The Environment & Magical Believing

universeLast week, we learned that, for the first time in human history, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached 400 ppm — a reality that scientists tell us is a very grave development indeed, one that constitutes another step toward the edge of a climate change cliff that we will soon be unable to turn back from — if it’s not too late already.

In the face of this serious news, one politician in Washington was quoted as saying that he is not worried, because “God will not allow” us to destroy our planet.  Another politician responded by suggesting that such a statement was not so much an indication of great faith as it was of magical thinking.

Sadly, there’s a lot of magical thinking – or, perhaps it would be better to say, magical believing – going around in the Christian world these days.  It is probably rooted in part in the tendency of many Christians to interpret the biblical stories in a literal way, stories in which God is frequently intervening to redirect the course of human events in a particular direction.   If God does it in the Bible, why would God not do it now?

The evidence of our lives, of course, should be enough to tell us that either God has changed his operational procedures or such literal reading of the Bible is just plain wrong.   Because it is quite clear that a great deal of monstrous, destructive, and deadly human activity has gone on and that God has not made any dramatic Bible-like intervention to stop it.   Perhaps the politician who is convinced that God won’t allow us to seriously harm our environment feels that this issue will be the last straw, the line in the sand beyond which God will not allow humanity to go.

It would be nice to think so.  One of the reasons why magical believing is so popular among religious people is because it is comforting in both a nice and horrible way.  On the one hand, to believe in a God who performs magic to get us out of serious jams allows us to convince ourselves that God will rescue us when things get “really bad”, and so we don’t have to worry too much.  On the other hand, if God does not rescue us then the only way to maintain the theological integrity of magical believing is to conclude that God decided not to rescue us because we were too evil, or didn’t have enough faith, or because God wanted to teach us a really good lesson that we would never forget.  Such a conclusion is horrible in many ways, but I have known people who have found a perverse sort of comfort in believing that God simply chose not to rescue them and allow them to suffer.

Perhaps the worst problem with magical believing is that it allows human beings to escape the spiritual equivalent of adult responsibility.   Magical believing always makes God ultimately responsible for what happens to us and to our world.  Even divine inaction due to our sinfulness does, in the end, make God the ultimately responsible party.  And, if God is the ultimately responsible party, then we don’t really need to modify our behavior or change our ways.

When it comes to the current environmental crisis, we cannot afford such magical believing.  Really, we have never been able to afford it, but the problem of climate change is of an order of magnitude beyond perhaps any crisis humanity has faced in the last few centuries.  Our actions and inactions with regard to things that impact the environment have real consequences, and to throw up our hands and believe that God will simply sort it out somehow is to surrender our responsibility as human beings living on this planet.  It is to pass the buck and ultimately put the blame for whatever happens on God.

What people fail to understand over and over again is that the real, profound place of divine intervention is not out there but in here: within the human heart, mind, and spirit.  The teaching of Jesus, and that of all the great religious teachers of our history, is directed toward the transformation of the human person.  The great need is not for the world out there to be somehow magically changed; the great need is, and always has been, for us to be changed.  And we can be changed;  not by magic, but by a spiritual practice that opens us up to grace.

I am reminded of a passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God”  (Romans 8:19,21).  Here, Paul seems to assert a rather direct link between the health of the creation and the spiritual health of human beings.  Paul seemed to imagine that the salvation (or healing) of humanity would lead to the salvation (or healing) of creation – and not the other way around.

The divine intervention that that politician in Washington is hoping for has already happened.  Indeed, it is constantly happening.  But he has missed it, as so many do who keep hoping for some flashy, splashy, powerful lightening bolt moment out there instead of listening to the still, small voice on the other side of the locked door in the heart that bids us to open ourselves to God’s grace and be transformed.

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