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Climate Change: Theological Considerations

By Marilyn Sewell

Melting glaciers
Photo credit: WWF Climate Change Program

This piece appeared originally on HuffPost Religion.

My husband and I went on a long-planned trip to lovely Charleston, South Carolina, last October—as it turned out, just as the city’s most recent flood was subsiding. The local paper (The Post and Courier) reported one of highest tides on record, swamping cars, creeping into homes, and tangling traffic. Hundreds of people who live near the edge of the water in this tourist area couldn’t get to work. I chatted with the wait staff in restaurants as I sought out the shrimp po-boys, the collard greens, the fried chicken I love: Are you concerned about global warming? Typically, the answer was “No, flooding is a regular occurrence, we are used to it.”

Day after day comes the influx of bad news about climate. Since the Paris agreement of last December (COP21), climate scientists have told us (1) 2015 was the warmest year ever, by far, (2) tidal flooding is increasing problematic in coastline cities, (3) if current carbon emissions continue, the West Antarctic ice sheet could begin to fragment, causing a rise of five to six feet in sea level by the end of this century, and (4) these shifts could be abrupt, giving us little time to prepare. Scientists are not talking about two hundred years from now—all this could happen within the lifetime of children born today. As I write, my fear ratchets up, my breath grows light. I recall the words of poet friend when I asked her if she thought we could avoid climate catastrophe: “Humans are a very flawed species.”

Even the most balanced writers cannot be optimistic. William Nordhaus (The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World), one of the world’s leading economic thinkers on climate change, believes it is possible to keep the worst from happening, with relatively small economic cost—but fears that the political will is not there. Environmental ethicist Dale Jamieson (Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—and What It Means for Our Future) writes, “Sadly, it is not entirely clear that democracy is up to the challenge of climate change,” arguing that powerful economic and political interests benefit from the activities that cause climate change, while the costs are borne by others.

Holding the rise in the earth’s temperature to 2 degrees Celsius will not prevent the damage already done, damage that will continue to affect our earth for thousands of years. We have already seen the punishing heat waves, the melting of the glaciers, the fierce storms, the rising flood waters. If we exceed the Paris target and coastlines go under water, we will see food and water shortages that will make the current emigrant crisis seem simple to address. We will see the increase of tribalism and armed conflict as suffering and frightened people vie for control of resources. Why have so many books and films of late portrayed the apocalypse? Because art is prophetic of what is to come.

I am a minister, and hopeful by nature. However, I am also a realist, and I’m guessing that we’re in for a pile of trouble. Emissions in China and India and other developing countries are rising. Population growth is expected to peak at about 9.5 billion by 2050, from the present 7 billion, straining the planet’s resources further. The World Economic Forum recently put climate change at the top of its risk list. Cecilia Reyes, who helped develop the report, said, “Climate change is exacerbating more risks than ever before in terms of water crises, food shortages, constrained economic growth, weaker social cohesion and increased security risks.”

Given the nature of the beast, then, how are people of faith called to respond? What are the theological implications?

This would not be the first time that theological revisioning has been called for: throughout history, seismic shifts in political and economic realms have called into question theological beliefs which previously brought people some modicum of comfort and certainty. Consider the Enlightenment, which took God out of the center and placed the human there; the American and French revolutions and the rise of democracy; World War II, with the creation of the atomic bomb and the unthinkable evil of the holocaust. The technological transformations of our own post-industrial age push forward relentlessly, asking not why, but only how and when: machines take the place of workers; globalization rewards and punishes, creating vast economic disparity; new media bring the suffering of others around the world into our homes; knowledge is exploding, while wisdom lags way behind.

At such times of transition, our faith is shaken, even shattered. We drift aimlessly, wondering how to bring our given beliefs in line with the reality of our existential experience. Of all the changes we currently face, that of a warming planet is the most unnerving: the twenty-first century is the first time in the history of the world that one generation has been given the task of keeping our planet viable, not just for ourselves, but for generations to come. We are being called upon, once again, to reimagine our theology, to question what we hold sacred, for these beliefs determine our working definition of morality and dictate how we actually behave.

I suggest the following considerations. Our theology must become:

Radically relational. Because global warming is a phenomenon shared by all peoples in all places, we no longer can think of ourselves as independent agents, or in fact “exceptional,” either as individuals or as countries. What touches one, touches all. In a country in which individual striving is paramount, we need to reconsider the whole concept of salvation. What does it mean to be “saved”? We can no longer conceive of ourselves as being saved alone—our connectedness is radical and undeniable. The coal we burn today turns into somebody’s else’s storm thousands of miles away. We continue to drive gasoline-powered cars, and island countries disappear. The coastline of Florida may very well go underwater in fifty years—or much sooner. A hundred years from now? Our world becomes unthinkable.

