Tuesday, May 12, 2009

No divine guarantees

There is no guarantee that the world we live in will 'tolerate' us indefinitely if we prove ourselves unable to live within its constraints. Is this – as some would claim – a failure to trust God, who has promised faithfulness to what he has made? I think that to suggest that God might intervene to protect us from the corporate folly of our practices is as unchristian and unbiblical as to suggest that he protects us from the results of our individual folly or sin. This is not a creation in which there are no real risks; our faith has always held that the inexhaustible love of God cannot compel justice or virtue; we are capable of doing immeasurable damage to ourselves as individuals, and it seems clear that we have the same terrible freedom as a human race. God's faithfulness stands, assuring us that even in the most appalling disaster love will not let us go; but it will not be a safety net that guarantees a happy ending in this world. Any religious language that implies this is making a nonsense of the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament and the urgency of the preaching of Jesus.

- Rowan Williams, "Renewing the Face of the Earth:
Human Responsibility and the Environment"

This claim is central to my project. That we can destroy ourselves. Suicide is possible. Sadly, and all too frequently, as individuals. Perhaps not so easily as a race (though I wouldn't rule it out). But certainly as a society. There is no divine guarantee of civilisational continuity. And so there is no short-circuiting the debate over whether this might not in fact be our present trajectory through an appeal to God's sovereignty.


andrewE said...

Thanks Byron. I have been reading Ezekiel recently, and I feel like this kind of idea is very present there. Ezekiel is called to assure Israel that yes, indeed, judgment will be complete. They will be destroyed. They will reap the consequences of their actions, and they cannot presume upon God's faithfulness to stop it. Ezekiel is forced to confront the very real prospect of destruction: "Ah, Sovereign Lord! Will you completely destroy the remnant of Israel?"

And yet, there is indeed hope in God's faithfulness. God will deal with Israel as she deserves; yet he will also remember his covenant (Ezek. 16:58–59). There is no future in reducing either of these truths, nor in saying "isn't he just telling parables?" (Ezek. 20:49).

byron smith said...

Andrew - Yes, Ezekiel is an important source of this kind of attitude. A number of the prophets of exile hold this double perspective of wanting to avoid giving false or easy hope, but also ruling out despair (which in the end can simply be another excuse for unrepentance).

However, what difference does it make that we are not Israel and that Christ has been judged in our place? That is, to what extent can we see contemporary crises as the judgements of God upon us? Romans 1 says that the wrath of God is revealed against human (esp Gentile) wickedness and idolatry and that God hands over people to the consequences of their actions. Is that how we are to understand the present economic and ecological crises?

Bruce Yabsley said...

Thanks for this post Byron.

I was thinking about this sort of thing a while back when reading the Narnia books for the first time. (Yes, I know this is peculiar for a Christian of my age and class.) I was struck by the explicit way in which Lewis addressed this issue in The Magician's Nephew, with the example of Charn. As a possibility, I thought it was quite well integrated into the thought world of the books --- much better so than in the (much later) children's fiction Silver on the Tree, say, where the possibility of human self-destruction is introduced in a fairly clanky way: you can hear the gears turning.

<shameless self-promotion>I've posted on the difference between human self-destruction and planetary destruction here. </shameless self-promotion>

byron smith said...

Bruce - Yes, I totally agree. I still remember reading Magician's Nephew as a 9 or 10 year old and getting chills from Charn. Although I do remember MN struck me as quite different from the other six volumes of The Chronicles. And that episode was a large part of that. Not necessarily worse for it. In fact, I think many layers of narrative and mythic complexity are added by it, which is one of the reasons why I would encourage people to read the books in publication order, rather than according to the internal chronology. If you do this, MN comes 6th rather than 1st. LWW really is and ought to be the introduction to Narnia. If you have already read MN then the whole Wardrobe thing loses something of its surprise.

Thanks for the link to your highly relevant post about how difficult it would actually be to eradicate all life on earth. I also think that the eradication of even all human life would probably be more difficult than is sometime suggested, however, this doesn't mean that we are immune from massive catastrophes involving the end of our civilisation and the deaths of billions.

So I think that there are actually multiple steps of greater precision possible and necessary in our discussion of the deleterious effects of particular patterns of human action.

First: destruction of the planet itself. Very, very difficult.
Second: destruction of all life. Very difficult.
Third: destruction of all human life. Difficult.
Fourth: destruction of our civiilisation. Possible.
Fifth: downfall of/significant shift in the present mode of our society (liberalism/globalisation/capitalism). Likely and probably imminent in the next few decades.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Thanks Byron. As for my own concerns, the point of my post wasn't so much a request for non-specialists to observe such fine distinctions, since, really, how are they to be expected to do it well? We've already seen what comes of novel writers, actors, and TV personalities feeling the need to opine in detail about (say) global warming, and it doesn't add to the discussion. For comparison, no-one asks my opinion about the latest Hedda Gabler, or feels the need to put it in the newspaper --- and rightly so --- although by the nature of the case, my opinion of a Hedda Gabler production is more to the point than a random actor's view of some scientific problem, at least in its scientific aspects.

(I'm not a climate scientist, just for clarification. I think the paragraph above holds even so.)

I was after a much more coarse kind of distinction. Simply put, letting off a whole bunch of nuclear weapons is a Really Bad Thing To Do, as is reckless systemic experimentation (e.g. significantly raising the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere). A detailed technical treatment clearly adds weight to this, but it's not primary: it's obvious, or it should be obvious, that it's bad. And one understands why people reach for apocalyptic language in talking about these problems. But our society is ambivalently scientific, in the same way that it's ambivalently Christian: there's a lingering discomfort with such talk being metaphorical, and a desire to cash it in in literal terms.

Given that, I really do not understand how people can have talked about "destroying the planet" for decades now. I mean, Hiroshima is still there. The only things we've really-truly evaporated are the above-ground parts of some coral atolls. How anyone can believe that letting off even ten thousand nuclear weapons --- abomination that that would be --- would "destroy the planet" just boggles my mind; you do not need to be technically knowledgeable to see how silly it is. So silly, in fact, that the problem can't be about the technical issues as such. It must have something to do with the culture's way of thinking about mortality, and moral questions: I know that seems vague, but I don't have a better handle on it. I'd be very glad if someone could shed some light.