Ecological Salvation

Almost all discussion of salvation in our culture revolves around salvation of individual persons. And for the most part this individual salvation is primarily focused on a salvation that leads us to some eternal reward in another world like Heaven, even though we might experience some positive consequences from salvation in this life – if nothing else the assurance that we will go to the good place after we die and the joy of knowing our sins have been forgiven and that we won’t spend eternity in the bad place.

The emphasis on individual salvation in Christianity has been unfortunate given that the teachings of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus were as much or more about the community as they were about the individual person. The prophets and Jesus proclaimed that love is to be expressed in community, that justice entails good news for the poor and liberation of the oppressed, and that we must care for and protect the most vulnerable among us. Their teachings are about much more than just individual salvation or even individual transformation. They call for the transformation of society towards love and justice.

It is not surprising that once Christianity was captured and controlled by the Roman Empire that the focus would shift almost exclusively to individual salvation. If people are convinced that the only way to avoid eternal suffering is to do what the imperial church tells them to do, it is much easier to control the masses for sake of maintaining order and obedience within the empire.

The focus on individual salvation is also a way to maintain the status quo of injustice within a society. If people are focused solely on their individual salvation in the next life, they tend to be less concerned about social transformation in this life. Our ultimate reward is seen as being in heaven or the assurance thereof rather than in bringing about systemic change for justice in this world.

In our context of the United States there have been movements that have pushed back at this overly individual focus on salvation. The movement to abolish slavery, the social gospel movement, the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the American Indian Movement, the women’s movement, and the movement for the rights of persons who are LGBTQ2S+ have all pointed to a vision of social salvation and social change and not just the salvation of our individual souls in the Sweet By and By.

But until very recently even our most community and socially focused views of salvation have been anthropocentric, meaning human-centered. We have focused on humanity, often to the neglect of non-human life and our larger ecological community. It is past time to expand our understanding of salvation to include all life and all of our ecosystems. It is time to work for ecological salvation.

The human centered approach is difficult to escape. I often hear sincere climate justice activists say that since it is likely that life on earth will find a way to come back like it has in previous mass extinction events that the real or primary reason to address the climate crisis is for the survival of the human species.

There is some truth in this assertion. Yes, life will likely find a way to come back as it has before, but if we are only addressing the climate crisis to save ourselves and our species, then we fail to see the real loss and suffering that we are also causing our nonhuman siblings on this planet.

What we are doing to the planet is having and will continue to have a profound impact on non-human life, and the suffering we are causing nonhuman life is wrong in itself even if it did not also threaten the survival of the human species. If we take out ourselves through climate inaction, we will take out much of currently existing nonhuman life with us, and that life matters for its own sake.

The way forward to a deep commitment to climate justice is a recognition that we are all persons in a greater ecological community and the other members of our ecological community also have inherent worth that ought to respected. Yes, we are fighting for the survival of the human species, but we are also fighting for the survival and flourishing of so much more than ourselves.

It is difficult for some of us to think and act in non-anthropocentric ways. Most of us have been conditioned to view the world in dualistic and hierarchical ways with humans separate from and on top of nature. This attitude is one of the primary reasons that our human survival and the survival of other forms of life are now threatened.

The way forward to radical systemic change for a livable climate is to realize that we are not just saving ourselves; we are cooperating with our ecological communities to save as much life, both human and nonhuman, as we possibly can. In this attitude of love for the other members of our ecological community, we might even find a deeper salvation as members of the community of all life than we ever thought possible.

We are now living in what many persons are calling the Anthropocene epoch, a time in which all aspects of the earth are influenced greatly by human activity. This human activity, especially in its industrialized and fossil fuel dependent expressions, is often driven by corporate greed and is contributing to the sixth great extinction on earth. The previous five great extinction events are marked by thin layers in the fossil record that bear witness to how rapidly life on earth can be diminished, but the catastrophic events that produced the massive reduction of species seen in those layers were not caused by the actions of one species. The layer of extinction that we are leaving to the fossil record is a layer of death of our own making.

If we do not move quickly from the Anthropocene Epoch to the Ecozoic Era in which we see ourselves as part of the house of all living beings, the fossil record of the Anthropocene will show how quickly a highly intelligent, yet highly irresponsible, species can wreak havoc for all life on earth. And if intelligent life ever evolves again and somehow finds the thin catastrophic layer of our contribution to the geologic record, they might very well respond with their version of WTF.

The good news is that there is still some hope that we can move from the Anthropocene to the Ecozoic, but it cannot be an unrealistic hope that leads us to complacency. It must be realistic hope based in action for systemic change that helps us recognize the fierce urgency of now.

I leave us with some words of realistic hope from the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe who in her recent book Saving Us writes:

Science tells us it’s too late to avoid all of the impacts of climate change. Some are already here today. Others are inevitable, because of the past choices we’ve made, and that can make us afraid. Science also tells us that much of what we do is actively contributing to the problem, from turning on our lights to what we eat for lunch. That makes us feel guilt. But the research I do is clear: it is not too late to avoid the most serious and dangerous impacts. Our choices will determine what happens.

The future we collectively face will be forged by our own actions. Climate change stands between us and a breathtaking, exhilarating future. We cannot afford to be paralyzed by fear or shame. We must act, with power, love, and a sound mind. Together, we can save ourselves.

Katharine Hayhoe, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World

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