Surrounded by the beauty of the Alps, Julie Andrews sang, in the Sound of Music, `Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start’. I can trace the antecedents of this article to a particular moment in time. I was sitting in the Luna Cinema in Leederville, toward the end of the film, An Inconvenient Truth, when Al Gore poses the question, “what are you are going to say to your children if they ask you in 50 years from now, ‘Did you know about this and what did you do about it?’” My life was turned around – a 2nd conversion, so to speak.
I have two high-school age children and by the time they are my age the planet could look considerably different than it does today. The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence is suggesting that the habitability of the earth in 30 years will be very dependent on the decisions that we make today. Frankly, I worry. I’m not a scientist but I rely on good science every time I turn on my computer or go to the doctor. Scientists talk in the language of probabilities. On the balance of probability do we want to gamble on the future of our children let alone other life forms? I don’t. Self interest starts very close to home doesn’t it?
This article draws on my reflections over four years since becoming aware of the ecological moral imperative of our times. I write as a 47 year old white male Anglican Christian. The churches have been, by and large, slow on the uptake when it comes to speaking up about ecology and global warming. This article offers some suggestions on why that might be the case. We are now catching on and I suggest that faith communities, as broad based international organisms operating at all levels of society, might have something useful to contribute to the changes in mindset and behaviour which will be necessary for 6-9 billion people populating the world to get on together, equitably and peacefully in relationship to all other species on our small planet. As Peter Senge observes in The Necessary Revolution (2008) "institutions matter"1 when it comes to shaping an alternative future.
This article is an exercise in public theology. What I mean by this is that I hope this article is useful to all readers and not just those who share a Christian frame of reference. Theology (from Theos/God and Logos/Word) could be roughly translated as ‘Reasoning about God’. Therefore, theology makes claims to truth. For those who are convinced that God is a dangerous delusion and that religious people are inherently ‘unreasonable’, I contend that the mainstream mechanistic paradigm about humanity’s relationship with the earth is in need of re-thinking.
The motto of The University of Western Australia is ‘Seek Wisdom’. The words from the Doctor, Christian, and Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, ‘verily by beauty it is that we come at wisdom’ are inscribed on a stone seat in front of Winthrop Hall. A study of the etymology of the word, ‘wisdom’ reveals that wisdom is about knowing things as they really are. Universities have their origins in philosophy and theology and the monastic traditions which took the truth quest seriously. Many Christian mathematicians and scientists have built their life’s work out of their faith. They see no contradiction between science and religion for God creates human beings with a capacity to reason through scientific process and hence to uncover the mysteries of creation; and provides an aesthetic ‘icing on the cake’ in that the discovery of truth often has elegance, beauty and joy associated with it. Dare I say, even in science, truth seems sometimes as if it reveals itself.
So what is the nature of a theological perspective on climate change and how is this different to a scientific perspective? One of the reasons we end up in a terrible muddle in conversations between the truth of science and the truth of theology is that we fail to make the necessary distinctions between different ways of knowing.
One way of knowing is analytical knowing based on a clear subject/object division using hard data and scientific method to test a hypothesis and arrive, at a reasonable balance of probability, that something is true. This is different to relational knowing which is more inter-subjective. Relational knowing can also make a claim to truth but it’s arrived at through relational processes such as conversation, service, love, touch, prayer, worship.
Here is an example – all kinds of scientific propositions could be made about my love for my wife – biological processes, the firing of synapses in particular points in my brain, conscious and unconscious psychological dynamics. But none of these exhaust or adequately do justice to her personhood or our relationship. Whilst it would be quite possible to dismiss any relationship as simply a random accident of molecular biology, for most people this won’t do justice to the relational truth of their experiences.
Religious or Spiritual experience is also a form of relationship knowing. Academic reflection on religious experience was brought to prominence in the early 20th century through the work of Williams James and his lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience2. In recent years it has been carried on at the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford University and subsequently at the University of Wales. This latter research shows that the majority of the UK population has experienced what they would describe to a researcher as a ‘religious or spiritual experience’.
