Faith in a Changing Climate
Net Zero by 2050
We are entering a new and rather scary world. Climate change, resource depletion and biosphere destruction all pose existential threats to human civilization. Until recently most people either denied that these changes were taking place or they simply ignored what was happening. That situation is slowly changing; there is an increasing awareness that human actions are causing the climate change and that the consequences are increasingly harmful. Yet there is still a general assumption that “they will come up with something”, that new technology will allow us to maintain our energy-guzzling lifestyle and ensure endless economic growth — even though we live on a planet with finite resources and with limited space to dump our waste products.
Yet even that perception is starting to shift. Technology can indeed slow down the rate of change and/or mitigate the impact. But technology cannot restore the climate to what it was a generation ago, technology cannot create oil from nowhere, and technology cannot restore species that have become extinct. Slowly, we are coming to grips with the reality that, if we are to avoid catastrophe, it we ourselves who will have to change. We will have to learn to live in equilibrium with the natural world.
The situation is gloomy but it does provide an opportunity for people of faith and for the church to provide leadership. We need to leave the Church of Material Progress and to find a faith system that is appropriate for the world that lies ahead. The goal of this book is to explore what that faith system might look like, and how the church may be able to provide leadership.
If the church is to provide leadership, then we need to understand that we are entering a period of physical crisis. The topic which receives the most publicity is climate change. But the climate is only one of the ways in which we are ruining the planet. Other physical issues include the depletion of finite resources (when they are gone, they are gone), destruction of the natural world, and over-population. Yet the response of most people so far is to treat these crises in human terms; a belief that, with a sufficiently good faith effort, we will be able to work out a solution. But we cannot negotiate with the laws of physics, thermodynamics and biology in the same manner as we negotiate with people on topics such as health care and trade policy. The laws of nature do not negotiate — they are what they are; they could care less about our wishes, hopes, dreams, fears or imagined destiny. From nature’s point of view we are just another species which has overshot its resource base.
As awareness of climate change grows many governments and businesses are implementing a wide range of programs to attempt to at least slow down the rate of change. For example, many corporations have committed to a ‘Net Zero by 2050’ target. Some political leaders propose even more ambitious ‘Green New Deal’ legislation. In addition to these high level initiatives, many people, including people of faith, are changing their personal lifestyle in order to minimize their impact on the planet. One of the themes of this book is that such these activities deserve our full support because they may indeed help slow down the pace of change.
But another theme is that they will be at best only partially successful. The industrial revolution is winding down and we are heading toward a much simpler life style. Indeed, there is every chance that we heading toward a radical decline in material wealth, potentially entering a new Dark Ages. How quickly this will happen, and how drastic the decline may be is anyone’s guess, but there is no shortage of precedents. The most obvious example for people in the western world is the decline of the Roman Empire, but anyone who reads the Bible can see the same thing. Where, for example, are Babylon, Assyria, and ancient Egypt now?
Meanwhile, the church, at least in western countries, is dying. Both mainline and evangelical churches are suffering a rapid decline in membership, and they are less and less relevant to the community at large. Many books and thoughtful articles have been written in an attempt to explain this decline. But, one reason could be that, in a time of prosperity, religious texts and explanations do not carry much authority because they do not offer a convincing explanation as to how the world works or what people need to do in order to be successful. However, in a time of decline that dynamic reverses — people will seek answers from religion.
Entering the Babylonian Captivity
In his book Why Christianity Must Change Or Die, Bishop Spong suggests that we are entering a period of exile, similar to what the early Hebrew people suffered when the First Temple was destroyed, and they were deported to Babylon.
In the despair of meaningless, these Jewish people were forced to leave everything they knew and everything they valued . . . There was no hope of return.
His idea is relevant to what is taking place now. Our society has no hope of return to the way the world was even just one generation ago. Moreover, if the church does not engage with climate change in a meaningful way then it will likely die. On the other hand, if the faith community does become involved in working out a post-industrial future then it can provide much-needed leadership.
Spong’s book refers to the first exile of the Jewish people. But they also suffered a second exile following the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70 CE. Following that traumatic experience the Jewish community re-invented their religion so that it was no longer based on sacrifice in a physical Temple. Instead they developed the rabbinical culture that not only kept their faith alive, but that flourishes today. If today’s church is to maintain its relevance and value in a world where the climate is rapidly deteriorating and we are running out of resources — then it needs to go through a transformation as radical and as drastic as what took place following the destruction of the second Temple. This is the opportunity. This is the challenge.
Church leaders may respond by saying that they and their congregations are already doing much to address climate change problems. And they are correct. But their approach has two basic problems. First, although actions such as putting solar panels on the church roof or planting a community garden are the right things to do, they are not going to materially change the climate change trajectory. Such actions are treating the symptoms, not curing the disease. The second concern is that the church’s response is unsystematic and can even be counter-productive. This is because faith systems often do not grasp some of the important principles of science, engineering and ecology without which it is not possible to understand what is taking place. The third difficulty with the church’s approach is that it does not yet have a theological basis for how to respond to climate change, resource depletion and destruction of the biosphere.
The need for a new theology is one of the themes of this book. Such a theology will incorporate not just scripture, care for the needy, spirituality and tradition, but also the principles of science, engineering, finance and project management. No one knows what the future is going to look like in a world where so much is changing. But it is important for us to recognize that we are in exile, and that we need to re-invent the faith.
Western Wall. Credit: Ian Sutton
Where Is God In All This?
After a long discussion to do with climate change, a friend at church asked, “Where is God in all this?” It’s a good question, and it probably has to be answered by trying to figure out a theology that is appropriate for our times. What form will the new theology take? Well, that is what this book is about — at this stage everything is much too fluid to come up with a definitive answer to that question. But, even at this stage, we can predict four likely features of a new religious structure.
The first feature is that religion will, once again, be important. It will matter to ordinary people. Currently technology in its various forms is providing meaning to the universe, and also responses to our needs and concerns. The meaning is provide in the way that science can explain how things work. The successful response is seen in areas such as health care. If we are ill or if we have had an accident we first go to the doctor, and then put our name on the church’s prayer list. As climate change and resource limits start to bite, science and technology will be seen as being the cause of our problems. People will look for meaning in other ways, including religion. Their faith in the ‘Church of Material Progress’ will be badly shaken.
A second feature of of a new expression of religion is that it is likely to be non-establishment. Reformations are different from restorations. Even if religion assumes a new level of importance this does not mean that the established forms of religion won’t change.
Third, theologians will have a different education and understanding of the world. In Chapter 5 we discuss the ‘two cultures’. Theologians of the future may not be mathematicians or scientists. But they will have a basic understanding of topics such as thermodynamics and systems engineering, along with the traditional skills to do with Bible study and historical analysis.
The final feature of the new theology is its most important. It will require that we leave the ‘Church of Progress’ because ‘progress’, as we have come to understand the word, means endless growth. But, as we show in the following chapters, non-strop growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell. The theological mantra could be, ‘We cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet’.
The upshot of these thoughts is that people will have to understand that a new and simpler lifestyle is called for. And those who are already more prosperous will have to make sacrifices.
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
1 Timothy 6
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?