November 2016 Feature Article

Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites,
because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land:
“There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying.” Hosea 4:1-3

The November/December Northeast monsoons have brought relief, for various countries in South East Asia, from the haze that has shrouded this part of the world for the past few months.  As quickly as the rains arrived, interspersed by clear blue skies, we have almost forgotten the irritation and inconvenience that the indiscriminate slashing and burning in both Sumatra and Kalimantan have introduced as part of the annual cycle of weather forecast in this part of the world.  In Paris, world leaders gather this week for one of the most important meetings following the Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997.  The COP21, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference[1], will, for the first time in over 20 years of United Nations’ negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.

On the home front, Mediacorp in seeking to add to the choruses of voices clamouring for Singaporean’s attention in regard to contributing to global action against global warming has launched a month-long green campaign across its television, news, radio and print platforms.  In 2007, it launched a website, http://www.savinggaia.sg/ to reiterate the importance of reducing, reusing and recycling.  Be it intentional in adopting the worldview as mentioned by Howard Snyder[2] or otherwise, Mediacorp explains the use of the Greek term Gaia, seeing it as synonymous with “Mother Earth” and bids all Singaporeans to “do your part to save Gaia”.

Scientists, politicians, celebrities and business entrepreneurs have in one way or another jumped on the ‘green’ bandwagon and in concert called for some action in light of the current global context.  Yet it is a little puzzling to me that while global warming is such a ‘hot’ topic (pun intended), it seems that little is articulated or acted upon, on  this important issue from a missiological perspective or even as a Christian response[3].  It may well be that for too long, Christians have held on to a perspective that the Christian life is to prepare people for heaven, such that we should endure the vicissitudes that this earthly life affords and look forward to the day when we will be freed from the temptations, trials, travails and tragedies as we leave this earthly world for a permanent heavenly realm; since “this world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.”

Norman Wirzba cautions that “this way of characterizing the Christian life is a theological disaster” because “it rejects and violates the good and beautiful world that God made, the world that is the object of God’s daily concern and delight.”[4]   Wirzba rightly points out that the point of life is not to escape this earthly life but to “lead us more deeply into the movements of love that nurture and heal and celebrate the gifts of God.”  In many ways, this view is similarly articulated in Pope Francis second encyclical Laudato Si[5] (Praise be to You) where Pope Francis critiques consumerism and irresponsible development, laments environmental degradation and global warming, and calls all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action.”   In light of these developments, this article is (in part) a result of my musings on the subject of climate change and global warming and the implications therein for the Church, which is  called to partner with God in His mission.

What is global warming?

Climatologists are in agreement that the earth has undergone various periods of changes in the climate which may be attributed to natural processes or cyclical changes.  But the global warming (scientifically referred to as climate change) that has been documented in the more recent past reflects a major shift in the cyclical patterns, where the changes have been substantial and poses a serious threat to both the planet and to its people, especially to the poor in the developing world.

The change is attributed primarily to human activity, with the pollution of the earth’s atmosphere with so called greenhouse gases – principally carbon dioxide which comes from a number of sources[6] as well as nitrous oxide (N2O, for example, in petrol exhaust). The latest report[7] by the United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) illustrates this point well.  These gases create a greenhouse effect, trapping heat from the sun in the atmosphere instead of allowing it to radiate out into space.  While the processes of the greenhouse effect are rather involved, what results is that these trapped greenhouse gases gradually raises the average temperature which in turn affects global weather patterns.

While it may be argued that there has always been a certain amount of greenhouse gases already present in the earth’s atmosphere, it seems irrefutable that much of it is anthropogenic, and in no small part, directly attributed to the industrial revolution in the 18th century.  The increasing amounts of coal, oil and gas used as fuel has now produced a level of carbon dioxide pollution which has exceed the capacity of natural processes to absorb.

Robert T. Watson, the former Chairman[8] of the United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of climate scientists from across the world which was set up to advise the world’s governments, has previously remarked, “It is no longer a question of whether the earth’s climate will change but rather when, where and by how much” and the evidences for his claim are summarized as follows[9]:

+  Over the last century atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased by 25%, nitrous oxides by 19% and methane by 100%

+    Since 1900 the Earth’s surface temperature has risen by between 0.3 and 0.6 degrees C.

