In the recent film, “The Theory of Everything,” the brilliance, determination and courage of the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is dramatically portrayed. A major theme is concerned with Hawking’s changing thinking about the origin of the universe and the evolution of life. Although his early research speculated that there might be a Creator God, in his later work (summarized in “A Brief History of Time”) he decided that there was no room or necessity for a divine being at the beginning. It is ironic that although some characters in the script question his scientific findings, no one debates the veracity of his theological declarations. The film ends on the questionable note that as long as there are living beings there is always hope, seemingly putting humanity in the true center of existence.
A significantly different conclusion is reached by Bill McKibben, the environmentalist founder of 350.org and scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College. In a book dedicated to the people in the Johnsburg, Vermont, United Methodist Church, McKibben reviews the grave climate change crisis we face in relation to our belief in God the Creator (“The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation,” Crowley Publications, 2005). Finding particular direction in God’s speech to Job out of the storm, McKibben demonstrates that the book of Job has much to teach us as we face numerous critical decisions about our planet’s future. Above all, God is able to convince Job that he has little standing in the ultimate sense before the Creator of the universe. As McKibben says, we, along with Job, are driven away from a self-centered, humanistic concept of our power to control the fate of the earth and a rather naïve and limited definition of environmental stewardship to a new sense of God’s purpose and to a two-fold response to Creation (i.e. the elements of radical humility and overwhelming joy).
McKibben particularly challenges and encourages religious organizations to combine these two elements in practice in order to prevent the destruction of nature’s created balance. In his opinion, the church, synagogue and mosque are especially suited to foster necessary changes in society for two reasons. “The first is because they are the only institution left in society that understands some goal other than material progress … . The second reason that the churches could be so important is because they understand better than any other institution the possibilities of transcendent joy. At their best they stand outside the consumer society.”
In regard to the church, McKibben is concerned that Christians may squander the potential they have to make a difference. Part of the reason why so many younger Americans no longer find the church to be an important part of their lives is because the voice of God is muffled. If the churches accept cultural assumptions that all problems we face can be solved through human theories and policies and that humility and joy are replaced by pride, we may face a crisis of faith that is as dangerous as the environmental destruction we see all around us.
In a speech before the American Academy of Religion in November 2014 McKibben said that he still has hope that we can save our environment. But he warns that we have to make radical changes within 50 years if we want to avoid reaching a climactic point of no return. As church leaders, we can enable our congregations to take a central role in what McKibben calls “recreation” if we make environmental justice a major priority at all levels of the church from now on.
For a discussion of historical Presbyterian theological and policy responses to questions of climate change see my “Witness Without Parallel, Eight Biblical Texts That Make Us Presbyterian” (Geneva Press, 2003), Chapter 3, 32-42.
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired pastor living in Johnstown, New York, and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.