Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ecological legalism and Christian freedom

Some questions: What is your carbon footprint? How does it compare to the global average? To the global required average? And what are you doing to reduce it?

Dig beneath the surface of ecological issues and for many people, apart from fear, the second most significant factor driving our responses is guilt. So much of the discourse around ecological responsibility has the feel of a new legalism, a set of norms available to external quantification and verification that can at best provide useful guidance and at worst either crush motivation or provide an open door to self-righteous superiority (depending on the size of one's footprint). Indeed, the whole concept of an ecological or carbon footprint is ripe for interpersonal comparison and when linked to moral judgements of the necessity of reducing it, the full range of contemporary ecological psychoses becomes manifest: holier-than-thou accusation, desperate performance, pious self-denigration, tokenistic conformity, resentful rejection, weary indifference, paralysing despair.

If we are nonetheless to take our ecological concerns seriously (as the scriptures, reason and a passing familiarity with our present condition suggest), then do we have to live with such legalism? Of course not.

Basically, we need a way to talk about the good life to which Christ calls us that speaks in the tones of grace not law (apart from the law of love). This good life may well often look like taking up a cross and denying myself, but I walk it in hope and faith that the path of love is ultimately the path of life, even if I have to wait for God to raise the dead to see it.

We are set free by Christ to live as servants of God and neighbour. This is the only path to life, and at times it can feel narrow, and yet the content is actually quite flexible. Andrew Cameron speaks of the ethical life as being like a river - there is a strong current in one direction (love), but within that, there is water moving in all kinds of ways, at different speeds and so on. Yet there are still river banks. This is his attempt to speak of how the scriptures can be quite specific in their prohibitions ("do not lie"), but general in their exhortations ("love your neighbour").

The question for us as Christians seeking to follow Christ amidst a world of ecological degradation is therefore: what is the space of Christian ecological freedom? Where are there hard lines that we ought not cross? And, much more importantly, how do we talk about (and live) the strong current of love? Complicating matters is the fact that many aspects of our ecological crises are cumulative, involving too much of an otherwise good thing, rather than the commission of acts that are in themselves always wrong. In this way, I think that ecological irresponsibility has a somewhat similar structure to drunkenness, or gluttony. I may know that once I have had ten drinks, then I am in disobedience to the warnings of scripture against inebriation, but there is not necessarily a line we can draw in the sand and say that up to this many drinks is I am simply enjoying the fruit of the vine. Perhaps legal blood alcohol limits for driving might give us a ballpark estimate, and perhaps contraction and convergence models of carbon reductions (applied on a per capita basis for our nation) might give us a ballpark estimate for our the path of our personal carbon footprint goals, but the law of the land is always going to be both too precise and too blunt an instrument for forming the mind of Christ within us.

If our goal is defined too narrowly in terms of certain emissions levels or atmospheric concentrations or personal footprints, then the complex world of goods and the discernment required to navigate it can become oversimplified. Even amidst the grave perils we face, Christian obedience is a path of freedom and joy, of trusting the goodness of God under the weight of a cross, of dying to self and receiving new life being granted as a gift.

Some better questions: How does new life in Christ lead into delightedly sharing my neighbour's burdens? In what ways are my neighbours threatened by ecological degradation? Which parts of my life and the life of my community contribute to this path of destruction? How can I discover new patterns of thankfulness, contentment and engagement to express the abiding peace I have received from Christ and the deep concern for my neighbour this grants me?


Gina said...

Thanks. I think I've been veering wildly between holier-than-thou accusation and tokenistic conformity! The questions at the end are a helpful corrective.

Anonymous said...

Yes great question, thank you... I need them as a frame-work to think through at the moment. Love you

Anonymous said...

Thanks Byron. Now, to ask you to do more work, do your thoughts here provide material to critique the green pieties of our time, and point people to Christ as the "Yes" of God's promises?

I don't know if that made any sense. I'll try again. Your description of 'the full range of contemporary ecological psychoses' doesn't seem limited to Christians, and while we need our hearts broken and contrite, so do our neighbours. So, is the upswing of ecological concern, the desire to live well in the natural world, an opportunity to call ourselves and each other back into fellowship with our creator as well as creation?
I think people know of religion as puritanical, and this may give us a chance to say, "We have experience of what happens when you get legalistic. Listen to us when we say, you need Christ's salvation first and instead".

