Theology of Climate Change 4. Relationships
Trinity and relational theology
The Christian understanding is that God is Trinity. Theology begins with the premise that we can only know about God what God chooses to reveal to us. The Biblical narrative of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan records:
“At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit pf God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” (Matt 3:16-17).
The passage describes three distinct “persons”: the speaker (the voice from heaven, the Father), the one spoken about (the Son), and the Spirit. This, and many similar passages, form the basis of a Trinitarian understanding of God because although the word Trinity is not used in Scripture it is implied. For example:
- John 15:26 “But when the Counsellor comes, whom I (Jesus) shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.”
- John 17:1 “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.”
- John 16:14 “He (the Spirit of truth) will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.”
- John 17:21 Jesus prays “That they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.”
The Holy Spirit glorifies the Son, the Son glorifies the Father, and the Father glorifies the Son. Conversely, the Father sends the Son (John 3:16), the Spirit proceeds from the Father and is sent by the Son (John 15:26). Although distinct, the three Persons of the Godhead act in unity.
Christians found themselves praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit – and “Trinity” is a summary of this narrative. Tertullian (c160-240) argued that we had to talk of “three” because Father, Son and Spirit were distinguished in scripture and that they speak to, and about, each other. We apply the language of “persons” to the three persons of the Trinity to imply that they are relational (calling them “it” would not infer this).
However, whilst three persons to us implies three separate beings the church also had to take seriously the self-revealed characteristic of God that there is only one God. The Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great (330-379), Gregory of Nyssa (c332-395) and Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389) asserted:
“The Persons of the Godhead are not divided from each other in time, place, will, occupation, activity or any qualification of this sort, the distinguishing marks observed in human beings. The only distinction here is that the Father is father, not son, the Son is son, not father; similarly the Holy Spirit is neither father nor son.”
Jesus indicates the unity of the Godhead when he answers Philip (John 14:9):
“Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
The Godhead (Father, Son and Spirit together) is to be understand relationally, a complete mutuality in which the Son is not less than the Father, but the Father could not be Father without the Son and the Spirit. What constitutes the three “persons” are their relations. The word the church adopted to describe the relationship of mutual indwelling was perichoresis from the Greek peri – around and chorein – to give way or make room, the Latin equivalent is circumincession or circuminsession, a modern word that is sometimes used is co-inherence. John of Damascus (675-749) described perichoresis as a “cleaving together”. Father and Son not only embrace each other but permeate each other and dwell in each other; they are one in being. The procession of the Spirit between father and son not only expresses mutual love but gives each to the other. The Trinity has been described as three individualities in one indivisible being (Cappadocian Fathers); or one substance (ousia) and three persons (hypostasis) (First Council of Constantinople, 381).
Describing this in words can be difficult, and we often resort to symbols, such as
or analogy. St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) wrote:
“If, as is properly understood, the Father is he who kisses, the Son he who is kissed, then it cannot be wrong to see in the kiss the Holy Spirit, for he is the imperturbable peace of the Father and the Son, their unshakeable bond, their undivided love, their indivisible unity.”
At the heart of the Doctrine of the Trinity is the understanding that God is revealed as mutually loving; God is love in himself since love requires the presence of another to be manifest. The Scottish theologian Richard of St Victor (d1173) wrote:
“Each of the two persons, who is supremely loved, and ought to be loved supremely, must seek with equal desire a third person mutually loved and must possess him freely with equal accord.”
The doctrine allows for the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two; a “community of being” in which each person, while maintaining its distinctive identity, penetrates the others and is penetrated by them.
God’s relationship to Creation
The Church affirms that creation was called into being by God, and that it also bears the divine hallmarks of relationship. Maximus the Confessor (a Christian monk, theologian and scholar c580-662) wrote that the world:
“owes its relational being to a personal presence which, although in the world, exists in a dialetical relationship with it.”
Dialetical means discourse, i.e. the relationship is one of love not nature since creation is not the same as God. John Polkinghorne (b1930), a contemporary scientist and priest writes:
“The interconnected integrity of the physical universe can be understood theologically as reflecting the status of the world as a divine creation whose intrinsic rationality has been conferred on it through its origin in the will of the triune God.”
Although there is no assumption that God had to create things in the way that He did, a creation that is built on relatedness between all things is what we might expect from a Creator who is relatedness itself. Moltmann (b1926) argued that the:
“indwelling Creator Spirit is fundamental for the community of creation….if the cosmic Spirit is the Spirit of God, the universe cannot be viewed as a closed system. It has to be understood as a system that is open – open for God and for God’s future.”
Creation and Covenant
Each week we say in the Creeds: “God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth” and Psalm 24 begins: “The earth is the Lord’s”. Both indicate a direct relationship between God and creation that not only existed at the time of creation, but which continues into the present. What we have inherited has been gifted to us, it is not owned by us. In Psalm 148 creation is seen to praise God regardless of its utility or otherwise to humanity. We say this Psalm liturgically in the words of the Benedicite:
Bless the Lord all rain and dew, sing his praise and exalt him for ever.
