[This lecture was first given at Canadian Mennonite University on November 13th, 2019. A video version can be found here

In 1609 the English poet John Donne wrote a poem that began with the question: What if this present were the world’s last night? The poem confronts us with the metaphysical possibility that any moment might be the moment when we experience the annulment of historical time and confront the eternal judgment of God.

On 16 March 2012, using that line as her title, Mary Robinson, a leading climate activist, former President of Ireland and later United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivered the annual John Donne lecture for Hertford College at the University of Oxford. “If we do not take action”, she said in conclusion, “we could, indeed, be facing into the world’s last night”.

Yet despite her obvious respect for the great poet who gave her the title for her lecture, Robinson finds that Donne cannot help her with the problem of climate change since “we must bear in mind that he was a product of his time”.1 She does not think that a long dead poet has anything helpful to say about the future. And that is where Robinson makes a fatal mistake and that mistake will lead us into the four concepts in political theology that I want to discuss this evening. For as Bruno Latour at the Paris Institute of Political Studies puts it “the outdated values of the past might be our last chance to have a future”.2 

Part One: How To Talk About Climate Change in the Church

Before turning to those points, however, let me offer an overview of the problem in a theological context that preachers might find useful. The May/June issue of MIT Technology Review bears the title “Welcome to Climate Change”. The editor tells us that the problem of climate change has no technological solution that can rescue us from our “political stupidity” and that, consequently, as the cover of the journal announces, because we are losing the battle to mitigate the catastrophic magnitude of climate change, we must turn our attention to adaptation and suffering.

Mitigation, adaptation, suffering. Since the number “three” is the preacher’s best friend, let us roughly map those three ideas onto the three theological virtues of faith, love, and hope.3 This might help us to get to grips with the question: in the Church, how should we talk about climate change?

A. Faith and Mitigation

The question of mitigation encourages the preacher to ask what it is that needs to be mitigated. If faith in Jesus Christ is the gift that allows us to prove “realities that cannot be seen” (Heb. 11.1), then what does faith know of creation and its climate? To whom do they belong? How are they to be understood and how do they dictate that we must live? What has God to do with the climate? In the coming decades the Church is going to be sorely pressed by increasingly panic-stricken authoritarian governments to compromise her commitment to Jesus Christ. We will do well to remember the first article of the Barmen Declaration written in Germany in May, 1934: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”4 Whatever the Church does or says about climate change must be rooted in authentic faith in Jesus Christ as the incarnation of the eternal logos of God. Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.

B. Love and Adaptation

If faith seeks to understand the hidden realities beneath the surface of human affairs, love is its outworking in the practical agency of women and men who serve humanity in acts of mercy and political wisdom. Here the Church must provide all assistance to the many organizations, agencies, and individuals who are teaching us how to adapt our ways of life to an increasingly hostile climate on a planet of limited resources. It requires us to make deeper and more practical commitments to our neighbourhoods since our quality of life over the next several decades will depend on how much we are willing to sacrifice for the common good. Especially the Church must afford the maximum amount of encouragement to the young people who are courageously and eloquently attempting to change the direction in which we are headed.

C. Hope and Suffering

In every age, the question of human suffering raises the question of what it is we can hope for and what our hope is founded on. Christian hope is not optimism and is therefore also immune to pessimism. It is rooted neither in fearful anticipation nor in undisciplined desire. It is founded rather upon the promises of God vouchsafed to humankind in the bodily resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. Christians await not the end of history but rather the judgment of God and the renewal of this material creation. And here I will close this introductory section with a quotation from the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton:

It may well be the case that the stock exchange, along with cancer research, mortgage applications and beginners’ lessons in Ancient Greek, would collapse were we to know that the world was about to end, but … [philosophers pay] too little heed to the positive aspects of such a catastrophe. The historical document which most famously claims that the world is fast approaching its finale is the New Testament, but in its view the ethical implications of this belief are very different from having the stuffing knocked out of one’s sense of value.

