Faith in a New Millenium – Katharine Jefferts Schori: “This Fragile Earth, our Island Home: Caring for Creation in a Time of Volatile Change”

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Science and Religion – Addressing the Crisis of Planetary Climate Change
A “Faith for a New Millenium” Event with the Right Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
April 23, 2017

There are two popular approaches to what’s happening to this planet: Chicken Little crying “the sky is falling,” or the ostrich with its head in the sand saying how nice and cool it is down here. Each has multiple variations, but they share the quick default to an unexamined or unexplored conclusion. Either we’re all going to hell in a hand basket and nothing we can do will make any substantive difference, or nothing’s really happening now, so eat, drink, and be merry while you can. Those are obvious caricatures, yet they continue to be exploited for political capital, and as long as they do, they will disempower and discourage individuals and communities from developing constructive and creative responses.

So, how might we address the chicken and ostrich syndromes? The first story about fear-mongering and hysteria has been told at least since the time of the Buddha as a morality tale to encourage more careful examination before jumping to conclusions.1 The ostrich tendency to ignore what’s going wrong is a favorite theme of the Hebrew prophets, especially when people think they’re doing everything right but are failing to notice the pain and distress around them. Both are highly individual responses. The antidote to these syndromes has to do with examining the situation carefully and consulting (i.e., in community) about appropriate responses. We have two strong elements of such an antidote in the traditions of religion and science, and we need to use both if we’re going to detox from the addictive poisons of hysterical fear and willful blindness.

Religion and science can both be understood as methods or worldviews, habitual disciplines of seeing and approaching the environment in which we live and move and have our being. They share a great deal, far more than the Enlightenment tradition has usually acknowledged, although post-modern philosophy is certainly encouraging greater interaction and mutual edification.

Ian Barbour 2 gave us a helpful framework for looking at the relationship between religion and science, identifying four ways they might relate to each other:
1) open and frank conflict: e.g., a world created in six 24-hour days vs. the 4.5 billion year history of earth – it’s one or the other, and never the twain shall meet.
2) what Steven Jay Gould called NOMA, or non-overlapping magisteria: these two frameworks teach different things. One (science) tells us how the heavens go; the other tells us how to go to heaven. They ask and answer different questions – often framed as mechanism vs. meaning.
3) the dialogic model: each has both metaphorical and symbolic aspects, and some questions can only be answered in one realm, but there is plenty to be learned at the interface and along the boundaries. Religious traditions routinely use symbolic and metaphorical language to speak of realities that are hard to quantify or describe. So does science: physics can describe light in terms of waves or particles, and something useful can be gained from each approach. Cosmology and neuroscience offer examples where religious or spiritual understandings interact constructively with scientific ones – and where there is plenty of room for wrestling with unanswered questions. A concrete example: judicial practice is changing in response to emerging findings about delayed maturation of rational thought processes in young adults, especially when they’re threatened.3
4) integrating science and religious traditions within a larger framework than either – which acknowledges the intrinsic limits of knowing within either system, demonstrates humility about the fullness of any knowing, and encourages conversation and dialogue with the hope of mutually enlightening, synergistic outcomes. An example: studying how often the Supreme Court justices interrupt and are interrupted during oral arguments4 shows that conservative justices interrupt liberal ones far more often than the reverse, and that female justices are interrupted far more often both by male justices and by male attorneys (who by the court’s own rules aren’t supposed to speak unless spoken to). This is a fundamental theological issue as well. When full dignity is not accorded even to one’s peers, how can we expect justice? Much of the interruptive behavior is undoubtedly unconscious, but it derives from systemic structural inequality – a persistent aspect of the sin of pride.

