Keeping cool for Armageddon

One of the things that’s been interesting about following the discussion on Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ is the polarizing effect on Christians elicited by the very issue of climate change. That’s quite apart from a certain to-be-anticipated “No Popery” stance in some of the internet comments (including some from self-labelled Catholics). Opposition by some Christians to claims of global warming is not news, but is still an interesting cultural phenomenon, especially since (as a “religious position”) it’s largely confined to North Americam believers. Some of the objections, in my view, are related to the doctrine of creation, as particularly understood in America, so are worthy of discussion here.

This post will take the form of comments upon some of the arguments I’ve come across as they have been used specifically by Christians, because in a world full of controversies over scientific matters what interests me is why this particular one gets believers waxing polemic, in a manner that’s only really comparable to the evolution issue. In the latter, the reasons are plain and much discussed here, boiling down to the threat that evolution is held to pose to traditional Christian doctrine whether from atheists (and mainstream educators) who insist it does and push secularism, or from Creationists who insist it does and reject or re-interpret the science, or from Theistic Evolutionists who insist it does and busy themselves re-inventing Christian teaching to comply fully with the current paradigm.

On the surface, climate change appears to have nothing like such radical theological implications, whether it be true or false; or at least no more so than other issues like GM crops (not controversial in the US where they are common, but much more so in Europe, which is why the Pope spent several paragraphs on the issue), stem-cell research or Big Pharma. All of these, laudably, have interest groups critiquing them in America, but not especially widely amongst Christians. Yet there seems to be a significant linkage between Bad Evolution and Bad Climate Change in many minds. Why?

That’s not to say most Christians think that way. A recent survey on climate change views can be found here. I guess one could broadly say that, although in all groups those persuaded that climate change is real and significant are in a majority, opposition grows the more Evangelical one gets – which is certainly not noticeably the case over here in Britain. I’m also interested in the difference between black and white Protestants, though it would have been helpful if the “black” group had been divided the same way as the two “white” Protestant categories. So in summary, Christian non-scientist rejection of the climate change hypothesis, especially the anthropogenic claim, is largely an Evangelical (and possibly a white Evangelical) thing.

The commonest accusation made about climate change is that it’s a fraud being perpetrated in the interests of a cabal of climate-change scientists, big business and self-interested governments, or any combination of these. This is the charge seen most commonly amongst those most opposed to it, including those over here like the Sunday Telegraph‘s Christopher Brooker. Now this is by no means far-fetched, given the track-record of corporations involved in everything from tobacco to oil or pharmaceuticals of doctoring, hiding or falsifying evidence, and moral failures amongst the scientists in their pay. Neither is it an idle claim that too close a political and financial relationship between Science and State is no healthier than one between Church and State.

Corruption in any form is, and has always been, a concern of Christian morality. But if that is so, the fact that worldwide corruption overall costs an estimated $2.6 trillion annually (5% of world GDP), then one would expect US Evangelicals to be more vocal on that than they are. I note, however, that the Pope’s encyclical refers to it as an evil to be eradicated – his moral concerns are admirably broad. A conspiracy on global warming would, then, be an evil to be opposed by those concerned, but why one of special interest to believers?

Perhaps one reason is another plank in the “conspiracy” case – the threat to individual freedom, “freedom” being a trigger-word second-to-none in any American context. There is a good deal of talk about government’s interference in people’s accustomed way of life, and this certainly is seen as a priority in other issues on which Evangelicals have strong opinions. I’ve said before that it’s decidely odd, from this side of the Atlantic, to see how both gun-control and state health-care provision are seen as issues of Christian liberty by so many in the US, when we benefit so much from both not only here, but across Europe, and view the statistics on gun deaths and uneven health-care from America with sadness. Even our licence-funded BBC, which for all its faults I’d rate higher than any US station for impartiality, is seen by many in America as the tool of a totalitarian state. Well, maybe.

However this view of political freedom is not, theologically, that relevant to Christianity at all. Christian freedom is liberation from all the oppression of sin (whether from others or from within) into free obedience to God’s will. In fact, the “autonomy” discussion matches more closely the purely political American Republican-Democrat party divide. It is not wrong for individual believers to favour a political party; it’s slightly more concerning for someone whose citizenship is supposedly in heaven to observe a close correlation between their choice of denomination and prevalent voting patterns. It’s most worrying of all if ones political theory shapes ones doctrine rather than vice versa. This is, of course, equally the case if one supports a climate-change agenda simply because one votes Democrat like all your church does, or the opposite.

