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Love in a Time of Climate Change: Honoring Creation, Establishing Justice by Sharon Delgado


 

[1] Asked to review Sharon Delgado’s Love in a Time of Climate Change, I was not impressed when flipping through it for the first time.  The usual politically progressive boxes seem to have been checked off: Biblical interpretation centering on creation themes, catalogues of the scary impacts of climate change, an indictment of the fossil-fuel industry and western economic development generally, a sacramental view of nature, a celebration of indigenous wisdom, and of course, copious suggestions for action, both personal and political.  Delgado appears to be ringing the expected changes for an audience she knows well from her decades of activism.  But I wondered if there is anything to set her book apart as a noteworthy contribution to the budding ethics literature on climate change?  

[2] One element stands out as potentially original: her use of John Wesley’s four reference points (the “Wesleyan quadrilateral”) to organize her argument.  Clearly she intends to be systematic.   The book is divided in two parts, and in each half she utilizes the quadrilateral to focus her material.  The first half of the book is devoted to creation; her purpose is to sensitize Christian consciences to the abysmal degradation of air and earth now proceeding apace and awaken more determined efforts at protection.  The second half is devoted to injustice, and particularly climate justice, where she presses a critique of Western economics and invokes indigenous wisdom as a salutary resource.

[3] In both halves, her aim is to elicit a passionate activist response of intertwined earth- and neighbor-love appropriate to the lethal threat presented by climate change.  She is keenly aware that passion alone can be misguided, as illustrated by her criticism of the narrow and ignorant denial of climate change by conservative churches.  And the more liberal churches she identifies need a structural or systemic analysis which is underdeveloped despite their laudable loving commitments to works of charity.(4-6) 

[4] Appropriately directed passion requires deepened understanding, and for this she turns to the four “lenses” (34) of Wesley’s quadrilateral for discerning truth: scripture, tradition, reason and experience.  She then runs her discussion of creation (first half) and justice (second half) through each of these four sources for interpretation, for a total of eight chapter-length discussions.

[5] Her quadrilateral turn is laudable, for the four Wesleyan ways of knowing (my term, not hers) explicitly invite and encourage discernment of a careful and systematic kind.  The question then is whether and how her eightfold discussion plays out as an original and worthy contribution to climate ethics.  Do all four ways of knowing point in the same direction, or are there tensions, even contradictions, between them?  Are all four ways of knowing accorded equal status, or are some more equal than others?  Bluntly put, does she use the quadrilateral as a tool for open-minded and open-ended exploration and learning, or for ratifying ideas already firmly in place?   Does she let Wesley’s own use of the quadrilateral serve as a spur and a corrective to her thinking, or as more of a rubber stamp?  These questions may seem overly sharp, but when an author invokes the progenitor of her tradition as authority, the book that emerges should reveal some Jacob-like wrestling to bring that figure into conversation with the crisis she is addressing. 

[6] Now, some solid moves are evident.  She does make relevant connections.  On the creation side of her argument, she links Wesley’s appreciation of science to the use of reason and the modern expansion of scientific knowledge (76-79, 86-89), and his three types of grace to the experience of creation (62-70). On the justice side, she brings his idea of “social holiness” forward from tradition and focuses the “experience” dimension of absorbing and expressing a love which powers justice (159-61).  All these seem reasonable expansions of Wesley’s own ideas (at least as I dimly recall them from graduate study).   Her discussions are admirably compact and flow very well; she applies Wesley directly and efficiently—the fruit, I gather, of many conversations with lay people wanting to respond faithfully to the climate crisis.

[7] However,  Delgado’s two scriptural interpretations do not show the same critical acumen, which is problematic for the authority of her argument rests primarily upon them, as far as I can see.  First, on the creation side, she brings forward Romans 8, which she considers in light of tradition, reason and experience—a quad within the quad, as it were.   Tradition (Wesley’s sermon on this passage) and reason tell her that the suffering of creation is due to human dominion gone off the rails, while experience confirms that we humans share in the victimhood of all creation, as well as being the perpetrators.(48-53)  This anthropocentric focus, reinforced by Delgado’s emphasis on human earth care in her interpretation of earlier Biblical passages (46-47) is perhaps understandable for Wesley in his own time, but does encourage a misreading of the text in our own.  For whatever Paul intended his mysterious invocation of creation’s suffering to mean, he makes it clear that the suffering is caused not by humans but by God, in service of anticipated future redemption.(Rom. 8:20-21)  Paul’s emphasis on divine agency as causal agent  in creation is consistent with the Biblical witness going back through the Old Testament prophets to the Flood.  In this classically Biblical theocentric view, God is the agent, sending natural disasters as punishment for human sin. 

