Thursday, November 25, 2010

Christian Eschatologies and the Environment

On Saturday, November 20th, I drove to Messiah College in Grantham, PA to hear two lectures on environmental issues. The first lecture, which charted the history of global warming research over the past two centuries, was delivered by Dr. Spencer R. Weart. The second lecture, “Christianity and Climate Change: Understanding the Range of Responses”, was delivered by Dr. Janel Curry of Calvin College. Both lectures were engaging and vitally relevant, but because the latter lecture falls more within the scope of this blog, I will devote attention to it here.

Curry observed that contemporary Christian dialogue about the environment flourished after the publication of Lynn White Jr.'s 1967 article, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis", which argued that Judeo-Christian beliefs have been detrimental to the environment. Curry argued that the relationship between Christianity and attitudes toward the natural world are much more complex, and that the religion has much to say about climate change. Many factors, rather than a single causal factor, shape one's attitudes toward the environment.

Curry examined three variables that shape Christians' relationship with the natural world: (1) eschatology (beliefs about the future and end times), (2) integration (how religious traditions imagine the relationship between humans, nature, and God), and (3) responsibility (who is seen as ultimately responsible for social change, and how this change is brought about).

One's eschatology determines whether one considers nature worth saving, if humans co-exist with Earth or exist independent of it, and if human actions have any bearing on Christ's return. The eschatologies of conservative branches of Christianity, she observed, revolve around the fall of humans and nature, and their ultimate redemption through the return of Christ. Liberal eschatologies, on the other hand, hold up a vision of a just future toward which humans should strive. Curry gave three examples of Christian eschatologies and their views on nature: Calvinists, "Philadelphia-style" Quakers, and dispensationalists.

Calvinist eschatology, she claimed, distinguishes between our present state and our future ideal state in God. Christ is seen as the key to both humanity's redemption and nature's redemption. Thus, according to Calvinist eschatology, the Earth is not expendable, but rather there is continuity between present Earth and future Earth.

"Philadelphia-style" Quaker eschatology places emphasis on the inner experience of God, universal grace, the basic goodness of humanity, and the possibility of achieving some degree of societal perfection. Redemption in Quaker eschatology is here and now, and thus humans are responsible for improving society so that the kingdom of God can flourish on earth. Thus, the Earth is not an expendable backdrop, but rather the setting for the kingdom of God.

Finally, Curry associated dispensationalist eschatology with negative attitudes toward nature and environmental issues. Dispensationalists hold that believers will be removed from the earth during the rapture, thereby regarding the earth as a backdrop to God's plan for humanity rather than a concern in and of itself. Thus, no continuity exists between present-day Earth and the future in which Christ returns. Fundamentalist Christian dispensationalism is a distinctly American phenomenon, Curry observed, strongly rooted in the American social paradigm of individualism, free market economics, and a utilitarian view of nature as something for human use. Dispensationalism emphasizes individual salvation through Christ, rather than communal salvation or the redemption of nature. Curry was quick to remind listeners that not all conservative American Christians are dispensationalists, nor do they all take a utilitarian view of nature as something to be exploited.

Many different attitudes toward the environment can be found among American Christians, she explained. Some branches of Christianity embrace a stewardship ethic, whereas others stress human dominion over nature. Others still view nature as co-equal with humanity, whereas some see nature as a resource used by humans in a utilitarian fashion. Christianity is eclectic with no one predominant view of the natural world.

Curry discussed the Acton Institute and the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance as examples of a Christian utilitarian approach to nature. The Acton Institute and the ISA (later known as the Cornwall Alliance, which produced the virulently anti-environmentalism series Resisting the Green Dragon) believe that human perfection can be achieved through technology, free market economics, and increased consumption, Curry said. Human progress, brought about in this manner, will facilitate Christ's return, according to their eschatology. If this progress has any ecological impact, Earth is capable of repairing damage caused by human progress. Critics have condemned this approach as "free market eschatology" rather than Biblical eschatology, arguing that the Acton Institute and the Cornwall Alliance rely on free market systems to solve all economic and social ills. If free market economic are supposed to be a panacea, why does so much human suffering still exist in a free market world? Curry contrasted the utilitarian approach of the Acton Institute and Cornwall Alliance to the stewardship approach of the creation care movement, which critiques materialism and encourages Christians to behave in ecologically responsible ways.

Curry moved on to integration, that is, how religious traditions imagine the relationship between humanity, nature, and the divine. If a religious tradition acknowledges that humans, nature, and the divine are integrated and entwined, its theology will change as the environment changes, she argued. In a highly integrated tradition, practical questions about ecological responsibility become spiritual questions, and ecologically sound decisions create new ways to live spiritually.

Curry provided several examples of traditions with high integration and low integration. Reformed Calvinism, she noted, is highly integrated in that it believes God sustains both humanity and nature, and that both are integral parts of God's plan for shalom. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference also demonstrates high integration, in that its mission statement acknowledges connections between ecology, community, and spirituality, and that human dignity and the common good are highly valued. In contrast, Curry found low integration among Baptist seminarians she studied. Highly dualistic traditions that separate the divine world from the material world also demonstrate low integration, she stated.

Responsibility, the third variable in Curry's analysis, is rooted in a tradition's beliefs on who is responsible for social change, and how believers go about creating it. Is the individual or the community the tradition's chief focus? Is individual change or structural change needed? Is sin an individual trait or a structural characteristic of unjust societies? Curry emphasized that constructive responses to climate change require communal restraint and societal changes, rather than an individualistic response. Nature should not be viewed as the backdrop of humanity's story, but as something we are profoundly interconnected with. She cited the National Religious Partnership for the Environment and the Evangelical Environmental Network as examples of groups working toward environmental consciousness in religious communities.

The connection between theology and ecologically responsible choices is not always straightforward, as Curry illustrated with the Mennonite community. Mennonite theology, she explained, takes a very utilitarian approach to nature and gives little moral consideration to Earth. However, Mennonite values such as simplicity, restraint, and distrust of wealth temper this utilitarianism, making them receptive to ecologically responsible practices.

Curry concluded her talk by admitting that life is complex, and no simple answers to climate change exist. The relationship between religion and the environment is also complex, and faith traditions need to lay the groundwork for civil discussions and coalition-building around environmental issues.

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For me, Curry's engaging lecture was a reminder that many Christian communities have awakened to the importance of environmental issues and are responding constructively to climate change. Religious Right voices demonizing environmentalism or downplaying environmental dangers do not speak for the whole faith community, fortunately. As more people recognize climate change as a vital issue, the Religious Right will need to adapt its ecological views or find itself sidelined in public discourse on the environment.

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