Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Religion of Climate Change


Much of climate change denial is fostered by religious fundamentalists, who, in their insistence on biblical inerrancy, are convinced that science in general, and, therefore, the science of climate change, is fake news. Not only is this unsound in terms of how we come to understand the world, but I also believe it is religiously unsound. Divine revelation is ongoing, and scientific discovery is as important a vehicle for receiving that divine revelation as prophecy was for the biblical world.

Full text:
A flooded Houston home

There’s an old joke about a guy warned of a major flood. A rescue van comes by to take him to an evacuation shelter.

“No,” says the guy, “I have faith in God. He will rescue me and save me from the flood.”

The flood waters inundate the first floor of his home, so he retreats to the second floor. A rescue team in a boat comes by to rescue him and take him to an evacuation center.

“No,” says the guy, “I have faith in God. He will rescue me and save me from the flood.”

The flood waters inundate his second floor, and he manages to escape to the roof. A helicopter comes to rescue him and take him to an evacuation center.

“No,” says the guy, “I have faith in God. He will rescue me and save me from the flood.”

Well, finally the flood overwhelms him and he drowns. He stands before the throne of God and laments, “Lord of all the universe, creator of all that is, I had faith in You. I believed in You. I thought you would rescue me from the flood. Why didn’t you rescue me?”

"Hey, genius," God retorts, “I sent you a van, a boat and a helicopter.”

I’m reminded of that joke as I contemplate the events of the last couple of weeks. While we were witnessing the effects of a one-in-a-thousand year climate event that dumped nearly 50 inches of rain on Houston and its environs, and left much of the area submerged, the publisher and editor of the Hillsboro, Ohio, Times-Gazette, Gary Abernathy, wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post. It seems that Hillsboro is the location of an annual gathering of evangelical Christians, and in his essay, titled “Why most evangelicals don’t condemn Trump” (September 1, 2017), Abernathy explains Trump’s appeal to evangelical Christians.

Among other factors, Abernathy explains, many evangelical Christians view scientists as anti-Christian, since science challenges inerrant biblical truth, and this opposition applies to scientific claims regarding climate change. They applaud Trump’s skepticism of climate change and his move to drop out of the Paris Climate Accord. In fact, writing in the same edition of the Post, op-ed columnist Kathleen Parker (“Hurricane Harvey’s warning to all”) cites one evangelical pastor who informed her that “Harvey was retribution for Houston’s leniency toward the LBGT community.” According to Parker, right-wing writer Ann Coulter opined that “Harvey was more likely God’s punishment for Houston’s former lesbian mayor than a result of climate change.”

We shouldn’t be surprised by these reactions. Evangelical Christians view the world, including the issue of climate change, through the lens of biblical inerrancy, which teaches them that humans are meant to exercise dominance over nature (Genesis 1:26, 28) and that God promised never again to bring a flood to destroy the earth (Genesis 8:21-22). That was what got the flood victim of our joke. He was waiting for some divine call to build an ark, or perhaps a giant fish would come by, swallow him and vomit him up on dry land. After all, that’s what the Bible teaches.

I, on the other hand, have a different understanding of divine revelation, and while Houstonians were emerging from the flood, I was gathered with some friends and our rabbi as we contemplated a passage from Pirkei Avot, “Saying of the Fathers,” a rabbinic text from around the 2nd or 3rd century CE. According to this text, a certain Rabbi Joshua son of Levi made the following statement:

“Each and every day a heavenly voice goes out from Mount Horeb (=Sinai), and announces and says: ‘Woe to the creatures for disparaging the Torah…” (Pirkei Avot 6:2)

For Rabbi Joshua and his colleagues, Torah was not simply the first five books of the Bible, but was actually that plus the entire corpus of rabbinic learning that had accumulated over hundreds of years, which, according to the rabbinic mind, was also delivered at Sinai. For me, what Rabbi Joshua’s statement implies is that divine revelation is not a one-off, or even an occasional or episodic event. Rather, every phenomenon and every process in the cosmos, combined with the human capacity to perceive and analyze those phenomena and processes are all aspects of an ongoing, continuous divine revelation.

So God is constantly revealing to us God’s nature and the nature of the cosmos. Yet, in every age, there are certain people specially endowed with the knowledge, wisdom, insight and capacity to acutely receive that revelation. We all have access to divine revelation, but it takes a particular sensitivity and perception to truly grasp it.

In ancient times, they called these people prophets. Prophets are not soothsayers. They don’t use crystal balls and tarot cards to prognosticate the future. In fact, if you study the biblical prophets carefully, you’ll notice that they are not so much concerned about the future as they are about the present. Yes, the present has implications for the future, but the prophet is profoundly focused on what is happening in his contemporary world and interprets those events through a transcendent, cosmic lens. For the biblical prophets, world history is a stage, and God is the stage manager. God orchestrates historical events as a way to teach God’s people and to warn them that the impact of their misbehavior is historical, military and political calamity. The nation’s ability to withstand the forces of history is contingent on their willingness to fulfill the divine mandate. Failure to do so leads to destruction.

While the prophets are attentive to historical forces, the authors of the psalms seem more attuned to natural forces—the presence of the divine operating in the cosmos as revealed in nature. Gazing into the heavens and contemplating the cycles of nature, these ancient poets saw divine harmony, order and balance, and they understood that the natural order and balance that they perceived was a model for human behavior. Psalm 104 is a paean to divine harmony and balance on earth, and God’s final rebuke to a recalcitrant Job is meant to remind all of us of a transcendent yet barely comprehensible cosmic order (Job 38-39).

We have prophets in our day. MLK was a prophet. He clearly perceived broad historical forces driving our country forward in its mission to advance equality and human rights, and he could profoundly articulate a vision of that mission fulfilled. “The arc of the universe is long,” he proclaimed, “but it bends toward justice.”

But we have other prophets, perhaps a bit more prosaic. We call them scientists. It may be troublesome to think of scientists as prophets, but what scientists have in common with prophets is an ability to perceive cosmic principles revealed in quotidian events. What we are seeing today has been predicted by climate scientists for decades, not because they read these effects in their tarot cards and their crystal balls, but because they have the knowledge and insight to translate universal scientific principles into the impact these principles have on our lives and the life of the planet.

It’s hard to distinguish the true prophet from the false one. The prophet Jeremiah preached a dire message of destruction while one of his colleagues preached the opposite (Jeremiah 27). You think God’s chosen king and the Temple where God has chosen to dwell will protect you, Jeremiah chided. It will not. The nation is so corrupt that it invites annihilation.

I look at the earth
It is unformed and void;
At the skies,
And their light is gone.
I look at the mountains,
They are quaking;
And the hills are rocking.
I look: no man is left,
And all the birds of the sky have fled.
I look: the farm land is desert,
And all the towns are in ruin… (Jeremiah 4:23-26)

I wonder if there are people in Houston, Key West and Barduda who might be having a similar reaction. While Jeremiah was able to perceive and proclaim transcendent principles of history for his own time, we must heed the warnings of our own visionaries—people who are attuned to what I would consider an ongoing divine revelation: the universal laws and principles that underlie the physical world and how those principles affect our ability to survive and thrive on planet Earth.

We’ve been warned for years, and the warnings are ringing true. We can’t rely on outdated biblical doctrine that seems to have seized the right wing of our politics and thereby much of the Republican Party. If we don’t begin to heed the warnings of our contemporary Jeremiah’s, we may be facing a world that returns to its primordial state of being “unformed and void.”

No comments:

Post a Comment