Last week the prophet of the green movement, Greta Thunberg, landed in the U.S. after traveling by boat on the high seas to avoid the high carbon footprint of air travel. Her simple, direct message to the most powerful in politics and business is to stop the warming repression. Standing before Congress and the U.N. Greta has become the icon for world change. Time magazine devoted a special issue to climate change entitled “2050: How the Earth Survived.” Climate activist Bill McKibben wrote the lead article by projecting lower trends in warming by 2050, indicating that such trends will induce profound geographical, economic and societal changes. Thanks to the bold and direct message of a sixteen-year old, the world is waking up to the devastating effects of global warming and the call for change is being led by the youth. But the youth are not the problem, the adults are.
The environmental movement is not new. We have known for more than a half-century that anthropogenic disturbances are causing profound changes in the environment. In the 60s atmospheric chemists described a steady rise in greenhouse gases; soil scientists told us that soils are eroding in many places more rapidly than they are forming; the number of disease-causing chemicals have proliferated; species extinctions are taking place as biodiversity diminishes; deforestation is worsening and the list goes on. In 1992 a group of Nobel laureates and scientists, including Carl Sagan and Freeman Dyson, gathered to warn the human community of what lies ahead. They wrote: “A great change in the stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”[i] Now, a quarter century later, we are realizing that the chemistry of our planet is changing. Biological systems and geological structures that took millions if not billions of years to form are being altered or obliterated. The earth is critically ill.
We have known for a long time that our first-world consumer lifestyles are damaging the earth, and the most vulnerable on earth, the poor, are feeling the effects of this damage.The ecological footprint first developed by Canadian ecologist William Rees indicates that the American footprint is about twenty-three percent larger than what the earth can sustain. If everyone were to live like an American, it would take about six planets.
We could blame the politicians for not making the environment a priority on their agendas. Perhaps if Al Gore had been elected president, we would have developed more sustainable environmental policies. We could also blame technology and the power of technology to attain efficient production but that too would exempt us from any wrongdoing. No, the problem lies as much within us as outside us. Indeed, the problem in the public forum begins in the personal arena. If it is a problem of politics and public policies, it is also fundamentally a problem of religion. The famous, albeit controversial essay, of Lynn White in 1967 (“The Historic Roots of our Ecological Crisis”) claimed that the source of the environmental problems is religious in nature. Christianity, he indicated, with its emphasis on human salvation and dominion over nature, “made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”[ii] He argued that no religion has been more focused on humans than Christianity and none more rigid in excluding all but humans from divine grace and in denying any moral obligation to lower species.[iii] We will continue to have an ecological crisis, he claims, until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence except to serve us. He wrote: “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them.”[iv] Although White’s argument raised concerns, his thesis highlights the need for religion to heal the wounds of mother earth. “Since the roots of our trouble are largely religious,” he claimed, “the remedy must also be essentially religious. We must rethink and re-feel our nature and our destiny.”[v]
Shortly after White advanced his thesis, the Norwegian philosopher Arnie Naess initiated an environmental movement known as “deep ecology.” Deep ecology is not explicitly religious in nature but it is an ecophilosophy, a philosophical inquiry that asks the deeper questions about the place of human life. Deep ecology is founded on two basic principles: one is a scientific insight that focuses on the interrelatedness of all systems of earth life together with the idea that anthropocentrism is a misguided way of seeing things. The second aspect is the need for human self-realization. Deep ecologists suggest we learn to identify with trees and animals and plants, indeed the whole ecosphere, developing a behavior more consistent with who we are in creation and for the well-being of life on earth.[vi] While the search for a renewed human presence in creation is essential to revival of the earth’s health, how do we come to stand “deeply” in this interrelated and created web of life? Here is where the question of religion makes a difference.
Despite the studies showing that institutional religion is on the decline, religious beliefs (whether explicit or implicit) are a fundamental driving force of human choice and action. Bracketing religion for the moment, McKibben speculates that by 2050 we will survive dangerous physical changes but eventually yield to restructured lives with smaller footprints. Cities will look different, public transportation will be mandatory in cities, all new homes will be energy efficient using alternate forms of energy, and carbon taxes will be standard. According to McKibben, we can survive the devastating effects of climate change. However, I want to differ with McKibben. I do not think the first world will survive the dire consequences of global warming; however, I do think the third world will survive and rebuild. Here are my reasons.
The western world, the starting point for global climate change, is based on principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Made in the image of God, given the natural world for our use (with the mandate of stewardship or dominion) and destined for eternal life with God in heaven, all have contributed to the notion of human exceptionalism. We are God-like, wonderfully made and specially endowed with the grace of God. Our true home is in heaven, which is above earth.
