Climate change: a Christian response in theology and action. Part 3: Developing our theology

It would be wise for theology (especially ‘public theology’) to be well equipped to answer climate change denial, provoke action and serve those touched by climate change. The following suggests five ways to do this better.

Coherent theology

We have noted in Part 2 the so-called theological’ grounds employed by some groups to deny climate change. Conradie argues that Christian discourse on climate change is “plagued with problems of reception.” [1] While the Christian faith may not have caused climate change, Western Christians can be seen not to have done enough to prevent or warn against it. Indeed, Christianity has been used to legitimize destructive behaviour, so that statements by Christians anywhere can be beset with guilt by association. The problem is exacerbated by ideological and theological conflict between Christians and it becomes nearly impossible for public theology to advance a view on climate change and convincingly declare it to be ‘Christian’. [2] In the United States, Peter Hetzel says “cultural insularity” and separated theological pathways are an obstacle to common action, even though Christians share a belief in the goodness of God’s creation. [3] In Australia such divisions may be less severe, but they do exist—within denominations as much as between them.

Eschatology is an aspect of theology particularly vexing to a coherent theological response to climate change. Will God act to prevent humanity from irreparably harming the Earth? Does God propose to destroy the Earth—or allow its destruction—to bring about a “new heavens and a new earth”, [4] even if the destruction is initiated by human foolishness? Or does God intend to renew and refresh the present Earth? And if so, will this be through human action or despite human failing? These are enough questions for several books at least. (I find Jürgen Moltmann’s work on these questions especially helpful and encouraging. [5]) In the absence of definitive answers, we must, quite reasonably, argue that preservation of the Earth is simply (but importantly) an act of justice, love, and peace making.

Thus a first (and difficult to implement) proposal is that: to be more effective in its insights on climate change, scholars, churches and believers should intentionally strive toward a working consensus on the applicable theology.

Better theology

For public theology to bring insight to the climate change debate, it may itself have to change. Malcolm Brown, Stephen Pattison and Graeme Smith find that public theology in Britain “stands in some disarray” [6] and is failing to engage its potential audience. Many public theologians, though seeking to serve their fellow citizens, “are in a position to speak publicly but as yet have nothing very distinctive, informative or wise to say, at least as theologians.” Consequently, few are listening. There is a “ready audience for well-communicated, imaginative, creative, insightful and inspiring ideas,” but for the most part that audience is not being served by public theology. [7]

Brown, Pattison and Smith propose a ‘citizen theology’ (taking the term from Elaine Graham’s idea of a ‘citizen theologian’ [8]). ‘Citizen theology’ must “be a piece of theological social, cultural or political analysis”—sound, but also creative and imaginative whenever possible. Further, the analysis must be “recognisably theological”, not simply “a veneer for hard work done by other disciplines.” [9]

The authors suggest that “a vocabulary of the virtues” is essential, but it is difficult to bring this to bear; it will be resisted if there is apparent threat to freedom and knowledge.

The real issue here is whether the gains of modernity, the Enlightenment, and liberal societies can be enjoyed without the painful loss of civilized behaviour, human sympathy and perceptions of the common good.[10]

Nonetheless, “the citizen theologian, alert to the significance of viable community life, will promote key virtues that challenge atomized individualism. … Liberal virtues include the ability to work with other traditions to produce something which answers new questions in authentic ways.” [11] A ‘citizen theology’ is less engaged in “thin propositionalism” and “more self-consciously parabolic and poetic in its discourse and practice.” It will “act like an imaginative and analytic study of the human spirit.” [12]

A second proposal therefore is that: for public theology to be more effective in its insights on climate change, it may need to change its own manner of working.

Scientifically sensible theology

Science and religion are not essentially opposed. Some may assume that reason, science, and common sense cannot co-exist with emotion, religion and aesthetics. Erin Wilson responds that such a view,

ignores the immense interconnections between reason and emotion, science and religion and the difficulties of separating the one from the other [and] overlooks the rich, positive, beneficial contributions that those seemingly ‘irrational’ elements—emotion, religion and aesthetics—have made and can make to politics and public life.[13]

The interrelationship between scientific and religious inquiry has been obscured only in last few centuries; [14] yet they have a common goal—to understand more fully all that is. I agree with Lynne Lorenzen that, “It is vitally important that Christian theologians learn enough about the science to be articulate and support the scientists in their endeavors to promote our care of the creation.” [15]

A third proposal (more readily implemented than the first) is that: contributions to public theology on climate change should be scientifically literate and reasonable.