Related to these “secular” arguments regarding climate change is that which suggests that scientific scares have happened before, and have always proved false, such as acid rain, global cooling and the like. Things got better despite the doom-mongers. Once again, there is no religious element to this argument. Undoubtedly scientific consensus, like all human prognostication, has a propensity to get things wrong. But it’s easy to forget that in most cases, things have improved because scientific predictions were taken seriously and acted upon: CFCs were banned, pesticides controlled, whale-hunting limited, nuclear explosions curtailed and so on. Sy Garte’s excellent book Where We Stand contains many good instances of this principle. In my view, it’s a demonstration of the the truth in creation doctrine that, sin’s rapaciousness notwithstanding, humans neither desire, nor succeed in, an escape from their role as custodians of the earth. Many of those who laboured for such changes were, of course, believers consciously doing the work of the Kingdom. And complacent custodians are the bad guys in God’s kingdom, not the good guys.

One particularly “theological” argument I saw recently against changing our behaviour because of climate change was the claim that God has given us fossil fuels for the benefit of mankind, and that therefore it is our right, and almost our duty, to use them. This does, of course, tap right into creation doctrine, but in the same way as the man’s claim in 1 Corinthians 6: “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food.” Paul does not deny that, but still condemns gluttony: all the worlds resources were given us on the conditionthat we would steward them wisely and well, and (crucially) for the benefit of all men and the creation itself.

There is little disagreement, even amongst scientists not involved in climatology, that the use of fossil fuels at the levels that are now spreading from the developed world to the rest are unsustainable. Nobody is looking beyond a century or two into the future for their effective exhaustion: trusting to some new energy fix is, by no stretch of the imagination, stewarding God-given resources properly. And in addition, releasing 4 billion years worth of carbon into the atmosphere in one go ought to be expected to undo whatever terra-forming God has undertaken in the past.

Climate change aside, the same kind of projections point to the need for radical changes to many aspects of the industrialised living of the last two centuries. I used to write for a magazine edited by Dr Clifford Hill, a sociologist and pastor with a prophetic ministry, who shook the Evangelical Charismatic community long before “global warming” with a book whose first part simply documented the exponential trends in various parameters like population, pollution and so on, showing a remarkable end-point around the middle of this century. Given his viewpoint, he used this data to indicate the shortness of the time before the Lord’s final return, but man’s role in rushing headlong to destruction was a given. His call to repentance and change was as valid in the material as in the spiritual sphere.

Some of the Christian opposition to such lifestyle change, based on disbelieving at least the climate change agenda, seems to be either that we are not powerful enough as a species to damage God’s world, or that he is so powerful that he will not let us. I don’t see that either holds water in theological terms. We were created to be the rulers and subduers of the earth God had made for us. The whole story of the Fall, in relation to our physical environment, is of our corrupting it to the point where it was worthy of destruction, and of failing to transform it for the better in a way that would seem to be even beyond our current capabilities. In other words, we are by nature very powerful beings. I’ve even speculated that the “powers and principalities” so terrible in the Bible were originally servants of mankind, either harnessed to evil or allowed to operate uncontrolled because of our sin.

As for God’s providence limiting our misusue of power, I have no doubt it is very active. But I also know that it is the character of God’s reprobation on humanity to punish them by giving them over to the results of their sin. Nothing in Scripture tells us we are incapable of making the world an extremely unpleasant place to live. And that is all that most serious global warming supporters predict.

On the other hand, at least one commenter on BioLogos saw the danger of swallowing the climate change pill as encouraging a totalitarian world government to emerge: mankind could be world-changing in that manner, at least. He even saw evidence for this conspiracy in the Pope’s advocation of international co-operation. I suppose this reflects apocalyptic fears of the kingdom of Antichrist (are we called to prevent that, or simply warned to expect it?), but by that reasoning any international treaties, or such things as global vaccination campaigns, are to be seen more of a threat than constant wars would be. The truth is that even the recent experience of the European Union and the Eurozone demonstrates that forming a world government would be akin to herding cats. We can’t even keep the Scots onside here. I’d like to see how the unification negotiations between NATO and the ISIS caliphate panned out!

