• Ian Sutton

A New Normal: Theological Paradigm Shift

Updated: Oct 3


This post is the tenth in a series to do with the ‘New Normal’ — thoughts to do with the world that may come out of the wrenching changes that we have seen in the first half of 2020.


For years, decades actually, environmental activists have been preaching the message that we need to radically cut back on our use of fossil fuels. This message has been widely ignored and has had little impact. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen quite smoothly, as we see in the chart below.

But suddenly, in a just a few short months, we have witnessed:

  • The collapse of international tourism and its associated airplane flights;

  • The demise of the cruise line industry;

  • The end of the shale oil industry;

  • A drastic reduction in the amount of commuting;

  • An enormous cut back in airline travel; and

  • An equally drastic reduction in the restaurant business.

These are just the sort of actions for which we have been looking for all these years. And it all took place in just a few weeks.


To summarize: a virus that is 100,000 times smaller than a human hair or the period/full stop at the end of this sentence has done far more to mitigate climate change than any number of exhortations and sermons.


This improvement has come at a terrible human cost. In addition to the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of lives lost, millions of people in the United States alone are newly unemployed, face eviction from their homes, and are having trouble feeding their families.

The environmental community needs to think through how this sudden and dramatic shift occurred. What were environmentalists doing wrong for all those years? Clearly, the manner in which environmentalists communicate needs to fundamentally change. A paradigm shift is needed.

Here are three initial observations.

  1.  Fear seems to be a stronger motivator than the desire to “do the right thing”.

  2. There is a wrenching human cost when we transform the way in which we live and work. So many environmental messages contain within themselves an unstated assumption that we can move to a zero carbon lifestyle without reducing our standard of living. This assumption needs to be challenged.

  3. We are not going back to the ‘Old Normal’. Too much has happened too quickly for that to happen. And maybe we don’t want to go back to the ‘Old Normal’. So what does the ‘New Normal’ look like?

One of the themes of this blog and associated publications is that we need a theology that addresses the issues of our times. One person who worked on a new theology for his times was Augustine of Hippo, whose book City of God was written in response to the sack of Rome in 410 CE. A thousand years later, Martin Luther developed a theological response to the corruption and indolence of the medieval catholic church. Three hundred years after that, John Wesley and his colleagues developed responded to the social tribulations associated with the industrial revolution.


A challenge for today’s church is to work out a theology that addresses the predicaments to do with the Age of Limits. It is likely that the lessons we are learning from the pandemic will help us in that process.


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