Bushfires, Pandemic and Kenosis

The Australian bushfires of 2019-2020, rapidly followed by the global COVID-19 pandemic, raise implicit questions around how human beings live. The fires, of unprecedented intensity and extent, not only interrupted many peoples’ lives but dramatically illustrated the impacts of climate change. Much of the discussion around the subsequent pandemic centred on whether the priority be given to protecting community health or to returning to an economic system which has not only given rise to great wealth disparity but also to the ecological crisis. If climate change is an outcome of human mastery of the biophysical world, might individuals and society be willing to relinquish any of that control?

Subsequently, if an out-of-control virus can, as is seen in the imposition of numerous lockdowns and restrictions, radically alter how people live, what might this reveal about the way we see our relationship with viruses and the wider natural world?

The underlying question centres on the extent to which human mastery or control over the world is possible or desirable. Of the many theological routes that might be taken to explore this idea, the one chosen here is the notion of divine kenosis (self-emptying), which is fundamental to the doctrine of the Incarnation (the hymn in Philippians 2:5-11), to the movement of love within the Trinity itself, and arguably to the process of creation itself (as narrated in Genesis 1).

The paper will explore the theology of kenosis to argue that the ethic of voluntary self-emptying to which it points involves an attitude of surrender or humility, resisting mastery or control. Kenosis, it will be argued, can enable individual and social acts and attitudes of voluntary self-limitation as a way of responding both to climate crisis and to the tensions raised by the pandemic between communal well-being and the economic status quo.