+    The fourteen hottest years on record have occurred since 1980. The 1990s were the hottest decade of the millennium. 1998 was the hottest year of the millennium.

+    Sea surface temperatures have risen by 2 -3 degrees C. and sea levels have risen by between 10 and 25 centimetres; fish have moved north; zooplankton has declined by 70% in twenty years in the eastern pacific; glaciers are retreating; tundra is melting and releasing methane; spring is arriving a week or more earlier in the northern hemisphere than it did twenty years ago.

+    The periodic changes in ocean circulation patterns in the eastern Pacific known as El Niño, which have major effects on weather patterns over large parts of the globe, have recently been more frequent and more severe.

+    1998 was not only the hottest year of the millennium, it was also a record year for climate related disasters, including huge forest fires in Brazil, Mexico and the US; killer heat waves in the Middle east and India; the worst drought in seventy years in Mexico; flooding in China leaving 14 million homeless; and the massively destructive Hurricane Mitch in Central America.

+    According to the insurance giant, Munich Reinsurance, in the 1960s there were 16 climate related disasters; in the 1990s there were 70. The costs of climate related disasters, meanwhile, have doubled every decade, from $50 billion in the 1960s to nearly $400 billion in the 1990s.

Researchers at the UK’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research have said that the rise in temperature during the 20th century cannot be put down to natural causes. It can only be explained by human activities[10]. Interestingly, it was only as late as 2002[11] that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has endorsed what many scientists have long argued – that human activities such as oil refining, power generation and car emissions are significant causes of global warming.  More recently[12], the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has come to the same conclusion.

How we got to where we are?

If perhaps we can summarily locate the onset of the current phenomenon of global warming, one might attribute it to globalization.  While arguably, globalization may have brought with it various results such as in Thomas Friedman’s very positive assessment of “flattening the earth.”[13] Yet one can also not deny the fact that foremost among the many tangible negative effects are that of global warming as well as the increasing monetary divide between the global rich and the global poor.

Larry Rasmussen[14] sees the impact of globalization in three waves, that of colonialism, development and free trade global capitalism.  His contention is that these waves did not simply affect human society but “also deeply altered the biotic community, locally, regionally, globally to give us the present “ecological question””[15] Colonialism with the attendant exploitation of natural resources and conquest in many ways contributed to the processes which directly affects global warming. With development and free trade liberalization, the machinery to transform society and nature has been set in motion.

While this is an almost skimpy historical summary of globalization, one can evidence the immediate tangible economic results that globalization has brought about, especially among the developed countries, and in particular for those of us who live in Singapore.  Yet, the subtle destructive effects, such as an increasingly widening income gap between the rich and poor nations, poverty, and increased occurrence of natural (or perhaps rightly, ‘unnatural’) catastrophes are only slowly being witnessed all across the world (as my little newspaper-cutting exercise will show). These are but the tip of an increasing number of issues which account for Joseph Stiglitz’s book, Globalization and Its Discontent.

While the empirical evidence seems to be tipping the scales in favour of global warming and points the finger to human causation, there are equally quite a number of scientists and climatologists who think otherwise.  This other camp attributes global warming to the thermonuclear activity on the surface of the sun as well as a host of other explanations[16].  Do take note however, of the more recent news publication which counters the somewhat more optimistic tenor of this scientific camp.[17]

Hence in regard to global warming, the truth is that there are various scientific opinions and various different positions.  As with most important issues, global warming has become all too politicized[18].  Sadly even among the Christian community, there seems to be no consensus.  Eco-theologians tend to use an organic model for God and view all of creation as God’s self expression.  Their “emphasis on immanence alongside transcendence is found in almost universally in ecotheology and can be labeled “panentheism”[19] Such a view may not have many adherents.  In developing the summarizing committee report at the Au Sable Forum which dealt with the topic “Evangelical Christianity and the Environment”, the committee specially noted that while it affirmed the value of the Gaia hypothesis (highlighting the interconnected system between earth and the living creatures therein) it however rejects the religious implication that is sometimes drawn among the Gaia advocates that the earth is a divine being.  The committee is also quick to point out that this is in part “due to the church’s failure to proclaim its living, triune God as both clearly distinct and intimately involved with creation.”[20]

