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Pantheism Cannot Save the World from Climate Change


Erik Strandness reviews the climate change discussion between Antonia Godber and Dr Hugh Ross, and argues that our fundamental beliefs about human nature and the universe make a big difference in the search for solutions

The COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference recently concluded in Glasgow and once again put the question of global warming on the front burner. Unbelievable? presented a timely discussion about this issue with climate campaigner Antonia Godber and scientist Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe. Godber recognizes an urgency to the problem but has found that all the alarmist talk has created a paralyzing guilt and anxiety, especially amongst young people, preventing them from becoming a part of the solution. Ross similarly acknowledges that the climate needs our urgent attention and shares Godber’s concern over careless scaremongering. He brought his usual thoughtful academic expertise to the problem and offered hope for the future if we can set aside our differences and adopt a multidisciplinary approach. Both guests realize that getting hot under the collar just raises the temperature of the room and that cooler heads must prevail.

Godber and Ross are in essential agreement about the problem but differ over which religious point of view provides the best foundation upon which to build an effective climate change strategy. While we desperately need human boots on the ground we need to ask ourselves which heavenly perspective best deploys the troops?

You are that Man

Godber believes the climate crisis hasn’t been caused by you or me but by a “very small group of rich men who wanted to get even richer.” In her sessions with parents and children she tells them “You didn’t do this. You didn’t cause it . This is not our fault but it is very much our problem.” She believes that by removing the debilitating guilt she can inspire them to action.

I get the sense that she doesn’t like the idea of humans having dominion but then is forced to make the case that we need to take responsibility and effect change. I suspect she believes that it was dominion that got us into trouble in the first place but is uncomfortable having to use that word to describe the solution.

“It is a very human centric view isn’t it to go back to Genesis. As if the earth was a sort of present to humans. I suppose that is a quite popular belief within Christianity and I suppose I differ there in believing that as opposed to us having dominion over the earth, God given dominion, I believe that we are just a part of the ecosystem itself.” (Godber)

From a Christian perspective, it was the sinful appropriation of dominion that brought on this problem. It is a problem, however, not restricted to a few billionaires but rather cuts through the heart of every man and woman. Godber believes that humans are inherently good but then has to point to the immoral behavior of a select group in order to get the rest of us off the hook. I would agree with Godber that Christians are often too cynical about the possibility of human goodness. We clearly need to acknowledge our divine image before can we recognize the devil in the details. But if we want to fix the problem, we need to begin with the same humbleness G.K. Chesterton exhibited when he answered, “I am,” to the question of what was wrong with the world. We need to be very careful when we tell tales of evil men because once story time is over the ensuing silence will be punctuated by a voice in the back of our head telling us that we are that man.

The world that we have long held in trust has exploded in our hands, and the stream of guilt and misery has been unloosed which leaves no man’s integrity unmaimed. (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

Listening for the Groans

The planet is groaning. It has a fever. But instead of carefully listening to its spiritual complaint we think it needs more political cowbell. Why are we the only creatures on this planet capable of hearing it groan? The whale seems unconcerned about the warming of the oceans, the monkey seems oblivious to deforestation, and the panda seems indifferent to drought and starvation. Don’t you think it’s astonishing that humans are the only creatures able to step outside the circle of life and take its temperature? What worldview explains this startling truth?

If the world is just survival of the fittest then bad planetary consequences are just the heat radiated by a perfectly operating evolutionary machine. If the problem is our attachment to the world then environmental activism only grounds our Nirvanian desires. If the world is an illusion then planetary warming is just the conflict in a fictional maya-n tale told to a creature that doesn’t know his or her atman from their brahman. If everything is god then there can be no heroes or villains just spiritual participants. However, what if there is a better narrative? What if the world was intentionally created very good and has since fallen on hard times? What if a creature exists who not only hears a planetary dirge but has the ability to change the tune?

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom. 8:19–23)

The Problem with Pantheism

Godber, while not specifically identifying herself as a pantheist, made statements that suggest that is where her spiritual affections lie. She grew up in a very loving supportive Christian home but her views of God changed when her mother passed away and she “stopped seeing God as this sort of sky God, Father Christmas type, man in the sky, but as more of a god who lives and breathes in every atom of the earth and creation.”

Pantheism is the belief that everything is God. There is no distinction between a rock, a gopher, and a human. God is not an independent entity but rather the cumulative life spirit of the planet. It often forms the religious foundation of many environmental movements. It’s a very attractive idea because it begins with the concept that the world is “very good,” but it runs into difficulty when it has to call mankind out for being “very bad.” It lacks the worldview credibility to single out mankind as either planetary villain or hero because once humans are elevated above the herd they are guilty of being holier than thou. Unfortunately, for our pantheistic friends, our spiritual equality with the chimp has been disrupted by the need for a creature with superpowers capable of recognizing global warming and facilitating a change. The only way mankind can be held accountable is if he transcends the world around him and has been given an environmental mandate.

