The stories we tell ourselves

hope rediscoveredBishop David Atkinson on the stories we tell about humanity and the natural world, an excerpt from the paper Climate and the Gospel. Atkinson’s latest book, Hope Rediscovered, is out now and has been inspiring various members of the Green Christian network.

Our stories. Many of the stories we tell each other about our world, and about climate change, illustrate the displacement of God from our thinking: God, who has put eternity into our minds, is – at least in the rich West – no longer really part of the story. Instead of the life-giving triangle of relationships between God, humanity and the earth, after ‘the eclipse of God’ we, too, have tended to live without acknowledging God and to think only of our relationship to the earth without reference to God, and so have inevitably got it wrong.

There is a story about management and control. From Francis Bacon onwards there is a view of nature as a mechanism that we can control for our own benefit, what Naomi Klein called ‘extractivism’. We humans stand over and above the world, which is there for our good. We are the masters, the ‘God species’ – using the world to provide for all our wants, so we exploit it, and extract it, and damage it without thought for the future. We can manage; by doing the right research, by asking the right questions and pushing the right buttons, we can manipulate nature to yield her secrets, and to produce whatever we want to fulfil all our desires. You get this sort of thing in Nigel Lawson’s book about global warming. The message I take from that is: ‘the earth is very resilient; technological discovery has always come to our rescue in the past; we can manage the world for our benefit; it makes no economic sense to take any action to change energy policy; there is no need to worry.’ How does a Christian respond to such complacency? Does Lawson not too easily let us off the hook with false comfort: we can leave it all to others, and not trouble ourselves.

At the opposite extreme, there is a story of doom. We are impotent in the face of Nature’s power: look at the tsunamis and Ebola. Nothing we do can make any difference, so let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die – a sort of fatalism. We are simply part of the system. This is not a mechanical but an organic model: we are essentially part of ‘nature’, which is living, developing and unpredictable. We may say that God’s earth is resilient, but we ignore our calling to exercise responsibility for it, and fail to acknowledge that the decisions we make have a great effect on God’s earth for good or bad. Alternatively, we think of the earth system as very fragile and sensitive to climate change; we are seriously damaging the environment: Be afraid – be very afraid. In his book about population trends, Ten Billion, Stephen Emmott’s verdict is, ‘I think we’re f***ed.’ How does a Christian respond to fatalism or to overwhelming despair?

Thirdly, a story about greed. Michael Northcott has a comment on the greedy consumption which is a major driver of climate change: Nature ‘calls time on the freedom of the human species to continue to raid the planet for resources to sustain industrial civilization’, while there is a struggle for access to diminishing food and water resources. Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything is subtitled Capitalism versus the climate. She argues that we now have to choose either the attempt to avert environmental catastrophe or to continue with the illusion of limitless economic growth. ‘Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding’, she argues, on which our contemporary economic and political ideology rests.

In Boris Johnson’s Margaret Thatcher Lecture (2013) – even allowing for his rhetorical flourish – the then Mayor of London seemed to celebrate greed: ‘I don’t believe economic equality is possible. Indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.’ We are, he implied, a ‘market-led’ economy in which something called ‘The Market’ rules; finance trumps every other consideration; everything, including the environment, becomes a commodity to be desired, or given a price tag. Lesslie Newbigin gave his response to that sort of idolatry:

When the free market is made into an absolute; outside of rational control in the light of ethical principles, it becomes a power that enslaves human beings … The idea that if economic life is detached from all moral consideration and left to operate by its own laws all will be well, is simply an abdication of human responsibility … If Christ’s sovereignty is not recognized in the world of economics, then demonic powers take control.

The world of God’s good creation becomes a ‘world’ without God. This is the world of which Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel: ‘This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’ (John 3:19). But it was also of this world that later in the Gospel Jesus says to his followers: ‘Take courage! I have conquered the world’ (John 16:33).

John’s Gospel gives us a different story, the story of God’s relationship to the rest of ‘the world’ through Jesus Christ, the ‘light of the world’, the ‘image of the invisible God’. The Gospel gives us a different way of looking at our relationship to the world in categories that are not mechanical or merely organic, but personal, relational and covenantal:

  • instead of management: a story of interdependence, cooperation and fellowship
  • instead of despair: a story of compassionate love and mercy leading to hope
  • instead of greed: a story of generosity and of self-giving restraint and service

In summary, the Gospel points us to Jesus Christ who embodies the Wisdom of God, and it directs us to love. God so loved the world; Christ loved his own to the end; he gave us the commandment to love. Jose Miranda’s work on John’s Gospel reminds us that love, in John, is primarily love of the deprived, the poor, the needy. He draws on the first Letter of John to identify love with justice: ‘If a man has enough to live on, and yet when he sees his brother in need, shuts up his heart against him, how can it be said that the love of God dwells in him? My children, love must not be a matter of words or talk; it must be genuine, and show itself in action’ (1 John 3:17-18). ‘The defining characteristic of the God of the Bible is the fact that he cannot be known or loved directly; rather, to love God and to know him means to love one’s neighbour and to do one’s neighbour justice.’ It is love, for God and his people and his earth that will motivate transformative action for renewal. So in a world of climate change, we take from this that ‘living in the light’ includes bringing the environmental agenda and the developmental agenda together. We are talking of what Christian Aid calls ‘climate justice’. We are faced with a reframing of all our values and desires. And that will mean costly discipleship.

Justice is the social and political expression of what Jesus called neighbour-love. Climate change calls us to love and justice for our neighbours – including those overseas and those not yet born. Justice, especially for the poorest and most disadvantaged people, who have done least to cause climate change and are the least able to adapt. That is part of our Christian mission. Justice requires an equitable and sustainable sharing of the rich resources of God’s earth, and for many of us this requires the discipleship of restraint. To continue to consume earth’s resources at our current rate is not only not sustainable, it is sin.

According to Isaiah, when the Messiah comes, God’s Spirit will anoint him (Isaiah 61:1-2) to ‘bring good news to the poor … release to captives … recovery of sight to the blind … to let the oppressed go free … to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ Jesus linked Isaiah’s prophecy to himself in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21). The last reference is to the jubilee year of Leviticus 25, a ‘sabbath of complete rest for the land’ (Leviticus 25:4), and a regulation that wealth should not accumulate in the hands only of the few. The concept of jubilee links the economy of financial practice with the ecology of the land’s wellbeing. This is one theological support for Naomi Klein’s claim that climate change ‘detonates the ideological scaffolding’ on which contemporary economics, politics and much of the media rest.

In the light of climate change, how are we to bear witness to the truth of this different gospel story, the Light of Christ?

  • Bishop David Atkinson is a patron of Operation Noah. Climate Change and the Gospel can be read in full at the Operation Noah website.

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