For the earth: wisdom from the east?

Generative AI summary:

The author reflects on the potential for Gulf states to provide religious and moral leadership in addressing the climate crisis, highlighting their strength of purpose, resources, work ethic, and social cohesion. The author acknowledge the criticisms of these societies but is impressed by the younger generation’s determination to shift towards sustainability. In contrast, the author critiques a statement by A.N. Wilson regarding the message of Jesus and the portrayal of his character, arguing that it is misleading and fails to capture the true nature of Jesus’ teachings.

Read time: 6 minutes
The Burj Khalifa, Downtown Dubai—a beacon of hope?

I wrote most of this on a flight back from Doha on Christmas Eve. My wife has been at COP 28 in Dubai and at hydrogen conferences in Oman and Qatar—so plenty of opportunities to reflect on climate change from a very different angle. We also got to church a few times, where no one was talking about climate change, we’ve seen a number of old friends, and we finished up with a visit to the stunning Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, which captures as well as anywhere in the region the smooth merging of the ancient and the modern, the spiritual and the technological.

The question that was going round in my head the whole time is whether the Gulf states will—not should—provide a model of religious and moral leadership at a critical moment in human history that neither the church nor any “Christian” society is currently capable of providing. There is a strength of purpose, depth of resources, work ethic, and social cohesion that is already pivoting energetically towards addressing the climate crisis.

There are many reasons to be sceptical, of course, but I can’t help being impressed by the potential that these Muslim societies have for embodying a realistic vision—realistic not least because of the resources available—of a future for humanity that is overtly religious.

We may disapprove of the extravagance and ostentation, the illiberal attitudes towards sexuality, the poor treatment of migrant workers, the austere religious conservatism, and so on. But at the same time, the rapid development of these countries in the last few decades has lent considerable momentum to new instincts for change emerging in younger generations. We talked to quite a few young Gulf Arabs who are determined to shift things in the direction of sustainability.

In many ways, they have been inspired by the values and practices of western environmental activism, but my point is that the Gulf states are still able to merge the humanistic and scientific energies with a secure public religious identity. In the west, we lost that capacity centuries ago.

Let me now juxtapose this thought with a paragraph from an essay by A. N. Wilson in the Times last week. Wilson is not much of a believer as such, but he affirms the profound value of the openness of the church to the world, the accessibility of God that he finds expressed in the Christmas stories.

At the Council of Jerusalem, the Jewish founder members of the Church, including members of Jesus’s own family, were amazed to discover that the Way was not only for observant Jews but for everyone. Paul and Barnabas, with their missionary activities in the cities of the Mediterranean world, had confronted the flea-market of borrowed gods and conquered peoples with the message of the Galilean and from now onwards there was only humanity. God was made manifest in the helpless child in a manger.

This statement is misleading in some important respects.

Paul and Barnabas did not confront the pagan word with the “message of the Galilean” if by that Wilson means Jesus’ own teachings. What they proclaimed was a message about the Galilean, whom God had raised from the dead and appointed future judge and ruler of the nations.

Calling Jesus “the Galilean” is presumably meant to highlight his simple provincial or rural, perhaps even “unworldly,” character, which is not something that the New Testament does except perhaps occasionally to draw attention to his outsider status.

There may also be the suggestion that the reality of God has been subsumed into, and perhaps lost in, the humanity of Jesus.

The hazards and vulnerabilities experienced by the holy family pointed not to a divine ontology, incarnation in the classical sense, but to future events—in effect, the coming kingdom of God. For example, Suetonius records the murderous reaction of the senate to rumours of the imminent birth of a Roman king:

According to Julius Marathus, a few months before Augustus was born a portent was generally observed at Rome, which gave warning that nature was pregnant with a king for the Roman people; thereupon the senate in consternation decreed that no male child born that year should be reared; but those whose wives were with child saw to it that the decree was not filed in the treasury, since each one appropriated the prediction to his own family. (Suetonius, The Deified Augustus 94.3)

Likewise, Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem and the surrounding region because he feared usurpation.

Jesus was not called Immanuel, but like the child born into the court of king Ahaz he was give a name that prophetically captured the intention of YHWH. Jesus would be the agent by whom YHWH would deliver his people from the disastrous consequences of their sins (Matt. 1:21-25). But he would save his people as their king, as the king from the city of David who would “shepherd my people Israel” (Matt. 2:6).

The future intentions of YHWH are certainly “made manifest” in the remarkable circumstances of Jesus’ birth, but it would be a bad mistake to reduce the sovereign God of Israel, the God of history, the maker of heaven and earth, to the proportions of a helpless child in a manger. That is not what Matthew is saying.

Nevertheless, Wilson captures something of the epochal transformation that was initiated by the preaching of the apostles and enacted progressively and prophetically in the lives of the swelling numbers of those who believed that a radically different political-religious order was emerging. The old age of a dysfunctional Judaism oppressed by a violent and vainglorious pagan empire was passing away (cf. 1 Cor. 2:6; 7:31), to be replaced—not without considerable trauma—by a new age of Christ-honouring monotheism.

We are now again on the cusp of a new age, and there is no prospect of that trick being pulled off again by the church. I don’t expect Islam to transform the world either, but conceivably, in a limited way, the Gulf states will model a transformative religious society at a critical moment in history in a way that the church once did and cannot do now.

So what are we supposed to do?