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Global Warming v. End Time

November 20, 2010

In the recent congressional elections, only one Republican candidate for the thirty-seven contested Senate seats believed that the scientific consensus on climate change was credible enough to warrant governmental efforts to combat the human causes of global warming. That was Delaware congressman Mike Castle, who lost in the primary to Christine O’Donnell, the colorful Tea Party favorite who, by her own account, had “dabbled into witchcraft” and, in an earlier campaign, “heard the audible voice of God. He said, ‘Credibility.'”

An undetermined but surely much higher percentage of Republicans in congress–and, doubtless, some Democrats as well–believe in one or another religious variant of the eschatological or end time scenario in which divine last judgment is passed on humankind, the saved and the damned are dispatched to their respective eternal states, and cataclysm consumes the world. In this, our elected representatives reflect majority views, according to a 2002 Times/CNN poll in which 59% of Americans affirmed their belief that the apocalyptic prophecies of the Book of Revelation would literally come to pass. (Whether this number has diminished with our increasing distance from 9/11 or grown in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami, Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, and the financial collapse is a mildly interesting question.)

It might seem that millennialists would be hospitable to science that projects the potential flooding of densely populated portions of the earth (New York, London, Cairo) within the lifetime of many of the infants born this year. But the rub, of course, is the question of human agency. As Oklahoma Senator and End-Timer James Inhofe, the minority leader on the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works, has remarked, “I trust God with my legislative goals and the issues that are important to my constituents.” Presumably, if God is causing or allowing the earth’s climate to change, He’s doing it for a good reason.

Religious history and belief in the United States is a major component of my academic scholarship these days, and in my recent readings I encountered a collection of interview transcripts from the 1996 PBS television series, Searching for God in America. Conducted by talk show host and evangelical Christian Hugh Hewitt, the interviews comprised thoughtful and illuminating “conversations about faith” with leaders from an array of denominations and traditions. It is not necessary for most believers to hold–and Hewitt’s interviews generally did not address–strong doctrinal positions about the end of the world. But questions of the end, and the ends, of individual human lives are more central to any religious tradition, and I found the contrast between the testimonies of Hewitt’s first two interviewees to be particularly striking in ways that may bear on our common environmental future.

The first conversation was with Chuck Colson, the born again Washington attorney and Watergate felon who founded Prison Fellowship Ministries after his own incarceration and conversion. Colson’s faith-based program in U. S. prisons has, by all accounts, helped rehabilitate many lives. One of its ideological foundations is that human sinfulness is total and that human beings are helpless to effect positive change without God’s grace. The idea “that all we need is more knowledge and we’ll be better,” Colson says in the interview, is “one of the great myths of the twentieth century. . . . Left to our own devices we will choose evil.” For those who live by their own devices, “there is an actual hell,” as there is a heaven for those who subordinate their will to God’s and accept Christ’s grace. “I do not believe that when we leave this earth, we get a pass. I don’t believe we’re mercifully and peacefully annihilated.”

Hewitt’s second interview was with Harold Kushner, the Boston-area rabbi whose religious meditations, following his young son Aaron’s death from a rare genetic disorder, led him to write the bestselling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Hewitt was plainly stunned and discomfited early in the interview when Kushner told him that the God he encountered (a term he explicitly contrasted with the idea of knowing or defining God, which he held to be impossible) neither willed his son’s illness nor could have averted or cured it. “I cannot accept the notion that the script of my life has already been written,” Kushner insisted, adding: “I believe in a God who does not send the tragedy but who sends the incredible grace to deal with the tragedy, to survive it.” Later in the interview, Hewitt was stunned again at Kushner’s response–“Dead”–to his question, “Where is Aaron now?” When he followed up by asking the rabbi whether the question of an afterlife was at least worth pondering, Kushner replied: “Only when there’s nothing else on my mind,” and then explained his apparent flippancy as follows: “I think there’s a very strong Jewish tendency to take this world with immense seriousness and postpone any consideration of a world to come, because we in our physical form cannot comprehend what that means. The danger of believing too strongly in heaven is that you’ll forget to take this world seriously.”

I have no idea whether or to what extent eschatological religious beliefs contribute to the current failure of our elected leaders to take climate change seriously. Nor, for the record, do I think that according high seriousness to this world and our embodied lives in it is an exclusively Jewish thing. In this, as in much else, in fact, my personal guru is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote (not thinking about greenhouse gas emissions, presumably, but you never know with Waldo) “no man has learned anything until he knows that every day is judgment day.” And, in response to a mystical friend who charged him with neglect of the other world, declared: “Other world? There is no other world; here or nowhere is the whole fact.”

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