The protest at the heart of Protestantism – perhaps the most successful protest movement the world has ever known – began as a cry against the sale of indulgences. In order to finance the construction of its fabulous building projects, such as St Peter’s in Rome, the Roman church invented an ingenious way of separating people from their money. They would sell the prayers of the religious to the laity, these prayers ‘guaranteeing’ a short cut to salvation, time-off from languishing in an invented place called purgatory where one atoned for one’s earthly sins ahead of one’s final judgment.
Indulgences turned salvation into a business model, whereby ordinary people could amortise their spiritual debt to the almighty. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul out of purgatory springs”, was a quote that Martin Luther attributed to Johann Tetzel, one of the Pope’s most successful indulgences salesman. For Luther, one had to take personal responsibility for one’s relationship with God and not subcontract it to another, and especially not for money.
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The comparison with this and Elton John paying to offset the carbon footprint of Harry and Meghan’s use of his private jet to fly to their summer holiday is compelling. The sins that Harry and Meghan have made against the environment can be paid for by someone else. Green is the colour of money. With wealthy friends, your sins can be forgiven. Those who are poorer, those who take cheap package holidays to Tenerife, they will have to account for their sins alone.
That said, in the overall scheme of things, the Protestors of the 16th century could be said to bear the greater responsibility for the current environmental crisis. For, as Max Weber famously explained in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the idea that one has to manage one’s relationship with the Almighty alone created a kind of anxiety about one’s final destination that was only mitigated by the reassuring idea that earthy success somehow prefigured heavenly access. In this way, the burgeoning bourgeoise explained their accumulation of wealth as a sign of God’s favour, and thus provided moral cover to the capitalist equation of continual economic growth with progress and success.
And the reason this is such a theological mistake, not to say environmental one, is that it flies directly in the face of a key Biblical teaching that would support the idea of sustainability: the idea of having enough.
Remember the story in the Bible of the manna that falls from heaven? The people of Israel have escaped from their slavery in Egypt, and are on their way, through the desert, to the land God has promised them. In this wilderness, God teaches a lesson about sustainable economics. There is enough bread to go around, but not enough to be stockpiled against future want.
Give us our “daily bread” goes the Lord’s Prayer. Note daily. Not enough for the next several weeks. The Egyptians gathered their accumulated grain into barns, thus to hedge against the insecurity of their dependence upon the environment. But the manna that falls from heaven goes off if stored up and is useless. The moral of this story is that there is no way of outsmarting one’s radical dependency upon God.
The sort of Protestantism Weber described was a travesty of its original intention. The misleadingly named “justification by faith” was not intended to be a justification by having the right beliefs, but rather that one’s ultimate justification is in God’s hands not our own. It is an expression of radical dependence on that which is beyond our power to manipulate – by our ‘works’ or even by our ‘faith’.
For those who get a little itchy about religion, this can also be roughly translated into a sense that there is no way of outsmarting our radical dependency upon the environment. In order to live in harmony with creation, one has to live with a sense of limit, of there being such a thing as having enough.
The relationship between religion and the environment is set at the very heart of the Biblical narrative. Though the word that religious people use is not the environment but creation. This is a word that secularists have besmirched, linking it to debates about Darwinism and a small group of religious conservatives who describe themselves as creationists. But for those of us who have long ago conceded that Darwin was correct – albeit often worryingly appropriated by those who would justify an economics of agonistic competition and continual growth – the Biblical picture of creation has much to offer of contemporary relevance.
The Bible understands the environment as offering a moral lesson about how we are to live. It provides a kind of map by which we can orient ourselves towards an appreciation of human flourishing. This map remains the way most of us pattern time, for instance. There are seven days of the week because there were seven days of creation. Our diaries are mini-expressions of creation theology.
The purpose of the sabbath – where work and economic growth are not the order of the day – is to orientate one towards an appreciation of the fecundity of nature as a gift to be treasured. The theologian Ched Myers describes what he calls Sabbath economics as a teaching about “gift and limits: the grace of receiving that which the Creator gives, and the responsibility not to take too much, nor to mistake the gift for a possession”. Sabbath economics is an alternative to the capitalist paradise of abundance for the few, not the many.
Sabbath, of course, is the original holiday, holy-day. Not that this connection features much on the travel plans of those who would spend a couple of weeks in the sun thus to ‘re-charge their batteries’ so as to be more effective workers on their return – a point well made by the historian and columnist Tim Stanley on his Thought for the Day this week. The idea of holidays as an expression of excessive consumption again misses their original purpose – to be a reminder of our ultimate dependency upon something that is properly beyond the laws of human ownership.
There are those who would castigate the young protester Greta Thunberg as she makes her way to a climate conference on an expensive zero-emissions yacht as offering a moral example that only the fabulously rich can follow. It’s a fair point. But I imagine that bobbing about mid-ocean, and as a Tropic storm is developing in her path, there is no better way of recognising the fragility of human life and its vulnerability to forces beyond our control.
As the Amazon burns on the altar of continual economic growth, there is an ancient wisdom to the idea that we need to respect the limit of human expansion. In the end, the question at the heart of the environmental crisis is whether we can be content to live within certain limits. Can we ignore those forces in our society that prompt us always to want more and more? Can we learn to live with manna? Can we develop a positive appreciation of having enough? Here is the recipe for a proper holiday.