This week I was invited to a meeting of a faith-based group which is planning a conference on Climate Change for communities on the Connecticut shore. The invitation was an outgrowth of a presentation I gave on the subject earlier this year.
While I was flattered to have been invited back, I was also mildly uncomfortable, as I typically am when engaging with faith based groups. I do not believe in God. I do not believe in heaven or a here-after. Though I was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition by a family which was decidedly ecumenical in its religious composition before ecumenicism was cool, I have never felt comfortable in the modalities of religions. I am what some might call a heathen.
Yet I am a person of ‘faith’, by some home-brew definition of that term. Faith and prayer to me are very personal expressions. In the context of religions, faith and prayer too often seem to me to become commoditized and trite, and devoid of the spiritual substance that they purport to give. They become the spiritual equivalent of cereal, mistaking it for food. But that is my personal perspective, and I respect those who gain personal sustenance and value from their religious experiences that I am unable to share.
Still, I feel like a poser when venturing into these communities. As an auditor, trained in the mentality of professional skepticism, and seared by experience in some level of confessed cynicism regarding the capacity of redemption for human-kind from its multiple and serial and repetitive transgressions, I come to these gatherings with what I like to think is a pragmatism that does not fit well with the idealism to which many of the faith based communities strive. And those who have followed this blog for any length of time can appreciate that my sardonic humor might be a show stopper in these venues, but not a hit.
All of which is a long-winded digression to the main point of why I continue to inject myself into places of discomfort. Faith based communities, in my experience, remain one of the few gatherings of civil discourse in a world that is rapidly disintegrating socially and politically. This has some historical irony in that religions of the world have perhaps committed as many, if not more, atrocities against humankind in the name of God than have political entities. (I haven’t got authoritative stats on that, but I’ll throw it out for debate.) Not surprisingly, given that many religious entities are merely political and economic operations in moral robes.
So the challenge for a person of my particular persuasion is to determine how to distinguish the truly faith based communities from the religious posers who co-opt the moral garb of sanctity in order to promote an agenda, but bring no more clarity or certainty or validity to the proposition than you or I.
Enough about me.
In the evolving climate and energy (Clim-Ergy) paradigm, there are many outside the literal faith-based realm who embrace the subject as almost a secular religion. They bring a similar idealism and energy. They approach it from a principled position, and with great self-confidence and certainty that their conceived solutions are as if received from the hand of God on Mount Sinai, consolidated from two stone tablets to an iPad for portability. If their faith and idealism and energy and intellectual gifts were enough, I am confident that we would have progressed much farther on this issue by now than we have. Having observed this issue for 11 years myself, and being a somewhat impatient person with an acute sensitivity to the criticality of time, I am concerned that they do not understand the human and economic realities of this subject any better than their opposition in the climate denial community, many of whom are also in faith based communities, are willing to consider the scientific and environmental realities.
We are at a moment when a growing number of people in the climate denial faction, and a vast number in the “I-don’t-really-want-to-know-or-care” denomination are steadily embracing a ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment, if I may borrow that phrase. “Something’s happening.” They dare not acknowledge it as climate change. They decline to take responsibility in whole or in part for its manifestation. They’re paralyzed by indecision regarding what to do about it. But they’re quite sure that they don’t want to change their current modality of existence for the possibility of heading off something potentially nasty at the pass. (See California and green lawns vs. food and drinking water for illustration.)
The extremes are driving the conversation, but substantive action on a meaningful scale is not happening, or happening at unnecessary cost due to the fractious political environment. The folks who recognize the problem are almost as much of the problem as the folks who refuse to, though the former would loudly protest that proposition, and many times for the same reasons.
For example, in the course of conversation with the faith group, one participant proposed the theme of ‘sustainability’ for the conference. After 11 years, I don’t have a clear concept of what constitutes ‘sustainability’ in meaningful terms. But I am positive that the participant’s definition is not the same as Exxon-Mobil’s, or the coal miners of West Virginia, or the farmers of the Mid-West and California agribusinesses or the politicians whose next biennial contract with voters depends on an electorate largely ignorant of the nits and lice that constitute a true understanding of ‘sustainability’ in action. And much of what corporations peddle as ‘sustainability’ is merely green-wash. If they were truly ‘sustainable’, many of their products would be off the market.
So one group defines sustainability as maintaining the status quo. The other group defines sustainability as moving to a new paradigm that can be maintained because the current status quo cannot. In both instances, the partisans are driven by faith, more than anything else, that their imperfect knowledge of the situation is valid.
So, if we have two faith-based factions, each of whom are equally certain of their values, but both of whom are in conflict for sharing the same reality, what does that leave us? Historically, and all too frequently, war.
The reality is that the ‘sustainability of the status-quo’ faction is the dominant and driving faction at this time.
The reality is that Reality is steadily undermining their credibility, with each fire storm, with each drought, with each monsoon, with each progressively more frequent incursion of the sea upon the land, with each death from protracted famine, with each ravage of disease in an interconnected planet, with each struggle for non-renewable resources in a contorted world of abundant excess and deficient necessities.
