You’ll never convince someone to agree with you by calling them an idiot. Even if their opinion isn’t well-founded or is morally questionable.
Many interviews and conversations about human-driven climate change seem to have this problem when detractors of one’s views are being discussed. For example, skeptics and critics of climate change science are ridiculed and mocked out of hand, and this tends to shut down any chance for conversation. But you won’t convince the someone about the impact of human activity on the earth if you belittle them for disagreeing, or vice versa. Unfortunately, this response is quite common.
The church is not doing much better.
Climate change within the church
What Christians think about climate change is more complex than we are led to believe.
Older conservative evangelicals uncharitably tend to see climate change as a political power-grab. Christians who care passionately for creation will have a hard time understanding this view, but it’s really not too far-fetched. Yet, while many of popular speakers on climate change do come from the political left, that is not unilaterally true.
Christians believe that it was God’s created intent for humankind to be stewards of everything that he made. Being made in the image of God, we are to care for and seek the good of the creation that God has made, cultivating it like a garden. It’s all in the first 2 chapters of the book of Genesis. However, not all Christians believe this means we are responsible for the well-being of the earth. When the conversation turns to matters of government policy and economics, people of all denominations and political affiliations vehemently disagree about what the right thing is.
For people who follow the life and teachings of Jesus, there has got to be a better way.
The talk about climate change indicates a decline in fruitful discourse
In a public dialogue with sociologist Jonathan Haidt, Tim Keller (pastor of Redeemer, a Presbyterian church in NYC) discusses the “closing of the modern mind”. Haidt is not religious, but he sees the value of religion and spirituality in society. He and Keller both agree that the problem is that people are not able to have reasoned discussion with those they disagree with. They agree that the solution is to come together and work from the common ground in your values.
So how can we better talk about climate change with each other?
For Christians, climate change should not primarily be seen as a political issue but as an issue of loving our neighbours. This command supersedes the desire to convince people of our political opinions and agendas. Cultural or political tensions present within the Church can be a barrier to unity, or they can be an opportunity to demonstrate Christ-like love and patience with each other.
It starts with how we talk about this issue with people who don’t share a creation ethic of stewardship of the earth. Loving our neighbours means everyone, especially people who make us uncomfortable or we don’t get along with as well. Sometimes those people are sitting next to us in church.
Christians in public dialogue about climate change
Everyone should be engaged in critical thought, especially Christians. Critical thought is a hallmark of good science — we shouldn’t be afraid to go there. We should be building the conversation from a working knowledge of scientific study, instead of appealing to a religious framework of values alone. Alister McGrath, Professor of Science and Religion of Oxford University, says that faith and science don’t have to be seen as mutually opposed. In fact, they can actually function together to mutually enrich each other. Contrary to what is many people think, it is possible to integrate the scientific framework into orthodox tenets of the faith.
We all have a responsibility to care for the earth, as well as to love God and our neighbours. Christians need to develop a Bible-based theology of stewardship and creation care that trumps the values ingrained in us by the political cultures we come from. It takes work to put culture back inside faith, rather than keep our faith comfortably inside our culture. Being complacent about this hurts not just our ability to debate contentious topics but the church’s entire witness of Christ to the world.
Talking openly to people you disagree with about contentious issues can be awkward and uncomfortable, but it is necessary. Don’t be afraid to start the conversation. But in the end, your faith should influence our political values and actions, and not the other way around.