What does the bible have to teach us about Climate Change?

Matthew Neville from CAFOD Birmingham who is currently in Paris for the COP21 summit shares a personal biblical reflection on climate discussions….

Over the last few decades climate scientists have been warning us with greater and greater levels of alarm about the potential dangers of human created climate change. While the exact outcomes of a warming world will always be a matter for debate it seems to be more and more clear that whatever the eventual effects, worse-case or best-case, this is a problem that we need to take seriously and to which we need to find solutions.

In our modern world the realms of science and religion have entered a quiet truce. Post-modern science has become less sure of its own certainty, while mainstream Christianity has become less strident in its truth claims. The Church has been pushed, or retreated, to the margins of many areas of public dialogue. In the eyes of most in our society Climate Science is principally seen as a scientific problem to be solved with scientific and technological solutions; religious salvation is an individual and private spiritual matter.

Such a worldview is very modern. Ancient cultures did not think in such compartmentalised ways. For many of our ancestors it was quite natural to believe that a bad harvest could be the result of having displeased God, or that a medical illness could be the result of a human conflict. Ancient people had a much more symbiotic view of different elements at work in our world. We moderns have thrown out many of these ideas as mere superstition, and perhaps rightly so in many cases, but we need to be careful that in throwing out this old bath water we do not lose older wisdom that might now be needed.

Is to understand Noah’s flood as a punishment for human sin (Genesis 6:7) that much different from attributing increasingly violent weather to our having burnt too much coal? Or is to understand the drought during Ahab’s reign as a consequence of idolatry (1 Kings 16:31-17:7) so much different from accepting that human caused climate change is causing the increased desertification of North Africa? Perhaps the stories we read in our bible about climate chaos and human action contain deeper truths than might be apparent from a simplistic reading. Many of our biblical stories are parables or vignettes which were edited and refined by generations of oral tradition before being committed to writing. The way an ancient less-scientifically educated people made sense of the world is very different from how we might, but that does not mean we should ignore their experience.

As Pope Francis recently reminded us in Laudato Si’, in Genesis 2 the first human is created by the combining of both the earth and the breath of God[1] (Genesis 2:7). Thus humanity is the fruit of a sacred union between God and the earth. We are dependent on both, called to be attentive our dual nature. We are images of both God and the natural world. In genesis (Genesis 2:15) humanity is asked to till the soil and to take care of the earth; these are words which come from the realm of agriculture not politics. We are placed in a relationship of inter-dependence, the earth relies on us and just as equally we rely on the earth for our welfare.

It is significant that the breaking down of humanity’s relationship with God involves an alienation from the earth and expulsion from the garden, the snake and the soil are cursed by God (Genesis 3:14,17-18). Perhaps in this ancient story we can read a warning as to what happens if we commodify and functionalise the natural world, seeing it as existing only that we might exploit it. We are called to be part of a partnership, not to dominate and subjugate for our own short-term benefit.

As the biblical narrative advances we are told stories of nature asserting itself against humanity. Noah’s flood (Genesis 7-8), the famine predicted by Joseph (Genesis 41), the ten plagues (Exodus 7-11), Ahab’s drought (1 Kings 17) and Jonah’s storm (Jonah 1) are all example of this narrative.

For the bible the salvation offered by God is rarely a matter of individual redemption but of fullness of life offered to all of creation, the restoration of the original Genesis 2 partnership between God, humanity and the natural world. This restoration involves a three way process of healing, the healing of our relationships with each other, with God and with nature.

So perhaps it is time to listen more carefully to the words of Job, “Ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you.” (Job 12:7-8). Isaiah 35 speaks of the wilderness and dry land being glad, natural phenomena responding to divine deliverance. Ezekiel 36 paints a picture of renewal as abundant fields and fruit laden tree (36:29-30). In the New Testament, Paul tells us that salvation is not just for humanity but for all creation which waits with eager expectation for the coming of Christ (Romans 8:19-23); in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus (like Job) encourages us to take our example from the birds of the air and the lilies in the field (Matthew 6:26-29).

Are we in these more environmentally aware time beginning to realise that these words, which we had assumed to be just symbolic, are filled with greater meaning than we had until now realised?

[1] The text contains a wordplay in Hebrew, humanity (ha-adam) is made from the earth (ha-adamah)

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