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Southern Baptist Climate Initiative March 12, 2008

Posted by doccochran in Christian Faith, Ethics, Worldview, politics.

Regarding the recently unveiled Southern Baptist Environmental and Climate Initiative (see www.baptistcreationcare.org), I have a few concerns.  I applaud the initiative in the sense that it is an attempt to extend the biblical worldview to all of creation. As Christians, we understand from a biblical worldview that the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it. 


In one sense, this initiative is nothing new.  I have had an environmental theology in place and in practice for more than 10 years, after reading Francis Schaeffer's Pollution and the Death of Man, a work which, by the way, was written from an evangelical perspective more than 3 decades ago.  Perhaps there needs to be more of an emphasis on an evangelical theology of the environment. 


Whether this initiative facilitates such an evangelical theological engagement or not, time will tell.  For now, I have one complaint and three concerns regarding this latest attempt at engagement.  First, the complaint?on what grounds ought this initiative be termed Southern Baptist?


Jonathan Merritt, the director of the Southern Baptist Environmental and Climate Initiative, answered this complaint on the Albert Mohler radio program with the reply that those who make such a complaint need a lesson in Southern Baptist ecclesiology.  Perhaps.  Be that as it may, who is now able to give the national media a lesson in ecclesiology?  Understandably, the national media have taken the statement just as it sounds, as an official declaration by Southern Baptists concerning global warming and the impact human machinations have on the environment.  As the title suggests, this initiative has been repeatedly referred to in news outlets as a Southern Baptist initiative, although it is an initiative which the Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee?the Southern Baptist entity responsible for keeping Southern Baptists informed on issues of ethical or cultural concerns?does not endorse. 



Ecclesiology aside, Mr. Merritt's group has confused many and must now work to clear up the confusion concerning the manner in which this initiative is actually "Southern Baptist."  My complaint is about the confusion such a name would inevitably cause in the culture at large.  This group had to know such confusion would likely abound when they chose the name they chose. The name seems provocative, designed to represent-if not irritate-Southern Baptists. The problem might not be completely one of poor ecclesiology.  Granted, there are more important concerns being addressed by the SBECI.


My concerns are more substantive, and they are three.  First, I am concerned about the carefulness of the initiative and of its leaders.  The leaders of this initiative are insistent that the issue of global warming is a defining one and that we must enter the conversation.  They are, for the most part, attempting to lead Southern Baptists in dialogue, in a conversation with popular culture.  My concern is not with dialogue in principle; rather, my concern is with this particular dialogue.  On whose terms will the dialogue be conducted?


The conversation concerning global warming is already underway, and the conversation is already framed in either pantheistic or panentheistic categories.  We must be careful not to enter a conversation on the wrong terms.  To "strike out" in baseball is a bad thing; in bowling, it is marvelous.  One can use the same terms with almost opposite meanings and intentions.  Unfortunately, much of the spirituality tied to the global warming movement reflects a misuse of traditional Christian terms of spirituality.  Are those involved in this environmental initiative going to challenge the terminology, clarify the categories, and engage in the battle on clearly Christian theological and ethical terms?


Even more to the point of carefulness is a concern that those wishing to lead may, in fact, be choosing to follow.  I'm not accusing any one of these leaders of such naiveté.  I am saying that such is the nature of leadership.  To be a leader means, at base, to know whom you are actually following.  To engage in an initiative on the environment and global warming might mean to be following a chorus of singers who have, in the past, applauded the science of climatologists, some of whom were actually predicting an imminent ice age back in the 1970's. 


Still more significant is the value ascribed by the climate choir to the issue of climate change.  Is it really such an urgent and important issue for our time?  Why?  Why must we consider climate change (beyond environmentalism) a defining issue for our day?  Is it because lives may be impacted negatively or even lost?  What is it which makes this issue so important today? 


It seems to me that this question needs to be fleshed out thoroughly by the initiative in order to demonstrate that they are, in fact, leading and not merely following a chorus in singing its vain tune.  Why is it that it is this conversation on climate change that needs our attention?  Is it because liberal professors are concerned or Hollywood is concerned or democrats are concerned or republicans need to be concerned or Christians need to be engaged?  And what is the compelling reason for us?Southern Baptists?to be concerned about this particular issue at this particular time?  Is it the case that this needs immediate attention when 3,500 babies are killed in the womb every day in America?  Why this initiative and not an initiative against Islamism, which conducted 37 attacks, leaving 263 dead and 447 seriously wounded just last week. 



Given the urgency of the situation with AIDS in Africa, hunger and disease in Darfur, and Christian persecution in more than 40 countries around the world?is the potentiality of human caused climate change the initiative in which Southern Baptists ought to be taking the lead?  Are we sure we are leading and not being led by the agenda of another?  We must know the answer to these questions. Leaders and signatories of this initiative must be careful and must be clear.