We’re already beginning to look at potential interactions, but to be clear, I’m going to speak about possibilities that arise from working within Barbour’s third and fourth categories – dialogue and integration. Both require conversation, a concept that is not merely about using words, but in its Latin origins (con + verso) more fundamentally means ‘to turn about with’ another, or ‘to spend time together.’ When the word came into English around 1300, it wasn’t so much about speaking as living in community, particularly in intimate community. We don’t come to know one another in a deep way using speech alone, but as we learn about another’s internal attitudes, loves, and prejudices, and experience how this person ‘lives’ in his or her skin and in community relationships. The depth and nature of knowing another is evidenced in an old term in English common law, ‘criminal conversation.’ It has little to do with speech – it means adultery. There is a biblical parallel in the Hebrew word yada, used in a similar way: “Adam knew his wife and she conceived and bore a child,” but also of the way in which God knows us as creatures and unique individuals, and the covenant God has made with us, particularly characterized by justice and mercy.5

A conversation between religion and science is one in which both worldviews are examined and experienced – and valued for the differing gifts they bring. The conversation prospers when the participants bring attitudes of curiosity, courage in exploring new and unfamiliar territory, compassion for self and other – particularly in regard to difference, and creativity in making sense of differences and parallels.

Both science and religion are, in their roots and as authentically practiced, communities of wisdom or deep knowing. They depend on communities of practitioners, who pass on to others the best of what has been learned – i.e., tradition. Each community maintains its revered writings – holy scripture and scientific literature – which support the work of traditioning. Both science and religion operate within expected behavioral norms, forming new generations in habits and disciplines that have long been recognized as useful in the ongoing search for wisdom. The wider community maintains standards about acceptable behavior, and disciplines those who flagrantly violate those norms. Fake news, fake data, and fake truth are not long tolerated.

Scientists and religious adherents both exhibit considerable passion in their search for wisdom, and curiosity and wonder are integral motivators – people working in both traditions are often profoundly passionate about the quest. Deeply invested practitioners develop skills that are both art and craft in the search for truth; beauty or elegance; and goodness or justice – for while the wisdom being sought has overarching fundamental principles, it must be applied in time and space to particular contexts.

Ideally, both people of faith and scientists use the best of current theories – about how to understand the nature of reality or how to live in right relationship with all of God’s creation. Those theories are the result of generations of inquiry, preserved in a tradition which continues to be expanded, refined, and developed. Habits or disciplines, the writings of the tradition, personal transmission of knowledge, and new inquiry are central to both worldviews. Knowledge or wisdom advances through questioning and doubt, and testing the results for congruence with tradition. Occasionally, a radically new paradigm emerges in a scientific revolution or a religious reformation. We can note both the paradigm shifts marked by the evolutionary theorizing of Darwin and Wallace, and the theoretical work of Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg around quantum mechanics and relativity, as well as the emergence of monotheism and subsequent developments in all the resulting Abrahamic religious strands.

Science and religion define truth and hold practitioners to ethical norms in community. The community reflects on ideas or wisdom discerned by individuals or small groups, and may then ratify its truth or heuristic value – or not. Change may come in small adjustments as well as major paradigm shifts, each of which generates resistance – at least until the wider community begins to reach a consensus (the Copernican revolution; sex wars in the church). Inertia is part and parcel of the human aversion to change, and we should recognize that all change invokes both emotional and rational processes. Data will never convince a person whose heart is not taken with the idea. Human beings adopt a new idea when they can in some way believe in it, literally, give their heart to it.

One more set of parallels may be helpful. The scientific method works by developing a hypothesis, testing it, evaluating the results, and then making a judgment about whether to start over by rejecting or refining the hypothesis or to expand communal knowledge based on having affirmed the hypothesis. We might summarize the resulting choices as ‘theoretical renunciation, amendment, or expansion leading to a new paradigm.’ The Abrahamic method begins with a religious mandate, exercised in daily living (e.g., love your neighbor as yourself; don’t steal; don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff), examining how that’s working in your life, acknowledging whatever degree of failure (or success), and refining the application of the mandate.6 ‘Self-examination, repentance, and amendment of life’ is the familiar shorthand. Both processes are progressive, rather than circular, seeking advancing knowledge and more effective living and/or understanding. They acknowledge the ongoing need for metanoia, changing one’s mind (or heart) and turning in a new direction in the search for greater wisdom.