Really? Is that really true? Preachers and pastors will need the support of institutions like Canadian Mennonite University if they are to take the New Testament that seriously. Eagleton continues:

… viewing the world in the light of Judgement Day is what allows true value to become manifest. Since there is not time to engage in property deals or the marriage market, to decimate the rainforests or invade other nations’ territories, all that matters is friendship and righteousness. The vision of the end of history liberates the self from the tyranny of temporality…. eternity is … here and now, … in contrast to the conventional misconception … that what is at stake for religious faith is … a limitless ‘afterlife’…. The central Christian event is not survival but resurrection…5 

Part Two: Climate Change and Conservative Canadian Political Theology

I want to turn now to four ideas that were once central to a long forgotten Canadian conservative tradition of political theology, four ideas that might still be useful to the Church in this present crisis as by faith it tries to understand what we are facing. These ideas I offer as nothing more than a small indication of the kind of work that biblical scholars and theologians might lead us in for the years ahead. These ideas might free your imagination to consider how we might live differently into the future, whatever that future may turn out to be. I hope they don’t just irritate you. This older Canadian tradition once stood prophetically against the right-wing economic liberalism of American republicanism, mistakenly called conservatism, just as it also stood against the hyper-aggressive individualism of American left-leaning social liberalism. This tradition never stood a chance to survive in the shadow of a great and prosperous empire, but as George Grant once said, “the losers existed and they are worth reading now that we see what kind of society the winners have made”.6

The four ideas I want to sketch for you tonight are as follows: First, for this older tradition of political thought the past was valued over progress. Secondly, government intervention was trusted more to protect the common good than the free market solutions of classical economics. Thirdly, in general the commons were valued over private ownership. Fourthly, in particular the common ownership of land was normative and its private ownership was not.

First, we begin with the past versus the ideology of progress.

In 1958 the conservative Canadian political philosopher, George Grant, delivered a series of lectures for CBC radio later published under the title Philosophy in the Mass Age. In lecture six on “The Limits of Progress” he said, “The question must be in any intelligent mind whether man’s domination of nature can lead to the end of human life on the planet … perhaps by the slow perversion of the processes of life.”7 

Grant held that the Canadian spirit was guided by two fundamental conservative convictions, the first of which was that the past must guide us on our way into the future. But, he argued, the progressive spirit of a technological capitalist society precludes such guidance. The ideology of progress is blinding us because if we are closing in on the pinnacle of human social advancement, then the next best idea that we need must necessarily be ahead not behind us. 

By contrast, Grant does not believe that essential political concepts evolve over time. Moderns think so, but that is a modern idea. It is perhaps the only modern idea, but it did not slowly evolve over time and it is mistaken. In some complicated philosophical sense that I do not entirely grasp, the notion that our ideas are better than those of the ancients is, according to Grant, a mental straitjacket imposed on political theory by a technological society. I can, however, give you an example. Mary Robinson claimed in her lecture that John Donne cannot help us to understand how to respond to climate change because he was a product of his age. By calling a dead poet a “product” of his age she declares herself to be a liberal thinker mired in late modern capitalism – a great poet and preacher is merely a product, a unit of production. More to the point she implies that we can understand Donne better than he understood himself, that our perspective relativizes his, that we have progressed beyond that age and place to a universal perspective more true, better informed, broader in outlook than anything Donne could ever have imagined. Furthermore, she claims, modern medicine means that we do not have the same anxiety about early and unpredictable personal death that so constantly vexed Donne and, since the poet’s personal death is what the poem is really about according to Robinson, the title notwithstanding, he can offer no wisdom for us moderns on the death of the world.

But there is a double irony here. Robinson wants to talk about the possible universal death of humanity and that is what the first line of the poem announces. Furthermore, thinking about that universal death will indeed cause a lot of personal agony about our own personal suffering and death. Well, as she says, the rest of Donne’s poem is about just that sort of existential urgency. The climate activist and the 17th century preacher here are talking about the same things. If they place the emphasis in different places, that perhaps would have been worth thinking about.8 Maybe Donne’s meditation rooted in centuries of Christian practice has something to offer Robinson’s rather thin philosophical view. I have much respect for Mary Robinson but must point out that we are still reading John Donne after all these centuries, and Mary Robinson once gave a lecture in Oxford that you’ve never heard of.

