By Ji Zhang

God is Life in Climate Change: A theological reflection on the 2015 Climate March

December 9th, 2015

As the United Nations Conference on Climate Change draws to its final days, UnitingWorld’s Ji Zhang reflects on the recent People’s Climate marches which brought together thousands of faith based communities.

As the world leaders gathered in Paris, the Church spoke climate justice on behalf of thousands of people, who together walked with a simple message: Climate change needs a cultural change, and Australia is ready for this change.

UnitingWorld, the international agency of the Uniting Church stands in solidarity with our partners: the Pacific people who experience the deepest impact, the poor living in the low-line costal areas of Asia facing the broadest challenge of rising sea level, and the countries in Africa struggling with reduced food production. For them climate change is not an ideological debate, but a daily suffering. We advocate climate justice for them.

The 2009 National Assembly document An Economy of Life speaks to the Uniting Church at the time of global financial crisis and the public debate on climate change. Six years on, the spirit of this UCA position paper still speaks to us today. It has named the problem of human progress and invited the church to re-imagine life’s intrinsic fullness in the age of climate change. Standing in this tradition, and in the light of the People’s Climate March last month, the UCA stands in solidarity once more with people around world.

The common good, if we pay close attention to this public discourse, is about life. This outcry for sustaining life is stronger than the problem of climate change itself. So how does the Church reflect this outcry for sustaining life theologically?

The question invites us to go back to the theological wisdom about life itself. Life has its origin in God. And the collective life of the world flows out of, and gives expressions to, the very life of the Triune God. This insight can be rephrased into a theological assertion: Let everyone live in the fullness of God’s life. The key merit of the assertion is its openness that allows the public to shift our attention away from the individual self and re-imagine human life from the perspective of God’s life.

This divine-human connection can be traced to the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, Karl Rahner famously states, “the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, and vice versa”. Without going into the metaphysical debate, the co-relational thinking can be explained in simple terms. Day and night are not two distinctive ideas logically opposed to each other, but together they form the reality called time. Likewise the inner life of God (the immanent) and the outer manifestation of God’s life (the economic) are two relational sides of the same God. Like the symbol of Yin-Yang in Eastern cultures, black and the white are mutually indwelling, for the Trinity at the heart of God’s economy in the world is the fountain of God’s overflowing love, whereas at the core of God’s inner mystery is God’s radical openness. In other words, God is life; and life is constantly unfolding in the world.

This life of God is the foundation upon which we re-imagine the wholeness of human life. First we begin this re-imagination from our idea of God. It presents to us a relational understanding of unity containing with itself relational diversity. The wholeness of God is not based on an ideal sameness, but mutual indwelling love of distinctive Persons. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (John 17:21). Emerging from this inner wholeness, the divine love of God overflows into the riches of God’s own creation. What Christians mean by life is not individual life, but in the depth of our beings there is hidden communion with the life of God. Life, therefore, is sacred.

This eco-theology challenges and enriches Christian understandings of the creation and humanity, and the relationship between them. Instead of viewing the Creation as passive and lifeless, it posits that God is not an otherworldly deity, but incarnates God’s own life in “the Word became flash and lived among us” (John 1: 14). Instead of maintaining an absolute and controlling God, like a divine craftsman in a mechanical universe, God in the Christ is also vulnerable to suffering, particularly on the cross. Instead of solely seeking personal salvation, in the economy of God personal salvation and the salvation of the creation cannot be separated, because they are one with the same purpose (Rev 21: 1-3). Instead of exploring the land for fossil resources to feed modern progress, the creating life takes human desire back to the last day of the Creation and observes the divine rest of the Sabbath as a blessed order in the creation (Gen 2: 3). Instead of constructing an economic pyramid of success, the God of life proclaims the Jubilee and the outpouring Spirit upon the whole world (Zec 2: 10).

For Christian ethics, climate change awakens modernity from its anthropocentric worldview. While modernity places humanity, particularly the rich and powerful, at the centre of the world, nature is questioning this self-inflated image on an atmospheric scale.

Lost in the debate of climate sciences, what climate change has highlighted for us is a moral ambiguity: human beings are self-contradictory beings. On the one hand, our lifestyle in Australia is secured by our cheap access to natural resources. On the other hand, our liberal ideals and comfortable lifestyle have significantly contributed to the very fact that Australia has the greatest greenhouse emission per capita in the world. At the international level, during many UN led negotiations toward international accord, it was apparent that the deeper a nation is attached to high carbon economy the less willing it is to accept historical and future responsibilities for a large-scale reduction. Beneath this political disagreement there rests a post-Enlightenment worldview in which individual liberty transcends the natural world. The argument of human-induced global warming, however, has not only put this transcendental humanism into question, but also demonstrated that the premise of placing natural laws within the limits of human nature is fundamentally wrong.