A final argument, more often unspoken, I suspect, is the idea that since this world is scheduled for destruction anyway, climate change is only a symptom of what is inevitable. Indeed, the quicker the world ends, the quicker God will institute the new one. This “pie in the sky” theology is, of course, just the view that is resolutely contested by Richard Middleton in A New Heaven and a New Earth. On the first principles of Christian teaching it’s nonsense, for the Christian is called to model the values of the Kingdom here and now: medical healing is a model of the abundant health of the age to come, political liberation a token of the liberty of the sons of God, and wise management of resources a sign to the world of how things ought to be, and will be when this world is renewed. The man who said, “Eat drink and be merry” received his judgement that very night for not being rich towards God with his resources, according to the Lord Jesus.

These are some of the motivations I’ve seen for Christians for rejecting anthropogenic climate change. Some of them are quite legitimate, and are worthy to be brought into the light by Christians. Some are very dubious indeed – as indeed might be the case had I discussed instead those Christians who argue vehemently for the reality of climate change. For when it comes down to it, the old gremlin creeps into the equation – that nearly all of us are trying to judge a scientific question from the outside. As in the case of evolution, much of the time we’re choosing whose authority we’re going to accept. Even if I read the scientific literature, I’m reading it as someone outside the professional loop, and I know what that means because I was once in a scientific profession. I’m persuaded, or not persuaded, and the experts I consult on either side either persuade me, or they don’t. If I accept the consensus, I do so knowing that many consensuses before have proved false. But if I go with the minority, that’s equally or more prone to eventual debunking.

I don’t know for certain how strong the case for climate change really is. At times I’m very suspicious of the way that science is being pursued nowadays. But what I do know is that wherever the truth lies it’s more likely to impact on my worldly interests than the exercise or spreading of my faith. Personally I prefer to side with Pope Francis in following the precautionary principle when there is doubt, especially when that principle seems to coincide a lot more closely with Christian virtues of justice, moderation and stewardship than does the value system we have at present, which has already produced immense suffering and unprecedented environmental harm. I might well be wrong in that, but I’m less likely to cause harm by acting on it than by generating CO2 recklessly on rather nebulous grounds.


Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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7 Responses to Keeping cool for Armageddon

  1. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Thanks for this, Jon. I think I’ve been a participant in the very discussions to which you refer.

    “Unity” is one of those ‘god words’ like “progress” to which every politician must pay obligatory homage. Who could be against it? I always get a kick out of hearing our president (and all political party leaders from both sides before him) say things like “We must move forward.” It always makes me wonder what the alternative to that would look like, or how indeed anybody could contrive to not move forward.

    The New Testament does give numerous calls for Christian unity from both Paul and Jesus. But I find this 1 Corinthians 11 passage intriguing:

    “For first of all, when you come together in the assembly, I hear that divisions exist among you, and I partly believe it. For there also must be factions among you, that those who are approved may be revealed among you. ”

    That seems to be Paul (in a most politically incorrect fashion) declaring that at least with factions, God will make apparent which faction is the righteous one. Paul isn’t happy about it and would prefer unity as he makes clear elsewhere. But it does seem an interesting foreshadowing of something we come to venerate with our scientific mindsets. Experiment and find which way works best.

    With unity comes more power. But the cost is that you may have to hold your nose if you’re going to widen your tent. Or should we just learn to appreciate the diversity of smells and realize that we stink just as much?

    One last thought on the encyclical … I do agree with (I think it was a commentor on Biologos) that one big and difficult issue facing us (and perhaps avoided by the Pope) is population control. It’s hard to disagree with the notion that there are too many of us for long-term sustainability –or certainly too many of us at affluent consumption levels anyway. But what to do about it, and what *Christians* should want to do about it are exponentially more difficult to address.

  2. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Now after my post above, I hear a report on the radio about a former mission school on an Indian reservation — a school with a mission to “rescue” the natives from their own culture and replace it with a more modern western one. Now a generation later, the same school is being revisited by some of its own former students who are for the first time bringing their own cultural heritage within its racist walls. There is talk, not of dwelling on past sins but of “moving forward” and celebrating the diverse cultural heritage we all still have.

