Angela Tilby: the climate crisis needs good religion

04 October 2019

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THERE can be no doubting the apocalyptic strain in current warnings about climate change. Even Greta Thunberg seems to be an expression of an archetype: the knowing child who brings judgement on her elders. My mind keeps going back to biblical language of signs in the heavens, the roaring of the sea, the sun being turned to darkness and the moon to blood.

It is undeniable that the earth’s climate is changing, and that we need to respond to this before it is too late. But those very words — before it is too late — open a second dimension to the problem. Our nightmares of cities falling into the sea and bare landscapes void of life echo themes familiar from history. We fear that our sins have unleashed an inexorable judgement in which there is no redemption. Scientists scan the natural world for signs of hope or further woe, recalling the Roman augurs who scanned the entrails of animals to discern the future.

Without religion, we are thrown back on ourselves — and our first response is blame. We blame (in turn) science, for being over-curious, torturing nature to find its secrets; the Bible, for telling us that we have dominion over the earth; the industrial revolution, for inventing machines that gobbled up energy; capitalism, for turning invention into profit; and patriarchy, because it was mostly men who caused the problem. So, in the West, we are tempted to turn away from ourselves in self-disgust.

Yet, while climate activists play on our guilt, something quite different is going on among political leaders. Many of them — Trump, Putin, Xi — are putting their nations first. If anyone is going to survive the coming cataclysm, they intend that it will be them. Trump tried to buy Greenland for its rich and rare minerals, but I wonder whether he was also thinking of where the residents of former coastal areas would live when rising sea levels drove them from their homes. This is the undeclared agenda behind the rise of nationalism and populism.

The problem is that, in the absence of good religion, we have only bad religion: the pagan fatalism which projects blame and casts out hope. Good religion would tell us that there is no given stability in human affairs other than God — that change happens, that nature is not divine or forgiving, and that any peace that we make with natural forces is fragile.

It would also tell us that repentance is possible, that there is joy in learning new things, and that we should stop drowning in guilt and blame and start planning for an unstable future, for mass movement of populations, and for changed habits of consumption.

It is not the end of the world — but God never promised us paradise short of paradise.

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