More recently, while some prominent advocates of limiting carbon-emission include such as Rick Warren and Salvation Army Commissioner W. Todd Bassett, others such as Chuck Colson, James Dobson have implored the National Association of Evangelicals in the USA against establishing an official position on climate change, since “global warming is not a consensus issue” and “there should be room for Bible-believing evangelicals to disagree about the cause, severity and solutions.[21]

It may well be for the above reasons that there seems to be little consensus among the Christian community.  While the world is slowly being stirred into action to care for our ailing planet, Christians remain somewhat tacitly divided and perhaps somewhat apathetic to conservation efforts.  Amidst this cacophony of differing voices and opinions, how are we as disciples of Jesus Christ and stewards of God’s creation to respond?

Interestingly, as the centre of Christianity has shifted southwards, it is the South, for which these issues are a reality that is speaking out and letting their voice be heard.  One example is theologians from South America, in particular, Brazilian Methodist theologians have tried to understand the issue by looking within their own Wesleyan heritage.  In particular, Luis Wesley de Souza presented his views, enlarging upon the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to include creation within the framework, thereby developing a Wesleyan theology of mission which incorporates Wesley’s regard for creation, as evidenced through his correspondences with his friends as well as his sermons and writings[22].  Figuratively the Wesleyan Pentalateral as understood by Robert W. Burtner, Robert Chiles and other like-minded Brazilian Wesleyan theologians, may be represented as such:

diag-1-feature-article_climate-change

Figure 1: Diagrammatic Representation of the Pentalateral

Even if we were to ignore these contributions from these Brazilian Wesleyan theologians, one cannot be apathetic to the appeal of other voices from among Evangelical, Orthodox and Catholic perspectives.  An example of a Catholic author is Stephen Bevans.  Bevans forwards the view[23]:

A creation-centred orientation sees the world as sacramental: The world is the place where God reveals Godself.  Revelation does not happen in set-apart, particularly holy places, in strange unworldly circumstances, or in words that are spoken in a stilted voice.  It comes in daily life, in ordinary words, through ordinary people . . . Creation-centred theology approaches life with an analogical, not dialectical, spirit or imagination, and sees a continuity between human existence and divine reality.

It is not that the world is perfect and sinless.  Creation-centred theology certainly acknowledges the reality and ugliness of sin.  But sin is sin precisely because it is an aberration in such a beautiful world, an attempt to “get out of life what God has not put into it,” and the only way that sin can adequately be exterminated is by confrontation with the power of good.

Similarly, in Donald Senior’s and Carrol Stuhlmueller’s The Biblical Foundations for Mission, they also regard a theology of creation as one of the key themes[24] which provide the impetus of mission.  More recently, Howard Synder’s eloquent contribution to a more wholistic understanding of mission is articulated in his book, Salvation Means Creation Healed.  Synder notes that salvation through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit includes the story of how God is redeeming and transforming his creation. And He calls us into mission with Him to bring the healing of creation.

Perhaps we can go on to identify various other theologians from different traditions and also the important themes in the Bible such as the Old Testament understanding of Shalom or the New Testament understanding of a new heaven and new earth to highlight the importance of developing a biblical basis for our ethical action in regards to caring for creation, which can and should be further developed by various other writers.  But as we come to a conclusion (for now) and hope to make sense of this mess that we have made of God’s gift of creation, what are the implications for mission in the 21st century?

What next?  Why should we be concerned?

If mission is understood as missio Dei, then I believe that a wholistic missiology cannot ignore the impact on ecology.  The same God who is concerned with the salvation of humanity and the renewal of the church is similarly concerned with the healing of the cosmos and the renewal of creation.  In this regard, Langmead is right when he noted that “Mission that is directed to one aspect of existence will always be an incomplete form of mission… this means that missiology needs to be both comprehensive (taking all dimensions of the Gospel into account) and holistic (integrating them and not just adding one to another).”[25]

In conclusion, the following points may be highlighted as we draw upon a wholistic missiology in response to the current context of climate change and global warming.

