon by feminists such as Beverly Harrison, Isabel Carter Heyward, and Sallie McFague.

To conclude: Ecofeminist concerns and Schweitzer’s reverence for life provide both challenges and resources for feminist theological ethics Eco-feminists help us to see the connections between forms of oppression maintained by patriarchy at the level of dualistic assumptions. At the same time they challenge us not to lose sight of those connections when we move to the specifically theological dualism of human/divine. Schweitzer’s ethic of reverence for life provides an example of an ethic that takes very seriously a non-dualistic description of the relationships between human beings and the world and between human beings and God. He challenges us to add to this the analysis of the dualistic structures that characterize human social relationships.

In short, what feminist theological ethics must recognize is that three fundamental relationships must be addressed simultaneously. These three relationships -- between human beings and the nonhuman world, between human beings and God, and among human beings -- are all defined dualistically by Western patriarchy. What we must see is that the way in which human beings are described in one of these relationships affects all the others. What we must remember is that no one or two of these relationships will be transformed without the transformation of all three.


Works Cited

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