But is the alternative camp any more credible? They are offering to take us to a promised-land yet unproven on the scale that it must exist to replace our current reality. They are standing on a platform of science that it riddled with internal contradictions, critical gaps in knowledge, and hidden agendas of human motives of which science is no more immune than any other human agenda, as science has been through the ages. It is populated with some who have never run a lemonade stand, but confidently presume to advocate for doing away with the grid. It is led by others who have created some small success on a local level and believe that it can somehow be extrapolated to the planet, without a clue as to what that entails organizationally, resource-wise or politically. Yet others see this as an eternal cause through which to define their personal importance, and try to bend it to their own psychological need in the name of saving humanity. There are some who will strive mightily to advance wind energy in someone else’s neighborhood or view-shed, financed by someone else’s money. And somewhere in the din of all these conflicting profiles, there are some, generally quiet and persistent and pragmatic, who work diligently below the radar to make some substantive progress in the midst of the human circus.
Neither side in the Clim-Ergy paradigm is totally right or totally virtuous, though both will insist they are, and therein lies the problem. The issue is devilishly complex. Both factions are similarly complex. And both factions, in my view, share an all too human inclination to simplify the complexity to a level they can comprehend and take comfort in. Regrettably, dumbing an issue down to one’s comfort zone does not solve the issue, although it may temporarily sustain some level of self-esteem.
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In approaching this meeting, I took a trip down memory lane through my eleven years of engagement with this issue, reflecting what I had invested in it, how I had approached it, and what I had accomplished. I have invested a considerable amount of time. I would not change radically how I approached it. But I recognize that I have accomplished little of what I hoped for. That is because accomplishing what I had hoped for ultimately requires bringing other people to a shared perspective, a shared set of values, an alignment of interests that can achieve what none of us can alone.
With this self-assessment in mind, I approach the faith community with some ambivalence; prepared to point out those ideas that I believe will prove counter-productive, but wary of sapping their enthusiasm and idealism with a pragmatism that may be mistakenly (or possibly correctly) perceived as cynicism and negativity.
Still, my concern is that the faith community too often believes that it will succeed by bringing the community to its point of view when in all likelihood that strategy will be modest in success and inadequate to need. The faith community, defined broadly, is more fragmented than it would like to admit. It exists in a world that is becoming more secular by most statistical accounts, suggesting that religion, if not faith, is losing its relevance to the broader populace. To persist in the notion that faith alone can drag the non-believing to a faith-based common ground defined predominantly by faith is an exercise in Einstein’s definition of insanity.
This manifests itself to me in the sincere response of one participant to the meeting who advocated:
“…connecting with the head is fine and will get some people to do some things, but connecting with the heart is where real change happens.”
I would counter that ‘head or heart’ is not a binary choice; the two must inform each other, and advance together. In my line of work, I do autopsies on loads of initiatives driven by the heart or the gut, but from which the head was apparently AWOL. And I have seen too many instances in which the head ruled without the heart to no positive purpose.
I would suggest that the Indiana legislature reversed its faith based position on the LGBT community not out of a change of heart but out of a cerebral calculation of the economic impact of its supposedly ‘moral’ position.
I would suggest that the South Carolina legislature voted to take down the Confederate flag not out of moral outrage for the carnage associated with it, or moral outrage for what the flag had come to represent for too long, but out of pragmatic calculation that the symbol’s optics will cost the State more in tangible and intangible ways from the people who detest it than it benefits from the people who still revere it. This calculation was no doubt more readily achieved in the wake of and with an eye to the Indiana experience.
I believe that the success of the Pope’s recent encyclical, yet to be verified in results, will be due to his effort to reach beyond the incantations of faith to incorporate the teachings of science and speak to the human conditions that transcend religious and philosophical boundaries. This is the true essence of communication: not merely to tell you what I want you to know in terms that I embrace, but to tell you what I want us to share in terms that we can both embrace.
So I become yet again concerned when a participant says:
“We are a group of religious folks, so we should embrace that aspect. People are waiting, anxiously, for the religious community to take the lead on this from a moral, ethical and theological standpoint.”
Again, I do not doubt the sincerity in which this belief is held by the individual and many others in the faith based community, but I question if they have a firm grasp of where the faith-based community stands in the esteem of a world ripped apart by faith-based conflicts, and abused by merchants of faith acting in ungodly ways in God’s name.
This is not to disparage faith based groups as a whole, but simply to point out that their franchise as a whole has been tattered by the abuses of too many among them. That franchise may be overvalued, but it is not without value.
What I believe the faith community can do is to be the facilitator of a community-wide discussion of shared values, not its values; and build the common ground of values that is so desperately needed and so desperately lacking. It should not try to promote its values as a focus so much as to strive to find the common values that all segments of the society can embrace, and build on those with its own contribution as well as others’.
Many of the values issues that underlay Clim-Ergy are at the core of other social, economic and political issues as well. It occurred to me as I approached this meeting that the real need is for human society at whatever level, parish, village, region, state, nation, planet to work toward the shared values on which it can build a shared future. It is audacious of me, to use a polite term, to suggest as I did to this group that before they contemplate a conference on climate change per se, they might want to explore the underlying core of generic values that we must begin to embrace and share in order to come to terms with Clim-Ergy, and our many other challenges. That process could begin next Sunday or Saturday or Friday night.
I have faith in the faith community’s capacity to facilitate change, but to do so, it must see itself more as a facilitator and collaborator than a leader. Sometimes, the best leadership is from within and behind, and not up front.
* * *
In closing, I am reminded of my favorite line from Oedipus Rex:
“When wisdom brings no profit, to be wise is to suffer”
…to which this accountant would add:
When prophets bring no wisdom, there can be no profit.
Whatever may be the core of our faith, we must be courageous to constantly test its wisdom against its fulfillment in improving the human condition.