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Kenotic Theology and Climate Change

ISS Reports


A paper given at the seminar on the Environmental Crisis held by the Institute for Spiritual Studies on the 11th of August, 2012.

Delivered by Deborah Guess, Melbourne College of Divinity.

Questions of theology, and questions of ecology, such as climate change, belong together. This is because climate change is a broad issue which extends across many areas: the natural sciences, technology, politics, economics, philosophy, culture, and theology. Climate change is also broad in that it has the ability to impact all people, everywhere. It is true that those who are first and worst affected by a deteriorated environment are usually the poor, yet ultimately the event of climate change has a far-reaching potential to affect all people, whoever and wherever they are.

Environmental questions such as climate change not only have a broad dimension but also a deep one. They tend to raise very significant questions of ecology around what it means to be human. That is, environmental issues raise fundamental questions of existence. David Tacey, a Melbourne writer on spirituality, suggests that human attitudes to the environment are largely determined by the ways in which we understand the universe, God and ourselves:[1] how we see these things (our 'worldview') will have an influence on how we see our relationship with the natural world. It will determine how we see ourselves: as in a position of dominance over nature, as responsible stewards, or as having the role of 'co-creator' each of which has particular consequences for the environment.

Our present ecological situation can therefore be seen, on one important level at least, as 'a values crisis, an attitudinal problem, a spiritual concern.'[2] Ecological questions such as climate change have a spiritual or religious dimension. In the words of theologian Jürgen Moltmann: 'What we call the environmental crisis is not merely a crisis in the natural environment of human beings. It is nothing less than a crisis in human beings themselves'.[3]

With only a few notable exceptions, the church has not to date (in any denomination) had an especially good track record in confronting environmental questions, either practically or theologically. To the extent that this has occurred with any seriousness at all within Christianity, ecological issues have tended to be restricted to specialist ethics or social justice committees and groups rather than being considered from an essentially theological position. Against this, ecological theologian Ernst Conradie argues that an engagement between the church and ecology should occur not only at a practical but also, importantly, at a theological level: 'the entire life and praxis of the church should include an ecological dimension and vision'.[4]

Further, it is appropriate, even essential, for Christianity to engage with ecological theology because one of the traditional marks of the Church (as affirmed in the Nicene Creed) is that it is 'catholic' in the sense that it is 'whole' or 'entire' and therefore is concerned with all that is. It is timely, then, for the catholic Church to begin to engage with ecological considerations in order to address climate change, which is itself a global phenomenon.

There are a number of possible starting points for exploring the relationship between theology and ecology. Ecological theology often, not surprisingly, begins by focusing on the fundamental Christian understanding of God as Creator. However, other Christian doctrines also contain ecotheological meaning, including the central Christian claim that the Son or Word of God, the second Person of the divine Trinity, assumed a fleshly human body in Jesus Christ and lived a life on Earth.

One way of reflecting on climate change from a Christian incarnational perspective is to consider the theological notion of kenosis (a Greek word meaning 'self-emptying') in relation to both creation and Incarnation. Kenotic theology is relatively modern. Although there are some important 'keys' to kenotic theology in scriptural and patristic texts, kenotic theology as such is associated with late nineteenth and early twentieth century Lutheran and Anglican theologians who were concerned with exploring what is really meant by the claim that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine and with related questions such as which (if any) divine attributes are dispensable and might have been restricted in order for the event of the Incarnation to occur. Although much can be said about kenotic theology in this more technical sense, I am here wishing to use it in the broader sense which is expressed by the influential North American ecological theologian Sallie McFague in her book A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming.[5] In the sense that McFague uses it, kenosis relates to the idea that God has 'emptied' or 'limited' Godself both in the (ongoing) process of creation and in the divine incarnation which occurred distinctively in the person of Jesus Christ.

In terms of creation, the idea that there is a self-limiting aspect to God is a way of explaining how it is that the universe, and all that comprises it, has the freedom to exist. Sallie McFague says that: 'In creation, God allows space for others to exist by divine limitation, not as a self-denying act but as an affirmation of the other, in a way similar to the Genesis announcement, "It is good."'[6] The idea of God's self-emptying or self-limitation is not intended to convey the idea that God is powerless. On the contrary, it affirms that self-restraint is one of the ways that God exercises power.

The idea of self-limitation is also associated with the Incarnation, not only in terms of the means by which the Incarnation occurred, but also in terms of the actual life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the primary Christian model for giving oneself for the sake of others. Through healing, feeding and teaching Jesus acts so that others may have fullness of life, and his death and resurrection express the pouring out of divine love for the transformation of the world. It is an idea which forms a key aspect of discipleship. Paul says "let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." The idea of self-limitation assumes that one already has a sufficient robust sense of self in order to intentionally limit it, and therefore implicitly affirms the importance of self-realization for all people. The idea of self-limitation, in McFague's ecotheological sense, is contrary to the idea of denigrating or diluting one's own value. Rather it is a position in which a person chooses to turn away from positions and actions which are coercive and competitive and choosing not to take up some of the options available to us in order to participate in the work of reducing carbon emissions.

As the discussion around the Australian Government's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme has shown, climate change is a phenomenon which calls for at least some kind of changed behaviour. It is not easy to know whether climate change entails the moderately small, low impact solutions currently established by the Australian government, or whether it requires more far-reaching action which calls for a more severely limited style of living. Because our current ecological situation is unprecedented, there is no absolutely certain knowledge about the consequences of climate change. However, it is at least possible, perhaps probable, that climate change requires us to make significant changes in our way of life which go much further than turning off unused lights and purchasing carbon credits.

A prudent and cautious response to climate change might involve seeking a far more extensive reduction in domestic and personal use of electricity, petrol, air travel and so forth, as well as tackling the social, economic and political questions relating to industrial and commercial carbon emissions.

One of the difficulties is that some real tensions exist between ecology and economics, at least in the present model of economics. Ecology tells us that the Earth has a finite amount of resources (such as fossil fuel), a finite amount of space and a finite ability to deal with carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, against that, our economic system affirms that constant growth is a necessary and desirable course.

The Church is perhaps in a rather strong position, relative to some other parts of Western society, to address the complex questions related to climate change. One resource available to it is the type of kenotic theology advocated by Sallie McFague. The self-emptying of God in creation and in the event of the Incarnation, and the limitation of self which is expressed in the life and death of Jesus Christ is something which invites, perhaps impels, an ethic which is willing to consider intentionally restricting aspects of the Western style of living in order to respond to the challenge of climate change.


  1. David J. Tacey, Re-Enchantment: The New Australian Spirituality. (Sydney: Harper Collins, 2000), 162.
  2. Clifford Chalmers Cain, An Ecological Theology: Reunderstanding Our Relation to Nature. Vol. 98, Toronto Studies in Theology (Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2009), 15.
  3. Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation, The Gifford Lectures 1984-1985. (London: SCM, 1985), xi.
  4. Ernst M. Conradie, Christianity and Ecological Theology: Resources for Further Research (Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2006), 3-4.
  5. Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).
  6. Ibid. 135.

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