December 14, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, December 14, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Paris climate agreement falls short of biblical teaching on dominion and stewardship
It is known as the Paris Agreement and it was released on Saturday by the group officially known as the Conference of Parties. It’s a group of 195 nations that had been meeting for 13 days in Paris in an attempt to try to create and to agree upon an accord that should address the problem of global warming and climate change.
As Eric J. Lyman reports for USA Today, delegates from 195 countries approved on Saturday an historic climate accord that seeks to slow the rise of greenhouse gases blamed for putting earth on a dangerous warming path. Again, the document is known as the Paris Agreement. It is the result of five sets of grueling negotiations as they are described and as USA Today says,Show Full Transcript
“it seeks to limit rising temperatures to within 2 degrees Celsius or 3.6 Fahrenheit compared to pre-industrial levels through the year 2100.”
That’s not enough, the document goes on to keep the door open, says USA Today, to
“a more ambitious 1.5 degree- or 2.7 degree-Fahrenheit rise in limit sought by some small island nations threatened by rising sea levels, one of many catastrophic consequences, the paper says, of global warming.”
Now, just a step back for a moment, we need to look at this accord and understand what it almost assuredly is and what it equally almost assuredly isn’t. For one thing, even major media such as the New York Times and major European newspapers pointed out that the document is, itself, not adequate to the scale of the problem that the document sites. We’re talking about here a document that seeks to address the issue of climate change but from the very beginning, there is the acknowledgment that the agreement doesn’t go far enough.
Now the number 195 is also important. What does it take to get 195 different nations to sign one accord? Well, it takes several things, a closer look at the actual document will reveal. In the first place, one of the most interesting things is that there was a face off between, at least, three different parties. On the one hand, you had the modern industrialized world represented by the United States and Europe, then you had massively important developing nations such as China and Brazil and India, and then you had what is often referred to as the developing world.
And in this case, the big question was how or what will be required for that third group to join any agreement that would not be paid for by the first group, and eventually, that is what happened. Although a closer look at the document says that’s not exactly what happened.
As Coral Davenport of the New York Times explains in her words,
“The new deal will not, on its own, solve global warming.”
At best, she says,
“Scientists who have analyzed it say it will cut global greenhouse gas emissions by about half enough as is necessarily to stave off an increase in atmospheric temperatures at the very rate the document is trying to avoid.”
One of the details of this agreement released on Saturday is that there is a five year requirement out into the future for all of these countries to come together once again to agree on new goals. The celebration of those who brought about the agreement was very visible on Saturday. As the New York Times said, the deal which was met with an eruption of cheers and ovations from thousands of delegates gathered from around the world, represents what the Times called,
“An historic breakthrough on an issue that has foiled decades of international efforts to address climate change.”
Now, a closer look at that sentence reveals one of the problems. Every time one of these meetings is held, it is generally hailed as the breakthrough and we are told that it should be celebrated as representing an entirely new era. That is known only in retrospect, but there are reasons to believe there is less here than meets the eye.
One of the most interesting things comes down to language. Words really matter. One of the key questions in terms of the United States was whether this document, in one particular section, would use the word “shall” or the word “should.” That’s a crucial difference. “Shall” is, according to international law, a kind of binding statement. In other words, this is something that the nation is going to agree to if it is a signatory to the document. “Should” is more of an aspirational statement. That’s something we hope will happen, but there is no binding authority.
The United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, very much at the center of what was going on in Paris, understood that if the word “shall” were to be used, it would require ratification by the United States Senate, something the Obama administration does not want to confront. Therefore, they used the power and the energy of the United States to change the word “shall” to the word “should.”
But that’s just one example. You multiply that times a 195 different nations and you come to understand how a so-called consensus agreement like this actually doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing even to people who have signed the same document.
Christians looking at the entire process need to keep in mind and always to keep in mind the fact that there are two biblical mandates addressed to us along these lines. The first has to do with a dominion mandate which is unapologetic and it comes very early in Scripture, where we are told, as human beings, that a part of the reason God created us and created us in his image was so that, as his image bearers, we could indeed make a difference in the world around us–we could subdue it, that is the created order and we could use it to the ends for which God has given us.