Respectful of the natural world. Christians have too long interpreted the book of Genesis as giving humans dominion over all of nature, to use as we please. Nature, we are beginning to understand, includes ourselves. We are part of a profoundly interdependent creation, and we interact intrinsically with all other forms of life, in both space and time. When we relate to the earth as utilitarian, as a means to an end, the earth becomes “other” and subject to all kinds of abuse. We would do well to learn what indigenous people have been trying to tell us since we began to exploit the earth they hold sacred. Greed is not good, contrary to what the fictional Gordon Gekko and his counterparts on Wall Street believe. Conquering and taking must give way to a theology of humility and repentance.

Informed by the sensory world and the arts, not just the world of weights and measurements. Scientific positivism has brought its gifts, its amazing productivity, but this is merely one dimension to consider, one measure of the good life. On the other hand, poets, visual artists, filmmakers wake us up to the magnificence of our earth and its sacredness. When our interactions with nature are sensory—when our hand touches the bark of an old-growth tree, when we step with bare feet into a stream, when we see a sunrise streaking the sky with red and pink and orange—we understand nature as a primal force which brings both great joy and great responsibility.

Inclusive of civic life, a perspective that encourages and empowers us as citizens, not just of our city or state or country, but citizens of the world. More than ever before, we are called to take responsibility for the “commons,” a term which is derived from the Latin communis, originally meaning “sharing common duties.” In an era in which vast amounts of public wealth have been transferred into private hands, a time in which money rules politics so completely, we must hold sacred the right of all people to participate in the life of the state. Our morality must not be constrained by skin color, religious persuasion, language, gender, ethnic or class background. It’s not enough to say “my children,” “my neighborhood,” “my town,” rather recognizing that when any child lacks food or a safe place to live or a decent education, then the body politic suffers, and we all are diminished. Our connectedness to all living things will become more and more apparent, as will our dependency upon one another. A civic theology will ask us to enlarge our sense of the commons, to make our caring universal rather than exclusive.

Conscious of generational justice, considering not just the suffering of those alive now, but the needs of many generations to come. Evolution has produced human beings who are hard-wired to fear the moment, to act in our own immediate self-interest, as a survival instinct. We can hardly conceive of next week, much less fifty or one hundred or two hundred years from now. But there is no doubt that the decisions we make today will determine the kind of existence possible for many, many generations to come.

I remember being moved by Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, a film that is often referred to as the first documentary. The protagonist, Nanook, moves through the wilderness of Northern Canada, hunting, fishing, building an igloo. This Inuit considers the next hunter or fisherman who may happen by, and leaves each shelter or site more hospitable than when he found it. He sees himself as responsible for those unknown ones who will come. Our ethic of stewardship must extend to those nameless ones who will follow, those who will be born and live and love and die largely dependent upon our care for the earth they happen into. For those we don’t know and will never know, we must be ever vigilant, fiercely protective.

Foolishly, irrationally hopeful, because we do not have the luxury of despair. What is the source of this imprudent hope? It is grounded in the life force itself, and in the faith that is called forth when we face impossible odds, odds that would make any halfway reasonable person admit defeat. It is the hope of the children of Israel wandering lost, forsaken, in a barren land. It is the hope of the shepherd boy David as he chooses a stone for his sling and trembling, looks up at Goliath. It is the preposterous hope of Jesus, as he prays in the garden of Gethsemane. We are called simply to be faithful. We cannot count on the fruits of our labor. We do what is right solely because it is right. Our faith stands in contrast to all that which takes, devours, destroys. It is sustained by love, for the earth and all living things. It is larger than self.

Someone has said that this is a good time in history to be alive. I think I understand that sentiment. The climate crisis has given our generation a great deal of clarity about moral purpose. We have challenges that can bring out the best in us, engendering a great storm of creativity and compassion. We are facing a behemoth of destruction, almost beyond imagination, that demands a kind of faithfulness like no other we have known. We are called forth, to be bigger than we are. Yes, it is a good time to be alive.

Our situation reminds me of when I was a young woman, and so joyfully pregnant. I had no question about the meaning of my life. I gave myself away to purposes larger than my own pleasure, my own safety, even. I knew I was a container of life. I still am. So are all of us.


image from www.beaconbroadside.comMarilyn Sewell is the editor of Claiming the Spirit WithinCries of the SpiritResurrecting Grace and Breaking Free. She is minister emerita at the First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter at @marilynsewell.