    And that does showcase a very necessary and well-founded conviction that such a phrase was probably meant to capture. So I should not mock the phrase just because it may have become trite in the mouths of some politicians.

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Merv

    Yup – “moving forward” is good, but you’re right, I think, to suspect that it often means, “I know you’ve caught me out in some reprehensible matter, but forget about it and let me get on with some different reprehensible acts unchallenged…” And of course the Chinese Great Leap Forward wasn’t, actually.

    The phrase always reminds me of my first boss at the Pest Control Laboratory whose favourite slogan (apart from “The quickness of the hand deceives the flea”) was “Sideways with the People!”

    On the more serious question of Christian unity, even on matters like ecology, Paul’s words, I think, address not so much the inevitability of diversity, but the basis of that diversity, and whether or not it is soundly based in “the teaching” or on some of the world’s wisdom. I don’t think he’d go along with the vaguely Hegelian idea that the more heresies there are, the better the final synthesis will be. He was too aware of Satan’s propensity for using error to crush truth, at least for a time.

    From my reading of the encyclical, I think the Pope did deal with population growth, if not in a way that would satisfy all. At the heart of his treatment was the issue of sustainable lifestyles you mention – that at any population level, our current way of doing things is unsustainable. A scientific report I saw in the press just last week agreed.

    I think, however, it was somewhere other than the encyclical where I read recently about the predictions that were made in the fifties about inevitable mass starvation once the population reached 3 billion (I may have misremembered all those actual figures) have proven wrong. I’ve seen some good evidence that the population will level off naturally later in the century, without eugenics or mass abortion, provided that a basic level of prosperity is made available to all. And certainly when we’re wasting 30%+ of our food here, it would seem that population itself is not the only concern.

    As for cultural imperialism, there seems no real let-up in the west’s propensity for that, only instead of Native Americans being Europeanised in reservations, it’s now African bishops or Russian politicians being told they must come out of the dark ages and redefine marriage to match our definition from… just yesterday, I believe. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

  4. Jon,
    Your comment, ‘As for God’s providence limiting our misuse of power, I have no doubt it is very active’ set me wondering what you meant.
    Are your grounds for thinking this only Scriptural, as, for example, in ‘he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way’ (2 Thess 2) – still the case except perhaps from a preterist perspective – or do you see other evidence for this?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Peter

      Nothing too profound intended. Your text seems to indicate God’s limitation of evil, though I admit it’s not the most transparent bit of Paul. But the doctrine of common grace suggests that God still governs the world so that evil never completely prevails, neither is his salvation stymied – one thinks of the way even the most evil empires fall, human societies have tended to draw back from complete moral madness and so on.

      One could cite of all kinds of possible examples: for example, one of our GP ex-trainees, back in 1987, used the latest projections in a CMF book to show how AIDS was headed to produce total destruction of civilisation. I don’t think that was unrealistic at the time, and if the right drugs hadn’t been discoverable, the late 1990s (her doomsday dating) would have been very different, for all the efforts of scientists.

      Yet by that very token, God’s giving the wicked enough rope to hang themselves with is a part of that government, and my point in the OP was that he’s never promised (to use a current European analogy) to cover all our bad debts – just keep the earth functioning whilst it remains. If Israel was wrong to say “God would never let destruction happen to his chosen people”, then the world has no better claim.

  5. Hanan says:

    Alright alright, you lured me.

    Your post was long so I will attempt to answer your question as generally as I can and hopefully it will help you answer other particulars.

    The reason this issue gets as much attention (from the right) as Evolution is because to Conservatives (not just Christians), this is another issue to add to the long list of Progressive hysterias. In the U.S. there is a deep rift between the Left that fight for Equality and the Right that fight for Liberty. Complaints often have come in waves and somehow subside. The right have always had to deal with cultural hysterias from cries of overpopulation, to claims of mass deaths from anorexia by leading feminists to the latest screams of rape culture on campuses. It doesn’t end. There is always a crisis of some sorts. I believe, as other people have said before me, that this lies in the secular root of all these movements. Man, requires meaning in his life. If it isn’t religion, than it has to be something else. Progressivism functions as basically a secular religion would and so they find their meaning in life by combating crisis after crisis after crisis.

