Why has the Christian faith not responded more wholesale and seriously to our climate crisis and caring for the natural world in general?
This was a question I was asked to say something about at a small inter-faith dialogue at St George’s House, Windsor Castle. The gathering brought together leaders from the seven main faiths who are active in engaging their constituencies on climate issues. About twenty of us gathered, along with a couple of leading climate scientists. It was an incredibly rich time – better than I was expecting, I confess! – and I came away with a number of things to reflect on as well as some new relationships which I hope will continue and bear fruit.
My contribution was very brief and each of these points needs much more nuancing and investigation. Nonetheless, my main points were:
Those of you who have heard me speak or read my books will know this is something I talk about a lot. We have inherited a damaging theology, rooted in Greek Platonic dualism, that has separated out body and spirit, earth and heaven, natural and spiritual. It exalts the latter and denigrates the former, so that nature/creation is held to be inferior to the ‘supernatural’ realm. It goes hand-n-hand with a view that says the created order is doomed to destruction and our mission is to save souls onto the lifeboat of the church, ready to be whisked off to eternal life in heaven. Anything else there, such as looking after people’s physical needs or tending the natural world, is seen as a distraction.
Many of us in the Christian faith stand in the cherished tradition of the Reformation – that move of the Church that saw Christianity wrested out of the hands of the religious leaders and given to the people, in their own language and culture (forgive me Church Historians – I know there’s a lot more to the Reformation than this!). Salvation came not through paying an indulgence or touching a holy relic, but simply through having faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Other wonderful church movements followed – German Pietism, Pentecostalism and many others that placed the focus on one’s own personal relationship with God, not mediated through priests and rituals.
These are hugely to be welcomed – and I am firmly rooted in their tradition – but it is interesting that the rise of consumerism came at the same time, and this ‘turn to the self’ has allowed this influential branch of the Christian faith to become unhealthily preoccupied with one’s own salvation and with the personal benefits that brings. Other concerns have been labeled ‘too political’ and dismissed as not Christian.
3. New Age
Some decades ago, the soul-destroying effects of our high consumer lifestyles became felt, and there was a reaction against our increasingly secularised, materialistic culture. This led to a growing interest in Eastern religions and a flowering of ‘new age’ philosophies with a desire to ‘return to nature’. Often they rediscovered the paganism and Celtic cultures of the pre-Christian era, and these were much more firmly embedded in the natural world than was the Church, which had sought to erase this sort of thinking due partly to the reasons above.
The Church therefore became deeply suspicious of anything that talked about our connection with the wider natural world, or the need for us to be embedded in and engaged with it. Despite the powerful figure of St Francis, the Church has not welcomed theologies or practices that show an interest in or indeed a compassion for other creatures.
The Enlightenment has caused many problems for the Christian faith – not least an unnecessary antagonism between science and religion, and a negative view of other animals as ‘machines’. When I look at the evangelical wing of the church (the wing that, somewhat nervously, I know I am a part of), I see that the Englightenment has brought fear. The foundations we felt so secure in have been eroded – in the UK at least we have moved away from being a ‘Christian nation’, and the Church has felt beleagured. This has led to the Church focusing too much on particular issues such as sexuality, which have been seen as a part of Christian identity, and this has resulted in us failing to notice millions of people being pushed into poverty by colonialism and consumerism, and the natural world being destroyed.
Dualism, individualism, the new age, and the Enlightenment. Four things which I think have been barriers to Christians and the Church as a whole responding sooner and more seriously to the climate predicament we are in.