In the Light of the Word
Climate change is such a serious problem that it requires a holistic approach if it is to be tackled. This means that one or even several perspectives will not suffice. An entire range of human thinking, disciplines, worldviews, organisations, and other areas of societal life must be introduced. Above all, an ethical dimension is required – an understanding of the need to strive for good, and to avoid evil and harmful things. Without this, all our efforts will be for nothing.
The requirement of an ethical dimension in climate work may seem self-evident. It is after all in the shared interest of our entire planet that the extinction of species does not continue, and that future generations’ lives are safeguarded. It is therefore necessary to reduce harmful greenhouse gases – and it will be detrimental for us if we are unable to achieve the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement, halting the increase in average global temperatures to less than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, with warming limited to less than 1.5 degrees.
The incorporation of an ethical evaluation into how reality is perceived has been an alien idea to many philosophers during and after the Enlightenment. In the eighteenth century David Hume wondered if it was possible to deduce how things ought to be from how they were. Can the gap between factual knowledge and morality be bridged, and can ethics be based on scientific findings? Many find Hume’s answer clear and correct: how things are cannot predict how they ought to be. This is famously called “Hume’s guillotine”. In this approach morality, ethics, and values are definitively separated from the quest for and interpretation of facts.
This airtight separation of values and facts has been fatal for the overall picture of reality. This is partly why we are now facing the enormous challenges of climate change. If they are to be overcome, we will need a broad vision, essential elements of which are ethics and values. We need a holistic approach of the kind that has always been valued in medicine, for example, where the preservation of life is seen both as its inalienable goal and an obligation. The Finnish medical oath states this clearly:
I swear by my honour and conscience that I shall strive in my medical practice to serve my neighbours with respect for humanity and life. My purpose shall be to maintain and promote health, prevent diseases, and heal the sick and alleviate their suffering.
Worldviews are characterised by the quest for wholeness. Both religious and non-religious worldviews seek to outline what is right and wrong, what to seek, and what to avoid. The ethical dimension and values are integral to them. Climate change is therefore not only a scientific, but also a worldview challenge.
The Christian churches’ holistic thinking and action and their contribution to climate work are based on their theology, which is described in what follows from one perspective.
According to the Judaeo-Christian view the universe is God’s creation. Although the first chapters of the Bible about the creation of the world should not be read as scientific or historical descriptions, their theological content is noteworthy.
The first noteworthy feature of the biblical accounts of creation is the goodness ascribed to the created world. Everything was created to be good. The ethical dimension is thus inherent from the universe’s very first moments. The goodness of the created world is based on God’s own will, the love that serves as the actual motive for God’s creative work.
When God had created human beings, God gave them a mission. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Cultivation and stewardship have an ethical dimension. While human beings are permitted to make their living from nature, they must also care for it. Indeed, this biblical passage is one of the most widely used to draw attention to our obligation towards nature according to the Judaeo-Christian tradition. We can easily say that cultivation, the exploitation of nature, has been a great success for humankind; but our stewardship of it can be seen as a failure in many ways.
A central aspect of God’s work in creation is how God created everything. According to Genesis each creative act of God begins in the same way: “God said”. The word isn’t merely a means of communication; it has the power to create something new. Equally, words can also be destructive and distort reality. The ethical dimension is built into human language.
The Judaeo-Christian view of the word as the enactor of creation draws on ancient philosophy but appeals to an increasingly holistic conception of reality. According to the theology of the early church it was precisely the word of God that imbued created reality with such qualities that enable both the study of nature and its cultivation and stewardship.
First, God’s word imbued creation with the rational laws recognised by the various disciplines that study the world. The rationality of created reality is something the human being can discover through their own advanced rationality. The development of science is a sign of this. For example, climate science seeks comprehensibly to describe the Earth’s climate’s complex structure and behaviour, which will assist us as we consider sustainable solutions for the future. Rationality is accompanied by a predictability without which future scenarios would be difficult to construct.
Christian theology maintains that the reality created by God’s creative word was also freed from the grip of fate. Although the laws of nature aptly describe natural phenomena, they do not ultimately dictate what the future will look like. The Earth is not necessarily doomed to its own destruction, for the freedom from the grip of fate inherent in the essence of the created reality allows for practical work to curb climate change. Freedom allows the space to ask what is good and desirable. Wherever fatalism prevails, no such ethical refection is required.
God’s creative word arises from God’s good and loving will. In Christian theology the Word is not merely a means of communication or an influential force; it is also radically a person. In the New Testament, in the prologue of St John’s Gospel, there is a slightly different account of creation from the one I referenced above, quoting Genesis.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:1–3, 14).
The Christmas miracle, the birth of God as a human being, marked the Creator’s embrace of created reality as a creature. Our world is not separated from its Creator, but the Creator is deeply committed to the reality we know. The New Testament epistles repeatedly refer to Christ as the unifying person of the entire universe, giving meaning to created reality – a meaning in which ethical concepts such as responsibility, love, and goodwill are central.
Dear listeners, in this speech, I have attempted to outline one answer to the question of what a holistic view of reality might be that would allow an ethical dimension in scientific work to be seamlessly present, and especially in work to combat climate change. This outline of my response follows the theological thinking of early Christianity, which did not distinguish strictly between values and facts. It can be expected to appeal best to those with a Christian worldview. An understanding of God’s creative will cannot fail to influence the behaviour, choices, and decisions of those who believe in God.
Other religions and worldviews also have their own principled starting points from which they take a holistic view of reality. I believe they have much to offer one another. It is the gift of Christian theology that there is a loving purpose of goodwill behind our world. It is the basis of hope as we collaborate in considering ways to curb climate change. The Christmas message about the value of creation and the presence of a God who is good among God’s creatures encourages us to work for the future of our planet, humanity, and all living beings.
For more information about the ACCC Impact Week, see https://www.acccflagship.fi/index.php/accc-impact-week-2021/