Right now—as some of you know firsthand—the western part of our continent is hot. Like never seen before hot. Portland, Oregon, hit 117 degrees Fahrenheit in late June. Nothing good comes from heat that intense. As scientists try to understand the causes of heat waves like this, they consider climate change a likely culprit.
Our churches are often divided over climate change. A discussion of the topic will generate much heat–and whether it is a heat that illuminates or burns is unclear. From research looking at creation, evolution, and politics, we know that facts aren’t very useful for changing minds. Because of cognitive biases, group affiliation, and individual identities, a good argument often just entrenches us deeper into our own convictions.
Nonetheless, there are ways to talk productively about climate change. Before I explain the most effective context in which to do that, let’s consider four more rationales for discussing it from Steven Bouma-Prediger’s For the Beauty of the Earth. (For the first three rationales, check out last week’s newsletter.)
Reason 4: “Spotted Owls Have Rights Too.”
This argument focuses on the rights of certain living beings. Advocates believe that creatures with consciousness, emotion, and/or the capacity to experience suffering have rights that we must protect.
This rationale makes great sense to animal lovers (I just exchanged an affectionate glance with my dog, Iggy). It is less anthropocentric than the previous ones. That is praise worthy for some of us, but others would find it a point of weakness. Spotted owls and all the other living things were not created in God’s image. Many of our fellow Christians would not want to lose sight of that important categorical difference: only humans have the imago Dei.
Reason 5: “Value Generates Duty”
All of creation, not just certain animals, according to this rationale, has intrinsic value. The idea is that the value of nature is not just instrumental—something for us to use or consume –but it has objective value. Thus, as moral agents, humans have a duty to care for it. In the words of Christian philosopher Holmes Rolston III, “We follow what we love, and the love of an intrinsic good is always a moral relationship. Value generates duty.”
Bouma-Prediger suggests that the strength of this argument is that it is biblical. He reads Psalm 104 and 148 (among other texts) as showing the intrinsic value of mountains, waters, and trees and all the ways creation sings praises to the Lord. Critics, however, argue that this rationale “implies that duties to nonhuman creatures are on par with duties to humans.”
Reason 6: “We’re All in this Together”
The claim here is that every living thing on our pale blue dot is “bound together in such a way that our ability to flourish is interdependent.” Christian theologian Joseph Sittler says it this way, “Nature is like a fine piece of cloth; you pull a thread here and it vibrates throughout the whole fabric.”
This reason is grounded in the idea of a common good, for everyone everywhere. As such, it resonates with Christian ideas of justice, albeit expanding the notion beyond our species to include animals, plants, oceans, and mountains. While most would agree with this notion of togetherness, it does not provide much guidance for action. Even worse, it can be used to legitimate injustice, when the common good takes precedence over individual rights.
Reason 7: “Poor and Oppressed Unite”
This argument most explicitly notes how environmental degradation has the greatest impacts on the poor and persons of color across the globe. It also appeals to justice and identifies connections between how we mistreat nature and how we often mistreat other persons: people of color, women, and others.
The strength of this argument is in its consideration for the least of these. It shows that our efforts to care for the needs of others—near and far—are intertwined with our care for creation. Critics argue that trying to tackle poverty and many other forms of oppression while also caring for the earth can be paralyzing.
- Here is a nice article summarizing what scientists can tell us about many aspects of 2021’s historic heat wave.
- You might appreciate how BioLogos answers the question, Why should Christians care for creation?
- Two professors of theology and ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary consider the Bible and creation care in this 30-minute Christ + Culture podcast.
- The National Association of Evangelicals has produced this free booklet on creation care and poverty.
Arguments Offered in Trust
So, why offer any rationales for creation care when we know arguments rarely change minds?
Well, it is true that arguments don’t change minds when they are proffered by persons we don’t trust. They can be effective, however, when made by people we trust. If someone we trust presents facts, we are much more likely to listen rather than offer defenses for our prejudices.
Our churches include individuals we trust, not the least of whom are our pastors. When a church leader or Sunday School teacher offers a rationale, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of it with integrity, folks who may not agree might still listen. They might ask inquisitive questions and find points of connection between their own values and motivations and the arguments being offered.
At the very least, an environment that fosters trust can get us talking and listening. And that is the minimum requirement needed if we are going to make inroads in all that currently divides us. Nothing will change if we can’t even talk about it.