Posted by: ericgrimsrud | July 8, 2017

The disparate effects of Christianity on Climate Change

Having been raised in the Christian / Lutheran tradition, I have been particularly interested in the level of assistance provided by that segment of American society for action against the relentless advance of global warming. In assessing that level of assistance, I have been mindful of one of the fundamental questions Christians have asked themselves endlessly since the onset of that religion. That question is: are good works or faith more important in achieving good standing within that Church? Our personal responses to that question can determine how we face all of life’s challenges – including the greatest of these today, that associated with the greenhouse gas warming of our planet. Unfortunately for the sake of future generations, the version of Christianity that has become most prominent today is not the one that might have most effectively caused Christians to take the strongest action against climate change. In order to understand this, it is useful to consider the evolution of the Christian Church since its very beginning.

During much of the 1st Century AD, the prevailing view within the Christian Church to the question posed above was that good works were more important than simple faith. This was undoubtedly because the new Christian Church of the first century was centered in Jerusalem, the home of James, the brother of Jesus. In line with his structured and strict Jewish background, James (known as “James, the Just”) strived to become a literal follower of the example set by Jesus of Nazareth and in doing so thought one had to give service to mankind the very highest priority of all things – more even than a mere statement of belief in any deity. In the year 70 AD, however, the city of Jerusalem was completely obliterated by the Romans thus putting an end to the Jewish dominance over the further development of Christianity. In its place, the prolific writings of the Apostle Paul became the dominant influence, leading to the different view which is commonly embraced by Christians today.

Paul believed that faith, rather than good works, provided the main route to acceptance into God’s Kingdom – which, by the way, gradually came to be thought to last for eternity after physical death. He proclaimed that no man could achieve such “salvation” through good works alone – while any person, including the gentiles of the world, could gain entrance simply through their faith in Jesus Christ and belief that He was the Son of God, who died for our sins, was raised from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father. Needless to say, this version of Christianity was far better received by the non-Jewish gentiles of the world and by the 4th Century became coupled to and promoted by the Roman Empire. The Nicene Creed was produced in that century and is still widely used today as an affirmation of one’s Christian faith. By the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther in the 16th Century, the perceived importance of faith over good works was additionally reinforced.

Before moving on to the main point of this post I will insert here a brief account of how this prevailing Christian view affected life among American Lutherans at the beginning of the 20th Century. In 1917, three separate Lutheran synods met in St. Paul, Minnesota, in order to form a unified American Lutheran Church. At that meeting, the Insurance Commissions of the States of Minnesota (Jacob Preus) and Wisconsin (Herman Ekern) were invited to promote the creation of a non-profit insurance program for the predominately rural Lutheran residents of the Midwest. One of their greatest obstacles in gaining acceptance of their insurance scheme was the prevailing notion among those Lutherans that the future should be left in the hands of God and that their faith in Him provided sufficient security for their families. Nevertheless, Preus and Ekern argued that Christians should also consider specific actions of a communal and distinctly secular nature that might be of great benefit to their families and descendants. Eventually, they won considerable support among the Lutherans of the Midwest and then throughout the entire insurance industry. The insurance company thereby formed was named Lutheran Brotherhood Insurance and then Thrivent Financial. This story provides evidence of the notion that “doing good deeds” for one’s family and descendants can still be highly regarded within Christian communities.

[Side note: One reason I am well aware of this story is that Herman Ekern was among the first American-born generation of my own clan of “Grimsruds” that emigrated from Norway to a homestead near Chaseburg, Wisconsin, in 1858. Herman’s mother, Elizabeth Grimsrud, was raised on that farm. BTW, another member of that first American-born generation was my grandfather, Lawrence Grimsrud, who was also raised on that farm and, like his cousin, Herman, also served in the Wisconsin state legislature at the beginning of the 20th Century].

OK, we are now prepared to discuss the effects of all this on how modern-day Christians are likely to approach the issue of Climate Change if they wish to remain in good standing within their church. If modern Christianity had retained the dominant view of the 1st Century, the answer to this question would be clear. That is, if good works towards mankind, both living and future, were of primary importance in attaining admission to God’s Kingdom, then, of course, one would be obliged to be very good stewards of the physical place in which we all live and depend. In fact, that specific action would become the most important “good deed” we all could perform – for the good of all, including ourselves.

But, as related above, the faith and belief that most Christians now pledge fidelity to is not that 1st Century version. It is far more likely to be the one modified by the Apostle Paul in which salvation and admission into the Kingdom of Heaven can be achieved alternatively by “believing in Him” and verifying such by sincere recitation of the Nicene Creed. Thus, we see a great many people today, who legitimately believe themselves to be in good standing within the Christian Church of today but possibly are not within that “out of date” version of the 1st Century.

Thus, you can see where this line of thought is headed. The most common versions of the Christian Church today make it relatively easy for their members to “take a pass” on performing the good deeds that need to be undertaken today in order to sustain the human-friendly conditions on the Earth that we and our ancestors have enjoyed. The good deeds required to do that do, indeed, constitute a very tough row to hoe. Furthermore, according to Paul, “man cannot be saved by good deeds alone” so that even extraordinary service in that direction might not lead to salvation and good standing within the Christian Church. In addition, one’s total record on good works would probably be measured over one’s entire life while Paul tells us that the faith route to salvation can be achieved in an instant and even later if we happen to indulge in “business-as-usual” for a while longer. Thus, is it any wonder that on the subject of climate change, “talking the talk” is so far ahead of “walking the walk” in the Christian Communities of today? In order to gain more traction against the further deterioration of our planet, it appears that we need to rewrite the Apostle’s Creed a bit placing more attention on the Book of James. To my knowledge, it is the only Book in the New Testament that places primary importance on walking the walk of good deeds. If that could be done, the remaining question would then be – are the Christians of today as good as those of the 1st Century? That is, are we capable of taking the path set by Jesus of Nazareth without always resorting to the alternate route recommended by Paul?

 


Responses

  1. Thanks for the new post, You made my day with your new post. Will write more when this computer quits acting up.

    Arlo


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