Publisher: Fortress Press
Publishing Date: February 22, 2022
“We have been seduced by consumerism, unrestrained capitalism, and individualism—a modern-day unholy trinity. There is a beast at work in the world, that we turn to for blessing.” Rev. Jon Swales
Last month I participated in an online course about climate justice.1 Jon Swales, one of the presenters, made the above comment during a discussion. It was startling to hear, and I have thought of it often in the weeks since. Climate change disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable people on this planet—the people who contribute least to the problem. Already, millions of people worldwide have been displaced due to climate-related events,2 and the Institute for Economics & Peace projects that by 2050, a billion or more people may be displaced by ecological disasters and related issues (e.g. food insecurity and water scarcity).3 Many people in our world are deeply concerned about ecological issues. Yet relatively few North American evangelical Christians seem concerned, and some even deny that there is an issue. Why?
“Climate change disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable people on this planet—the people who contribute least to the problem.”
As I participated in the climate justice course, I thought about Debra Rienstra’s 4 book Refugia Faith, which I read several months ago. In her book, Rienstra takes a clear-eyed look at the ecological moment in which we find ourselves. She shares sobering statistics about the state of our world (e.g. rates of species extinction that threaten ecosystem collapse) and she addresses the question of how Christians ought to respond to climate concerns.
Rienstra uses the metaphor of refugia throughout her book. Refugia are “little pockets of safety”5 in which species survive in the midst of great devastation. An example shared in the introduction is the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980; because of small areas where refugia were found (for example, under logs or boulders), plants and animals were able to re-establish themselves more quickly than scientists previously imagined possible. Perhaps, says Rienstra, refugia can be a helpful metaphor for how Christians can approach this damaged and damaging time in history. Refugia are not meant to be places in which to hide away forever. “Refugia are places to find shelter—but only for a time. More importantly, refugia are places to begin, places where the tender and harrowing work of reconstruction and renewal takes root.”6
“…refugia are places to begin, places where the tender and harrowing work of reconstruction and renewal takes root.”Debra Rienstra
What I find most helpful in Refugia Faith is an honest look at some of the unhelpful ways we Christians sometimes respond (or, more often, fail to respond) to the looming problem of climate change. Rienstra lists seven responses, each one a separate chapter in the book:
- 1. Despair. Facing what we humans have done—to this world and to each other—can tempt us to despair, a response which is often rooted in fear and grief. In many ways, injustices of the past have contributed to the comfortable lifestyles most of us live, adding to the burden.
- 2. Alienation. Our alienation from the non-human creation stems from (and leads to) ignorance and arrogance.7
- 3. Consumption. Rienstra comments that neoclassical economics “correctly acknowledges people’s basic selfishness, but it also underestimates the voracious hunger of greed.”8 Consumerism and unrestrained capitalism, two of the unholy trinity mentioned by Swales, lead us to buy and consume heedlessly, generating massive amounts of waste during production, use and disposal.9 Sometimes Christians have minimized the impact of our actions, claiming that God would not allow us to destroy the earth. This downplays and even denies our responsibility. Besides, as Rienstra writes, “I…note from the evidence that God allows people a great deal of freedom to do evil and ruinous things.”10
- 4. Avoidance. This is a natural but unhealthy response to bad news.
- 5. Resignation. If you believe that this world is doomed anyway, why bother to take care of it? This can be the result of poor theology.11
- 6. Passivity. Often we are content to wait for someone else to try and fix things.
- 7. Indifference. In this and the previous responses, individualism plays a role. For example, Rienstra writes about how we have culturally over-individualised faith, which “reduces sin to individual missteps and thus provides convenient cover for all kinds of sinful systems. We need never question systems so long as we can claim our personal ‘sin cancelled’ stamp.”12
For each of these responses, Rienstra suggests how we might more faithfully respond to climate change and ecological degradation:
- 1. Preparation instead of despair. Preparing for and adapting to change is difficult and painful, but necessary.
- 2. Kinship instead of alienation. Rather than viewing the non-human creation as just the backdrop for humans’ lives, or as resources to be used as we please, we ought to view other members of the biosphere as “fellow beings in the household of creation.”13
- 3. Healing instead of (over)consumption. The world is out of balance. If we carefully work together, we can take small but significant steps toward helping it heal.
