What is an appropriate Christian response to climate change? My response would be to do very little about climate change. I think it is mostly a lot of hot air. (*grin*) Instead of addressing global warming I think we should be about finding more efficient and more cost effective ways to reduce pollution and CO2 emissions, as well as finding new cheap and sustainable energy sources. Confused?
I recently wrote a review of Al Gore’s movie called An Inconvenient Truth in which I spelled out my skepticism climate change science. I will not recapitulate all that here. What I want to focus on here is the convergence of two powerful political agendas over the past few years.
The first is the agenda of a scientific community deeply entangled in highly politicized government research funding. I blogged at length about this in my previous post so I will not go into detail here. In short, there is a nexus of (1.) politicians who want to be seen as dynamic visionary leaders (some to a messianic degree), (2.) of scientists whose livelihood depends on the perpetuation of a climate change crisis and the government money that perceived “crisis” generates, and (3.) media outlets that find sensational stories about climate change generates viewers and readers.
The second agenda in the convergence is the agenda of the politically left-leaning religious community. Except for a brief time during the Clinton administration, the religious left has felt itself increasingly marginalized in the political arena over recent decades. A highly symbolic event happened in 1998, when President Clinton went to China to talk to President Jiang Zemin about religious persecution. He took a rabbi, a Roman Catholic archbishop and two representatives from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). No mainline or National Council of Churches (NCC) representatives were included despite their appeals to be a part of the diplomatic mission. I suspect President Clinton knew that the NCC was captive to the Democratic coalition and the NAE represented a powerful and growing constituency that could be courted.
Over the past generation, conservative and fundamentalist religious leaders have articulated fears of their communities about a decaying social order and motivated them into political action. For better or worse, politically conservative Christians (“Religious Right” would only be a subgroup of conservative Christians, by which I mean a diverse large group of people who are right of center politically and devoted Christians) are now driving much of the political agenda either by their actions or by the opposition their actions provoke. Liberal Christians (by which I mean a diverse group of devoted Christians who are to the left of center politically) have found themselves frequently in the role of defensive critics.
It is my suspicion that environmentalism is viewed by many on the Religious Left (politically liberal Christians who are thoroughly engaged in the political realm) as a political opportunity to regain a voice and set an agenda. They intuitively sense that many Christians have some sense of earthly stewardship as a part of their heritage and I think they are correct. Tapping into this issue is a way to regain power. This raises interesting questions. Is the driving force a profound theological and scientific concern about the environment seeking a political voice? Or is the driving force a weak political voice manufacturing an exaggerated concern to get a larger voice? I think both are present but I strongly believe the latter is the stronger force.
Understand that I am not alleging a conspiracy. No conspiracy is needed. It is almost an almost instinctive emergence. The twentieth century evangelical DNA seems to contain an apocalyptic gene. Dispensational theology has widely instilled the vision of an imminent rapture and apocalypse in theological strands far from Dispensationalism. Any overly vigorous sneeze heard within 500 miles of Jerusalem signifies the rapture is coming any second. The rise of the much vaunted and rivaled (though somewhat fuzzily defined) Religious Right in the late 1970s to early 1980s was due in part to apocalyptic visions of a moral collapse within the nation or of being conquered by godless communists from without.
Science has had its own Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye types. Paul Ehrlich released his book “Population Bomb” in the late1960s predicting imminent global catastrophe from over population. Not unlike Hal Lindsay, he just keeps on printing new editions after predictions fail to materialize, showing things are actually even worse than he first forecasted. The Club of Rome published their “Limits to Growth” report in the 1970s showing how we were about to run out of everything including petroleum by century end. From the late 1970s until at least as late as the mid-1990s we heard that fossil fuel emissions were creating global cooling and would plunge us into an ice age. Since the late 1980s global warming came to replace global cooling as the crisis and the area of study became known as “climate change.” (I can only presume the name change was made so that in case we need return global cooling we won’t have to adjust all the jargon again.)
