Tom Goldsmith: Will God put out the fires?

The impasse on efforts to reverse global warming needs the science community and faith community to work together.

(John Hendricks | Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal via The New York Times) A provided photo shows flames and smoke from the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, July 14, 2021. Floods swept Germany, fires ravaged the American West and another heat wave loomed, driving home the reality that the worldÕs richest nations remain unprepared for the intensifying consequences of climate change.

Our tiny blue and green sphere has revolved dutifully around the sun for billions of years. We can safely assume that the earth’s unimaginable journey through the universe will continue indefinitely, either with or without us on board.

Our slow response to the devastation of global warming, as though we were ambushed by unexpected news, places the human ride through space in grave jeopardy. Inconceivably, not only are we divided by how best to alleviate the daunting prospects of a dysfunctional biosphere, but we’re separated also by those who raise the specter of whether we should act at all.

While some of us are prepared to double-down on efforts to reverse global warming or minimally to contain the damage at its present level, others place our fate in the hands of God. The premise that divine intervention will provide rescue, as it once did in biblical stories, challenges the scientific mindset.

It would be a mistake, however, to disregard religious sensibilities altogether. We need all hands on deck to figure out how best to proceed in our race against time. Should God even be brought into the conversation? I think so; the sooner the better.

It’s imperative to examine the religious dimensions of today’s challenging impasse. The assertion that God will never let us down reminds me of when I sat faithfully in the bleachers until the final out with my team trailing by 13 runs. Faith in miracles does not remedy desperate situations, regardless how compelling it is to believe in divine intervention.

Yet when it comes to changing the direction of earth heading towards its catastrophic destiny, how long can we wait for divine agency to intercede? Is that really our best recourse? Blessed with God-given intelligence, creativity and resourcefulness to affect change, we can’t deny owning some responsibility for making earth habitable again.

Every theology informing all the world’s religions, including Christianity, agrees fundamentally that God is unknowable. That’s a good starting point for those of deep personal faith as well as for religious progressives. We need to process our obvious limitations in discerning God’s mind. God’s intent for Homo Sapiens, past present and future, lacks a definitive roadmap.

And yet God continues to be surprisingly present in public policy discussions today. Enough people of faith, with their own personal interpretations of God’s multidimensions, manage to leave scientific solutions wanting. By placing the world’s future in the hands of Providence, they short-circuit human endeavors towards radical change. In reaching consensus for strategies on reversing global warming, we will need more certainty than private belief in God’s compassion.

Who could honestly think that God would be insulted if we injected human ingenuity into the equation for a global warming response?

Rather than treat the issue as a faith-science dichotomy, it would prove more advantageous to pursue honest conversation on the tough realities we all face. As fires intensify around the world, and water becomes alarmingly scarce, a human response is warranted regardless of religious proclivities. Science, however, must honor the meaning of God in people’s lives especially in perilous situations. And for those whose faith leans heavily on trusting God in terrifying times, the veracity of divine intervention deserves more robust candor.

God as the creative power that set all life in motion must not be confused with a personal desire for happy endings when the script calls for a miraculous way out of a tough bind. Waiting for God to answer prayer can be problematical. Quite possibly the Almighty, or that which is ineffable, measures time differently from mere human mortals. But it is also significant to underscore that science does not exclude God. Everyone understands quite well that we are engaged in repairing a tiny part of the “mysterious tremendum” (awe-inspiring mystery) which we have placed in peril.

A community of moral discourse cannot be selective in who participates. The science and faith communities must talk to each other while accepting a plural world. If this mission addresses real concern for all God’s children, not only for Christians in the U.S., then we can work more effectively across the spectrum of everyone’s beliefs. Once the Divine is perceived as the Architect of Possibilities rather than advocate for one’s private faith, we remove personal blinders for broader universal appeal. Would not the universal application of our efforts bring us closer to The Divine?

God has interacted with a changing world in biblical history. Prophets were inspired and the Red Sea parted. In more contemporary times, however, God has been conspicuously silent in the throes of genocide. Explanations for the legacy of human suffering, and God’s absence in times of anguish, remain incomplete. We struggle to accept human accountability and the consequences of human malice and greed. We are, after all, blessed with the gift of consciousness and a passion for truth. With these insights at our disposal, we cannot expect God to exert unilateral control. It always was, and continues to be, a process between a humanity with excessive hubris and a greater power trying to persuade rather than coerce.

Life on our tiny sphere miraculously hurtling through space has never been static. Changes have been forthcoming since the moment of creation. The earth is always in the stage of becoming. The interconnectedness of all species to sustain life fills us with wonder. Allowing human greed to decimate Life’s holy ground fills us with remorse. Our destructive course must account for our grievous blunders.

It will require self-discipline and sacrifice and a host of personal inconveniences to restore the earth to its erstwhile paradise. It’s not a matter of waiting for the unlikelihood of God running interference for us. It’s a matter of reading the conflagration of the earth as a divine message: Time to wake up and become custodians of the miraculous gift bestowed upon us very long ago.

Tom Goldsmith Senior Minister First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City

Tom Goldsmith is minister emeritus at the First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City