- 4. Lamentation instead of avoidance. “Lament simply allows grief some space. Lament allows us to ask why, feel our sorrow, and sit with the lack of answers. In this way, lament binds us together, reminding us that when one member of the group suffers, the rest should carry that suffering, too.”14
- 5. Gratitude instead of resignation. God is at work renewing this world. When we give thanks for blessings little and big, when we look for signs of renewal and work toward them, we practice gratitude and awaken joy.
- 6. Citizenship instead of passivity. We are made in the image of God, which means (among other things) that we have moral responsibility. We need to cooperate and collaborate in order to exercise that responsibility well.
- 7. Attention instead of indifference. Paying attention is a way to stay awake to the wonders in this beautiful but broken world.
Refugia Faith is a well-written and engaging book. While I did not agree with every argument or idea in this book, I do agree with Rienstra’s overall message. I have returned many times to some of the concepts since reading Refugia Faith several months ago. Rienstra is a professor of English. She clearly loves words, and wants to ensure that the words we use communicate concepts appropriately. I found this aspect of the book quite interesting, and I agree with many of the distinctions she suggests. For example, she suggests that, rather than ‘earth keeping,’ the term ‘earth healing’ might better reflect our task, because the latter better reflects the reality of the way creation groans today.
In other instances, I disagree with Rienstra’s word choice. For example, she deliberately uses the term ‘more-than-human world’ in place of ‘nature.’ I agree with her that “imagining ourselves as entirely distinctive and superior is the old and dangerous slippage at the root of our current crises,”15 and that we need to remember that we are very much a part of creation. However, it is still the case that humans, created in the image of God, have been given a unique role in creation, so instead of ‘more-than-human world’ in place of the word ‘nature,’ I prefer the term ‘non-human creation.’
Sometimes, reconsidering (and potentially changing) the term we use to describe something can help us to see it in a new light. I found this to be true multiple times while reading Refugia Faith. For example, Christians have talked for decades about how we are called to ‘steward’ creation, but a steward is someone who cares for an owner’s property or possessions in his or her absence. Saying that we ‘steward’ creation implies that God is not present; however, Scripture makes clear that God continues to be active in his creation, sustaining it day by day and moment by moment.16
Refugia Faith introduced me to new words coined by Glenn A. Albrecht, to express unique human responses to the non-human creation and to ecological destruction. One such term is psychoterratic, describing the psychological ways humans respond to the places around them. Another is solastalgia, “a ‘melancholia or homesickness’ for the way a place used to be.”17 When we have words to describe our emotions, we can better understand our relationship to the non-human world around us.
“When we have words to describe our emotions, we can better understand our relationship to the non-human world around us.”
If you have complicated thoughts and feelings about climate change—wanting to avoid the topic, feeling helpless or resigned, or struggling with anxiety and despair about this groaning world—I encourage you to read this book. In its pages, you will meet people like Rienstra, people who are unmasking the “unholy trinity” of consumerism, unrestrained capitalism, and individualism. These people describe and demonstrate a better way, one in which we face the facts and mourn what is broken, but in which we together take up the hard and holy work of healing, finding gratitude and joy along the way. Our actions may be small, but that is the nature of refugia. We know from the Bible that God often uses the weak and lowly things of the world to accomplish his purposes.18 Let’s love God, love our neighbors—those next door and across the globe—and love this world of which we are a part. Let’s embrace refugia, for the sake of the world.
For example, see https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/065d18218b654c798ae9f360a626d903 ↩
Refugia Faith, p. 3. ↩
Ibid, p. 5. ↩
Many things contribute to this alienation, including our overuse of digital devices (like phones), our busy schedules, and an unhealthy cultural preoccupation with productivity. ↩
Ibid, p. 88. ↩
Refugia Faith, p. 107. ↩
Rienstra writes, “…bad eschatology can do a world of damage in the present. That is, if you have the wrong ideas about the end of history—the end point and ultimate purpose of all this, all of existence—then you’re likely to be doing the wrong things now too.” (p. 171) ↩
Refugia Faith, p. 71. ↩
Ibid, p. 61. ↩
Ibid, p. 122. ↩
Refugia Faith, p. 59. ↩
A friend suggested that we could use the term ‘co-laborers with the Creator’ instead of ‘stewards.’ ↩
Refugia Faith, p. 129. ↩
1 Corinthians 1:27, 28. ↩