The moral challenge of climate change debate can certainly generate a vortex of guilt that is disempowering. Contrary to the traditional role of moral policing, the Church’s involvement in last month’s Climate March speaks out the underlying issue of injustice from the perspective of the marginalised and the powerless. It shifts the Church’s attention away from confessional theology, but places the church’s leadership on the path to seek better understanding of Godly endowment of life in this world – and for all peoples.

“Return to the Ashes of Fire”, spoken by the President Stuart McMillan at his the 14th Assembly, calls the Church to return to this land we call Australia. The ancient wisdom is about its motherly nature – holding all in silence with life-giving blessings. Likewise, eco-theology does not seek to create another universal theology on the top of existing systems of thought. It does, however, celebrate the divinity emerging out of the life of the church. From this week, we will listen to many voices in this public movement. The narrative of this public theology cannot be one, but rather many.

For some, the Church will be a space to invite people to enter into the natural and spiritual space to rediscover our place in the ecology of world, so we may learn to live locally in this space like the First People – not live above the land, but with the land. For some, the church will be a space to name the problem of liberal ideals in the economic rationalism that gravitate people from the will to change to the desire for comfort in Australia society. For some, the church is a space to encourage gentle and personal reflections, yet the narrative unmistakably implies a deep challenge that climate change requires cultural change starting at the personal level. For some, the church is a space for a community living to break down boundaries of individualism. Living in a Christian community with simplicity and mutual trust gives inert confidence that further reduces our needs to seek external and material security. For some, the church is a space to welcome climate refugees in, and provide resource to help the people suffering direct impact of climate change with international assistance.

All these expressions point to a common direction. Christian people are not afraid to name the cross of climate change – even at the risk of unveiling our own cross. There is a global cross stretching into four directions and holding the world together in silence. The external brokenness of the world and our inner yearning for reconciliation are ontologically akin.

In the Australian political sphere, any attempt to connect the person and the world has so far come with a bigger than expected cost for whoever is wanting to drive the change. The climate change debate has directly contributed to the downfall of some political leaders. There is a risk in walking the talk. But this is not where eco-theology ends. It is where it truly begins. The Church calls upon its members to stand in the shadow of this modern cross and exemplify the Good News in the age of climate change. This ministry begins with us – imperfect, vulnerable, yet willing.

What the Church calls the people to see is life. And this life of God invites us to see the world from the perspective of God. The metaphysical problem of modern progress is basically unjust and unsustainable. Abiding in Christ as the diverse people of God, this experience of God’s inclusiveness enables us to see that the single train of universal progress is running at the unaccounted cost of the disappearance of diversity. With the perspective of God’s fullness of life for all, we begin to realise that the current environmental and economical crises are both running on the self-defeating course – borrowing future for the current spending.

Climate Change, if we look closely and honestly, is about suffering. It is a modern doctrine of suffering written in environmental language and supported by scientific evidences. This suffering has a myriad of appearances. What climate crisis teaches us is something about ourselves. Climate change is not just an environmental crisis, but also a crisis of humanity. Its essence is brokenness. Ancient astrologists look into the night sky to predict changes in human history. Today atmospheric changes are projecting human crisis across the sky. It is a breaking down of relationship. Climate change is about the breaking down of relationship between God and the creation, between humanity and the world, and between human beings ourselves. While economic progress pursues the dream of value creation, climate change shows the reverse image of this teleological purpose, namely suffering.

The Climate March is not only a public confession, but also an invocation for God’s life to transform us into hope. Climate change is not just about danger, but also opportunity. It offers a new platform upon which a new way of living can be envisioned and articulated. The currency of the world is not progress, but justice. Life is not about accumulation of material wealth, but intrinsically a simple yet life-giving connection with its Maker. Life, at its elementary level, is simple and beautiful. The simplicity of human existence – free from desire driven illusions – has its sacred and secret place in the unbound scope of God’s love. Our existence, individual belief and collective action, is not defined by linear transcendence, but a circular return to the origin of the universe, God.

At this origin of all beginnings, we realise a simple truth, as in Christ’s likeness. The answer to suffering is love – turning suffering into compassion, and acting accordingly.

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