Why I am Glad the Pope and Archbishop are Leading on Climate Change 4 October 2015
By Andrew Grey
Why are Christians so obsessed with sex? People are asking this all the time; after all, it seems like the Church never stops talking about it. Women bishops. Same sex marriage. Contraception. It’s as if they don’t think God cares about anything else.
Yet, beneath the surface of the General Synod discussions that reach the media, Christians in their local communities are concerned with a whole range of issues. Food poverty drives thousands of Christians to run and volunteer in food banks. Homelessness leads churches to run night shelters. And loneliness and isolation leads congregations to set up community groups for those who live alone.
It’s easy to see how these issues move Christians. Who could fail to feel a tinge of sadness at the sight of a child whose parents can’t afford to feed her, or a widow who has no human contact for days on end?
But there are some causes that just don’t tug at our heartstrings in the same way. Perhaps top of this list is the environment. A TV advert of a depleted forest is unlikely to have the same emotional impact as one of young children with fatal illnesses.
Yet the destruction of our environment is undoubtedly one of the most serious and pressing issues of our time, and we should therefore be grateful that the leadership of the world’s two largest Churches have reminded us of this – in the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Declaration calling for a low-carbon economy (and signed by different faith leaders), and Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si.
These documents are essential for challenging Christian attitudes to the environment – though Laudato Si is in fact addressed to people of all faiths and none. Firstly, the arrogance of those who exploit the Genesis creation stories and their claims of human dominion over the earth – taking this to mean we have license to use it and abuse it as we wish – is challenged outright, in Pope Francis’s statement that: “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us”.
But equally, Pope Francis challenges Christians whose views are on the opposite, borderline pantheistic extreme, seeing all living beings are our created brothers and sisters and there is no difference between us. This of course violates the fundamental principle in Christian theology that humans are distinctive as a result of being created in God’s image.
The problem with this almost pantheistic view is that it can distort the debate on environmentalism, which becomes polarised between those who believe we should respect nature and those who think it’s ours to use and abuse. Pope Francis rightly draws attention to the fact that this is a debate about the common good: the destruction of our environment is damaging to the human race – it deprives the poor of essential resources and threatens the wellbeing of future generations.
However, the most compelling argument in this encyclical is that our exploitation of physical resources is symptomatic of a “techno-economic paradigm” which is gradually becoming the god of all. The worship of this god takes various forms: excessive consumerism; the use of technology to replace human interaction; the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
This is also the aspect of the encyclical that is likely to make us most uncomfortable. When it comes to climate change, people might absolve themselves of responsibility if they don’t drive, rarely fly, and have a vegetarian diet. (Unless, of course, they deny that human impact on climate change is actually real, in which case there is no need for guilt). But who can deny the enormous space they allow technology to occupy in their lives, sometimes taking precedence over relationships with ‘real’ people?
Of course, as the encyclical clearly acknowledges, technology has many benefits. But Francis rightly challenges his readers to free themselves of the demands of consumerism and the techno-economic paradigm that lead these things to control us.
It is both challenging and heartening that Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury have issued these prominent calls to us a society. Through them, they have shown us two important lessons: firstly, that the question of the ecological crisis extends far beyond human impact on climate change (and the rapidly dying debate of whether this is a myth); and secondly, that the move towards a significant shift in our attitude to the environment, where we accept more responsibility for what happens to the earth and gain awareness of the consequences of environment destruction, is increasingly seeming inevitable.
And through both of these things they have shown us that, contrary to popular belief in the West, these two churches remain relevant in – if not essential to – the moral discourse of our society.
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