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What Does Theology Have to Do with Climate Change?

October 12, 2018

The United Nations released a new and alarming study a few days ago on the rate and effects of climate change.  It came with several calls-to-action.  Scientists want us all to take various and broad-ranging (and not necessarily painful) action because their clear and informed view is this: Determined, systematic action must be taken, right away, to avoid drastic consequences if too little is done.

This won’t surprise people who have been watching the issues, seeing more and more data presented that reveal a rapidly worsening situation.  The report can be found here.

This blog is oriented around theology, spirituality and the natural world. I’ve seldom dealt much here with climate change issues.  However, they are unquestionably theological as well as scientific issues.  And in the current “climate”, I must do my small part to help inform and hopefully inspire action (one of which, critically, is voting in November if you are in the US … on climate change the partisan difference is vast).

I cannot make some of the important points as well as they are made in statements by one of the world’s most significant thought leaders.  He’s a man not widely known as a public figure though he’s long been a prolific writer and speaker, held in the highest esteem by those who have known him and his work over many decades. (I’m very lucky to be one of them.) I refer to retired professor, John B. Cobb, Jr.

The earlier of two short articles, here, was written almost two years ago but is very pertinent right now in relation to the dire warnings and precise prescriptions coming from the United Nations.  Cobb shares how and why he’s “keeping the faith” (in relation to hope for the physical world, not just spiritual belief or practice).

The other article, here, will be fascinating to people interested in the broad economic and biological context of how global warming has developed and continues, and what it will take to at least slow if not reverse it.  Additionally, it’s interesting to see how a brilliant teacher and theologian adjusted his thinking and priorities mid-stream, stemming initially from things his young son learned at church!

Cobb refers to books he co-authored with biologist Charles Birch and prominent economist Herman Daly.  He shares a vital insight into the practicality of both philosophy and theology, summarized in this reference to these two books:

These may be my most valuable theological books, even though they are not what most people would think of as “theological” at all.

Have you read these or similar books? What are your thoughts about them or about the relationship of spirituality, religious beliefs, philosophy, economics, etc., to climate change?


7 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    October 13, 2018 3:39 am

    Howard – interesting articles and interesting concept of tying in spirituality with climate change. Al

    • October 15, 2018 7:56 pm

      Thanks. I hope it leads you to explore more of the work of Cobb and any of several other instrumental process thinkers. As I think I implied, some are more into “secular” philosophy and some actively integrate theology… and always from a “progressive” (non-traditional) standpoint. The traditional theism of monotheistic “orthodoxy” (not just in Christianity) defines itself outside a process perspective.

      You may have noted in one article, Cobb calls himself a “Christian theist”. But if asked for more definition, it would come out that he doesn’t mean the “all powerful”, controlling, actively punishing God of orthodoxy. Griffin, his colleague and highly accomplished teacher/author himself, says he’ll only take a theist label if forced to make the binary choice of God or no-God. But such a choice is merely linguistic. More commonly, process theologians call themselves panENtheists (vs. either theists or pantheists, the latter being hardly distinguishable from atheists). It’s quite a freeing concept, psychologically, as well as being much better in line and cooperation with science, and theoretical physics in particular.

      • November 18, 2018 10:02 am

        I was curious about Cobb´s exact stance towards Christianity, and your description makes a lot of sense to me. I found your blog here searching for Charles Birch. I forgot that he is associated with Process Theology, certainly one of my top influences as I learn to articulate my UU Christian theism as a humanist interfaith Christian.

        I´ll try to take a look at those two articles and get back to this comment thread. I´ve read a good chunk of his work with Daly already. Simply very satisfying intellectually and in terms of well-rounded sustainability thinking. One element that I really am making my trademark is the co-op biz model and food co-ops, and the 12 step Recovery Movement, well, along with the proof of God in the Historical Sociology of Christianity, and Social Science epistemologies, and so on.

        It´s way past midnight, after all.

  2. Mark Rego Monteiro permalink
    November 19, 2018 4:01 pm

    Good to read those articles by Cobb. I´ve read Wikipedia on him and about Process Theology and enjoyed it immensely. A kind of turning point book for me was William Greider´s The Soul of Capitalism, in which he refers to some Social Gospel that led me to that book Soul and Society and awareness of the names Rauschenbush and Gladden in particular. He also enters into efforts by Civil Society to deal with Shareholder owned Corporations, and the employee ownership model, along with David Ellerman and Herman Daly.

