Interview with Theologian Sallie McFague: 
Climate Change is a Spiritual Issue

In a follow-up to the 2011 Stonehouse Standing Circle meeting, we’ll be posting a series of interviews with delegates on their work and thoughts on the central question of the gathering: how to get climate change back on Canada’s public policy and political agenda.

Delegate Sallie McFague is a professor of theology and currently the Theologian in Residence at the Vancouver School of Theology. Sallie’s work in recent years has focused on the relationship between religion and the environment.

    1.  Can you  tell me a little about your background, and what brought you to your current field of interest: theology and climate change?

I was born in Boston, studied literature at Smith College,  and then went on to do theology at Yale.  Following that, I taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville for many years.  Because of my interdisciplinary background in literature and theology, I became interested in religion and literature.  I could see that the way we talk about ourselves and God, the images we use,  have a big influence on the way we respond to the critical  issues of our day, such as poverty and climate change.  If we think that human beings are insatiable individuals who are independent of other human beings and other life-forms, then we will  act as if  we have the right to all we can get to fulfill our own desires.  However, if we see ourselves as interrelated and interdependent with all other life-forms then we would know that we can’t flourish apart from the flourishing of the rest of creation—and climate change becomes everyone’s problem.
Moreover, if we think of God as “king” of the world, then when bad things happen like climate change, we can assume that the all-mighty Lord will clean  up the mess we have made. So, one can see why folks don’t act—they don’t think it is really necessary!  Hence, how we speak about God and ourselves, the images we use to express our deepest, but often subconscious assumptions, are an  important piece of the solution. The religions have a big part to play in changing our beliefs so we might be able to change our actions.  This has been my life’s work and it is obvious there is much more that needs to be done.

2 .What do you think of the 2011 Stonehouse Summit when we asked, “How do we get climate change back on the public agenda?”

I was delighted to be included in this conversation, as I think it is THE question of our day.  There is no magic bullet to solve climate change , no one field that has the answer.  However, it is an issue that must involve the religions, ethics, and spirituality, since at this point we have more than enough  information and committees. What we need is  a change of heart and mind. The  Greeks said “to know the good is to do the good,” but St. Paul said, “I know the good but I don’t do it”. I think most of us agree with St. Paul.  The central issue now regarding the twin crises of poverty and climate change is about the movement from belief to action.  We all know what we should do, but we aren’t doing it. 

Often in discussions about climate change, folks look only to science and technology to solve the problem.  Yet, at the same time, these fields of study usually admit that unless people act on what science is telling us, it is of little importance. What I said earlier about the power of images, of the way we talk about God and ourselves, reveals our deepest assumptions  that actually control our actions.  A German philosopher, Erich Heller, puts it this way: “Be careful how you interpret the world; it is like that.”  These haunting words remind us that it is the subconscious assumptions, the worldview that we hold, that really controls our decisions. Some people think that religion is “just about words,” and is not true action, but since how we behave is deeply influenced by what we believe (believe deep down, not just “say” we believe), then it matters how we talk. For  human beings, language is action, since it can change how we act.

Moreover, not all religion is helpful.  Years ago a philosopher named Lynn White blamed Christianity for the environmental crisis because of the command in Genesis to dominate and subdue the earth.  If this is the way God acts toward the world then human beings should act the same way.  In this case, religion is on the side of the climate change “deniers.”  But at its core, I believe most religions do not support narrow, selfish, individualistic power; rather, they are counter-cultural.  No religion, for instance, says “Blessed are the greedy,” even though as many have pointed out, the newest and most successful religion is “consumerism,” which lies behind the devastation of the planet and the increasing gap between the poor and the wealthy.  In the “religion of consumerism” the malls are our cathedrals and most of us give generously every month  through paying interest on our credit cards to this new religion!

At the heart of most healthy religion  is a simple but radical notion: Love your neighbor as yourself.  More even than belief in a “god,” what matters is realizing that we do not have a choice of whether or not to link up with other life-forms; rather, we are inter-related with all other creatures.  We are not separate individuals who can each go our own way—we see from postmodern science that this is a “lie,” a very big lie.  From our first breath at birth to our last gasp at death, we are dependent on everything else in the world.  At the top of the food chain, we are the most “needy.”  All the other life-forms could live without us (in fact, most would live better!), but we could not live more than a few minutes without air or a few days without water.  So, religion, at its core is about “reality,” not sentimental charity for those who can’t make it in a survival of the fittest world.  Philosopher and novelist, Iris Murdoch, says, “Love is the extremely realization that something other than oneself is real. Love is the discovery of reality.”  Hence, genuine religion is “objective,” about living in the real world, where interdependence is true and radical individualism is false. This means that many current religions and present day science agree on a basic worldview—love (religion)   is the discovery of reality (science).  Hence, when we approach the critical question of moving from belief to action, from the information from science about our world to acting to make  the reality of interdependence the assumption of our actions, we are acting on the basis of the deepest, best wisdom that we presently have from both science and religion.

3. We talked a lot at the Stonehouse Summit about ‘Making it Visceral.’ The way you discuss these things, it is very visceral...

I believe it is a visceral issue.  Religion is not about another world, some supernatural place; rather, it is about living justly and sustainably on this world.  It is about who has food, clothing, a place to live and so forth.  It is, as we recall, about loving your neighbor as yourself.  And if “neighbor” includes all the other life-forms on the planet, then religion is a matter of the basics that support abundant living not just for a favored few but for all. 

