Adaptive theologies for a changing climate

My friend Ruth Valerio has a typically thoughtful and well-written blog post up about the need for adaptive theologies in the face of our changing climate, to which she drew my attention when we were talking about something else. (If you don’t follow Ruth’s blog, you should; she offers intelligent and important comment, and also delicious recipes!)

Ruth draws on a distinction now standard in discussions of climate change between ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’. We can, and should, attempt to mitigate the damage done to the environment by radically reducing fossil fuel use, extensively planting trees, or whatever; at the same time, we have to acknowledge that climate change is already irreversible, and so there is a need to adapt our lives and practices for the new reality of a warmed world: we should ask what patterns of crop planting in tropical zones will be most resistant to spreading desertification as the temperature continues to rise, for example. In her post, Ruth suggests that most of our theological responses to climate change have so far been about mitigation: we have tried to highlight the issue, and to commend low-carbon strategies as a part of Christian discipleship. This is not wrong – indeed, it is profoundly right – but, Ruth suggests, we need to go further, and think about theology for a warmed world – an adaptive theological response.

My initial reaction was to suggest to Ruth that what she was looking for was a Christian ethics more than a theology; I now think that reaction was wrong, or at least only half right. Clearly, there are ethical issues to do with adaptation: can we run conferences the way we do? is our practice of mission, even, which increasingly involves regular air travel, something that needs to be changed? should we already be thinking of alternatives to the ‘attractional’ church model, which assumes that people from a wide area will drive to a large building to enjoy an energy-hungry service? These, and broader, ethical issues have to be on the table. I think, however, that Ruth is right to suggest that there are theological issues also, and that I was wrong to try to deflect that suggestion.

It is not possible to read the literature on climate change without quickly tripping over a third term added to ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’; the third term is ‘suffering’. Every mission agency worthy of the name is already trumpeting the fact that climate change is causing serious suffering to the poorest people in tropical regions: patterns of subsistence farming that were precariously adequate are being rendered impossible by global warming. The suffering caused by our changing climate is destined only to increase, in one way or another: at worst, rich Western nations will be able to maintain our standards of living by inflicting astonishing levels of suffering on our sisters and brothers in less developed countries; at best, we will all share in a painful re-alignment of our patterns of life as part of our mitigation of, and adaptation to, the changing climate (and other realities, such as oil reserves running out).

It is not hard to spot the general historical response to increased suffering theologically: Christian populations who find life hard in this world look increasingly to the next world, and to the promise of an easier time in the coming Kingdom. This is, of course, not wrong and, where the suffering was imposed from without, it can be read as a testimony to the explanatory power of the Christian worldview. Slaves in the southern states of America, for instance, constructed a spirituality (enshrined musically in the spirituals) that focused extensively on the promise of good things in heaven, and that spirituality enabled at least some to maintain their hope and dignity in the face of brutal injustice in their present life. Such a spirituality might be criticised for being too ‘other-worldly’, but the critic must acknowledge that the experience of suffering in the present is such that there is great theological power in holding out for a better future. There is a degree of distortion in such theologies, but for the one suffering brutally through no fault of her own, that distortion appears appropriate, and she should continue to preach in such terms to her congregation.

What, however, if the suffering of the present life is caused precisely by our own culpable neglect of the Christian mandate for creation care? Here, I am talking not about people in Africa whose traditional agricultural practices are being rendered ineffective by climate change, but about people in Europe and North America whose lifestyle choices – en masse – have caused and are causing precisely the climate change, or lack of fossil fuels, or whatever it might be, that now threatens them. If we respond to increased suffering in the traditional manner, embracing apocalyptic and eschatological views of Christianity that downplay the significance of the present order in their longing for it to be overthrown, we place ourselves in an invidious position, in that we distort the faith in ways that encourage us to continue in the faults that led to the suffering we now experience. A theology that permits us to minimise the fault of our own particular sins is never a good theology.

