The Religious Dimension of Climate Crisis

The Religious Dimension of Climate Crisis
Barry Stephenson

  • Being able to see a situation, as is it, the work of reason, is very hard work.
  • The use of reason is hampered by all sorts of obstacles – personal, social, economic, so on.
  • Some measure of objective realism (seeing the world as it is) is crucial to human flourishing (a very traditional point of view).
  • Today (due to nuclear threat and climate change), a high dose of objective realism is necessary to simply ensure species survival (or, at the very least, survival in some mode of life that makes life worth living).
  • But is it my personal survival or quality of life that worries me when faced with the results of climate science? No, not really.
  • Without any pretense to altruism then, being open to the disturbing realities of climate change involves some sort of selfless commitment to them; the phenomenon is there, like Mt. Everest.
  • Selfless commitment to wrestling with realities that impinge on the well being of others is, traditionally, the world and discourse of religion (along with philosophy, art, music, literature), though there is a valid, nontheistic, humanist version; self commitment to the well being of others is, traditionally, the language of love, the language of God in Jewish and Christian tradition; agape.
  • What we have in the authentic discourse of climate change is knowledge. In spite of the denials, that knowledge needs to be further disseminated; it needs to be heard; it needs to be shouted from the rooftops, over the din of noise that would drown it out.
  • But what is often missing is love; love and knowledge, as Paul knew, are intertwined. What is missing is feeling; what is missing is sensuous knowing.
  • Yes, ‘loving the planet,’ is often a platitude, and is silly if you can’t provide reasons for loving it (and obviously we can supply many good reasons); but those reasons are not why we love it. The same goes (or should go) for our relationships with people.
  • Love, well-being, trust, faith – these transcend reason, even if hapless without it. Here is where we find the religious dimension (or whatever we wish to call it) of the climate crisis. Should people only care about a green economy because of the benefits in the balance sheet, we’ve given up the ghost.
  • The problem (at least, a problem) is that we’ve lost contact with our sensuous body, and hence with our environment, with nature, with the world. Here, we reach Friedrich Schiller’s concern for the aesthetic, for aesthetic education – the need to infuse enlightenment rationality with the body, the senses, our corporeal being.
  • What For a New Earth is adding to addressing the climate crisis is this religious-spiritual-aesthetic dimension, without which reason and science and practical knowhow can’t be properly reasonable. Reason needs to have a ground, a frame, an end, a narrative to operate from and within.
  • “For a New Earth.” On one hand, the phrase can be taken instrumentally; the events organized under the auspices of For a New Earth are means to an end-responding to and solving the climate crisis. On the other hand, the phrase may also be read in terms of an offering, a gift for the Earth, and of a hope. We don’t come together to talk about the planet as (merely) a means to an end, but rather as an end in itself; a gathering of bodies, to dance and walk and play and talk and eat and drink. There is nothing wrong with instrumental reason; but most of what we take in life to be to be the best is a good in and of itself.

“For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.” – Pope Francis, Laudato Si