Thursday, September 30, 2010

Loving our (climate) neighbours

"Acting rightly with respect to the earth is a source of hope, for those who so act give expression to the Christian belief that it is God’s intention to redeem the earth, and her oppressed creatures, from sinful subjection to the domination of prideful wealth and imperial power. Such actions witness to the truth that the history of global warming has gradually unfolded; that those poor or voiceless human and nonhuman beings whose prospect climate change is threatening are neighbours through the climate system to the powerful and wealthy. And Christ’s command in these circumstances is as relevant as ever: 'love your neighbour as yourself.'"

- Michael Northcott, A Moral Climate: the ethics of global warming
(London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007), 285.

Northcott (a professor of Christian ethics here in Edinburgh) articulates a fundamental point for Christian discussions of ecology. That love is our motivation and the criterion of our choices: not greed in seeking profits or power through higher regulations, not fear or self-protection, not enlightened self-interest or guilt. Any Christian discussion of ecological responsibility needs this corrective lest we simply mirror or unthinkingly baptise unbelieving discourse and assumptions.

Note that framing the discussion within the concept of love doesn't necessarily mean that only humans are included within the sphere of our concern. Northcott here suggests, quite radically for some perhaps, that nonhuman beings can also be our neighbours. Much more needs to be said on this, but to suggest animals (and plants?) as neighbours, as fellow members of the community of life and fellow breathers of the divine Spirit, need not imply that there are not ordered relationships between different forms of life, though it does at the very least imply that nonhuman creatures are loved by God for what they are, not simply for what they can be for us humans.

UPDATE: Were the animals also waiting for the coming Messiah?


lukeisham said...

Do you agree with Northcott that "neighbors" includes non-persons?

byron smith said...

I believe our ethical community extends beyond other humans.

As I said, this doesn't rule out ordered relationships or imply that we love such "neighbours" in the same way, nor do I think it is the primary reference of Christ's command, nonetheless, the other creatures are our co-worshippers of the creator and we are to join with one another in praising God. Or to put this another way, God's original blessing on humanity to be fruitful and multiply was also given to other creatures and so I take it that if our multiplying seriously undermines the flourishing of other creatures (as it currently is doing, if we pay attention to rates of biodiversity decline) then we are doing something seriously wrong.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

lukeisham said...

I think "neighbors" clearly means persons and not animals, plants or inanimate objects. Also I think saying otherwise diffuses the command beyond recognition by making it universal in a completely absolute sense.

I don't want to go head to head with you about the Christian concern for the environment, I do agree your onto something with the general direction of your theology, but often the way you arrive at your position makes me cautious.

However thanks for the question and the opportunity to comment.

byron smith said...

A friend here at Edinburgh Uni is just finishing his PhD on this very question. Hopefully, his work will be published before too long.

Notice once again that I did not say that the command becomes universal (indeed, it is not, strictly speaking, a universal command when considering humans, since it doesn't say "love everyone equally". Proximity is still important), nor is it to be applied in the same way to all. Our opportunities and responsibilities are differentiated and particular.

However, if we pose the question "who is my neighbour?" in an attempt to limit our responsibilities then we may need to listen to Jesus.

byron smith said...

Regarding animals, the 2009 report from the UK Methodist Church called "Hope in God's future: discipleship in the context of climate change" had this to say in §2.5:

"Attending to biblical depictions of human obedience to God’s will also directs our attention to non-human creation. The creatures of each day of the first Genesis creation narrative are declared good (Gen. 1) and the whole of creation in all its diversity is declared ‘very good’ at the end of the sixth day (Gen. 1.31). After the great flood, God makes a covenant not only with Noah and his family but with every living creature that came out of the ark (Gen. 9.9–10). The law of Israel protects not only human beings, but the animals they keep, who must not be made to work on the Sabbath (Exod. 20.10) or muzzled while they are treading grain (Deut. 25.4). The Sabbath year is to rest the land and benefit both livestock and wild animals alongside the Israelites and their hired workers (Lev. 25.5–7). When Job questions God’s treatment of him he is reminded of the majesty of God’s careful provision for every creature, and of God’s creation even of creatures like Behemoth and Leviathan who are threatening to humanity (Job 38–41). This attention to creation beyond the human is echoed in the New Testament: where Jesus reminds his disciples of God’s concern for birds and lilies (Mt. 6.25–34); the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians emphasize the union of all things in Christ (Col. 1.15–20; Eph. 1.9–10) and the letter to the Romans pictures the whole of creation awaiting its share in the freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8.18–23). This biblical vision of solidarity among God’s creatures accords with modern scientific discoveries relating to both the genetic affinity between human and other animals and the radical interdependence of all life on earth."

byron smith said...

Fascinating piece documenting the history of the participating of animals in legal trials and then exploring the philosophical implications.