Eco-Anxiety and Divine Providence

Not long ago I was asked to contribute to an upcoming issue of Vision: A Journal of Church and Theology.* It was suggested that I write on uncertainty in light of the environmental crisis. I ended up writing on how we might think about God’s providence at a time when eco-anxiety is running high. The journal issue doesn’t come out until the spring, so I thought I’d post a few of my concluding paragraphs here.

* * *

One place we find God’s providential care at work is in the persistence of nature’s cycles. Though stressed, these patterns remain. There are seasons. There are migratory patterns. There is the host of biogeochemical cycles—water, nitrogen, and carbon, to name a few. We sometimes identify this aspect of God’s ongoing provision as creatio continua. In the face of our worries about environmental doom, we would do well to see these cyclical changes as an expression of God’s patient and wise rule. God’s providence is not anticipated as an emergency backup. It is found in the system itself, the arc of life. 

We must be careful here, for there are those would reduce the ecological crises from a catastrophic outworking of over-consumption to a natural cycle itself. This is a sham comfort, like the false proclamations of peace in Ezekiel’s day. We would be wise to take note of the prophetic response (Ezekiel 13:10-12, NRSV):

“[B]ecause they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a flimsy wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it. Say to those who smear whitewash on it that it shall fall. There will be a deluge of rain, great hailstones will fall, and a stormy wind will break out. When the wall falls, will it not be said to you, ‘Where is the whitewash you smeared on it?‘”

The explanations of those who deny climate change fail to match reality. They are like whitewash on a flimsy wall. The ecological crisis is not a cycle. It is an outworking of sin across systems and entire populations. Providence provides judgment, not easy comfort.

The fact that the earth’s biogeochemical cycles will not allow negligent consumerism and greed to continue indefinitely is a form of divine provision. That fire and wind erase all doubt that the economies of the global north are misguided, is a call to repentance. To be clear: many who suffer the near-term consequence of climate change are not the ones responsible just as the many plant and animal species erased from the earth are not the cause of their own demise. God’s providence exhibited in the earth’s circuit-breaker systems requires scientifically informed prophetic voices. This is the pattern of the Hebrew scriptures, where God’s providence requires the ministry of prophets.

God’s providence is in the earth’s systems, yes, but it is not only there. For some reason, a tangle of philosophy and historical accident no doubt, we tend to think of providence as something carried out by God the Father (to use the classical formulation). We imagine a disinterested king moving pieces around a game board. We imagine a being at infinite arms length from the suffering of creatures. There are lines in scripture that suggest this, but the full arc of the story promises more.

We are wrong to think that our uncertainty and anxiousness is unprecedented. Plagues, social disruption, natural disasters are not new at all. We are not the first ones to experience a theological collision between belief and reality. At the core of the Christian response to such catastrophes has always been the preeminent act of God’s providence. John’s gospel tells us that the “Word became flesh and lived among us.” There is no greater act of divine care for and solidarity with suffering creation than this.

The Incarnation, divine solidarity even unto death, points us toward Pentecost. In John 14 Jesus promised his student that they would not be left “orphaned.” The Holy Spirit, the “Advocate,” would be sent among them. The old King James Version uses the term “Comforter.” We experience God’s provision for creation through the presence of the Spirit. Elizabeth Johnson helpfully widens the scope of our thinking when she writes,

“The stunning world opened up to our wonder by evolutionary biology and ravaged by our consumerist practices calls for attending to the presence of the Giver of life not at a distance, presiding from beyond the apex of a pyramid of greater and lesser beings, but within and around the merging, struggling, living, dying, and evolving circle of life.“[1]

Johnson goes on to riff on Augustine, saying, “Like a saturated sponge creation is dripping with divine presence . . . the life of the Spirit pervades the world.”[2] This is important because, without an ability to see God’s provision within an eco-state marked by death and uncertainty, we are apt to turn away from the severity of the crisis. To be present with those who suffer, to know and to see, to not turn away—this is God’s way of ruling amidst creaturely freedom. This is the ministry of the Holy Spirit at a time when a great deal of death is smeared across the windshield of our extractive economy.

This affirmation of the presence of God’s Spirit as an enactment of providence brings us to a surprising place. It brings us, in a sense, back to the answer we most want to hear: that the doom we fear may not come to pass. Throughout the scriptures God’s Spirit is an agent of surprise, bringing life out of death, bringing new ways of being out of the decrepit. With many species facing extinction, the fact that this Spirit is the one who raised Jesus from the dead is no small thing, but think also of the surprise of Pentecost, the inclusion of the gentiles, the marvelous sign acts that marked the emergence of the early church. The demise of the Hine’s emerald dragonfly is not locked in.

The uncertainty, the non-cyclic nature, of the ecological crisis has two sides. There is the fearsome side, the threat of “environmental doom,” but there is another. Thomas Homer-Dixon puts it this way: “The uncertainty in the zone between the impossible and the inevitable creates a mental space; our imagination can then populate that space with desirable possibilities, some of which we can make objects of our hope.”[3] The terrifying ecological changes we observe are not the opening salvo of an entirely predictable slide. It is more complicated. Because the earth, coupled with our social systems, constitutes a highly complex system, the future is genuinely uncertain. This uncertainty includes room for repentance and space for hope. Though God may not magically save us from the repercussions of our profligate way of life, the future may yet surprise us. Life from death, seed time and harvest—as long as the earth endures. God’s providence may yet bring about repentance. 

[1] Johnson, Ask the Beasts (Bloomsbury, 2014), 133.

[2] Johnson, 137.

[3] Homer-Dixon, Commanding Hope (Vintage Canada, 2020), 98.

*Though the views expressed here are my own, I am inspired by the work of my A Rocha colleagues. If you would like to learn more about A Rocha Ontario or support our work of creation care, please look us up on the web and consider signing up for our e-newsletter.

2 thoughts on “Eco-Anxiety and Divine Providence”

  1. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for sending this to me. It will take a bit of time for me to process what you are writing, but the positive nature of your statement is unmistakable and is very hopeful. This call to repentance also brings a new meaning of that word to me. Much to ponder and to act on.

    I will read this many times and look forward to the whole piece that you’ve penned.

    May the love of the Christ and of the Advocate continue to guide you,

    Eric Sent from my iPhone



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