Hope without denial
Ecological food production is the one hope for our earth community.
Hope Without Denial: an Eco-theological Contribution to ‘Motivational and Behavioural Change’ in Zerocarbonbritain2030 from the Centre for Alternative Technology.
Especially impressive is the spectrum of disciplines the authors of ‘Motivational and Behavioural Change’ have researched. I learned – although in many aspects had my own unresearched estimates confirmed – from their facts and figures, statistics and proposals.
Throughout ‘Motivational and Behavioural Change’, however, there is one consistently missing – one could say bracketed off – dimension: namely, God the Creator and Preserver of all that exists; and human responsibilities to our Creator. The study respectfully cites WWF, whose then president, HRH Prince Philip, recognized the importance of faith for biospheric survival and accordingly convoked in the 1980s an 18 month consultation of church and other leaders on ‘The Christian Attitude to Nature’. When recently the Environment Agency invited me to represent Christianity on an inter-faith panel at Canterbury Cathedral, the organizers explained that they had discovered how important religion is for their work. Neither the Environment Agency, nor we, are suggesting that religion is a panacea. Far from it. But as Prince Philip and the Environment Agency recognized, religion, in our case Christianity, has an essential contribution both for our own lives and for the earth and climate’s welfare.
An important insight of ‘Motivational and Behavioural Change’ is its analysis of denial. There is indeed a dissonance between the facts people know about human impact on climate and their denial. Reasons offered by psychologists and social scientists concur with my own perceptions of the denial syndrome. People deny androgenic climate change because 1) they don’t want to modify their own damaging lifestyles or, in the case of many developing peoples, their consumerist aspirations; and 2) because of anxiety about guilt feelings affecting their sense of personal worth. I would add a third and most important reason, omitted by the study, namely their arrogant denial of the reality and presence of a caring Creator to whom they are responsible. John Henry Newman confronted arrogant denial of the need for religious education in his time. In Newman’s words, ‘Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.’
How then can we respond theologically in this time of earth’s travail? Earth, as St Paul recognized, groans as in birth pains yearning for human response to God. God creates and lets be the evolving earth. As God Self-emptied in Jesus, so God lets be material creation. The earth community, with its responsible human component, is like a much loved child for whom, ‘love is proved in the letting go’.
The Psalmists were – and in their melodious words are – wiser than today’s climate change deniers. The metaphor of sheep contains deep insight into the human presence. ‘Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture’ (Ps. 100.3). The earth is God’s creation. ‘O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand’ (Ps. 95. 6-7).
People are God’s image, which means metaphorically that we are like a democratized priestly royalty responsible for letting be the earth, God’s pasture. We are God’s delegated shepherds. We are covenant partners with fellow sensate creatures and therefore with the terrestrial vegetation with which we are connected. The Bible pictures this cosmic covenant after the flood story. In the Book of Job, the covenant includes habitats and the very stones of the earth, ‘At destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth. For you shall be in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with you’. (Job 5.22-23).
Biblical, and many early Christian authors, picture God’s faithfulness in agrarian terms, especially appropriate to our own time of climate and food insecurity. ‘While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease’ (Gen. 8. 21-22). Ours is an active hope. We can and must live agrarian lifestyles even in towns. Agrarianism including some agro-ecological food production within towns, and their surrounding countrysides, is the one hope for our earth community to survive this century. Agrarianism is defined as ‘a way of living and ordering one’s life in community with care for the land and all its creatures’. When we try to make our homes low carbon we should include the land around them entrusted to us. For some, as in residential homes and flats, that may be a window box, or one of the containers now on offer. In crowded, overdeveloped cities and exurbia we can grow relatively little food. We can however grow some, even in ‘nooks and crannies’ in partial self sufficiency and follow the LOAF principles in all our purchases. Agro-ecological food production not only restabilizes climate, it is also more productive than climate and soil damaging intensification. Our own smallscale agroecological lives, growing a little and purchasing sustainably produced food, is a negative (damping) feedback, triggered by the denial of consumerism and its climate damaging agribusiness and food miles.
God’s Incarnation and life on earth in an agrarian culture, teaching in agrarian metaphors, within the evolving earth and all its creatures, provides for us the motivation we seek. As Teilhard de Chardin, who studied theology near my home in Hastings, exclaimed, ‘through your own Incarnation, my God, the immense host which is the universe is incarnate’. Referring to Teilhard’s insights, Avery Dulles in a D’Arcy lecture at Oxford, said, ‘The Word of God assuming a full humanity entered into a kind of union with the cosmos’. ‘In Jesus incarnate and risen’, said St Ambrose, ‘the world arose, in Christ’s resurrection the heavens arose, in Christ’s resurrection the earth arose.’
This is the Cosmic Christ, inclusive of all earth creatures including climate, whom we await in joyful active hope. In theological college, as young Jesuits, we debated whether people prepare for or actually prepared God’s awaited kingdom. We never completely resolved the debate, but all of us await Christ’s return not in denial of human impact on earth’s climate but in eager longing and active hope for renewal of the reconciled earth community including climate and all its creatures. The eminent New Testament scholar, and co-editor of ‘The New Jerusalem Bible Commentary’, Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., wrote of Paul’s famous and much studied hymn in Romans 8, that Paul ‘affirms a solidarity of the human and subhuman world in the redemption of Christ. It recalls Yahweh’s promise to Noah of the covenant to be made between himself and every living creature … when the children of God are finally revealed in glory, the material world will also be emancipated from ‘the last enemy’.
All who believe in Jesus Christ, and who, recognizing and delighting in what God has done through, with, and in Him, are what we call the church. We are Christ existing as an agrarian community today. We have ‘motivation and behavioural’ inspiration to acknowledge that androgenic climate change is happening, and to confront it by being a negative feedback community. We share with fellow Christians the active hope that we and all earth creatures with whom we are covenant partners share a common future in God’s approaching kingdom which we anticipate by our low carbon lives.
Dr Edward P. Echlin is author of Climate and Christ, A Prophetic Alternative, Columba, 2010.