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Attempts to illuminate our brief mortal existence

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Christianity and Climate Change: Part 1

As I mentioned in the first post, Landon will be contributing the occasional "guest post", usually focused in some way on science. In this first part of a three part series he addresses factors that influence Christian responses to global climate change.

My wife and I recently listened to a recording of a lecture entitled “Christianity and Climate Change: Understanding the Range of Responses.” The speaker was Janel Curry, Dean of Research and Professor of Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies at Calvin College, and she gave the lecture in October of 2007 and again in May of 2008 as part of Calvin College's seminar series on Christian perspectives in science. If you are interesting in exploring the relationship between Christianity and science, the web page for the seminar series is an excellent resource.

This is part 1 of a 3 part series.

In the lecture, Curry presents a framework that she developed to help further the understanding of the range of Christian responses to environmental issues. Curry pursues this understanding with the goal of promoting effective communication and civil dialogue between Christian traditions which have very diverse reactions to climate change. She emphasizes avoiding the all-too-common fallacy of overgeneralization by repeatedly stating, “Every complex problem has a simple solution, and it is wrong.”

Three main factors make up Curry's framework. She identified these factors from her sociological research on the different views Christian groups have regarding nature. These factors are all influential, but no one ultimately determines the response of a specific tradition. The three factors are:

  1. Eschatology

  2. Integration

  3. Responsibility

Curry highlights three traditions in her discussion of the first factor – Quakers, dispensationalists, and Reformed. Quakers believe that humans are basically good (the “inner light”), that grace extends to all, and that it is our responsibility as humans to establish the kingdom of God on earth. These beliefs result in Quakers having an optimistic view of progress, being social activists, and placing importance on education.

Things became more interesting for me when Curry discussed dispensationalists. You can get a basic idea of the dispensationalist belief system by reading the Left Behind series (but please don't buy it :). Dispensationalists believe that when Christ returns and brings complete redemption, there will be no continuity between this earth we now inhabit and whatever comes next. Along with this comes the idea that an increase in the frequency and magnitude of natural disasters and violence will precede the Second Coming, and that the earth holds importance only as a “backdrop” to God's plan to save humans. Curry quotes one dispensational seminarian as saying, “[Our] relationship to God is what makes the land important. It's not the land that is important in and of itself.”

Curry proceeds to question the degree to which the dispensationalist tradition is actually an independent religious tradition, as opposed to its arising out of/being formed alongside American culture. Sociologists Dunlap and Van Liere have identified what they call the “dominant American worldview” or the “dominant social paradigm” - a “package” consisting of (1) utilitarian views of nature, (2) support for individual property rights, (3) anti-government sentiments, and (4) belief in the free market. This “dominant American worldview” is mirrored in dispensationalist beliefs – most importantly for this discussion in the common utilitarian view of nature.

Curry identifies the Reformed tradition as following, along with the dispensationalists, the traditional Christian framework of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. However, she identifies a distinct difference between Reformed and dispensationalist – the Reformed tradition emphasizes a continuity between this present earth and the new earth to come. She quotes a Calvinist farmer: “...we've begun our eternal life...the opening chapter...The whole thing of stewardship, is certainly a part of now and, or a part of eternity.”

I personally lean heavily towards the Reformed view, being influenced by some Reformed writings on Christian worldview which, true to Curry's representation, did emphasize the continuity aspect of eschatology. I am also heavily influenced by N.T. Wright, who, despite being an Anglican, does resonate with the Reformed on this issue.

Here are some questions for you to think about and respond to:

  1. Is the destruction of the earth a sign of Christ's return?

  2. Will there be some continuity between this earth and the new earth?

  3. Is there danger for dispensationalism in being closely tied to the “dominant American worldview”?

In my next post, I will review Curry's discussion of the integration factor.

Note: The focus of this series is not on climate change in and of itself, but rather on responses to climate change. Please do not try to argue about the science in the comments. If you are interesting in learning more about climate science, the following resources may be helpful: NASA's Earth Observatory, a website by Scott Mandia, and the IPCC AR4 FAQs.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting.

    I come from a dispensationalist, fundamentalist background and rejected it some time ago for a more balanced view.

    One comment I would make when it comes to this is that dispensationalists in general tend to read the Bible from Genesis 3 - Revelation 20, ignoring that we are created in the image of God and that all that mess in Revelation 4-20 are there so that Revelation 21-22 can occur. As NT Wright would say, so that God can set the world "right". This may be because many dispensationalists (at least all I've run into) tend to also be Calvinist to some extent and believe that man is "totally depraved".

    Maybe there is something to be said for the Quaker viewpoint.