Progressive Christian Social Action
Christian Responsibility for Climate Change
“How can modern Christianity have so solemnly folded its hands while so much of the work of God was being destroyed?” Wendell Berry
As Hurricane Harvey devastates communities in Texas, catastrophic rains are also paralyzing cities in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, causing many deaths. Some scientists, public figures, and even some reporters have spoken out about the links between climate change and the scientific projections of increasingly intense storms. Conservative groups close to the Trump Administration are mobilizing to downplay, mock, or refute such assertions.
My new book, Love in a Time of Climate Change, is an antidote to the anti-science, anti-environmental claims of the Religious Right. The following includes an excerpt:
Christianity has been widely criticized for promoting a view of dominion that has contributed to ecological destruction. In “The Historical Roots of the Ecologic Crisis,” a now-famous article written in 1967, author Lynn White Jr. charged that the Christian religion is primarily responsible for the ecological crisis, because its underlying ideology has supported unfettered exploitation of the earth. White’s primary arguments centered around Judeo-Christian understandings of dominion, the origins of the scientific revolution in natural theology, the idea of perpetual progress rather than cyclical views of time, and the dualism of man versus nature. White pointed to differences between Eastern Orthodox churches, which have focused more on creation spirituality, and churches in the West. He claimed that Western Christianity is “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.”
There are merits to White’s critique of Christianity. He based his primary argument on an interpretation of the Genesis creation stories, which he explained by saying, “God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.” As we have seen with the Christian Right, there are people who understand the stories of Genesis in this way, but White went further by claiming that this view undergirds Western culture. He wrote: “Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man’s relation to nature which are almost universally held… Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whims.”
The support of Donald Trump by white Evangelicals, who helped him win the election, seems to support White’s thesis. Trump is appointing leaders and enacting policies that will be disastrous for creation and will bring further injustice to people. In fact, his actions are so destructive that National Geographic is keeping a running list of changes his administration is making to environmental policy. But this is just the latest and most extreme manifestation of a pattern of destruction that has been going on for centuries. Christian farmer and poet Wendell Berry asks a question that should be deeply considered by anyone who professes to follow Jesus: “How can modern Christianity have so solemnly folded its hands while so much of the work of God was being destroyed?”
Rather than argue against White’s thesis, it seems more fruitful to acknowledge that attitudes he describes have done their share of harm and have contributed to ecological destruction. We can also affirm his suggestion that Christians adopt an alternative theological model that motivates care for creation.
Just because the views of the Christian Right are magnified just now doesn’t mean that all people who consider themselves Christian carry such views. Many people seek truth and are open to the “weight of the evidence” of climate science as well as the science of evolutionary biology. Many focus on the intrinsic value of creation, the glory of God revealed through creation, the kinship of human beings with other creatures, or the human responsibility to care for creation. These attitudes support an understanding of the value of creation and the human responsibility in relation to the earth.
For more about the Religious Right and its anti-science and anti-environmental agenda, see Paris, Trump, and the Religious Right. To learn more about right-wing Christian arguments against climate change and other issues, check out the Cornwall Institute.
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Other blog postings about climate change can be found here.