    Fritjof Capra has been interesting for various reasons, including his more recent work on General Systems Theory. I had been exposed to related ideas in my undergrad years when I discovered Eliot Chapple´s Bio Anthropological work. E D´Aquili et al had written the Biology of Ritual referring to Chapple´s work, no less.

    Frankly, it´s worth noting that I had early defined my spiritual path as an interfaith search, along with my very strong interest in Therapeutic Psychology. My professional work involved helping substance abusers in Social Services, and a colleague introduced me to the 12 step groups. I found them intriguing, and found that the relationship meetings were applicable to a broader context. It was then that I read Al Gore´s Earth in the Balance and later, C Glendinning´s I´m In Recovery From Western Civilization.

    Those works all helped me gain a new respect for my values and to integrate them in many ways, as I ultimately engaged with Christianity directly beginning with Christian Science. I also came to appreciate the Quaker Friends and even more recently, all in fact as part of my longstanding basic and casual Unitarian Universalist interests.

    Having integrated much of this in my masters work, I began by recognizing Christianity´s crucial role in Western Civilization, and the likewise essential distinction between Christian integrity and hypocrisy. St. Thomas of Aquinas presented a major link given the importance of the monastic traditions as the basis of the modern University and its influence on modern society.

    From the ecological and spiritual angle, among others I read parts of the account of M Sleeth MD who went from being an Emergency Room doctor to an Evangelical Christian environmentalist and J Nash on Christianity and the environment, not to mention M Oelschlager on Caring for Creation and the disconnect between the scientific assessment of environmental crisis and the need for action as a logical imperative for religion.

    As such, my reading on John Muir who founded the Sierra Club and Greenpeace all reaffirmed the interconnectedness and interdisciplinary nature of values and action, and the personal relationship to the Creator as crucial to resolving personal fragmentation with Jesus as the much misunderstood Savior. He taught the need for personal effort and spiritual growth training and practice.

    Of course, all that extends my interest in the purchasing power of consumer spending, and other social justice activism. However, it also keeps me engaged with the intellectual power of modern Christian spirituality that makes integrating Taoism, Buddhism, and so in so worthwhile. I recall the feelings and thoughts that occurred to me of despair at various levels. Jesus truly resolves it all, despite the inevitable catastrophes being set up. From NOLS to Oxfam to Greenpeace and the UN process, there are Food co-ops and Credit Unions that link to the 170 year old co-operative business model. As Rev Billy has imagined, Earthelujah.

    • Mark Rego Monteiro permalink
      November 19, 2018 4:12 pm

      In conclusion, the accomplishments of countries like Denmark and Germany with between 140% and 74% renewable power on off-peak times a few years ago. Wait, up that German figure to 95-100% earlier this year in 2018. Meanwhile, San Francisco in the US has 75% recycling, which drew visits from Germany where the whole country was at around 60% some years ago. All that kind of good stuff.

      • November 22, 2018 1:17 pm


        It’s so, so good to get your feedback, your own story and so many specific referrals to great sources…. most of which I’ve not explored myself, tho I may be indirectly exposed to many of the same concepts. And sorry I’ve not replied much quicker. I’ve had a pretty strong dose of flu the last few days; today the first day I’ve felt up to much reading, let along composing anything. Thankful this Thanksgiving day for returning health!

        I’m going to shortly send you a connection request on LinkedIn, hoping you may use it a little. That and your Blogspot blogs and profile have helped me see a bit what you’ve done and may be doing now (the latter is less clear to me).

        Among the things I was happy to find were the 2 articles on 3 Green Wise Men. Particularly the second, with the several details about some of the programs of the UCC which I wasn’t familiar with although I’ve been a UCC member for over 5 years and do tend to explore, at least a little, into what the denomination is doing. My own congregation is activist-oriented although we are in a conservative area, so not as progressive as many UCC churches, and we’ve not been “into” denominational things much. I was a bit into lay leadership for 2-3 years but recently had to pull back. I still have intentions toward working as I can within the organization for further renewal, both theologically (more toward Process, e.g.,) and in more effective outreach/education/activism. Anyway, your info there is a nice spin-off of your sharing.

        I also have involvement with what could soon be a major catalytic project to help the many largely distinct projects and organizations (“silos”) which are integrally related and intertwined in purpose but fail to cross-promote and effectively share resources and mutual planning. I mean particularly in economic and social justice and in wise resource management and problem solving… via empowering “wiser democracy” in governing systems and in the private sphere. Both have to be addressed and reformed simultaneously as your blog post and comments well point out. Looking forward to how WE may productively cooperate! (Check for now, with other references later.)

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