Teaching Natural Theology as Climate Changes Drown a Way of Life
The changing climate that threatens to drown the island nation of Tuvalu is also a trial by fire for the islanders' faith.
"We plant and depend on God to provide fruits. We go out fishing with faith that God will provide enough daily," said Tafue Lusama, general secretary of the Ekalesia Kelisiano, Tuvalu's national church. "The failure of these seems to indicate to the people that God's providence has failed them."
Tuvalu is a tiny, predominately Christian nation in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and Australia. About 10,500 people live on the 10-square-mile island; 97 percent belong to the Ekalesia Kelisiano.
In recent years, the nation has made international headlines as rising sea levels damage crops and ruin drinking water, threatening the islanders' existence.
Inhabitants of Pacific islands don't distinguish between theology or religion and daily life, said Randall Prior, a professor of missiology at Uniting Church Theological College in Melbourne, Australia.
"Issues of climate change will become issues for theological education," he said.
The Tuvaluan church's challenge is to teach a theology that emphasizes that God's providence still exists even if islanders' surroundings are being destroyed, Lusama said. He explains that such destruction is the consequence of human behavior and injustice, not God's wrath.
When the land is affected, Tuvaluans connect that failure directly to their relationship with God, said Suamalie Iosefa Naisali, a pastor with the Reformed Christian Church of Tuvalu in New Zealand. Fruitful land means God is blessing them, while land failure is seen as a curse. "The land is important and the sea—our surroundings—is our identity," he said.
The ancient Israelites had a similar view, notes Craig Bartholomew, a religion and theology professor at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario.
The Old Testament teaches that following God's will leads to a blessed life, he said, but nations like Tuvalu must face the fact that many nations most affected by climate change are relatively powerless to stop it.
"The challenge is going to be for developing countries and places like these islands to find ways of living according to the grain of creation, but bearing in mind that they're not exempt from the effects of what's going on globally," said Bartholomew, author of Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today. "We need places where people are developing good practices, learning to live within the limits of creation and to flourish within those limits."
But it's not easy to transform contemporary Tuvalu into that kind of place, said David Kima, general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of Papua New Guinea.
Under Kima's direction, local churches encourage farmers to plant trees, cut down fewer trees, and practice new planting techniques. But even as climate change affects their existence, residents are still reluctant to take practical steps to care for the environment, he said.
A recent statement from the National Association of Evangelicals suggests the islanders are not alone in their reluctance. In a December document, "Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment," the organization called for Christians in wealthy nations to help the global poor adapt to climate-induced threats.
"The starting point," said Dana Robert, co-director of Boston University's Center for Global Christianity and Mission, "is the shift in awareness to think of the earth as the Lord's, rather than ours."
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Christianity Today articles about creation care and the environment include:
The Gulf of Mexico and the Care of Creation | We exercise dominion over creation not only when we use it, but also when we conserve it. (May 3, 2010)
Second Coming Ecology | We care for the environment precisely because God will create a new earth. (July 18, 2008)
Old-Fashioned Creation Care | Thrift and care for the environment go hand in hand. (July 16, 2007)