When we examine the bible we also discover that it is packed full of encounters with the `holy other’. Take for example the call to Abraham to leave everything and go to a foreign land; Jacob’s struggle; Moses and the burning bush; Job’s suffering; Mary’s encounter with an angel; Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Christ; the day of Pentecost; Peter’s dream; Paul on the Damascus Road. From beginning to end, Christian theology is built on religious/spiritual encounters. Trying to explain how an experience happened or, in fact, whether it happened in history exactly as described may be interesting from an analytical perspective but it doesn’t necessarily lead us into to the meaning of the experience, which is a relational kind of knowing.
A relational way of knowing doesn’t get too concerned about trying to prove or disprove the existence of God any more than I would try to prove the reality of my love for my wife (even to try to do so would risk making God into an object like any other). Wrestling with the limitations of language, mystics have said that God is the no-thing which pre-exists and exists between things. For those who experience love, or to whom love is revealed, the question is not ‘can I prove this’ but rather, ‘what does this relationship that I am experiencing, or which is being revealed to me, mean? Where is it leading? What are the consequences for my life?’ Or in the case of a community of faith, what are the implications for a life-well-lived? What ultimate truth claims might be offered, with due humility, to the world?
A starting assumption for me in this article is that the bible is essentially a collection of writings which reveals and explores relational truth. The language of theology uses a different kind of vocabulary to the language of science. Theology attempts to think in a rational, disciplined and well reasoned way about what is, at some levels, an ‘irrational’ knowing. There is an inherent paradox at work which literary academics will well understand. We can analyse a poem in great depth but never exhaust its meaning. Billy Collins makes the point well is this poem (try substituting the words “the bible” for “a poem”)
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.3
This has been a long introduction to the main task in this article, which is to propose a truth in God-language, the language of theology, to see what light it might shed on the challenge of Global Warming.
The first point I want to make is that the science of human-caused global climate change is offering theologians a great gift. We are being forced back into the bible in order to (re) discover the vast creation cosmology lying dormant there. We are challenged to admit that we have been very anthropocentric. I offer a few thoughts on why this might be the case through the lenses of three significant Christian theological categories; Creation, Sin and Redemption.
Let’s start with Creation. The Christian creation stories, particularly the first one (Gen. 1:1-4a) paints a picture where 5/7th of all time was without people. Science tells us, of course, that the ratio is much larger – humans have only been around in the last few moments of cosmic time scale. The Genesis creation story offers an intuition of something unfolding gloriously and which is named, even before the creation of people, as ‘good’. The intrinsic goodness of creation is declared. Creation has a value prior to its value as something to be consumed for human purposes. The command to ‘fill the earth and have dominion over it’ (Gen.1:28) is qualified by the image of humans as ‘gardeners/ stewards/ caretakers’ (Gen.2:15). There is no scope, permission or justification given in the bible to ravage the earth. We even find in this original paradise that all animals eat plants (Gen 1:30)!
The second biblical creation story (Gen. 1:4b-3:24) gives us another image, the ecological implications of which we often overlook. In this richly poetic story, the ‘Adam’ is formed out of the dust (‘Adamah’). Like a potter working with clay, God makes an ‘earth creature’ (a more accurate translation of `Adam’ than ‘man’) and breathes life into it. This is interesting in light of science telling us that the elements from which we are made were created in the formation of stars. It appears we are very old indeed. We are made of star dust. We share a close and common history with everything else on the planet, both animate an inanimate. We are not only brothers and sisters to other humans but also to the cosmos, as St. Francis says in one of his hymns. The similar theme is found in the Book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures. Job becomes overly concerned about the injustice of his suffering, God paints a much bigger canvas of the vast scope of creation, presumably inviting Job to get his life into perspective (Job 38-39).
