The Fruit of Calvinism

Is environmentalism?

This at least, is the take from Mark Stoll in Inherit the Mountain (Oxford, 2015).

Thomas Cole, “The Oxbow.” Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
While D.G. Hart’s review covers the core notion, that environmentalism is a product of Calvinism, or more specifically the views of the Puritans and the American Presbyterians. This is a push-back to the long-standing critique by Lynn White Jr. (“The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”) that asserted that  Christian (and especially Calvinist) views of the Genesis notion   of dominion and the general dis-enchantment of nature led to its exploitation.
Hart wonders if Stoll and White are looking at the same Christianity. In doing so, he also ponders the role of religion and the degree to which religious affections touch policy.
At the same time, contemporary scholars have good reasons for discounting the influence of religion in peoples’ lives. Sometimes religion is not the sole motivation for a position or policy; at other times, circumstances lend themselves more readily to taking actions based religious idealism. Creating national parks in remote territories is one thing, but regulating the oil industry at a time when the nation’s economy depends on fossil fuel is an altogether different challenge that religion may not happily resolve.
The mystery may be solved by considering the broader structures of Reformed thought. Its high theology places an emphasis on the sovereignty of God; historically this has repeatedly walked over into broader understandings, ones emphasizing immanence. This intellectual deterioration clearly feeds the Transcendentalists, John Muir and others. The Immanent God, is the shadow of the Reformed, Electing God. A second aspect, answering the second part of Hart’s quote above, is the role of Presbyterians in shaping the American regulatory state, with its notion of law and common good. The regulatory apparatus developed at the turn of the 19th Century (see Theodore Roosevelt) is deeply grounded culturally and philosophically in the notion of ordered human relationships and the desire to build for the common good. It is the Reformed thought’s emphasis on the corporate and public dimension of religious life which feeds and shapes the emerging regulatory State.

Bible and Ecology

The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of CreationThe Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation 
Richard Bauckham

Waco TX: Baylor University Press, 2010

 

 

 

Christians have had something of a distant view of Creation — there’s always been this gap between humanity and the world, most often expressed through some sort of theology of dominion or stewardship. Richard Bauckham wants us to see ourselves relating to Creation as a matter of community. In The Bible and Ecology,  Bauckham gives a close reading to   reading of the  biblical texts relating to the natural world (e.g. Ps 104), to show how this world has an existence along with our relationship to God.  This treatment is good so far as it goes, but it does not really get to the role of nature in the thinking of ancient Israel; we are still at the level of the biblical text. The nature of the world outside of human habitation, this wilderness, is left relatively unexplored. For instance, at the close of Psalm 107, we read how God makes the arid country into a place of flowing springs, a place where people can build a city, sow fields and plant vines — the relationship with open land and habitation is thus more complex. Still Bauckham is right to emphasize the independence of Nature from the human world.

When he turns to the NT — the area of his specialization — he becomes very astute (thus the four stars — read this especially for the last two chapters).

What is missing? Although Bauckham has a sense that we live in an ecologically compromised time, he really cannot find a way to speak about it, in part because of his orientation to biblical exegesis, rather than theology. The significant discussion yet to be had is on how do we understand a world that is confessed as good, yet one that is clearly altered by human interaction. How do we sing the Lord’s song in a globally warmed land? Bauckham lays the groundwork for that discussion, as well as providing generous notes and a very in-depth bibliography.

Conservatives and the Environment

Do conservatives have something positive to say about the environment and climate change, or are they only to be so much sand in the gears?

Let’s face it, the framing of this issue is almost entirely on the other side (and to be clear, often with real justification). These issues came up at the  annual  gathering (Synod) of the Christian Reformed Church as it took up a report on “Creation Stewardship.”  The heart of the document was its focus on climate change and how the church should respond.  This has also been the subject of discussion on multiple boards, including CRC-Voices, where Dan Hendrickson wrote

One clear way to reduce damage to the environment:  Support a slow, gradual decline in population.

Given the reluctance of conservatives, nonetheless on this issue, I think the “conservative” voice may be of use in two ways:

First, reduction of population takes place with reduction of family size. It’s not simply birth control, or worse, forced abortions or other one-child policies. One of the observed facts is that family size decreases with development and education. Clean water and attention to women’s rights can make a world of difference. This matches with some conservatives who want to emphasize free market principles in development. so promotion of economic growth may actually be a means to this end, and here the conservatives can bring a lot of interesting tools to the table (at least at the micro-economic level — their sometime love with the uber-wealthy… eh).

