Bringing Providence Back In: Religious Thought and the Climate Left
Theology can and should contribute to our conceptual architecture of climate change.
The apocalyptic reality of global warming requires a political solution of equal magnitude. Having long passed numerous thresholds for "acceptable" levels of climate change, it is no longer reasonable for even the most left-leaning politicians and governments continue preaching piecemeal reforms such as carbon taxes. This crisis has already arrived for much of the world in ways far more serious than the disappearance of exotic flora and fauna, and is being perpetuated as a direct effect of global capitalism. It will be impossible to improve the world in its current condition without a popular understanding of just how bad things are and an equally compelling solution that demonstrates just how good things could be.
Offering such narratives takes imagination and curiosity. It takes a systemic analysis which links collective to individual and microcosm to macrocosm, ultimately fighting neoliberal notions of what "an individual" is and how these individuals ought to treat each other. While policy wonks may scoff at the notion of a philosophical reckoning of this magnitude, they fail to recognize that many of us encounter these questions in our lives in the form of religion and religious thought. As environmentalists and leftists, then, we would be wise to utilize theology—what Schopenhauer called "folk metaphysics"—in tandem with worldly political analysis to connect with Americans on a level that is comprehensible and true, and point to global warming for what it is: an incredible sin against our planet and everything inhabiting it, an evil that flies in the face of human dignity, and a disgrace to any all-loving Creator.
It is undeniable that despite the ostensible constitutional separation of Church and State, religion plays an enormous role in American politics, not least because it plays an enormous role in the actual lives of many Americans. To see this connection most clearly, politics must be understood as something that does not just happen in State legislature and Congress, but instead as the public expression of individually-held views on interpersonal ethics, and the role of government in shaping their practice. Hence, the separation of the secular and the religious is only as real as the ability of voters and lawmakers to section off their morality into "religious" and "not religious" categories; even if this separation was achieved, we would then be asking voters specifically not to vote based on religious convictions. This seems to defeat the purpose of religious tolerance in the public sphere, and instead institute a hegemonic view of public morality which would need to be enforced. None of this to say that secular laws guaranteeing tolerance are bad, simply that they have not succeeded in the ways many think they have. These types of moral beliefs play out beneath science—hence the refusal of many to believe any sort of scientific fact regarding the reality of the situation on the basis of conspiracy. Statistics demonstrating the effects of climate change come from a place of greed and conspiracy, deniers argue, and therefore are not to be trusted. Continuing to browbeat the public along these lines of science and secularism misses the point; it does nothing to address the moral and ethical convictions underlying our political choices and actions, and often points to religion as a negative because of the often-politically conservative choices it informs.
When Neil DeGrasse Tyson, one of the closest figures America has to a public intellectual, describes the dismal state of politics as the fault of a "dysfunctional electorate" and comments after, "When you're scientifically literate, the world looks different to you... objective realities matter. These are the truths of the world that exist outside of whatever your belief system tells you," he advances the exact opposite of how we should be organizing. Instead of putting in the effort to understand why people experience the subjective realities that they do, or to even understand what those realities are, he dismisses their lived experience of religion as wrong and lesser than his secular reality. To him and his ilk, the religious are hopelessly stranded on an island of unreality, and they are proud to leave those simple-minded fools in isolation because they ultimately see religious belief itself as a grave crime against their vision of modernity. Addressing this disconnect is the job of serious relational organizing that confronts these questions at the same ethical and political level that religion often does, sketching a broad picture of our society amidst global civilization and in the world, and providing reason for a certain course of ethical action.
Of what use would this new political portrait be? Painted correctly, it will give an accurate portrayal of "politics" as experienced by the governed. Neoliberal environmentalism implies a specific definition in the "solutions" it offers to save "us" from global warming. The "we" neoliberalism concerns itself with, staring catastrophe in the face but not yet close enough to truly comprehend it, cannot reasonably include the Global South, where already unprecedented heat waves melt asphalt and kill thousands in South Asia, rising ocean temperatures create superstorms that lead to violent monsoons yielding crop failure, and previously uncontacted tribes in the Amazon have not just their homes, but their entire ways of life destroyed by capitalist deforestation. As we widen the scope of our analysis, this "we" currently unaffected by climate crisis shrinks even further; Flint has been without clean water for over two years, while out-of-control wildfires have decimated thousands of acres of ranch land in the American West, and fossil fuel plants south of Chicago continue to pollute communities of color while the affluent wipe their hands clean with the use of "green" energy. The "not-quite-here-yet" catastrophe of global warming pushed by neoliberalism excludes millions who are already suffering from the effects of climate change. Drastic action is made to seem unnecessary because the problem is rendered in such a way that it seems far-off and minor, at complete ignorance to the very obvious consequences already being suffered by human beings around the world.