Which leaves me with a final question which I'm sure you've answered before on this blog: can environmental movements be successful, even on their own terms, without involving worship of the creator?

Alan Wood

byron smith said...

One question I've been pondering as I think about the space of Christian ecological freedom in our age of crises is: what was the space of Christian freedom regarding the state in Nazi Germany? Could a Christian in good faith support the Führer and seek to further his agenda? Could a Christian in good faith remain neutral? The answers would depend on context, of course, but extreme situations do call us to responses that may be different from more ordinary ones.

Gina - Personally, I think I all too frequently find myself in another category I didn't mention: paralysing despair. I might add that to the list now.

Bill - Glad they were helpful. They are really the questions I'm trying to ask of myself.

Alan - do your thoughts here provide material to critique the green pieties of our time, and point people to Christ as the "Yes" of God's promises?
Probably, as long as our critique of green pieties does not have as its secret goal a desire to excuse ourselves from the weightier matters of the law through pointing out the petty legalism of others.

So, is the upswing of ecological concern, the desire to live well in the natural world, an opportunity to call ourselves and each other back into fellowship with our creator as well as creation?
Yes. For some time I've been convinced that this is one of the primary evangelistic opportunities amongst many people today (esp, in my experience, younger urbanites). These fears and guilts are a deep and growing part of our collective experience and Christians need to find ways to address them sensitively with the good news of Christ without doing a bait and switch that ends up numbing the moral impulses that resulted in the fear and guilt in the first place.

can environmental movements be successful, even on their own terms, without involving worship of the creator?
It depends what one means by success. Can a heart surgeon be successful without worshipping the one who can give people a new heart? Or a better example: can a judge be successful in pursuing justice without being justified in Christ? There are all kinds of things that the earthly city can do to promote and protect the good order of society (even a deeply twisted and broken society still has some degree of order) and amidst that, environmentalism can play a role in preserving something of the common good that is partially revealed and partially hidden in our shared political life. Can it bring redemption and liberating freedom of joyful action? Probably not. But I don't denigrate it any more than I denigrate the work of the unbelieving judge attempting to preserve some semblance of justice in the sphere in which God has placed her.

Anonymous said...

Hey, enjoyed this post from a moral phil point of view: really interesting the question of what type of moral problem is at stake, what distinctions are relevant to draw in figuring this out (you are v perceptive about this!), relevant analogies etc. and how this in turn shapes the kinds of things ethical reflection on this topic should be attempting to do. (-annette)

Christopher said...

Hi Byron,

Who is my neighbour?

An interesting aspect of the Good Samaritan parable is the role of distance. The way walking to the side of the road put spatial and ethical distance between the observer and victim.

Have you thought much about the role of distance in thinking about the neighbour?

Peter Singer, in Poverty, Famine and Affluence - and elsewhere - doesn't consider distance as ethically relevant. I find this problematic - not only for enormous demand - but in skewing the role of relationship and contact, which I think is also important in the Good Samaritan parable.

There seems to be an important connection between proximity and responsibility. Does distance influence responsibility? If so in what way? Eve is in Australia and I am in the US, does my responsibility toward her change - probably not. But the child drowning in the pond (roll eyes:) in front of me or the child sold in slavery in SE Asia, make different demands of responsibility.

Anyway, just a few thoughts that came to me while reading this post. I'm certainly not trying reduce responsibility to my neighbour by saying he is distant, but interested in the role that distance plays.


byron smith said...

Yes, I realised when I came to write this that I probably ought to have written a whole lot more in this vein earlier because I do think it is a common problem in much popular ecological discourse (and moral discourse more generally, but for some reason, I think it is particularly acute in eco-speak). Hopefully, I'll be able to rouse myself for plenty more legalism (and antinomian) bashing in future.

byron smith said...

@Christopher (previous comment was in response to Annette) - Yes, proximity is ethically relevant. Yet one of the factors re-shaping contemporary ethics is the increasing degree to which we are proximate in all kinds of morally interesting ways to people (and other species) further and further away (in both space and time), often beyond the horizon we can easily see or imagine.

In particular, temporal proximity is raising a whole series of difficult questions about our responsibilities to future generations when our actions today will have significant repercussions for centuries, millennia and even longer!

byron smith said...

DD: Almost one in three US residents experience green guilt, though this piece seems to focus on recycling. I wonder how much that is the seen as the quintessential "green" behaviour by many, when not buying as much in the first place is a far better way of being responsible.