Second, the best conservatives have suggested that the focus on small tasks really won’t cut it, nor will the large scale utopian ones either. Instead, they suggest that if we want to help the poor there are more direct paths in front of us. And cheaper, too, for that matter. This is the path most often associated with Bjorn Lomborg. This ameliorative path has some drawbacks (it can, after all end up with a majoring in minors, porcelain v Styrofoam), but it does point us to what can be done now.

I think that there is plenty in the CRC tool chest that can help with both of these efforts. The mistake is to think that Climate Change comes with a set of policy proposals; it clearly does not. Rather it comes with the dual approach of discipline as to how we handle our environmental responsibilities, and prudent and practical help to those in need.

Environment, Faith and Politics

This past weekend I read through the report on Creation Care. There is certainly enough ammunition for the conservatives here, but that’s not really the concern. What strikes me is that we cannot come to any clarity about what should be done. The document ends up being disappointingly vague. In the face of global climate change we all should do something, but what, exactly? And then on top of this, what makes this the Church’s business? What does the covenantal community bring to the table, as it were?

What is referred to as “Creation” perhaps is better thought of as three things:

Creation” — this is the gift of God. Even a degraded world, stripped of the cedars of Lebanon and arctic ice, remains a gift to people. Purposed, intentional, a world that will still yield its delights.

World” — this is the Creation as we know it, the world of science. it is the object of our wisdom, of the plumbing of secrets. When the Creation Care report walks through the science behind global warming, we are in this world.

Environment” — this is the Creation as the place of our stewardship, the world as the arena for our agency. When we talk about the environment we are talking about social goods and their use, in a word, politics. So Creation Care in this world is inevitably a matter of social decisions and ethics. While the Church can bring a set of ethical principles, these are not likely its best contribution — at least to date, such principles have been rather general, a common sensibility; descriptive, but not performative. The one thing the Church can bring to the discussion is an awareness of the various principalities and powers, the variety of ideologies at work. When we come to the Environment we can call attention to the easy privileging of economic self-interests; we can also note the role of deificiation of Creation (either by the direct route, or implicitly in the Conservative belief that Creation is fundamentally robust, i.e. eternal), then there is the temptation of pragmatism generated by Science, and underneath it all there is the paralyzing despair generated by the American Romanticism (think of every Nature calendar you ever had). If we are hesitant to name these false ideologies, we are unlikely to be able to offer any real spiritual counter to them, let alone shed light.

In terms of the Church can do, I would suggest going Trinitarian: we are to act in obedience to the caring of the world; faith, knowing that what we do is going to be proximate, coming up short (see Martin Luther — sin boldly); and we are to act in hope — one of the great evils with such a large problem, is to think that we don’t matter, our perceived insignificance leading us to acedia, a denial of our own agency in our lives.

The part that we can barely utter — and it is only hinted at in the report — is the lament. Or to ask it in biblical terms, “where are the cedars of Lebanon?” or for that matter the lions that prowl for the food, as recorded in Psalms?

Climate Change

This from Michael Gerson:

The resistance of many conservatives to arguments about climate disruption is magnified by class and religion. Tea Party types are predisposed to question self-important elites. Evangelicals have long been suspicious of secular science, which has traditionally been suspicious of religious influence. Among some groups, skepticism about global warming has become a symbol of social identity — the cultural equivalent of a gun rack or an ichthus.
But however interesting this sociology may be, it has nothing to do with the science at issue. Even if all environmentalists were socialists and secularists and insufferable and partisan to the core, it would not alter the reality of the Earth’s temperature.

The transformation of skepticism into a shibboleth is fascinating, and something of a learned response. It’s a matter of identity, that in turn suggests that the issue is tapping something deeper in the skeptic. Climate disruption carries with it the whiff of disruption, or impermanence, true; perhaps even more it is the role of climate as a sign of hope. The issue is the bow in the sky, Nature/Creation’s seeming permanence proclaims that one can begin again. It’s never drastic. Our nature calendars tell us that this world is good. this is a delight that is egalitarian — we all have access to this beauty, this goodness that is outside our door.

Climate disruption would seem to put a lie to this; the tragic has happened. The beauty we see, the memories of cold winters and green summers at the lake are fading, not to be ours. Science and the elites seem to take it away from us. And so it becomes a matter of cultural war, not because of science or faith, but of loss.