‘The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He has given to men.” Psalm 115:16
Is Greta Thunberg crazy? A prophet? Both?
Even some members of the German press raised an eyebrow at her dramatic address at the recent United Nations Climate Summit in New York. If they, the leaders of the climate protection charge in Europe were taken aback, then there should be no arguing about the fact that young Ms. Thunberg over-reached in that most visible of world pulpits. Over-reach and over-emote she certainly did.
That said, it would be foolish to dismiss her too quickly. Like it or not, she has become the face of the latest mass social change movement to ripple its way through the cultural and political fabric of the Western world, that of climate activism.
It is a social cause and force that is not going away anytime soon. Certainly the volume of media stories on the topic of climate change, and the rhetoric for action to protect the earth has continued to grow in the American cultural and political scene. The level of conversation in America about climate activism pales in comparison to the place the same topic holds in the public square of Europe, most especially in Central and Northern Europe.
Largely unnoticed in America until very recently, the “Fridays for Future” rallies for the protection of the environment, in which thousands of young children skip school classes on Fridays to advocate for climate change legislation, have become a major public fixture in Europe. The Green parties have made major gains in recent European elections, pushing all the established centrist European parties on the Continent to up their public rhetoric on climate protection. The interest in climate activism is growing among the young who, like each new generation, hunger for some cause to promote. Climate activism has arrived on the scene as a major captivator of minds and hearts across a wide demographic spectrum.
Whose Turf is Greener?
What does a Christian make of all this? Like so many things these days, it is confusing, which underscores the need for some critical ecclesial analysis of this latest social activist cause.
Noteworthy is the case of another recent person in the press who did not grab nearly the media attention of Ms. Thunberg but whose story nonetheless brings the crux of the dilemma of an adequate Christian response into clearer focus.
Bishop Stefan Oster of the Diocese of Passau, Germany drew some public fire for openly marching in the recent Fridays for Future Climate Strike march in Passau with the youth and other activists of the city. He expressed his admiration for the cause of protecting the environment and the passion of the youth. For his public support, Bishop Oster received sharp criticism from the local leftist political leadership for showing the Church’s face in an arena in which they said it does not belong. The implication being: “this is a secular, government matter in which you and the Church have no voice.”
The Bishop Oster story is instructive for different reasons. For one, the sentiments of that local official sum up much of what is wrong with the Green movement in its current manifestation. Also, one might argue that Bishop Oster is on the right track for what is needed by way of response from the Church, although his example is only a small first step.
The Green Counter-Religion
A purely secular Green movement, or even a mildly Christian version that is awash in neo-pantheistic thinking, is a flawed ideology. Ironically, it is not difficult to identify the manner in which it also has all the trappings of its own religion.
Consider the parallels (which others have pointed out long ago) between Christianity and the ideology of climate activism in its secular manifestations. At the heart of it is what every modern social activist movement requires for its success, namely, a victim. Impactful political, social movements in recent times have come to the rescue of the vulnerable victims of racial minorities, of unborn children, of people who are attracted to the same sex, of people who are unsure of how to live their gender just to name a few. In the Christian West, as Rene Girard so astutely noted, the ongoing need to come to the defense of some publicly identifiable victim in a social system is deeply ingrained.
In the case of the climate activist movement, the latest victim for public concern and heart-felt sympathy is the earth itself, with a variety of victim subsets being especially fragile species and environmental zones. Only secondarily, contrary to the Green rhetoric, is humanity itself the real victim of concern that is driving the activist forces. This is because, again following Girard, systems also require scapegoats which in the current cultural discourse of climate activism is modern humanity itself.
With the identification of a victim comes the necessary moral codes of conduct, the “Commandments” about what is required of persons and societies in order to protect the victim. From this comes the growing litany of personal, social, or corporate wrongs, or sins, that are harming the victim of the environment. From that follows the shaming of any entity that does not adhere to the emerging commandments of environmental protection.
There are creeds in this religion. They are formulated by the high priests and clergy of secular green activism, namely, the scientific community. The scientists are the holders of the knowledge that makes clear the pathway to perdition, and they are the ones who can offer any new scientific remedies that alone can bring salvation.
There are sacramental events, or rituals, in the Green religion, for example recycling. There are indulgences, most specifically the selling and purchasing of “Carbon Offsets” by those who can afford to buy their way into emission neutrality. There is also the apocalyptic vision of the end of our known existence with rising seas, falling skies, and a whole host of predictions of serious environmental imbalances.
Which all also leads to language of the earth as “mother,” essentially as a pagan deity, and with its deification comes the need to offer up sacrifices to protect and satisfy her. The most benign of those sacrificial offerings is the elimination of wasteful systems and ways of living, for example doing away with air conditioning, or with air travel. The most serious sacrificial offerings are the elimination of humans themselves by proposing, for example, that we abort children in impoverished parts of the world in order to save the planet.
Understanding the secular Green movement as a religion, or perhaps a counter-religion, offers important insights into its persuasive power, its appeal to emotion, and its ability to change hearts for good or for ill. It also explains how it is easy for adherents of the secular Green activist movement to view themselves as an alternative power center to traditional institutions such as governments, or more interestingly to the Church.
An authentic Christian response to the rising, secular climate activist movement must begin by honestly assessing the movement for exactly what it is: a competitive religion that is in some key ways incompatible with the Christian faith.
