Evangelicals, Ecology And The Diluting Of Ethics
Here’s a story that’s starting to get a lot of traction. The New York Times has highlighted a letter from some “concerned” evangelicals about the direction the National Association of Evangelicals is taking on the issue of climate change and environmentalism. You can read the letter for yourself here. I’d like to highlight a few […]
Here’s a story that’s starting to get a lot of traction. The New York Times has highlighted a letter from some “concerned” evangelicals about the direction the National Association of Evangelicals is taking on the issue of climate change and environmentalism. You can read the letter for yourself here.
I’d like to highlight a few quotes,
“It does appear that the earth is warming…”
“…the issue should be addressed scientifically and not theologically”
“…we have observed that Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the
great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children.”
There is a lot I find disturbing about the petty politics of the letter, but in one sense that is really dirty laundry for the evangelicals in the US to sort out. What is of more direct relevance to the rest of us, outside those formal structures and around the world, is the framing of this debate. That’s why in a broad sense those three quotes stand out. The “concerned” evangelicals are saying – climate change is happening (though we’ll still try to deny it), but it’s not a theological issue and really we shouldn’t talk about it because it will confuse people about the ethical issues that “really matter.”
Glenn Hager has a great comment on this entitled Stupid and Uncaring, where he tracks some responses from Jim Wallis and also some follow-up comments by Jerry Falwell (also read the discussion in the comments section). I agree with Glenn that it is sad to see evangelicals (again!) needing to tear down in order to make a point and also that there are a host of other important ethical issues that seem to be missing from the evangelicals’ list (“Why were poverty, starvation, disease, war, and AIDS not mentioned in the list of ‚Äúgreat moral issues?‚Äù”). Also, check out The Earth Is Not Flat and Ryan Dueck for some thoughtful reflections and comment-discussion.
I should clarify that what I find alarming about the letter in question is not so much the skepticism about climate change, there’s a place for tha kind of debate. Rather, it is the assumption that the environment is not a theological issue and in particular that talking about ecological issues will dilute the ethical agenda.
That really is another way of saying that the evangelical constituency, the people in the pews every Sunday, are kind of dumb and stupid. They can’t keep too many things in their head and if they start thinking about climate change they’ll suddenly forget about the other ethical issues they’ve been pounded with for the past two decades. It’s an ugly secret, but one I’ve encountered on several occasions; the propensity of some conservative Christian leaders to underestimate the intelligence of their flock.
There are important ways in which the mission of the church and the task of theology are neither like a centralised advertising campaign or a poltical party platform. “Staying on message,” being “a safe pair of hands” and “single-minded communication” might be essential and helpful for public relations, but it can be fundamentally unhelpful for the church.
By way of contrast one of the reasons why evangelicals and all Christians ought to address environmental questions (apart from the obvious Biblical mandate) is because doing so requires an integrative approach to human activity on this world. Consider the piece Jeremy Paxman wrote this week for The Guardian – Green and pleasant land?. It’s a rambling piece, but there is an important ethical and frankly, theological issue at work here; how enviromental failure reflects the sickness and selfishness at work in a nation’s soul.
In that light it is worthwhile to consider Next Reformation’s post, “The Single Largest Issue – Environment, reflecting on Alan Hirsch’s claim that the environment will be the single biggest issue for the church in this coming decade. I’m not sure that taken alone, enviromental concerns are as singularly important as that. But, considered in a more holisitic and intergrative way, there is no question they demand our attention as a central concern of social ethics.
This is because, as NExt Reformation points out, that there is a growing body of literature that connects the decay of civilisations with the failure to address ethical concerns. Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, seems to be the flavour of the month in this regard, but for me I’m far more influenced by the older and more economically compelling work from Joseph Tainter. His suggestion is that civilisations fall because of reduced return on social and economic investment in the face of increasing complexity. For Tainter violence and ecological disaster are the clear markers of social decay, rather than the causes. You can hear the man briefly introduce his ideas here.
Rather than shutting down the debate, I believe we need to be having this discussion at the level of thought and considered reflection that Tainter introduces. The state of our enviroment, like the plight of the poor amongst us, always speaks to conflicts within our society and to our true ethical nature.
[tags] Climate Change, Enviromentalism, Evangelicals, Ethics [/tags]