With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the overall state of the planet. I want to begin by quoting Gus Speth, an environmental lawyer and activist who co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council almost 50 years ago: “I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”7 I would add a codicil – scientists alone, or using only their particular scientific worldview, can’t do that. Religious people alone probably can’t either – we need both rational processes and heart-based ones.

In a formal religious setting, we might begin with a litany – a series of prayers for the brokenness of the world. What follows is a less formal litany of lament and truth-telling about a failing garden and growing wasteland – and some signs of hope, for the heart of all religious response is to be thankful, and to know there is always hope for something new and surprising, if we can hold fast to God’s eternal “yes.”

In the era of human history, rising temperatures began with the Industrial Revolution, as we started burning large amounts of coal and other fossil fuels, and more lately, manufacturing cement and making steel. The rate of warming is increasing as we add greater volumes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, while decreasing the earth’s capacity to counteract those warming forces. The rate of change far outweighs any non-human influence – and climate change deniers are wrong (both scientifically and from a faith perspective) when they claim that sunspots, volcanic activity, cyclical variation or some other non-human action can explain the size and rate of the temperature increase. The anthropogenic contribution of GHGs is indeed a small portion of the natural flux, but it has destabilized the geologic balance of the planet, in which normal planetary processes remove as well as add CO2. Human beings aren’t currently removing substantial amounts of GHGs8, and anthropogenic warming is real and increasing. As the daily confession in the old Prayer Book put it,

“We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.” 9

Increasingly, we must recognize that while it is “we” human beings who have erred in unhealthy ways, the “we” who bear the consequences of largely Western, developed society’s sins of pollution includes all creatures on the planet and all the processes that support life here. Western philosophy and democracy have often emphasized the individual’s rights and privileges, even though our Semitic religious roots are far more emphatic about the communal nature of sin and of blessing. We’re all in this together, and the consequences of our actions redound to all who come after us.

Climate change in this Anthropocene Age is the result of the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, as well as land use practices that are decreasing the earth’s albedo (not libido – albedo means how much solar radiation gets reflected back into space, rather than absorbed by darker surfaces on the planet – it’s a measure of whiteness or reflectivity – but if you think about decreasing libido as a lowered zest for life, you wouldn’t be far wrong).

A brief review of greenhouse gases, including the lesser known ones: CO2 is the most familiar and common, derived from burning fossil fuels, animal respiration, decomposing organic matter (landfills, as well as forest litter and peat bogs), and deforestation. Plants take up CO2 and release O2, and interestingly, there are signs that plant growth rates have been increasing along with increasing CO2 concentration – but not nearly fast enough to consume all the excess.

Methane is another GHG, with 30-35 times the impact of CO2.10 Natural CH4 inputs come from wetlands (organic decomposition), termites, and the oceans11. Anthropogenic sources largely result from intensive livestock production (think cow flatus as well as livestock manure) and from fossil fuel production, where it is released by gas and petroleum wells. Landfills, rice agriculture, and burning biomass also release significant quantities of methane. Warming seas are increasing the release of CH4 from frozen hydrates buried in marine sediments in a vicious feedback loop; similar processes are increasing methane release from melting permafrost.

Nitrous oxide used to be called laughing gas, but its GHG effect is no laughing matter – nearly 300 times that of CO2. It’s naturally present in the atmosphere, but human contributions today constitute about 5% of the annual GHG input, primarily from agriculture (fertilizers and manure decomposition), fossil fuels, and industrial processes.12

A number of fluorinated gases are exceedingly potent GHGs, with impacts 103 to more than 104 times as significant as CO2. Freon is probably the most familiar, and its production is scheduled to end soon, but other substitute refrigerants, propellants, and industrial gases continue in use. Just two (CF4 and SF6) occur naturally, but their geologic contributions are pretty much steady-state; the anthropogenic sources are causing the increases.13

Anthropogenic warming results from the production of all these gases in generating and transmitting electricity, agriculture (particularly livestock), computing, cooling, waste management, and producing and transporting all the stuff we consume.