[8] Delgado’s anthropocentric focus is misfortunate because it effectively short-circuits a much-needed discussion.  By attributing causal agency exclusively to humans, she begs the main question that can be derived from the Bible in conversation with current climatic trends: will the God who covenanted in Genesis 8:21 and 9:15 never to destroy creation now proceed to let humanity destroy itself, as the ultimate earthly punishment?   Or is there an effective divine grace which will accomplish the rescue that we ourselves cannot?  I wonder if the Romans passage offers any insight regarding this haunting question.  What exactly does Paul mean by rescue which transforms?  Does that offer us any hope for the few decades which we apparently have left to restore the climate?  It would have been interesting to see Delgado pursue questions of this sort.

[9] Second, on the justice side, Delgado brings forward the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) and interprets it as commending compassion—empathic service of neighbor.   Delgado draws on Wesley’s own warm compassion for all living creatures to distinguish those neighbors who suffer from those who cause suffering.  She concludes that we are ambiguously in both camps as victims and as unwilling perpetrators of harm to creation.  As perpetrators, she recommends that we distance ourselves from fossil-fuel interests; as victims, we need to side with and learn from the climate justice movement—themes which she proceeds to develop through the remaining chapters on ‘justice’, drawn through tradition, reason and experience. 

[10] Yet I wonder if anthropocentrism once again undermines her interpretation.  Namely, how much scriptural support there is for her identification with the victim in Luke’s parable?   The ‘plain sense’ of the parable is that compassion rightly extends outward, to victims who are despised and powerless.  There is nothing in the text to suggest that we ought to see ourselves in the victims rather than in the righteous passers-by.  I doubt we can extend the parable to argue that Jesus is commending compassion for those of us who are powerful enough to insulate ourselves against climatic disruption, and respectable enough to claim moral high ground against those who deny anthropogenic climate change is occurring.  

[11] I’ve devoted much of this review to the scriptural leg of Delgado’s quadrilateral because it appears the main springboard for her argument, particularly in the justice half of the book.   The ‘justice’ chapters convey Delgado’s experience and convictions most powerfully, no doubt because they are grounded in her long personal involvement in the climate-justice movement.  They seem to me the strongest of the book.  Yet I wonder if the anthropocentric cast of her biblical interpretation effectively deflects her attention to an emergent truth about climate change: the strong possibility that the game may already be over.  As Bill McKibben recently argues in Rolling Stone, we have very little time left to reduce drastically the amount of carbon and other climate-changing gases we spew into the atmosphere.[1]  “Win soon or suffer the consequences.” The climate crisis, after all, is not your ordinary human injustice.  We are staring into a not-so-distant future which threatens to destroy civilization as we know it.  Before 2100, it is quite likely that rising temperatures and the disruptions may make large portions of the earth uninhabitable.[2]  Indeed, by 2100, the very end of the human species may be in view.   While most scientists are cautiously skeptical in their appraisal of trends, there is worrying evidence of feedback loops and vicious synergies that may accelerate into the realm of the unpredictable and irreversible.[3]  

[12] Delgado herself hints at the existential threat to the human species in several places (3, 22, 27-30, 67-69), but she does not put Wesley or Wesleyan ideas in conversation with the dismal apocalypse bearing down upon us.   I expect she is trying hard to not demoralize the progressive troops who crave grounds for hoping that the climate can be stabilized.  But does not a treatment of ‘creation’ need to take seriously the increasing likelihood that beyond all the various “tipping points” of irreversible change lies the catastrophic crash, perhaps demise, of the human species?  The question then is what religious, moral and political vision might emerge from acknowledging that the human civilizational game is over.  

[13] Perhaps if John Wesley alive today, he might come up with a hope and plan of action similar to that of Delgado.  He might retain belief in the efficacy of sanctification, or progress in holiness.  He might commend a movement of “personal” holiness oriented to preserving creation in combination with “social” holiness against corporate capitalism--just as he opposed colonialism and slavery in his day.(122-128)  Perhaps….but then again, Wesley’s indefatigable religious passion might move in a different direction if the science and reason of our day convinced him that the end of human civilization and perhaps of the species was visible on the horizon.  The “holiness” question then shifts to: how Christians might graciously live as if this century were the last that has been allotted to us? 

[14] Since Wesley alas cannot speak, let me offer two suggestions in a Lutheran vein.   First, we might begin with a posture of lament and confession; grief for what we are very likely to lose, due to our collective failure, and confession that we indeed cannot now save ourselves.  Second, we might heed Martin Luther’s advice to ‘plant a tree’ (even if Luther may never have said that.)   That tree would be symbol of contrition, hope, grounded in faith--even in the God who letting us do ourselves in. 