It all looks rather glorious and idealistic in this garden paradise. But something goes wrong. The second part of the second creation story (Gen. 3; also Isaiah 24:4-13) points to disturbance, fracture, alienation from which we begin to build the Christian doctrine of “Sin”. This untrendy little word has been overused, abused and misused over the centuries. At its core, the word describes what I think most people would agree is true of their experience – that things are not often as they should be. Gender relations are not equal. Relationships between people are often contaminated by self interest and refusal to accept responsibility. Relationships with the earth are out of kilter.
In the creation story which is shared by Jews and Christians this breakdown in relationship is rooted in our relentless desire to overextend our limits. In the creation myth, the first earth creatures have a vast garden to explore and play in. Only one tree in the garden is off limits – and guess which one is targeted? Anyone who has observed a toddler knows what’s going to happen. ‘Don’t touch that tree!’ The story is both humorous and disturbing. The words which follow, ‘cursed is the ground because of you’ are like a slap in the face (Gen.3:17). Could I suggest - not cursed by God’s will, but cursed by our desire to treat the earth as object rather than subject – something that we exploit rather than have a relationship with. Rather than appreciating ourselves as part of the garden – in fact made out of the same dust, as the story clearly says, we exploit the garden as something separate to ourselves.
As I mentioned, the doctrine of Sin has a mixed heritage in the church. The word has been used to burden people with a very non-productive sense of shame as if we are, in some way, bad at the core. Yet in this time of impending environmental catastrophe, I suggest we look in the mirror and confess openly and honestly to the consequences, for the earth, of our choices. At its heart, ‘sin’ is a breakdown of relationship and means being in a state of alienation and separation – between humanity/God; human/human and human/earth. From this state of alienation flow the actions of alienated people. If we were to apply the language of ‘relationship’ to the earth, what arises for us? Have we thought in these terms? Please try the following exercise. Write down a list of all the words you would use to describe a high quality relationship with another person (e.g. interdependence, respect, giving and receiving, love). Then ask yourself, `on the basis of these descriptors, do I have a high quality relationship with the earth?’
This brings us to the third theological category – redemption. It is central to classical Christian theology, in all denominations, that dealing with the problem of sin/alienation is not something that humans can achieve through their own efforts but that sin requires an action by God to reconcile (heal fractured relationship), atone (re-unite), redeem (related to the freeing of slaves). Once again, the theology, as relational language, could be tested against our experience. Is it not true that we often experience ourselves as blind to and trapped within our own addictive patterns? See Paul’s letter to the Romans for an extensive exploration of this dynamic.
For Christians the way out of this predicament is in the movement of God towards us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ (meaning `anointed one’ or `Messiah’) and the power of the Holy Spirit working through the lives of individuals and Christian communities. Early Christianity, influenced as it was by its deeply communitarian Jewish roots, had a very strong communal emphasis. The Sacraments left to his followers by Jesus (Baptism and Eucharist) are deeply embedded in communal life. When John’s gospel says, “The Word became flesh” (John 1:1-14), incarnational theology interprets this as pointing to God’s close ‘enfleshment’ in creation itself. One metaphor for incarnation is that it is like a piece of iron which has been heated in a fire so that the iron and the fire have effectively become indivisibly one. Hence, for the author of the Letter to the Colossians, the Christ reconciles to God not only people but ‘all things’ (Colossians 1:20). As a consequence religious orders have generally emphasised simplicity of life (such as the Franciscans) and care of the earth (such as the Benedictines with their traditions of gardening). But in the day to day life of Western Churches, such simplicity and care is not always evident.
The question I want to address, therefore, is, `if Christians believe that God’s action is fundamentally one of creation, restoration, healing and reconciliation of all creation, then why have we largely ignored the implications of this theology for the way we live?’ There may be many reasons, but I offer two suggestions. This first is the gradual absorption of the radical Christian vision into the milieu of `empire’. The second is a theological confusion about the nature and location of what the bible calls ‘the Kingdom of God’.
Firstly, social absorption. All new and radical visions within communities live under pressure to conform themselves to their political and economic environments. For Christianity, the major political challenge began with the adoption of the church by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, which took a Christian movement that was deeply suspicious of power and empire and made it the official religion of the state. Henceforth, what was good for the state (including conquest by military means) offered benefits to the church (because it opened doors for mission). Conformity to the politics of empire, domination and control, in direct contrast to the non-violence of Jesus, has a flow on effect to domination and control of everything, including the earth. The holy crusade mentality which links the military might and Christian religious rhetoric is alive and well in our age.
