by Pierre-Olivier Léchot
translation Louise Thunin
At a time when some seek justification for our ecological combat in the Bible, Pierre-Olivier Léchot invites us to look in the Gospel for teachings that call into question our well-entrenched moral convictions.
First off, let us avoid all misundertanding! The author of these lines is not a global warming sceptic. The ecological peril threatening our planet is great. It has never been so close to swallowing up humanity. It is therefore more than advisable for our churches to take a stance in favor of global action and, above all, for them to apply, wherever possible, the necessary rules for lowering environmental risks. But does this mean that they have something specific to say on the question of ecology? I don’t think so, and I would even be tempted to say that their role is, on the contrary, to remain vigilant on the subject.
A set of ecological morals has been born
We must have no illusions: ecological morals have become dominant in our thinking today—this does not mean, of course, that everyone does what they should. For proof, we can consider how businesses today have integrated ecology into their marketing and made a leitmotif of it. However, this raises a question: is it the vocation of churches to preach the dominant moral values of the community? The first thing we need to emphasize is that during the first developments in favor of so-called political ecology (i.e. one which concerns itself with ecology on the political level, the level of the “city”), criticism of Christianity was a key element of the debate. By placing their emphasis on salvation and on the recipients (human beings) of the message of the Gospel, our churches, and especially protestant churches, would appear to have contributed to the anthropocentrism of modern times and thus to the abusive exploitation of nature by man. Whether or not that thesis is historically founded matters little. What is sure, on the other hand, is that with the progressive awareness of a society facing ecological peril, many theologians have wanted to prove that, no, Christianity is not naturally inclined to set aside ecological concerns. Hence the strong return of Creation theologies, the development of green theology, and the official speeches of church institutions in favor of commitment to the environment… even unto the the 2020 synod of the the United Protestant Church of France on ecology! In short, we believed we had to enter a form of apologetics in the face of common thought, just as second-century apologists wanted to show that the Gospel was not incompatible with the then dominant philosophy of Plato. As with these apologists, such an undertaking is not wrong in itself, but it seems nonetheless important to me to point out the limits of the undertaking: just as the center of the Gospel cannot be reduced to Platonic philosophy, we cannot sum it up as an ecological message.
To adopt an apologetic posture is indeed to enter a dialogue with a point of view seen as discordant, in order to show that in truth there is, in principle, no opposition between the above-said point of view and the Gospel, even if tensions may arise, on which a fruitful dialogue can be envisioned. On the other hand, to claim that this “discordant” point of view is the heart of the Gospel would not be apologetics, but justification. Moreover, we know how heavily weighted this theme is, theologically speaking. We are familiar with the affirmation of the Reformation: any attempt at justification before God of world order is destined to be eliminated through faith in the God of the Gospel. The best of citizens is never other than the worst of wrongdoers in God’s eyes, so long as he remains without faith. Morals, as envisioned in the Gospel, are worldly and temporary and cannot claim to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven, but are bound to fall into error, vice and perversity. Why ? Because they do not place human beings in relation to God at the center of their preoccupations.
Preserving our freedoms
Here is where, or so it seems to me, Christians should be especially vigilant on the subject of environmental morals: ecology is not an end in itself. We are not called upon to see the repair of creation as an ultimate goal. And indeed, what is creation, when we get beyond the more or less mythological vision which still too often underlies, even among inspired theologians, Christian ecological ethics ? No, the ultimate goal of the Christian faith is to agree to receive from God that which we would like to accomplish ourselves : existence. However, we already exist, for it is a given and all we can do is accept it. What we must preach first is the welcoming and even the choosing of our lives. And once we have accepted that we are what we are (limited beings, fallible but called to the fullness of life), we will be able to understand that if we must accept what has been given to us, it is probable that that will also imply recognizing that we live in an ecosystem which has also been given to us, and that we must therefore preserve it. But it also means that the preservation of this ecosystem cannot lead us to deny its human element or to place that element second. If we want to preserve the earth, it is because we want to continue to live on it, not because we are, in a word, parasites that should be eliminated. Therefore, it seems to me that this approach bids us remain attentive to the ever-growing number of proposals which aim at restraining the freedoms of humankind in the name of an ecological imperative. Today’s general discourse is one of (to borrow the terms of the astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau) an end-of-the-world war. We need to be careful of this belligerent discourse. Indeed, it has the advantage of justifying all the exceptional measures, including those which, in times of peace, would shock us. What should we think of those, including the right of the political spectrum, who propose that we keep a register of climate sceptics, in order to hold them “accountable” for their words when the time comes ? What attitude should we have towards those (including the right of the political spectrum) who propose the organization of an international criminal court to judge companies on the non-respect of ecological rules ? What should we say, as Christians, about these ecologists, nonetheless often very pragmatic, who suggest that we no longer treat patients beyond the age of sixty-five, in order to reduce the carbon imprint of humanity or of those, more and more numerous, who invite men to undergo sterilization, there too to avoid an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. And I won’t even mention the idea of those who invite authorities to impose a child-permit on couples who desire to have one. Even if they are in the minority, these morbid tendencies should be a warning to us, to the extent where we cling to our freedoms and are capable of receiving the message of the Gospel. In short, Christians have the right and even the obligation to adopt ecologically responsible behavior. But between that and claiming that there is an ecological theology which implies certain Christian morals, I don’t believe it. I am even convinced that to believe it represents a risk not only for the salvation of theology but also for that of humanity.
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