Since the U.S. environmental movement gained momentum in the 1960s, religious scholars and cultural critics have periodically portrayed Christianity as the progenitor of the worst of the Anthropocene. Rather than grouch about culture wars or academic one-upmanship, however, it is ethically more constructive to grapple with Christian failures in providing leaders capable of unraveling “wicked problems” relative to the environment and social justice. Further, globalization requires initiating conversations in pluralistic frameworks. To constructively interact, Christians must engage their fellow Christians, adherents of other religions, and the general public respectfully, justly, and compassionately. While some Christians have already displayed admirable environmental innovation and rational problem solving skills, correcting our misconceptions will improve our care for the planet – and for other people.
American Christianity’s current erratic and often unscientific positioning relative to atmospheric and oceanic change suggests that Christians can be subject to social pressures inhibiting their engagement with the technological or economic adjustments necessary to alter current planetary trajectories. These social pressures often go unnoticed because of their depth—they are ontological in nature. Recent studies of disinterest or skepticism relative to climate, for example, imply underlying flaws in “popular” ontology. Sociologist Kari Norgaard, in her book Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life, argues lack of information does not explain the inaction of Norwegians (Christian or not) familiar with climate warming. Global environmental change has “raised fears for the future, feelings of helplessness, and feelings of guilt, some of which were, in turn, threatening to individual identity.”1 Media-savvy individuals have not been implementing social correctives because the issue is generating risk and threatening their ontological security, including their construction of personal meaning and collective sense of identity. Norwegians, who have benefited from petroleum extraction and refining, do not wish to be identified as harming others or in the wrong. They thus delay conversations about climate change, including the impacts on other nations, and avoid communal action.2 Their battle for a comfortable, positive self-image —and thus relief from social pressure and personal doubt—prevents them from implementing the changes most know they should make.
Another study demonstrates a similar ontological struggle as the source of limited Christian engagement with climate change. Robin Veldman’s The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change investigates whether eschatology or a belief in the imminent return of Christ discourages engagement with mitigation of climate change. Veldman organized research focus groups in amillennial and premillennial congregations to conduct an in-depth examination of the impacts of these beliefs on the environmental ethical values of individuals. While encountering “hot millennialists” for whom the prophesied end times were a consuming interest, she found most of her interviewees were “cool millennialists” for whom “end-time beliefs were not a daily preoccupation.” Although Norgaard’s findings do not indicate political alienation is a major factor in Norway, Robin Veldman’s research on Evangelical churches hypothesizes an American Evangelical characteristic, “the embattled mentality” or sense of unrelenting attack from the secular or politically liberal culture, and thereby political alienation, is a major driver of American climate skepticism.3Both these scholars thus identify personal anxiety or insecurity as a key generator of climate confusion. I believe both impediments are at play in American culture. Christians often avoid engaging climate issues in an effort to avoid additional negative social pressure when they already feel “on the defensive.”
How ought Christians to respond to these ontological crises? The New Testament, of course, directly addresses irrational fears and proclaims trust in Christ’s fulfilled mission as the solution to ontological doubts. For Christians wrestling with how to respond to the expanding list of environmental dilemmas, such as the growing ranks of climate migrants or worsening storm surge in coastal cities, texts in the Gospels, such as Mathew 10:31 and Luke 12;32, are reminders not to be afraid. Hebrews 13:6, citing Psalm 118:6, summarizes: “so we can say with confidence: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’” (RSV4) 1 Peter 3, originally written to support Christians suffering persecution or societal rejection, still offers sound advice:
13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence… (RSV)
The Beatitudes, the Apostolic letters, and many other Scriptural sources encourage Christians to embrace callings such as peacekeeping and administration, which can be used to further the credibility and leadership of Christian environmental efforts.
This line of thinking informs how we engage our environmental majors, and students in related fields like health science. We hope to broaden their communication skills, gain ethical discipline, and nurture courage, by carefully examining their own positions while exploring unfamiliar cultural terrains. In addition to exploring why religious people back away from such death-dealing concerns as sea level rise, examining case histories incorporating both failures and successes from diverse contexts encourages students to prepare for roles in governance and management. To assist with this task, my new textbook, Religion and the Environment: An Introduction, provides select Christian examples of adopting sustainable technology, such as the Gothic solar of Gloucester Cathedral, UK, the wind turbines at Luther College and St. Olaf College, and the LEED certification of Baylor University’s Truett Seminary. Christians should also recognize they are not alone in this pursuit. Religion and the Environment explicates a Moroccan plan for a national system of solar mosques, Findhorn’s program for carbon neutrality, and the high degree of cooperation among Buddhist branches in articulating shared values concerning climate policy.5 Those of us working at the interface of faith and science should cultivate confidence in our ability to accept God’s guidance, and develop content rich, objective, and intellectually stimulating tools to prepare our students for a complex and sometimes perplexing planetary future.
- Kari Norgaard, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 63-93.
- Norgaard, Living in Denial.
- Robin Globus Veldman, The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019).
- Bruce Metzger and Roland Murphy, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
- Susan P. Bratton, Religion and the Environment: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2021).