As an illustration, let us consider a basic issue of our own time:  the status of women in North America over the last decades.  It has changed, changed radically, and again, it has to do with language and world-views.  Here is a very humble example.  When I was ten years old during World War II, I wanted to join the Navy.  I was as big as most of the boys and was willing to wait until I was eighteen years old, but I realized that there was a deeper problem—I was a girl and would always be a girl.  I was excluded solely for that reason.  This seemed unfair, even though I was told “it is the way things are,” “it is natural this way,” and even at times, “God commands it be this way.”  But even at ten  years old, I could see a false note  in these arguments and I turned out to be right!  What I was fighting against was not a description of the way things are, but an interpretation of the way things are!  The interpretation could be changed, changed in part through talking and acting differently about the place of women and men in society.  This was visceral insight—I felt in my gut that it was wrong and unfair.  Knowing that made it possible for me to work to change it—and we have!  

Likewise, when it comes to changing our minds about climate change so that we can change our behavior, making it visceral (as well as having the information about it) is crucial.  We need to feel this worldview, the same way we North Americans feel like separate individuals. This is not an “intellectual” problem—world-views are not concepts that we accept as rational or otherwise.  Rather, they are the most distinctive thing about us human beings.  We have the power of choice. While we share many characteristics with other animals we are, as far as we know, the only ones who can choose to live differently.  We now see what centuries of a market-oriented individualistic view of ourselves has come to—dire poverty for most of the world and devastating climate change.  The religions (like other fields) have a role to play in coming to a different choice about how to live on planet earth,  but it will only come about if we change our image of ourselves so that we act, almost by instinct, in interdependent rather than individualistic ways.  For instance, it should become “common sense,” or “natural” to respond to other creatures in need the way we now, “instinctively” fulfill our own desires. Is this asking too much? What less is expected if we were to “love our neighbor as ourselves?”

4. What advice would you give to Environmental NGO’s out there?

If we are serious about living differently on the planet, of changing our worldview so we can change our actions, how optimistic should we be?  Things are certainly grim.  For instance, the pipeline issue (the Northern Gateway) is an example of what we face in trying to serve our neighbors’ needs.  We thought the Enbridge pipeline was the main issue, but we recently have learned that several corporations intend to build many pipelines, and the federal government has recently limited environmental assessment to benefit the oil companies.   This is a very difficult issue, in part because the enemy is in many ways “ourselves.”  During World War II, the enemy was someone else—the totalitarian forces—so people were able to marshal their resources to fight the clear battle  that lay “out there.”  

But now we see that  the enemy is ourselves, our own desire to have the comfortable life we are addicted to and love!  In addition, climate change is not as much “in your face” as a war is.  So, to address this issue we need to learn to limit our own desires (and distinguish them from “needs”), but few of us well-off North Americans are eager to say “I have enough.” However, we only have two alternatives: we can join the enemy and buy into the cult of consumption and consumerism, or we can find our part to play in the struggle to live and act out of a different worldview, the view that says we are radically interrelated and interdependent with all other life-forms and that only “true” way to live on our planet is by sharing its resources justly and sustainably.  

  It is easy to be captivated by “greenwash,” the advertising hype suggesting that the oil and coal industries are doing all “possible” to lower their greenhouse emissions.  Note that this is a war of words between two world-views, another illustration of the power of language to change people’s actions.  Society tries to paint the NGO’s and other groups pressing for the ecological  worldview as crazy, but as we have seen, it is the consumer worldview that is crazy, believing that it is possible to “live a lie” on our planet, pretending that we have infinite resources and that unlimited growth is possible.  Economists who believe this (as many do) are not objective scientists as they like to suppose, but folks with a worldview that interprets our place in the scheme of things in the old terms of radical individualism. We need to know not just the price of things we desire but their cost as well—that is, while the price of a picnic-table made out of old-growth wood may be small, the cost to the forest can be huge, when the real price  includes  the loss of  the other services the intact forest provides  (medicines, erosion control, habitat for many life-forms, a sink for greenhouse gases, and even recreation).

It is easy, however, to become discouraged, very discouraged.  All the folks who say “a different way is possible” need to lean on one another and realize that we are the “sane” ones. We must insist that we human beings face reality, a reality that will be painful to those of us who use much more of our fair share of the planet’s resources. We only have two alternatives: we can join the enemy and buy into the cult of consumerism, or we can find ways, each one of us, to do our part. Dorothy Day, a Catholic social worker during the Depression said we should focus on “the little way,” the job that is right in front of us, the piece that each of us can do, given our talents and our willingness to persevere in our task (Day lived for forty  years in a New York ghetto, ministering to the poor in soup lines and in picket lines). People called her a saint, but she refused this title because, as she insisted, this let the rest of us off the hook!

Folks often justify their lack of action because they are overwhelmed by the immensity of what needs to be done.  I have discovered that finding out what one is good at, likes to do, is trained to do, and will stick with is one helpful way to deal with this problem. Such reflection helps us find our “niche,” the small part of the big task that one not only can do, but will do.   Nellie McClung, the Canadian activist, wrote “Let us do our little bit with cheerfulness and not take the responsibility that belongs to God.  None of us can turn the earth around.  All we can ever hope to do is to hit is a few whacks on the right side.”  I say “right on” to this!

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