Climate Change and the Church’s Mission: A Side Venture

Matthew Arbo
Jul 14, 2017 · 4 min read

Yesterday I went on something of a twitter rant about evangelical ambivalence about the challenges of climate change. I received some interesting feedback about the thread, so I thought I would follow up here with a few additional remarks on what is a rather widespread phenomenon of climate skepticism and inaction. Reasons for the ambivalence are many and vary in complexity, so let me here offer only a few provisional observations isolating a few evangelical blindspots. I hope to make posts on this subject more frequent, so at the end I’ll elaborate on what I hope to accomplish with this new Medium venture.

  1. That evangelicals are comparably silent on climate change is indisputable. By “comparbly” I mean compared both to other moral questions, and compared to other denominations. A short survey of recent popular and scholarly literature shows up the contrast starkly.
  2. Many evangelicals lack knowledge of basic climate science and the factors contributing to environmental degradation. This is not an intellectual or elitist claim. It is a human claim. We have a responsibility to the earth, and that includes understanding its threats, to the extent that we’re able. Due diligence is all I’m asking for. It doesn’t have to be global. It doesn’t have to be theoretical, abstract, or comprehensive. A stoked curiosity and willingness to learn is a great start. Sadly, when I discuss climate change with skeptics, it is too often apparent they have done little reading or study on the subject, save what appears in their self-curated media feeds.
  3. It is possible this being uninformed about climate change has less to do with self-curated consumption and more to do with simply not wanting to know about the gravity of the problem. Our protective instincts are powerful. We do not like fear. We do not wish to be terrified. In a way, climate change is precisely the sort of adversary humans would prefer to flee from, a storm we’d rather shelter from til it blows over, a ghost that ceases haunting when its disbelieved. Except climate change is not like any of these. It is a reality we have helped create and which threatens destruction in rough proportion to inattention paid it. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, but strengthens it.
  4. If Christians have a moral responsibility to care for creation, then that responsibility extends ipso facto to knowledge of how it should be cared for. No parent can attend to the needs of their child without knowledge of their child and her needs. If our child is threatened we don’t shrug in resignation. The same goes for care of our world. How are we properly to care for a thing if we know nothing about what harms it or why? Again, this doesn’t require comprehension of sophisticated atmospheric measurement algorithms! It might mean learning about what’s really going on in your neighborhood or town.
  5. Dismissing the challenge of climate change by appeal to human depravity or to escapist eschatologies is egregioius. Humans sin, yes; and yet we act. Christ will return, yes; and yet we carry on our lives expectant. Neither doctrine justifies ambivalence or inaction. Many first order doctrines — Creation, Redemption, Church, Mission — in fact do speak directly to the moral task of caring for our common world. God declares everything he made good. He redeems the lost and broken. Indeed Christ’s resurrection is a reaffirmation of the created order.
  6. As for the church’s mission, to the extent that mission remains a dominant moral category for evangelicals, there exists also a corresponding obligation to care for creation, including a respect for the powers degrading it. Scientific prognoses of our environmental future are bleak. Forecasts look bad. If estimates are even remotely accurate the global map itself will need dramatic redrawing. The worst effects will fall disproportionately on underdeveloped nations and coastal communities. Many will die. So, I ask, how do evangelical expect to carry out a mission to the nations no longer in existence? Does it matter to us whether whole territories are washed away and its people displaced? Climate change will continue to alter the future mission of the church, and that seems reason enough to give it due consideration.
  7. A final word in passing on the understandable, but as far as I am concerned mistaken suggestion that Christians adopt a kind of “wait and see” appraoch to climate change. Whatever the motivation for such a recommendation, I do not see how it reckons seriously with current scientific data, nor with the modeling the data anticipates. If there’s any sense to make of a “wait and see” policy it is listening to experts in relevant fields, giving due consideration to the arguments, and to act in what modest ways are afforded us. Not a “wait and see” of pessimism or suspicion, but of receptivity and purpose. That’s the least a community of faith that takes God at his word can do!

For all the reasons above, and still others, I am now convinced of the importance to raise and re-raise the challenge climate change presents to the church, and to the church’s neigbors. Ours is a common world. We dwell here together. As I come across stats or studies that may shed light on our experience and our mission, I’ll post here with supplemental comments helping make sense of its import. I intend fir it to be a resource for the church. I can only hope that it finds an audience!

Matthew Arbo

Written by

Christian ethics prof at Okla Bapt Univ

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