According to Grant, this is exactly the problem of moderns: we do not know how to access the wisdom of the past, and the results have been devastating. For example, he argues, although war has always been a part of the human experience, modern men have been exceptionally violent and this is in part because we think that we are progressing toward a higher morality and so must deceive ourselves. We bear the terrible burden of being right and the right must be protected no matter the cost. We live on the right side of the Enlightenment. We are more liberal, more democratic, freer and more affluent, more compassionate. Unable to admit that the way forward might be the way back, we may have progressed ourselves all the way to “the eve of destruction.”9 How did this happen?

Modern liberalism, in Grant’s view, in many ways began with the conquest of the North American continent, and he believed that it had reached some sort of full self-revelation in the War in Vietnam. Grant was disgusted with a Canadian government that refused to support the war in public while in private encouraging Canadian businesses to profit from it. He was a pacifist. He joined student protesters in the streets. He wrote an article explaining the ethical value of public demonstrations.10  In his mind liberalism was as lethal as it was progressive and had to be because it was rooted in a tradition of domination. This point has been made more recently and with careful documentation by John Grenier, professor of history at the U.S. Air Force Academy. As he makes clear in his book The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, war waged against Indian noncombatants and agricultural resources came to define the way America fought her wars. Our battle with and then mastery of the land and its original inhabitants, often heroic but too often also vicious and uncivilized, has, Grant would say, left its mark on us.

Lethal and compassionate, unbelievably prosperous and desperately short sighted – the marks of liberal modernity. Grant knew how politically difficult this was. After all, the myth of progress did have roots in the biblical world view and the unquenchable thirst for ever greater affluence was driven by a biblical compassion: more wealth meant better health care, higher education, and more freedom (which Grant believed was the essence of liberal political doctrine) of individual self-expression – even if that required of Canadians a degree of affluence that could only be sustained by assimilation into the continental economy of empire and the consequent loss of national independence.

So, while the ineludible juggernaut of progress continued on into an ill-defined but unsustainable future, Grant continued his study of the ancients. What lessons from the past most interested Grant? He had gone to Oxford during the Second World War and would return there after the war to complete his D.Phil. in theology. He came under the influence of C.S. Lewis, a scholar of English literature who, believing that ancient books should be preferred over modern ones, had said that “We all … need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.” Otherwise, he noted, young readers will be like the person who joins at eleven o’clock a conversation that began at eight and cannot understand what the fuss is about.11 The thing Lewis wrote that came most to define Grant’s perspective is found in Lewis’s famous book, Mere Christianity. Lewis writes:

the New Testament … gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like…. a Christian society would be … Leftist…. If there is such a society in existence … we should feel that its economic life was very socialistic … but that its family life and code of manners were rather old-fashioned – perhaps even ceremonious and aristocratic.

Furthermore, he asserts, with respect to lending money at interest, the ancient Greeks, the Old Testament Jews, and “the great teachers of the Middle Ages” all forbade it and this, he says, modernity “has completely disobeyed.”12

Grant must have taken this to heart. He returned to Canada, became a member of the Conservative Party and sometimes wrote for and campaigned on behalf of the NDP. As he put it in his 1969 book, Technology and Empire, “capitalism was the great dissolvent of the traditional virtues … [it] dissolved all ideas of the sacred” and it is, Grant says, “destructive of all indigenous traditions.”13 For Grant, tradition is our way to stay connected with older ways of life that still offer political wisdom for those seeking a sustainable way of life. But few Canadians or Americans wanted to listen. As the contemporary Spanish novelist Javier Marías puts it in his sprawling masterpiece Your Face Tomorrow:

People detest the past … The present era is so proud that it has produced a phenomenon which I imagine to be unprecedented: the present’s resentment of the past, resentment because the past had the audacity to happen without us being there… and even worse, without our gaining any advantage from it … the arrogance of our times has reached such proportions that it cannot admit the idea, that things were better before.14 