For Christianity the major economic challenge of absorption was, ironically, partially seeded by itself in the European Reformation of the 16/17th centuries. In response to legitimately perceived abuses by communal religious structures the Protestant reform movement was born. This movement has placed a much greater emphasis on the individual and one’s direct un-mediated relationship to God. Whilst all Christian theology gives an extremely high place to the dignity of the individual, this is particularly so with Protestantism. Positive benefits have included the evangelically motivated movement to oppose slavery, the birth of human rights, health care and alleviation of poverty in many areas of the world. On the other hand, if one combines individualistic theology (in which individual enterprise is a godly virtue), with the enlightenment and industrial/technological revolutions, then it’s not long before Christians start ‘praying with their hip pockets’. Wealth is a powerful allurer of our loyalty (Luke 16:13) and even better if we can justify it with religious language.
Ignoring the impact on the earth actually becomes very easy, until of course, the debris and pollution starts to contaminate our own back yards. If any person goes to the doctor and is told, on the basis of good science, that they are going to die unless they make changes in their behaviour, then most people are strongly inclined to act. The most evident exception to this is addiction. People prefer to smoke and to drink heavily even when they know at some level, it will shorten their lives. Could the same be true of Climate Change? Are we addicted to our consumer lifestyles?
The redemptive invitation in Christianity is to trust in a Christ who ‘empties himself and takes the form of a servant’ (Philippians 2:7). God makes room for creation through a `self emptying movement’. The Greek word for `emptying’ is `kenosis’. Theologian Sally McFague suggests that this is the challenge for our times . Kenosis is the theological grounding for reducing our personal carbon footprint. We each need to take up less space on the earth so that others can live and the earth can live. There is a direct and immediate connection between distributive justice and the sustainability of the earth. Person to person justice cannot be separated from humanity/earth justice. This is a very inconvenient truth. It seems that contraction/recession, which we might call economic self emptying is something that our society is not well equipped to deal with. When was the last time we heard a politician arguing of the benefits of less consumption?
So, I have suggested that the first reason that Christians have lost sight of the implications of a ‘whole of creation theology’, is that we have undergone a gradual social conformity from the radical non violence of Jesus and the holistic communal ethic in the early church towards political violence and economic consumption.
I suggest that the second reason we Christians have disconnected from the earth is that some of our theology has become dominated by an other-world understanding of the Kingdom of God. This core of Jesus’s message is articulated in the first of the four gospels to be written, St. Mark. ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent [i.e. turn around] and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1:15). Initially this would have been heard as a highly politically charged statement. The Greek word translated as ‘gospel’ was also commonly used to announce the victory of kings returning from battle. Given that the Jewish people had been eagerly awaiting a God appointed king (Messiah) to release them from the political oppression of various empires for 500 years, the announcement of the gospel of the arrival of God’s kingdom would likely arouse interest as a potential threat to Rome and Caesar (who, incidentally, was the self proclaimed `Divine Son of God’).
The question which preoccupied the minds of the first disciples, the early church, and Christian theology ever since has been, `what is the nature of this Kingdom which Jesus announced as Good News’? Jesus himself only ever spoke about the Kingdom indirectly though the use of parables. Following the death of Jesus, the early church was presented with an intellectual and emotional revolution of Copernican proportions. What sense does it make to speak of a ‘crucified Messiah’? Given that the Romans were, on the face of it, still in power, where was God’s Kingdom? It’s not unlike the contemporary question, `where is a loving God? Look at all the suffering in the world!’ In general terms Christian theology speaks of a `partially realised Eschatology’. This means the Kingdom has started to be realised but will be brought to completion at some future time. The Resurrection of Christ is seen as foretaste of the future where ‘every tear will be wiped away’.