Bless the Lord all winds that blow….
Bless the Lord you fire and heat…etc.
Creation is equally understood to be part of the covenant relationship(s) that we also enjoy with God. The covenants are not only between God and humanity but all three relationships (“God and humanity”, “God and creation”, “humanity and creation”) are necessary if the full fruits of the covenant are to be realised. Humanity has a unique role and relationship with God, but this does not exclude creation from participation in the covenant relationship.
Thus Gen 9:12 (the covenant with Noah), states:
And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds….”
In this passage note that creation is both a partner to, and a sign of (the rainbow), the covenant relationship. Hosea 2:18 will refer to the Day of the Lord as:
“a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground.”
Robert Murray, a contemporary Jesuit theologian (b1925), has traced the development of a more fundamental “cosmic” covenant contained within the theology of the Old Testament.
The New Testament also contains a life-affirming triad of God, humanity and nature. This is especially pronounced in the Christological hymns of Colossians 1:15-20:
“He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
It is similarly expressed in the concluding passage of Ephesians 1:3-10:
“And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
These passages suggest a mutual inter-dependence in which human life and flourishing is bound up with our relationship with God and the wellbeing of the planet. Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that creation and covenant are inextricable, and that this relationship finds its ultimate expression in the incarnation:
“The purpose and therefore the meaning of creation is to make possible the history of God’s covenant with man which has its beginning, its centre and its culmination in Jesus Christ. The history of this covenant is as much the goal of creation as creation itself is the beginning of history.”
This has also been reflected in the Fifth Mark of Mission (Anglican Consultative Council)
“To safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”
and by the World Council of Churches (10th Assembly, November 2013):
“Creation has been misused and we face threats to the balance of life, a growing ecological crisis and the effects of human change. These are signs of our disordered relations with God, with one another and with creation, and we confess that they dishonour God’s gift of life.”
However, if creation is a part of the covenant relationship then it will also be affected if the covenant is broken. This understanding lies behind Hildegard of Bingen’s (1098-1179) assertion that sin had an impact that extended beyond the human:
“When Abel’s blood was shed, the entire earth sighed and at that moment was declared a widow. Just as a woman without the comfort of her husband remains fixed in her widowhood, the Earth was also robbed of its holy totality by the murder committed by Cain.”
Sin is not simply about exploitation and greed, but it can be understood as a fundamental breakdown of covenant relationship. This breakdown is reflected in the relationships between humans (an unjust distribution of resources), in our relationship with the environment (the crisis of global warming) and in the relationship between us and God.
Climate change – the consequence of broken covenant
The Old Testament maintains a close correlation between human morality and ecological health. For example, Isaiah 24:4-5 describes how a life that is lived without God (i.e. a violation of the covenant) affects ecological well-being:
“The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the exalted of the earth languish. The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore, a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt. Therefor,e earth’s inhabitants are burned up, and very few are left.”
Hosea 4:1-2-3 similarly expresses the outcome of broken relationships as affecting all of creation:
“Hear the word of the Lord…..There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying.”
Amos highlights the transgressions developing between the rich and the poor and the powerlessness caused by poverty and social injustice. He also comments on the inability or unwillingness of religious institutions to act. In this case, the broken relationships that affect both ecology and economy are presented as a warning to be observed (though one that the people chose to ignore):
“I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away. I sent rain on one town, but withheld it from another. One field had rain; another had none and dried up. People staggered from town to town for water, but did not get enough to drink, yet you have not returned to me,’ Declares the Lord.” (Amos 4:7-8)
This theology suggests that climate change is to be fundamentally understood not as a question of technology being bad (we should not blame the thinkers and scientists of the industrial revolution for what they could not know), but predominantly as a symptom of relationships going wrong in that we chose to celebrate inequality, greed and exploitation and live as a “world without God” – climate change is the outcome. The Scriptures also point to the danger that arises if we continue to ignore the warnings of the consequences of our actions.
Conversely, if we heed the warnings and act theologically, we might expect to see a restoration not only of human relationships with God, but also between humanity and all of creation. Maximus the Confessor understood that the incarnation had cosmic significance – to reunite the divisions between God, humanity and creation:
“God becomes a human being, in order to save lost humanity. Through Himself He has, in accordance with nature, united the fragments of the universal nature of the all, manifesting the universal logoi that has come forth for the particulars, by which the union of the divided naturally comes about, and thus he fulfils the great purpose of God the Father, ‘to recapitulate everything both in heaven and earth in Himself’ (Eph 1:10), ‘in whom everything has been created.’” (Col 1:16)
St Paul wrote:
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed….in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Rom 8:19-21)
Climate change may be properly described as “apocalyptic” (used theologically to mean something which has been revealed, the Greek word means “uncovering”) if it challenges our post-Reformation protestant emphasis on individualism, and our anthropocentrism, and instead causes us to rediscover our theological inter-relatedness with all of creation. Alternatively, humanity faces a stark choice: “This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light” (John 3:19).