But remember that Grant had said that the Canadian spirit had a twofold conservative inspiration. Grant believed that what marked the original Canadian experience over against the American was the conviction that public order, law, and authority should be used to curb excessive individualism and unregulated capitalism in order to protect and promote the common good. This separated him from Lewis who seems not to have been interested in political theology believing, I suspect, that personal conversion and morality lay at the heart of a just and liberal society. (I don’t otherwise know how to explain the fact that so many right leaning liberals in the American evangelical party, fighting the culture wars under the flag of right-wing Republicanism and mistakenly believing that they are conservatives, could have forgiven Lewis for what he said about Christian socialism.) But when Grant returned to Canada he had to come to terms with an older conservative tradition lost in Britain but still alive in his home and native land. This relates to the climate emergency because it reminds us that there once was a Canadian conservative tradition that argued that only national governments have the ability to promote the common good and that market-place solutions for major social problems cannot work.

Let us make a present-day comparison. In his major work, Political Theology and Climate Change, the English theologian Michael Northcott makes the following argument:

The creation of markets in carbon emissions trading reflects neoliberal prejudice against laws and taxes as means to modifying the behaviours of consumers and corporations; it also reflects the neoliberal description of the ideal society as one in which individuals realise their own good through maximal preference satisfaction via rational choice behaviours in competitive markets, rather than through cooperative and caring behaviours in families, neighbourhoods, cities, and nations.

In this stinging indictment, Northcott goes on to claim that most international climate agreements are anti-political instruments that remove the carbon problem from the realm of face-to-face debate “in parliaments, law courts, local and community councils, churches, neighbourhoods, and households”. Instead, he says, the neo-liberal ideal is to keep ordinary people from understanding excessively convoluted “autonomous mechanical markets” in carbon trading, leaving them open to corruption.15

Northcott has a predecessor for this view in the great Canadian humorist, Stephen Leacock. Between 1915 and 1925 Leacock was the best known English-speaking humorist in the world, known above all for his books Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and Arcadian Adventures With the Idle Rich, perhaps the only book by a western conservative ever officially published in the Soviet Union. Leacock held some controversial views that are indefensible and where Grant’s academic work seems brilliant but incomplete, Leacock’s is complete but superficial. But critics of Leacock might admit as they do in Grant’s case, that where both men are at their most prophetic, their prescience has proven to be breathtaking. 

Leacock was the long-time chair of the Department of Economics and Political Science at McGill. Like Grant, he was a high church Anglican. In politics he was a member of the Conservative Party, and a friend of the Conservative Prime Minister, R.B. Bennett. Like Grant he believed that a healthy community needed strong civic institutions and a strong central government. Leacock wrote two books that are especially prophetic. In 1920 in the wake of the Winnipeg General Strike he made a conservative case for a moderate welfare state in his book The Riddle of Social Justice and updated that argument in a book published in 1945, one year after his death. That book carries the ominous title While There Is Time: The Cure for Social Catastrophe.

In the first book Leacock argues that the invisible hand of the market does not, because it cannot, promote social justice. Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Malthus are spouting nonsense and promoting cruelty when they maintain that it does. The plight of the working class, he argues, has not improved because of the general increase in social wealth generated by capitalism. It has improved because of unions and it will continue to improve only if western governments will support unions and intervene in the marketplace to ensure that every one that wants to work will have work. The marketplace, contrary to classical economics, will only ever generate an unjust wage and an unjust price. He also has Thomas Jefferson in his sights. The “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of the Declaration of Independence is fundamentally different than the “peace, order, and good government” of the British North America Act and that difference resides at the heart of traditional Red Tory conservatism. This Commonwealth affirmation offers a thick description of a flourishing human collective over against the individualistic liberal universalism of the American alternative, whether left or right.