So, I think Ruth was right to call for an ‘adaptive’ theology in the face of climate change. It will be a theology that is not less, but more, creation-focused than our theologies have been recently, and so that will highlight the faults and sins that led to the present and coming climate disruptions. For us in the West, it will be an uncomfortable theology, in that our own sins will be paraded as central to the brokenness of the world we live in; but an adequately Christian theology will always hold out hope for every sinner who genuinely repents, and so it will be a theology that invites us to a change of life, in which we are part of the solution, not part of the problem; in so changing our lives, forgiveness for the past and hope for the future will be offered.

Does this matter? My own conviction can be stated thus: the Reformed tradition of theology has a notion of a status confessionis: a question on which, in the contemporary situation, it may fairly be stated that Christian discipleship stands, or falls. For me, our response to climate change is precisely such an issue: if we choose wrongly, our discipleship is in vain. I base this judgement on readings of the mandate given to humanity in Genesis – we are failing to be the people God called us to be if we do not place environmental concern front and centre in our discipleship.


  1. Byron Smith
    Nov 19, 2012

    Thanks Steve. As an evangelical working on a PhD in climate ethics at Edinburgh, this is a very helpful reflection.

    My question is whether escapist eschatologies are really as innocuous to the oppressed as you imply. I agree that they may maintain a level of stability in personal and corporate identity in the face of the potential disruptive effects of sustained suffering. Yet I would argue that there is a big difference between both the politics and eschatology of, say, the Apocalypse and that of Negro spirituals. As a contrast, consider another theology of the oppressed with a very different agenda: liberation theology. I’m no expert on the history of US slavery, but could it be that the hope of otherworldly bliss functioned as an opiate of the masses, enabling both master and slave to defer the claims of justice to the afterlife and so preserving a measure of spiritual identity at the cost of delaying abolition?

  2. David Reimer
    Nov 19, 2012

    Hi Steve – grateful for your reflections, as ever! Two quick (I think) reactions from a drive-by commenter….

    (1) I’d like to lean into the unease you expressed in the second paragraph, questioning your own initial thought that “what she was looking for was a Christian ethics more than a theology”. I confess I have come under the sway of Oliver O’Donovan. The more I’ve pondered analogous problems myself, the more I’ve come to believe he’s right in wanting to break down the wall that divides “theology” and “ethics”. In the introduction to his Ways of Judgment (pp. ix-x) he writes this:

    I am more cautious now about the pseudo-disciplinary designations, ‘political theology and ‘political ethics.’ They correspond in a rough way, it is true, to the two ways of ordering the discussion, theological questions uppermost in the one, political questions in the other. But the suggested contrast of theory and practice, ‘theology’ and ‘ethics,’ is misleading. The mysterious relation between the reflective and deliberative operations of moral thought does not allow that kind of subject-division between them. Practical deliberation has no subject matter of its own but what is given it by reflection, and reflection needs no practical supplement other than simply turning the attention to the demands of action.

    It seems to me something like this at work in your comments, in which the reflective and deliberative find themselves “circular” in the very best sense.

    2. (And now for something completely different.) Towards the end of this piece you turn to destructive lifestyles which oppose the Christian mandate for stewarding creation, and write: “I am talking not about people in Africa whose traditional agricultural practices are being rendered ineffective by climate change…”.

    Only to point out here that at least in Malawi (a small country that I know something about at first hand) (“Africa” being a very big place, after all), it is not even a question of “traditional agriculture”. Our forebears ensured that was lost some generations ago. In the past 40-50 years or so, what has replaced it wholesale is intensive monocropping with heavy dependence on chemical fertilizers. And affluent Western nations even in recent times have applauded fertilizer subsidies, as if this was the way forward.

    Here is something else to repent of, and then in conjuction with brothers and sisters (whom we are “neighbour to”, in this global village) seek to repair by recovering methods of farming that are resonant with the faithful stewarding to which God’s people are called.

    Yes — very difficult to hold “theolgy” and “ethics” apart, or at least, it should be.

  3. ruthv
    Nov 20, 2012

    Hi Steve, thanks for this, it’s well put. I think Richard Bauckham is doing some nice work in this area. He spoke at a conference I was involved in running last year and he spoke on the interplay between proximate and ultimate hope, and how the virtuous trio of faith, hope and love can help us in our current situation. I wrote a simplified summary of it here:

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