It is science that tells us that sickness spreads quickly on a cruise ship. It is science that tells us where the sun goes at night. It is science that tells us why volcanoes erupt. It is science that tells us the best conditions for the growth of crops. It is science that tells us why the tides rise and fall. It is science that enables humanity to explore, innovate, create, and discover more truth about this world.
At the root of the scientific debate over climate change (Cook, 2016) is the disagreement over scientific consensus, politics, and ultimately the certainty of science itself. As a former Christian, I feel the need to speak out to a demographic with which I'm very familiar. Christianity has been forced into this debate, and therefore Christians need to decide how to respond to this crisis. Believers are divided into two general camps: those that believe that Christians have no obligation to care for this planet, either because it is of physical nature and a belief God’s salvation is not focused on the physical or because of a theology that believes God will destroy this Earth on judgment day and therefore there’s no reason to tend to it; and those that believe that Christians have an obligation to care for God’s creation because God is good and therefore everything he makes is good or because of a moral or spiritual conviction. I strongly urge every Christian to embrace the latter belief.
Religious leaders should be active in the fight against climate change and should be working alongside thought leaders and scientists in order to promote science literacy that helps strengthen the battle against one of the greatest threats of our time; this should be done because Christians have a moral and spiritual obligation to care for both the physical and spiritual components of creation, both of which are under threat from climate change. Theologically speaking, there are two reasons Christians should be caring for creation. First, the theology of common grace strongly supports the idea that God’s grace is for all of creation (believers and non-believers) (Slick, 2016); an extension of this proposes that God’s people should love what God loves, and therefore Christians should love creation. Second, a theological view of salvation, that scholars such as N. T. Wright embrace, theorizes salvation as both a physical and spiritual happening, i.e. that both the physical and spiritual components of humanity will be saved. This latter idea also includes an acceptance that salvation is not just something that is coming, but also something we are working for now. This includes fighting for justice when facing evils and perils of this world, including famine, disease, socioeconomic disenfranchisement, racism, and yes, natural disaster. In some sense, social justice is a Christian obligation.
In her research paper “Climate Change as Climate Debt: Forging a Just Future,” Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda, professor of theological and social ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, makes the case that climate change is a clear and impactful manifestation of white-privilege and classist economics. Climate change is caused most widely by high-consuming and high-earning individuals that drive a consumerist culture that the entire planet must pay for with pollution and environmental ruin. Moe-Lobeda goes on to propose four directions that Christian ethics can take in the pursuit of moral agency when discussing the problem of climate change, two of which are theological and two of which are sociopolitical. The first is to repent; the second, she theorizes that collective lament may enable an acknowledgement of our implication in climate violence; third, she argues that climate reparations may open a door to moral agency; fourth, she urges Christians to respond to climate debt so that it may compel actual change (Moe-Lobeda, 2016). This theory relies on heavily on justice, and that idea that Christians should aspire to be just. It is safe to say that Jesus Christ is a proponent of justice; Christians believe that Christ healed the sick, healed the blind, healed the crippled, brought a man back from death, and paid with his blood and death to redeem the souls of humankind (all of which involve a physical healing, not just a spiritual). Christ is justice and grace incarnated.
The idea of religious leaders standing with activists and scientists to fight climate change is not new or unheard of. Jame Schaefer, professor of theology at Marquette University, writes on this subject in the Journal of Geosciences. He explored the rationales of such religious leaders when urging “adherents of their faiths and decision-makers at all levels of governance to act on the perils that scientists have been identifying in the present and predicting for the future with various levels of certainty” (Schaefer, 2016). It is evident that these religious leaders value scientific research and data from which to draw conclusions. The inclusion of religious leaders is of an obligatory nature for scientists, as such sedulous motivation will pose them as allies who share the mutual goal of a flourishing, healthy, and sustainable planet.
In Christianity Today, David Neff argues that Christians should care for the Earth precisely because God promises humanity a new one. Christians, he writes, have consistently been “end-of-the-world people, with at least one eye on matters related to eschatology” … “and the coming of God's rule in its fullest and most visible expression” (Neff, 2008). In contemporary culture, however, Christians are exploring what it means to be anticipatory people by facing environmental degradation (and potentially disaster). Rather than burning this planet of its resources, it is humanity’s obligation to flourish its resources so that we can work in tandem with God’s intentions to bring a new creation. N. T. Wright supports this idea when he argues in Simply Christian that when the Bible speaks of a new creation, it means it quite literally. Abstractly, perhaps poetically, this Earth will remain physically but it will be made anew (Wright, 2010). This is not a reason to trash this planet, but rather to celebrate the news of the gospels by working to care for the physical Earth.
The issue of climate change crosses denominational and religious lines. Janel Curry, dean for research at Calvin College, argues in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, “We cannot afford to work against each other. We need to work with the cultures of belief systems, to whatever extent possible. The model of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment is a good model because all communities are allowed to be themselves, and to frame their approach to be most effective. However, even this approach requires a conviction that global climate change is upon us and that a unified response is needed.” More Christians and more scientists need to be raising their voices in favor of an ecclesial and communal response to environmental disaster.
Science has done so much for our modern society and it continues to force the seas of ignorance to recede little by little. When addressing religious dissenters, I argue that it is important to remember that religion is no replacement for science. Religion didn’t help to discover how disease spreads, how the Earth rotates around the sun, why volcanoes erupt, why crops grow better under certain conditions, and how the tides operate. Often throughout history, religion has worked against scientific progress. Any religion that rejects the overwhelming majority of scientific certainty should itself be rejected. There are multiple theological mindsets that support caring for creation, and those should be embraced by the scientific community. In any case, though, the Bible is not a science book, and believers should not lose sight of that. Science is not anti-religion or vice versa; the threat of climate change is real and both believers and non-believers have a moral and ethical obligation to take care of this planet.
*Header photo courtesy of US News.