I believe the crystallizing moment that sealed the convergence was the 2004 presidential election. Democrats and the media widely attributed Bush’s victory to “values voters” who were put off by the Democrats’ seemingly secularist and antagonistic posturing on faith issues. Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics was released just after the election. It offered Democrats a religious rationale for much of their political agenda. Democrats needed religion and the Religious Left needed power. A perfect marriage. Apocalyptic global warming “science” is a key piece of this alliance. The Spiritual Activism conference held last May by left leaning religious and political leaders was clear evidence of just such a strategy in progress. They are repeating the same perilous acts of the Religious Right in placing faith perspectives at the service of political powers.
The apocalyptic climate change movement is not based in either good theology or good science. Therefore, the theological response and the scientific/political/economic response are not good either. First, let us look at the theological response.
A THEOLOGICAL RESPONSE
The theological response Religious Left is incomplete. The religious left equates Christian environmental stewardship with “protecting,” “healing,” “preserving” and “restoring.” There is no question that these are aspects of environmental stewardship but this is a grossly incomplete conception of stewardship. It seems to have more in common with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s environmental romanticism than with the biblical narrative. According to Rousseau, human beings are in their most exalted and virtuous state when they are uncorrupted by civilization. It is civilization that corrupts both humanity and nature. Much of the environmental movement, including the religious versions, views humanity entirely as consumers and environmental parasites. Consequently, stewardship is equated with keeping every aspect of nature in as pristine and as untouched condition as we can.
Human beings are not parasites. They were intended to be producers. As I review scripture, I am hard pressed to find scripture that speaks directly of humanity’s relationship to nature as “protecting” and “preserving.” We do find in the Genesis Chapter 1 account of creation that God pronounced the created order good. For that reason, if for no other, creation has value beyond a purely utilitarian value. Psalms 8:5-6 says:
Yet you have made them [humanity] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet … (NRSV)
While we tend to think of Kings exercising “dominion” as tyrannical, this would not have been so for readers in biblical times. The monarch was to be God’s instrument for building up his domain, making it prosperous, bringing order and protecting it from harm. It was not just for keeping the status quo but about seeking ever increasing good for those under his domain. They were to make their domain productive and prosperous. Thus, when Psalms 8 speaks of giving dominion it is this image that is in mind. I maintain that the biblical vision of stewardship envisions human beings getting the most output for least input while doing the least damage to the created order, all the while enhancing the fruitfulness of the human and natural order.
The creation stories hardly view the earth as some weak and fragile reed. It is a wild untamed beast that must be harnessed and subdued. Genesis 1:28:
God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue [kabash] it; and have dominion over [radash] the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (NRSV)
According to Strong’s Concordance, the key words here mean:
OT:3533 kabash (kaw-bash'); a primitive root; to tread down; hence, negatively, to disregard; positively, to conquer, subjugate, violate.
OT:7287 radah (raw-daw'); a primitive root; to tread down, i.e. subjugate; specifically, to crumble off.
“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till [`abad ] it and keep it.” (NRSV)
According to Strong’s Concordance, the key word here means:
OT:5647 `abad (aw-bad'); a primitive root; to work (in any sense); by implication, to serve, till, (causatively) enslave, etc.
These are not passive words. They conjure up images of a humanity that is bending the forces of nature toward some purpose, not preserving all its pristine glory. The very act of “filling the earth” would militate against this. We need to remember that the biblical narrative begins in a garden but it does not end their. The purposes of God are not restore us to a garden but to bring us into a city, the ultimate symbol of human civilization, filled as it is with commerce, learning and government. Passages like these are almost uniformly ignored by the Religious Left in their presentations of environmentalism.
Our relationship toward creation is not purely utilitarian. We are but stewards of resources entrusted to us and we are to use those resources as the owner would use them. The owner of those resources created them and pronounced them good upon creation. Therefore, wanton destruction of resources and beauty for selfish ends would be a violation of our stewardship role. However, like the servant with the one talent in Jesus’ parable from Matthew 25, simply preserving and protecting resources entrusted to us is a violation of our stewardship role as well. If the environmentalism of the Right (or lack thereof) has veered too close to the error of wanton destruction, then the error of the Religious Left is to fall into the trap of the one talent steward. We need a biblical environmentalism that leads us to neither of these errors.
So the first response to climate change is an appropriate theological response. Now we need to look at an appropriate scientific/political/economic response.