Disclaimer - I am not really a practicing Christian, but I have always been interested in all kinds of religions. If I were to classify my beliefs, it might be as something like ‘anatheistic’ - a term used by the philosopher Richard Kearney to describe a point between theism and atheism.
This year for lent, I decided to try to read and write a written response to a part of the bible every day. I mostly used the standard daily gospel readings. Some days I just picked random verses.
As a final reflection on that process, I wanted to write up some of the main themes that kept coming up for me.
The things we find interesting in a text are always shaped by contemporary and personal concerns, so I should not have been surprised to find that a lot of the readings I did could be interpreted in terms of climate change (admitedly, just my own, skewed readings-into the text.)
The two main things that stood out to me were: (1) God is ‘unknowable’ and (2) nature, in its allignment with God, is also ‘unknowable’.
God is unknowable
This seemed especially true in the Hebrew Bible readings. Attempts to coerce God ultimately fail, the only way to be in tune with God is to resign yourself to God’s will.
This is not surprising to find in a religious text, since the key thing which sets a religion apart from other practices is the centrality of /faith/. Knowledge and understanding will only get you so far, at a certain point you just have to believe in and bow to the will of a higher power.
This is also the feature of religions that can be misused so easily - don’t question, just believe. But, I think outside of a strict, religious tradition, the emphasis on the need for faith at the limits of reason can be a useful lesson. It’s something that, for example, existentialist thinkers like Kierkegaard knew - ‘reason’, when pushed to its limits can often become non-sensical and even violent. We should always be willing to step outside our own rationality and act spontaenously.
One recurring case where we see the limits of knowledge and understanding is in the kind of ‘justice’ God dispenses. I’m not sure how to categorise it, but it is something like a justice of the ‘present’. God is not reliable and predictable, their mood can change quickly. The only option is to kind of always act ‘well’, just in case they are watching. It’s not wholly unlike some kind of Big Brother situation. At the same time, though, God is infinitely forgiving.
For example, one of the passages I read was Ezekiel 18:21-28. Here, God says that if a wicked man renounces all the sins he has commited and becomes law-abiding and honest, then he will live forever. All his past sins will be forgotten. However, if a righteous man takes up the habits of the wicked man, all his past integrity will be forgotten and he will die. So, our personal ‘histories’ don’t matter much to God, what matters is the here and now. This is both hopeful and terrifying.
The other famous case of God’s perverse sense of justice is Job. Job is the most righteous person living, but God allows Satan to take everything from him, just to prove a point - his faith does not waver. Some wise theologians try to explain to Job that there are reasons behind why he lost everything, that “God works in mysterious ways”, etc. But, in the end, God appears to Job in the form of a whirlwind and tells them that, no, Job was right, there is no deeper reason behind his suffering, it just /is/. This makes the figure of Job all the stronger, because his faith stays strong even in the midst of profound, reasonless suffering.
Nature, by proxy, is also unknowable
Talk of God and whirlwinds leads us to the second point - God is often identified with natural phenomena and, therefore, what we learn about God we can also apply to our understanding of ’nature’.
There were many readings that I came across that identified God’s will with forces of nature, especially destructive forces of nature. Most of these people will be familiar with - plagues, floods, droughts, and so on.
But, God’s will was identified with /regenerative/ forces of nature too. For example, in Isiah 55 the word of God is likened to the rain and snow which water the earth and provide food for people. It also brings order/harmony to nature:
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. \
I listened to some talks about horticultural societies recently, so it’s also not surprising that I read into the first book of the bible in that vein (the story of the Fall is one of those stories that can mean so many things). Anyway, we can read it as a narrative about the movement from a horticultural, garden-based civilization to an agricultural, ‘scientific’ civilisation. Agricultural society, then, would be a kind of punishment, with the sin being ‘knowledge’.
Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return. \
- Genesis: 3: 17-19
Isn’t the above a kind of premonition about agricultural, industrial society? We work harder for our food. We transform the land into wasteland through overfarming (“It will produce thorns and thistles for you”). In the end, we become what we live off - dust. Those final lines, in particular, conjure up images of the dustbowl drought, and the harms of industrialisation.
So, we have recurring ’threats’ from God, if you sin your city will be destroyed by floods, your knowledge leads to cursed land, and so on. What is the solution? Well, similar to the section above, there is no ‘solution’ really, only faith. In this case, though, our faith would be placed in nature. We would have to bow down before the environment and obey its will. Climate gives and takes away. Nature, which has the power to destroy, also has the power to regenerate:
This is what the Lord says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.
Just as climate can shift and turn everything to ashes, so too can it “make a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland”. It reminds me of Heidegger’s famous use of a Holderlin quote to talk about technology:
But where the danger is, grows the saving power also
This could be a contemporary motto for the fight against climate change. The goal is not to ‘master’ or ‘harness’ nature, to bend it to our will - that kind of thinking resulted in our current catastrophe. Instead, the goal should be to forget much of what we think we know, and to enter, again, into a dependant, senstive relation with a process (climate, nature) which is higher than us and which is the source of eternal life.