My second major concern is on the latter point: Clarity.  What is it exactly that is being proposed? What is the major concern driving the initiative?  Is it care for creation, care for the environment, or the more specific concern of global warming?  This point is significant because, even though the initiative says "this is an issue where Christians may find themselves in justified disagreement about both the problem and its solutions," it offers a moral imperative for all humanity?Christians and Southern Baptists included?to forestall the impact of human actions on global warming: Humans must be proactive and take responsibility for our contributions to climate change?however great or small. 


On what grounds is this universal ethical imperative derived?  There must be clarity on this point.  This imperative goes beyond the theological imperatives of dominion and stewardship in the sense that it represents a specific moral imperative related not to the general demands of environmental dominion but, rather, to the specific problem of global warming (even assuming a discernable and malleable human impact).  The initiative has, in effect, pronounced "out of bounds" any debate over whether there actually is global warming, stating, "We resolve to engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem or our responsibility to address it."   



According to this Southern Baptist initiative, the reality of human caused global warming is resolved in the affirmative, and ethical action is demanded.  The ethical action, apparently, has already been established and human actions which may contribute to global warming proscribed.


Such a proscription goes beyond environmental stewardship and creation care to specific ethical application.  For many Christians, this will be viewed as having gone too far down the road of eco-monism, adopting what some may view as rather arbitrary and unnecessary (if not altogether oppressive) proscriptions.  Granted, the initiative has not endorsed any specific measures for curtailing the supposed human impact on global warming, but will it?  More importantly, how will it not? On what grounds will this initiative not go along with proscriptions against SUV's or with demands for Kyoto protocols?    


There needs to be clarity on precisely what is the point of departure from the eco-monism ethic.  For one thing, the ethic of eco-monism is often absurd.  Not only are some women choosing to abort their babies so that the dirty little diapers don't soil nature's fragile ecosystem, but also there are many other imperatives demanded in the name of erasing our carbon footprint from the otherwise pristine face of our little green globe.  To offer just one such example, Tim Lang, the Natural Resources Commissioner in the U.K., has recently declared?in the name of thwarting the human impact of global warming?that it is time to stigmatize drinking bottled water.  Dasani and Aquafina are as bad for the environment as driving a car, he claims.  Thus, such negative impacting actions, in his opinion, ought to be relegated to the realm of the immoral. 


If he is able to show that there is a dirty carbon footprint on the carpet of earth's climate, then are we obligated to forego Aquafina?  If this concern seems outlandish, then consider the SBECI statement urging the importance of this issue: "Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. We can do better."


Presumably, our "doing better" is accomplished by becoming less cautious.  Are we, then, to throw caution into the globally warmed winds and adopt measures against Aquafina, Huggies, and Hummers?  If not, then on what grounds are we resisting these proscriptions?  What happens when those grounds of resistance are viewed by the world as "uncaring, reckless, and ill-informed"?  There are swift currents of ethical imperatives already flowing in the stream of the global warming movement, and they are much stronger than even those which were once found in the general flow of the green river of environmentalism.  I am not convinced that prudence is best served by diving into the human-caused, global warming stream rather than attempting to remain on the banks of the river, attempting, theologically, to hold key positions in shaping the river away from its course toward pantheism.  I am not convinced that the initiative is yet clear enough on these distinctions to warrant our embrace.



Finally, I would hope that we Southern Baptists?and all Christians?would be willing to confront our culture courageously.  Courage is often in short supply when we are "reaching out" to others in the culture.  There is a temptation to "become all things to all people in order that we might save some," without, at the same time, "holding to the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints."  There is a necessary distinction which must be maintained by the saints on all matters theological?including on matters of the environment?even if it means that the world will say that it makes us look uncaring and ill-informed.


Christ was not persecuted because he found a way to appear well-informed. He was persecuted because he pointed to the precise points of conflict between men, their traditions, and their creator.  Is this initiative courageous enough to confront the culture at its pantheistic departure points from a Christ-centered dominion for all of heaven and earth?  Indeed, it will take courage to save others, snatching them out of the fires of pantheism.


It will take courage to point the pantheistic mindset of an eco-monism ethic away from the environment long enough to remember that human beings are being slaughtered by the thousands every single day.  Humans are called to exercise dominion over the environment and, instead, are seeking to exercise dominion over each other.  In America, more than 16,000 human beings each year are brought into the country as slaves, mostly for sexual purposes.  Will we courageously take the conversation away from ecology and point it back to humanity by means of our theology? 



The views presented in this essay reflect the opinions of Pastor Gregory C. Cochran and are not to be viewed as the opinions of Cedar Grove Baptist Church or any ministry of the church.  The views are offered by Pastor Cochran in the hopes of facilitating conversation concerning biblical truth, as well as in the hopes of clarifying priorities in the Christian life. 


Pastor Cochran is the Senior Pastor of Cedar Grove Baptist Church. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.



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