By Rev. Dr Chris Walker
I attended a two-day conference titled “Pilgrims with the Planet” which had Ernst Conradie of South Africa as the keynote speaker. He has written extensively in the eco-theology field and raised the issue of climate change and providence. I will offer my own thoughts following my reflections on the conference.
Climate change is a major issue for humanity to deal with. For the first time in human history, it is human activity, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels, which has caused the current rapid increase in global temperature. We are in danger of making the planet a much less hospitable place in which to live. Having said that, where is God in relation to climate change? Where is providence?
There are different ways to view God’s connection to creation. The deistic approach says that God created then left creation to its own devices. God watches from afar but is not involved. The pantheistic approach holds that God is identified with creation so that what happens to creation involves God intimately. There is no transcendence but only immanence. The Christian doctrine of creation is that God created out of nothing and holds it in being. God is transcendent to creation but also immanent through God’s Spirit which permeates the creation. Creation does not change independent of God or with God bound to creation, but God is involved through God’s Spirit.
Another important consideration is that God gave creation ‘relative independence’. This means that while the world is ultimately dependent on God for its existence and continuation, God does not determine everything that happens. Nor does God take a hands-off approach. The world changes and develops and God is present with and in all that happens. Creation through natural processes and especially humans have a degree of freedom which God grants and respects. There is a relative independence such that developments can take place which God does not will. Again, while God allows this, God also wants the best for and from creation, particularly humans. God is involved seeking to move creation and humans towards God’s desired ends. This is providence. God called creation ‘good’ (Genesis 1) and continues to care for all creation including but not only humans.
While the ‘big bang’ and ‘evolution’ theories can be understood apart from bringing in God, from a Christian perspective God’s Spirit is involved from the first instant of creation which set up the conditions in which life could emerge through to the human species coming to be. It is not necessary to say that God determines every instance of this development but it is necessary to say that God’s Spirit was involved even if we cannot be too specific as to how, when and where.
With the emergence of the human species God created beings who have increased freedom and with that greater responsibility for the environment in which they live. Humans might have developed to the point of some feeling as though they are above creation, nevertheless they are still part of creation. They need to take responsibility for its well-being which is also for their own welfare. Because humans have been given freedom which God respects, it is possible for developments to take place which are against God’s purposes. There is then an interaction between God’s Spirit which would move creation and humans toward God’s intended goal and human freedom which can grieve the Spirit and be counter to God’s desire for creation and humans.
It seems to me that climate change is a clear instance of human activity which is now opposed to God’s intention for creation. One could also say that the development and use of nuclear weapons was against God’s will. God does not intend the suffering that extreme weather events bring caused by climate change or the death and destruction caused by nuclear and other weapons.
What biblical justification do I have for what has been written? Genesis gives two accounts of creation both of which, while the sequence is different, emphasise that God is the creator of all. Psalm 104 speaks of God’s Spirit being involved in creating, upholding and renewing creatures: “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send forth your spirit they are created and you renew the face of the ground.” Jesus says that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). He also says to those opposed to him: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3). They failed to interpret the critical nature of the times and that Jesus is God’s agent announcing the incoming reign of God.
Earlier I said that God is immanent by God’s Spirit. God was also immanent in Jesus. Through Jesus God was acting in the world. He ushered in God’s rule and demonstrated it by signs of healing, casting out demons and symbolic actions. God’s providential care was evident in Jesus as he responded to suffering and human need. He also called disciples to join him and continue the ministry and mission of God he began. Jesus’ death and resurrection give us hope.
When we talk of providence, it is not a matter of distinguishing what comes about by God and what occurs through human agency. Rather God is at work especially in and through people even without their conscious knowledge at times. Christians hold that God’s Spirit is working in regard to reconciliation and renewal which is for the whole creation (Romans 8). The current challenge of climate change is largely due to human action. Humans have become so numerous and powerful due to technological developments that the whole world is affected. In response, humans need to cooperate with God’s intention for the good of all creatures and the whole planet.