The Christian New Deal — Part II

This is the second post in the series ‘The Christian New Deal’.

This is the second post in the series, ‘A Christian New Deal’. (Part I, here, is based on the Pilate’s simple, yet unnerving question, “What is truth?”)

Book Release

Dante Forest DarkEach week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. We now conclude Chapter 2 — A Personal Journey. The chapter provided an overview of how I learned about issues such as climate change and peak oil (the image is of Dante’s Forest Dark).

The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here.

Respect for Nature

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the early sections, we read that God gave humanity control over nature. For example, Genesis 9 starts with the following words,

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.

The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.”
Given the resource, environmental and climate change crises that we, as Noah’s descendants now face, that commandment seems to be out of place. At the very least, if we are to have control over “every creature”, then we need to exert that control responsibly — something we have signally failed to do.

In the New Testament we see a different picture. Jesus frequently talks about the natural world, and seems to be respectful of it. The quotation that I have selected for this post is taken from Matthew 18. Jesus puts himself forward as a “good shepherd”. In the analogy, the sheep represents a person that has strayed. But Jesus uses a natural scene as the basis of his message.

If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?
The shepherd is exerting control, but in a responsible manner.

Need for Systems Theology

There are many books, web pages and blogs which discuss topics such as climate change and resource depletion, and that also provide suggested responses. (Some of the faith-based sites are some of which are listed at our Resources and References page.)

A limitation of many of these programs and analyses and is that they consider topics such as climate change and resource depletion in isolation, rather than as part of larger, complex systems. For example, consider the following line of argument,

  • New sources of oil are  costly to develop (the easier sources have already been depleted).
  • Hence the price of oil will go up.
  • Hence people will use less oil.
  • Hence fewer greenhouse gases will be generated and the global warming impact will be lessened.

But maybe it is not so simple. If less oil is available then more coal will be used as a substitute, so the global warming impact will be increased. It’s tricky.

The point is that simple solutions to our problems are often simplistic, they fail to take into consideration all the relevant factors. Indeed, we often find that our actions result in the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ and/or Jevons Paradox.

In a religious context the importance of systems theory means that we need to develop a theology — a ‘religious systems theory’ — that helps us understand what is going on, and how we should act in the new and rather scary world that we are entering.

The Green New Deal

A phrase that has gained considerable attention in recent weeks is ‘The Green New Deal’. This is a political program that proposes radical action to address climate change issues, while simultaneously boosting the economy. We have published various posts that discuss this proposal, including the Green New Deal and the Leadership of AOC and Greta Thunberg. My conclusions are that we need a Green New Deal, or something like it, if we are to have any chance of navigating the coming crises, but the Green New Deal as written will not work. It fails to meet realistic engineering or project management criteria. What we need is a Christian New Deal.

The Great Chain of Being

Great Chain of BeingIn medieval times, the concept of the “Great Chain of Being” held was used to explain the world, and our place in it.

The Chain consisted of a hierarchy. At the top is God, who is perfect. Below Him are angels. Below them is life on earth; at the top are human beings, below them are animals, then come plants. Below living beings are inanimate objects, with fire — which seems lifelike — being higher than rocks. Each of these links could be divided. For example, at the human step, kings are above aristocrats who in turn are above peasants. Humans can aim to be more spiritual, more like God, and so move up the chain. On the other hand, if they act less spiritually they move down the chain.

Then along came Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

Evolution and Progress

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Darwin is often credited with having created the concept of evolution. He certainly advanced our understanding as to how and why species change and develop. But other people had had similar ideas before him. Indeed, farmers of livestock had known for centuries that they could selectively breed desirable characteristics in their animals — thus creating a form of forced evolution. What Darwin did do is explain why natural evolution occurred (he was never able to explain how it happened, the principles of genetics were developed long after his death).

The term “survival of the fittest” is often used in discussions to do with Darwin’s insights. Yet this is not a term that Darwin coined, he used the words “descent with modification”. An even more appropriate phrase would be “Survival of the Adaptable”. This distinction is not a mere quibble — it will be a factor as we consider the world in an Age of Limits. If the term “survival of the fittest” is to be used, then it should refer not just to fitness to survive in the current ecological and environmental conditions, but to fitness to survive when conditions change.

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection.

In the words of Tim Radford states, of the Guardian newspaper,

He [Darwin] did not suggest that evolution was a form of progress. For him, an amoeba in a puddle of water was just as suited to its environment as a duck on a lake or a preacher in a pulpit.

Darwin created controversy among some Christians because he challenged their belief that the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible was also a geological text book. But he had two other insights that were more profound and much more challenging.

First he grasped the meaning of the words, “a long time”. Human memories go back no more than a hundred years or so; historical records are good for just a few thousand years at best. But Darwin understood that, when talking about millions of years, whole species can be created or can go extinct. He did not fall into what Frank Landis in his book Hot Earth Dreams calls the ‘Trap of Big Numbers’.

His second insight was that there is no such thing as a Great Chain of Being. We do not evolve toward (or away from) anything. Organisms merely adapt to their environment or else they go extinct. No one life form is better or “higher” than any other. The idea of “progress”, as illustrated in the following sketch, is misleading.

Evolutionary “Progress”There is no missing link between ourselves and our “lower” or “more primitive” ancestors such as apes. Each species adapts to the environment in which it lives. If the environment changes, say due to climate change, then existing life forms need to adapt to the new conditions. If they fail to do so, then new species will evolve. Human beings are not the end point of evolution.

The Church’s Response

It is generally taken for granted that the church’s response to Darwin’s work in the mid-19th century was one of condemnation and resistance. Actually, the religious response was mixed. Many devout Christians were quite happy to accept that God created the world and that natural selection was one aspect of that world. Many clerics resisted the idea that the world is much older than the few thousand years calculated from the Hebrew Bible. But others were willing to adapt to the new concepts.

Biology was not the only scientific area that was developing rapidly in Darwin’s time. Geology was also emerging and providing a new view of the world. There was debate as to whether the timeline in the Hebrew Bible was correct, or whether the Earth was actually millions of years old. Many of the people who denied the concept of natural selection were, nevertheless, willing to accept that the Earth was very old. These were the ‘Old Creationists’. Those who followed the biblical timeline were ‘Young Creationists’.

Darwin himself was an Anglican, with leanings toward Unitarianism. He remained loyal to the church throughout his life, although his faith became increasingly lukewarm. His personality was mild and accommodating, so he did not throw down the gauntlet and directly challenge the religious hierarchy.

Consciousness

Evolution and natural selection are impersonal. Living organisms have no choice about what happens to them. But human beings are, in this respect, different and unique — we have a consciousness and we can make free will decisions as to our future, both as individuals and as a society. In principle, we can choose how to evolve. It is this freedom of choice that gives us the Biblical dominion over nature.

Theology

As we try to figure out the nature of ‘The Christian New Deal’ the ideas and thoughts provided in this post suggest that our new way of thinking will (or should) feature the following.

  • Humility
    We humans need to understand that we are not the apex of civilization, we are not the end point of creation, we are not top of the Great Chain of Being (there is no chain, so it has neither top nor bottom).
  • Ruling the Earth
    We do rule the earth. But we have not done so in a responsible manner — we have taken little interest in the fate of other species and of the environment.
  • Living With Nature
    We need to try to live in harmony with nature. This means abandoning the idea of material progress as being the purpose of our lives.