Faith and the Question of Human Extinction: Guest Post by Chad Martin


I have recently been reading a stunning new book, Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together.

The book includes an essay by Dakota writer and activist Waziyatawin, with this keen observation:

“Stewardship” is loaded with anthropocentric ideology, implying that humans, and Christians in particular (since they have more power than the Jewish and Muslim communities that share this “creation mandate”), know best how to organize or care for other beings…

Christians need to acknowledge and deconstruct those core aspects of their faith that elevate and prioritize humanity over and against the earth. This will be a massive undertaking.[1]

Christians – and many people of faith – may need a Copernican revolution in our theology. Scientists have known for a long time that we are not the center of the universe. Now it is high time our theologians take a similar turn and help people of faith and goodwill to form systems of belief that correctively put us in our place. I am not sure that a well-intentioned Christian theology of stewardship goes far enough to reimagine our place in the universe.

Science tells us that humans have only been present for a recent blip in the life of this planet. This planet will likely outlive humanity. Yet our beliefs have not caught up with this reality. I ask myself, “What does my faith say about the meaning of a universe without humanity?”

I do not find such questions threatening. Instead, I think there are new horizons opening up as we respond to a world in crisis. I hope pastors and practical theologians have the courage to entertain the questions and help us navigate a turn.

Recognizing our limitations is not a cry to cease trying everything we can to care for our planet. Instead, it is a call to reimagine those strivings from a posture of humility, uncertainty and cooperation.


[1] Waziyatawin, “A Serpent in the Garden: An Unholy Worldview on Sacred Land,” in Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together, Ed. Steve Heinrichs (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2013), 217-18.

Chad Martin is Associate Pastor at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster

Painting at top of page is “Drought and Gathering Storm” by Kevin L Miller

8 thoughts on “Faith and the Question of Human Extinction: Guest Post by Chad Martin

  1. I think you basically nailed it. “The God Species”, by Mark Lynas is a good read. I think he would say that whether we approach this thing from a position of humility or not, we are now basically in charge of the earth, and our fate on it. Humble is nice, but not at the expense of giving up the reins. And make no mistake, the reins are in our hands these days.

    • Phil, as you and many others are saying ‘the reins are in our hands’. Some may have a problem with that statement from a faith perspective or theological point of view. “Aren’t the rein in God’s hands?’ they would ask. However, it seems pretty clear that God has allowed humans to pursue self destructive ends over and over again. Then we reap what we sow and suffer the consequences.
      I like the way it is stated in a blog I read recently: “We don’t have an environmental problem. We have a human problem.” The great need is to talk about what we are facing as a moral or ethical issue….from a faith or spiritual point of view. We need to line up our behavior with our stated values and ideals. Otherwise it looks like we’re all toast and we will take many other species with us.

      Fortunately, there are still actions we can take and resources we can draw upon!

  2. I think the idea of embracing uncertainty is something people really struggle with. I talked to a meteorology professor about this the other day and, instead of putting down the corporate media like I expected she would, she said she thinks we have a denial problem because people want answers and scientists can’t issue exact predictions. They can’t issue prophecies. They don’t even want to get political, most of them, because it undermines their credibility as scientists. I worry about the attitudes of some religious people, but it seems like acknowledging the deep shit we’re in also shakes the foundations of a consumerist society. Is that a kind of religion in itself? Who each of us is as a consumer is such a central part of our identity. How do we stop identifying as consumers who feel we are doomed and start identifying as citizens/ stakeholders? It would require a huge shift in values. Is America really prepared to do this? Sorry to go off on a tangent.

    • Julia, it’s good to have your viewpoint! Since you are a member of the generation that will (hopefully) be on this planet for another 50, 60 or 70 years, you have a high stake in how we address the climate change issue. And while we each struggle to find our voice on this issue and also find our place in the struggle, we also need to find personal meaning in our lives.
      Religion, at it’s best, can provide empowerment for all of this: our voice, our place and our sense of meaning.

      Consumerism is the opposite of religion and to be a consumer is the opposite of being a citizen.

      My friend Glen says religion takes work. That work is seeking to become one’s best self and involves finding a way to make connection with a higher power, God or one’s own depths. Citizenship also takes work. On the other hand, being a consumer is a passive identity.

      Learning to raise questions seems to me to be a key task of a good citizen. It is also a religious duty if you will. Many people think of religion in terms of answers. Yet more powerful is the role of asking ultimate questions, i.e “Faith and the Question of Human Extinction”. Jesus, for example, asked questions and told stories.
      What are the important questions now? What story or stories undergird a society where a citizen is told they have a duty to shop and go to Disneyland? Do we want to change that story? How?

      • Jerry, I like this conversation! Because I was raised in a secular environment, it’s hard for me to put myself in religious shoes, so I’ll think about getting that book. Since religion teaches ethics and truth and our moral compass as a society seems off-kilter I see a lot of value in it.

        I do agree that consumerism couldn’t be seen as a religion–I didn’t mean that literally, by the way. What I have been reading about consumerism is that it actually is one of the main ways that we make meaning in our lives, so while our consumer identities might be passive, they feel active. For example, when I buy jewelry or clothes or even books or music, it’s a form of personal expression. It gives me some kind of status and tells other people where I fit in relation to them. When I was younger, buying makeup and girlie magazines helped me to feel grown-up. Within the consumer lifestyle, everyone has this kind of identity. I guess realizing that we’re sort of slaves to this, rather than thinking of it as empowering, is one of the key things we need to address.

        Also, religion seems to emphasize having a social conscience, which is something consumerism goes against (I think, anyway?). Consumerism tells us that we’re only responsible for our own happiness. That when we work hard, we have to reward ourselves. So I guess you could say consumerism is anti-social and religion is pro-social. Some people say religion is one of the only things holding our society together in a time when we’re increasingly isolated. It makes sense to me.

        I like the idea of “connecting with a higher power or one’s own depths” as central to being religious and also being a good citizen. As a secular person, I realize that confronting who you are and where you fit in society and the ecosystem is very hard work. It gets ugly, but ultimately maybe this self-reflection and critical thinking is the answer to our problems. Maybe America is in an identity crisis and climate denial has to do with not only rejecting a scary idea but not being willing to confront who we are and how we fit into the global society. If you acknowledge the worst truth, there’s no going back. We don’t want to feel guilty or be the “bad guy,” but maybe we can get past that guilt by imagining a completely different future in which we are no longer the bad guy.

  3. I realize I just reworded a bunch of things that were already said in the blog post, sorry. Interesting to reflect on these ideas:)

  4. This blog post brings to mind the idea of us being renters, or really squatters, on this planet. We don;t own the property and therefore cannot do whatever we want to with the Earth. We can not put holes in the walls, remove the trim, or remodel the bathroom. We are required to leave it at least as good as we found it or be prepared to pay for the damage.

  5. Hi Folks:
    Thank you all for joining in the conversation. I’m honored. First, I want to respond for a second to Phil’s comment. I don’t mean to say we should give up the reins regarding the change we can actually impact in the world. That is, we do have the power to impact whether or not earth is inhabitable for a sustainable population of human beings beyond the next few decades. That’s a big deal.

    But I also find myself realizing that when I think scientifically, I assume there is a vast universe out there, and even our own planet, will carry on in some what no matter what we do. Yet my religious worldview has been shoddy at recognizing this and casting a vision of the divine-human reality that reflects what I know scientifically.

    Beyond that, thanks Wendi for chipping in the renter/squatter metaphor. That is a great image for what I am grasping at here.


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