Christianity, Environmentalism, and Long-Term Strategies for Success

Following the death of Jesus, there were many arguments among early Christians about what path the new religion would take going forward. It is my belief that two of these arguments determined, more than any other, the future survivability and later impressive success of Christianity in the world.

One of the major early arguments–framed in the Bible as a dispute between Peter and Paul–was whether this new movement was still Jewish, or whether it should expand to encompass Hellenic peoples and practices (and thus necessarily lose much of its Jewish character). As is perhaps obvious, the argument resolved in shedding most of Christianity’s Jewish roots and embracing Greek and Roman thought, culture, and customs.  In so doing, the early religion broadened its reach beyond an insular minority, utilizing and adapting prevailing philosophies and religious symbols, in essence assimilating itself to the dominant culture.

The second argument does not directly play out in the Bible, but traces of its effects can be found in later arguments over the canon. Early on, there was a tension between those who called themselves Gnostic Christians, who believed that the most important duty of a Christian was to contemplate the mysteries of the divine and understand them thoroughly (and intellectually, in specific), and those who for lack of a better word I’ll call “Soterioriffic” Christians, who believed that understanding was far less important than faith and belief in the salvific power of Jesus and the religious practice in general.

While there is plenty of textual evidence that Jesus at least cared about understanding on some level (he often expresses frustration with the apostles being thick-headed), this argument settled out against the Gnostics in favor of a Christianity that was primarily concerned with being saved. This had the effect of making the religion much more accessible to the lower classes and slaves, who tended to have less education than the higher classes. Removing understanding of philosophy as a prerequisite for being Christian went a long way towards making the new religion take off in its Hellenic habitat.

Christianity could have easily developed in each case in a different way, either as a Jewish sect or a mystery cult (or both), but I am given to doubt whether such a Christianity would have survived to the present day in any form other than a historical or marginal curiosity.  Making the strategically superior choice each time pretty much guaranteed the survival of a robust Christianity (one with which we struggle to this very day).

I think the lessons from this have applicability in other social movements. Take environmentalism, for instance; there are many issues that fall under the umbrella of concern for human impact on the environment, from species loss to air and water quality to biome depletion. However, most of those issues have taken a back seat, having been overshadowed by Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW).  Looking back at the strategic lessons of early Christianity, this choice of emphasis seems to me unwise.

Unlike most environmental issues of note, AGW is fairly abstract; it is not clear immediately upon finding out what it is why people in general should be concerned by it. Dead animals or toxic fumes or trees getting cut down are concrete, easy to understand topics, whereas in order to fully grasp the threat of AGW, it takes some effort to get educated on the issue. Even worse, in order to actually judge the merits of the arguments for AGW and possible response measures requires significant education in climatology. As the Gnostics found, the higher the education requirements for participating in the movement, the more difficulty one will have in convincing others of the urgency or necessity of one’s objective.

The other strategic error in my mind is that environmentalists chose to double-down on AGW long before there was decent evidence to show that they were right; in the intervening period, there were many good faith reasons to doubt the conclusion, leading to many reasonably concluding that the threat from AGW was overblown, opening the movement to charges that its stridency was driven by an agenda darker than simply preserving the climate equilibrium for human habitation. Had the movement instead focused on an area where the science was immediately more solid, such as ocean acidification, they could have taken aim at the same fossil fuel emissions from a stronger scientific footing.

Right now, despite easy targets and easy appeals, environmentalists struggle with their agenda by emphasizing difficult arguments and abstract problems. Meanwhile, Christianity, having made effective strategic choices, is still going strong. Decisions about what to emphasize and how accessible to make a movement can be the difference between success and failure.

[Since the move to Patheos, the Author section has gotten screwed up. Original article by Elemenope]

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