What role, if any, should the church play in combating climate change?
It was this kind of question former Vice President Al Gore answered over two decades ago when he wrote that men should harness religion as a political tool. "The fate of mankind," he wrote, "as well as of religion, depends upon the emergence of a new faith in the future. Armed with such a faith, we might find it possible to resanctify the Earth."
Fifteen years later, in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, he quoted himself to reiterate his belief that global warming was a spiritual issue that needed to be addressed by faith.
Environmentalists see the Christian concern caring for Creation as a lever that can make organized religion a political turning point. Many in the Christian church have responded and seek in global warming, and indeed the cultural interest in nature spirituality, a way to make God relevant to the contemporary culture.
That is why Pope Francis, the head of over a billion Roman Catholics, has been treated like a rock star by the global greens. A 2015 encyclical argues that capitalism and global warming are bigger threats to humanity than actual live persecution of Christians in Africa's oldest Christian community — Sudan.
Islamic Jihad, largely of Arabs against black Christians and pagans, has caused the deaths of over 1.5 million South Sudanese since 1983, and the displacement of over 5 million. Hypothetical threats decades hence trump real death in the here and now; there is hope the pope may yet help.
Anna Joyner, an evangelical Christian climate activist, said, "The pope is an absolute rock star, a total gift to the climate movement." Joyner is inspired by the pope's global warming encyclical. She finds spirit religion, which says, "For to me, to live is Christ," (Philippians 1:21), less enticing than power religion, which inverts the biblical model and seeks different inspiration and salvation, for example in seeking life purpose in political activism. This is putting the cart before the horse, becoming entangled in the world rather than converting the world.
"Our parents are more interested in the afterlife and the spiritual world," Joyner said. "Young evangelicals are also interested in those things but tend to be more focused on what we can do now and the whole idea of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth."
There have been great efforts to have the Church embrace the world. Wherever it has succeeded it has come to this result — the world has consumed the Church. Having turned their eyes from Christ, seeing Him as of little practical use, many professing Christians are finding more value in the cosmos than in Christ.
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What is at stake is loss of the Christian faith. Fading denominations increasingly divorced from the Gospel of Jesus Christ need to justify their existence. At the founding of the United States, the vast majority of the nation had membership in Mainline Christian churches.
A recent poll shows this has declined, rapidly in the past decade, to less than 15 percent of the population. More and more biblically committed Christians are leaving Mainline churches. Fewer and fewer of the worldly see the purpose of joining a church that believes in everything they already do — and nothing they don't. In this context there is, as Thomas Altizer noted, the sense that "all traditional theological meaning, all our inherited religious meaning, is in process either of dissolution or of transformation."
Many in the church find renewed vigor in the environmentalist message — a green Gospel — which seems more noble, more uplifting and moral, more spiritual, than mere Christianity. Environmentalists are setting a course to save the world!
Al Gore is a prime example of the danger of seeking religious purpose in life through political interests and activism. Today, his declared central organizing life-principle is salvation of the environment. Yet for most of his life he was a member in good standing of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention.
In 2002 Mr. Gore told Newsweek: "I am a Christian. I am a Protestant. I am a Baptist"— though the quasi-pantheistic worldview underlying his 1992 book Earth in the Balance gave grounds to question his doctrinal orthodoxy. But by 2005 he was no longer a member, having moved on to a more compliant form of spirituality. "We're ecumenical now," Gore mused pensively, maybe with even a hint of sadness, to a reporter. His wife said, "I think I follow Baba Ram Dass," that eminently ecumenical psychedelic Hassidic Hindu.
Perhaps a loss of confidence in the biblical Gospel, a sense of desperation and spiritual vertigo, that caused many professing Christians to applaud when Gore, sounding a little bit like a Jedi master in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, said, "When we unite for a moral purpose that is manifestly good and true, the spiritual energy unleashed can transform us." They say if humans can only channel this spiritual satyagraha, the pagan "truth force" that Gore is so fond of, then we would finally have incarnated the ubiquitous power of the universe.
The force would then be with us, but would Christ?