Resurrecting sin to address Climate Change
Recent infernos in California and floods in Germany remind us that climate change is a global drama which may end in utter tragedy for the whole creation if we do not act. Just as when a finger bumps a spinning top from its perfect rhythm, and the rotating toy then teeters out-of-balance before finding a new equilibrium or collapsing, the Earth System has been bumped out of balance. And not by accident, but by a willing, decision-making species. That’s us. Earth System Science tells us this planet is finely tuned, yet one species has been serving its own needs to such an extent that the cost to everything else has become intolerable. And it is showing.
Human impact on the Earth System is caused primarily by our disruption of an enormous quantity of carbon from its settled state within the Earth. The process is profoundly unnatural and yet has become second nature to the industrialized world for over two hundred years. Oil and coal (liquid and solid carbon) are mined from the Earth, burnt in engines and smelters, and the previously unharmful carbon in the soil below is turned into harmful carbon dioxide in the sky above. That layer of carbon dioxide is creating a greenhouse-like effect. Heat is held within the Earth’s atmosphere, unable to escape the carbon layer, and the planet’s temperatures have risen, and continue to rise. We know we are contributing to this unfolding catastrophe.
The depth of the Christian concept of sin is not touched if sin is understood as a series of wrongdoings. Rather, we are nearer the meaning of sinfulness when it is viewed as a condition. Our acts of selfishness, injustice, and violence are the outward sign of a greater problem.
The concept of sin has almost entirely disappeared from public discourse, and even from thoughtful church discussion. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in The Nature and Destiny of Man that “the Christian view of human nature is involved in the paradox of claiming a higher stature for human beings and yet of taking a more serious view of their evil than any other.” What did Niebuhr mean? Principally that Christian theology finds human beings a confounding contradiction. We are the likeness of the Creator, according to the Book of Genesis, yet characterised by selfishness, disunity, and brutality. How is it that human beings are capable of astonishing goodness as well as appalling cruelty? The doctrine of sin seeks to address this paradox.
The essential goodness of humanity is theologically bound to the concept of the imago dei, that we have been set within creation to be a reflection, or image of God. It is via the doctrine of sin that Christian theology seeks to understand why that reflection has been fractured: why human behaviour has perennially presented a dark contradiction to belief in our essential goodness.
The depth of the Christian concept of sin is not touched if sin is understood as a series of wrongdoings. Rather, we are nearer the meaning of sinfulness when it is viewed as a condition. Our acts of selfishness, injustice, and violence are the outward sign of a greater problem. Martin Luther King Jr described sin as “the universality of the gone-wrongness of humankind”. The sixteenth century Reformer, after whom the civil rights leader was named, described sin as as homo incurvatus se (the person turned in upon the self).
As strange as the language of Christian theology may seem in the public square today, the human-induced climate emergency, brought about by our selfish abuse of the planet, surely requires a resurrection of the language of sin. There was speculation in early 2020 that Pope Francis might name humanity’s abuse of the Earth as sinful in his statement on the plight of the Amazon. He did not. In Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazon), Pope Francis did denounce the unrestrained industrial destruction, saying “The businesses, national or international, which harm the Amazon and fail to respect the right of the original peoples to the land and its boundaries, and to self-determination and prior consent, should be called for what they are: injustice and crime.” That language of “injustice and crime” is powerful, yet it is not the most inherently powerful language available to Christian leaders.
The abuse of the Earth is a sin. The climate emergency has come about because of our sinfulness. It is a sign, and may prove the most telling of all signs, of our universal gone-wrongness, and of the fact that humanity has turned in upon itself. Calling people to prayer for the planet without naming the sin that makes those prayers and global action to save the planet essential is a profound moral and theological failure.
Rev. Dr Peter Walker, Principal of United Theological College