The biblical worldview simply does not allow the idea that in any sense, human beings themselves are a blight upon the planet. The very sequential nature of the creation account in Genesis tells us that all of this was pointing to the eventual creation by God of the human being in order to exercise this very dominion over the created order. But at the same time, there is a second mandate, and that is the mandate of stewardship which is also plentiful and abundant in Scripture.
Stewardship reminds us that we are not the owners of this garden we call planet earth, but rather we are the inheritors of a stewardship. We are not only to exercise dominion, we are also to exercise a stewardship–that means we understand that we will give an accounting for how we have used and not abused what the Lord has given us in this good creation.
But these two mandates raise a host of issues as related to the current secular controversy about climate change, because even taking the secular conversation at face value, it isn’t clear that there is one way to understand this. There isn’t even one set of facts upon which all persons are agreeing. We should be agreed from a biblical viewpoint that anything that actually leads to an enhancement of stewardship is a good thing, but we also have to understand that a great deal of the ideology invested in some, but not all, of the energy behind this document is one that sees human beings to one degree or another as the problem rather than the solution.
There’s a lot more embedded in this that should have our attention as well. One part of our exercise of dominion is finding new ways to use what God has given us in this creation in ways that are more efficient and lead to even greater human flourishing. There can be no doubt that the industrial revolution and all that it brought with it has brought many good things to humanity.
Millions upon millions of lives have been saved by the very things that have come by the industrial age, by the development of all kinds of new technologies that are driven by the very kind of carbon-emitting energy that now is at the focus of this discussion. If we did not have the industrial revolution–and the industrial revolution was fueled by these fossil fuels–we would not only not have cars and jet airplanes, we wouldn’t have modern antibiotics, we would not have refrigeration. We wouldn’t have many of the things that enhance human flourishing that actually save and extend lives, and we wouldn’t have many of the things that folks in the developing world, by every right, also want for themselves. They want modern medicine. They want a modern economy. They want modern freedoms and they want such goods as refrigeration and mobility in transportation, and those things will not come at this point without dependence upon fossil fuels.
Furthermore, the New York Times was very honest, although they separated the stories by many, many sheets of paper in the print edition. The New York Times was at least honest about the fact that Americans are also amongst those who are still very, very dependent upon fossil fuels and this includes all the people who use those fossil fuels to get themselves to that meeting in Paris.
And the article by Jeff Sommer that appeared in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times points out that Americans are, by the million, celebrating the fact that gasoline is now at $2 a gallon or less. The economic, political, and environmental issues that are implied in this particular story also remind us that we are, in the most advanced economy on earth, still tremendously dependent upon fossil fuels–so dependent that a movement in the price of gasoline by just a few cents can ricochet throughout the entire economy.
Christians looking at this agreement in Paris should understand that one of the presumptions in this agreement is that there will be new technologies that will replace our dependence upon fossil fuels. We should, by the way, hope that that will be true, because if so, it would lead to an abundance, a spreading, of human flourishing far beyond what can be brought about fossil fuels. We should hope, without any kind of complication that might be involved in a trade-off with the kinds of carbon emissions that are believed by so many scientists to relate to the process of climate change.
Insofar as anything in this agreement leads to an increase in human flourishing by perhaps even incentivizing that kind of development of new technologies, that would be a good thing, but we still have to recognize that much of the worldview embedded in the very core of this document is one that sees human beings as the problem. And we also need to recognize that the political compromise that is represented by this plan explains why so few of these international agreements, certainly on this scale, certainly on an issue of this complexity, actually represent turning points at all.
From a Christian worldview perspective, one way of stating it would be this: we should be for anything that will lead to an expansion and an abundance of human flourishing. But if this will come by new technologies, those new technologies will have to be premised upon the understanding that human beings are not the problem, but that indeed human beings will have to come up with these technologies. In doing so, biblically-minded Christians have to understand those very human beings will be exercising dominion. We should hope in the service of exercising stewardship.