[15] A new inclusive ethic might follow from this lament, confession and affirmation.  Lutherans might encourage everyone, including and especially corporate America, to join in the work of planting that carbon-eating tree.  That means making the massive investment needed in renewable energy and other carbon-reducing technology.  Such inclusiveness is unlikely to satisfy Delgado, who commends turning away from the “dominant economic and development model” to “indigenous” wisdom. (79-83,145-151)  Basically she thinks we need to replant the entire landscape of our current economic system.  I would not scoff at such hope.  Such a transformation might work, as Methodist history attests.  After all, the Wesleyan movement sparked a miracle no one expected—a broad and sustained uplift of the lower classes of British society.  I for one would not discourage Delgado’s program, even though I think its Biblical foundation is weak and its theology unhelpfully anthropocentric.  

[16] Still, I think there is a distinctly different Lutheran note to be sounded given the appalling gravity and even finality of the climate emergency.  From this admittedly apocalyptic perspective, there is little point in focusing on personal and social holiness, in parsing out degrees of victimization, or in privileging certain ideologies, theologies or types of wisdom, as Delgado pursues climate justice in the second half of the book.  Social critique is needed, but with a nonideological focus.  Jarred by the raw theocentric insight that we are not in control, we should be calling out the privileged who think they can insulate themselves against the consequences of climate change, reminding them of their common fate with the rest of us.  More important, we need to go to where the money is, to pursue—with the desperation of a Cassandra cursed with foreknowledge--the transformation of our carbon-spewing energy system.

[17] The way forward lies in recruiting everyone to the effort. All hands are needed on deck of our particular Titanic.  As McKibben puts it, “The best chance of forcing the future, of course, lies with movements – with people gathering in large enough numbers to concentrate the minds of CEOs and presidential candidates.”  Martin Luther called the powerful of his day to responsible care of society.  Our task is the same.  It includes the rhetoric of prophetic judgment and shaming, to be sure—just as Luther smote callous and brutal princes with words of harsh judgment.   But the overall strategy is to recruit the powers that be to the larger task of saving creation with the energy that comes from despair.  The scope of the emergency demands no less, even if human creation cannot be saved.  For this, our theology must be theocentric rather than anthropocentric.  If we confess our inability to save ourselves, perhaps by some unimaginable miracle we might just escape the extinction of all we hold dear about human life.

[18] I’m not sure Delgado would sign on to my apocalyptic altar call.  Her book assumes that good church folk need to be energized by belief in their potential efficacy, so they can be roused from timid awareness to confident engagement with the destructive forces of carbon fundamentalism.  Her chapters are comfortingly cogent, compact and clearly written—honed by her decades of climate activism.  She provides an easily readable map of what progressive forces are thinking and ought to be feeling just now.  In short, I am sure her argument fits her audience better than my apocalyptic imagination.  I just wonder if her Methodist optimism is enough, given the short time left to us to resist climate change.

 

Stewart Herman is a retired professor of ethics from Concordia College Moorhead.



[1] “Winning Slowly Is the Same as Losing”  By Bill McKibben, Rolling Stone, 04 December 2017.  http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/47200-focus-winning-slowly-is-the-same-as-losing.  Accessed December 8, 2017.

[2] Stephen Leahy.  Parts of Asia May Be Too Hot for People by 2100.  National Geographic News, August 2, 2017.  https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/08/south-asia-heat-waves-temperature-rise-global-warming-climate-change/. Accessed December 11, 2017.

[3] For a recent survey of trends converging upon an uninhabitable earth by 2100, see David Wallace-Wells, “The Uninhabitable Earth”, New York Magazine, July 9, 2017. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html.  Accessed November 30, 2017. Note also the criticisms by scientists, who found some significant errors but fault the article mainly for dwelling on the most negative scenarios. 

https://climatefeedback.org/evaluation/scientists-explain-what-new-york-magazine-article-on-the-uninhabitable-earth-gets-wrong-david-wallace-wells/ . Accessed November 30, 2017. http://mashable.com/2017/07/10/new-york-mag-climate-story-inaccurate-doomsday-scenario/#TLKGdkqjxPqb  Accessed November 30, 2017.   The scientists appear no less driven than Delgado by the conviction that climate change can be resolved; the question is whether a responsibly framed review ought to encompass the possibility that it cannot.  For example, left unaddressed is what happens when the trendlines--rising temperatures, increasingly toxic air pollution, reduced precipitation, declining agricultural yield, increasingly violent weather, rising oceans marked as well by declining biological productivity, crashing animal populations--all converge. 


 

 

Articles published in the journal reflect the perspectives and thoughts of their authors and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.​


© March/April 2018
​Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 18, Issue 2

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