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A Change of Climate for Political Theology?

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On March 31st the details of the most recent IPCC report on the potential global impacts of climate change were made public. These include an increase in extreme weather events and thus more droughts and floods; subsequent shortage of certain food and other resources leading to social unrest and international conflict; the threat of rising sea levels to many coastal areas and cities, most notably in already vulnerable areas.

The prospects for a world in which human-induced climate change pervade, now look increasingly dire, and are worrying to say the least. With this in mind, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, entered the debate in his capacity as Chair of Christian Aid in an article published in the Sunday Telegraph. Williams lays blame squarely on the shoulders of the already industrialized West and lavish lifestyles now taken for granted. He points out that those on the front line of these changes are already suffering and that, therefore, there is a need to act now, not defer response to some indefinite future.

All of this is timely and appropriate, although the warnings have been there for well over two decades and go as far back as the World Council of Churches objectives for ‘Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation’ from the late 1980s. Is it already too late to avert some of the worst consequences of climate change and is it simply a matter now of mitigation and adaptation?

The challenge for the various environmental movements, including faith-based ones, during this period of growing certainty of what is happening, but growing uncertainty of what it might mean, has been that of balancing fear and hope. The initial strategy was to try to get policy makers and power brokers to take climate change seriously in order to prevent the worst occurring. But now that this appears to have failed, the only response left is to “man the lifeboats” in the hope that things may not be quite as bad as we had feared.

Both church and theology have struggled to know where to locate themselves, even when they have bothered to register the seriousness of the situation. With a few notable exceptions, we have arrived late on the scene, and even now many do not see this as a major agenda item as churches tear themselves, and each other apart on issues of sexuality, gender and internal authority. “Fiddling while Rome burns” perhaps?

And yet, each of the concerns above will play themselves out through the other major subjects of Political Theology, those of poverty, equality, justice, and striving for a better world. So, as Michael Northcott has argued in his recent book A Political Theology of Climate Change, the looming environmental crisis has to be an issue for Political Theology. Unlike many of his fellow travellers in Christian environmental movements, Northcott attempts a substantial contemporary theological engagement to add to the many practical projects that now exist. He also extends this into discussions of some of the less obvious but vital philosophical resources such as the work of A.N. Whitehead and Bruno Latour.

Northcott’s work is to be commended, taken on and developed further. But, even this might not go far enough. A full scale reassessment of the relationship between the human and the non-human, of the established wisdom of separating nature from culture, and indeed of how new scientific conceptualities on the themes of emergence and matter itself, need to be brought into the discussion. Those of us working on what we call a Relational Christian Realism are perhaps best placed to pursue these lines of thought. Relational Christian Realism, amongst other things, involves eschewing any form of Christian Imperialism; taking into account the insights of other disciplines; acknowledging the inescapable entanglements of faith-based material practices, and recognising the limits of human autonomy.

Time may be short, but the challenge to the human species is essentially still that which some of us raised over 20 years ago (see for example The Earth Beneath: A Critical Guide to Green Theology, eds Ball, Goodall, Palmer and Reader, SCPK, 1992). Namely, how do we need to understand ourselves differently in order to relate more appropriately to the creation of which we are only one part? This is the change of climate now impinging upon Political Theology.

John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

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