I agree with Godber that we are intimately interconnected with nature but that is not because we are spiritually equal but because we are all words in God’s creational vocabulary. Every component of the ecosystem is a “good” word from God but it only rose to the level of “very good” when He uttered words in an image-bearing dialect. We hear the groans of our fellow creational words because we are equipped with divine voice recognition software alerting us the fact that God’s perfect grammar has been corrupted by sinful syntax.

Godber did tip her hat to a minimalist version of Christianity, “For me, my Christianity is perfectly straight forward and simple, entirely focused around the gospels, and Jesus, who simply said “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” She, however, misses the point. Jesus didn’t come to lecture us on how to be a better humans but to save us because of our inability to do it by ourselves.

Human Taggers

Since the fall of Adam and Eve, a tension has existed on the planet. We have ridden a fine line between working God’s creation and exploiting it. We have paid homage to nature in song, paint, and poem but have desecrated it by tagging it with the graffiti of modernity. We have progressively distanced ourselves from its calming presence by encasing ourselves in concrete metropolitan cocoons, unable to see the mountains for the smog; we pave over paradise with a parking lot.

The Bible’s favorite point of reference for God’s sovereign power and majesty is the creative work of His hands, and when His authority is questioned, such as when he encounters Job, He puts forth the magnificence of nature as evidence of His glory.

So why would God, who puts so much stock in His creation, think it is okay for irresponsible humans to abuse it? If nature is the signet ring of God’s sovereignty, we must approach it with kid gloves because desecration of the planet is an act of insurrection.

Fixing a Hole

Godber recognizes the negative mental health consequences of environmental alarmism and admirably seeks to be a counselor as well as motivator. She is passionate about transforming the helplessness that people experience in the face of such an enormous problem into corporate action. While she believes that global warming has been caused by a few greedy people, she also recognizes that the rest of us have been unwitting accomplices because of our increasing infatuation with material stuff. An obsession which has resulted in the exploitation of natural resources, increase in non-biodegradable waste, and excessive energy use. She believes that the reason we pursue material excess is because we have a hole in our lives which we mistakenly fill with stuff rather than relationships.

“When human beings are as hungry for connection as they are right now then they consume. We are in this mess because we are constantly trying to fill this hole within ourselves. That comes because were such a disconnected people…Our relationships are suffering…What is the solution? For me it’s less. It’s all about de-growth…It’s about really stripping back to what actually matters.” (Godber)

I totally agree with her but I don’t think she has properly teased out exactly which relationships are missing. We have three unique relationships on this planet: human-human, human-nature, and human-God. Godber focuses on the first two but neglects the third which is the glue that holds them all together. It is in bearing the image of God that we are united as a garden tending people and it is our dominion over nature that transforms God’s individual “good” creations into a “very good” ecosystem.

Relationship requires the recognition of the other and pantheism doesn’t metaphysically distinguish the individual. Pantheism isn’t relationship, it is being, and as such seems only capable of shared groaning and not wiping away every tear. Relationships imply duties but since pantheism is inherently not relational then there are no duties. If all is “one” then there is no “other” and you cannot call out humans because that marks them out as different . Pantheists can glorify the beauty of the oneness but don’t have the worldview credibility to appeal to otherness when things go wrong.

While I share Godber’s concern that the problem is a lack of relationship amongst ourselves and our planet, I would argue that those relationships are only understood when we properly fill the hole in our lives with God.

A Mandate We Can All Support

Unfortunately, environmentalism is a divisive issue because it has become so intertwined with politics. Evangelical Christians are frequently seen as the prime instigators of the rape of the planet because of God’s misunderstood command to “have dominion” over the earth. God-ordained dominion over the planet should be thoughtful environmentalism. Sinful dominion is exploitation and pollution. Of all people, Christians should be the most passionate about the environment because God has called us to be stewards of this planet and anything short of that is rebellion. We do, however, need to proceed with caution because even this noble venture can be derailed by our sinful nature, and preserving the planet can become a thinly veiled excuse for selfish financial gain.

The Original Sin of mankind fractured a perfect world, and the planet groans as it patiently awaits repair, a repair that will only occur when we humans are adopted as children of God. We are responsible for His creation, and the restoration of the entire planet is intimately tied to our salvation. That sounds like a pretty strong environmental mandate to me.

“We can actually work with nature, as the Bible commands us to, so that it is more productive, it’s better for the animals, it’s better for us, it’s better for the environment. These are win-win solutions.” (Hugh Ross)

Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.

Watch the Unbelievable? episode: What does the science of climate change say?

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