Global warming, storm warnings, and the future of the church
James Lovelock argues in The Vanishing Face of Gaia - to be published in the UK on 26th February1 - that the earth is suffering from a terrible and probably incurable sickness caused by human industrial and agricultural activity, that the various therapeutic technologies and practices currently being developed offer at best an illusory hope of saving the planet and at worst are likely to exacerbate the problem, and that politicians should abandon the effort to avert the crisis and instead set their minds to the challenge of living with the devastating consequences of climate change. Indeed, 'living' may barely be an option: 'I am not a willing Cassandra,' he writes, 'and in the past have been publicly sceptical about doom stories, but this time we do have to take seriously the possibility that global heating may all but eliminate people from the Earth.'
Much of the earth will become uninhabitable, which means that the remaining areas - including a Britain greatly reduced in size by rising sea levels - will be under pressure from huge numbers of climate refugees. In the first place, this will create a moral problem far more agonizing than our current immigration dilemmas: 'The ethics of a lifeboat world where the imperative is survival are wholly different from those of the cosy self-indulgence of the latter part of the 20th century.' But as the lifeboat becomes overloaded and food and water supplies run low, we face the prospect of mass starvation, severe social disorder, and desperate inter-communal violence.
It's too late for the great planet earth
If this is how things stand, then what we will need, Lovelock believes, is not some new planet-saving technology or even international co-operation over the reduction of CO2 emissions. What we will need is the sort of leadership that brought Britain through the crisis of the Second World War. What we will need is another Churchill 'to lead us from the clinging, flabby, consensual thinking of the late 20th century and bind the nation into a single-minded effort to wage a difficult war'.
Lovelock foresees at some point the suspension of democracy, perhaps as the result of disastrous flooding, which will provide the opportunity for a Churchillian figure to emerge, 'whose rhetoric would fire the nation to make the effort needed to adapt properly to change instead of just patching its problems in an incoherent way'. Any effective response to the crisis is likely to come not from international organizations but from 'some form of internal tribal coherence and rare leadership'. The armed forces will have to be expanded in order to maintain social stability, but there will also be an urgent redeployment of technological resources, which may - or may not - improve climate conditions.
'I hope it will work,' Lovelock writes, 'but I do not think humans as a species are yet clever enough to handle the coming environmental crisis and I fear that they will spend their efforts trying to combat global heating instead of trying to adapt and survive in the new hot world.'
The church of the perfect storm
This is science as prophecy. An unorthodox figure, on the fringes of the establishment, challenges the self-soothing consensus, predicts catastrophic judgment on a profligate and complacent society, and urges the world to accept its punishment like a man - much as Jeremiah urged the exiles to come to terms with their Babylonian captivity. Which makes you wonder, of course, what this all means for the church. On the one hand, is the church sufficiently awake to the seriousness - even if only the potential seriousness - of this crisis? On the other, what sort of prophetic voice should the church have?
In the opening chapter of The Church of the Perfect Storm editor Len Sweet suggests that the church is heading into a 'perfect storm' that is likely to mean the 'end of Christianity as we know it'. The three 'category 5' factors that have converged to generate this exceptional crisis for the church are i) the 'tsunami known as postmodernity', ii) the 'big hurricane... called post-Christendom', and iii) global warming, which is already a climatic feature and does not need metaphorizing.
In brief, the argument goes roughly like this: in a postmodern world the Church is not at all sure what sort of truth it has; in a post-Christendom world no one else really cares; and with global warming threatening massive demographic and social disruption (robotics, genetics, informatics, nano-technology, and globalization also feature prominently in Sweet's nightmare), we've all got much more important things to be worrying about anyway.
The 'perfect storm' metaphor is rather overworked and gets badly tangled at times ('Storms prune and purify'?), but I'm not sure that Sweet greatly overstates the matter. On the whole, I agree that these three conditions determine the macro-level historical environment within which the church must redefine itself - and subsequent chapters, by a variety of church leaders who have seen the storm clouds gathering, go some way towards identifying the qualities and practices that may just keep the church afloat.
The next eschatological horizon?
When Paul speaks of a Day of fire that will test the construction of Christian communities (1 Cor. 3:10-15), he is not thinking simply of a final judgment when the whole game will be over and prizes will be handed out to best-performing apostles. What he has in mind is a 'day' of persecution, in the not too distant future, which will put the church under severe strain and reveal in a very practical and painful way the character of its collective faith in the God who judges and renews his people (see 'Christian workers and the day of fire'). The Letter, then, can be seen as Paul's attempt to ensure that the church in Corinth will still be standing after the fire. The urgent call that he makes for unity, reliance on the cross, holiness, a radical eschatological lifestyle, mutual respect and support, confidence in the resurrection, etc., can all be understood in light of this overarching but contingent purpose.
I would suggest that the church today needs a similar prophetic and 'eschatological' orientation to its thought and teaching. Similar, but not the same. Sweet's perfect storm and Paul's Day of fire constitute quite different challenges - and this, in the first place, must be a matter of theological interpretation and prophetic discernment. How do we define our existence in relation to creation? In what mode of being does the people of God embody in itself the renewal of creation? What do we have to say that is not already being said with much greater conviction and credibility by scientists such as James Lovelock? How do we avoid giving the impression that we are not just jumping on the bio-fueled environmentalist band-wagon?
Of course, it may all turn out to be a perfect storm in a tea cup; green technologies may save the day; and perhaps with a few adjustments to the power supply the monster machine of progress will continue to function more or less as normal. Who knows, really? But I think, nevertheless, that we have to take Paul's example in 1 Corinthians seriously. The church should be gifted with foresight; and if we are right to claim that we are God's new creation, both actually and proleptically, we will surely, sooner or later, have to ask ourselves some very hard questions about what sort of people we would need to become in the event of the sort of environmental catastrophe that Lovelock describes.