Although Leacock does not have the same ecological concerns as Grant does, his focus on the underlying question of economic justice is relevant. He argues that if unfettered free market capitalism is not checked by western governments, if the American experiment becomes universal, then we will have been engaged in a slow march toward the abyss of social catastrophe, what he called a “slow strangulation in a morass.”16 And this was not said for rhetorical effect. As far as I can tell, he really was worried about where the America commitment to liberty was taking us. The marketplace simply will not protect ordinary people. It cares not for their welfare. The idle rich ought to be made to do hard honest work. Taxation, Leacock insisted with gusto, is an awesome power and a great instrument for justice. In short, if not controlled by government, capitalism must necessarily lead to social consequences that no sane person should want to think about. To repeat what Grant would later say: “capitalism … dissolved all ideas of the sacred” and is “destructive of all indigenous traditions”. The agreement amongst Canadian conservatives in that better time, before conservatism was highjacked by right-wing and libertarian liberalism, was that a relatively free market was an enormous benefit to humanity when and only when national governments were willing to direct its outcomes toward the common good, otherwise it was bound to be insanely creative, energetic, and utterly amoral with catastrophically immoral and insane consequences.17 

My suggestion is merely this: Northcott’s point that national governments must pass legislation to keep fossil fuel in the ground is entirely consistent with the original Canadian conservative tradition that maintained that ordinary Canadians should never trust the marketplace to look after their best interests. The strong get stronger, Leacock insisted, the weak get sent to the wall. The government of Canada, if Grant and Leacock are right, has no business protecting, subsidizing, and providing infrastructure support for the fossil fuel industry if it conflicts with the common good. Laws and taxes, shout Grant and Leacock, never forget about the public necessity of laws and taxes. “Public control”, Grant argued, “in the political and economic spheres…” is crucially important because “no small country can depend for its existence on the loyalty of its capitalists”. Capital necessarily migrates to the centre of empire. Power attracts wealth.18  To survive as Canadians, argues Grant, even to survive as humanity requires either a socialist or a conservative social policy that wisely restricts individual freedom for the sake of the general good. By the 1960s he had gloomily concluded that such restriction will itself appear to be disastrous, but that without it we will be forced to think the unthinkable. I think at the end of his life Grant had come to the view that we either had to shut down Toronto, so to speak, or we would wake up to discover that something beyond our control was about to shut down the planet. The issue is starkly posed again by novelist Javier Marías. Speaking of a corrupt South American government, one of his characters says: but then what government isn’t a thieving government, “they handle far too much money and are more like businesses than governments, and businessmen want their profits.”19 This is the conservative/socialist Canadian nightmare: that the government that was to protect us from necessary but necessarily amoral commercial interests had itself become a profit centre with an enormous stake in the fossil fuel industry.

So, this Canadian tradition of conservative political theology valued the past over progress and government intervention over an unregulated marketplace. They also valued the commons over the privately owned.

In 1984 the Canadian scholar Joan Lockwood O’Donovan published her Ph.D. thesis under the title, George Grant and the Twilight of Justice. At several points in the book she notes Grant’s anxiety about what was happening to the natural environment. In an essay of her own published originally in 1998 in Modern Theology, “Christian Platonism and Non-proprietary Community”, she made reference to what she called “the gathering clouds of ecological disaster”.20 

Leaning on Joan O’Donovan’s work, Michael Northcott believes that Christians, after the Middle Ages, lost their sense that nature had something akin to a soul. If it is merely a thing, then everything on it and in it is available for human consumption. “[T]hen the metaphysical ground is laid for the subsequent recovery of the Roman … account of absolute ownership and the rise of private property as the dominant institution in human-nature relations after the Reformation”. According to John Locke the land can only be redeemed from the curse of original sin by being made productive and land is most productive when privately owned and not when, for example, indigenous people “use land in common property regimes”. By contrast, Northcott argues, for the Hebrews “God had conferred creation on all persons”.21 

