Lesson 3 - A Christian Response

What Does a Sustainable Earth Require?

Climate change is a complex problem caused by a myriad of factors, some of which we may not yet fully understand. Complex problems require complex solutions, and, as Rick argues here, it will take a “transformational change at all levels of human experience” to face the challenge: individuals, families, schools, churches, corporations, and governments will each have a part to play in crafting policies that practices that promote sustainability. 

As Rick illustrates with reference to the Clean Air and Water Acts of the 1970s, the damaging effects of climate change can indeed be reversed—we now have cleaner air and water, some endangered species have recovered, and the ozone layer has largely been repaired—but it will require government intervention. 

Reflect:

  • What are some concrete practices that you as an individual and your community can introduce to promote sustainability? They could be small (start composting, use shampoo with no packaging) or they could be large (start a community garden).  

  • Rick frames climate change as a matter of civic responsibility: without government regulation, climate change will not be curtailed. Why do you think the politics of climate change have become such a hotly contested issue? 

Why the Resistance from Christians?

And yet Rick points to a number of studies to show that Evangelicals are particularly resistant to the science of climate change. Indeed, fewer than 10% of Evangelical Christians consider global warming to be a spiritual or religious issue.

How do we account for this? Well, there’s poor theology, for one: many Christians fail to take God’s commands regarding creation seriously. And then there are the worldviews co-opted by politics, in which “Christianity” and “conservative political ideology” are so tangled as to be indistinguishable. These factors are compounded by demographic trends, too, but Rick points to the crux of the issue: Christian thinking about climate change has been dictated not by data, but by tribal identities

Reflect:

  • Think about the Christian community to which you belong. How, if at all, is the environment discussed? Is there a theology of creation care in your tradition? What is it?  

  • In your mind, what accounts for the disconnect that sometimes characterizes Evangelical thinking about the environment?  

  • While there is not time or space here to develop a full-fledged Christian response to climate change, what elements of biblical teaching might form a good starting point for thinking Christianly about the future of the environment? 

A Fruitless Debate

“We believe we are beings ruled by reason and rational thought. And we are wrong.”

Rick Lindroth

As Rick argues here, drawing on moral foundations theory, when we encounter new information, we prefer to change the data to fit our view rather than changing our view to fit the data. 

We are most fundamentally intuitive creatures, not rational creatures—and this is something that Christian theologians have always known. Those of us who live in western civilizations like to think of ourselves as homo rationale—“human thinkers”—but in reality, our thoughts are directed by our desires, and our desires are shaped by our practices. Here’s how theologian James K. A. Smith puts it:

“We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends. So we are not primarily homo rationale or homo faber or homo economicus; we are not even generically homo religiosis. We are more concretely homo liturgicus; humans are those animals that are religious animals not because we are primarily believing animals but because we are liturgical animals—embodied, practicing creatures whose love/desire is aimed at something ultimate.” 

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom

All this is another way of saying that we believe what we want to believe, and nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to climate change. We make decisions about what to believe on the basis of moral building blocks—values like loyalty, purity, or authority—and then justify our decisions through our rational faculties. 

And it’s why debates around climate change are almost always fruitless. As Rick notes, a climate denialist will not be convinced by a continual assault of data, facts, and figures. Most likely, that belief is not rooted in reason, but in desire. 

Reflect:

  • We’ve probably all had an experience of “talking past one another” in a debate or a heated conversation. Why is it so difficult for us to change one another’s minds when it comes to contested topics like climate change? 

  • How do Rick’s comments help to illuminate the ways in which discussions of climate change have broken down in a cultural impasse? If we don’t make decisions primarily on the basis of reason, what should dialogue surrounding climate change look like?

Want to learn more? Explore the extra content for this course.