New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently framed environmental debates in an intriguing manner. On one side, Douthat said, are the "dynamists" who trust in humanity's ability to find solutions to environmental problems. On the other side are the "catastrophists" who fear humanity is messing with Mother Nature in ways that will be our downfall.
Douthat remarked that these two modes of thought apply to other issues besides the environment. Regarding the economy, there are those who proclaim the best days are ahead and those who predict a coming crash. Regarding cultural and family life, there are those who celebrate our ever increasing liberation from social convention and those who lament that social bonds are rapidly disintegrating.
So what is a Christian to think? Was Jesus a dynamist or a catastrophist? And what about his followers?
As it happens, Douthat's piece was discussing perhaps the world's most prominent Christian, Pope Francis. Based on the pope's recent encyclical on the environment, the Times columnist pegged Francis as a catastrophist.
The pope, in this encyclical at least, does often sound like a prophet of doom. "The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth," he mourns (paragraph 21). Francis deplores how cities "have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise" (44).
According to the pope, "we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises" (61). He judges "the present world system" to be "clearly unsustainable" (61). Francis warns that "once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars" (57).
Such doomsday scenarios are not a Catholic specialty. We Protestants also know how to hit the low notes. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) "Brief Statement of Faith" confesses that humans "threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care." Written in the 1980s, this phrase was alluding mainly to the danger of nuclear war, but it had broader ecological implications as well. PCUSA members repeat those words today, even though the threatened catastrophe has (fortunately) not yet occurred.
Two Ways to Read the Signs of the Times
These dire prophecies can't be dismissed out of hand. There was (and still is) a nuclear threat, and there are environmental threats that we can't afford to ignore. Yet the language often seems artificially amped. In justification, catastrophists sometimes argue they must speak forcefully to rouse people from their lethargy and move them to action. But if the language proves to be exaggerated and the threatened disaster fails to materialize, they may lose trust and end up like the boy who cried wolf--unheeded even when the emergency is genuine.
Being neither a scientist nor an economist, I will spare you my assessment of the risks posited by Pope Francis and the catastrophists. But I can say that there is another way of reading the signs of the times--the dynamist way--and there is evidence to support it. The last 30 years have seen an astounding reduction in global poverty. According to World Bank statistics, not only is the percentage of the destitute less than half what it was in the 1980s, but their absolute numbers have fallen dramatically too. Experience shows that environmental conditions improve as people emerge from poverty and gain disposable income.
So which is the correct Christian attitude? Should we look to human dynamism or fear the catastrophe? It seems to me that a biblical, Reformed theology would include elements from both perspectives--and elements that come from neither.
Wheat and Weeds Together
Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, foretold natural and manmade disasters in the last days. "For in those days," he said, "there will be suffering such as has not been from the beginning of the creation" (Mark 13:19) Yet Christ also assured his disciples that he would be with them to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), that he would send them the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth (John 16:13), and that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church (Matthew 16:18). God's kingdom would grow like a mustard seed, he declared (Mark 4:30-33).
How do we reconcile the two perspectives? Jesus provides a clue via a parable. Just as wheat and weeds grow together in a field and cannot be separated until the harvest (Matthew 13:24-30), so good and evil grow together in the world until God's judgment comes. Similarly, the apostle Paul speaks of how "sin increased" under the law but at the same time "grace abounded all the more" through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:20).
So Christians can appreciate the dynamism of God's grace (both special and common) at the same time they recognize the danger of sin-spawned catastrophe. We can be grateful for the God-given creativity that has allowed humanity to make tremendous progress while remaining alert to the stubborn self-seeking that can so easily destroy our greatest accomplishments.
A Sober and Industrious Hope
We are not so naïve as to imagine ourselves immune from catastrophe. If we make foolish and wicked choices, God will sometimes give us over to the consequences of those choices. Yet we are not so despairing as to imagine ourselves damned to catastrophe. God's will is that we not perish but receive eternal life. And he has provided the means of our salvation.
So biblical Christians are neither starry optimists nor gloomy pessimists. We are instead a people of sober and industrious hope. Our hope does not rest in our own ingenuity; it rests instead in a holy and merciful God. Because we have this hope, our lives are not driven by the fear of catastrophe. It is instead the love of Christ that compels us to work steadfastly for the reconciliation of the world (2 Corinthians 5:14).
"Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea" (Psalm 46:3).
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