A. The Value of Creation. As with the summary in the Au Sable Committee report, we need to “affirm that all God’s creations are valuable in and of themselves, apart from any usefulness to humans.”[26]  In essence, there is intrinsic value in all of creation and humanity as the crown of God’s creation should as far as possible support the conservation and well-being of other creatures which share this earth.  To affirm the intrinsic value of creation is also to elevate the status of creation and the environment “to something worth defending, caring for and enjoying simply because it is the intrinsically valuable expression of the creativity of God.”[27]  Practically this may issue as a call for Sabbath rest for arable farming land or even a purposeful and prudent change of fishing grounds in order that the fish population is not depleted through over-fishing in that particular locale, to meet the voracious demands of an ever increasing human population.

B. The Truth about Sin. All creation, most preeminently humanity, is diseased and damaged by sin and stands in need of the redemption that God provides through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. If sin is understood as the perversion of human relationships with God and creation, hence the ministry of reconciliation is hence at the heart of the mission of God and as a result also the mission of the church.  This ministry of reconciliation highlighted in the passage in 2 Corinthians 5, where God brings total renewal to humanity and all creation.  It is God reconciling us to Christ and in whom all the world is reconciled and renewed.  Archbishop Anastasios of the Greek Orthodox Church in writing on global issues has this to add: “Some reconciliation between humanity and nature is urgently needed.  It is time we understood that nature is something sacred.  It does not lie outside the sphere of the Holy spirit’s activity.”[28]  This wider understanding of the ministry of reconciliation is what we are called to participate in.  But in regard to the current crisis of global warming, perhaps the church as a whole has chosen the path of tacit complicity.

C. The Service of Stewardship. As we ground our appeal of stewardship God’s command to Adam in the Genesis account, we perhaps can employ John Houghton’s garden metaphor of gracious stewardship, where our work as gardeners suggests that gardens are places, which provide for sustenance, (the appreciation of) beauty, creativity as well as for the benefit of posterity. For the most part, we know what to do but we lack the will to do it and because of our obsession with the immediate material benefits, on both a national and individual level, we ignore what needs to be addressed for the future of humanity.  Our Christian faith can provide a driving force for action in countering our lack of will and perhaps we do well to also remember that as God’s keeper of His garden (the earth), we are to adopt an “attitude of humility is also one which lies at the heart of responsible stewardship of the earth.”[29]

The hope of this article is that it will ignite more discussions and generate more deliberations as well as kindle desires and catalyze decisions especially from churches to live out the prayer our Lord Jesus taught us, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”


andrew-pehDr Andrew Peh is a lecturer in mission at Trinity Theological College. He is also an alumnus of Trinity Theological College as well as E Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism, of Asbury Theological Seminary. He is also ordained as a diaconal minister with the Chinese Annual Conference of the Methodist Church in Singapore.  Andrew’s research interests are in colonial mission history of Southeast Asia (Singapore), the mission history of East Asia (particularly Japanese Christianity) as well as the intersection between globalisation and mission praxes in our current context.


Bibliography

Anastasios, Archbishop. “Toward a Global Community: resources and responsibilities”, in Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essays on Global Concerns. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003

Bevans, Stephan B.  Models of Contextual Theology, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992.

de Souza, Luis Wesley. “The Wisdom of God in Creation: Mission and the Wesleyan Pentalateral”, in Global Good News: Mission in a New Context, Howard Snyder, ed., Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001, 138-153.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si – On Care for Our Common Homehttps://laudatosi.com/watch

Friedman, Thomas. The World is Flat – A Brief History of the Globalized World in the 21st Century, London, UK: Allen Lane, 2005.

Gore, Al.  An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It.  London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2006.

Houghton, John.  Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Kostenberger, Andreas J. “The Place of Mission in New Testament Theology: An Attempt to Determine the Significance of Mission Within the Scope of the New Testament’s Message as a Whole,” Missiology: An International Review, Vol  XXVII, No. 3 (July 1999): 347-362.

Langmead, Ross.  “Ecomissiology,” Missiology: An International Review, Vol XXX, No. 4 (October 2002): 505-518.

Rasmussen, Larry. “Global Ecojustice: The Church’s Mission in Urban Society,” Mission Studies, Vol XVI-1, 31 (1999): 123-135.

Rossing, Barbara. “River of Life in God’s New Jerusalem: An Ecological Vision for Earth’s Future,” Mission Studies Vol XVI-I, 31 (1999): 136-156.