Let’s look a bit more deeply at albedo. The reflectivity of the planet’s surface (land, ocean, snow and ice) has a major role in determining how much solar energy is absorbed. Snow and ice reflect much more energy than forests, for example. Declining ice cover in the Arctic is producing far more rapid warming than in other parts of the globe, with profound consequences for Native peoples and ecosystems as well as ocean circulation and weather.

Albedo is altered by the soot and black carbon entering the atmosphere from burning all sorts of fuels. Where these dark particles fall on ice and snow they increase the absorption of solar energy and speed melting. The same thing happens with dust and volcanic ash. Yet the increased melting rates further concentrate the particulates already present in glaciers and ice sheets (another feedback loop). Anthropogenic soot and dark particulates are second only to CO2 in their contributions to planetary warming – and also have significant health effects.14

Changing land use practices have a major impact on the planetary system, accounting for more than 10% of global CO2 emissions. The loss of forest cover (>30 million acres per year) impacts warming in several ways – by reduced uptake of CO2, by release of carbon bound up in living plants, and by exposing formerly shaded soils – increasing heat retention, organic decomposition, and soil loss to erosion. Clear-cut forests are up to 100 times less productive when replanted in food crops or converted to pasture. Not only is there a loss of carbon storage, but more carbon and other GHGs are produced.

Deforestation, especially in the tropics, causes weather changes locally and across the globe due to the cooling and temperature-moderating effects of intact forests.15 For example, lost rainforest in the Amazon impacts rainfall in the American Midwest and in China. Deforestation rates have been declining in recent years16 due to better forest protection and management and emissions from forests have declined by ~25% since 2000. Planting trees does make a difference, but protecting and preserving native forests and the biodiversity they foster is even more important.

Let’s look at the oceans, which play a major role in climate. The oceans are the planet’s main heat sink, and have been warming for decades, yet it takes longer for us to notice the changes, for far more energy is needed to change the temperature of water than air. Water expands as it warms, so warmer oceans mean rising sea levels and coastal flooding. Warmer surface waters are changing global weather patterns – shifting and intensifying the El Niño-La Niña phenomena in the Pacific, and increasing the frequency and strength of hurricanes in the Atlantic (and Indian Ocean). Warmer waters affect the species that inhabit them, prompting extinctions, as well as moving tropical plants and animals toward the poles and into deeper waters. Red tides – blooms of phytoplankton that may be toxic or exhaust the water’s oxygen – are shutting down beaches and fisheries, while the collapse of other plant communities means that large populations of birds and fish are starving, and the consequences are migrating up the food chain.

The oceans are also becoming more acidic, as more CO2 dissolves, making it more energetically costly to lay down body parts made of carbonates. This has major consequences for both animal and plant plankton at the lowest levels of the food chain; increasing acidity also affects corals and the reefs they build. Heat stress on corals compounds the problem, and is causing the bleaching of large swaths of the Great Barrier Reef as coral expel their partner algae. As the corals die, the reefs begin to disintegrate, further impacting local food chains and the immense biodiversity of those reefs.

Similarly diverse reef communities lie in deeper water just off this coast. Because of the rich biodiversity and existence of refuge populations of formerly abundant fish, President Obama designated the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument last fall.17 Three weeks ago commercial fishery interests sued to revoke the designation.18 We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers, and that must extend in some way to the other creatures who share this planet with us. Our health, and the health of all others, depend on acknowledging our interconnected fates – and we human beings are the only ones capable of restraining our appetites.

