I wrote this piece for THEOS and it was first published here.
The Bible has been read, interpreted and applied in ways that have caused all sorts of atrocities and grievous injustices that have stained human history. From the Doctrine of Discovery in the fifteenth century, to the theological underpinnings of South African apartheid, the Bible has been used to craft systems and support structures that have caused pain, suffering and injustice.
As a Christian, this grieves me.
And I believe it grieves the God of the Bible.
As the world grapples increasingly with the global climate crisis, searching for solutions that would lead to (miraculous) healing and restoration, I can understand why many people might be cautious of bringing the Bible into the conversation. I can sympathise with those advocating for the pages of Scripture to be confined behind church walls to an innocuous Sunday hour.
What could the Bible possibly offer that would help us out of this catastrophe?
Well, leaving aside for now all the ways in which the Bible has also been a source of just and virtuous activity (and that, as previous Theos research has suggested, Christianity is by its nature a public religion), I can think of two pertinent reasons to bring the Bible into today’s climate crisis conversations.
Firstly, in facing the climate crisis, we need ever more people to care about the problem that we face and the Bible can play a role in establishing that motivation. We need millions more people around the world putting pressure on politicians, mobilising communities and adjusting lifestyles. We need sources of motivation that would spark widespread action. Read and interpreted well, the Bible has a deep well of ideas that can produce the needed motivation to serve and care for the environment.
For example, the Bible begins by presenting God as a creator who has created a good world that God cares for. In the Bible, creation has inherent value and worth beyond its usefulness to humanity. And so, as Christians, we act like our God (that is, “image” or reflect God) as we care for wider creation.
There is, of course, the well–known God–given mandate to humanity to “have dominion over” wider creation (Genesis 1:26 and 28). While this has often been misinterpreted and applied abusively, scholars have pointed out that the Hebrew term used here (radah) is, in context, a neutral term, without the negative modern connotations of brute force, violent power–over, and exploitation. Biblical scholars like Walter Bruggemann have argued that “stewardship” is a more appropriate way of understanding “radah” in Genesis 1 – and while “stewardship” as a term is limited and imperfect in describing the mandate in Genesis 1, it helpfully emphasises two important things: human beings have a delegated participation in God’s caring rule over creation; and humanity is also accountable to God for how we handle and treat wider creation which is ultimately ‘owned’ by God.
Secondly, there are all sorts of biblical ideas and motifs that could serve as catalytic sparks for pro–environmental behaviour, but how effective is this content in shaping behaviour? Do religious settings offer any particular benefit in terms of mobilising people in response to the climate crisis?
I’m currently working with some brilliant academics at the University of Nottingham exploring religious settings (for example, church gatherings and small–group discussions) can help to bring about behavioural change that will help the environment. The research is looking at the impact on individuals who have read and studied together Ruth Valerio’s popular ecotheology book: Saying Yes To Life. The research is ongoing, but the results so far have yielded two interesting findings.
Firstly, this research is showing that engaging reflectively around biblical theology of creation care can indeed result in positive behaviour change. In the study, there was an activation of latent beliefs. That is, discussing environmental issues ‘theologically’ in religious settings is able to tap into deeper, existing beliefs and stimulate pro–environmental behaviour change. As a simplified example, a person might be more motivated to do their recycling when they see that act (reframed) as an act of worship of, and love for, God.
I was also excited to see the results indicate that these theological reflections were effective in sustaining behaviour change. Caring for creation can be challenging and tiring, whether it’s campaigning for climate policy change or making sacrificial lifestyle changes in our personal lives. As we respond to the climate crisis, what is needed is not ‘flash in the pan’ mobilisation for a moment, but sustained, enduring action into the future. The research indicates theological reflection can help sustain people seeking to care for creation over the long haul.
I hope and pray that societies will acknowledge the role of religious settings in cultivating pro–environmental attitudes and actions. If we respect the Bible enough to study and apply it well – in a way that honours the story and, indeed, the God of the Bible – we’ll find a deep wealth of ideas that can serve to stimulate, initiate and sustain behaviour that is desperately needed in our hour of global crisis.
 W. Brueggeman, Genesis, Interpretation: A commentary for teaching and preaching, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 32; c.f. A. G. Padgett and K.A. Jorgenson, “Introduction”, in Ecotheology, A Christian Conversation (Grand Rapids, 2020), 1–14.