    But whats the big deal? The problem is not these ideas that the progressives have. Had these crisis’ remained in their minds, all would be well. The problem is this: All Progressive Crisis ultimately bleeds into two things : Education and Social Control.

    Recently, a leading Conservative writer (Charles Krauthammer) said that the Left ultimately failed at passing laws to enhance their agenda. Their only outlet was to alter the culture. If they can get to the youth early enough via education, they can educated them to see the world through their progressive values. This in turn would change the culture as the youth grow and thus, policy would be affected. All policy is an attempt at some control. I believe some Scandenavian countries even require by law that Corporate boards MUST have a certain amount of women. This is social control that eliminates Liberty (a Conservative goal) but equality (a Progressive Goal).

    Conservative Christians – like all Conservaitves here – have developed a knee-jerk reaction to any crisis the Left hold dear. Experience has shown there is always something to be lost when Progressives are able to educate and ultimately pass policy in order to control the population in some manner. In our case- Climate Change – is whether or not drivers ought to be taxed for the amount of mileage they drive, or how forcing them to recycle or any other policy. It doesn’t End.

    This popular SuperBowl ad recently aired. It’s cute, but Conservative see this and think to themselves “Given enough power, combined with time, there is no reason Progressives would not try to do this.”

    Wesley Smith often talks about social consequences to Darwinism. And he is right. One thing will often lead to another. Climate change, while not having exactly the same moral consequences as Darwinism still carry the same fear due to the instigators of the crisis: Progressives.

  6. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Hanan

    Thanks for your considered reply. I can’t disagree with your assessment of the insidiousness and internal coherence of the secular-liberal propaganda agenda (cf my later piece on Kinsey). The assumptions lead inevitably to the whole agenda, and the agenda is consciously intended to undermine all traditional values. One can spiritualise that by remembering that “traditional values” in this case means the Judaeo-Christian heritage. There is really no secret about that.

    And it’s not too surprising that good people become suspicious enough to see that agenda at work also behind a “mass movement” in politicised science like climate change. That excellent blogger TOF has a very interesting piece suggesting that reason and prevalent rhetoric don’t necessarily coincide any more than they do in the same-sex marriage business.

    Also interesting is the next piece on his blog, showing how “progressive” confidence is now so high that within a week of your country’s rationally dubious legal decision the next set of goals on weakening marriage has already been set up. So the conservative fear is well-grounded overall.

    The problem (to me) is that one of the worst effects of this concerted thought control program is to inculcate the knee-jerk reactions you mention, in response. It’s as inevitable as the mental dysfunctioning produced by brainwashing. America has become a particularly visible victim to that, to those of us outside, in the whole “package deal” concept that one must be a “conservative” or a “progressive” on all matters political, moral and religious. As a result the Christian (and Jewish, too) duty to be critically counter-cultural and formed by God’s word becomes blunted.

    This makes things worse in many ways: the “religious right” foreign policy of the Bush years is an example, leading to unwise policies (as I wrote soon after 9/11) which give the progessives the ammunition they need to ratchet the mid-control in every area, since every area has been tied in to the same polarisation. Meerloo’s The Rape of the Mind actually described this in back 1956, as relentless Communist propaganda tended to provoke a paranoid over-reaction such as the McCarthy witch-hunts.

    The result overall is as mad as the 17th century witch-hunts: everybody’s more concerned to spot the traitors and turncoats, the secret motives and so on than to remember their guiding principles (in our case the words of God in Scripture) and follow them rationally through to judging each situation and each position rigorously. The relentless pressure leads to the weak and wicked breaking out (shoot abortionists, bomb gays), feeding into the toxic mix as much as vilifying bakers as bigots does. It makes it easy for some cheap rainbow light shows to look like welcome sanity rather than the frippery it is.

    On climate change, then, we need to remember that the science itself is not clear. If interpreting it towards anthropic global warming suits the progressives, that doesn’t of itself make it wrong. But the principles of creation doctrine, on which the Pope has mainly relied in his encyclical, tell us to steward and conserve the earth’s resources according to charity to the poor and to future generations, and not to live extravagantly but simply.

    There’s a danger of forgetting that to spite the “enemy”, and so following a party rather than working through a worldview.

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