Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

6/29 2015

Climate Change and the Church


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climate-changeI attended the Henderson Summer Leadership Conference that took place earlier this month at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I have to confess that I was more intrigued by the opportunity to see Chef Tom strut his stuff than I was by the opportunity to examine issues of food justice. But as I listened to the presenters describe what is and craft a vision for what might be, I found myself becoming introspective and meditating on a couple of passages from God’s Word.

The first passage that came to mind was 2 Peter 3.7: “… the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the Day of Judgment…” If my memory serves, this has usually been interpreted to mean that the day of God’s judgment will come in an apocalyptic conflagration of cosmic proportions. But now I wonder.

The second passage that came to mind is from the Apocalypse of John:

Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!” When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth (Rev 6:1-8).

These fanciful words read like a fantasy novel. Yet here they are in God’s Word. Are they the ravings of a first century acid head? Are they objective truth or etiological narrative? How are we to interpret them? Regardless, they, and the whole of the Apocalypse, trace a vision of horror too profound to contemplate. Since the Henderson Summer Leadership Conference, I have been wondering about them.

Two facts from the conference stood out for me. First, the earth’s climate is going to increase about two degrees Celsius over the next 25-30 years unless dramatic steps are taken now. Second, unless humanity begins to live in a way fundamentally different from the way we now live, the earth’s climate will increase about four degrees Celsius over the next hundred years or so. The most visibly dramatic effect of such an increase will be the flooding of all the coastal regions of the world, rendering them unlivable. But the deeper, more long lasting effect will be the beginning of an irreversible process of temperature increase in the world’s climate.

I don’t believe that the will exists among the political and economic elite of the world to address these coming shifts in any substantial way at the present time. When the world’s coastal regions flood—and I assume they will at some point in the future—it will be the poor and disenfranchised of the world who will suffer, and not the elites. It is easy to imagine that this will provoke a worldwide exodus of proportions unheard of and lead to shanty towns on an unimagined scale. Yet this would only be a blip compared to what would come. If the climate increases by four degrees, as scientists suggest will happen, in time this world will become a barren desert unable to grow food of virtually any sort.

Do you hear the neighing of horses?

Following the passage I quoted above, Peter enjoins the Church to pray to hasten the coming judgment. I can’t do that. In fact, if I had a cat, I would probably crawl into a box with it. But there is an enormous opportunity for the Church here. What if the Church were to take her endowments and nearly empty buildings and sell them and buy farmland and begin to farm in a sustainable fashion and worked to make the אֲדָמָה (adamah) – the soil – more productive and better able to nourish? What if the Church got out ahead of the curve and moved to position herself for meaningful service before the σχύβαλον hits the fan, rather than waiting to react to injustice after it happens? What might happen if the Church were to begin to live her life in true κοινωνία in farming communities instead of 60 minutes at a time on Sunday mornings? Now I don’t think this is something that every present congregation ought to do, but what if all the churches in Pittsburgh (or any other city) got together and decided that some, or even many, were going to move in this direction? If there are 150 years before climate change begins to impact the earth’s ability to produce food, could the church leverage that time and be prepared to minister to a world in crisis? What if . . .

Now I take God at God’s Word. I don’t know what the Apocalypse means, but it is God’s Word to humankind, and is (capital T) Truth in some way, and I trust the Spirit to make that Word clear at the right time. The Henderson Summer Leadership Conference has caused me to wonder . . . Maybe there isn’t a cosmic firestorm in our future. Maybe it’s just four degrees. A mere four degrees brought about by the hubris of humanity.

Jake Horner graduated from Pittsburgh Seminary’s MDiv program in 2015.

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