The Green Movement Is Not Without Merits and Requires Engagement
That being said, our response cannot stop only at the point of merely identifying a competitor. Doing so misses the truth at the heart of the climate activist movement, namely, that it is possible and important for humanity to act as more careful stewards of creation. Indeed every heresy or false religion has truth buried inside of it, and this new counter-religion is no different. Some of the concrete behavioral change practices that Green activism promotes are responsible and appropriate.
Choosing to view the secular Green activist movement merely as a competitor also keeps the Church on the margins of what will be a major and important social movement of the current era. We cannot allow that to happen for a variety of reasons.
Christ Is The Authentic Redeemer of Man and of the Entire Created Order
For one, and here Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis deserve some credit, the proper care of God’s creation is an important moral issue in an authentic Christian ethos. The primary reason for this has very little to do with secular science, but rather it is a matter of the recovery of, or maintenance of, a proper understanding of the human place in God’s created order as the link between the rest of the created cosmos and God himself. Indeed, God has given the earth to men as the Scriptures indicate, but it is given to us to be utilized in the context of radical communion with God.
Proper Biblical theology, proper Christology, and proper Christian anthropology situate redeemed man at the heart of the divine work of the redemption of creation. At the heart of THAT redemptive work is the Incarnation of Christ, the proclamation of the ethic of discipleship, the death of Christ on the Cross, and His Resurrection.
To put it succinctly, divine revelation teaches that man cannot understand himself, or properly heal his relationship to the rest of creation, without the placement of Christ directly at the center of the entire picture. Only in Christ does man fully understand his divine vocation as link, and steward, over the rest of creation. Only in Christ’s Good Friday sacrifice and Easter Sunday Resurrection can man live out this divine vocation. From this follows the essential role of the Sacraments, in which earthly matter (creation) is elevated in grace for the right recovery of our proper role vis a vis creation, and also for our sanctification to live this vocation.
Furthermore, only in the ethos of the Cross, and Good Friday, does man discover the means to live simply and sacrifically in order to truly use creation wisely and without needless waste. Only in the Resurrection does man fully realize the broad vision of the life to come that liberates us from the narrow vision of a life that is sustainable only by this, temporary planet. Only in the fullness of Biblical revelation does man understand that creation is not identical with the Creator. Only in the fullness of revelation does man understand that human life cannot be sacrificed or killed off in order to satisfy the needs of the resources for humanity as a whole. Only in grace is it possible for man to see that we will be the lynchpin, or the crowning of the created order rightly cared for, rather than the obstacle to its existence.
A More Authentic Christian Response Is Necessary
Sadly enough, it is rare to encounter a well-integrated Christian response to secular Green ideology that both recognizes the merits of the need to care for the earth, while at the same time presenting the necessary solution that comes to us in divine revelation. The secular Green movement, with Ms. Thunberg and all the rest, have landed upon a correct and important cause. However, without Christ, the Sacraments, and revelation, their cause will be forever denied the necessary means for its fulfillment or solution. What is worse, their cause will devolve into a dangerous, anti-human force for evil.
Which brings us back to Bishop Oster. One could say that an important step in the process of evangelizing the secular world on both the merits, as well as the limitations, of their thinking on climate activism is to at least get behind the passion of the cause. The cause for more careful stewardship of the earth’s resources is a good, holy, and noble one, regardless of the continually shifting conclusions of secular science. The Church’s voice needs to be at the table in this ongoing and growing conversation if we are to have any hope of trying to salvage what is good in it, and to change what is flawed or even evil. This will be especially important if we are to allow the youth an arena to find an appropriately Christian expression, or outlet, for their well-placed passion for this cause. For these reasons, I am glad that Bishop Oster marched with the youth.
That said, it is also true that the pastors of the Church, from the very top down, need to sharpen our theological responses and official statements on this topic because most of us do not sound much different than the secularists and pantheists who find all of their salvation in more legislative initiatives and apocalyptic fear-mongering. Our message at the core must be one of grace, of the tradition, of fasting, of prayer, of the ethos of the Saints, of the person of Christ, and of the correct understanding of the person. Without those things, we are just furthering the problem and failing at our prophetic vocation to flood the world with God’s true voice, the only voice that can save.
Our endorsement or advocacy for more specific policy initiatives must be a secondary fruit of our primary reflection upon and articulation of the authentic human vocation. WHAT does it mean exactly to say that God has given the earth to men? The Christian tradition holds all the tools to adequately answer this question in every era, including our own.
It would be interesting for the bishops to publicly announce that our already established norms of Fridays as days of penance, which is still true for all of the year not merely in Lent, can be offered for the conversion of hearts to better care for creation. The only authentic “Fridays for Future” are those that center on the sacrifice of Good Friday. Without that, we are all lost, and no behavior will change at the core. The Church must join in these sentiments now and seize the narrative with authentic thinking before it is too late.
Perhaps this is a naive hope. The secular forces are indeed very ingrained, and maybe some bishops showing up in some Friday marches here and there are not going to accomplish much in the face of the secular machinery that is already such a juggernaut on this, and so many other topics.
That said, what do we have to lose? Especially since, at the core of it, this issue of authentic care of creation has always been our message in the first place, as the Book of Genesis makes very clear. We may as well claim our rightful place as the God-given stewards of the one message there is that can authentically restore the balance of human flourishing and the flourishing of all of God’s creation.