Is there a hell reserved for people who wantonly abuse the environment?
What theological consequences are there for someone who realizes that global warming is killing thousands of people through flooding, droughts that cause famines, landslides, and tornadoes, yet that same person continues to oppose significant curbs on carbon dioxide emissions?
What about the president of an oil company who fights every step of the way against the deal Canada made at the global warming conference in Kyoto, Japan, to reduce emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010 — an opposition based on the perception it would harm company profits from the sale of fossil fuels?
What about the homeowner who buys a gas-guzzling 4X4 sports utility vehicle just to drive around the city?
What about members of federal and provincial governments who plead lack of funds to help support low-polluting passenger and commuter railway services at the same time as their treasuries provide huge tax subsidies to the oil and gas industries so that fuel prices for trucks and cars can be kept low?
A while back, I spoke with Stephen Dunn, professor of Christian ethics and director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. Our subject was salvation, and let me recap a bit of our conversation, because it’s necessary to an understanding of his comments on hell.
Christianity’s great problem, Dunn said, is that historically it has had a concept of God that is separate from nature, a God that is only for humans. This has weakened our sense of the sacred in the natural world, and provided a framework for our use and abuse of the planet.
All of creation is important to God, he said. And it is attending to the well being of all living things that is the pathway to salvation. But salvation is not a final achievement. It is not a result or a reward. It is a process, a constantly evolving fullness in a person’s relationship with the Divine.
« We probably believe in process more than we believe in anything else,« Dunn said in our conversation last week. « For instance, we believe it is better to live in a democratic system than under any other form of government. We believe that democracy offers the greatest opportunities and the best way of life. And democracy is a process.’’
The whole idea of heaven and hell is out of joint with our times. They are the opposite of process, the opposite of evolution. They are static conditions, consequences decreed for all eternity. They are the creations of an age where there was no such thing as democracy.
But if there is no hell, I asked, are there no consequences for malice or greed?
« Of course there are,’’ Dunn replied. « There’s a deliberate distancing in a person’s relationship with the Divine.”
That didn’t seem like much of a disincentive for a person who had wealth and power and felt he was doing quite well without a relationship with the Divine, I said.
Dunn’s response was twofold. « For the person who believes in the Divine Presence, there’s the conviction that, one way or another, the situation will get addressed.’’ But secondly, the route to salvation — attending to the well being of all living things — includes doing what you can to stop the malicious and the greedy.
But how effective is that, I asked? The malicious and the greedy have battalions of lawyers ready to confront do-gooders, and the battalions are a tax-deductible business expense.
Dunn allowed himself a gentle smile. If the malicious and the greedy remain undeterred, he said, then the so-called do-gooders need to be more creative in their opposition.
So, I said, in your definition, being a Christian means being an activist.
« Yes. Each in his or her own way.’’
I’m not a Christian. I’m an atheist. But I have to say that I find Dunn’s vision of Christianity inspiring.