One of the persistent irritations of the debate about ecological health and climate change is the routine pitting of the life of people against the life of the earth. Thus Sen. Bernie Sanders recently endorsed abortion as a licit strategy for combatting climate change, “especially in poor countries.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made a similar move saying that it is “legitimate” to ask if we should continue to have children at such a time. In this framing of the issue, the life of humanity is pitted against the life of the world.

Ultimately such a framing cannot long endure for the simple reason that it normalizes an enmity that is not essential to man’s relationship to the world. Such enmity is an innovation and a relatively recent one at that. To fix it will require rejecting the oppositional relationship; not merely changing the rules that govern the fight.

What is needed, then, is an account of creaturely life in the world that sees the health of the person linked to the health of the place, the life of man linked to the life of the earth. In his new book The Household and the War for the CosmosConnecticut pastor C. R. Wiley takes a major step toward defining what such a relationship ought to be.

Ultimately, Wiley’s book is about piety, but piety is an inherently relational concept and the relationship it assumes is merely the bonds of health that ought to exist in a place defined by health and wholeness. This is not typically how we think of the term, of course. The word conjures up images of, at best, devout religious people at prayer. At worst, it’s the picture of a finger-wagging church lady. But this isn’t the origin of the term. It comes from the Latin pietas, which was a term that referred to a loyalty to the gods, to Rome, and to family. The defining symbol of “piety” for the Romans was Aeneas carrying his father on his back as they escaped the fires of Troy together. In that image, we see piety for we see Aeneas discharging the duty he owes to his father.

So piety presupposes that we exist in relationships that are not chosen but are given to us at birth. We have a relationship to God which includes obligations that piety calls us to honor. We likewise have a relationship to our home place which must also be upheld. And we have many duties that we owe to family from the time of our birth. Wiley:

What should impress us about pietas is its comprehensive nature. The definition puts it, “to all whom dutiful regard or reverene is due.” It didn’t withdraw from the world. It didn’t have to; it did just the opposite. That’s because the world wasn’t divided up into religious and nonreligious categories, like it is for us. The world was a cosmos, a sacred order; and it was filled with other beings, some of whom were people, others gods. And you owed them. Piety paid its debts.

The relevance of this connection to the earth should hopefully be apparent. The story of modern liberalism presupposes conflict, it posits that the world has no given order. It is merely so much raw material. And thus the only way of living in the world is ultimately to negotiate power relationships with our neighbors and the world itself, so that the raw material of the world can be shaped in ways that agree with our values, suit our ambition, assuage our pain.

Thus the regrettable framing of so much climate change debate: There is conflict between the body and the earth and you merely must choose which side you will be on. The closest anyone comes to an integrated understanding of health is the left when it says that we ought to think about the earth we are leaving behind for our children. Yet they undermine that case significantly when they also suggest that we should not actually have children or that we ought to kill the children that we conceive.

Wiley’s piety counters this assumption of conflict. It, instead, foregrounds the integrated nature of human and ecological health. Indeed, the cover art summarizes Wiley’s argument quite wonderfully, showing the concentric circles we associate with a model of the solar system and then placing at the center of that system… a house.

That being said, the reason that piety is necessary is because there are forces in the world that wage war against the naturally integrated order. There are, in other words, impious people who do not respect the debts they owe and do not pay them. So the second section of Wiley’s book is concerned with the end of piety, which is how we discern our debts, what those debts are, and how we discharge them.

To do this, Wiley contrasts the older understanding of “the cosmos” with the idea more familiar to many of us, that of Carl Sagan populated in his TV show Cosmos. Wiley:

The ancient cosmos always had a top. Sagan’s cosmos doesn’t come with a top. It has no normative vertical dimension whatsoever. It is just space, as in outer space. Paradoxically, this means Sagan’s cosmos is flat, because without verticality it is impossible to make meaningful distinctions or say that some things are more important than other things. Sagan, who liked to wax poetic, was known for referring to his viewers as ‘star stuff.’ Just why this should flatter anyone remains unexplained. Frogs and rocks are star stuff too.

Describing why it is that we now have a contest between these two visions of the cosmos, Wiley appeals to the supernatural, backstopped by the imaginations of Lewis and Tolkien:

On our level (of the cosmos), we are not the only occupants.(Here’s another difference with Sagan’s cosmos: his is almost entirely empty.) Just a little above us, there are principalities and powers. And we’re not just talking about City Hall. Paul actually names their chief: “the Prince of the Power of the Air.” (No elected official that I know of actually goes by that name, although some of them act as if they did.) What a marvelous moniker though, and apt too; the reference to air conveys the sense of being immersed, surrounded by a spirit as real, yet as invisible as air. And Paul makes that connection plain.

The problem with this layer of the cosmos is that its prince is insubordinate. The layer that we live in is like a province ruled by an ambitious and wily governor. People living in it don’t necessarily know this, although they feel the effects of the conflict. According to Paul though, this layer of the cosmos will eventually be brought to heel beneath the feet of Christ.

There is an organic development to Wiley’s book that is helpful. The first argument is that we have misunderstood the nature of piety and that, rightly understood, piety is actually central to the idea of the good life and to helping us find our way in the world. The second idea is that, because of sin and Satan, being pious in the way Wiley means it is now far more difficult. There is a war between the God who sits at the top of the cosmos and the prince of our domain who rebels against him. So then the obvious question is “How do you fight on God’s side in that war?” That is the subject of the final section.

Wiley’s answer is the household. Households are small economies bound together by love. So they are not chiefly places or even nuclear families. Rather, they’re communities marked by a head (typically the father of the family) who can sustain their own life in the world through productive work, the fruit of which is shared amongst the family to enable their flourishing.

As you know, things are different today. Households are not economies in the old sense of the term; they’re actually more like recreation centers. We’ve outsourced productive enterprise to the workplace, and when it comes to social welfare, now the young, the old, the sick, and the out of work, all depend on the helping professions.

From here, Wiley turns to the household codes in the Pauline epistles, arguing that they propose a model for structuring households in which the household can serve its proper function as an incubator of life and a micro-scale model of the cosmos as a whole.

Finally, Wiley considers marriage and the family within the context of the household and household codes. He notes that the simple act of having a family is itself a statement of hope, and that our contemporary barren nations suggest the despair that has filled the void created by atheism and the dissolution of the household.

First we lost the gods, then we lost the one true God, and now we’re losing ourselves. We’re dying.

When people believe in the future, they tend to fill it with little copies of themselves. Children are a vote of confidence. Today, the most pampered people in the history of the world can’t be bothered. Some of them go so far as to say that having children would be immoral—a crime against the planet. Meanwhile they grow ever more dependent upon the poor immigrants that mow their lawns, and fix their plumbing, and someday will sponge bathe them in their gated retirement communities.

The empty cosmos of the atheists has left us empty.

How does one help a civilization lost in the cosmos? Wiley argues that a response must begin with marriage, not simply because marriage is the means by which families are created, which serve as microcosms of the cosmos, but also because marriage is, in fact, the end of the story. The story of Scripture itself is the story of a triumphant king rescuing his bride, establishing her as the queen of the cosmos, and binding himself to her—the story ends, remember, with a wedding feast.

In a real way, a husband and his wife are the end of the world. They are a sign that reads, ‘This is the way the world will end, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with wedding bells.’

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Dave D

    Small correction of fact: I believe Mr. Wiley resides in Connecticut.

  • Mark

    Relying on theology to counteract climate change is like calling an electrician to fix a leaky pipe. The intent maybe right, but the execution is off the mark. Please, we need things that are practical and actionable. The time for pontificating has passed.

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