The Moral Truth is: We Must Act on Climate

A review of God, Creation and Climate Change: A Catholic Response to the Environmental Crisis, edited by Richard W. Miller

As distinct from other texts on climate change, Richard Miller’s God, Creation and Climate Change: A Catholic Response to the Environmental Crisis considers the specific qualities of a faith-based perspective and details why ignoring the crisis is impermissible from that perspective. That thematic innovation aside, it is the quality of the essays in this anthology that make it an effective tool for building understanding and for harmonizing perspectives across the often misconstrued faith-science divide.

There are two core principles around which the anthology is built, and which lay out the ethical standards for considering faith as motivation for responding to the mounting crisis in global climate destabilization: the first is divine creation and the second is human moral responsibility. Divine creation means that those who live it, who are empowered to seek knowledge and achieve understanding, are expected to use their intellects to access truth, to do so honestly, and to use that knowledge of truth to care for creation. From there we derive the requirement for human moral responsibility, implicit in the privilege of being alive and part of that creation.

The chain of moral responsibility goes something like this: the truth is evident (“fragrant”, in St. Augustine’s framing of the moral obligation to learn and to know); science empowers us with understanding of truth; grave consequences are far more likely with unmitigated climate destabilization; we have a moral responsibility to do something to avert a global climate catastrophe.

It may be worth asking, as one enters this anthology: what, then, is “climate”, in the cosmic order enacted by a creator God? Climate is, spiritually, what it is scientifically: the confluence of forces and factors, elements and compounds, patterns and forms of energy release, that come together to shape the kinetic substrate of the world we inhabit; morally, as physically, we dwell in a more or less ordered climate. We have been blessed to find ourselves in a habitable world, where climate patterns were orderly enough to allow us to witness distinct bands defining distinct climate regions with great regularity: arctic, subarctic, temperate, subtropical, tropical, equatorial, and so on.

That order is, in a sense, an expression of the divine order so many theologians have argued is God’s transcendent intelligence allowing for truth, making it evident, and propagating it, with a kind and generous spirit, embedded in our conscious ability to interact with the world around us—our environment. In Chapter Two, “The Bible’s Wisdom Tradition and Creation Theology”, Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., argues that the traditional Christian worldview has been anthropocentric: divine creation centers on the creature made in God’s image, the human being—”the measure according to which everything else is to be evaluated.” And while there is often controversy emerging from differences between the scientific perspective and the traditional cosmology handed down through scripture, Bergant observes that “A great deal of what has been called modern progress owes its existence and development to this perspective.” (35)

So, there is conflict inside of conflict, when we consider that the book of Genesis can be interpreted to place humanity at the center of creation, as stewards of the natural order. That controversy within a controversy stems from the fact that denial of responsibility has been justified by anthropocentrism: nature belongs to us, and despoiling it is not against God.

Of course, the “ecotheological” approach demands what some ethicists would consider a more integral reading of a human-centered creation: we are fortunate, we are treated generously, we profit from the abundance of nature, and we are, by rights and obligation, stewards; it is our obligation to behave responsibly in all of our dealings with the natural order of creation. This reading could go as far as to argue that the sin of Adam and Eve was not “disobedience”, so much as a failure, in the application of their conscious spirits, to understand their place in the web of creation, and so an abdication of their responsibilities. Their exile is just the natural order pushing them out of the good fortune they squandered so thoughtlessly.

John O’Keefe, in Chapter Three, “Creation, Incarnation and Resurrection”, seconds Bergant’s reading of the anthropocentric creation-responsibility doctrine, observing: “Christian environmental reasoning begins with the doctrine of creation. Or, to state this more precisely, it begins with an interpretation of the meaning of creation and the relationship of human beings to all other creatures.” (52) O’Keefe notes that according to Genesis 1:27-31, humanity enjoys “dominion” over God’s creation. What, specifically, the word “dominion” means, however, is vitally important. There is, implicit in the dominion reading of Genesis, an obligation to act as thoughtful, forthright, God-fearing stewards of that creation, to treat all of its order and providence as gifts not to be dealt with harshly or in any way lacking grace, mercy, prudence, wisdom and care.

We may be made of dust—humble, mortal and limited in our powers—but we are not made of unconscious dust; we are thinking, spiritual beings, with an inclination toward learning and knowledge and truth, and all of that comes by God’s providence. There is, then, implicit in the dominion reading of Genesis, a suggestion of an ethic of responsibility for life and nature that fall under our influence by virtue of that dominion.

Genesis may place humanity at the center of the logic and coherence of God’s divine creation, but that very assertion has led, historically, to two radically different readings of what it is to inhabit God’s creation responsibly. Herein lies the crucial significance of this anthology; it looks for a way to dismantle that controversy and illuminate the ways in which a Catholic reading of scripture and ethics harmonizes with the ecological reasoning at the heart of climate science. Bergant suggests we consider the midrashic function—interpreting scripture that emerged in one historical context to make it “relevant to a new one” (41)—of the Book of Wisdom, or the Wisdom of Solomon. The book of Hebrew scripture “teaches the interdependence of all elements of creation.” Bergant adds that “new science insists that all elements of creation are indeed interdependent.” (46)

Interdependence matters, from any variant of a Christian perspective, because it becomes very difficult to sustain a claim of moral integrity if one benefits from one’s relationship with creation but does not treat creation and its constituents with reciprocal generosity. Bergant describes the process by which “In the Ancient Near Eastern view, when chaos threatens to consume the underpinnings of equanimity, the sovereign ruler of the universe has to step in and reestablish order.” (41) The author of the Book of Wisdom (often referred to by scholars as Pseudo-Solomon, an unidentified figure thought to have lived several centuries after King Solomon himself) suggests that this divine intervention must take the form of “a new creation”. The Book of Wisdom holds that the Exodus miracles demonstrate a more than material (physical) function to the elements of nature, that there is purpose (metaphysical), and an ability to initiate a refashioning of creation for the purposes of improvement or the restoring of order. Miracles are moments of insight, not just astonishing phenomena that upset our assumptions about the physical universe.