A leftist climate action of the type that I have been outlining will need to completely redraw this "we" in order to incorporate all people at all margins around the world. It will need to seriously reframe the social and political connections between all of humanity, and Earth, the grounds of all Life. Much of the philosophical groundwork for this massive conceptual project is already being laid out in a decidedly metaphysical or even religious context. The Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers speaks of a modern "cosmopolitics" which takes seriously these considerations and looks at what it means for humans to "govern," what it is that we are actually doing with our government to shape the reality we share with each other. In the subfield known as natural theology, Bruno Latour analogizes the nature of the Greek pantheon and its near infinite mutability—e.g., the god Zeus being accepted as the very same being other worshippers called Jupiter or Amun-Ra depending on their own culture—with the manner in which we today ascribe varying labels or explanations for the singular subsuming force of "Nature".
These lines of thought offer us useful narratives in our organizing efforts. An argument like Latour's highlights the role of religious thought in politics by showing it to be heavily mediated and present in forms that, while not identical, are amenable and comprehensible to each other (e.g., that an atheist speaking of "Nature" as a monolithic force and a theist of "God" may be attributing different names to a system or force with identical traits). Under this scrutiny, how can politicians who claim to love God at the same time annihilate a planet that God intentionally created and animated? Stengers' understanding, meanwhile, challenges us to address deeply held metaphysical and moral viewpoints regarding the role of politics in human nature and how we are to understand our obligations to a planet full of non-human life in an era where many deem our best option as simply leaving Earth.
Shifting the narratives that give rise to government, shared ethics, and the mutual intelligibility of seemingly conflicting beliefs is paramount. These narratives can be utilized towards organizing effectively on a relational basis, for electing radical politicians who resonate with this narrative, and for generating a base of engaged people willing to call themselves environmentalists and engage in direct action. Calls to save endangered species and conserve natural beauty for its own sake have and will continue to fail at these aims: they are not compelling precisely because they don't offer anything that speaks deeply to voters as a moral imperative, nor do they offer substantial, material benefit to anyone other than those wealthy enough to see global warming as a threat to their next vacation or favored aesthetic. A successful narrative drawing on these questions of human responsibility to other humans and other life forms on earth will link an ethical argument—that the destruction of our planet in the name of profit and the resulting destruction of human life is an affront to the dignity of all life—to a material one: that this violence is the direct result of political mechanisms designed to drain the resources of the many for the benefit of the few.
Acknowledging the revolutionary potential inherent within much religious thinking introduces us to a means of engagement with many who feel powerless to the immoral workings of our current governments, and allows us to engage them as political agents in discussions about the moral course of action for a society. Asking the big questions like these, tying political questions to religious and philosophical ones, in its own small way returns agency to the many who have been offered a political choice only between bad and worse by challenging them to decide what they want beyond the constraints of "political feasibility." Countering neoliberal individualism, the notion that politics takes as its source a deep seated morality based on interpersonal relations and ethics from which no one can claim independence, these questions make clear the possibility of a collective agency created and sustained by the collective rather than imposed from above. When we succeed in telling this story, we force a confrontation with the contradictions of capitalism, and face a reckoning with the same questions religion asks of us: how does one lead the best possible life? Why is our world the way it is? How can we fix it? To these questions we will respond with a program that emphasizes the arbitrariness of suffering under capitalism and instead poses a world that is broken, but not unfixable; confounding, but not unknowable; divided by the mundane, but indivisible to the sacred.
Alexander Peltz is a first year MDiv Student at the University of Chicago, where he studies Sanskrit and metaphysics in the medieval South Asian and modern Western traditions. He tweets @peltzie.
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