Following the lead of McKibben, I would like to speculate on how things might have unfolded if the Catholic Church accepted the Copernican model of heliocentrism in the sixteenth century, human evolution in nineteenth century, and the Big Bang universe in the twentieth century. What would religion look like if Thomas Aquinas was replaced by Alfred North Whitehead or Teilhard de Chardin? How might we relate to a God who is dependent on us, becoming ever-more divine? What would church look like if we knew ourselves to be entangled with one another and all creatures of the earth? How would we pray? Who would Christ be in an unfinished universe? These unanswered questions have led to deeply repressed religious drives in the human person today. Western religion has simply refused to accept the insights from modern science as the basis for theological reflection. The Catholic Church skirts around the issues of evolution and quantum physics and the Protestant churches run a spectrum from evangelicalism to liberalism. Science is a deeply neuralgic issue for religion. Whitehead wrote in 1925: “Religion is tending to degenerate into a decent formula wherewith to embellish a comfortable life. . . Religion will not regain its power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science.”[vii]
Because religion refuses to change based on new insights from science, the deep religious drives including purpose, meaning and personal identity need to express themselves elsewhere. Hence, they show up in consumerism, artificial intelligence and space exploration. One proponent of Transhumanism (which aims for human enhancement through technology) said, “technology will fulfill what religion promises.” Even if we destroy the earth with modern technology, we can build new technologies of information that will save us from our own demise and perhaps digitally immortalize us.
It is downright shocking to realize that less than four percent of the general population are familiar with the main insights of modern science. Most religion or theology classes are taught with no reference to modern science which means theology is basically taught without any reference to the big bang universe or cosmic life. Last week I was interviewed on artificial intelligence and Catholic priests. I speculated on robots and priesthood not because I think robots should be priests, but because priesthood is based on ancient philosophical notions of nature. The conservative new media swooned in like birds of a prey, twisting my words around, and wiping artificial intelligence off the high altar of sanctity. This is just one small example how science and technology can easily threaten the confessional religious person. Religion is so deeply rooted in the human psyche that it is not hyperbole to say that the greatest obstacle to reversing the trends of global warming is religion. Lynn White identified this core insight in 1967 and the churches ignored him.
Teilhard de Chardin knew this fact as well. He devoted his life to bridging science and faith, indicating that Christianity is a religion of evolution. He used a phrase of Julian Huxley saying the human person “is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself.” To this idea Teilhard adds, “the consciousness of each of us is evolution looking at itself and reflecting upon itself.”[viii] Thus the human person is integral to evolution; s/he is “the point of emergence in nature, at which this deep cosmic evolution culminates and declares itself.”[ix] He held that “we must love the world greatly if we are to feel a passionate desire to leave the world behind.”[x] Through his penetrating view of the universe, Teilhard found Christ present in the entire cosmos, from the least particle of matter to the convergent human community. The whole cosmos is incarnational. In his Divine Milieu he wrote, “there is nothing profane here below for those who know how to see.”[xi] Christ invests himself organically with all of creation, immersing himself in things, in the heart of matter and thus unifying the world.[xii] The universe is physically impregnated to the very core of its matter by the influence of his superhuman nature.[xiii] Everything is physically “christified,” gathered up by the incarnate Word as nourishment that assimilates, transforms, and divinizes.[xiv] The world is like a crystal lamp illumined from within by the light of Christ. For those who can see, Christ shines in this diaphanous universe, through the cosmos and in matter.[xv] He opposed a static Christianity that isolates its followers instead of merging them with the mass, imposing on them a burden of observances and obligations and causing them to lose interest in the common task. “Do we realize that if we are to influence the world it is essential that we share in its drive, in its anxieties and its hopes?”[xvi] We are not only to recognize evolution but make it continue in ourselves.[xvii] He emphasized that the role of the Christian is to “christify” the world by our actions, by immersing ourselves in the world, plunging our hands into the soil of the earth and touching the roots of life. His deep secular humanism reaches the core of Christian life which is a “mysticism of action,” involvement in the world compenetrated by God.[xviii] He held that union with God is not withdrawal or separation from the activity of the world but a dedicated, integrated and sublimated absorption into it.[xix] Before, he said, the Christian thought that s/he could attain God only by abandoning everything. One now discovers that one cannot be saved except through the universe and as a continuation of the universe. “We must make our way to heaven through earth.”[xx]
The late “geologian” and Passionist priest, Thomas Berry, who was influenced by Teilhard, said the renewal of religion in the future will depend on our appreciation of the natural world as the locus for the meeting of the divine and the human. We need a spiritual reconstruction, creating an attitude of mind within which the ecological and spiritual are one. According to Berry, we need a new type of religious orientation which must emerge from our new story of the universe; a new revelatory experience within the evolutionary process which is from the beginning a spiritual as well as a physical process. Berry calls the universe the “primal sacred community,” the beginning of the new ecozoic age which is based on several factors: 1) The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects; 2) earth is a single reality which can exist and survive only in its integral functioning. 3) the earth is a one-time endowment; there is no second chance. 4) The human is derivative; the earth is primary. All professions must be realigned to reflect the primacy of the earth. 5) We need new ethical principles which recognize absolute evils of biocide, killing of life systems and geocide, that is, the killing of the planet. Berry, following Teilhard, called for a reorientation of religious being in the world, to shift our attention from after-life to this life, from spirit to matter, from heaven to earth, not to collapse the divine into the immanent but to see the divine in ordinary reality, hidden in the carbon and air and water we in the first world take for granted.