Here, again, the dominion reading can imperil the ecotheological ethic: it is often argued by opponents of the science that observes and describes the process of anthropogenic climate destabilization that nature can take care of itself, and God’s creation cannot be destroyed by human frailty. But there is a more thoughtful reading, which Bergant suggests. The Book of Wisdom ends with the insight of a double providence—not only was the universe created to provide our existence and within that existence the sustenance we require, but, citing Wisdom 19:6, “The whole creation in its nature was fashioned anew … so that your children might be kept unharmed.” When chaos threatened, nature’s God provided for a new order, a new stability, which allowed for human civilization to flourish; “that [our] children might be kept unharmed”, we should, then, honor that precedent.

If God’s ethic toward humanity includes this kind of periodic reinvention of creative order, for the benefit of the vulnerable, then in the Christian ethical tradition, it becomes necessary to consider what a creative act is: it is new consciousness that pervades and elevates the material. In this sense, we are “made in God’s image”, allowed to flourish as conscious and thinking spirits, not merely to exist as inanimate factic glyphs or accidents of history. If now we are faced with the kind of ecological unraveling that scripture suggests came to the empires that enslaved the Israelites, then we are also being called to participate in this new creation, the development and discovery of a new consciousness that will pervade and elevate our relationship with the material universe gifted to us by a provident Creator.

In Chapter Five, “Theology and Sustainable Economics”, Daniel K. Finn notes the importance—long overlooked—of examining the relationship between our consumption of nature’s resources and the total Earth biosphere. Finn is referring, at first, to a report prepared for the World Bank by environmental economist Herman Daly, in which he included a graph designed to make this point: if we are so unintelligent as to exceed the Earth’s total store of resources—what could be called providence, in scripture—then we will face, or even generate, problems that will lead to more widespread human suffering, the opposite of what the World Bank and the study of economics more broadly, not to mention the Catholic faith, aim to achieve.

One of the keys to understanding the relationship between Christian thought and the economics of environmental sustainability, of which climate responsibility is just one part, is that Christianity motivates “a long-term perspective”. Christian thinking considers not only the rights of other human beings, but also “how we should assess the interests of generations yet unborn”. (99) Indeed, for many, the rights of the unborn are paramount, because the unborn cannot speak or act on their own behalf. By taking a long-term view, inclusive of conscious concern about the distributed and implicit moral ramifications of one’s actions, Christianity harmonizes with the logic of climate science, which requires that we look at long time scales, and consider thoughtfully and self-critically, the distributed and implicit practical ramifications of our actions economically and materially—our use of the physical domain, our exercise of dominion over creation, the quality of our stewardship, where such becomes worthy of note or concern.

In Chapter Six, “Another Call to Action: Catholics and the Challenge of Climate Change”, David J. O’Brien examines the question of “mobilizing Catholics” to address the problem of human-caused global climate destabilization. (113) He raises “social justice” broadly (114) and the US Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Catholic Climate Covenant (115), which urges Catholics to “act to change choices and behaviors that contribute to climate change” (116). In his introduction, editor Richard W. Miller cites Pope Benedict XVI’s call for action on climate change, as enunciated in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) and essay “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation”, a message for the World Day of Peace. Miller goes on to foreshadow Dianne Bergant’s call for a new creation in conscious spirit, warning that “Responding to the present environmental crisis requires not only a conversion of the will but even more fundamentally a transformation of the imagination.” (vii)

From Chapter One, “Global Climate Destabilization and Social Justice: The State of the Problem”, through to the closing Panel Discussion, this anthology projects a vision for inhabiting a moment of transformational consciousness, in which the miracles of human life, divine creation and transcendent truth, come together to offer a chance at morally grounded hope. Through that transformation of conscious dwelling in creation, we can address the unraveling of a provident system of life supports for which we have, if we are honest, not shown adequate respect or understanding. At its core, Richard Miller’s anthology is an opportunity, for anyone who wishes to understand how and why deep-background Christian theology, or specifically the Catholic urge to achieve some measure of sustainable social justice, push us in the direction of conscious, deliberate and collaborative action to counter the ill effects of imprudent human activity, and restore balance to the divine gift of creation.

Joseph Robertson is Global Strategy Director for the non-partisan non-profit organization Citizens Climate Lobby, and founder of Geoversiv Envisioning. He was (at the time of publication) Visiting Instructor, at Villanova University, and chair of Villanova’s President’s Environmental Sustainability Committee’s (PESC) subcommittee on Operations & Energy Use. He is now an emeritus member of both PESC and the Villanova Center for Energy and Environment Education (VCE3).

Works Cited

Miller, Richard W., editor. God, Creation, and Climate Change: A Catholic Response to the Environmental Crisis. Orbis Books. Maryknoll, NY. 2010.

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First published in print, in the Journal for Peace and Justice Studies, Volume 22, Number 2, 2012, published by Villanova University’s Center for Peace and Justice Education.

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