Environmental Ethics, Public Life, Religion and the Environment

Wizards, Prophets, and the Archbishops and Bishops of the Christian Church

Published on: May 25, 2023
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In his 2018 book The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles C. Mann describes the work and approaches of two of the most important environmentalists of the 20th century: William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. Unfortunately, their “blueprints” are contradictory approaches to the problems of climate change. Mann categorizes those who follow Borlaug’s model of “techno-optimism” (that science and technology will resolve the problems) as Wizards. Those following the Vogt model are described as Prophets—”those decrying the consequences of our heedlessness,” those calling for a lighter carbon footprint. While each derided the other’s view, neither is described by Mann in terms of “good and evil” but in terms of “different ideas of the good life.”  These groups of followers I describe here as groups one and two. Many in society fall into these two categories, and of course, we find them in the Christian church.

There are however other categories, as Mann acknowledges, though he sees these as part of a continuum of thought, overlapping in places. Group three, the “Climate Deniers,” are those who, in my terminology, seem to believe that climate change is nothing more than a giant conspiracy. There is a fourth group, those I describe as the “Vested Interests,” who know of climate change but choose to continue to maximize their wealth and influence, regardless of the damage to the rest of society—likely “the principalities and powers” that the Apostles identified as the opponents of a Christ-like life and human salvation.

Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave its latest, probably penultimate warning to the world—a framework for human survival. The first two groups are not surprised at its findings and continue to worry at the lack of action in the timeframe that is available to act. The fourth group is also not surprised, but they are too rich to worry, as they have already bought enough land in enough places to beat the odds and, of course, have super-yachts as a fall-back position should the time of Noah return. But what of the third group who refuse to listen to those whom God has sent to warn of the impending “flood”? Without help from the Christian church, which ought to offer a different voice from group four, they are likely to continue to listen to the vested interests. Is it ignorance or arrogant indifference that we find in this group? Whatever it is, they need guidance.

Since our governments, overall, have ignored the previous reports and urgent timeframe, it is reasonable for a theologian to ask, “Who will be in the 21st-century ‘ark’?” The answer is likely to be two-fold. Firstly, there will be several “super arks,” with group fours on board, and perhaps some smaller versions with some group ones and twos on board. Secondly, group three will be left floundering and are likely to die of starvation due to food scarcity; or on their exodus from their lands that are underwater or parched dry; or in the civil unrest and war that will arise as societies break down into lawlessness and mass migration, as climate instability and food and water scarcity increasingly manifest, and they realize their foolishness for listening to those in group four. So, is that it? Is nothing to be done? As the IPCC suggests, there is a still a small window of opportunity available to us.

All four categories outlined above are to be found in the Christian church. Thankfully, most patriarchs have acknowledged the existential danger of climate change and instability, and most have spoken on its perils and of the need for Christians to lead more eco-theologically sustainable Christian lives. However, there remains a gap between what is taught at the top of our Christian churches and what is happening at parish level, and after decades and decades of prophetic Christian teachings, we must ask in earnest why this is so.

There is a group of powerful clergy in the traditional Christian churches that exists between the patriarchs and the priests, and whilst there are a few archbishops and bishops that are actively encouraging their priests to engage with the climate crisis unfolding before us, many—too many—are not. The forensic question to ask is “Why?” What is it that prevents them from giving their priests the permission or instruction to engage with the most pressing issue of our time? Maybe some of them belong to group three—they hear the teachings, hear the warnings, but refuse to believe them? C. S. Lewis writes brilliantly on this possibility in the Screwtape Letters, as one of the errors our human race can fall into: that is, in not believing in the existence of the devil, or in modern terms, the powers that work against Christ and us to prevent us from living a Christ-like life and thus from achieving salvation:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head…Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church…Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’…But the best of all is to let him read no science.

The Screwtape Letters (HarperCollins, 2002), 185-186

While we might expect this to be the case in the majority of group three “climate deniers” in wider society, we ought not to expect these views in our churches.

Maybe some archbishops and bishops are under the direct influence of some of the rich and powerful of group four and feel unable to speak out due to financial pressures, constraints, or threats of defunding? If this is the case, then we must pray for them and keep praying for them until the veils/scales fall from their eyes, and they take on the courage of Christ. Whatever their reasoning, they have lost their way.

The final forensic question, which is set against the backdrop of plentiful material and courses available for use in our parishes, is this: will there be a soteriological consequence for those who have been given the privilege and power to act to save their flocks, the wider communities, and the other creatures within them, but fail to do so?

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Christina Nellist

    Christina Nellist

    Co-Founder and President, Pan-Orthodox Concern for Animals

    Dr. Christina Nellist, Ph.D. is an Eastern Orthodox theologian specializing in animal suffering and human soteriology. She is co-founder and president of the Pan-Orthodox Concern for Animals charity and a board member of both the Animal Interfaith Alliance UK and the Orthodox Fellowship of the Trans...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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