Global Warming – December 2006

Question: How does a process theologian respond to global warming?

Publication Month: December 2006

Dr. Cobb’s Response

This is a more and more urgent question. Global warming has now become the cutting edge of the ecological crisis. The ecological crisis is the most serious of all the pressing questions facing us as a human species. This crisis portends disasters of a magnitude with which our imaginations cannot cope. Since 1969 it has been the context within which I personally have viewed all the many problems, theoretical and practical, that demand our attention.

Do the statements in the preceding paragraph reflect the fact that I am a process theologian? They could certainly be made by persons who are not process theologians. I trust that we have no monopoly on utmost concern about the future of our planet. Nevertheless, it is my belief that process theology is the most systematic and comprehensive theological grounding for these perceptions and concerns.

In large part, the work of process theology here is deconstructive. It deconstructs the reasons that so many Christians, and especially Protestants, and liberal Protestants at that, have paid little attention to the natural world and even now have difficulty in integrating thought about it into their basic way of thinking. It is a great advance when a congregation celebrates Earth Sunday once a year. But in some ways it makes more glaring the absence of concern for the earth most of the rest of the time. This concern seems, at most, added to the list of issues with which the church should engage from time to time. We need to ask why it is so difficult for Protestants in liberal congregations to recognize the overwhelming importance of these issues.

Part of the answer is that liberal Protestantism has adjusted to the dominant thought patterns of Western culture. This means, first of all, to Cartesian dualism, which, despite its failures as a philosophy, still expresses most Western “common sense.” With Cartesian dualism the religious importance of the natural world was that it pointed to a powerful and intelligent Creator who brought it into being and imposed the laws by which it functions.

Immanuel Kant recognized that Cartesian dualism would not work, and his thinking had a great effect on Protestant intellectuals. However, he replaced Cartesian dualism with his own version. It differed from the Cartesian version chiefly in that it had no place for God as Creator of the physical world. That role was assigned to the human mind.

For Kantians as for Cartesians, this world with all its wonders had no value in itself. Its value is simply that it provides a context for human life and the resources we enjoy. Nature was viewed as “matter” and turned over to physical science to study and to technology to manipulate. Neither physicists nor technologists were prone to ask questions about the negative effects upon it of human actions. It was seen by most Christians as the given stage on which the human drama was carried out. This encouraged little concern for the stage.

Teilhard de Chardin offered an alternate vision that seems much more promising. He focused on the evolutionary process that contains both nature and humanity, and instead of reducing human beings to part of the material world, he saw that the deeper implication of evolution is that the natural world also has its own subjectivity and value. Some of his followers, especially Thomas Berry, has developed his ideas in such a way that they have great relevance for responding to the ecological crisis, and perhaps the most effective and significant response to the need to move forward into the ecozoic age is coming from this group. Unfortunately Teilhard himself so focused on the idea of evolutionary progress, that he paid little attention to what was left behind, and his vision of the future consummation did not depend on the condition of the natural world.

Whitehead’s thinking of course takes evolution seriously, but it is more directly ecological. He offers a vision of a community of subjects of all sorts and levels, just as does Thomas Berry. He goes much farther than either Teilhard of Berry in dismantling the Cartesian and Kantian dualisms and showing the interdependence of human and other creatures.

When the world is seen in the Cartesian, Kantian, or Teilhardian ways, it is hard to incorporate information about how physical nature is suffering at human hands and how the damage inflicted upon it is a threat to any healthy human survival. Even when this is acknowledged, deep-seated habits of focusing on human relations quickly reassert themselves, and other crises seem more important. Christians influenced by these major intellectual currents are concerned about peace and justice. The problems with the natural world do not come to their attention so readily.

My own experience was similarly one of neglect of these issues even after I had been deeply influenced by Whitehead. The only difference was that when, finally, in 1969, I was awakened to the crisis, I could immediately assimilate this into my theological thinking. I could do this because what I had learned illustrated and showed the importance of beliefs I had already formally adopted.

A few process thinkers were already involved in these concerns before the public awakening of 1969. These included Charles Hartshorne and Bernard Meland. I wish I could claim such sensitivity for myself, but I cannot. That I had remained blind was due, I think, to my absorption in Protestant theology and my attempt to engage in the dominant, highly anthropocentric, theological conversation. That despite this focus, my eyes could be so easily opened, was due to the process categories I was already using.

My Whiteheadian interests led me to integrate thinking about the relations of human action and nature with thinking about the organization of human action, especially in economic and academic life. I became convinced that as long as our economic actions were based on the Cartesian assumptions inherited from the eighteenth century economists, direct efforts to improve our relations to nature would fail. I became further convinced that we would not change the theory underlying economic practice until we could overcome the fragmentation of thought in the modern university.

The question I have been asked is specifically about global warming. Being a process theologian gives me no scientific expertise on this topic. As with other ecological issues, the only advantage is readiness to learn and to integrate what is learned into the total point of view. We are completely dependent on others for information.

The issue has been brought effectively into the public discussion by Al Gore. Earlier he wrote a book that was a major contribution to reflection on the ecological crisis. He also gave crucial leadership to the Kyoto conference that initiated the first major international effort to respond to this crisis. He has long been speaking of this to all sorts of groups. There is little known now that was not largely known a quarter of a century ago. But Gore’s patient labors and effective film-making have done more than anything else to create the possibility of a significant response. I am deeply grateful. I do not want to say anything to take away from this accomplishment.

Nevertheless, as a process theologian I see serious limitations in what he is doing. He presents the problem brilliantly, but he leaves the impression that a successful response is possible with little change in the way we live and organize our societies. This may be good strategy. The improvements in technology to which he points are real improvements, and their adoption should be a real possibility.

But the ecological crisis as a whole, including the issue of global warming, will not be solved by technological improvements alone. Our relations to nature and to one another require much deeper changes. We must practice a different agriculture. We must build cities differently. We must develop an economy in the service of human community and the natural world. Gore probably realizes much of this, but he knows that we are easily frightened by calls for more drastic change. He assures us that we can move ahead with our disastrous economic globalization, for example. But from my process perspective, we cannot do so, and the longer we try, the more irreversible damage will have been inflicted on nature.

I wrote a book in 1970 entitled Is It too Late? For some purposes it was already too late then. It is much later now. There are those who think a catastrophic end to our era is now unavoidable. I do not know. But process theology has another dimension that is just as important as its understanding of the created world as a communion of subjects. It is that God is always offering new possibilities.

Of course, these possibilities are conditioned by the global situation. As many species of living things come to an end, these new possibilities do not include their recovery. They do not include the reversal of global warming while we continue to emit greenhouse gases in large quantities. They do not include plentiful supplies of resources while we increase our annual depletion of them.

Nevertheless, they do include remarkable changes and previously unimagined new directions in history. A new kind of leadership might arise that would lead humanity as a whole to decide that living sustainably was its primary goal. Changes might then be far more rapid than we can now envision. Miracles, in the sense of unanticipated events, have occurred in the past as God has lured key persons to take advantage of little noticed features of their situation and to act in new ways.

Process theologians believe that God is at work within us and amongst us, seeking to draw us into a new relationship with one another and with the other creatures together with whom we make up this world. Millions of people are responding in diverse ways. Some are creating descriptions of the sustainable society toward which we need to move rapidly. Some are modeling the new possibilities. Some are instilling in others the longing to realize them. Thus far these ideas are ignored by the powers that be. But they are contributing to a context in which new breakthroughs are possible.

God is our hope. If we cease to hope, then we seal our fate. As long as we hope, then there is hope. This is my deep conviction as a process theologian.