Outspoken theology

In reviewing economic and financial inhibitions to action on climate change we observe a mixture of risk avoidance, political nervousness, self-interest and greed. A theological response may require radicalism. Paula Clifford, Head of Theology at Christian Aid, London, calls for “theology that is based on God’s power and justice, his relationship with his people through Jesus Christ and, in consequence, people’s relationship with one another.” The healing of unjust relationships between rich and poor is “key to tackling global warming and other issues that work to the detriment of the world’s poorest people.” [16] Rebelliousness as well as courtesy may be needed to “speak truth to power” [17] and achieve action for change. Rollo May reminds us that often it has been the rebellious “who have made the most significant creative contributions in ethics and religion to civilization.” [18] This may take us beyond the usually courteous intentions of public theology.

A fourth proposal is that: in offering insight on climate change, public theology must be willing strongly to ‘speak truth to power’.

Timely theology

A number of writers mention a need for research, not so much on the ‘science’ of climate change as on the ‘affective’ dimensions—the human, emotional, psychological and spiritual. Sigurd Bergmann goes so far as to say that climate change “challenges and changes our images of God and the sacred and their corresponding sociocultural practices.” She then proposes coordinated long term research “as a multifaceted exploration of religious processes, traditions, ideologies and moralities in the context of dangerous environmental change.” [19] The difficulty here is that international action on climate change is essential now—and certainly not later than the 2015 Paris Conference. The usual academic processes of careful research and peer-reviewed publication are necessarily slow. Yes, research should continue apace, but somehow we must speak and act from what we know now. On 7 May 2014, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, urged religious leaders worldwide to act urgently—especially between now and the 2015 conference. [20]

A fifth proposal is that: in offering insight on climate change, public theology must be willing to use whatever is known now to speak and act quickly.


  1. Ernst M. Conradie, “Climate Change and the Common Good: Some Reflections from the South African Context,” International Journal of Public Theology 4 (2010): 271.
  2. Conradie, “Climate Change and the Common Good,” 280.
  3. Peter Goodwin Hetzel, “The World House: Prophetic Protestantism and the Struggle for Environmental Justice,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 63, no.s 1/2 (undated): 26.
  4. Isaiah 65.17; Revelation 21.1.
  5. Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, translated by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996); Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: a New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, translated by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).
  6. Malcolm Brown, Stephen Pattison, and Graeme Smith, “The Possibility of Citizen Theology: Public Theology after Christendom and the Enlightenment,” International Journal of Public Theology 6 (2012): 186.
  7. Brown, Pattison and Smith, “Citizen Theology,” 186.
  8. Elaine Graham, “Public Theology and the Urban Church,” Plenary address to the British and Irish Association for Practical Theology conference: Public Theology: Dialogue in the Public Square, July 2009, Ushaw College, Durham.
  9. Brown, Pattison and Smith, “Citizen Theology,” 195.
  10. Brown, Pattison and Smith, “Citizen Theology,” 197.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Brown, Pattison and Smith, “Citizen Theology,” 203.
  13. Wilson, “Religion and climate change,” 27.
  14. Peter Harrison, “Science and Religion: Constructing the Boundaries,” Journal of Religion 86, no. 1 (2006): 88.
  15. Lynne Lorenzen, “Religion and Science: What Is at Stake?” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 46, no. 3 (2007): 294.
  16. Paula Clifford, “‘Where Were You When I Laid the Foundation of the Earth?’: Climate Change and a Theology of Development,” The Expository Times 121, no. 4 (2010): 176.
  17. Possibly of eighteenth century origin and used in particular as the title of Stephen G. Cary and others, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence: A Study of International Conflict (American Friends Service Committee, 1955).
  18. Rollo May, The Courage to Create. (New York: Norton, 1975), 35.
  19. Sigurd Bergmann, “Climate Change Changes Religion Space, Spirit, Ritual, Technology—Through a Theological Lens,” Studia Theologica—Nordic Journal of Theology 33, no. 2 (2009): 98,
  20. Christiana Figueres, “Faith Leaders Need to Find Their Voice on Climate Change,” The Guardian. 7 May 2014. See also Christiana Figueres, St Paul’s Cathedral Floor Debate: Climate Change: Building the Will for Action. Statement by the Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. London, 7 May 2014.