For her part, O’Donovan notes that in 1329 Pope John XXII proposed that from the moment of creation humanity had full ownership of earthly goods in the same way that God had ownership of these goods. Prior to this, Christians had believed that ownership of earthly goods was a remedial institution only, meaning that it was allowed as the result of the fall into sin in the same way that the state was authorised to use coercive force in order to restrict the evil use of force. Both were known to participate in the evil they were intended to curtail. Thus they were both relative institutions governed in practice by Christ’s counsels of perfection. In short, overturning this prior consensus, this papal move resulted in an alienating transfer of lordship from God the creator to man the manipulator. Bonaventure and John Wyclif both, Lockwood argues, resisted this papal move. “They considered humankind’s natural and Christological lordship over the rest of creation to be primarily one of contemplative enjoyment rather than creative work, of losing our wills in delight at the non-human creation rather than of imposing them in the physical transformation of nature through labour and technology”. Wyclif did not even like the word stewardship with respect to the natural world because he thought it attributed too much initiative to a humanity that could not be trusted with it. 

To give another example, in the ancient church when Gregory of Nyssa mounted his argument against slavery, he said that since in buying a slave one has to buy all his or her possessions, therefore no one, absolutely no one can afford to do so because every human being owns the whole of creation.

Yet another example, on the other side of Pope John’s decree: at the time of the English Reformation, William Tyndale, the great bible translator who was burned at the stake during the reign of Henry VIII, a preacher who was horrified at the way poor people were being driven from the land because of enclosures and inflationary rents, made this same point. The doctrine of justification by grace alone only makes sense, he argues, because in Jesus Christ “all plenteousness of God” is to be found. Christ wants nothing of ours for he needs nothing of ours and even our faith is not a human mental performance. Christ is all sufficient and from that overflowing and absolute, endless perfection of love comes a grace without let or hindrance. Our good works have nowhere to go, therefore, unless they go to our neighbour, for Christ has no need of them, and not only must our good works include the giving of good work to those who have no work, our works of mercy must even be extended to the infidels because “they have as good right in thy goods as thou thyself” because “ love maketh all things common”.22 This politics of grace was what Rowan Williams calls Tyndale’s vision for “a fully co-operative society”.23 

In making some room for a highly qualified doctrine of private ownership, the ancient Christians made a distinction between divisible and indivisible goods. Divisible goods are things like food, clothing, and housing. Indivisible goods include sunshine, wind, and rain. In the High Middle Ages, it was still the case that the management of divisible goods was modelled on the use of the non-divisible goods. In modernity, Northcott points out, we attempt to model access rights and use rights of shared goods like climate, oceans, and rivers on the property ownership model of divisible goods. We still have the same basic concepts in play but we have reversed the order of priority. Like the European enclosures and the conquest of the Americas, modernity’s assault on the air we breathe, the skies we look at, and the atmosphere we depend upon is theft and murder, as Tyndale would say.

This deification of private property was aided by an even earlier decision set out in the Condemnations of Paris in 1277. The Bishop of that city with archiepiscopal support from Canterbury made a series of pronouncements that significantly changed the direction of western history.24 In short, the view of St. Thomas Aquinas that creation was an ordered and coherent whole because it somehow originated in and was disclosive of the mind of God (and thus was a fitting subject for human contemplation) was overturned. Arguing that God’s will was the source of creation, not God’s mind, and that that will was absolute and arbitrary, the Condemnations at least created room for the notion that the created order itself is not really ordered but arbitrary. And if God can arbitrarily act on an arbitrarily ordered creation, why can’t humans? This is a long and disputed story but it seems, according to some theologians, that suddenly there were two views of creation available and one of them entailed the notion that we no longer had to think and live within the boundaries of an ordered spiritual universe, but were free to experiment with and manipulate a more or less random natural world. Add that to belief in an absolute human right to private property and it would seem that God has been largely relegated to the bleachers and freedom elevated above order, the essential mark of the modern liberal ideal.25 

But the older view held that private property was limited to divisible things and was a remedial institution at best. I turn now, as my fourth of these concepts in political theology, to the question as to whether land is a divisible or an indivisible reality. Sounding themes that occupied Grant, Oliver O’Donovan, another theologian conversant with this Canadian conservative tradition, made this melancholy assertion in the introduction to his Bampton Lectures delivered in 2003 in Oxford: we must face, he said, “the evidence of long-term ecological crisis. The master-narrative that was to have delivered us the crown of civilization has delivered us insuperable dangers”.26