There is some debate within theology about how and where the Kingdom of God emerges and the position one takes on this question has, I think, direct consequences for how Christians relate to the earth. One view is that the current earth is ‘passing away’ and given that we are only alive for less than a hundred years but dead for much longer, that our main concern should be for saving human souls for that life in the future. This theology finds its severest expression in conservative fundamentalism originating in the USA in the last hundred years. It draws heavily on the ‘Revelation (Apocalypse) to John’ and supposes that the earth on which we live is a disposable commodity which will, at God’s behest, be burned up in a firestorm of human violence and the righteous saved will be airlifted to safety before being placed within a new heaven and earth of God’s making. The implications for a response to Global Warming are clear – if it’s all part of God’s plan, then don’t fight it – rather `bring on the day’. A softer version of this theology is far less actively world denying but is quite passive when it comes to preserving the earth on the basis of a belief that saving souls for eternity is the primary task of Christian mission and to get pre occupied with saving the earth is, at best, a distraction.
Fortunately there is an increasingly loud voice in Christian discourse which takes a different approach. This voice became strikingly evident in the increasing interest in the environment expressed by the ‘evangelical centre’ during the Barrack Obama presidential campaign. This emerging voice is grounded in the world-affirming Jewishness of Jesus. It reminds us that Jesus taught his followers to pray to God: ‘Your Kingdom come... on earth as in heaven’ (Matthew 6:10). Both Jesus and St. Paul clearly announce Kingdom as present, yet only partially realised, reality. The Kingdom of God vision looks towards a radical transformation of this earth into something that resembles God’s initial design and intention – bio-diversity, non-violence, peace and distributive justice (Isaiah 2:3-5, 11:6-9, 61:1-2) This is not something we heroically build by our own efforts but is movement of the Spirit which we receive or enter into. As the Quakers say, we are invited to `get with the program’.
Those biblical passages which point to `wars and rumours of wars’ in the future (Mark 13) are clearly prophetic because whenever land and wealth are at stake, the selfish and fearful human instinct for survival will cut in. But far from this being God’s intention, the witness of Jesus was to a different way of being. Jesus announces God’s Kingdom after a period of 40 days in the desert in which he wrestles with the demons of control, power and self righteousness. In the end Jesus hands himself over as an act of non-violent love and this, for Christians, becomes God’s ultimate victory. The reason that Christians are called into high quality relationship with the earth and all other living creatures as absolutely central (not peripheral) to our faith is because, as ‘earth creatures’ we are part of that created order and God acts sacrificially to redeem it. In recent times we have seen major statements from leaders of all major religions in Australia on the central importance of caring for the earth (Common Belief – Australia’s Faith Communities on Climate Change (2006)5 ).
There is no easy resolution to contrasting images in the bible between the violence of God and the destruction of the earth on one hand, and the non-violence of God and the preservation of the earth on the other. Both are present in both Hebrew Scriptures and Christian New Testament. But I believe one is called to make a choice and be clear on one’s interpretive lenses. It’s a big stretch to believe in the Warrior Christ of Revelation (see 19:11-21) and simultaneously believe in the Crucified Christ who calls for the forgiveness of one’s enemies. As John Dominic Crossan observes in his book God and Empire,
“ [recall] that magnificent world of non violence, justice and peace in Isaiah 25:6-8. It was to be `a feast of rich food, a feast of well aged wines, or rich food filled with marrow, of well aged wines strained clear’. But in the Great Apocalypse, God’s eschatological feast, `the great supper of God’ would be a feast for the vultures from the bodies of the slain’” (p.227)6
If one takes the crucified Jesus as the primarily interpretive lens for reading the bible, (1 Corinthians 1:23), then the Book of Revelation (and other texts of terror in the Bible for that matter) become both incredibly important and incredibly dangerous. Texts which describe a violent and destroying God are important revelations of truth – the truth of what we, even in the texts of our tradition, are capable of doing in the name of God. I fully understand how a church persecuted by Babylon (which clearly, in context, referred to the Roman Empire and perhaps subsequent violent empires through history) would long for God the Destroyer to come and sweep evil away. This satisfies our hunger for retribution and if I was under persecution I may well pray for the same thing. The challenge for Christians of every age is that Jesus did quite the opposite.