It is not enough to write articles and books or to issue papal documents according to these ideas. We need structural and pastoral changes in religious practices and worship, essentially a renewal of religion for a planet in crisis and in evolution. Basically, we need a new religion of the earth, one that celebrates interdependency, divine immanence, mutuality, and shared future (among other values). The internal theological divides (translate=internal wars) of both Catholic and Protestant churches preempt a renewed religious sensibility which leads me to suggest that the future looks grim for the western world which is fundamentally built on Christian principles.
At the moment, the poorest regions of the globe, largely in the Southern hemisphere, are experiencing dire consequences due to global warming. Most notable is the deforestation and stripping of the Amazon rain forest. Yet, the poor know how to live on very little; they are community-oriented and know how to share with their neighbors. Material goods are means and not ends for human flourishing. Religion itself is not an obstacle to working for the good of the earth; primal spiritualties consider the earth sacred. The Mayan farmer asks forgiveness of Mother earth before creating a furrow in the ground to plant seeds. On the other head, the wealthy West has stripped many of the natural resources of Africa and South America. Yet, there is a resilience among the poor and despite the lack of resources, the will to flourish is deeply present. According to an article in Time magazine, efforts in Ghana and Kenya are being made to attract African entrepreneurs willing to invest in sustainable energy resources. If affordable and clean energy can take root in Africa and other parts of the world, who thus far have been robbed of a decent standard of living, then 2050 may look a lot different than what McKibben describes.
Without a religion of the earth, a theology of divine immanence and a spirituality of unity, the wealthy West (and East) may indeed be reduced to rubble. There is no guarantee that money can purchase for us a sustainable future—and yet–we cannot continue our first-world lifestyles. But the fact is we love our lattes, our Land Rovers, our jet-set lives; our lobster-fests on sunset beaches and wine tours along the Rhine. For those who still maintain religion in their lives, God is privatized, individualized and removed from everyday life. For the rest, religion is marginally interesting to discuss or simply nonexistent. The West has such a deep cognitive dissonance between science and religion, it doesn’t know that it doesn’t know (despite our profound scholarly intelligence!)
And so I think 2050 may usher in a very different scenario. Without a deep shift in our religious psyche, reducing the carbon footprint alone will be insufficient. I anticipate that the West will undergo profound suffering due to devastating financial loses and physical casualties, while the poor South will rise up in a new springtime of human evolution. God is not to be outwitted or outdone in generosity; the Christian God is deeply involved in a world of change. To continue to deny a deeply relational God who may indeed be dependent on us for the full flourishing of life, and to deny the intrinsic relationality of all earth life, is to invite the calamities of global warming. Jesus said it best: “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst. . . .Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.” “Where, Lord?” they asked. He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather” (Lk 17: 20-37 NSIV). Has the refusal of religion to accept modern science created dead bodies? Deadness can be disguised by the illusion of wealth.
[i] Christopher Uhl, Developing Ecological Consciousness: Path to a Sustainable World (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), 123.
[ii] Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (March10, 1967): 1205
[iii]Lynn White Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (March 10, 1967): 1205.
[iv]White, “Historical Roots of Ecologic Crisis,” 1205.
[v] White, “Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” 1207.
[vi] Alan AtKisson, “Introduction to Deep Ecology: An Interview with Michael E. Zimmerman,” Global Climate Change 22 (Summer 1989): 25.
[vii] Alfred North Whitehead, “Religion and Science,” The Atlantic (August, 1925).
[viii]Teilhard de Chardin, Phenomenon of Man, 221.
[ix] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), 23.
[x] Henri de Lubac, S.J. Teilhard de Chardin: The Man and his Meaning, trans. René Hague (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1965), 22.
[xi]Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu: An Essay on the Interior Life, trans. William Collins (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 66.
[xii] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, trans. Bernard Wall (New York: Harper & Row,1959), 293 – 294; Timothy Jamison, “The Personalized Universe of Teilhard de Chardin,” in There Shall be One Christ, ed. Michael Meilach (New York: The Franciscan Institute, 1968), 26.
[xiii] Essential Writings, 96.
[xiv]Teilhard de Chardin, “My Universe,” 254.
[xv]This is the thesis of Teilhard’s classic The Divine Milieu. See also his “My Universe,” 249 – 55.
[xvi] Essential Writings, 124.
[xvii] Ursula King, Christ in All Things, (New York: Orbis Books, 1997), 80.
[xviii] King, Christ in All Things, 93.
[xix] King, Christ in All Things, 93.
[xx]Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution, 93.