By Jacob Hess
The floods in Houston last week were described by the Washington post as “rainfall of Biblical proportions.” If not Biblical, they were certainly momentous, as the “most extreme rain event in U.S. history.”
After a similar catastrophe years ago, I asked a friend who had recently left our faith community: “Do you ever see this kind of thing as reflecting Biblical signs of the times anymore?”
“Oh no,” he responded: “it’s just climate change.”
“Interesting!” I thought at the time - mostly intrigued at how effectively climate change could explain away something all Christian believers have watched for since Jesus spoke of “distress...perplexity, sea and the waves roaring” as signs of his second coming (Luke 21:25).
Others, of course, would be equally intrigued at how these kinds of religious “fairy tales” could so effectively explain away the reality of climate change.
In recent years, warnings about climate change have been shared with such fervor, that for many believers, it is hard not to experience them as as a substitute “end times story.”
When questions naturally arise, it hasn’t helped matters that they have increasingly been labeled as a nuisance or distraction under the reining “climate change denial” motif.
As a PhD educated researcher and a long-term practitioner of dialogue, it would be hard to find a conservative-leaning person more inclined to consider the possibility of human-caused climate change. But every time I heard “climate change denier,” I heard pressure. Silencing. And force. I felt defensive, reactive and judgmental.
There didn’t seem to be any other option for me.
Until I met Ben. At an informal discussion during the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation conference, I was able to participate in a real, productive conversation about climate change for the first time.
“If we don’t do anything within 4 years, I'm telling you - I really think it will be too late,” Ben Roberts shared with visible pain. This was the kind of comment I had written off as paranoia (and more pressure)...but here, by my side, was a human being sharing honest, sincere, earnest concern.
How could I just ignore that?
Something shifted for me that day. Not my thinking or my theology ...but my deeper emotional regard for Ben (and the many people like him).
Shouldn’t their deepest fears matter to me, even if I didn’t as of yet share their belief and convictions?
That day, I started to care about climate change – because people I really cared about did.
My warming interest in global warming continued during conversations with Joan Blades at Living Room Conversations. Rather than pre-empt questions or subtly discourage dissent, Joan sought out disagreements and inquired about concerns. This was so different than many previous conversations, where I was met with an almost fundamentalist zeal that seemed to disallow doubt.
And I get it: if you really thought the planet had 4 years before the no-turning-back-point, then you shouldn't make time for questions! (that's also sometimes how religious conservatives relate to their own end-time fears, as well. “No time to waste: Just accept Jesus now!”)
As I had a chance to air my concerns and questions, something interesting began to happen: first curiosity, then belief started to percolate. I started to lean into this possibility as an actual reality.
I discovered things that surprised me, such as a telling verse in the Book of Revelation. The author John said this, as a prediction of what was to come in the last days:
The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given to it to scorch men with fire. Men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues, and they did not repent so as to give Him glory (16:8-9).
Wow! Could climate change be a part of what John foretold anciently?
If so, maybe we could awaken a much larger conversation about what is taking place in our environment right now: one that acknowledges disagreements over the precise cause and remedy, while making space to turn towards them with fresh curiosity.
Imagine what we could learn together. And what we could do together.
Want a better public conversation about climate? Here’s the first step: Stop telling people they are “deniers” if they don’t see this as you do yet.
Then make space for conversation between people who might just share a concern for climate, but from very different standpoints (and end times stories!)
Who knows what we could discover in the space between us.
Let’s find out!
Jacob Hess is director of Village Square, Salt Lake City, a partner with Living Room Conversations, and co-founder of the mental health non-profit All of Life—which recently released a free, mindfulness-based online class. He also co-authored You're not as crazy as I thought, but you're still wrong, and Once upon a time, he wasn't feeling it anymore.