Our eco-theological blindspots and the climate crisis

Looking around for discussion of a theology of climate crisis, I came across a brief summary of the work of Gijsbert van den Brink, University Research Chair for Theology and Science at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. The piece is by Matthew Wiley and is entitled “Life in the Anthropocene: Christian Theology and Climate Change.” It doesn’t go very far or very deep, but the three questions which van den Brink highlights in reflection on the challenge of developing a robust theological anthropology struck me as pertinent.

I’m in Sharm El Sheikh at the moment with my wife, who does a lot of work on clean energy. I’m only on the fringe of it all, but I did sit in on a few sessions in the Innovation Zone, including a good discussion of climate crisis blindspots: what are we not seeing?

They talked about differences between north and south, between perception and observation, the lack of dialogue between migration and climate change bodies. If I’d had the chance, I would have asked what they thought were likely to be the unexpected social tipping-points in the coming decades. We hear a lot about climate tipping-points that will dramatically accelerate change—loss of polar ice, release of methane from the tundra, etc. But I can’t help thinking that we are assuming a smooth and predictable social response and that this may be unrealistic.

But then we could also ask about our theological blindspots, which brings us to van den Brink’s three questions and some initial thoughts in response.

1. Does the so-called Anthropocene represent a new era from a theological perspective?

I think that the answer to this must be yes, but the cycle of the “ages” is complex. The dominant storyline in the Bible is the kingdom one. Its main arc runs from the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple by the Babylonians through to the prophesied overthrow of Rome as the supreme expression of pagan opposition to the God of Israel, his Christ, and his people.

As I pointed out in the previous post, there are some marked developments in the kingdom-historical storyline: the shift of focus from East to West, from Greek idolatry to Roman political power, from an earthly to a heavenly Jerusalem. But the central issue remains consistent: how will YHWH deliver his people from their enemies and rule over the nations through them? The solution, of course, is encapsulated in the Christ encomium of Philippians 2:6-11—on which, of course, see my new book In the Form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul.

The challenge the church faces as the world suffers the birth pains of the dawn of the Anthropocene, is to acknowledge the inadequacy of the stewardship model and develop a prophetic-apocalyptic theological response.

Western Christendom was the massive historical fulfilment of this narrative, whether you like it or not: the “happy ever after” is never as happy or as “ever after” as it’s supposed to be. This long “age” of eschatological fulfilment has come to an end over the last couple of hundred years with the collapse of the Christian worldview and the relentless rise of a secular rationalist humanism. The final judge of all things is not God but humanity. At least, that’s how it seemed until fairly recently….

It now appears that we have reached peak humanism, and the natural order is about to take its seat as judge of our technologically empowered hubris.

The age of secular humanism has been rather quickly overtaken by the traumatic arrival of a new geological era, which is being called the Anthropocene. Scientifically, we have come to the end of the 11,000 year Holocene period which has been so wonderfully conducive to human flourishing. In biblical terms, nothing on this scale has happened since the flood. What are we supposed to do now with an anthropology whose fundamental premise is: be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and have dominion over all living creatures?

These rolling historical and geological developments are as theologically and eschatologically and, therefore, as missionally important as anything that happens or is envisaged in scripture.

2. Is the stewardship model beyond repair?

The stewardship or “creation care” model is the standard theological solution to environmental degradation. It has less biblical support than we might think, but I take it to be theologically and morally valid in principle. The problem is that it is too late for a well-meaning theology of ecological conservation.

On the whole, I would suggest that the Bible has much more to say about the breakdown of “stewardship” models and modes of recovery. The premise of much of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament is that conservation of Israel’s life in the land fails because of “sin.” Monarchy, temple, and Law fail as the God-given means of conservation. The stewardship model breaks down; the result is crisis—invasion, war, destruction, exile, and so on; and then a prophetic-apocalyptic mode of theology kicks in.

The general feeling here is that we will be lucky to keep temperature rise below 2.5℃ by the end of the century let alone 1.5℃. Our conservation systems are not working.

The challenge the church faces as the world suffers the birth pains of the dawn of the Anthropocene, is to acknowledge the inadequacy of the stewardship model and develop a prophetic-apocalyptic theological response.

3. Which biblical themes that highlight the interdependence of human and non-human creation should be foregrounded today?

This is a bit disappointing. It looks to me like an attempt to perpetuate the failed stewardship model—a move backwards rather than forwards. Van den Brink is quoted as saying:

Once we appreciate that the glory of God in creation is to be found not just in the human species but in the intricate interwovenness of all its multifarious forms of life, we may come to a renewed understanding of our human task to further rather than frustrate this multifariousness.

Even if there’s a good message in this for those parts of the church that still think that the creator God has little enduring interest in what he has made, the world has moved on. I question whether this is the time to be looking for the glory of God in creation, even in the interwovenness of all its life forms—except perhaps insofar as we are all caught up in the same catastrophe. If we are looking for relevant “biblical themes,” then I suggest we start with the “wrath” of God.

As I said before, the Bible has far more to say about the destabilisation of a society or civilisation and what lies beyond than about stabilisation, and it finds God most powerfully in the process.

An email from the Evangelical Alliance in the UK this week said that under the current economic conditions the church needs to “seek to be a non-anxious presence.” That will be all the more true for the priestly-people of the living God as we grapple with the impact of climate change.