This is a short summary of the author's longer paper “Climate Change and the Gospel” available on the Operation Noah website.
1. Why aren’t the churches tackling climate change more urgently?
There are lots of good things going on: eco-Congregations; environmentally aware church schools; the C/E ‘Shrinking the Footprint’ campaign. There are numerous Christian green organisations. There was a recent decision by the Church Commissioners to divest from thermal coal and tar sands. There many key individuals, and congregations taking fresh initiatives of one sort or another.
And yet, the most important moral issue of our generation seems only rarely the subject of sermons, PCC discussions, or of helpful advice and support as to what it means for us, in our generation with the current climate emergency, to live as disciples of Christ.
2. How did we get here?
Climate science is pretty clear. The relatively stable climate most of human civilization has known is now likely to suffer considerable disruption - starting now, and really bad when my grandchildren are grown up - if we keep burning fossil fuels and putting a greenhouse gas blanket round the earth. The most affected places will be sub-Saharan African and South East Asia: places which have done least to cause damage and are least able to adapt. Scientists and economists say that global CO2 emissions must peak by 2020 and cut back rapidly after that if we are to avoid the worst climate disruption. That is urgent.
Despite the huge benefits of technology and industrialization, we now know what the early industrialists didn’t: that burning fossil fuels (as well as cutting down rainforests, some industrial agriculture, eating too much red meat) damages God’s earth and the wellbeing of humanity and all other creatures.
Whereas the Bible speaks of a ‘cosmic covenant’ between God – humanity – and the earth, in which we humans are dependent on Nature, but also under God have a major responsibility of caring for God’s earth, that triangle of relationships was dismantled about the time industrialization was beginning. What developed was a view of Nature without reference to God, and of human beings as the ‘lords and masters’ of Nature, free to exploit Nature and dominate it to meet our needs and our wants.
3. What has this got to do with the Christian Gospel?
Our human relationship to other creatures; the use we make of technology; our responsibilities to poorer communities and to future generations; our economic priorities; how we handle our fears and uncertainties - all these are at base to do with our relationship to God, and with God’s purposes for his Earth. They are moral and spiritual questions. Here are some themes from John chapter 1.
(i) ‘In the beginning was the Word’. And the Wisdom, and the Spirit of God. Creation is the gift of God the Holy Trinity, in which God finds joy and invites us to rejoice. Life and all the means of life come to us as God’s gift.
(ii) ‘All things came into being through him’. And, as Col.1.15ff says, in Christ all things were made, and - through his Cross - all things are to be reconciled to God.
(iii) ‘The world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.’ Living in the world without God provokes the prophets of the Old Testament to call for repentance and a change of direction. Changes to the climate (what Lovelock calls ‘Gaia’s Revenge’) are sometimes depicted as signs of God’s judgement.
Today we tell stories of a world without God: of human mastery of Nature, suggesting that we can sort it, all will be well, and we do not need to worry. Or we tell stories of doom and catastrophe, emphasizing our human incapacity to do anything. We tell stories of greed, as if the only thing that matters is continuing production and consumption, feeding the assumption of limitless economic growth.
(iv) ‘The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world’. The Christian story, by contrast, is of interdependence, cooperation and fellowship instead of management; of compassionate love and mercy leading to hope, instead of doom; of generosity, self-giving and restraint, instead of greed. In a word, it is a story of love.
The social and political expression of neighbour love is justice. Christian mission needs to hold the environmental and the developmental agendas together – and both are related to a renewed economics rooted in human values, and a commitment to biodiversity (and the fundamental ‘economy’ of photosynthesis) and the flourishing of all creation, on which all life depends.
(v) ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ The Incarnation, leading to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, brings back the creative triangle of relationships: God – humanity – the Earth. The cosmic redemption of all things in Christ is a restoration of the coherence of all things in him that we have largely lost. Creation is seen once more as ‘God’s project’ of bringing all things - including humanity - to the Kingdom of his glory: a renewed and healed creation. Forgiveness includes moving from past wrong into the fresh air of grace-filled new possibilities. Christian hope is not a blind optimism that everything is going to turn out OK, but a faith rooted in the faithfulness of God. That faith helps us repent, and lament, over what we have done sinfully or foolishly or in ignorance to damage God’s earth. It also helps us live newly and rejoicingly, in the light of the Cross and Resurrection, a discipleship of self-giving love and justice, restraint, and the corporate life of God’s Spirit.
4. So what do we do?
The issues raised by climate change (the role of technology; justice and neighbour love; economic structures and priorities; trust in God’s faithfulness; human interdependence and mutual flourishing; care for all God’s creatures, and so on) can feel so large and so daunting that we displace them, or deny them, or ignore them. But we can grow a vision of a world in which energy needs are not met by burning fossil fuels but by clean energy; in which we can breathe clean air; have security in our food; not wage wars over clean water; in which local communities can demonstrate love and justice to their neighbours here and overseas; in which the rich biodiversity of God’s earth can be celebrated and enjoyed, and the rich resources of the earth used sustainably for the flourishing of all human beings and the well-being of all God’s creatures. Our discipleship, worship, service and mission needs to include the commitment ‘to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.’ (ACC Marks of Mission). Maybe climate change can push us more urgently in that direction?
Dr David Atkinson is a former Bishop of Thetford