Part of the ecological crisis is, to quote the title of another of his essays, The Loss of a Sense of Place. In this paper Oliver O’Donovan points out that land is a composite reality. If you say that land can be privately owned have you said something about the land or have you said something about the nature of private ownership? You can exclude the public from the land that you privately own, but you cannot exclude the land that you privately own from the public, as your land is that place through and around which the rest of the human community must pass no matter who owns it. He writes, “to view land as a convertible resource is to ignore the primordial relationship which any human community has to its physical environment. By focusing exclusively on the productive relationship, the economic analysis carries political thought to a dangerous level of abstraction”.27

For those wanting a better understanding of the problem of land ownership, O’Donovan recommends Deloria and Lytle, The Nation Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty. Most of us have become accustomed to thinking that many of these ancient and medieval concerns about private property, the common ownership of land, the evils of usury, and, yes, even the evils of mining are all ideals from the past that have long since been superseded. But the worst use of this idea of private ownership of land does not come into focus in Europe until the eighteenth century and, O’Donovan seems to suggest, it is still a legitimately open question today for many aboriginal thinkers and communities.

Much more needs to be said about O’Donovan’s argument that a concrete Biblical universalism can offer a conceptual bulwark against the abstract universalism that Christian theology and contemporary globalism often fall into (against the concrete nativism that lured so many thinkers into fascism in the Twentieth Century, and is now leading so many citizens into new forms of authoritarianism). But I want to finish this talk by briefly connecting the idea of land with the idea of homelessness in the work of Simone Weil, the Jewish-Catholic mystic who had such a deep impact on George Grant; and of Hannah Arendt, a Jewish women who twice barely escaped the German authorities just before and at the outset of the Second World War.

Writing for the Free French Resistance toward the end of her life in 1943, Simone Weil predicted that the American continent would become the source of great danger for the rest of the world. The American continent was a society based on conquest, where rootless European adventurers had dislocated and uprooted the peoples they conquered. “Conquests”, she wrote, “are not of life, they are of death…. It is the distillation from the living past which should be jealously preserved”. Rootlessness, she argued, “is by far the most dangerous malady to which human societies are exposed…”28

Climate change is already driving the greatest movement of human populations ever known in human history. Already almost one in every one-hundred people on the planet has suffered some kind of traumatic dislocation from their homes and homelands. That number will continue to grow. Hannah Arendt, in her ground-breaking book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was already warning us in the 1950’s that “totalitarian propaganda and … institutions” will take advantage of mass homelessness. Further, she says, the threat of mass unemployment will make us accustomed to a population policy that will lend legitimacy to “the regular elimination of surplus people”.29 

I must confess that near the beginning of this talk I mentioned the Barmen Declaration of faith with Arendt’s chilling prediction in my mind. I did so because in the midst of all the important work that synagogues, churches, and other faith communities have ahead of them, one reality must always be borne in mind.  That is the fate right now of those who suffer most because of our unwillingness to give up the affluence that comes from burning coal. The churches cannot afford to assume that governments that so far have been unwilling to intervene directly and vigorously in the marketplace to stop carbon emissions will be predisposed to offer real help and assistance to climate refugees. The churches, therefore, should prepare now for increasing tension between church and state. Perhaps future historians, and I assume there will be a future for historians, will look back on this period in human history and say that the rise of authoritarianism at the opening of the 21st century was not merely coincident with but was in fact our first early response to climate related mass flight. Governments are already starting to make decisions about how they will manage their borders. Do the churches know where they stand? Have they taken the full measure of this crisis? Do they know what could happen? The 20th century gave us the playbook for a new, previously undreamt-of political concept – totalitarianism. Will the 21st C. decide to use it? Arendt thought it likely.