Unless Christians come to terms with the violence embedded in our scriptures, we may yet be complicit in the destruction of the earth in the name of an apparently violent God. The interpretative lenses we use to understand and find meaning in the bible will have a big impact on what we find.
What are we to conclude? In this paper I have argued that Christianity has been slow off the mark in recent years to place the Earth front and centre in our thinking and action. I’ve suggested that there could be two main reasons for this. The first is that the church has always been tempted to be lured away from our founding vision (Jesus and the Kingdom of God) and subsumed by the addictive temptations of power and economic consumption. In being lured in this direction, and reading the scriptures though society-formed lenses, we have found theological justification to support our consumer lifestyles. However, the scientific reality of Global Climate Change is forcing us back into our own tradition and reminding us that creation lies at the heart of Christian faith. We are earth creatures, loved by God and to whom God reaches out to try to draw us back into relationship with each other and the earth of which we are a part.
The challenge of theology is first to the church itself – to reform the lifestyles and personal consumption habits of those who try to walk the way of Jesus based on a daily reconnection to that which really gives life. However in terms of my original desire to speak into the public domain, the following questions and challenges have arisen for me in the course of writing this article.
(i) A question for ethicists. What would a ‘creation based relational-ethics look like’? Much of our thinking is still premised on a subject-object relationship with the earth in which we seek to ‘manage the environment’ as if we, as `earth creatures’, are not part of the environment. What would environmental ethics look like if we moved to a subject-subject relational paradigm? Furthermore, could there by a correlation between inter-human violence and violence towards the earth? If we cannot renounce violence between people, why would be believe that we could renounce violence towards the earth? I’m referring here to the need for a consistent ethic of life.
(ii) A question to economic theorists and politicians - how would we build an economic system based on the theological principle of kenosis which works, rather than flounders, on less consumption rather than more?
(iii) A challenge to us all – the invitation to fall in love again. If it is human nature that we only look after the things we really care about, how do we once again `fall in love’ with the earth? That might begin with a daily discipline to walk, breathe, observe, and listen to the earth that daily sustains us – to adopt an attitude of gratefulness for the graces freely given. Secondly it would be an invitation to always be asking, in relation to our personal consumption choices, `what will be the impact of this choice on the earth and all life forms, including other people’?
Many people suggest that the solution to the problems of the world is to get rid of religion. I go in completely the other direction. I want to maintain that the only way the earth will be saved is through the spiritual transformations which can shift our addictive patterns to ones of greater relatedness to all of creation. Religion is only healthy to the extent it can help mediate and support such transformations. The reason I take this position is that I am deeply aware of my own addictive patterns – particularly a fear which wants to secure itself through control, power and self righteousness – the very demons that Jesus wrestles with and, on better days, from which God’s Spirit is setting me free.
Michael Wood is Anglican Chaplain to UWA.
1. Senge, P., Smith, B., Kruschwitz, N., Laur, J., & Schley, S. 2008,The Necessary Revolution – How Individuals and Organizations are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. Nicholas Brealey Publishing: London
2. James, W. 1985, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.
3. Colins, B. 1988, The Apple that Astonished Paris. University of Arkansas Press cited at https://www.cstone.net/~poems/intro_lo.htm
4. McFague, S. A. 2008, New Climate for Theology. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.
5. Common Belief – Australia’s Faith Communities on Climate Change (2006) https://www.arcworld.org/downloads/COMMON20-20statements.pdf
6. Crossan, J.D. 2007, God and Empire. HarperOne: NY.
Buber, M. (1970) I and Thou (Trans. Walter Kaufmann). Charles Scribner’s Sons: NY.
Edwards, D. (2007) Ecology at the Heart of Faith. Orbis Books: NY.
Northcott, M.S. (2007) A Moral Climate – the ethics of global warming. DLT: London.