National debate reveals irreducible difference between Classical Islam and Modernity
Meanwhile, back in the United States, many of the most controversial headlines and much of our cultural conversation has been driven by a proposal and statement made by Donald Trump, running for the Republican presidential nomination that said that all immigration of Muslims to the United States should stop. That was the kind of statement that will sure to lead headlines and it did. It also has led to a great deal of cultural conversation. Not only among politicians and cultural leaders, but amongst everyday Americans.
The Wall Street Journal on Friday released a front page story saying that the vast majority of Americans did not agree with Donald Trump, and yet also came back to say a significant number of Americans did. This has set the commentariat, that is the commentating class in the United States, into an absolute tailspin trying to understand how all this could be true.
It has also put gospel-minded Christians in a rather awkward predicament–a predicament in which we have to be very clear that we really do believe in human rights and religious liberty, but we also believe there are basic theological differences with Islam that are a problem and that are a part of any meaningful conversation. That is to say that our commitment to religious liberty is fundamental and we understand that the right to build a church implies the right to build a mosque, or a synagogue, or any other religious structure.
Furthermore, we have to understand that not only are there important constitutional questions in light of Mr. Trump’s assertion, there are also some very important moral considerations, and for Christians, great commission considerations as well. We have to be very clear that what he said is untenable on its face. It’s questionable whether he even meant it seriously, but it has become a part of our very serious conversation.
And that should prompt us to understand that those who are responding to this, especially from the secular left, are also robbing themselves of any credibility to actually say something meaningful about the question of the future of the United States and the issue of Islam. Here’s something that in an historical perspective needs to be held very clear and stated equally clearly–it is this: there is no nation on earth that has been dominated by Islam that holds, or has held, to anything like the understanding of rights and human liberty and democracy–that very vision that is cherished here in the United States of America.
There is no Muslim majority nation on earth that comes anywhere close. There is–and Christians understand this at the most basic theological level–there is a basic incompatibility between the very theological logic of classical Islam and both modernity on the one hand and the American experiment in ordered liberty on the other. That is not to say that Muslims cannot be fully American and fully engaged in the American experience. It is to say that in order to do so, they have to make major adjustments in the teachings of classical Islam.
Three articles in the media in the last few days raise these very issues–none of them I would argue satisfactorily. They all eventually point to the big question, and it’s to the big question we must also turn. The most important of these articles appeared in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times by columnist Ross Douthat entitled “The Islamic Dilemma.” He points to what he calls this dilemma that will require Islam to make adjustments in order to fit within the modern age, and in order to fit within the American experience.
It’s a brilliant article, because Ross Douthat is able to think theologically, and thinking theologically, understands that, for Muslims, the big question is whether or not bringing their faith into the modern age on these terms, and indeed making the adjustments that would be required to be a part of the American experiment, they might lead to what he calls the extinction of Islam.
In other words, the kind of adjustments that would be necessary for Islam to become a part of the modern age are the kind of adjustments that many Muslims fear would mean the end of Islam. That’s a very important insight, so hold on to it for a moment. Douthat points to another very important reality when he talks about secular liberal Westerners who he says,
“[t]ake a benign view of Islam mostly because they assume that all religious ideas are arbitrary and that it doesn’t matter what Muhammad said or did because tomorrow’s Muslims can just reinterpret the prophet’s life and read the appropriate liberal values in.”
That’s exactly what happened in liberal Christianity. That is exactly why so many secular liberals see that as an option for Islam, but that is not an option most of the Muslims around the world are likely to see as genuinely an option. And there is the problem. Douthat points to those of us who see an inevitable collision between Islam and the modern West as being pessimistic, and that might will be true, but it is also, I would argue, realistic.
He argues that theology isn’t immutable, that indeed it is possible to make the kinds of theological adjustments that the modern age would require of Islam. I would simply say in response that even though those adjustments are logically possible, they are not likely, and they would require not a minor adjustment in Islam, but a major reformulation of the entire Islamic vision. That will go back to the Quran, that fundamental issue of authority within Islam.
