This Planetary Body and how Christian Denominations view it.

Earth from Space Africa
The Blue Marble – Eastern Hemisphere. Image credit NASA earth observatory

In a significant new paper Revd Dr Mark Siddall analyses the approaches of different Christian denominations to climate change. In this blog for JRI he explains his approach to the topic. The full paper is available to read and linked at the end of this blog.

The beginnings of this study were in my observation as a parish priest and climate scientist that many folk tended to dive into the conversation with ‘but I can’t possibly do without xxx’, and you can substitute ‘my car’ or ‘my annual trip abroad’ or ‘meat’ to this kind of ‘but I can’t xxx’ statement. Often very good reasons were cited such as ‘…because I need my car to get my very ill parent to hospital,’ or ‘…because no other source of iron really replaces red meat and I am anaemic’. Such reasons are perfectly legitimate. The problem is this jumps to ‘what I can’t do is xxx’ rather than ‘what I can do is yyy’. In fact this turns out to be a rhetorical distraction from the fact that the speaker is avoiding doing anything at all. This got me thinking of Paul’s language of the body in 1 Corinthians and the Christian sense of vocation in responding to climate change. We all have strengths to bring to this challenge and we all have weaknesses to bear together.

So I got to reading around Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and in particular The Corinthian Body by Dale Martin. Within that book I found another reason to be interested in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians with regard to climate change. In his letter Paul is addressing one of the culture wars of the early church in the significant socio-structural differences between the nascent church and Corinthian norms just as culture wars play a very important role in determining Christian responses to climate change today. The evangelical Christian and climate scientist, Katherine Hayhoe describes tens if not hundreds of different conversations in the no-man’s land of climate change conversations in the context of the culture wars in the USA (see Saving Us—A Climate Scientists Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World). The obvious question to me was what has Paul’s body metaphor got to teach us about the culture wars of today and our responses to climate change.

It was with some excitement therefore that I read the opening salvos of Mary Douglas’ 1970 book Natural Symbols, Explorations in Cosmology:

‘…the most fundamental assumptions about the cosmos and man’s place in nature are coloured by the socially appropriate image of the human body. This is the level of experience at which the great historical heresies would have arisen’.

Douglas frames her understanding of decades of her own and her colleagues’ work in social-anthropology around this most fundamental metaphor. For example, one might either assume that our bodies decay from within or that they are polluted from without. Either understanding changes the way we relate to the world around us. Building on the primitive metaphor of the body, Mary Douglas suggested two dimensions which she calls grid and group. The group dimension describes how closely we affiliate with a given group (for example Roman Catholics have a relatively high group affiliation whereas federated denominations such as Southern Baptists have a relatively low group affiliation). The grid dimension describes how tightly our roles and morals are guided by that group (for example both Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists have extensive and thorough moral codes whereas Charismatic groups might have a different emphasis). What excited me was that this model has the potential to use something along the lines of Paul’s body metaphor to begin to unpick culture-wars type differences between different Christian responses to climate change.

Many denominations and Christian organisations have been able to make coherent statements regarding climate change on the basis of scriptural understanding and pastoral responses to extreme weather events and ongoing changes to temperature and rainfall/drought patterns. These statements are either composed by theologians and climate scientists and then agreed by the relevant governing structure of the denomination or they are the product of rigorous debate and competition within the governing structure. Either way these statements can be said to represent the normative voice of each denomination (Cameron et al 2010), that is agreed statements on climate change by the denomination or group. The governing structures of each group are available on line and allow a reasonable approximation of their relative position on the grid-group plane. These statements can then be compared to the characteristic cosmologies across the the grid-group plane.

In the first place these normative statements on climate change act as a sort of validation of this approach. To summarise, the statements on climate change from each of the four cosmological types are in good agreement with the predictions of the grid-group model. Type A (weak group, strong grid) represents competitive cosmologies where the cosmological perspective of strong leaders are hotly debated and then followed by loyal adherents. There is a tendency for Type A cosmologies to see the science of climate change as just another competing cosmology among many. Type B (weak grid, weak group) cosmologies tend to be somewhat passive on climate change except where there is a motivation to connect with younger generations for whom climate change is a priority. Type C (strong grid, strong group)  cosmologies take an ecological and relational approach, willing to take the action needed cooperatively. This is typified most obviously by the ‘integral ecology’ of Pope Francis (2015). Finally Type D (strong group, weak grid) cosmologies were acting urgently and attempting to convince others to act urgently alongside them. Close to the centre of both axes, well informed and accepting responses can be found.

Based on the agreement between the published statements on climate change of the different denominations and the predictions of the grid-group model findings the wider implications on how to best communicate climate change to elicit constructive responses can then be explored. This can hint at how to avoid the pitfalls of the culture wars or conspiracy theory but also help to understand why responding well to climate change comes easily for some denominations but is harder for others. By way of synthesis the paper returns to the human body this time reflecting Paul’s ‘body of Christ’ metaphor in 1 Corinthians. Dake and Thompson (1999) have published research hinting at the different strengths of each cosmological type in responding to environmental concerns. By responding in ways that come easily to each denomination rather than in a uniform way, this paper hints at ways that denominations can respond most effectively and authentically to climate change.

Full references and the complete paper are freely available here: A tentative anatomy of Christian responses to anthropogenic climate change. Oxford Open Climate Change, Volume 4, Issue 1, 2024, kgae002, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfclm/kgae002