(A newsletter article on “believing in” climate change)
Acacia and I traveled to New York City for the People’s Climate March. Since returning from the whirlwind bus ride, I’ve heard numerous conversations about whether people “believe in” climate change. So I’ve been pondering our “beliefs” and how we use that term, a reasonable task during this Reformation month.
Often the frame is “beliefs against facts.” In this way, if 97% of scientists agree that human use of fossil fuels is adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and causing our planet to warm, then that is “factual” and disproves any other “beliefs.”
I’m not so sure about that. For starters, I don’t like that divide. A book I’m reading by Marcelo Gleiser agrees that both science and art involve “a process of self-discovery, as we try to capture the essence of ourselves and understand our place in the Universe.” Our culture, our worldviews, and the very being of our lives should not be so sharply split or bifurcated. Pitting science against arts, head versus heart, tangible over nebulous is bad for our educational systems and our overall wellbeing. Would we claim that Jim Reichling’s trumpet is more important in his teaching physics than when he’s making music?
Yet conversations about religion also get diverted into this compartmentalizing. Opposed to the answers of science, belief has meant “unanswered or unproven.” For the origins of our cosmos, the mystery of God as Creator allegedly gets replaced by the answer of the Big Bang. Sickness, believed to have been the haunt of demons, now is attributed to germs or viruses. This process led to a “God of the gaps,” that God was only an answer when there wasn’t a “better” rational answer. The place of God’s mysterious, unanswered territory diminished as we discovered more, leaving fewer gaps in our knowledge or understanding. Studies still try to prove whether our beliefs are “true.” It may be biology of healing with prayers, or archaeology and history of the Holy Land. Some even claim there’s nothing left to believe in, since science has proven our old beliefs to be false.
But what is true isn’t only about facts. For example, how could you prove true love? It can’t be quantified in the number of roses you give or how firm a hug is or how long your patience lasts. Love can’t be tallied or dissected. It is true because you count on it, day in and day out.
So a better category for us in this reflection would be trust, confidence. Scholar Marcus Borg describes our beliefs that way (though some of his ideas fall back into the other category of proof, as well). In his book The Heart of Christianity (available in our church library), he writes about the word “creed,” like Apostles’ Creed. From the Latin credo, we translate it as we say, “I believe…” The creed isn’t for agreeing to a set of doctrinal details, he says, but is better felt as “I give my loyalty and allegiance to this God.” It is about commitment, trust, love. Indeed, “believe” is related to the word “belove.”
We gather in worship to be reminded again of the God who so loved us and our world, enabling us to know this God as beloved, as trustworthy, deserving our loyalty. We identify this God’s character best in Jesus, and are committed to God by following him. Again, calling God “Creator” isn’t contrasting the book of Genesis with the Hubble telescope, but understands that God delighted to make, still cherishes, and desires the best for us and this world. If we believe and trust this God, that asks how we should loyally behave to belove this creation also.
Which comes back to the original question: Do you believe in climate change? Or, more to the point, do you believe in responses to climate change?
To me, that question is vital, with enormous consequences. The potential impacts threaten extinction for species on a scale not seen since the dinosaurs. More severe harmful weather can be expected to cause hunger, water shortages, and displacement for the poorest of our human neighbors, perhaps leading toward oppression and war. If we believe God loves God’s creatures and would drive out those demons that harm all health, then we are called to strive against this suffering. That is what our loyalty and commitment mean for believing in our God.
On the other hand, believing we don’t need to respond—not believing in climate change—seems to signal that our ultimate commitment and allegiance is to the profits of corporations and to selfish consumer lifestyles. Finally, I would say it’s incompatible to believe that that’s an acceptable way to act and still believe in the God of Jesus.