Similarly, writing at The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson suggests that if ISIS is going to be defeated, it’s going to have to be defeated by a major shift within Islam, and that means a major theological shift. He bravely calls upon those identified in the West as moderate Muslim leaders to be very clear about what exactly they believe in terms of Islamic theology and how that is to be reconciled over against classical Islam and modern ideas of democracy and human rights.
The third of these articles appeared over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal by Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City. In an article entitled, “Call Islamic Terrorism by its Name,” he says,
“Here is the reality. There are radicalized groups of Muslims that pick and choose portions of the Quran and Hadiths, the religious texts, interpreting them as instructions to pursue Jihad and impose their religion on the whole world.”
He goes on to say,
“Infidels, they believe, have three alternatives. Conversion to Islam, submission by the paying of tribute, or death. The killing of infidels is, to these extremists, a religious obligation that will gain them entry to a sensuous and rewarding life in paradise.”
Now, hold on to that, because at the end of the article, he argues the overwhelming majority of Muslims don’t hold these beliefs. The problem is, his listing of beliefs would make that sentence both true and false. It is certainly true, and we should be very glad that it’s true, that the vast majority of Muslims around the world do not believe that their responsibility includes the killing of infidels.
But in the sequence of Giuliani’s paragraph, he said–again, here’s the reality–he speaks of Muslims, he says, that pick and choose portions of the Quran and the Hadiths,
“Interpreting them as instructions to pursue Jihad.”
And then he says,
“Impose their religion on the whole world.”
That’s the crucial issue. Where are the Muslims in the world that actually don’t believe they are to impose Islam on the whole world? Because that is the fundamental logic of classical Islam that divides, going all the way back to the Quran, divides the world, the entire globe between what is identified, on the one hand, as the world of Islam under Shariah Law in submission to the Quran, and what is the world of war, where every righteous Muslim is told they are to be eagerly involved–and yes, holy war is a part of the teaching of the Quran–in order to bring about the worldwide global submission of all to Islam.
Now, I actually believe there are, no doubt, Muslims around the world who do not believe this, but the key question is, what do the Muslims here in the United States actually believe? Do they not only renounce the kind of acts often referred by the secular media as extremist, including the massacre there in San Bernardino, or do they also renounce the very idea that it is their responsibility by multiple means to bring the entire world, and that would include the United States, under submission to Shariah Law?
Rudolph W. Giuliani, along with others, makes a passing suggestion that theological change has happened in Christianity and in Judaism, so it should be able to happen in Islam too. What Christians must note and must note emphatically is that Christianity is not a religion of war and it does not hold to evangelism by conquest. It is Jesus who told Peter to put the sword away. He is described as the Prince of Peace. His followers are told that we do not wage war against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces, as we find in the very last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Making the argument that there must be an immediate stop to all Muslim immigration is something that isn’t plausible. It’s not plausible constitutionally, politically, or morally, but the very fact that that proposal has gained so much traction and has been at the center of so much cultural conversation points to the fact that the secular elites, including our political elites, have lost credibility in terms of dealing with Islam as a genuine, inescapably theological challenge.
A truly gospel-centered, biblically-confident Christian approach to this will lean into neither paranoia on the one hand nor political correctness on the other. What is missing from this national conversation is a genuine and substantial theological consideration. What’s also missing are theological statements made with credibility, not only by our secular political leaders, but also by Muslim leaders in the United States, including those identified as moderate Muslims.
At my website at AlbertMohler.com, I posted an article entitled, “For the Fall and Rising of Many in Israel.” It is drawn from the gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 22-35. I was speaking to the graduates of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on Friday, and I was making clear that even as they are going into a world of turmoil and tumult, that is exactly what Simeon foretold in Luke chapter 2 when he said that this child was appointed as a sign for the fall and rising of many in Israel. That falling and rising hasn’t been limited to Israel.
All of these developments and the remembrance of that text from Luke 2 should make us even more gospel-centered. It should also leave us, as those who read the headlines and sometimes maybe surprised, but never actually shocked.