Acton Institute Powerblog

Doubling Down on Pascal’s Wager

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The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) held its annual synod this week, and among the items it dealt with were overtures and recommendations related to the issues of climate change and creation care. The synod adopted statements along the following lines:

  • There is a near-consensus in the scientific community that climate change is occurring and very likely is caused by human activity.
  • Human-induced climate change is an ethical, social justice, and religious issue.
  • The CRC is compelled to take private and public action to address climate change, especially since those who are already most impacted by it live in poor countries.

A broader report on creation care was also passed by the synod. I should echo this broadest sentiment of the synod, and note that there is no debate about whether or not the Scriptures mandate Christians to be good stewards of all of God’s gifts, including those of the natural order, environment, and resources. The first specific instance of the cultural mandate from Gen. 1:28, “to fill the earth and subdue it” and to exercise dominion, is given to Adam, when God “took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

But my concern here has to do more with the prudential wisdom of synod adopting specific statements like this as official policy of the denomination regarding climate change. In my lecture this week at Acton University, I dealt with outlining the role of the church as both institution and organism in God’s economy, his management of the entire world and all that is in it. I focused on the defining characteristic of the institutional church’s responsibility to be that of “proclamation” of the gospel, consisting of the closely interrelated activities of preaching, administration of the sacraments, and exercise of church discipline. This distinction is also present in my critique of the ecumenical movement’s particularly economic (rather than environmental) activism in Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

So I was disappointed to read yesterday that my denomination had decided to speak so specifically to a social issue like climate change that really is so contentious and divisive. It seems to me that the discussion has not really advanced all that much in the last 5 years or more, and that the true situation is perhaps even less clear now than it was even a decade ago.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
What really stuck out to me in reading some of the reports about the decision was the sentiment expressed by Rev. Steven Zwart, a delegate from Classis Lake Superior. Here’s what he said:

“I’m a skeptic on much of this. But how will doing this hurt? What if we find out in 30 years that numbers (on climate change) don’t pan out? We will have lost nothing, and we’ll have a cleaner place to live. But if they are right, we could lose everything.”

I think among those at synod who were (or are) inclined toward skepticism “on much of this,” Zwart’s sentiment was likely broadly shared. What, indeed, do we have to lose?

This sentiment is, in fact, almost precisely the argument in favor of action on global climate change made by Andy Crouch in a 2005 commentary for Christianity Today, “Environmental Wager: Why Evangelicals Shouldn’t be Cool Towards Global Warming.” Andy concluded:

Believe in God though he does not exist, Pascal argued, and you lose nothing in the end. Fail to believe when he does in fact exist, and you lose everything. Likewise, we have little to lose, and much technological progress, energy security, and economic efficiency to gain, if we act on climate change now—even if the worst predictions fail to come to pass. But if we choose inaction and are mistaken, we will leave our descendants a blighted world.

At the time I responded in a piece, “Pascal’s Blunder,” as I would now to the question, “How will doing this hurt?” One critical component of the answer has to do with the basic economic concept of opportunity cost…what other good might we do with the resources directed towards advocacy on climate change? That’s your answer. That’s what we have to lose: all the other good that we might or ought to be doing.

At the time Andy was generous enough to engage in a more extended conversation on these issues, and I’ll pass along the links for those who want to do more reading about the question, “But how will doing this hurt?” As I’ve said, I don’t think the analysis or discussion has advanced much in the last seven years, at least not in the CRC.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.