We haven’t yet considered several consequences of anthropogenic climate change: food production; clean drinking water sources; and human health. The impacts of planetary warming in each case are visited most heavily on the poorest among us, often at a distance from the communities and nations causing the warming. There is no speedy justice in this matter, and the necessary responses will require self-restraint on the part of the wealthiest. The Hebrew prophets are still giving timely counsel. Amos echoes our planetary crisis:

7-9 Woe to you who turn justice to vinegar
    and stomp righteousness into the mud.
Do you realize where you are? You’re in a cosmos
    star-flung with constellations by God,
A world God wakes up each morning
    and puts to bed each night.
God dips water from the ocean
    and gives the land a drink.
    GOD, God-revealed, does all this.
And he can destroy it as easily as make it.
    He can turn this vast wonder into total waste.
10-12 People hate this kind of talk.
    Raw truth is never popular.
But here it is, bluntly spoken:
    Because you run roughshod over the poor
    and take the bread right out of their mouths,
You’re never going to move into
    the luxury homes you have built.
You’re never going to drink wine
    from the expensive vineyards you’ve planted.
I know precisely the extent of your violations,
    the enormity of your sins. Appalling!
You bully right-living people,
    taking bribes right and left and kicking the poor when they’re down.
13 Justice is a lost cause. Evil is epidemic.
    Decent people throw up their hands.
Protest and rebuke are useless,
    a waste of breath
24 Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.19

The unrest in the Middle East has a lot to do with anxiety over water and arable land – it always has, and human populations are larger than ever in the growing deserts of what was once the ‘fertile crescent.’ In recent decades, conflict has emerged with great regularity over fossil fuel deposits. The burgeoning population of China has launched massive investment in land overseas, and conversion of tropical forest and arable land to soybeans and corn for export. In many places food crops, especially corn/maize, are being grown for ethanol to fuel combustion engines. Some 15 years ago the Bishop of Bangladesh challenged this church’s bishops to ‘save us from these curses’ of flooding coasts, where lives and crops are being lost to intensifying hurricanes. His people have no other refuge than their low-lying coastlands. The current global crisis of 65 million refugees and displaced persons is only likely to worsen, as people struggle to find clean water, adequate food, and safety in which to make a livelihood and raise their children.

Wealthier nations are beginning to adapt to climate change, with growing reliance on renewable energy and greater efficiencies in power use. We have made some significant advances in recognizing that we are ultimately all in the same planetary lifeboat, but we seem to quickly revert to fear and selfishness. COP15 came to some remarkable agreement, yet it did not go far enough in recognizing the urgency and depth of needed behavioral change – and this country threatens to throw the whole thing over. Yet we have hardly begun to share the resources necessary for averting and adapting to climate change.

There is hope, however, in seeing how the benchmarks have moved. Big Coal is dying, and even the industry itself recognizes that it is unlikely to see any resurgence. Just days ago, California generated 50% of its energy needs from renewables – for a period of three hours. On Friday, Britain went an entire day without generating any electricity from coal – the first time since the Industrial Revolution. Last fall, 180 nations managed to produce an accord on the worst GHGs – those fluorinated gases and refrigerants.20

We are beginning to recognize our interconnected vulnerability to disease – not only Ebola and Zika, but the effects of aerosols and soot on people far downstream. There is growing awareness that microplastics can accumulate toxins, including endocrine disruptors that leach into everything and affect our children – and our ability to have children. The vast pools of plastic found in mid-ocean gyres and on our beaches – and now beginning to accumulate in the Arctic 21 – increasingly remind us that garbage never goes away – for there is nowhere truly ‘away.’

Constructive and creative response begins with telling the truth – both scientific truth and the truth of our moral responsibility. Transformation will require education and self-examination; singing the lament and confessing the wrongs done as well as our failure to act; shifting our cultural awareness from ‘me-first’ to ‘we’re all in this together’; and doing all of that while holding fast to those who disagree – for the whole truth is never in any one of us or in any isolated group. In the same way we can never throw garbage ‘away,’ we will never be whole if we deem some portion of humanity or creation not part of ‘us.’