I will end with one of Arendt’s characteristically wistful comments. What she says used to be true for people is still in my view, for believing Jews and Christians, a possibility. “[T]he worst have lost their fear and the best have lost their hope” just because, she says, they have lost their faith in a Last Judgment. And what is the Last Judgment? It is, she says, “the idea of an absolute standard of justice combined with the infinite possibility of grace”.30 

Justice and grace are the ground of our hope. We may tremble upon the rock, but the rock will never tremble under us; Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.

  1. https://www.hertford.ox.ac.uk/alumni/hertford-today/john-donne-lectures/mary-robinson.
  2. From the reviews of Michael Northcott’s A Political Theology of Climate Change.
  3. For a penetrating discussion of the theological virtues see Oliver O’Donovan, “The Trajectory of Faith, Love, and Hope” in Ethics as Theology: Volume One: Self, World, and Time, 105.
  4. Quoted in Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, ed. Clifford Green, 149.
  5. Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice, 72.
  6. George Grant, Technology and Empire, 67.
  7. George Grant, Philosophy in the Mass Age, 71.
  8. Donne’s argument is put to better use in an essay by C.S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night” in a collection of essays gathered under that title and originally published in 1952 as “The Christian Hope – Its Meaning for Today”.
  9. Readers of a certain age will recall this song from 1965 release by Barry McGuire.
  10. “… even if you can’t change events. We must keep alive in our society the recognition that there is a difference between lies and truth” in “The Value of Protest”, The George Grant Reader, ed. William Christian and Sheila Grant, 94.
  11. See Lewis’s introduction to St. Athanasius on the Incarnation, 4.
  12. See the section on “Social Morality” in Mere Christianity. For a helpful orientation that notes that unlike Lewis, Grant was not content to leave political theology at such a level of general good will and philanthropy as to play into the hands of a liberal republicanism, see “C.S. Lewis and George Grant: A Tale of Two Anglican Tories”, in Ron Dart, The North American High Tory Tradition, 107-128.
  13. Grant, Technology and Empire, 86 f.
  14. Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear, 242 f.
  15. Northcott, 122. This intentional, anti-political mystification is a defining feature of the digital age. Joining their opposition to government regulation, Google’s grant-making operation has thrown its weight behind several climate-change denial organizations (Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, 126).
  16. The Collected Works of Stephen Leacock, Kindle Edition, Location 24771.
  17. For recent statements from within left leaning American liberalism that spell out how socially untethered, rogue capitalism has brought us to what Leacock called the “abyss”, see Rachel Maddow, Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry On Earth (although like most American liberal idealists Maddow seems tone deaf to Russia’s legitimate security concerns) and Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, which, in chilling detail, gives life to Grant’s claim that human nature itself, like the natural world, would one day come under threat (although here the reader should be aware that Zuboff’s progressive liberal perspective would hardly please Grant and would not entirely persuade Leacock).
  18. Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, 69, 68.
  19. Marías, 199.
  20. The Bonds of Imperfection: Christian Politics, Past and Present, 77.
  21. A Political Theology of Climate Change, 138-141.
  22. Quoted in Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities, 12, 15.
  23. Anglican Identities, 16.
  24. For a full discussion of this topic see John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People and for its relevance in Christian ethics see Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics.
  25. As Grant put it in Lament for a Nation, “Such a society cannot take seriously the conception of an eternal order by which human actions are measured and defined” and without that eternal order conservatism itself becomes nothing but romanticized chauvinism and defence of property rights, 71.
  26. The Ways of Judgment, xii.
  27. Bonds of Imperfection, 304.
  28. The Need for Roots, 48, 45.
  29. The Origins of Totalitarianism, 437. I think that Arendt’s great book will or should become a critical resource for the churches as the climate emergency deepens. Its profound realism about what we face cannot be overvalued.
  30. The Origins of Totalitarianism, 446 f.

David Widdicombe has been rector at St. Margaret's Church in Winnipeg, Canada, since 1992. He studied at the University of Manitoba and the Vancouver School of Theology, and received a D.Phil. in theology from Oxford University.