By Sam Keyes
Michael Shellenberger’s recent article on climate change hype suggests the latest mental health consequences of our shaky cultural relationship with truth. His analysis resonated with me largely because, while I am hardly a climate change “denier,” I do sit uneasily with the evangelical fervor with which many people I know and respect talk of environmental disaster. My thoughts tend less to the “surely it is not so bad as all that” direction (I have enough Calvinism in my theological history that I’m pretty comfortable with various apocalypticisms) than they do to a skepticism about the posturing and virtue-signaling proposing this or that magic pill that will finally reveal our universal “woke” status.
So, for Shellenberger to suggest that there is a kind of hyperbole on both sides was a breath of fresh air. Still, acknowledging this does not remove the consequences of that hyperbole. Telling young people that the world will disappear by the time they turn 30 may seem politically expedient, but it remains irresponsible in relation to both the nuances of the truth and the psychological well-being of the young people in question. No one deserves to be instrumentalized for the sake of policy change, even a policy change that is arguably motivated by good intentions and legitimate concerns.
Apart from anxiety over climate change, it is already commonplace to note the increasing place of anxiety in modern life. Last year I wrote here about millennial “burnout” and the increasingly Pelagian currents of our culture. (For a sample of articles touching on the rise of anxiety in young people, in particular, see here, here, and here.) It seems that we have plenty to worry about as it is, whether or not climate change is manageable.
Perhaps the dire warnings about climate change bother me because they strike so close to (and yet so far from) a deep human truth: we are all going to die. In November, the month of the Holy Souls, the Church remembers the dead with a special poignance. In December, as we move into Advent, the Church turns her eyes to the final Advent, the coming judgment of the Son of Man. If you want to find something to worry about, it is hard to do better than the Four Last Things: Heaven, Hell, Death, and Judgment.
Yet Christians are accustomed to considering these realities and responding with hope. Indeed, Advent gives way to Christmas and the Epiphany. Theological hope is not a temporal optimism that everything will work out — that, for example, the earth will be fine in thirty years time after all. It is an ordering belief that God will continue being who God has been in the past. We can face death squarely because we are in Christ who died and rose again. Anxiety, in Christianity, can be vicious, rather than merely an involuntary mental state, to the extent that it relies on the conscious denial of revealed truth. The Christian virtue of fortitude stems from the belief that the Four Last Things all find their ultimate meaning and orientation in the God who is Love.
Christians, then, should not submit to anxious hand-wringing about the future as if God is not ultimately in control. Death and Judgment should, frankly, be much more concerning to us than rising sea levels. But it is precisely because we have submitted to these stark realities that we can then turn to the temporal concerns of creation and face them with spiritual resolve. Our destiny does not rely on whether we can preserve the polar ice caps (thank God); but our calling to holiness and stewardship does require us to care for what we have been given. It is possible, in other words, to have serious conversation about the proper stewardship of creation without resorting to messianic or apocalyptic prophecies of doom. Christians should hear, in the anxieties of the moment, an authentic call to consider real problems centering on the transience and instability of human existence. Rather than either rejecting or accepting them wholesale (two rather unhelpful approaches when it comes to psychological anxiety), we should take them as an invitation to remind the world of its true nature as God’s creation.
Dr. Sam Keyes is professor of theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.