The whole body of God’s creation will only be healed and made whole by the whole community gathered and working according to its particular gifts and abilities. Forests need to be planted and nurtured; watercourses cleaned and kept flowing (and distributing the sediments that rebuild coastal wetlands); minds opened and encouraged to inquire; hearts moved toward mercy and loving kindness. We can learn the disciplines of ‘reduce, re-use, recycle, and re-examine our need to consume’ the next object we covet. We can learn the habit of thankfulness for enough, rather than addiction to the empty promise of more. We can grow in our capacity to love our neighbors in harvesting the gifts of this garden, given not for us alone, but for all creation. And together, we can join the search for wisdom to know and observe the proper bounds and limits of our goodly heritage. This planet does not belong to us. It is a gift – for all life and for all generations yet to come. Caring for this living island in space requires reverence – seeing it as a holy ark, filled with enormous and awesome potential, which must be lovingly known and carefully stewarded. The old language is ‘fear and wonder,’ as in ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ Acknowledging that sense of awe in the face of our planetary existence just might result in some holy-making, sacrificial behavior – loving concern for our neighbors as much as for ourselves. The near-term future is going to need more holy-making if this planetary community is going to continue to support complex life.

Some long distance into the future, the Anthropocene Age will be seen to have had a creative outcome. We already know that it will include the extinction of countless species, even perhaps the human one. Life of some sort will go on, for eons to come, and new forms will emerge. Our hope is in the ability of life to embrace its reason for being – the making of more abundant life for all. Sacrifice is the art of making abundance for the greater community – and the heart of what it means to be a wise human being. It does NOT mean giving UP22. It is the holy work of giving the best of who we are FOR the good of all. Let the wary remember that when we work to heal this whole planet, we are also loving ourselves. Come and share the banquet, share the feast that has been set for all creation. Bring a little fear of the Lord.


1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henny_Penny
2 Issues in Science and Religion San Francisco, Harper: 1971
3 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/17/health/young-adult-court-san-francisco-california-neuroscience.html?_r=0
4 https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2933016 cited in https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/17/us/politics/why-gorsuch-may-not-be-so-genteel-on-the-bench.html
5 Cf. Jeremiah 22:15-16 and Eerdmans Bible Dictionary Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans: 1987, p 631
6 It’s important to recognize that positive outcomes are meant to reinforce the pattern of life – this isn’t just about bad things we do!
7 http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=15-P13-00007&segmentID=6
8 Although there are intriguing proposals emerging – like carbon sequestration and geo-engineering.
9 Book of Common Prayer 1928. Greenwich, CT, Seabury: 1953. General Confession in Morning Prayer, p 6
10 https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/understanding-global-warming-potentials
11 From organic decay (https://phys.org/news/2016-11-mysterious-source-greenhouse-gas-methane.html) , petroleum seeps, methane hydrates/clathrates, and other geologic processes
12 https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases
13 http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1hp1f3bd#page-17
14 http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2016/03/22/the-damaging-effects-of-black-carbon/ Respiratory and cardiovascular effects probably cause 3 million premature annual deaths globally https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-05/documents/health-effects.pdf
15 https://www.carbonbrief.org/deforestation-in-the-tropics-affects-climate-around-the-world-study-finds
16The annual rate has slowed from 0.18 % (world land area) to 0.08% in the last 25 years. also cf. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/326911/icode/
17 http://earthjustice.org/features/explainer-marine-national-monument
18 http://earthjustice.org/news/press/2017/defending-the-atlantic-s-only-marine-national-park-from-commercial-fishing
19 Amos 5:7-13,24. The Message
20 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/15/world/africa/kigali-deal-hfc-air-conditioners.html?_r=0
21 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/climate/arctic-plastics-pollution.html?ref=todayspaper
22 In either sense!
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