Samuel, V. and Chris Sugden. Mission as Transformation, Paternoster Press: 2000.

Senior, Donald and Stuhlmueller, Carroll. The Biblical Foundations for Mission Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000

Sleeth, J. Matthew. Serve God, Save the Planet – A Christian Call to Action. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007.

Snyder, Howard, EarthCurrents: the Struggle for the World’s Soul.  Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995

Snyder, Howard, Salvation Means Creation Healed  Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011

Stiglitz, Joseph E.  Globalization and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.

Wilkinson, Loren, ed., Earthkeeping in the ‘90s: Stewardship of Creation. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Wirzba, Norman.  From Nature to Creation.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2105.


[1]       Please see http://www.cop21paris.org/about/cop21.

[2]         Howard Snyder, EarthCurrents: the Struggle for the World’s Soul, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) 177-185.  The chapter deals with the Gaia worldview and while is seems to be an attractive worldview, Snyder in this chapter highlighted the inadequacies of this worldview, 184ff.

[3]         Matthew Sleeth, Serve God, Save the Planet – A Christian Call to Action. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. This is perhaps the most recent book written from a pastoral perspective on being good stewards of God’s creation.

[4]        Norman Wirzba, From Nature to Creation – A Christian Vision for Understanding and loving Our World, (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Academic, 2015) 1.

[5]       The encyclical has the subtitle, On Care for Our Common Home.  Please see https://laudatosi.com/watch

[6]         These include to a large extent the burning of fossil fuels, but also methane from fossil fuel extraction, from paddy fields (through rice cultivation), from fossil fuel extraction as well as from the rear end of cattle.

[7]         The report may be found at http://www.ipcc.ch/SPM2feb07.pdf.

[8]         Accordingly, Dr Watson’s ousting seems to be politically motivated.  Please refer to the BBC News report at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1940117.stm

[9]         As presented in a policy position paper on global warming by Christian Aid, http://www.christian-aid.org.uk/indepth/0011glob/globwarm.htm, accessed on Aug 2006.

[10]       Please refer to online news at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article516033.ece

[11]       Please refer to BBC online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2023835.stm

[12]       http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0202/climate.html

[13]       Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat – A Brief History of the Globalized World in the 21st Century, (London: Allen Lane, 2005).

[14]       Larry Rasmussen, “Global Ecojustice,” Mission Studies VVI-I, 31, (1999) 127-131.

[15]       Ibid, 127.

[16]       Andy Ho, “Who or What is the Real Culprit?” The Straits Times, 1 May 2007, Available from http://www.asiaone.com/a1news/20070503_story8_1.html; internet; accessed 22 Jul 2007.

[17]       AFP, “Sun’s in the clear over global warming”, Yahoo News (Singapore) Online, available from http://sg.news.yahoo.com/afp/20070711/twl-climate-warming-sun-4bdc673.html; internet, accessed on 22 Jul 2007.

[18]       We need to bear in mind that the spokesperson for An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore was the Democrat candidate who ran against George Bush in the 2000 elections and lost by so close a margin that till today is the brunt of jokes with regards to the American Presidential elections.

[19]       Ross Langmead, “Ecomissiology,” Missiology: An International Review, Vol XXX, No. 4 (October 2002) 506.

[20]       Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden, Mission as Transformation: A Theology of the Whole Gospel, (Oxford, UK: Regnum Books, 1999) 348.

[21]       Please refer to  the following webpage http://www.byfaithonline.com/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID323422%7CCHID664014%7CCIID2257730,00.html

[22]       Luis Wesley de Souza, “The Wisdom of God in Creation: Mission and the Wesleyan Pentalateral”, in Global Good News: Mission in a New Context, Snyder, ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001) 144-146 gives various specific examples from the works of John Wesley.

[23]       Stephan B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992) 16.

[24]       Donald Senior and Carrol Stuhlmueller, The Biblical Foundations for Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000) 326ff.

[25]       Ross Landmead, “Ecomissiology”, 509.

[26]       Vinay and Sugden, eds., Mission as Transformation, 349.

[27]       Ross Landmead, “Ecomissiology”, 512.

[28]       Archbishop Anastasios, “Toward a Global Community: resources and responsibilities”, in Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essays on Global Concerns. (NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 37.

[29]       John Houghton, Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 152.